Tony Czech no longer lives in northeastern Minnesota, but he will always call it home.
More than three years ago, on a visit to the region where he was born and raised, Czech noticed a man scribbling in a journal outside the Java Moose Coffee Shop in Grand Marais. Intrigued by the stranger’s focus and fly fishing gear, Czech walked over to introduce himself.
So began a friendship, a film project and a quest to capture the beauty of the nearby wilderness to encourage its preservation for generations to come.
The writer was Riverhorse Nakadate, a journalist from Texas who documents his travels around the world as a fly fisher, surfer and environmentalist.
“I’d run into one of my favorite authors on the street,” said Czech, a filmmaker who’s also crisscrossed the continents exploring the outdoors for companies like Toyota, the North Face and National Geographic.
Within minutes the two were swapping stories about their forays into the Boundary Waters, and within days they hatched a plan they hoped would help protect the 150-mile web of waterways from a proposed mining project that some fear will pollute the area with heavy metals and other contaminants.
Their final product — a 12-minute video dubbed “a love letter to a wilderness” — was published recently by Patagonia. The international apparel maker has previously campaigned against the Twin Metals mine that a Chilean company wants to open in the same watershed as the Boundary Waters.
The short film shows Nakadate navigating lakes, rivers and streams just outside the Boundary Waters. The Forest Service rarely authorizes commercial filming in the wilderness area, but officials granted the duo a permit to shoot video on federal land nearby.
Nakadate narrates the film, reading reflections he wrote during Boundary Waters trips he made with Czech during all four seasons.
“A knife through the heart of this Earth that sets in motion a ticking bomb of toxic pollution throughout this protected wilderness would be misguided, shameful and irreparably nightmarish,” he says as drone footage shows him paddling across a lake beneath a brilliant sunset. “In what world would a mine belong here?”
That question captured the complexity of the issue.
Neither Nakadate nor Czech consider themselves anti-mining.
“That was really a struggle for me, too,” Czech said. His mother, who was raised on the Iron Range, still tells stories about his grandpa driving a mining truck to put food on the table.
But Czech, who grew up 45 minutes southwest of Duluth, also hears about how his parents camped in the Boundary Waters during their honeymoon. His earliest memories are of sitting in canoes and swimming in lakes during trips to the wilderness area.
“The Boundary Waters and northern Minnesota and Lake Superior are what really inspired me to get out and to explore and to be adventurous,” Czech said. “This area means so much to me.”
That’s why, after hours of research, he and Nakadate stuck with their original message.
“The bottom line is, if something happens to this wilderness, we can’t replace it,” Nakadate said.
The planned Twin Metals project has drawn national attention since late 2017, when the Trump administration renewed two long-held mineral leases for the mine, an abrupt and controversial reversal of an Obama-era decision.
Environmental groups have filed multiple lawsuits to stop the mine while the project undergoes state and federal reviews. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources published nearly 800 comments on Twin Metals’ plans and asked for more details from the mining company to inform regulators’ required environmental impact statement.
Czech filmed Nakadate, who is an ambassador for Patagonia, canoeing by Northshore Mining’s iron ore plant in Silver Bay. The outdoor clothing company, which is based in California, recently said it was going to translate the film for its Japanese customers.
Patagonia’s website also includes photos and a written account of the journeys and links to a page where viewers can send a message asking their elected officials to support a congressional bill that would restrict mining on 234,000 acres of federal land in the region.
Czech and Nakadate said they weren’t trying to make a political statement, though they approve of Patagonia’s efforts. “We wanted our love letter to the Boundary Waters to speak for itself and let everybody make their own decisions,” Nakadate said.
To them, the film also captures the millions of moments viewers didn’t see — hours spent fishing and paddling, two bear encounters that were perhaps a bit too close for comfort, a dicey drag across a frozen lake and laughs around campfires.
“It was really the wilderness that brought us together,” Czech said.
The two are now working on editing a second film for Patagonia about fly-fishing trips they took in Lapland, north of Sweden. Even in the Arctic Circle, the kindred spirits reminisced about their times in the Boundary Waters, which will forever remain one of Czech’s favorite spots in the world for the love of adventure it sparked.