Swayed Always: Dogsledding in the Minnesota Boundary Waters with Outward Bound, Jan 30-Feb 6, 2016

I had the good fortune to attend the 2016 Voyageur Outward Bound School dogsledding staff invitational. Fourteen Outward Bound instructors and staff from around the country gathered in Ely, Minnesota and enjoyed six expedition nights sleeping on frozen lakes under tarps at -15F.  http://misadventuresmag.com/swayed-always-dogsledding-in-the-minnesota-boundary-waters/

87780013.JPGThe winter is like the desert. You have to be strategic with water, and a smoky liter in hand is a privilege. To dig the ice hole, I walk away from camp on the frozen lake towards streaky pink clouds in the west. The ice is cut with a sharpened piece of metal attached to a rod, and I am to chip away a dinner plate sized hole. My upper back is quickly hot and buzzing by the chips of fifteen inches of winter. The ice digger could be seen on other nights as a silhouette on a vast horizon, pausing to catch her breath, stare into the hole, and wonder with a sore despair if there was really any water there. The best ice becomes clear and black, and the tapping sound changes and you feel the water at last to be close. The final stab sucks you into the lake as the rod plunges into nonresistance. I imagined that we would have to kneel and reach down into the hole to get water. Rather, the snowpack presses on the lake and water gurgles up and overflows its escape, like the gurgling of emotion itself.

87780012.JPGThere is an exquisite force in downing trees, hauling trunks through the snow, and splitting wood. In hacking an ice hole with that sharpened metal rod and boiling four ashy pots of water in the evening-- one for dogs, two for hot drinks, three for dinner, four for snuggle bottles to heat sleeping bags. There is force in breaking crusts of ice with skis and pounding slush off dogsled skids, in peeing crouched on a vast frozen lake, and in drying toes by the fire under stars.

The force of these activities comes from knowing that these are the simplest and most necessary ways— we must work hard and endlessly across these cold days not just for radiant warmth in fire or metabolic warmth in food but also for constant muscle warmth. If you stop moving and helping the group in the summer, you will likely have a nice time standing in the sun. If you stop moving and helping the group in winter, you will be on your way to dying. The force of these activities comes from knowing that this is how humans have made it unsupported to the North Pole, to Arctic regions past the sun— not at all because they are crucially different from me, but simply because they have systems built in experience, and an unwavering tenacity for their chosen task.

87780007.JPGOur two priorities upon waking are fire and water. It seemed so obvious that I wondered what sideways circumstances had led me to wake up so many mornings of my life and prioritize anything other than fire and water.

In hobbit form, we start with first breakfast— fried bread and fried meat. By this time the sun is shooting out and the air itself sparkles, as fire sparks crackle up into the white sky. Dogsledding is definition magic, I decide.

Leaving camp, I navigate in front with the skiers, breaking trail for the dogs and testing ice with an ax across Wood, Hula, Indiana and Basswood lakes. The snow surface is crusty, I’m carrying a bulky pack, and the bindings of my borrowed skis keep falling off. More than anything, the day-long movement is relentless, we must stay ahead of the dogs, we must find camp before dark, we must not stop. I want to be the leader I asked to be, and I also want out. Amidst the open traceless wilderness, I think fondly of the generic Eau Claire Econolodge and its central heating. Oh, I realize. I’m a student here. This world is not my world, and this day is freaking hard…In so many more senses, though, this world actually is my world, and for some of my students, their hard Outward Bound days exceed mine in a way I can’t even feel. I sense then in my muscles rather than my mind that my students need all the compassion I can possibly give them.

87780010.JPGWinter creeps closer to me than it has before, in part because I come from a society which implicitly seeks a certain separation from uncomfortable seasons. Ice grows on the spine of my notebook, frost on the bristles of my toothbrush, and slush in the curve of my contact lens.

I empty my cup of blood into the snow and it immediately freezes. These quiet moments of squatted solitude, so much of my skin exposed to the bitter air, my naked fingers dedicating their brief dexterity, feel less like an inconvenience and more like a profound thanksgiving-- just one more rhythm among rhythms and rhythms.

