Documenting The Journey Of A Man On A Quest For Mindfulness, Peace, and Joy

Category: Sustainability

On Sabbatical – Week 23: The Fox and the Owl

When the kids and I camped at Itasca State Park a few weeks back, we had met and made friends with a family named The Coldwater’s. This is the family I mentioned on the Week 16 post, who built their own homestead and live off the grid. I knew they lived up around Minnesota’s North Shore somewhere, so when the plan came together for my friends and I to head that way for a camping trip (Week 22), I reached out and asked if they would be willing for my traveling party to make a brief visit on our way back to the Twin Cities, so we (I, really) could see their place and perhaps even offer some assistance as they prepare for winter. To my great pleasure, they said, “Yes!”

To my chagrin, however, when the time came on Sunday, my traveling companions were not interested in the detour. I could hardly blame them. They had lives and families to get back to. We had hiked about 12 miles the day before; energy stores were not full. They didn’t know these people. So, we sped by the turnoff to their homestead and made our way back to the city.

But as this Week 23 began, I couldn’t shake the feeling like I had just missed out on a golden opportunity. Ever since I discovered the television show Alone, I have had a growing fascination with people who are able to live off the land. Of course, that television show is a contest and doesn’t reflect actual reality, but many of the participants on that show do, in their everyday lives, live on self-made homesteads in which they’ve built and constructed various parts of their shelter and living situation (garages, sheds, workshops, gardens, wells…). I’ve watched many of their homemade videos on YouTube teaching various skills and giving tours of their lifestyles (Woniya Thibeault’s channel Buckskin Revolution is one of my favorites). I don’t envision myself living completely off the grid in my future, but I do have a great admiration for the connection homesteaders have with nature, with food, and with the resources in their immediate vicinities.

And so, when I had finally met some people who live this way, and I was going to be very near their home, and they had agreed to allow me to visit and see firsthand what it’s really like to live without power or running water year-round, it did feel like a golden opportunity for me to learn, to have a much richer learning experience than watching a screen or reading a book. I sensed that a first-hand experience like this would help shape my future thinking and planning, to help bring into focus what my ideal lifestyle design really is. How much comfort do I really want to live with? How much am I willing to trade convenience for connection to nature? Do I really want to work my butt off every day so that I can live off grid and subsist off the land as much as possible? I can theorize about this stuff all day long, but getting out there and actually visiting some homesteads and community-oriented neighborhoods will help bring that thinking into focus.

When I arrived home from the camping trip with the boys, and I found myself wishing I had more fervently insisted we take the detour, I asked myself, “What can I control in this situation?” After sitting with this question for a few days, on Wednesday I checked the weather forecast, and the forecast for the upcoming weekend, the Saturday and Sunday of this Week 23, still looked amazingly nice. I all of a sudden got a jolt of excitement, and I lobbed out a prayer and asked the Coldwater’s if they would be open to my entire family coming their way in the upcoming weekend (leaving the duration of the visit completely up to them). 

The next 36 hours was a total roller coaster of sporadic text conversations back and forth: when would we arrive, what would we need to pack, how does your family approach food, it’s a busy season for them to prepare for winter so perhaps it won’t work, but actually having some kids around for their kid to play with might be nice, and so on. There weren’t any firm commitments made one way or the other.

It was Thursday evening, the night before we’d theoretically be leaving for a 4-hour drive north to visit a place we’d never seen, and we still didn’t know for sure if we’d be going or not. We definitely hadn’t packed a thing. It was a little nerve-wracking, the not knowing our plans for the next day, but I was thankful that both Kristyn and I were just taking it moment by moment, confident that the chips would fall just as they should.

(Ironically, we were actually watching Alone: Frozen Episode 7 as this conversation was transpiring. SPOILER ALERT – in that episode, Woniya successfully traps a fox, which was really cool to witness. She was always one our favorite participants, and to see her succeed in that way, by trapping one of the more cunning animals in the wild, was my personal highlight of that entire season.)

The fox Woniya caught on “Alone: Frozen”
Photo Credit: History Channel

Just as we finished watching, we finally reached a decision about the weekend – we would not be making the trip the next day. Their child was not feeling so well, and we agreed it wouldn’t be best to mix questionable germs. So, while it was a little disappointing to go through this flurry of excitement at the prospect of having a fun, spontaneous family adventure into the wilderness, all to be squashed within a matter of 36 hours or so, it was nice to go to bed that night with a definitive knowing of what our plans would be for the weekend. 

