Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fall Sabbatical by Rachel

At the tender age of 26 I find myself holding down my first office job. All through high school and college I swore up and down that I would never be stuck behind a desk, so finding myself at one for more than the past year and a half has come as a bit of a shock. I figured my degree in horticulture should easily keep me away from a desk. However, in a poor economy when opportunity knocks, you open the door no matter how reluctantly you may do so. Don’t get me wrong, my desk job is good to me. I enjoy the people I work with and the bulk of the work. Regardless, accounting is a bit of a leap from horticulture, and a desk is a giant bound away from a prairie of plants.

Lately I had found myself surfing the internet over lunch. I scoured the web for blogs and articles about people on trips so that I could vicariously go on adventures while I ate my leftovers in front of my work computer every day. For brief 30 minute interludes I escaped my deskly shackles and dream, only to be brought back to work by the jarring ring of the accursed phone. I imagine that many of you reading this can easily relate and perhaps wonder what your life would look like if you had nailed shut that first door and waited for another.

It is with another fortuitous knock of the door that I find myself at Tuscarora. This door I slowly cracked open, being careful not to let the fragile wings of an idea escape before they could find their strength. In July I brought a group through Tuscarora, renting a few canoes for a short trip. While settling up with Sue, I learned that they were in need of a little fall help. Back at work the next week, I phrased this infant idea as a joke. The response I expected never came. My boss was perfectly ok with me taking time off to go play in the woods. After rephrasing the question multiple times to ensure I was in fact not currently daydreaming in front of my computer, I contacted Sue to apply for the job. In a whirlwind, the door was opened and I found myself back up at Tuscarora, if only a bit dizzy with the speed at which things had changed.

After being here for over a month now, I often find myself reflecting on how this job differs from the one I have put on hold. Now it can be argued that one job is just like any other job. You get up, go to work, get the job done, get paid, and go home all while looking forward to the weekend. At Tuscarora the daily grind, or more accurately the daily scrub, may be just like any other job, but there are a few notable differences.

Getting up – Now here is a step in the daily routine most probably think very little of. Waking each day to the blaring alarm clock, rolling out of bed and getting ready becomes so mundane, some of us accomplish the whole feat without actually waking up. The trick up here is, if you are not awake, you may run into some shrubbery, or perhaps if you are soundly asleep, into a lake. The staff cabins are rustically charming, but contain few of the creature comforts that are common place in the cities. With no running water or heat to speak of, my daily morning routine has become brisk and brief. The distance between bed and bath is a bit of a hike (or swift jog, depending on the temperature that morning) which makes things interesting. Hot, hot tea has become a necessity each morning and it takes a bit longer than usual to get the engines running. Despite all of that I find myself waking up earlier and earlier. I like to leave my cabin window shades up and smile when I wake with the first morning light, which has such a beautiful fresh quality that it deserves special note. (Side note, since the mercury has dropped below the habitable level for anyone without a thick fur coat, the staff has been relocated to a palace which contains all of the creature comforts including my favorite by far, a bathroom in the same building. This has drastically reduced my chance of wandering in an early morning stupor into Round Lake.)

Go to work – Here’s where it starts getting really good. The daily commute takes only a few glorious minutes. Car keys? Haven’t seen those for weeks. Road rage? Forgetaboutit. Worrying about being late while you sit at the longest red light in the history of the world? Nope! The walk to work takes me through some of the most beautiful white pines I’ve seen anywhere, which soar easily sixty feet above me, enough so that the first rays of the morning sun ignite their tops with gold. If the morning is nice, I tend to double my daily trip distance by swinging past the lake. In the fall, any glorious morning worth its salt is going to put a dense layer of fog on the lake. At this point my jaw usually drops and all I want to do is sit straight down and watch the lake as the sun slowly burns off the fog, revealing more and more of the shoreline. This has become my gawker slow down, and I rather prefer them over the ones in the cities. Occasionally, the urge to sprint back and grab my camera is sometimes too much to resist. I get the feeling that before I leave here, I will have at least 60 gigs of pictures on my hard drive.

Get the job done - There is a lot of monotony that comes along with both the housekeeping and outfitting worlds, plain and simple fact. The key to sanity is learning to appreciate the small nuances each day. You never know what exactly you are going to be cleaning today, nor how dirty it is going to be. Now this is not some commentary on the cleanliness of our clientele, it’s just the way things work. If you took your trip during monsoon season and did some serious bushwhacking, your tent is going to have a skosh more dirt in it than those who went out on a sunny overnight trip on a well worn path. So we scrub, a lot, because Tuscarora prides itself on being a clean and caring outfitter.

