Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gunflint Trail Bound Again

It has now been almost exactly a year since I concluded one of the best summers of my life. Last summer I spent my summer working at Tuscarora Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail of the Boundary Waters. I can't tell you the number of times I wish I had done this earlier during my college years....but despite the thought always being in my head I never went for it. Then as my last summer of Grad School approached I decided it was now or never. I remember thinking I was a bit crazy and reckless. My previous two summers I had shunned the idea of an internship or a more professional summer job in order spend one summer backpacking across Europe and the other to live in Fez, Morocco to study Arabic. While both were great life experiences I constantly was worried that upon my graduation the professional word would look at my resume and see someone who never did the traditional summer slave work of an intern and thus was not the person they would want for any job. Yet despite these fears I decided to apply for to work at a BWCA outfitter for the summer of 2011 a job that generally is focused on such enthralling activities as scrubbing cook-kits, tents, and canoes for hours on end.

Me at Tuscarora Lake
The decision brought me four months of adventure in which I spent nearly all of my spare time exploring large sections of the BWCA wilderness along the Gunflint Trail. With only one day off a week from work, I learned to travel light and was able to cover 20-30 miles in the span of 24-36 hours in order to maximize my exploration. Furthermore the vast majority of my trips into the wilderness I did solo. While I was not opposed to having friends come along, few of my co-workers were interested in covering the long distances I often did on a "day off". The result is that I explored the wilderness by myself and had long periods of time to reflect about everything from God, to my life choices thus far, and where I saw my future leading me personally and professionally. While I cannot say I found all the answers out there, the peace and solitude combined with the natural beauty of the wilderness provided me with a unparalleled location for my wandering mind. 

Pristine Wilderness of the BWCA (Fente Lake)
Working on the Gunflint provided other great opportunities as well. Meeting new clients and hearing about their trips provided me with a wealth of information about the area (and too often how not to travel in it...). After work there were constant opportunities to fish, swim, go wild blueberry picking, and go to bonfires with the other workers on the trail. The friendships I made that summer are another element of my experience that I will treasure for many years to come. 

Looking back now its hard to believe how far I have come in just 12 months. Just a year ago I was leaving the BWCA with a massive amount of anxiety. I was entering my final semester of grad school, taking out new student loans, and in January I would enter an economy that in terms of jobs was possibly in its worst condition since the  1930s. To be honest I did not want to leave the BWCA at all. If I could of had my wish at the time I just would of kept living there and enjoyed the natural simplicity that the wilderness lifestyle provided. That being said I have always been one who does not run away from life and always intends to finish what I started. Thus when fall came I returned to the East Coast and my studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Before I knew it, it was already December and I had my MA in my hand and the prospect of finding a job ahead of me. After a quick two week trip home (which included a winter visit to the BWCA) I was back in DC determined to push forward but at the same time prepared for what I expected would be a lengthy job search and potentially difficult period financially. To my surprise within a week of arriving back in DC I had multiple interviews scheduled and other potential leads developing quickly. A week later I had received and accepted a job offer to work as a Research Analyst for Capital Trade Inc. 

Now seven months on I am still enjoying my job (despite the crazy hours at times) and counting my blessings. Not least of which was the chance to spend my final student summer in the BWCA.While internships and professional jobs can be great assets, I have to admit that experiences such as backpacking Europe, living abroad in foreign countries, and testing yourself in the wilderness make for great interview question responses (in the right context of course). No doubt my academic positions, training, grades, and awards were more responsible for my job search success, but I have no doubt it was who I was as an individual that made me stand out as a candidate. 

Sunset over Little Saganaga Lake
Next week I will return to the BWCA and go on a four day trip with my Mother. While I rue the fact that the trip must be so short in comparison to an entire summer there, it only goes to highlight the changes that have occurred in my life in the interim. No doubt on this trip I will once again find solitude (as well as family this time) in which to contemplate many things about life and my future, as always the natural beauty of the BWCA will likely serve to inspire and provoke deep thoughts. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Appalachian Trail - Harper's Ferry

So today I decided to take a break before my next round of finals and go to Harper's Ferry in West Virginia to check out the Appalachian Trail! As someone who has spent a lot of time in the Wilderness of Northern Minnesota the Appalachian Trail had always interested me, so I decided there was not time like the present to go check it out.

