Monday, December 15, 2008

Volunteering for the Holidays

"I'm going to volunteer this year at Christmas time," I said. And with that I had made my decision. It was final. After years of contemplating about donating my time, but never actually going through with it, this was the year to follow through and make it happen. OK. I was committed.

So now what? Find a soup kitchen? Sure. Find a home to rebuild/repair? Cool. Several ideas came to mind that fit my capabilities/skills/interests, but somewhere in between getting myself and one of these ideas together, another opportunity came to me.

"Seeking volunteers to clear tree falls on the Kekekabic Trail in the BWCA in December," the email said.

So despite having never been to the Boundary Waters, having never gone on any winter hikes, having never contemplated winter survival in 10º temperatures for hours at a time, I felt that this was the chance I had been looking for. For me it was something I was capable of, an opportunity to learn something new, and most importantly: a way to give my time and energy back to an outdoor community that offers me such wonderful enjoyment year-round (although typically in warmer months.)

And with a simple nod of agreement I was in. I was a volunteer for the Boundary Waters Advisory Commitee. We met for the first time - the 5 of us: Tess, Luke, Karen, and Martin (trip leader and President of BWAC) - at Midwest Mountaineering on Monday, December 8 to go over gear, cold weather behavior/survival and general expectations. I left with a short list of gear to buy and 3 days to organize. We were leaving Friday morning.

Tess, Luke and I had gyros (with a side of chili for me) and drove up to Ely Friday afternoon. We had a quick stop for hot chocolate (extra large for me and a cookie) and then a nice dinner at the Ely Steakhouse (deep-fried walleye for me... seeing a trend here?) . We got to Smitty's on Snowbank, our home base and lodging, around 8:30 or so. Following a glass of wine and a safety talk, we went to bed about 11, planning on getting up at 6:30, and leaving for the trail at 7:30.

Here's where it gets interesting. I awoke with nausea and cramps (do you suppose it was something I ate???) sometime around 1am, which kept me up until sometime after 4. I slept poorly, but I felt a bit better in the morning, and after eating just a bit of oatmeal, felt like I was on a slow but steady upswing. I assured everyone that I wouldn't "go bad" and after breakfast we packed up and drove to a boat landing to start the hike.

This map shows the route we would follow. The horizontal line across the bottom is the Kekekabic Trail, where we did the clearing. The rest is hiking: getting there and getting back. A 7.32 mile round trip.

After some brief route-finding instruction, using a map and compass, we took a bearing and headed south toward the Kek. Route finding was really cool. Step 1) Map: Find where you want to go (waypoint), then align north with the compass dial. Step 2) Your body: Hold the compass and align so the compass points north, then follow the arrow. Important to pick a visually distinguishable point along your direction of travel. Helps you walk in a straight line.

I made my bearing and lead the hike across the frozen lake, where we learned about sounding out the ice for hollow/thin spots and how to handle slush (don't worry about it, just keep moving). Then we turned inland toward the first trail clearing spot, got out the tools and made some sawdust!

I should mention that we were extremely fortunate with the weather Saturday. The weekend was book-ended by highs of 12º and sub-zero lows, but Saturday gave us a high of 32º and a low in the teens. This made the hike and the work much easier and took a few risks out of the equation.

We worked, taking regular water and snack breaks, until around 12:30 or so, then hiked across a cut-down/logging area and made lunch on the other side.

I was feeling about 95% at this point - really feeling good, enjoying the amazing scenery, the quiet, remoteness, company, the hard work - everything. We melted snow (I used my Coleman backpack stove for the first time) to refill water bottles and cook Ramen, make hot cocoa, and cooked Tim Curtis sandwiches. A Tim Curtis sandwich is ham/turkey and cheese on buttered bread with olive oil drizzled on the outside, wrapped in tin foil, then heated over a fire. ....Wait, how much oil/grease/cheese is in that? Uh-oh...

Unfortunately, my pre-lunch energy level was short lived. We hiked and worked for about 3 more hours, but my condition dropped slowly and steadily through the afternoon, back to early morning levels. The oils give you energy, but just weren't something I should have been putting into my system that day. Plus, blackened-olive-oil-flavored burps are disgusting!

At any rate we worked until dark, having moved through beautiful balsam fir-lined paths and clearing some very gnarly barriers:

The most interesting part of the trip was by far the 2.5 hour hike back to the car in the dark. It had started to snow, the wind had picked up, the sky was bright but overcast, and we had our longest segment of route-finding ahead of us: about a mile of exposed hiking across a frozen lake, without the benefit of a clear tree or point in the landscape to fixate upon.

In my experience leading friends on climbing excursions, there is a point, sometimes, when I feel that little extra weight of leadership settle upon my shoulders; a point when I sense that my friends have fully given me their trust, and despite the fact that they don't know exactly what will happen next, they trust that I will guide them through it safely.

It was at this point in the trip when I was on the opposite end of that bargain. I was tired. I was unsure what would happen next. I was worried about getting sick and burdening the crew. I was worried about spending any more time exposed out there on that frozen lake than absolutely necessary. But I had confidence in my companions, I had confidence in our guide, I had confidence in our route-finder, and so I concentrated on focusing my energy on following, putting one foot in front of the other, and staying together. We found our portage on the other side of Parent Lake, hiked through, leap-frogged to a couple islands on Snowbank Lake, and easily came back to the boat landing where we had started.

I came up to the Kek to give, but it was this portion of the trip where the Kek gave back.

Clockwise from top: Luke, Martin, me, Karen, Tess. For the rest of the photos and a more thorough description, see Martin's photo essay of the trip.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Unplugged, Offline and Analog

Cancun Day 1 - Thursday November 13, 2008

I was already relaxed by about half-way through the flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta, which left about 45 minutes late. That made the layover in Atlanta that much shorter and then I was off to Mexico for the first time.