During all this cleaning, I have learned many lessons that I have taken to calling transferable skill sets. The method I use to Soft Scrub a sink in cabin 3 is directly transferable to the method used to clean a camp plate so that it becomes shiny enough to use as a signal mirror when in distress. Vacuuming and mopping are strikingly similar and that same motion can be used when cleaning a tent. I’ve also learned some very specific skills, like how to fold towels and sheets. It would shock the average person, myself being one of them a few weeks ago, how many incorrect ways there are to fold up towels. It is, however, comforting to know that the new skills I am acquiring I will be able to draw on the rest of my life. I will never look at a clean house the same way, nor any piece of camping gear I own.

What makes this job unique from any other cleaning position is once again location, location, location. The window above the outfitting scrub sink commands an encompassing view of Round Lake, which is much better than a computer screen. A staff development day involves loading up the crew in a giant Northwoods canoe with the boss in back to go climbing on Seagull Lake palisades. Walking from one freshly clean cabin to the next vacated cabin rivals any good hike. And just the other day, after sweeping the porch of cabin 2, I looked up and spotted two otters playing in our bay. How can you beat that! All in all, it’s a lot of hard work, but that is what I was looking for. I enjoy the physicality and rarely find myself behind a desk or chained to a phone. At the end of the day, I can look back and see a clean cabin or a pile of clean gear and know that I did a good hard day’s work. I go to sleep each night tired but with a content smile on my face, knowing full well I will rise to scrub another day.

Get paid – When I signed on for this work-cation, I did not put any though towards the paycheck. One guest actually asked how much I made working up here and was taken aback when I could not answer her (to be fair, I had yet to reach a payday). That first paycheck is now somewhere in my room somewhat forgotten (the closest Wells Fargo is Silver Bay, and I still have yet to bother with doing a mail-in deposit). The heart of the problem lies in the fact that money just is no good up here. I cannot tip the sun for that fabulous sunset, nor can I pay a loon to sing for me. The nearest town is an hour away, and I cannot really come up with anything I need. I’ve got a place to stay in, three delicious meals a day with more desserts than on Christmas morning, and use of a canoe whenever I get a spare hour or two. What more does a girl really need?

Go home – This is where the job gets really unique. I do not go home after a hard day’s work to a tiny apartment and kick back with perhaps a refreshing beverage and flip on the telly. Instead I return to the rustically charming staff cabins to spend more time with my coworkers, or to partake in the deliciously rediscovered delight known as the afternoon nap, or take advantage of some of the fantastic hiking in the area hoping all the while to spot a wolf or two as a recent guest did one morning. Then in a few hours eat dinner with exactly the same subset of people, only to return once again to that rustically charming piece of real estate. There is no quicker way to get to know a group of people then to spend time in the woods with them where there are minimal outside distractions. With coworkers in the cities, you can choose to spend more or less time with them, depending on your tastes. Up here, you get what you get, which can be a huge disaster. I am pleased to report that is not the case here. I genuinely like the people around me and enjoy their company. Conversations run the gamut from silly to serious discussions about world problems. Evenings are passed playing games or cooking (which is a highly prized pastime, for it not only fills the tummy but heats up the crew cabin). I cannot remember the last time I have laughed as hard as I have up here with this great eclectic group of people. Cheers my friends.

Weekends - My last “weekend” is what inspired this entire ramble. At Tuscarora, we get one day off a week. Now I don’t really know what the typical routine for this place is, but in the fall everything seems to be a little more chill (and yes I do mean that figuratively as well as literally). For the most part, we get to provide input as to which day we would like off. This week, co-worker Zach and I were slated to have the same day off. After consulting the weather gods, we chose Wednesday, which turned into a fine choice indeed. Right after work on Tuesday, we loaded up the Escape and pointed the canoe towards Tuscarora Lake with plans for a one night stay, then swinging back through Gillis to return by dinner on Wednesday. Tuesday night was a little sketchy with a great deal of wind and leaden skies. Wednesday dawned calmer but still a bit ominous in the northwest. Could those gambling weather reporters have been wrong again? Moving sluggishly in my double pair of still wet socks stuck in oversized blue elephant rubber boots, we loaded up and shoved off. Just as the sore paddling muscles loosenedd up, the sun started to battle its way through the clouds. By the time we reached Gillis, the lake looked like glass, reflecting an azure sky with perfect marshmallow clouds. When I looked at the water slipping past the bow of the canoe, it was as if we were gliding through the very clouds themselves. A section of ‘The Singing Wilderness’ by Sigurd Olson came back to me as we slowly glided along;