Obviously the Appalachian Trail is probably most famous for the infamous attempts at "Through hiking" it. Meaning hiking the 2,100+ miles from Georgia to Main all at once. Doing so takes between 4-6 months and only about 25% of those who start it manage to successfully finish it.

As I just had one day I did what many other people do which is go to one of the many trail heads and do a day hike on the Appalachian Trail. So I headed to Harper's Ferry which is only about 60 miles from DC. Harper's Ferry is a neat area because in addition to being in the Appalachians it is also the location of the intersection of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers.

I hiked North on the trail up to the Weverton Cliffs which overlook Harper's Ferry and the two rivers there. While the area was quite scenic I must admit that it was a bit "busier" than I would have preferred. The Cliffs had a nice overview of the rivers, mountains, and the surrounding areas but also of a major highway and railway which were constantly busy. Also there were a lot of people out on the trail, a function no doubt of the fact that it was 50 degrees and sunny out in December! 
Weverton Cliffs
Hiking down the Appalachian Trail
After enjoying the cliffs I decided to hike further North along the trail to get a bit further away from everything. As I went further along the trail I ran into fewer people and the noise of civilization dissipated. Later down the trail I discovered one of the many shelters that exist along the trail. Apparently they build and maintain actual backwoods structures or cabins for people to camp in. I thought this a bit over the top based on my time in the BWCA (which is 100% traditional tent camping) but at the same time having a more sturdy structure to stay in from time to time I imagine could be nice. When I got to the structure it was already claimed for the night with a number of tents already sent up nearby (I guess there is no 9 person maximum rule here).

Shelter on the Appalachian Trail
Back at the Weverton Cliffs for Sunset
I imagine that like most wilderness places the Appalachian Trail would be best if you had several days that way you could get away from the more populated areas and day hikers (like me!) and thereby find more solitude. While this section of the trail might not exactly be what I am used to in Northern Minnesota or the BWCA it still was really nice to get outside and hiking on a warm sunny day in December before getting back to hitting the books once again for finals!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pagami Creek Fire

Earlier this summer I blogged about a small fire in the BWCA not too far from Tuscarora Outfitters. Ultimately not much came of the fire as it stayed small and eventually went out. Well since I left Tuscarora a new fire started in the BWCA and has grown to somewhat staggering proportions. In one day alone it more then doubled in size from 4,500 acres to 11,000 acres and is very much still burning and growing thanks to generally dry conditions and plentiful wind in the area. Whats more the fire has been large enough that people not only can smell (and be bothered by) the smoke in most of the BWCA but also as far south as the Twin Cities!

While the fire is a fair distance away from Tuscarora Outfitters (around 35 miles away) its affects are more then visible. Below are several pictures taken by Rachel Swenson, a co-worker of mine from Tuscarora. Needless to say the pictures are quite impressive.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Working in the BWCA: A Summer in Review

This past summer while working at Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters I cannot tell you the number of times I was talking to clients and had them tell me how lucky I was to spend my summer living on the Gunflint Trail on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Often Clients will admit wishing they had done something similar when they were younger and/or tell their children that they should consider working on the trail when they are old enough.

In response to these types of comments and my desire to simply give a final blog summing up my experience working in the BWCA I have decided to write a type of review of my summer job. I hope it proves to be both interesting to those simply curious what a summer working up north entails and informative for those who might be interested in doing it themselves in the future!

BWCA Location & Employer – The first major decision I (or anyone) had to make before the summer was deciding where to work. As the BWCA is a large Area one can work in a number of different locations ranging from Ely, to the Sawbill Trail, to the Gunflint Trail. I choose the Gunflint Trail as it is more remote and less touristy then the Ely side. This is not to say that Ely would not be a fun place to work, but the culture and experience would be extremely different given the presence of a larger town (at least in comparison to Grand Marias), for example many of the outfitters in Ely expect you to live in Town as opposed to on site. For me the Gunflint Trail provided a more unique and genuine Northwoods experience for the summer.

