Monday, August 27, 2012

Letter from Isle Royale

Red Road Spirit, Pamela Yates

The late July morning had grown warm when I hiked out of the forest and climbed onto the crest of Isle Royale National Park's Minong Ridge. I paused, adjusted my pack, and took in the view. Rain from the night before had stained the basalt under my boots a dark gray. The ridgeline was bare except for tufts of grass, splotches of lichen, and a handful of gnarled cedars charred from a forest fire three months before. Lake Superior sparkled below, where her frigid waters stretched northwest to Canada. Ontario was a green ribbon on the horizon.

Ojibwe sacred stories tell of terrible battles between Thunderbirds and Mishupeshu, the Underwater Lynx, that happened where I stood. Those deities fought with lightning and wind and water, and now I saw why tribal elders still spoke of this place with both reverence and awe. A thunderhead, dark and several miles across, was steaming toward me from Canada. Rain fell in sheets beneath it, obscuring the lake. 

I gave the storm twenty minutes before it rolled over me.

Two days earlier I'd been aboard the Voyageur II, a ferryboat out of Grand Portage, Minnesota, that circumnavigates the Isle Royale archipelago. I sat atop the starboard engine compartment as the boat nosed around the island from Washington Harbor to McCargoe Cove, and mentally ran through my clothing and gear. I wore a blue t-shirt and gray trousers made of a quick-dry synthetic fabric. A laminated map of the island was tucked in a backpack pocket, along with a compass. Other items packed included my tent, a water filter, an MSR stove with fuel bottle, an ultralight mess kit, rain suit, and trekking poles. Zipped into a watertight pouch was my late Grandpa McIlree's silver Army medal from 1915, because I'd asked him to join me on the hike.

Voyageur II, R. Pahre, Flickr

This trip represented my first solo, long-distance hike in the backcountry. The Minong Ridge Trail has a reputation for toughness, so few people choose it. I'd picked it for the solitude and isolation. The trail runs thirty-one miles along barren ridges interspersed with beaver ponds and forest that one must repeatedly traverse. Park rangers do little to maintain the path, so backpackers follow a succession of cairns -- small piles of stones -- for direction along the way. I'd be on my own from the moment the deckhand tossed my pack onto the McCargoe dock to the moment, three long days later, when I walked into Windigo Ranger Station.

Now, as the storm enveloped the green hills ahead of me in blue and the wind grew stronger, I felt less keen about solitude and isolation. Thunder cracked, echoing off the Greenstone Ridge to the east. Then I slipped on a patch of scree, fell forward with the weight of my pack, and sprawled onto the pocked bedrock.

My thoughts grew in a crescendo of fear as I stood up.  

What are you doing alone on a bare outcrop, miles from anyone, with fifty pounds strapped to your back? What about lightning? Or losing the trail in the rain? And you haven't seen a soul all day. Who's going to help you out of here if you break a leg?

Storm Coming, RwFrenchJr, Flickr

"Grandpa," I said as the dark clouds rolled toward me. "Grandpa, I am so scared."

I stopped and took a long, deep pull from my water bottle. I closed my eyes, saw the lean frame of a man I'd never met, saw the smile of a man who'd died eight years before I was born, and felt his hand on my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, I knew he was present. Grandpa was here, on the Minong, watching out for me. Calmness settled within my chest. Just keep on walking.

A spatter of rain, another crack of thunder across the ridge. And then the storm began to pivot, blowing eastward. Blowing away from me. I kept on walking.

Later that evening I camped, surrounded by birch trees, on the shore of an inland lake. The acres of dripping leaves held an atmosphere of deep monastic silence. I sat on the shoreline as a loon dove, surfaced, and then called to her mate. For the first time in a long while, I felt at peace. Eighteen miles of hard trail were behind me. So far, I had handled the solitude and wildness. Thirteen more miles waited in the morning.  A thought rose in the stillness: do I love me?

Desor Lake Birch, Fred Sproat, Flickr

An image of four old men in pressed black robes followed that thought. Back home, these judges review my daily life with eyes of polished stone. They never smile. "You accomplished nothing today," one will proclaim. "You're not good enough." The other three always nod as the gavel swings down. "Guilty!"