“Should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth, of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves”

I had finally found that day and was truly transfixed by the sensation. The reflection of the sky was only broken by the watercolored reflection of the vivid fall forest. It was after this spell was broken by the next portage that I began to reflect on the polarity of my two jobs. If this was a weekend in the cities, I would be sleeping in, maybe doing some laundry, catching up with friends, perhaps driving across town to catch the latest flick. How starkly different it is to be spending all of your time off in such a remarkable place, far from modern distractions, in a place where I used to simply daydream about while eating leftover soup.

It is truly a privilege to be able to spend such an extended amount of time on the Gunflint Trail. With each trip I take into the deep north woods, the more I understand that to truly know and understand something, you must return year after year, to take the time a place such as this truly requires. Attempting to summarize this unique work experience is difficult and I do so with the deepest respect to those summer staffers who have been faithfully returning for many summers. You know far better than I why a good green scrubbie is coveted, why a dirty 2P is vastly superior to a dirty 6P, the delicate aroma that is Scrub Free, the proper way to flip a canoe, and all the many quirks associated with each cabin. Not everyone sees with the same eyes, or speaks the same thoughts, which makes everyone’s experiences here unique and beautiful. I have also attached some of my own photos, which let loose a thousand more unspoken words. It is with these images that I can truly express how I feel about the lake country and my gratitude toward Tuscarora.

To all of you desk jockeys out there. I hope that this brief interlude into the inner workings of Tuscarora and the grandeur of the Boundary Waters has entertained you on your lunch break. In less days than I care to admit I will be dragging myself kicking and screaming back amongst your ranks to return to daydreaming over last night’s spaghetti. And yes, the phone is ringing, get back to work.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


We left Friday afternoon with the Cook County Cross Country Team to the Milaca Mega Meet. It was a whirlwind of carpooling and people and races.

It's a beautiful Sunday morning, but it's also a work day today.
I left early, the kids were still sleeping.
Denali and I stopped for morning coffee on the way.

Then we continued our morning commute.

It was really good coffee this morning. It's also a really good day to be alive in the northwoods.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

3 Bull Moose

1. First thing yesterday morning my mom and I were walking when Denali scared a cow moose out of the pond and up a hill. Prancing behind that cow was a bull with a monster rack. It was sort of comical that a guy that huge could move that sprightly. It had to be awfully hard on his neck. She grazed and wandered aloof. He strutted around ridiculously attentive. As he should be.

2. Andy, Denali, and I took the afternoon off . We paddled into a couple of lakes I hadn't seen before. Bonus. I was so happy to be me yesterday. Photos don't begin to capture the energy we pulled from the sun, the colors, the smells of fall.

We did have a little time to poke around and find artifacts from the former cabins-once on the beach of Tuscarora Lake---part of the resort before the Wilderness Act made them illegal.

Before we started asking people "Do you have any cans or glass bottles with you?" Andy loves that historical treasure hunting.

I was portaging the canoe when I heard Denali go ballistic and Andy started hollering at her, and telling me to get off the trail "Bull Moose!!" I didn't see him charge Denali, but I did see the evidence of a stressed out stomping moose emptying a very large bladder, before he turned around and trotted away. We did proceed with caution, he was massive and unpredictable.

3. This morning, while chasing down the bus (our first chance to miss it this year....) up popped a big old bull--over the road, and down in the ditch again. Shelby squealed, but really, we weren't even that close to clipping it. I could feel it, the truck had plenty of time to stop, he wasn't going to charge us.

They're big. They're on the move, that's for sure. And so go the seasons. And so goes the rut.

Abbie and Rachel

Every August we look at the long lists and the big piles...and we wonder, how will we get it done? Our lone contracted staffer Zach was also looking a little bleak back then---but we found him friends...or they found us...or something.

