Nate Ptacek isn’t just documenting the wilderness. He is trying to save it.
“Right now, I am focusing my work toward protecting clean water in my favorite place on earth, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,” says Ptacek, a video editor for Patagonia and @arborealis on Instagram. “The BWCA is currently threatened by a proposed sulfide-ore copper mine in its watershed, that, if built, is guaranteed to pollute some of the most pristine water in the world.”
Nate’s passion for the BWCA is driving him to create “Bear Witness,” a documentary film that is due to be released in early fall 2016 with Duct Tape Then Beer and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. The film will follow local guides Amy and Dave Freeman, who are spending a full year in the wilderness to bring attention to the beauty of the BWCA and the grave threat facing it.
Nate grew up steeped in the history of the northern Great Lakes region of Wisconsin and Minnesota, where “canoes are inextricably linked to the woods, water, and way of life.” He lived and worked in the BWCA for several summers before graduating to month-long expeditions in the Arctic. Now living near Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura, California, Ptacek still returns to the Boundary Waters each year. “There is a magic and history to the place that I can’t find anywhere else,” he says.
I recently joined Nate’s film project for the better part of a week, paddling with him and his filmmaking partner, Matt Van Biene, to visit the Freemans, who are now more than 290 days into their Year in the Wilderness expedition. My responsibilities included not breaking Nate’s cameras during portages, paddling silently through the predawn mist, and gently pushing the canoe out from behind rock outcroppings in order to create makeshift tracking shots.
When Nate sees good light, he mounts his camera, then shushes the whole boat. The rest of the time, he steers the canoe while relating the history of the North Woods–the facts and feats of the indigenous people, the travels and travails of fur trappers.
This might be why his work imparts a sense of nostalgia, a yearning to be somewhere wild. But he is wary of “using outdoor gear and landscapes as props for aesthetically beautiful, yet meaningless images.” Photography needs to do more. “The issue has added a sense of gravity and urgency to my work,” he says.
The beauty of wild places is the key to their salvation. You have to see it to believe it, and love it to save it. Through his lens, Nate doesn’t just capture this beauty, he shares it, amplifying its silent power. The Freemans say their mission is to “speak loudly for a quiet place.” This is something Nate strives for in his photography as well.
“We only have one life and it’s a big world out there,” he says. “My hope is that my images inspire and educate folks to get out the door and go.” If they fulfill their mission, Nate’s images will also ensure that at least one wild place remains untouched for us to explore.
To learn more about this issue and to sign a petition to stop the Twin Metals mining proposal, please visit Save the Boundary Waters. The U.S. Forest Service is also currently accepting public comments regarding renewal of two mineral leases currently held by Twin Metals. Please urge the USFS to deny these leases by emailing TwinMetalsLeaseInput@fs.fed.us by July 20, 2016.
Photos by Nate Ptacek
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