Boundary Waters – Day 1: Great Team/Group
Our instructors seem nice and genuinely happy to be here. The veterans all seem very laid back and, surprisingly, there does not seem to be an overbearing alpha personality in the group. Steve 2 and I volunteered to get into the river as part of a hypothermia training scenario. I only lowered down to my stomach but the water did not seem that cold despite the ice and snow. I actually felt warm afterward as the other members worked to keep us warm. We shuffled inside and changed into dry clothes.
The instructors issued us gear for the rest of the night and did their best to ensure we would have everything needed for the upcoming trip. We are all nervous about life after class as COVID-19 continues to spread and our lives change on a daily basis. I know it sounds a bit entitled since we all essentially chose to be here (over paying for cancellation of everything that was purchased for us), but the idea of the world becoming unrecognizable to us by the time we are done with this class and having no real contact to the outside world until then, is a little terrifying. I thought of how expedition leaders hundreds of years ago must have felt the same when leaving for multi-year explorations with little to no communication. We all slept out on the porch as our last dry-run with our new gear before heading out tomorrow.
- Darick – Collects first copy prints of books, like $30k for an original print Walden.
- Bill (part of original Duluth crew) – Likeable, screwed up his back in a Humvee wreck, was hit by a drunk driver recently and is afraid his back will not allow him to finish the class.
- Steve (part of original Duluth crew) – Is into marketing, the first person to talk to me on this trip, while we were waiting for a shuttle in Minneapolis.
- Steve 2 – Goat farmer … loves dogs, interested in climbing Rainier.
Boundary Waters – Day 2: Skiing
Not a long day today, picked out our dogs, drove to drop-off site, rigged up sleds and dogs, and skied about 6 miles. I pulled a pulk with weird plastic bindings that caused my heel to constantly pop out of the binding (kind of looked like a plastic Kinder binding where boot get strapped down). Skis were wax-less and immediately I could tell they were going to be sticky. It was very difficult to get any glide due to the warm temps. I would shuffle and try to kick off the 1 inch of snow that frequently accumulated on my skis but that only allowed me to barely glide for about 20 feet or so before the problem began all over again. My bindings came undone about a dozen or so times until Neal, one of our instructors rigged a bungee cord on them to keep them on. Combination of the snow conditions causing me to randomly stick to snow on downhills, pulk pushing me around, and weird binding put me on my ass a few times. Everyone gave up skiing before we reached camp and either walked in skis or undid their skis and carried them while walking through snow. It was a very frustrating day.
On the positive side the day was short, and we arrived into camp around 1PM, which allowed us plenty of time to get all of our work done prior to dinner. We all immediately went to work gathering and processing wood, caring for the dogs, and setting up shelters. Camp is on the North side of a moderate sized lake (August Lake perhaps) that we crossed. Weather is nice, spent most of the day only wearing 2 layers. Getting some alone time with Steve, Bill and Darick.
I spent a lot of time with a dog named Fleetwood who is black, quiet and very sweet. She is an Alaskan Inuit and one of the 2 dogs that I helped load into the truck-kennel. Her demeanor sets her apart from most of the other dogs. Darick, Bill, Steve and I all slept with “Fry Pan” one of the lead dogs, and ended up laughing our asses off for a good 5-10 minutes prior to falling asleep.
Post note: I did not know it then but Darick, Bill, Steve and I had already established our little group and would do most everything together for the rest of the trip.
