The big question

wilderness-news-cover-spring-2013New mining proposals near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are a complex problem. Big enough for 2,800 words and still not covering all the issues.

I did my best to provide a comprehensive status report on the issue for the spring 2013 issue of Wilderness News, published by the Quetico-Superior Foundation.

The Twin Metals copper mine proposal has been described by supporters as an “underground city,” a “juggernaut,” a “monster deposit,” and possibly the “largest mine in Minnesota history.” Opponents talk about the short-term proposed gains versus the long-term environmental damage of the mine; mining’s history of “boom, then bust” in Minnesota; and ask what, if any, price should be put on preserving our state’s largest and most beloved natural area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Continue reading (PDF) »


Not your typical hero

Cross-posted at my Star Tribune blog.

Wild Bill Cooper
Wild Bill Cooper

Sir Ernest Shackleton is widely studied for courage and leadership. He led his crew of sailors to safety over a two year journey when their ship was stranded on the Antarctica ice in 1915. The story was immortalized in Alfred Lansing’s book Endurance.

Wild Bill Cooper of northern Minnesota has not received such attention. He led a snowmobile expedition in 1972 which was supposed to travel from Minnesota to Moscow and back via Siberia and Russia. They didn’t make it, but did get to Greenland eventually.

Then Cooper turned to drug smuggling and ultimately disappeared off the face of the Earth.

The anti-Shackleton

Duluth filmmaker Mike Scholtz has immortalized the man and the trip in a new documentary, Wild Bill’s Run. Wild Bill is the anti-Shackleton, and Wild Bill’s Run the anti-Endurance. There are no heroics here, but there is plenty of adventure.

The film has gained accolades since it was released — it’s currently on tour with the prestigiousBanff Mountain Film Festival, and I finally saw it when it was shown on Outside magazine’s websiteyesterday. A paean to the ‘70s, Minnesotans, outlaws and an adventurous spirit, it glows with glorious 16mm film footage, paired with wry interviews with some of the surviving members of the expeditions, and Cooper’s family.

Cooper was not one to play by many rules. The expedition starts with his handgun being confiscated when the group crossed through customs into Canada. They more or less steal fuel at one point, and get in trouble when they enter Greenland without any permits.

Cooper lives?

Flying marijuana from Mexico to Minnesota was lucrative work and Cooper allegedly had 17 planes in the “Marijuana Air Force” the FBI says he operated. And then he disappeared. The most likely explanation is that he was killed over drugs or money, but that hasn’t stopped other explanations, including that he is still out there somewhere.

The chance that the fame-loving Cooper might just show up at a screening of the film about himself should be enough reason to go see it when you can. But the more reliable reason is that it’s a funny tale of adventure and intrigue and wilderness, Cooper every bit a character from the Nixon era as Shackleton was a contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt.

Watch the trailer:


The courage to fail

Cross-posted at my Star Tribune blog.

Mount Denali, photo by Timothy Whipley
Mount Denali, photo by Timothy Whipley

Shoveling one’s driveway falls somewhere between a walk in the woods and washing the dishes on the spectrum of good times to do some thinking. Two items danced in my mind as I worked at mine after yesterday’s snow: An interview with Twin Cities people person Lars Leafblad and the news that Grand Marais explorer Lonnie Dupre called off his attempt to summit Mount Denali in Alaska.

Leafblad will soon start a new position directing the Bush Foundation’s leadership efforts. I admire those who lead and who study and teach leadership but, as a writer, usually prefer the role of observer to protagonist. Dupre has tried for the past three winters to be the first person to climb the tallest mountain in North America alone in the month of January. As much as I like a good hike, I am also not a mountain-climber.

But, when shoveling, we are all philosophers of any subject we wish to ponder.

One cup courage to fail

As I cleared a couple inches of snow off my driveway, and cursed the treacherous crust of ice beneath it, I thought about the definition of leadership discussed in Leafblad’s interview. He essentially said that part of his role at the Bush Foundation will be to develop courage to fail in our state’s leaders.

Dupre’s repeated failures to achieve his goal on Mount Denali in Alaska entered my mind at this point. I thought of how a man who wanted to climb a giant mountain alone could exemplify leadership. I also thought about why the obscure “first” which Lupre seems so determined to claim was worth the extraordinary effort he has put into it.

It’s probably because there are not many firsts still out there. The tallest mountains have been climbed, the moon visited, the oceans crossed. Dupre has had to seek out one of the greatest physical challenges which remains in order to make his mark on history.

Of course, that’s not to say challenge doesn’t exist in our world. Despite all our modern conveniences, anybody who has tried to succeed in business, pass legislation, or start a family can tell you it is not easy. I have attempted all three in the past five years and I can tell you no gadgets, websites or other technology will remove the obstacles. But you have to persist, despite the inevitable failures and setbacks.

Whether you want to lead or just live well, I think you need the courage to risk failure. The resilience to risk following your dreams over and over again. We must return to the mountain January after January.

Add a pinch of wisdom

The value of courage should not overshadow the necessity of using our brains. I was impressed by the intelligence Dupre exhibited to make the difficult decision to abandon this attempt.

