Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Movie Time!

The footage in this video came from all of us, filmed at various times throughout the trip and was all captured at the discomfort of the one behind the lense. It was always a challenge capturing images on this trip due to the cold-batteries refused to work, our hands and fingers refused to work and all the extra effort needed to set up a shot and get it taxed our already tired bodies.  Luckily the only casualty of the trip was my 32g memory card, which after two weeks, and over 20 gigs worth of images and videos, decided it had had enough and never worked again (taking along all of the data with it).  

So after spending pert near as many hours staring at the holy glowing box (my computer) as we spent on trail and breaking new personal records of both swearing quantity and foul tongued originality aimed at this cantankerous technological gizmo's cheapskate editing software...It's Movie Time! 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Answering the Call or The Benefits of Running Your Mouth

“The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with the competence and courage the danger fades.” Joseph Campbell, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”

How did I get myself into this? I like to ponder questions like these, letting them playfully swirl around my mind like the dark water lazily eddying behind a boulder in a cold freestone river. My mind is particularly peaked in this matter when I hear stories about people, who by any number of causes (mean and sublime) have found themselves in a difficult/ trying/ ridiculous/ adventurous/ precarious situation; say, on the saddle of a 10,000 foot mountain in a whiteout blizzard with friends who have on little more than blue jeans and cotton sweatshirts or perhaps in the middle of the two mile wide Mississippi River floating helplessly in a canoe towards an oncoming 200 ton freight barge. In each story there seems to be a moment, say less than a minute where the protagonist, in the  midst of the maelstrom, is given respite, sanctuary from all that is chaotic and gains the detached wherewithal to acknowledge their place in space and time on a grander scale. I get lost in the incongruous absurdity of those moments- the chaos vs. the tranquil; that single short span of existence when time coagulates into a thick gooey mass and then briefly solidifies allowing for, even in the midst of the entropy of normality, the gift of clarity; the chance to temporarily transcend the immediate reality and with open eyes, take in all that is happening.

Whoa, but what I find even more interesting is that first question- how did I get myself into this?

Some people will say “it was my calling” to do these things- as in “it was my calling to climb mountains, to sail deep water, to enter ice cream eating contests”...and I bow to such self aware individuals who have heard to call and are following it. To respond to such supernatural voices drives many to the extrema, the poles of ability, to approach our own event horizon and to go beyond the boundary of the known world and take that first tenuous step into the otherness. That lucidity of self awareness is great if you have it, but luckily for the rest of us there are other ways of enticing the spirit of adventure.

As I have found repeatedly in life, there is a tried and true way of beckoning adventure instead of idly waiting for adventure to call you, and fortunately it requires much less mystic self-awareness than it takes “to hear the call to adventure” and instead relies more on your ability to speak or act without thinking-that is to blunder. I like the verb to blunder, it is underrated as a life plan in these hyper scheduled times; after all, if you don't plan, nothing can go wrong, right? As Joseph Campbell says “A blunder-apparently the merest chance- reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into relationship with forces that are not rightly understood...[blunders] are ripples on the surface of life...and these may be very deep, deep as the soul itself...the blunder may amount to the opening of destiny.”

My preferred mode of blunder is to run my mouth, usually with one hand cooled by an icy beverage and the other with index finger extended to aid in proving my seriousness (for some reason this usually happens between the hours of midnight and two in the morning). It was this technique that propelled me to attempt and rightfully claim the record at an international ice cream eating contest and, more recently, to commit to a winter trek across the Boundary Waters. The hard thing is recognizing the moment when you just have to let go and embrace a life that seems outlandish. 

Another short cut to adventure: instead of opting for the “let go and embrace” method just stated (which can go awry without the proper self discipline), I prefer the back-yourself-into-a-corner approach to living life because it (assuming you are person of integrity who values keeping their word) prevents you from flippantly dismissing the call to adventure, which on the good-bad scale is bad; the gods of adventure don't take kindly to being ignored. Another benefit to running your mouth: it will forever slew the tri-headed beast of apathy, ennui and malaise that torments so many poor souls these days. I can't tell you how many times I told people about this idea to “walk from the end of the road (the Gunflint Trail) and go right into downtown Ely in the heart of the winter” but it reached a frequency that required either total commitment to seeing the idea through or else compulsory reclusion from society (or at least from your friends who heard you boast such outlandish claims).

