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.