I got up early this morning, worked out, biked, and then took a cab to the airport plenty early. I got a coffee and a piece of gingerbread loaf and took a few spins through email, Facebook, and a quick glance at work, vowing to unplug for the duration of the next few days.

Why am I always so hungry when I travel? The coffee and frosting-laden bread didn't set me up for a healthy start, but I finished the day healthy: apple, banana, and a cookie by way of a sausage egg muffin (D'Amico NOT McD's but what's the difference?) and a tasty lentil salad in Atlanta. Anyways, here's to healthy eating the next 3 days.

Now I'm on the beach under a near full moon (maybe full tomorrow night?). The occasional cloud darts across the moon and makes it hard to see what I'm writing. Otherwise it's brilliantly bright. I can already get a sense of the turquoise blues of the water; a steady gradient that turns to navy at the horizon.

I'll be right back here for sunrise, then the gym, then see how far down the beach I can run, then breakfast. Back to the beach, the pool, happy hour, see if the moon comes up over the same horizon... Repeat. That's the plan, and I'm hungry again.

It's quiet here. The party music and crowd noises have faded from further down the beach. There's no one else in sight. My shorts are soaked halfway up from a walk in the surf, I have no idea what time it is, and it sets in: I'm here. I'm relaxed, and ready to go to bed, so I can start tomorrow.

Cancun Day 2 - Friday November 14, 2008

I slept with the doors to my balcony open - the waves crashing in my ears all night. An immersive start to the weekend. I was up before 6 am and went down to the beach to look for the sun. There was a thick line of clouds along the horizon, obscuring the view.

I walked further down the beach to a rocky/coral ridge (ouch! wear shoes next time). I was convinced I'd missed the sunrise when it lit up just above the thick clouds. The rocks and plants around me were lit up in orange light and even the shadows seemed to glow warm gray.

I took some pics, went to the gym for a quick, intense circuit, then ran, kind of. Running in sand is hard! (DON'T wear shoes next time) The run turned into a walk - the sun already hot and high overhead. Now some breakfast and maybe a lounge chair after I buy some sunscreen.

Holy crap do they ever gouge you on the sunscreen! Twenty bucks a bottle. Oh well, can't live without it.

Layed in the sun just enough to get some color I think. Then swam, then snoozed and read. Shrimp fajitas for lunch, more reading, followed by a serious nap on the beach as the sun went down behind me. Now happy hour with a margarita on the rocks. Have to drink it before the ice melts! It's not quite 6 pm and it's pitch black out. The sun sets quickly here too, I guess. I'm comfortable in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, but still thinking of heading to the pool and hot tub. And what to do tomorrow? Sounds like the ferry to Isla Mujeres isn't cheap but it's a cool place... Decisions, decisions.

Cancun Day 3 - Saturday November 15, 2008

Two A-holes order breakfast. Seriously, just like the SNL sketch.
A-hole dude to waiter: Two coffees. Babe, you want coffee?
A-hole chick: Yeah
A-hole dude: Two decafs. Babe you want decaf?
A-hole chick: I don't want coffee today.
A-hole dude: One decaf. babe you want decaf?
A-hole chick: No.
A-hole dude: Diet Coke?
A-hole chick: No.
A-hole dude, to waiter: One decaf.

Wow. I'm at breakfast, sitting next to the A-holes. I'm feeling freakishly good already this morning. I was up before 6, had some tea and watched the sun rise from my balcony...

...then went to the gym for light weights and about 50 minutes on the bike. Great cardio. I probably wouldn't have gone so long, but I was waiting for the spa to open. At 8 I went into the steam room. Didn't last long in there (very claustrophobic) but just long enough to feel like a seive. Sweat was pouring out of me. Awesome. Then a cool shower...

Walked down the beach to a volleyball court and got in on a couple games. Met a nice couple from England. Too bad they weren't staying at the Westin. Pretty slim pickings for friends over here. Nothing but old people in the Royal Beach Tower, the main pool bar is overloaded with loud tattooed Texans and girls with added... buoyancy. Oh yeah and the gay couples. Who knew it was bear country?

Maybe one more dose of sun before I quit the beach for today. By 3:30 the sun is a lot less hot and the air gets cooler... I'm having my first beer of the trip: Sol. Uno mas, senor? Si.

Cancun Day 4 - Sunday November 16, 2008

Didn't sleep great last night... kept waking up. A storm rolled in overnight and the sky is overcast with lots of wind. Got up about 7 and went to work out. Not a bad day to leave, I guess. I'm ready. I haven't checked email or even thought about it much. Barely turned on the tv - just for some tunes... I worked out 3 days, stayed unplugged, finished a book, and hardly spent any money (stupid sunscreen). I feel great. This was a good idea.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Yep, it's busted.

First broken bone in 20 years, fourth ever.

#1 - 1987: Non-displaced fracture of the right mandibular ramus. (Broken jaw)

#2 - 1988: Green fracture of the left radius (broken wrist)

#3 - 1988: Spiral fracture of the left tibia (broken leg)

#4 - 2008: Displaced fracture of distal phalanx of the fourth finger. (Broken left pinky)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Another Rock Wall

The second retaining wall project around my driveway came to a close this past weekend. I spent lots of time in the sun, and a bit of time transporting a ton of rocks in the trunk of my car (literally a ton, in two trips). I back filled as I went and leveled out the hill, so the rocks had something to retain.

Here are the numbers:

4 tons of rocks
2 yards of fill
3 yards of top soil
100 lbs of class 2 base
10 potted plants/flowers
1 sunburned back

Still need to get 200 or so square feet of sod, but the heavy lifting is done.