So go out for the night, maybe get a few ideas in your head before you go so you have some options in case the first one falls flat and fails to raise an eyebrow or fails to bait your company into taking interest in your plan or in case your idea has already been logged into the history books of humanity (not that that is an immediate disqualifier, only that you should rethink some of your plan's details to ensure a high degree of originality). Don't be dismayed by naysayers, remember you have a plan and you're not looking for others' approval, only their interest to fully back yourself into a corner. At times like this it is helpful to your cause to be able to offer up some other information or a juicy detail of said idea, like you're not only going to walk from New York to L.A., you're going to do so in the buff or without stopping or by eating only banana Laffy Taffy- you know, something to sell the deal. And remember, you are doing this for you, of course you like sharing stories with friends, but the ultimate goal is to give you that iron clad excuse to get out and do something crazy.

I recommend starting small, say maybe by claiming you could read all the books in the children's department at your local library in a month or that you are going to try all 30 of the micro beers on tap at the bar, in one night (remember, the larger the audience that hears such claims the greater to motivation to complete the challenge, so talk loudly). Then work up to something like a major trail hike, the AT or the PCT, canoeing across lake Superior or drinking a shot of each liquor behind the bar, in one night. Be careful though, blundering into adventures can take on an addictive and compounding nature; after all, no one including yourself will get excited about your new idea if it is somehow less than your last one. This situation, like runaway evolution, can take on a shocking autonomy, where each claim that is made has to be exponentially greater than the last, and the next thing you know you'll be in the middle of a howlin' storm in the Pacific in a small sailboat, wind and water becoming one tumultuous squalling wall of white, up and down losing meaning, one hand clasped to the wheel (sailboats have wheels right?) and the other clutching the hat your new friends in Australia gave you for luck that night in the Barrier Reef bar in Sydney when you, around bar time, proclaimed that you were going to go out the next morning, buy a boat and sail to Green Bay for the Packer's home opener in the fall. At least now, as you're standing there getting pelted by rain and gritting your teeth at the wind, in that brief moment of clarity, you don't have to wonder “how did I get myself into this?”- consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

There and Back Again

It's been a little over a week since we packed up my truck in Ely, said our goodbyes and left the Boundary Waters behind to return to our lives that, by all appearances, have continued on just fine in our absence. My tent (yes I traded life on trail in the winter in a tent to life at home in the winter in a tent) is in the state I left it, save for the new mouse nest I found that was a compilation of chewed up tye-dyed tapestry and fringe from my wool rug. The wood pile was just as pathetic as I left it, my dear wood stove was cold and quiet and the trails that I made meandering around my property became the favored paths of the deer and coyotes.  It has taken a week to catch up with life (catch up? what is this, a race?) and to start collecting the distilled droplets of condensed thoughts and reflections from this experience. I am not a great record keeper despite at least a dozen attempts at keeping a journal, so I will piece together the day-to-day aspects of this trip amongst my more typical free range thoughts. Yukon (his Appalachian Trail name) is writing another blog on this trip, so if you want his view of the trip or more detail on our adventure, be sure to check out his blog at:

Coming off trail from this type of adventure is hard; you begin to become institutionalized to life in the Wild to the point where you wonder how or if you can function back in the modern world. As Ernest Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition to Antarctica said “We are now reveling in the indescribable freshness of the Antarctic that seems to permeate one's being, and which must be responsible for that longing to go again which assails each returned explorer...” You don't have to visit the polar regions to become addicted to or assailed by that freshness- it exists anywhere where the human spirit can live free from the artificial bonds and drudgerous toils of modern life. That freshness lives precariously teetering on the edge between this life and that life, within grasp of anyone with the heart to try but far enough out over the void that there is no guarantee if you reach just a bit too far and tread out on the crumbling threshold betwixt the two worlds that you won' tumble off the edge of existence, perhaps never to make it back to share your story or if you do you may forever become that solitary creature sitting at the end of the bar with the 100 mile gaze, searching the darkness for memories of your last taste of freshness and the route to your next fix. All of us who pin the word “explorer” or “adventurer” high upon our being know full well that by chasing that freshness we pay a steep toll and are required to sacrifice much, but once that life is experienced, our blood is never again still in our veins.

