A teenage cancer survivor shares why he chose to “Make a Wish” for the Boundary Waters
In March, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to help honor television personalities Jack Steward and Colton Smith. They were receiving an award from NPCA for their inspiring show, “Rock the Park,” and I was thrilled to be there to honor my friends at NPCA’s annual gala. I’d first met Jack and Colton at this same event two years ago, when I was 13. I am a big fan, and meeting them was one of the highlights of that first visit to D.C.
About six months prior to that trip, I had been diagnosed with what is officially known as high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It’s the kind of diagnosis that makes your big, tough dad cry and your mom look you straight in the eye and tell you that you will survive this, and that she loves you but that she will not for one minute put up with you feeling sorry for yourself. My mama … well, she knows how to straighten you up.
We talk a lot in my family about drawing light out of the darkness; that although you don’t always have a choice in what happens to you — and believe me, no one would choose hair loss and puking — you always, always have a choice in how you react to what happens. So, when the Make a Wish Foundation approached me, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I had an opportunity to do something that would be bigger than me. This was a chance to “wish” for something that would leave the world a better place, to protect a place that was endangered.
Eleven years ago, my parents took my brother Jacob and me to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time. It’s a special place with more than a million acres of land and water located near Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. For me, it was like coming home. The Boundary Waters is an unspoiled wilderness with pristine waters, amazing fishing and a stillness you can’t imagine. Since that first trip it has become “my place,” that space in the world where I want to be whenever I can.
My memories of the Boundary Waters helped me get through that awful first year of chemo when I was almost totally homebound. And every chance I’ve had — through almost three years of treatment — I’ve returned there for strength and healing. It is the most perfect place imaginable, and today this wilderness and nearby national park are under direct threat from a toxic copper mine that developers have proposed directly on its border.
There is no “safe” way to mine the area around the Boundary Waters and pollutants from an operation like this could poison the water, kill the animals and harm the forests. I have been working with my friends at the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign for years and speaking to elected officials, conservationists and many others to try to stop this from happening.
My parents say it’s the hubris of youth to believe that life is binary (obviously, they also like to use words I have to Google). But I think that the greatest thing about youth is that you get to be as hubris-y as you want. You get to say things like “either you’re a defender or you’re a destroyer.” There is no room for gray on this issue. We are called to be guardians of sacred places, and now, more than ever, we have to plant our feet, stand our ground and defend.
Sometimes life only gives you one chance. I think this is ours. This is our one chance to defend our beautiful national parks and wildernesses that give so much to so many of us. There are a multitude of reasons why people choose to pick up a paddle — or throw on a pack — and head into the wilderness. Sometimes we don’t even know beforehand exactly why we do. But universally, we come out changed, and changed for the better.
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So, that’s my wish: to permanently protect the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters is “my place,” but I’m willing to bet that each and every one of you has “your place,” too. I bet you’ve felt that peace that can only be found in the utter stillness of a starlit night in the woods. Or in the desert. Or at the top of a mountain you’ve spent the day summiting. We all have that place.
Regardless of where “your place” is, you have the power to act, to help keep it unspoiled and to inspire the next generation. Edward Abbey once famously said, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” So here I am. Feet planted, standing my ground, ready to defend. Our national parks and wildernesses are threatened, and I am grateful for all of you who are standing with me, unafraid to get hubris-y, too.
About the author
Joseph Goldstein is a sophomore at Glenwood High School. He lives in Springfield, Illinois, with his parents, three brothers, four dogs, five cats, six sheep, and a variety of chickens, ducks and other farm critters. He plays the guitar and trombone (marginally) and skis and mountain bikes (awesomely). He doesn’t do social media so you can’t follow him, but he hopes you’ll follow the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign on Facebook (facebook.com/savetheboundarywaters)!