Boundary Waters – Day 3: Dog Sledding
I finally got to dog sled! It seemed fairly straight forward to control speed and stop. The dogs are unbelievably eager to get to pulling. It seems that the only things they care about in the world are eating and pulling. I have to shout to my two lead dogs “Sunbeam … Fry Pan … ready dogs … let’s go” and they immediately take off. It’s worth noting that for some reason the “let’s go” has to be in a high pitch voice, which evolved to become more and more ridiculous each time I say it. There is a dog-fight early on while we are harnessing dogs that leads to “Grey Jay” getting a nasty gash on his nose and bleeding everywhere. “Fry Pan” was also involved and though it looked like she was okay she began limping heavily midway through the day (a long 8-10 mile day in thick snow with sleds full), and she began stopping altogether which caused the other dogs to quit. I brought this to the attention of Neal, who discussed the situation with Nora (most dog-savvy instructor) and they decided to strap her to the back sled and replace her with another dog. There were 4-6 other dog fights and for some reason Fleetwood was often involved as the aggressor. Steve and I had to push the sled quite a bit as the dogs were getting gassed and the trail was rutted out with sharp uphills and little run-offs. I even drove the sled over Steve a little when I was trying to get it back on the trail by applying the brake (in powder) while telling to dogs to pull. Lesson learned there. We learned toward the end of the day would could keep from running off course a little on the sharp downhills by stomping down on one side of the drag brake and standing on the inside skid and leaning. Funny that it took us this long to figure this out. Part of the reason why we were experimenting with steering was because our strongest pull-dog, “Papa” in the back was consistently pulling us off and to the right even if the low and easy path was left, possibly just by his strength and position on the rope.
Once we arrive to camp I spend a little time setting up shelters and then process wood with Bill and eventually Steve. The instructors have gone out their way to get to know many of the students so far.
We set up a large expedition style canvas tent with a wood stove and that is where the cooking is done. Once dinner is ready we all piled into the smokey, steaming hot tent and eat, and then the typical, nightly, why are you here questions came out. Today’s question was what three things are going great back home and what three things aren’t. The smoke is burning my eyes so I just close them and kind of sit and listen quietly as everyone takes turns talking about things they are struggling with. Steven (non-Ukrainian) puts himself out there by talking about some of the post war things he is dealing with and how it is causing distance between him and his immediate family. He says he has difficulty with nit-picking imperfections at home. Sadly I can relate to most of this. It is very honest moment and no one really knows what to say. After a moment of silence I offer my answers:
Three things going well:
- I am at a position at work now, due to tenure where I pretty much get to choose what I want to work on
- Small things like a wonderful bouldering trip with Jade last summer up in New England. For some reason a couple of particular moments from this trip are replayed heavily.
- My wife and I have been married a long, long time and I pretty much get to do anything I want to when many of my friends do not have any such freedom.
Three things not going well:
- I need a better relationship with Logan. I talk about how fun our Boston trip was.
- I miss riding my motorcycles, like really miss riding them.
- I am not sure I am happy in my job. I know it sounds cliche but sitting down all day really does not make me happy. I often dream about working for forest services or as a ranger if pay was not a concern. I even stare out of my window at the construction workers building shit in the snow and get jealous, which is just ridiculous.
Notes: Darick, Bill, Steve and I are getting along great. I have had little to no communication with Ashley or the twins. Today Logan had to step outside the canvas tent to drop second pant layer to dry out/cool down and he came back in with his outer pants around his ankles and said “Don’t look at me … I’m hideous”. The way he said this was pretty damn funny. Logan skied out with “Grey Jay” and “Fry Pan” so they can be evacuated and in “Grey Jay’s” case, retired (I think). 2 new dogs (“Wednesday” and another are brought it)
At one point of time one of the instructors whipped out the surprise of the night, a jar of salsa to throw on our dinner. Everyone spontaneously erupted to a loud cheer of “SALSAAAAAAA” which kind of caught the instructors off guard. The told us that they cannot recall such an animated reaction to any of the treats they have offered in the past, let alone salsa. I was just glad it wasn’t just me who broke the silence by shouting.
Boundary Waters – Day 4: Solo
It is finally solo day. We gathered around early and the instructors did everything they can do to make sure we wouldn’t kill ourselves, and remind us half a dozen times not to blow our whistles unless life, limb, or eyes are in jeopardy. Many of the vets are pretty nervous about setting off on their own. I know Darick and I have been looking forward to it and are completely at ease. I imagine Ashley is as well. I grabbed a bunch of birch bark (we were told this is great kindling) to use as fire-starter and showed a few others where they can find some.