Perhaps what Shackleton was alluding to is the vivacity and simplicity of life on trail or the freedom from the frenetic and overwhelming milieu we learn to live with in our daily lives. Maybe he is speaking to that moment, that beautifully intense moment when you realize you are out there; after months of planning, organizing, and waiting, you are there, and you love every iota of it- perfection. Shackleton was Thoreauvian philosophy in action, living Henry David's iconic statement “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of drive life into a corner, and reduce it to it's lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole meanness of it, and publish it's meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know by experience and be able to give a true account of it.” From “The Worst Journey in the World” to “The Heart of the Antarctic” the cannon of South Pole exploration has reports on the frozen continent's meanness and sublimity- accounts from the people who drove life into that cold, dark and windy corner. Explorers get the meanness and the sublime oftentimes in a concoction of the two- a little of both- the good with the bad, after all too much of one or the other and you can get either complacent or disenchanted (or worse). Shackleton was a master of converting the meanness to the sublime, as alchemist of perspective and situation- not all polar explorers were so lucky just as not all of us modern explorers who take to the empty places on the map are so lucky, but fortunately for our group of five we got meanness in tolerable amounts and came home with much more of the latter.

Oh the sublime- your face gets burned by the wind and the sun, your muscles become toned and surprisingly bulgy from the continuous labor and your spirit gets a layer of gristle from the intense presence of reality- a good thing for the adventurous type. The problem with the sublime is that it is ethereal and that all those highly prized side effects of this type of adventure fade quickly when exposed to life at home.  You acquire a softness at an alarming speed- all that hard won edge/hard won toughness dissolves like a setting sun, you blink and its gone.

Instead of doing the dishes from the trip which have been sitting on my porch for over a week now, I choose to let my mind wander into the blank spaces, into the roadless areas of our consciousness in order to draw meaning from this experience, and also I suspect, as a way to avoid doing the dishes. I speak of all this as that is where my mind has been since getting back to life after our trip...oh yeah our trip.

By the numbers:

5 guys
5 toboggans
2 canvas tents
400,000 calories
1,000,000 acres (1,500 sq.miles) of wilderness
70+ miles traveled
19 days on trail
1 frostbitten finger (which healed on trail)
-55 below wind chills
3'+ of snow
1 close call with thin ice
1 otter
3 broken snow shoes (3 fixed snowshoes)
1 mile (slowest day)
9 miles (fastest day)
16 days with no signs of other people

The Group:

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Plan B's

I spent the morning packing, repacking, weighing, and sorting through our supply of food.  After a few hours of work (and tasting- to make sure it was all fit to eat of course, especially the chocolate) we now have five cardboard boxes of similar weight organized into: 1 that will serve as a pantry holding enough of each item to last for a few days and the other 4 boxes holding the rest of the food.  The idea is that when we pull into camp, we won't have to rummage through 250 pounds of food to find a bag of raisins or a pinch of salt.

Ice Picks- kinda like retractable claws for humans
Throw rope
Two new pieces of gear showed up today also: a throw bag/rope and a set of ice picks.  The throw rope is the same style used by whitewater boaters and, even though the water is frozen, will serve the same purpose: to get a safety line to a person who unexpectedly ends up in the water.  The ice picks are also used in case of a break through the ice, but instead relying on help from other people as with the throw rope, ice picks allow a victim to pull oneself out of the water and back up onto the ice.  These safety items are a reminder that anytime you venture out onto a frozen lake, there is an ever present risk of breaking through.

Traveling on the frozen lakes means flat and relatively easy travel compared with pulling a toboggan through the woods.  Where the bush is full of downed trees, deep pockets of snow, and hills, lakes and frozen marshes/bogs give you a nice flat surface that, if you are lucky, has been scoured by the wind either down to the ice or down to wind packed snow.  Of course, spending 3/4 of our time on frozen water brings risk, but knowing a few basic principles of ice and how lakes freeze can mitigate much of that risk.  Any place where there is current like at inlets and outlets of lakes or on rivers, where spring water flows into a lake, or in and around pressure cracks all should give you reason to pause and check the ice's thickness.  Bottom line is if you are unsure as to the safety of the ice- check it out by chipping a hole and measuring the thickness- 2"at least are needed to safely hold a person.