Here’s the kicker. The next morning, Friday, I drove the kids to school, like usual. On the drive home, I entered our cul de sac around 7:50am, and as I rounded the turn bringing our house into view, walking across the street directly in front of me was a red fox. It trotted across the street and straight into my front yard, and then it carried on into the woods beyond. I was stunned into stillness. I had already put my car in park and turned it off right there in the middle of the road. Then I just sat. What a moment! Not 12 hours earlier I had watched my favorite Alone participant trap a fox, and now one was traipsing through my yard at the precise moment I happened to be outside in the right location to witness it. Plus, at any point in the last few years, if you had asked me what my spirit animal is, I would have replied, “the red fox.” It’s the animal I think I would be if a wizard turned me into my animal form.

This was most definitely a sign. But, a sign of what? Instantly it came to me; this was a sign that I have plenty of awesome stuff right here, right where I am. I don’t need to go anywhere. Everything I need is right here. It’s a truth I know to be true, but I often need reminders of things I already “know.” 

Immediately after this, I got a strong intuitive hit that I needed to go for a hike (hence the featured imagine on this week’s post). It felt right to spend more time outside, right now. No AirPods, no Apple Watch, no Strava mile-tracking. Just go be outside and walk.

Within two minutes of starting out on that unplanned hike, I encountered a huge barred owl. I love wildlife encounters, and this one felt extra special. Owls aren’t something I see every day, and they’ve always seemed to be one of the more interesting birds. And there it was, staring me down as I gazed up at it from the hiking trail. This experience was another huge affirmation that I was in the right place, exactly where I was supposed to be, with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but to be right here, right now. 

I hope I carry this moment forward and remember it the next time I’m feeling like I want to be somewhere other than here. 

Barred owl having a staring contest with me

On Sabbatical – Week 22: Camping With The Boys & Voluntary Suffering

Five weeks ago, the idea of an October camping trip to Minnesota’s North Shore was born in a driveway during a kid’s birthday party. This week, the idea became reality. 

Our destination: Cascade River State Park, near Lutsen, MN, a mere hour-long drive from the Canadian border. I reserved a hike-in campsite for myself and three friends at this state park, and after calling the park to inquire about the available sites, I chose “BP2” (Backpack 2), which is situated on top of Moose Mountain. 

Our home for the weekend

There are advantages and disadvantages to any campsite. Some have better access to water, better views, more privacy, proximity to trails and amenities, and so on. We opted for the site that had privacy and a great view, but the trade-offs were… we had to climb and we had to pack in our water. It was just over one mile from the car to the campsite, but that mile was a pretty steady 45 degree incline the entire way. 

Now, for a true backpacking expedition, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem; in fact, for many backpackers along the big American trails like the A.T. or the P.C.T., inclines like this would be the norm. In those cases, however, the backpackers are typically equipped with proper gear like form-fitted rucksacks, trekking poles, and freeze-dried or dehydrated food like rice or oats. Essentialism is key – bring only what you need. In all of my planning and discussions with my crew before our departure, it seemed I either did not properly communicate this tenet of backpacking, or I did and they just ignored the advice, because we packed in a LOT of stuff! Even though our bodies were at their freshest point of the weekend, that first mile hike from the car to the site was the most grueling mile of them all, with the weight of full-size camping chairs, full water jugs, and enough junk food to send an army into diabetic shock weighing us down. With enough trudging and plodding along, we did eventually make it to camp, and the view and the privacy made it all worth it. 

Cascade River State Park Campsite BP2, overlooking Lake Superior

As we unpacked, and I saw just how much food my friends brought for this two-night jaunt in the woods, I felt a sense of disappointment rise within me. I didn’t make a big deal of it at the time, I just went with the flow and embraced the notion that we each packed what we needed to pack. I had put a lot of thought into the planning of what we’d bring (on a shared Google Doc), so we could coordinate items, prevent overpacking, and do things a little more communally and a little less individually. So at first, I thought my shock at all these surprise items was due to a feeling of our plan being undermined or not followed, a disappointment that, despite my best efforts, the idea of communicating and packing our gear communally was too much for my friends, too outside their comfort zone, too far away from their conditioned tendencies to want to be in control and do things as an individual instead of as a group.

It wasn’t until later the next day, though, that I realized the bigger source of my feeling; a big part of what I enjoy about camping, hiking, backpacking, and being out in the woods is the suffering. I like the suffering. I crave it. It’s part of the allure of the outdoors for me, the opportunity to taste how challenging life in the wild really is. Life in the modern world is so incomprehensibly comfortable. I like my time on camping/backpacking trips to be in as direct contrast to that as possible. I like to wake up and get out on the trails early, eat a bit of trail mix through the day whenever my body signals it needs some fuel, and then have one warm meal with some tea in the evening as the sun is going down and I’ve made camp for the night. I like stripping things down to the essentials. I even like being a bit dehydrated. Not so dehydrated that I’m having headaches or muscle cramps, but really conserving my resources and waiting to consume anything until my body is really asking for it. When I take this minimalist approach to my time in the outdoors, I’m able to feel my body and hear my thoughts more acutely. Typical daily patterns and habits are broken; there is only this moment. This approach also makes the re-entry into modern life so much more eye-opening. I experience a deeper gratitude for the simplest of things. I come home and am extremely thankful for my faucet with running water. When was the last time you were thankful for your faucet? That’s the power that a few days away from modern conveniences can have. 