Sometime this summer, Rachel brought a group of young adults on a canoe trip. She was so refreshingly organized and competent...I asked her "Rachel, are you a former staff member?" When she said no, I asked her if she wanted to be a former staff member. It was my lucky day to be sort of kidding about that, because about a month later, she called. And now---well you should see her and her obsessive skills for organization. She very respectfully asks me...."Do you mind if we rearrange some things while we're cleaning the Dining Hall? "or "I'm not claiming to be an expert with QuickBooks, but, do you mind if I show you something?" I am smart enough not to mind. Rachel was given a leave of absence because it isn't high season in accounting, and her career in horticulture hasn't yet begun. I was right about her.

Abbie came here to work with her buddy Zach. We happened to know her family but I hadn't seen her since she was 18 months old..... there are so many connections with her..... just yesterday I found out that the dear friend of ours--the woman my children called "Margie" she called "the Gum Lady." She's travels in many circles--- ELCA, St. O, WCB, OSLC, Holden, NOLS and she is completely groovy. Beyond all that, she's got some kind of big giant charisma that draws everybody in. That and she can do the shipoopi. We lover her. Abbie belongs in the woods, she and Rachel and Zach are tackling the lists, and........they have spiced up our September, that's for sure.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ode to a Client by Zach

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at Tuscarora, it’s that the work is never done. Case in point:

Much has been made of the things to be “finished” here at the end of the 2010 season, which included a stack of dirty tents as tall as me (5 feet 11 inches) and a list of dirty canoes that grew daily starting in August. For the better part of three workdays last week I diligently scrubbed canoes, averaging 15 minutes a boat and feeling proud of myself. I put the last Grumman back with a sense of accomplishment, knowing too well in the back of my head that of course I was not done. Clients have come in and out since then; I’ve cleaned about six canoes this week and there are seven more sitting out there. I get to them when I can, usually in between driving clients to and from drop-off points, which is my favorite part of the job.

For the record, I have enjoyed talking with you all. It sure beats cleaning gear. But I have been astonished at how interested in me everyone has been. People love to ask me about myself. But, you know, I can only be as honest as someone who is getting paid to help you can be, so I figure since everyone who came here this season got to learn a little bit about me, I would flip it around and tell all of you what I’ve learned about you. I’ve written it as an old-fashioned ode:

Ode to a variety of clients:

to my jealousy of all of your camping trips (even the rainy ones);

to people who had never sat in a canoe before this summer,

and to being asked which end is the front;

to the many people who thought I knew way more than I do (especially about fishing);

To all the groups that either departed from or arrived at the Windigo,

17 miles from Tuscarora and otherwise known as entry point number 47 –

driving with you was my pleasure.

Thank you.

To the groups that brightened my day;

to the groups we thought we would have to go looking for;

to the groups we did go looking for;

to the Boundary Waters Family, whatever it is (I’m still not sure);

to helplessly watching you struggle to take off of the Round Lake beach

on stupidly windy days;

to telling the story of the Ham Lake fire

800 times;

To the man who looked at the scorched and treeless hills on the Canadian side of Gunflint Lake and said, “Cutbacks?” –

that was probably the funniest thing anyone said to me this season;

to all of you

take it from someone who will have spent four months living and working on the edge of the BWCA and gotten to go camping one night at a time:

it is a privelege to experience this wilderness.

I hope you all had fun trips.

- Zach

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sunny Day

Yesterday I took my camera with me. The day was something.

The water on Sag was as clear as the sky.

These plants---some relative of horsetails, or maybe just a form of horsetails without the bristles. When the kids were really little we used to take them apart and almost put them back together, like toys. I think somebody told me a common name for them was tinkertoys. Or we made that up, because it fits. They have silica in them--so they are a little like sandpaper--know the ones I mean?

The squirrels are so so busy. Denali feels the need to supervise....she keeps an eye on them at all times.

It looks like an apple, but it's actually a fat rose hip.

For flowers--this time of year---we get purple asters. Not bad!

And then there are the pines.

And the enormous sky------it was a day.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sappy Motor Sticks

This little woods game entertains all ages....it works best in the spring when the balsams have lots of sap bubbles.

Shelby and her friends videoed it this summer.....I still love this trick.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Presto....It's Fall.