Weather was still great, probably in the 20’s with small flakes falling from time to time. Very peaceful. We headed out and I got dropped off in an alcove on the lake Southeast of where we slept the night before (I am on the North shore of Omaday Lake). Wolf tracks ran right through my camp and the silence was deafening. I had not realized how loud 16 dogs and 11 people have been over the last 3-4 days.
First thing I did was shit. I know, not something you want to hear about but I could write an entire blog post about the tranquility of that shit. I farmed a bunch of snowballs and stashed them by my “shitter” in case I needed them in the future. This turned out to be a great idea. After I did my business I built my shelter using a tarp, some twine, 2 poles and truckers hitches. It was a pretty simply setup off under some pine trees. We were told it is going to snow/sleet so I wanted to take advantage of the trees. Kind of funny for some reason a bowline was easier for me to tie than a trucker hitch.
It is good to be alone. No, it is GREAT to be alone. We have had little to no time to ourselves since the trip began because there is always something to do and somewhere to go. The work and movement itself is not hard, but the breakneck go-go-go pace of everything really makes me appreciate me not having to do a damn thing now. I am confident in my shelter, confident in my skills, and I can spend the next 18-20 hours or so doing whatever I damn well please.
Songs rang through my head in the silence. I gathered firewood for a while and decided to lay down in my shelter. I ended up taking a short nap. It dawns on me that today we are the dogs. Each night we chain the dogs up wherever we camp using ice screws and metal guy wire. I noticed the first night that they are chained so that they are just out of reach of each other and find that a little odd. I wonder if they would not like to lay together in the cold. Now we (the vets) are all out of reach of each other and I totally get it and no longer feel sorry for the dogs at night.
I woke up from my nap and sat around a bit before eating the 3 Jolly Ranchers given to me by our instructors. I laid on my back in the snow while eating my last Jolly Rancher and began to doze off again. This was not the best idea. I was so utterly comfortable, content, and relaxed I damn near choked to death. When I woke up in a panic from said choking, I thought of how funny (okay morbidly funny) it would be for the OB crew to have to explain to my family that I had choked on something when I was out by myself and died. I figured they would issue an Outward Bound policy to all instructors that participants would only be allowed life savers in the future. This made me laugh to myself a little.
I spent more time processing wood and building a fire platform. After a little while I headed over to my shelter to pass out for a proper nap. This was one of the best naps I have had in a long, long time. I awoke around 16:00 to the sound of Logan asking me how I was doing and if I wanted a dog. I told him that I wasgreat and that I would like Fleetwood if possible since she was so bitchy yesterday.
I fought the urge to begin a to-do list. I am not exaggerating when I write that. I can’t help but to think something must be wrong with me. We haven’t had any time to ourselves until today, and my thoughts raced uncontrollably from topic to topic. I am afraid of not being “in the moment” again. I think about the end of the trip and how I am just going to blink and it will all be over, and I will be sitting on a bus, shuttling to the Minneapolis airport wearing my “I came, I saw, I OB’d shirt”. I always have a tendency to look ahead to the end of whatever I am doing. I am in the process of re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Pirsig really hammers home the folly of not being attentive to the now. In short the journey really is the destination. These thoughts made me want to write more to preserve my thoughts and feelings throughout the trip.
I also thought about COVID-19 and what is happening to the world while we are all off-grid. It presents an “I think I left the stove on” feeling that just does not go away. I never know when the thought will pop up during the trip but it does so, repeatedly without warning. I take a little comfort in knowing that everyone else is coping with this too.
I headed to the lake to get my fire going. It was ridiculously easy to start with Birch bark. Right before I put my food on Logan appeared with Fleetwood. I took a video of her arrival and tied her to a tree. I boiled my pots of water and cook the Ramen, veggies, and sausage that was provided to us and relaxed a little while eating and drinking my tea. I had saved about half of my firewood to put back for future Outward Bounders but about 10 minutes into relaxing I convince myself that we are probably the last winter group that will come through here until late next year, and that there is more than enough downfall and dead branches to sustain campers for years to come. A poem pops into my head …
I did my very best to burn a hole to the bottom of the lake. I ended up with a 5 foot wide 30″ deep crater I would have to fill in the morning. The following day I was told by a handful of people that they could see my fire from across the lake.
