It was Saturday morning, February 1, 2003. The phone rang in our office and a Scoutmaster introduced himself. “Hi, my name is Mike Fossum, with Troop 1598 in Houston, and I need to make a reservation for a canoe trip in July. I’ve kept meaning to call … but now I have to get this done this morning as I will be very busy over the next couple of weeks. I just lost seven friends this morning, and all of us at NASA will have a lot of work to do.”
That was the morning the Space Shuttle Columbia tragically broke-up during reentry. That was the morning Troop 1598 began their link to the Boundary Waters through North Country. And that was also the morning a long friendship began with NASA Astronaut Mike Fossum.
Since 2003 the troop has paddled three more times through Quetico Park, which Mike refers to as “his second favorite destination”. We have always found time to barrage each other with questions and, as he once put it, “live our lives vicariously through each other’s occupations”
LAST NIGHT ON THE TRAIL
by Mike Fossum, SM Troop 1598 Four-time trip leader with North Country
As a youth, I enjoyed BSA’s high adventure programs as the ultimate adventures where we had the opportunity to use all of the skills we learned in weekly programs, monthly campouts, and more benign summer camps. As a Scoutmaster, it has been my joy to share my love of our wild places – away from electronics and the other honestly less-important clutter of life – with my Scouts.
While I love Philmont and the satisfaction of looking south into the ridgelines and dark canyons we traversed on the long trail to the top of Baldy, I must confess my absolute favorite are long treks into the quiet reaches of the Boundary Waters which straddle the Minnesota/Ontario border. There are other options, but we always start in Ely, MN, and cross into Quetico Provincial Park, Canada, via Prairie Portage. We have paddled a few hours by that point, but the waters (of the Moose Lake Chain of lakes) are full of other crews in canoes and even motor boats.
We always pause briefly on the shore in Canada, looking north before we start paddling. My speech is always about the same: “We are in this together with nothing but the gear in our canoes, our outdoor skills, the brains God gave us, and each other. We will be challenged, and we will work hard and smart. We will be careful and we will howl back at the storms. We are a crew – this is our family for the next 10 days.”
After you start pressing into Canadian waters, the crowd thins dramatically, and there are no motor boats. For the first two days in Canada, you do see other crews on the water and you don’t want to wait too long to find a campsite. As you press further, it becomes rare to see another crew and you get the full experience of sharing the pristine wilderness with bald eagles, beaver, moose, and maybe – if you’re lucky – a pair of playful otters.
I used to think the main reason we don’t see more crews deep in the wilderness area because everyone had simply spread out after the entry point. After many short conversations with other leaders on portage trails, I realized a large percentage of them had only allowed for a short 5-day trip on the water, so they could accomplish everything in a week and get back to work. Wow. I know a short trip is better than no trip at all, but I can’t imagine going to all the trouble of getting up there and trying to rush through the experience. I love getting away from the other crews to fishing on lakes where they have never seen a lure before, laying on a warm rock after a quick swim listening the call of an eagle, lifting canoes carefully over a beaver dam, and sitting up late at night hoping for another display of the northern lights overhead.
After five trips into this exquisite part of God’s creation, I have shared a host of life-long memories with my Scouts. We have paddled on fog-draped, glass-smooth waters early in the morning, and fought wind and whitecaps on angry waters in the late afternoon. We have portaged on the wrong trail and ended up in the wrong lake on the other side. We have marveled at floating bogs and feasted on walleye, pike, and bass.
My loving wife sometimes wonders if I will ever hang up my paddle, since our children are now all grown, but an experience a couple of summers ago solidified why it’s worth the time and trouble. It was our 9th day on the water and all we had remaining was our last night of camping, two fairly easy portages, and a few hours of paddling before we could rejoice in hot showers and a nice meal. We had pushed hard that day, so we had our campsite set up on a big island in time for lunch and a relaxing afternoon. Most of the guys decided to take their canoes out to practice swamping and deep-water recoveries.
As their joyous laughter echoed across the lake, I realized one of the boys, Tomas, had not joined the others. Instead, he was sitting away from our campsite on a shady rock looking out across the lake with a quiet smile on his face. Tomas was a polite young man who was raised by a hard-working single mother and was a few months from his 18th birthday and Eagle. He had never met his father. I knew Tomas desperately wanted to be on this trip and had gotten a job over a year ahead of time to help pay his own way.
I quietly took a seat near Tomas, and asked, “Hey, Tomas! What are you over here thinking about?” He started slow, “This is our last day on the water and I just wanted to sit here to let it all sink in.” He nodded a little to himself, scanned left and right, then took in a deep breath of fresh, pine-filled air and exhaled slowly.
Then he turned to look at me and continued, “You know, this trip is why I joined Boy Scouts. When my cousin came back from his trip when I was little and I heard his stories, I thought this sounded like the coolest possible thing in the world. I decided right then, that whatever this scout stuff was, well, I wanted to be part of it because I’m going canoeing in Canada! How many years ago was that? I don’t remember. But I’m right here, right now, and I’m doing it, too!”
As I got up to leave Tomas in his peace, I used one of my favorite lines from the ending of Jeremiah Johnson, an old movie we had watched on the drive from Houston to Ely, “Well Tomas, were it worth the trouble?” He nodded his head as he replied, “Oh yeah – definitely! Thanks for making this happen, Mr. Fossum.”
That exchange on a warm, beautiful island in paradise, with tensions caused by electronic distractions all forgotten, and the simple pleasure of seeing a young man with the odds stacked against him smiling in satisfaction of achieving his dream, will stay with me forever.
Tomas hadn’t seen the movie enough times to know the line in response to my question. In the movie, Bear Claw Chris Lapp asks, “Were it worth the trouble?” To which Jeremiah Johnson gives a grunt and replies, “What trouble?”
As Scout Leaders, the question for us at the end of a once-in-a lifetime adventure for the youth we lead is still, “Were it worth the trouble?”
Reality isn’t as clean as an old movie about mountain men, so the answer doesn’t come as quickly. We have jobs, aging knees, families, training requirements, bosses, bills to pay, and any number of reasons to be jealous of our time and treasure.
Again, “Were it worth the trouble?”
To Tomas I say, “What trouble?”