He figured he could make it to the summit — achieve that goal he has chased for years now — but the previous night he had struggled to stay warm because the snow at his 17,200-foot campsite was too hard to make a good snow cave. He had not gotten much rest in the -35 degree temperatures inside his shallow cave.

Dupre knew that if he made it to the summit, he would need to rest in this cave again on his way down, and that such rest would not come with the poor conditions. And he knew that making it to the top of the mountain is one thing — making it back down again is the real accomplishment.

So he turned back.

Recipe for success

Anyone who knows me knows I enjoy being comfortable. I like my close group of friends, my well-known professional network, my well-worn hiking boots (and well-worn slippers), my home and even my favorite chair. I write about canoeing or hiking or fishing, definitely not leadership and mountain climbing.

But sometimes you have to take a leap. I did it recently when I stepped away from a cause I care deeply about and people I felt lucky to work with to pursue new work as a freelancer and a new calling as a father.

It felt like I had climbed to the top of another steep hill in life, and rather than stopping to enjoy the view, jumped off the cliff on the other side.

We won’t get anywhere in our communities, our state and our country if we don’t take big leaps — we must accept risk, welcome new ideas, admit when we are wrong, and of course use our brains.

As I discovered yesterday, we also won’t get our driveways shoveled if we stand around thinking all day.


Writing about reading

Lighthouse Road cover

I recently unleashed my inner English major as I reviewed a new novel set on Minnesota’s North Shore a century ago, Peter Geye’s “The Lighthouse Road.” The book would a good read for anyone who loves Lake Superior and its history.

The review was published on the Minneapolis literary website, Mill City Bibliophile:

Fate and the Lake: Seven Ideas about “The Lighthouse Road”

I: Odd Rex

Fate and free will have been debated since the ancient Greeks believed that oracles, channeling the gods, could foretell our lives. Oedipus would kill his own father and sleep with his own mother, no matter the actions of lowly humans. His parents heard the news and abandoned the child to die, but Oedipus clawed his way back. His exertions to avoid his own fate – and those of his parents – led him directly to that which the oracle promised.

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (which I’ve massacred through summary) came to mind while reading The Lighthouse Road, Peter Geye’s newly published novel of northern Minnesota. Here, the biggest forces of fate have nothing to do with men or gods. Instead, at these northern latitudes, the seasons dictate our lives. They rule what we eat, what we wear, what we do. There is a time for fishing and a time for mending nets, for blueberries and for root vegetables, for snowshoes and canoes.

Odd Thiede, the orphaned protagonist forever searching for shelter from the storm, is subject to a profoundly Earth-bound destiny. His fate is specifically the harsh seasons of Lake Superior’s North Shore – not the gods’ will but the natural world’s ambivalence, the relentless cycles of the Earth. To take your boat out for its maiden voyage on the big lake during November (the month of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald) is not to challenge the gods but to merely gamble your own life, weighing the chance of a storm against the chance for a future and a family. The odds of this bet are not made by any bookie, but by the wind and the water and love. It is not an affront to god, but to one’s own instinct for self-preservation.

Continue reading…


Stories of solitude and silence

Firegrate Review cover

In every creative writing class I’ve ever taken, it has been stressed that you must be specific when you write — include details. The instruction is often misinterpreted as to include all the details, or as many as possible.

The writer’s work is to choose the details that tell the story. This idea and others are discussed in the introduction I recently wrote for The Firegrate Review, Volume 2, what you might call a Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness/Greg Seitz production:

Details from the Trail

In my introduction to Volume 1 of The Firegrate Review, I wrote that “every canoe trip is a story.” That held true for me in 2011, as I managed to paddle into Lake Insula just as the Pagami Creek Fire was set to explode into the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of Minnesota.

My friend Stephen Wilbers, who has shared excerpts from his latest Boundary Waters book in this publication, told me recently that he could not have written his books without keeping a detailed journal of every trip he has taken to the wilderness over the past several decades. It made me think about how I can recall each trip I have been on, but it usually just one or two highlights: A night at a terrific campsite, a day with a bad headwind, a moose or the northern lights or a long, hard portage. I have to consult my own logs to remember the minutia.

A good story is about the details, and that is why Stephen’s journals are essential to his books. If you read his work, you inevitably feel like you were there with him, his dad, his son and the other companions that joined him in the wilderness. That is because he includes details like breaking a fishing rod, a conversation around the campfire, a solo paddle after dinner on a perfectly still lake.

Even though my experience with the Pagami Creek Fire is a story I will probably tell for the rest of my life, I hold fast to parts of that trip that had nothing to do with the fire.

One afternoon while we were camped on Insula, there was not a breath of wind, the water was perfectly calm, and the air was hazy with smoke from the fire, which was several miles away. A quarter-mile across the lake, a group of young men landed their canoe on an island and took turns jumping off a 15-foot cliff into the water.

We watched them from our campsite, and we would see the splash when they hit the water, but only a second later would we hear it. That sense of the empty expanse of water between us and the island was powerful – it amplified the vastness of the wilderness we were in, and how empty it was of humans.

Continue reading here.

Buy The Firegrate Review here.