Along that thought, we are each planning on taking some ice fishing gear.  The fishing gear is not only a pleasant distraction from the daily routine of life on trail and a (possible) source of fresh food, but it also represents another level of safety in case there is an accident involving thin ice (i.e. losing a toboggan to Davy Jones' locker) or if the weather (extreme cold or heat, wind, heavy snow and/or wind) delays us and keeps us on trail over the 25 days we have packed food for.  Thanks to the nice folks at Anglers All in Ashland Wisconsin for helping us pick out a small and efficient ice fishing kit for this trip.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Bigger Picture

One of the great challenges we are passing on to our children is figuring out how our relationship with the natural world, i.e. Nature, Outside, the Wild, fits into our current societal scheme. While we are all on our own path towards reestablishing that connection individually, as a whole we have many incongruities between the way we think of the natural world and the way we treat it. One place where those incongruities are most visible is when industry (usually resource extraction) takes place in, on or adjacent to preserved public lands. This is not to make a judgment as to the value of those resources, we are after all taking a solar power kit on this trip and the demand for copper in the alternative energy industry (like solar panels and batteries) is one key reason for the intended development of the Pebble Mine in Alaska which threatens the health of one of the world's greatest fisheries in Bristol Bay and its tributaries. So while the issue of development /progress vs. preservation of wilderness may not have a clean answer, we are not tackling head on the glitches between us and rest of the life on Earth.

Those glitches in ethos become evident anywhere our modern civilization comes in contact/conflict with places and people who present a barrier to our system's need for natural resources, undeveloped land or locations of social/economic/political importance. We are taking actions that prove our understanding of the importance of a sound global ecosystem- through the preservation of undeveloped land, reestablishing the populations of endangered species and legitimizing the idea that not only do we need an intact global ecosystem for our physical and psychological health but that we also have the ability to alter the function of the global ecosystem in ways that threaten our current understanding of life on Earth. But for all of our actions to save, there are just as many that will threaten any gain we have made in the past. The Boundary Waters Wilderness, just like the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, is now subject to that tension where wilderness and progress conflict.

There are plans to develop a copper-nickle mine just outside of the Boundary Water's southern boundary using a method of mining called “sulfide mining.” Essentially this process involves digging up a bunch of Earth, in this case sulfide-rich Earth, separating out the copper and nickel, and disposing of the waste ore. The problem is that when that sulfide rich ore is exposed to the environment, sulfuric acid can be created and that is bad on the good-bad scale. This process can lead to water pollution, ecosystem disruption and a loss in biodiversity. Now, whatever side of the fence you come down on, pro mining or anti mining, it is important to be knowledgeable about issues that impact our public lands. 

Learn more-

Friends of the Boundary Waters:  

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources:

Minnesota Public Radio:

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was created in 1964 and includes over 1,000,000 acres (1,500 square miles) of rivers, lakes, taiga/mixed conifer- hardwood forests, moose, wolf, trout and exposed bedrock as old as any on Earth. All of this and no permanent signs of humans- no roads, buildings, or infrastructure like telephone poles or radio towers. There are campsites with fire grates, latrines and there is the usual detritus that seems to follow humans everywhere we go- pop cans, plastic bags, flip flops (just the left one's though- if you ever see a lone flip flop I almost guarantee it is a left, not sure why no one loses the right ones...) but none of these are permanent and the BW remains, as the Wilderness Act says “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  

Monday, February 10, 2014

One Week and Counting

Today is a big day for this trip- after months of planning and training we are now just 7 days ( six and a half actually) from taking our first steps in the BW.  Food is starting to pile up, gear is in various forms of construction/ completion and my tent is starting to take on the appearance of a northwoods outpost.  One of my favorite reasons to take on a lengthy expedition-style trip like this one is the degree of planning, organizing, and figuring just how you are going to pull off such an adventure. 

New ice chisel made from a 1 1/2" wood slick,
a section of steel pipe and black ash handle.

For example, this trip has had us dehydrating meat, fruits and veggies, welding tools like the ice chisel in the picture, sewing bags to hold gear and also fit on the long and narrow toboggans, retrofitting/ modifying the gear we have that doesn't work quite right and inventing pieces of kit that you just can't buy anymore.  I spent the better part of a day last week figuring out a new snowshoe binding that gives me a solid feel but that is soft enough to work in conjunction with moosehide mukluks.  What I came up with is something that you can't buy (unfortunately because they work great) and that is tailored to fit my needs and the environment I live in.  

We will be heading up to Ely next Monday night and will be staying over 'till tuesday morning.  If all goes according to plan we will be loading up our toboggans and heading out from the end of the Gunflint trail on Wednesday morning and returning to Ely on or close to the 11th of March.