Outward Bound is always a moving reminder of the nobility of the human spirit, but most especially of the incredible strength of adventurous women. After long days of travel, Amy walks into the dark, fells tall pines and drags them back to camp. Abby tells us stories of dogsledding to the Hudson Bay. Julie is an older woman who facilitates our service project at the First Lutheran Church pasta dinner in Ely, and she leans forward for our stories. Julie was on an eight month dogsledding expedition in the Arctic which ran out of food. Right now, Lisa and Alyce are preparing for a 4,000 mile canoe journey, to be the first women to paddle the entire Jefferson- Missouri- Mississippi River watershed from source to sea. Abby says there are some truisms you hear and you don't really know what they mean until you know what they mean. When she began leading winter expeditions in the Boundary Waters, 'you can do anything' became something very real. These are the women I spent my days with. These are women as women can be.

87780026.JPGHostile environments shift my mind to my body, and my thinking being is manifest in sensing and doing. On our fourth night we track across Manomin Lake and each settle in solitude at a spot in the woods. I have a blue tarp, twine, sleeping bags, a hand saw, matches, a small pot, and a sausage for dinner. I sit on my pack on the shoreline as the sun beams upon my full, crisp cheeks and I plan my successive warmths— sunshine, the happily arduous collection of birch and pine firewood, cooking coals, boiled snow, and finally my sleeping bags.

I think no words during the night alone, and am only a body crawling from warmth to warmth. Everything is pertinent and immediate. Dave noticed that the Boundary Waters offer no mountains or high vistas to draw even your eyes away from here. Neal said how it’s so remarkable that right here is where we can survive—should we walk a minute into the frozen lake, away from our fires and shelters, we would be done for. In the right here, we each build our sustaining castles.

The following morning we track one by one back to camp, shuffle into the wall tent and sit on snow benches around the little wood stove. This is one of the few moments of our week together when we are not scattered by travel and tasks and we just look into each others’ faces. Dusty starts saying my thoughts which I didn’t think because I had only been a body, but which my body knew throughout the night as Orion turned above the treetops, ice hardened around the opening of my sleeping bag, and snow fell gently on my nose and eyelashes at fifteen below. This is it. This is in no possible sense a humble existence. Dusty’s snow cradle lined with pine boughs, my cocoon, the silence upon silence, sleeping softly amidst an immense world of sleeping life as the fire burns out—there is no greater greatness, this is the Shangri-La.

87780022When we return to base, called Homeplace, we sauna with eucalyptus oil and jump into the river through a hole cut in the ice. In the shower, I have a glowing conviction that, though I’m not exactly sure how, I think life can always be this good. Caroline says she loves dogsledding because for the dogs, work is the same thing as joy. Whenever the sled stops Pinky bounds three feet in the air in eagerness to begin again. Caroline says, find work that makes you feel like that. Having long, hard days, wondering at wilderness, finding huge compassion for myself and other living things, surviving simply and focusing on right now, is not for eight days in Minnesota or four summers in Maine, but for my whole entire life.

The pine-lined drive into Homeplace is marked each quarter mile by a line of verse nailed to a tree:

Be tough, yet gentle

Humble, yet bold

Swayed always

By beauty

And truth

- Bob Peih  (founder of the Minnesota Outward Bound School)

I feel there’s no time left, I tell Marianne, to believe a single thing and not live it, and not let my body know. That’s easier to say, I don’t know how much it’s hard work, and how much it’s just being swayed. Once every other freeze is chipped down, in the final jab the rising water through the ice hole floodingly convinces. Enough exists in beauty and in truth that only needs to be believed. The winter is like the desert. The winter is a world made of water.

87780024Note: Lisa and Alyce are creating an Expeditionary Learning curriculum by way of their expedition, with the goal of 'supporting girls and women in navigating their own paths to confidence.' Awesome! More here: http://www.wildernessclassroom.com/expedition/source-of-confidence-expedition/