It was actually very useful for me to crystallize this personal insight, and I don’t know if I would’ve arrived at that insight had my one friend decided to leave his can of Easy Cheese at home (or better yet, left it unpurchased on the store shelf). I realized just because it’s there, it doesn’t mean have to eat it; I can make my own choices. So it turns out I’m thankful for the lesson provided by the excess junk food. (Plus, I wasn’t the one that had to carry it.)

We had a truly epic weekend. The weather was unseasonably awesome for mid-October in northern Minnesota, and we made the most of it. We hiked many miles, shared many laughs, and even shed a few tears (mostly from laughing so hard). Thank you to the women in our lives for taking care of our children and homesteads to enable this weekend of joy for us boys! 

Here is a list of the memories I jotted down the day after we got back. Most of them will not make sense to you, the reader, but hey, this blog is for me just as much as it is for any of you, so these are for me! 

Memories:

  • On Saturday we hiked north on the trail up the eastern side of the Cascade River. There is also a trail on the western side of the river, but the state park map gets cut off before it shows where the crossing is from east to west. We assumed it would be obvious. It was not. We found a dirt road and a parking lot, but no obvious spot of where to cross and pick the trail up on the other side. We walked along the road and river for a ways, looking for a spot to cross, and at one point there was some “fencing” made of black fabric attached to some posts, like you might find blocking off a construction site. My friend saw this fence, walked over to it, jumped over it, walked into the wild woods beyond, turned around and yelled back, “I think I found it.” Because, you know, typically hiking trailheads are found on the other side of a fence one has to jump. 
  • As we walked off trail, trying to find the trail, we enjoyed variations of the phrase, “I think this must be the path. This part of the woods looks pretty path-y over here.”
  • Moss feels better when you take your shoes off. 
  • We all know the feeling of déjà vu, but have you ever experienced déjà new? How about déjà now? I can’t explain exactly what these mean, but I know that if you go off into the woods with your friends, you’ll find it. 
  • Despite our meandering about at the river crossing, we ended Saturday with utterly perfect pacing of the day, with the sun setting over the horizon just as we arrived back to camp. 
  • As we returned to camp from our long day hike on Saturday, one friend hauled a massive dead log on his shoulders up to our campsite. Another friend made it his mission to burn this log to bits, no matter how long it took.

THE LOG

  • While we returned home with all of our appendages still connected, one of my friends did manage to slice his thumb with our log splitter. I learned that my backpacking first aid kit could use a little sprucing up. 
  • Bring tortillas on future camping trips to go with hot meals!
  • I do love how the guys that came on this trip surprise me. I’ve always loved surprises, ever since I was a kid. In their own way, each one of my friends did stuff that I did not expect, and it’s fun to surround myself with people that keep me on my toes and make life interesting. 

And finally, when you get right down to it, all we really need in this life are woods, friends, and snacks. 

 

Oh, and I almost forgot, at the beginning of the week I did some warmup hikes with my trusty hiking companion. 

Hiking companion I can’t bring on wooded trails (burrs) and I can’t take farther than 3 miles (he’s 11).

On Sabbatical — Week 16: One Dad, Two Kids, and the Great Outdoors

Months ago, I planned and booked a camping trip for our family to Itasca State Park. I had done a three-night solo camping trip there in September 2021, and at that time I had assessed that it would be an excellent state park to bring the entire family. So as soon as it became available to reserve, I booked us a campsite (with a camper cabin, a one-room log cabin to add a touch of convenience) for the end of August 2022. As the day of departure approached, Kristyn began to develop a cold, and I suggested that perhaps I could take the kids camping and she could stay home to rest and enjoy some alone time. This offer did not take much convincing. And so, the kids and I loaded up in the minivan and embarked upon a four-night camping trip, just the three of us.

Even though my kids are only six and four years old, and even though we were going to be three and a half hours from home, and even though I was not going to have any help in taking care of my children nor myself, I was feeling confident about the adventure. Excited. A touch of nervousness, perhaps, but having completed a successful two-night camping trip with my eldest earlier in the summer, and having spent so much time with both kids all summer long and observed their current maturity levels, I felt like we were just on the right edge of being “old enough” to make this a viable endeavor with me as the only parent. Thanks to the awesomeness of my children, I couldn’t have been more right.