But those old judges had not come with me to Isle Royale. The thought returned: do I love me?

The moon rose, almost full, against a sky of burnished copper. The loon paddled away. Soon this journey would be accomplished. Within a day the trip would be over. I took a deep breath, exhaled through my nose. What knowledge would I carry from this place? I stood, stretched, and gazed at the lake. Then I smiled. 

Do I love me?


With special thanks to

Pamela Yates Watson
Rich Watson
John Bostwick
Taylor Slapinski
Joe & Carol McIlree

Monday, April 9, 2012


For their sheer weirdness, the dreams of babies stuck in my mind. They began a month into my job at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota Foundation.

In one dream, I'm in a square, white room without doors or windows. An infant is crying in another room, but I can't get to him. I frantically search for a way out. The baby is in trouble and needs my help. In another dream, I'm treading water in a deep pool while holding an infant over my shoulders. We are alone, and the baby needs to stay dry and safe. "Don't worry," I tell him. "I won't let you slip."

My waking hours had been spent talking with Children's donors about our care for preemies, those infants born months ahead of schedule and weighing anywhere between a dozen ounces to a couple pounds. The technologies and skills available to a Children's preemie never cease to amaze me, like surgery on a heart smaller than a quarter. As a representative of Children's Foundation, I show donors how their generosity helps patients like these tiny babies.

Those dreams, though, made me reflect upon the purpose of my new job. I'd never dreamed about homeless people while serving as a Street Outreach Coordinator, or about scholarships while working at a liberal arts college. But now, while walking past preemies in their incubators, a warmth would blossom within my chest. I wanted to hold each one. I wanted to reassure the parents. And I found myself -- a guy whose passion is hiking the forested hills of northern Minnesota -- dreaming about babies like a nesting mother. Yes, this job was different from any before it: Children's mission was reminding me of my little brothers Joey and Tim.

I was born around twenty-eight weeks gestation, weighed a hair over two pounds, and spent several months in an incubator. Many people know that I was a preemie. I even used my early birth as a selling point in my employment application to Children's. But I rarely told people that my late brother, Joey, had also been a preemie.

Growing up, Joey was less of a brother to me than one of  my earliest childhood memories. He was born at twenty-one weeks in 1985. Unlike today, medical technology at that time could not keep him alive. Joey was with us for less than five minutes.

A single photograph exists of me holding Joey, just after he'd died. Mom sits on a couch beside me, her mouth curved downward. Her body, wrapped in a terrycloth robe, radiates heartbreak and fatigue. Dad leans forward, as he loves to do with his children, engaging me in conversation about my brother. And I look at the photographer without smiling. I remember feeling confused and disappointed. "You kept asking why he wouldn't open his eyes," my mom later told me. "You were so excited to be a big brother."

I became a big brother again, to a healthy baby boy named Tim, one year later. I remember feeling elated. But while I'd had big plans to be a model brother for Joey, I rarely acted on them with Tim. I didn't teach Tim to play baseball or protect him from bullies. I didn't talk with him about girls. I often either mocked or ignored him. We didn't have an authentic conversation until we reached our mid-twenties, and he was the one who initiated it.

Perhaps, I thought, those dreams were saying less about the past than they were about the present. Children's mission was reminding me of what I never had with Joey, but it was also reminding me of what I appreciate about Tim. He has become an exceptional violinist, a young man with character, and a loyal, compassionate friend to many people. I'm very proud of Tim's accomplishments.

And now I can help other kids, because Children's encourages its youngsters to imagine similar accomplishments in life. Many of our patient families lack the money to pay for treatments, let alone music lessons or painting classes. So, Children's integrates the fine arts and community outreach into its model of care -- a model where no family is ever turned away -- and I watch kids benefit from that care every day.

My hope is that these kids will grow into young adults like Tim, and I feel that working for such a mission has expanded the space in my heart for people. Like memories of my little brothers, the work I do at Children's encourages me to grow beyond my boundaries and to care for others. Together, those memories and experiences continue to make me a better person.