After tending to my fire, I cleaned up, brushed my teeth, fed Fleetwood her lard, and led her over to the shelter area. I was able to tie her up so she could sleep right next to me without any risk of her peeing on my gear. This day was everything I imagined the trip to be. I closed my eyes and fell asleep to the gentle sound of snowflakes on my tarp.
Boundary Waters – Day 5: Last Night Out
I slept pretty well last night, only occasionally waking up to see Fleetwood starring at me. It took me about 30 minutes to pack up and head over to the group campsite where we had a big breakfast waiting on us.
After eating I was treated to skijoring for the first time, which was absolutely wonderful. The snow that had fallen over the last couple of days had made the ski conditions much more favorable. It felt a little foreign to fight keeping my balance as a sled dog pulled me along but I started getting a feel for it and relaxed a little toward the end of my 5 minute run.
I knew we were looking at a short, last night out and was looking forward to getting another shot at skiing, perhaps with better conditions. We packed up camp and headed out and immediately I felt the kick and glide I had grown accustomed to in Colorado. I was not pulling a sled this time around so I really got to hang back and take pictures when I wanted to, and just glide along through the wonderful, peaceful Minnesota woods. This was one of the 2-3 ah-ha this is what I signed up for moments. I was on cloud 9. I was so happy that I paused for a short while for my only selfie of the trip. I wanted to remember that moment, and being in that moment.
The rest of our last ski day was fun, quiet, and relatively uneventful. I did get to talk to Ashley briefly and to no surprise, beneath the guarded exterior was a very intelligent and ridiculously capable person. I think most everyone knew this already. She was a Hahvahd grad would had recently summited Denali, and I think Aconcagua in the past. She had been waist deep in adventure for quite a while.
We eventually made our way to a little alcove on a river a few miles from base camp. The center (moving) portion of the river was not frozen. It was a quiet little spot, shielded from the wind with a good view across the ice. We didn’t need to concern ourselves as much with firewood gathering and processing since we had amassed and pulled quite a load on one of the dog sleds. We still had to tend to our dogs, make sure they were happy, chained, fed, and healthy, and setup our shelters. I volunteered to help cook for the first time which meant I could sit around the fire and prepare food. For the life of me I cannot recall what I cooked but I recall it being with Darick.
We gathered around the fire when the food was ready, ate, answered our question of the day and laughed and conversed. I recall Neal busting out some form of snack/dessert and all of us getting a little excited. The sun set across the river in dramatic fashion and the temperature lowered quickly. I took my watch off and hung it on one of the tent guy-lines for a reading. After dinner we ran around camp to warm up prior to jumping into our sleeping bags. Typically routine.
Boundary Waters – Day 6: Heading Back to Base Camp
When I awoke the next morning my watch read 6 degrees F. Not insanely cold by any shake of the stick, but colder than anything we had experienced thus far. We all quickly huddled around the fire for breakfast and fed our dogs. I think we all were very conscious that we would be back to base camp within a few hours, with beds, bathrooms, running water, and technology. We were told the travel for the day would be about 3 miles.
It was my last day dog sledding. I had learned a little, gotten better at steering for sure. Steve was joyfully running along and filming everything. As we approached base camp we turned onto a packed, snowy road. This is where it became somewhat hard to stop the dogs, okay actually impossible to stop them alone. Up until this point Steve would jump off and go take pictures and I could dig my arms under the sled frame to shove the brake teeth into the snow and stop them easily. The first time Steve stepped away on this road the dogs, probably sensing they too were close to home, took off. I stood and pulled up as hard as I could on the brake and even tried applying another foot on the drag brake, and they just drug me along like it was nothing. Steve was able to jump on and help me stopped them before things got out of hand.
