How My Alma Mater Prepared Me To Sleep On The Ground

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Waking up somewhere cold and hard is not an occasional occurrence for me. Just a few weeks ago, I took my first solo trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as the snow and ice receded from the landscape. Earlier this year, I slept a night on the ice of Lake Mille Lacs while I explored a lake that is still big and new to me. A couple months before that, I endured one late-October night (in a slightly leaky tent) while I tried my hand at netting whitefish in far northern Minnesota. I was fortunate enough to catch a modest number of fish each time, for which I was grateful, but everyone knows there are easier ways to bring food home for the table. So what makes me embrace physical exertion and discomfort doing these or any such things? 

Sometimes when the outside temperature bumps up against the comfort limit of my sleeping bag I ask myself the same thing. In my heart I know the answer. While all those trips- and so many others- were ways of bringing food home for the table, on a deeper level they satisfy a rabid curiosity and fulfill goals inspired by a thirst for knowledge. One might ask where that thirst for knowledge came from in the first place. It’s a worthwhile question.  

Time and again, I am reminded how my Gustavus education played a principal role in forming me to be adaptable and naturally curious, stimulating my mind and turning me loose in the world to be a lifelong learner. This is no small thing. When I was an undergrad, I was still largely under the impression that I was there to learn things, i.e. facts, skills, etc., that would gift me a career. What I didn’t know was that I was learning a way of being. I knew the “value of a liberal arts education” in a college pamphlet sort of way, but lacked the life-experience perspective that could make it real. Now I’m living it. 

For the past 19 years, I’ve been a classical musician. The building blocks for this career were carefully laid in college, but I remember how my brain lit up when I also learned about things like archaeology, psychology, and my own faith. And while I knew I had no interest in a career in any of those fields, I still found them fascinating and dug in while I could. Thus it has been ever since, whether I have tasked myself with remodeling a bathroom, learning and performing new music, training my own bird dog, or cooking with chokecherries. Little did I know that kind of cognitive versatility would someday swoop in to catch me in the free-fall of career crisis. 

About 17 years into my music career, burnout began to overtake me. It took a while to see it for what it was, too. So, for a time, feelings of frustration, disillusionment, and defeat took the wind from my sails and stole my visions of the future. Fortunately, I had good people around me who collectively encouraged me to take the pressure off myself and take a step back from the rat race. While I paused to take stock of my situation, I clung to my educational foundation, knowing my ability to learn would allow me to bend without breaking in spite of whatever lay ahead. In that way, there was still nothing I couldn’t do. 

And so, with really nothing to lose, I took steps toward parlaying my accumulated outdoor experiences into the beginning of a career in freelance writing. That’s right, all my past and future excursions have now become the underpinnings of my nascent career as an outdoor writer. It doesn’t promise to be terribly lucrative, and I can’t know where that will take me, but that’s okay. What’s important is that I can find fulfillment in bringing things I believe are important before the wider world, and I have infinite opportunities to be creative in doing so. And if I have come to know just one thing about myself, my creativity needs an outlet. 

This kind of transformation and self-realization doesn’t come cheap. I am convinced it would not have been possible without my liberal arts foundation, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have that on my side. It provides constant reassurance that I am capable, I can find my way, and I can overcome. You might say it’s enough to make the ground a little warmer and softer at night. 

 

 

The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On

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My dad’s friend Larry was a staple of my formative years, a regular presence in our hunting endeavors in the late 80s and early 90s. His light, contagious demeanor was always welcome, and I won’t soon forget how his jokes and wise cracks punctuated the many car rides, duck blinds, and nights in the camper, not to mention his deft incitement of near-inappropriate moments at home and in the narthex of the church. I can still hear his crazy, half-wheezed, unfettered laugh, and I know I always will. 

He passed away last week, after a years-long tussle with cancer; this news was not unexpected, certainly, but its inevitability did not serve to mitigate its impact. His loss comes as yet another blow to constancy, a cold chipping away at my sense of youth and connection to the past. So it goes whenever a part of us seems gone forever and can only be kept alive in memory and stories. For me, it would be hard in this moment not to pause and remember the others that have gone on ahead.  Continue reading “The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On”