I don't know why it always surprises me so much. Woosh. Suddenly it's Fall. It's OK actually, Fall might be my favorite season, but I still drag my feet when everything switches up. (I know I'm not supposed to capitalize the seasons, but I happen to think that particular grammar rule is wrong. If Wednesday gets to be a proper noun, then I personally think Fall ought to be one too)

Anyhow, Labor Day weekend was lovely, now the kids are in school, the woods are oh-so-quiet. We send a few groups out every day---people who have discovered the secret, and are willing to bring their warm clothes for fall camping--for the chance at spectacular stars, sharp colors, silent woods.

We have a tradition that marks the last day of summer. We do a little hiking, a little swimming, a little playing, a little eating, and hang around the campfire --and I love it for a number of reasons.
1. It has always been fun.
2. These are really really nice families.
3. The woods are great, but sometimes in the summer I forget that Lake Superior and the North Shore are beautiful too.
4. The kids still swim---even when the water is freezing.
5. It's really fun.
6. These are really nice people.......................................................................................

In a life that seems to change so much, I sure do like traditions.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

September Morning

Wow, it's great to be alive on morning like this.

The reason the people paddle out in the rain and the wind...is just for the chance to wake up to a morning like this.

Saganaga is a pleasure on a morning like this.

The first frost---the promise of winter can't even compete with the promise of this sunny day.

I love the adolescent forest on the Sag Channel. It reminds me of the playdough haircutting station that the kids used to have. You'd put the little plastic bald guy with scalp holes on the stand.. Then you'd press the lever and the playdough hair strands would squeeze out, all the same length, just like all these little trees that squeezed out of the ground about 15 years ago.

A perfect day for a tow to Cache Bay, to start a Quetico canoe trip....even for cleaning tents, it's just a perfect day.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


The funny thing about yesterday, I was having a discussion about the sense of smell and the brain….and I got reading about it—about how closely our olfactory receptors are connected to our limbic system. Scientists say our sense of smell stimulates the deepest oldest parts of our brain first.This original discussion started with the smell of smoke—how it elicits an emotional response from me...like....maybe a little anxiety.... long before it makes it’s way to the cognitive (rational) part of my brain.

Late in the afternoon I took Denali for a run on the access road, where yesterday's northwind knocked down big poplars, and made piles of toothpicks out of little dead trees that had so effectively braced themselves against the south winds of the summer. Lots and lots of trees down. We had rain, and the weather has cooled off so much, I was really happy to be out in it.

My mind wandered to information about smells and memories, and the ways they're using aromas to enhance learning and healing..and then…as if I had brought it on, I smelled the distant woodsy smell of a skunk. Must have stimulated memories first (just like they say) because I immediately remembered a story about my grandpa and his cousin, who as kids, believed that a skunk couldn’t spray if it didn’t have it’s feet on the ground. They had some elaborate noose snare...that didn't work. I smiled before the smell made it’s way to the cognitive part of my brain and I shook my head and called Denali.

The first time I ever smelled a skunk, I was in a car driving by cornfields…and I remember thinking…what’s so bad about that? It doesn't even make me gag... I’ve smelled LOTS of things worse that this smell, including most colognes and perfumes...

When Denali cheerfully came running to me, I was trying to be optimistic about it…because skunk smell was everywhere, and…..she couldn’t have had a skunk incident without barking could she? After all, we’ve met that skunk. They’re sort of friends. Aren’t they? And, poplars were down on the road... you know the smell when you cut a poplar tree down? It’s sort of a skunky stink. Maybe, maybe…that’s all I smell?

Then she got closer. Oh boy, no. She had been completely skunked.

During dinner, instead of reading about olfactory lobes, I was googling de-skunking formulas. Bingo: hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, Dawn dishwashing liquid. This is how Denali and I spent the rest of our evening. Rub it in, wait 10 minutes, hose it off. It’s lucky to have an outfitting yard in a situation like this. And even though I was the torturer—we bonded. She doesn’t know what else to do but come to me when I whistle.

Then I went about de-skunking myself. The stink hovered around me like Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoons. I think I might be clear, but how can I tell? I can still sort of taste it.

This morning the Cabin 6 guests were watching the rules video, as Denali came in to do her greeting rounds. I quickly intercepted her into my office. She's looking clean and sleek, but still I think she's got the cloud around her head. I didn't want to have to tell them she was contaminated. However, as those nice people filed out of the door by me—I could tell that she had visited their cabin earlier. Maybe they didn’t know it, or they were too polite to say, but they had the cloud around them too. Even if it was only by secondary exposure, they too had definitely been skunked.