Beginning of the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais Minnesota

Another big thing to think about is who you work for? Do you want to work for an outfitter, a camp, the DNR, a resort, or somewhere else? Each place has its own kind of culture and different work that you will be doing. Also as you will be living there all summer, think carefully about the owners and your potential co-workers as you will be with them 24 I worked for an outfitter because it allowed me to work with people speifically interested in doing BWCA trips and because it gave me great access and supplies for doing my own BWCA trips throughout the summer. If you want to be in the BWCA guiding trips most of the summer, a camp (such as wilderness canoe base or one of the YMCA camps) would probably be a better option. The downside to guiding or working at a camp is that you are always doing someone else's trip, as opposed to going on your own trips. Working for the DNR also can get you into the BWCA a decent amount doing campsite and portage maintenance. Resorts have a different sort of feel as you do more cleaning, restaurant service, and other more general summer job tasks.

Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters Logo

Outfitter Work Duties – There are two major positions at many of the outfitters, housekeeping and outfitting. As one might expect housekeepers tend to spend most of their cleaning bunkhouses, cabins, showers, bathrooms, and other facilities around camp. Outfitters on the other hand spend most of their time scrubbing and cleaning outfitting gear such as canoes, Duluth packs, cook kits, tents, life jackets, sleeping pads, tarps, and much more. Regardless of whether you are a housekeeper or an outfitter the truth of the matter is most of your time at work is spent cleaning or scrubbing something, any allusions of these being easy jobs where one spends most of their time in BWCA canoeing or simply chatting with customers are misplaced.

Raking and cutting down trees as a part of general camp maintenance (also notice the black flies get so bad that it is even necessary to resort to head nets at times!)

All that said while these can be physically tiring jobs, they are more than doable and the staffs are often filled with college and graduate aged students that are a lot of fun to work with. Furthermore Outfitters do have several jobs which are quite enjoyable, specifically shuttling clients to the different entry points along the gunflint trail and tow boat driving on Lake Saganaga. Once again though these jobs make up only a minority of the work we do throughout the summer.

Getting ready to go on a Tow to American Point

A final comment relating to jobs, at most of the outfitters and lodges it tends to be (but is not always the case) that outfitting staffs are made up of men while women make up most of the housekeeping staffs. This is what it is (whether it is sexist or simply occurs due to the nature of the work I will leave for others to decide).

Social Life – When work finishes for the day (for me this was normally at around 3:00 pm) there is always plenty to do. Fishing, swimming, tanning, and afternoon day trips in the BWCA are just some of the things we did after work. In addition every week the majority of the staffs on the gunflint trail meet up for different social events. Every Saturday evening we had bonfires at Seagull Lake’s Blakenburg Landing while Tuesday evenings were normally spent at a local establishment (this past year we normally went to Hungry Jack Lodge) enjoying a few drinks while playing pool, darts, and other games. It was also common for people to meet up to play volleyball and Ultimate Frisbee most weeks throughout the summer.

Staff members from all over the Gunflint Trail at Bearskin Lodge

In addition weekly social activities a number of larger events occur throughout the summer on the Gunflint Trail and in Grand Marais. The 4th of July and Fisherman’s Picnic (a local festival) provide great chances to go into Grand Marais to enjoy, among other things, good food, games, parades, and fireworks. The other major event of the summer is the Gunflint Canoe Races in which all the different outfitting staffs (and some adventurous tourists) compete in a number of canoeing races ranging from long distance paddling to gunnel pumping.

Gunflint Canoe Races at Gunflint Lodge in mid July

Needless to say a summer on the gunflint trail, while away from civilization is still full of fun social activities.

Days off – Days off if spent right will be the highlight of your summer. This is your chance to explore the BWCA. While many places only give their employees one day off a week it is possible to stretch them and make them count. One option is to “bank” days off and then take several days off in a row for a longer trip. Another option is to ask for a late start the day after your day off in order to increase your trip another night. Otherwise many people choose to simply leave after work the day before their day off and spend one night and the following day in the BWCA. No matter how you want to do it, if you are motivated and able bodied it is possible for you to see a large portion of the BWCA. While clients and guests may only do 5-10 miles a day on trips, it is more than possible to do 20-30 miles of canoeing and portaging in a 24-36 hour period and see large sections of the BWCA.

On top of the Seagull Palisades during a trip on a day off

All that said some prefer to take it easy on their days off in which case there are tons of nice easy day trips in the BWCA, places to go fishing, hiking, swimming, or the possibility to go do to Grand Marais for the day.