Beauty: Birch, Mozart, and Human Nature

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On an early spring morning this year, I was attending a dress rehearsal for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem mass, one of his most recognizable and beloved works, and a perennial favorite (Ironically, Mozart left it unfinished when he died at the young age of 35, and much of the music wasn’t actually written by him). There I was, sitting in a church pew and watching the fast-passing altostratus clouds through a window high overhead, when the orchestra and choir started the Lacrimosa movement. I was utterly blindsided. The sight of cottony clouds streaking across the blue set to the soundtrack of a true master was profoundly and inexplicably moving. It was the kind of moment that makes a person gasp, and its abrupt arrival magnified its effects on me at least threefold. It was an unexpected moment of beauty that would change the whole week to come. Continue reading “Beauty: Birch, Mozart, and Human Nature”

Guardians of the Treasure: Reflections from MN Public Lands Day Rally

Today I participated in my first-ever political rally. Compared to some “rallies”- you know, the kind that border on “riot”- it was pretty tame. Just a bunch of like-minded folks gathered in the rotunda of the MN Capitol building, listening to speakers and showing their support for our public lands. As I found myself explaining several times throughout the day, this rally was not a direct reaction to anything happening at the state level of our government right now. But the Feds have been toying around lately with some very alarming ideas regarding transfer of ownership. And while I don’t live in Oregon (or any other western state), those federal lands are as much mine as any Oregonian’s. These matters are not to be taken lightly. 

As I listened to the various speakers and on the drive home, I reflected on several ideas, some of which I’d like to share.  Continue reading “Guardians of the Treasure: Reflections from MN Public Lands Day Rally”

The Sun Is Going To Win

The sun is going to win. I keep telling myself that lately. Our source for heat and light has never failed us, and deep down we all know it. Actual spring will come, followed by hot sweaty summer. We know this. But right now, smack in the middle of April, as most of Minnesota is in the grip of a full-blown blizzard and I’ve already cleared 7 inches of snow from the driveway, it’s almost impossible to believe. 

The last few days I spent outside, I couldn’t help but notice how powerfully the sun warmed my skin and clothing compared to the way it didn’t a few weeks ago. Earlier this week, as I sat atop the ten inches of crusted snow that sat atop almost three feet of solid lake ice, the sun played peek-a-boo with the help of passing clouds. When the shadows came over me, the wind picked up and I put another layer on. When the sun came back out, my black jacket became unbearably warm and it came off again. That never happens in January. I reflected on how much more intense the sun’s rays have become, and how the ice I was fishing through will ultimately have to yield. Cognitively, I knew spring will eventually win out despite this seemingly endless winter we are having. What I did not know was that the sun’s ever-stronger rays were bouncing off the snow and giving me an atomic-grade sunburn. It’s the worst one I’ve had in almost twenty years, maybe longer. The only consolation has been the moment of levity I seem to bring to everyone I’ve seen in the last 3 days. 

Now, I have never been a lover of the sun. I have never in my life sought to be in the sun just for the sake of it. My pasty skin needs extra protection, not extra exposure. In the summer (and from now on, in April too) I try to have a hat with a lot of brim available for sunny days, and I try never to go anywhere without sunscreen. I try really hard not to let the sun come near enough to hurt me. I mostly hope for cloudy days and shade trees everywhere I go. But I have never wanted so badly as I do now for the sun to give us some quality time. And I will be ready for it… as soon as I’m done clearing the next 7 inches of snow off the driveway in the morning. 

 

 

2017-18 Ice Fishing Retrospective: Winter Colors and Textures

 

Coregonus artedi, Mille Lacs Lake, February 2018

 

The harsh, stark nature of Winter usually belies its inherent beauty. Those who stay indoors just to keep their cheeks warm will miss every opportunity to see new things, and even worse, new ways to see old things. Blues and grays can overwhelm, but their infinite shades and gradations challenge even the best artists to replicate with any degree of authenticity. Pines, spruces, firs, and cedars become minor celebrities for a time, soon to yield again to every manner of flower. Snow is ubiquitous, obscuring much of what we know under its nurturing torpescence. But even snow yields visual treasures on occasion; sun, wind, and warmth give it countless ephemeral forms that beg us to go, to find.

Continue reading “2017-18 Ice Fishing Retrospective: Winter Colors and Textures”

A Lifetime of Firsts

What makes the most memorable moments in our lives, the landmarks that will never be forgotten? The scrapbook in my mind naturally opens itself to the pages where the highlights are, to the stories that are told most often, and to the mental snapshots that were forever burned into place. Sometimes those are the big things, sometimes they are the traumatic things, but quite often, they are the “firsts:” first date, first week away at camp, first job, first apartment.

As hunters, we are known to celebrate all the big firsts: first hunt, first deer, and so on. One such memory for me is the day I killed my first duck. Continue reading “A Lifetime of Firsts”