Once we reached the Kennels we had to secure the dogs, provide one last health and welfare check for each of them, and then take them back to their spot in the yard. This was an oddly sentimental moment since we all knew we would not see them again. After dropping off the dogs we headed over to base camp to turn in all of our gear, and to dry out everything we had taken, which was a lengthy and involved process.
We all had a few minutes to check with family on our phones. Laura and the kids were doing fine. I really didn’t have a lot of time to catch up with them. I am not sure if I learned then or later that Steve had a friend who had died of COVID-19 while we were out. Apparently his last words were, “I just don’t want to die”.
Eventually we made our way back down to the river and sauna, where we would jump into the icy cold river wearing wool socks, and then shiver and shuffle our way over to the sauna for about 30 minutes before repeating the process. This was a surprisingly comfortable evolution, and it was quite relaxing. We all did about 5 round prior to heading back to base camp for a shower. On the last round I challenged myself and others to stay under for about 10 seconds (head and everything), which sound insanely easy. After playing with Wim Hoff stuff for a while I was able to hold my breath for about 3 minutes last year, which is good for me. The second your head went under that cold water though you could just feel the air being sucked out of you as every muscle in your body tensed up. Add to that the unsettling feeling of drifting down the river a little, and it was genuinely hard to stay under just 10 seconds.
The shower and dinner that followed were nothing short of heavenly. I was pretty dingy after 5 days of smoke, sweat, and grit. Having a hot meal and dessert was great too. After eating we were introduced to a couple of other teams who had just returned from being out in the sticks, including a group of teenagers who had been out for about 60 days I think. We were tasked with doing dishes for everyone, and it was kind of funny to see how effortlessly we self-organized to knock that out.
At some point of time we returned to the dog yard for our final ceremony. We were asked what we took away from the course, told that we all passed, and asked if we would award ourselves with an pin symbolizing excellence. We were all told to close our eyes and hold out our hands if we thought we were deserving. After this we were told to explain our decision to either take or turn down the pin. A couple of people shared a similar answer with me, that excellence is really the best of the best, statistical outliers, etc. I believed I came in with a wealth of experience yet even with that experience only performed adequately. It was an interesting question. To this day I do not know if I grasp the philosophical depths of our answers. Maybe people like me are just destined to wander through life thinking we have not achieved excellence in anything? Have I achieved excellence in anything (volleyball)? I know I am good at a lot of things, but good cannot hold a candle to excellent. I snuck out to take a picture of some of the dogs and of the shack we huddled in. Right then and there I was struck by the realization that we would be back in our airport shuttles en route to returning to family and COVID-19 tomorrow.
Boundary Waters – Day 7: Returning Home
The shuttle ride back to the airport was similar to the shuttle ride in. We all had our own conversation groups and I spent most of my time trying to replay the whole experience while soaking in the Minnesota scenery as it whizzed by. I had no idea when I would be back.
Once we arrived at the Duluth airport I raced off to charge my phone so I would have some sort of entertainment as I traveled all day. I kind of liked the Duluth airport, even though is was incredibly tiny.
Once through security I purchased a couple of things and hung out briefly with Martin, a straggler from one of the other groups. He told me he was from San Fransisco and that his mother was worried. A few days later we would get call from the Outward Bound director so he could inform us that Martin was presumptive positive and that we should all self isolate/quarantine as if we were too. It turned out Martin did not have COVID-19 but it gave me a little bit of a scare since I had minor cold-like symptoms.
I split once and for all from everyone at the Minneapolis Airport. There the Buffalo Wild Wings employees were so happy to see me (they were all just sitting in the dining area at a table without customers, cooks and all) that they gave me a bunch of free food and sat around me and talked about the trip and Coranavirus. Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs airports were equally desolate. I wore a handkerchief over my mouth and nose and received some funny looks through my travel that day. A couple of weeks later and my handkerchief/mask look would be required by Colorado for leaving the house.