Canoeing Seagull Lake

Compensation – From time to time people do ask what you make working in the BWCA. My normal response is that I did not come up here for the summer to get rich but I do not think you do that bad either, especially once you consider the other benefits you get. Specifically free food and lodging are two huge benefits that save you tons of money. Not all employers offer these so make sure to check when talking about compensation. Also it is worth know what the housing situation is as the quality of staff housing also varies from place to place. At some employers you may have a roommate while at others you may have a ton of space to yourself. A final major benefit most outfitters provide their employees is permission to use any of their gear free of charge (canoes, Duluth packs, cook kits, water filters…etc.). Once you consider all these extra benefits that you receive when you work at an outfitter, plus what you are actually getting paid I personally think it is more then a fair deal.

The guys dorm at Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters

My room (you do not have roommates at Tuscarora), while nothing spectacular it was more then enough for me as I spent most my time outside doing other things (such as swimming, fishing, hiking, canoeing etc...)

From my perspective working on the Gunflint Trail on the edge of the BWCA is a great job and life experience. If you are willing to put up with some hard and sometimes monotonous work and are not focused solely on making tons of money, working in the BWCA provides you a great opportunity to meet some great people and have an amazing experience exploring the BWCA. If you have any questions about working at Tuscarora or at an Outfitter in general please feel free to contact me (

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Two Final Adventures

The end of my Summer at Tuscarora turned into quite the whirlwind. After helping the Ahrendt family move down to Stillwater Minnesota (Sue Ahrent is working as a professor of Math Education this winter at Wisconsin River Falls), I had earned several extra days off for all the overtime work I had done. So naturally I was planning to use the extra time off to do something really adventurous such as potentially canoeing to Ely and back solo! But it was not to be as during my last week at Tuscarora my Grandmother passed away. The extra time off proved helpful as it allowed me to leave early to go to her funeral while still fulfilling my full work commitment to Tuscarora, and to be honest it was really nice to have some extra time to spend with all my family and friends before I headed out to DC for classes the following week.

So while there was not final great adventure during my last week of the summer I did do two other trips in August that I have failed to blog about previously. The first was a solo canoe trip from Poplar Lake to Round Lake and the other was doing the Caribou Rock Hiking Trail which goes from the trail center area of the Gunflint Trail all the way out to Rose Lake and Stairway Falls.

My trip from Poplar Lake to Round Lake is one of the more common routes we sent clients on throughout the summer, so it was fun to finally do the route and get to see the area for myself! Below is a map of my route and some pictures from my trip. Enjoy!

My Route: 25 Miles. I started from Poplar Lake and went to Otto Lake the first night where I camped. The second day I went to Long Island Lake where I stopped early in the day to relax and make camp (and get out of the huge headwinds). The final morning (I had a late start for work that day) I got up and canoed back to Round Lake.

On my first portage, a 300 rod portage from Poplar to Meeds Lake, I came across another trail, the Banadad Ski Trail! A couple winters ago my brother and I XC skied this entire trail which is over 30 km long.

Canoeing into the sunset to make it to Otto Lake the first night

Me after a portage

Campsite on Long Island Lake

A small northern I caught on the trip

The full moon rises over Long Island Lake

My final morning and sunrise of the summer in the BWCA

My last day off (I did not realize that it would be at the time) I did not end up going on a trip into the BWCA as I was a bit exhausted from both work and from all the long trips I had done. So instead I stayed in camp and slept in on my day off. Not wanting to waste the day though I went down towards trail center and hiked the Caribou Rock Trail. Round trip the hiking trail is about 7 miles long, in addition it goes up and down some huge ravines so it is definitely a more challenging hiking trail. The other interesting thing about this trail for me is the fact that I actually went on a BWCA trip years ago with my Church to Rose Lake to see Stairway Falls. The funny thing is we spent 4 days going out to Rose and back and never saw the falls, now in one afternoon I managed to make it all the way to the falls and back. I guess I am just a bit more fast (and efficient) then we were back then.

The Hiking Trail (approximately) round trip way 7 miles

Bearskin Lake

Duncan Lake

Stairway Falls

Me at Stairway Falls