Here’s an excerpt from my journal on the night of arrival to our campsite (and let’s just reflect on the fact that I had even one moment to consider writing in a journal!):

The girls have chosen to use the markers and paper we brought to color while sitting on the floor. “Amar Pelos Dois” is cooing over the portable speaker in our nicer-than-expected camper cabin. Four nights in a cabin with my two kids – it feels a bit like ‘The Ultimate Survival Challenge,’ but it also feels like it’ll be a cinch. It’s the second hour of being here, and the girls are showing me they can occupy themselves and each other, even with rain bringing us inside. … This time in the woods with my kids is the last hurrah before summer is over and the final school year in the USA starts. What is my intention with this time? To demonstrate to my kids that fun and joy can be had without much. To experience hiking in a positive way (my youngest is not a huge fan, yet). To let them lead so we all can learn from their choices and behaviors.

We had a lovely spaghetti dinner. I cleaned up while they played Concentration with each other. We began a tradition of enjoying tea and apples after dishes were done. And for the next three days, we enjoyed exploring, hiking, playing, finding bear tracks, picking M&M’s out of trail mix, swimming, and simply being in the outdoors.

MY CHILDREN ARE MORE GROWN THAN I KNOW

When taken into the outdoors, without many modern conveniences and left to their own devices, they seemed to age two years in two minutes. All of a sudden, not only did my youngest child no longer need or want any help in a public bathroom (the family bathroom kind where it’s just one small room), they specifically requested I leave them be and wait outside. Both kids, all of a sudden, seemed to just know how to wash and dry dishes, when given the opportunity. When we arrived at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the main attraction of Itasca State park, the kids did not hesitate. You see, at these headwaters of America’s largest and most powerful river, the river is very small, almost streamlike. There are rocks that act as stepping stones where one can actually hop across the Mighty Mississippi. It’s not the most challenging physical act, to balance on these rocks and make it across, but it’s also more challenging than taking a stroll on a sidewalk. And when my kids saw this, saw a few adults carefully making their way across the stones, my kids did not hesitate. As I wrote in my journal later, “Before I knew it, their shoes were off. Fording the Mississippi with two children… it was mildly stressful, but I was simultaneously proud and in awe of their bravery and ability/balance, while enjoying the experience for myself.” It blew me away how ready and equipped they already are to act more mature, and all it took was removing distractions, removing convenience, giving them an opportunity to shine, and then getting out of their way.

MEETING THE COLDWATER’S

One afternoon, we were hanging out at the park’s largest playground, the one near the swimming beach, and it was here that we had what felt to me like a fateful encounter. It was here that we met the Coldwater family, a family of three that live “off the grid,” as they put it, in northern Minnesota. The woman and her son were playing at the park, speaking French to each other (I learned the woman is from Belgium) and at this my children’s ears perked up, because they are learning Spanish and have an ear for foreign language. This curiosity about their language was enough to spark interaction with these people, and the more I learned about the Coldwater family’s life, the more I was drawn in. They built their own house using natural materials like straw, wood, and lime plaster. They are acquiring a sailboat and have plans to sail from the Caribbean, through the Saint Lawrence seaway, all the way to Lake Superior to return to their home in northern Minnesota. They also plan to take this boat on a Trans-Atlantic voyage to the Mediterranean for a couple of years. They have no running water and bring water from the natural spring that’s 1/4 mile away from their home, 2-3 times every day. They have intimate knowledge of how to harvest and prepare wild rice, a practice they learned from the Lakota people. I could go on. Oh, and they were just delightful human beings who seemed completely in tune with enjoying the present moment. I was and still am so enchanted with this family. I don’t necessarily aspire to live in a log cabin off the grid, but I do believe they are living in a way that is much more connected to the natural world, the world from which we all come, than I am, and for that, I admire them. I deeply hope to stay connected to them in some way, but if not, I’m happy to have met and to have been inspired by them. And I am grateful that I listened to my kids and let them lead the way when they said, “We want to go to the park,” or I would have never met the Coldwater family.

A FEW FINAL MEMORIES OF SOLO CAMPING WITH TWO KIDS

  • When you arrive to the state park and your campsite isn’t ready yet, head straight for the playground.
  • A quick backstory – when I was a kid, I remember eating apples after dinner, but before bed. We would do this often in my home (via my dad), and we would do it even more often whenever I was visiting my grandparents (my dad’s parents). While I still enjoy apples, eating them nightly is not a habit I carried forward into my own life. Fast forward to this camping trip, and as I packed for it, I brought precisely enough apples with us so that we could share an apple together every night. Not sure why, it just felt right. Every night, as I placed a bowl of sliced apples on the cabin table in front of my children, I could feel some historical, inter-generational frequency vibrating within me. Like, even though I haven’t actually been there before, it felt like I had been there before. Almost like I could feel my father and his father working through me. And I was aware of the feeling like I am actively passing on a tradition, a conscious programming of my children to share some of the same programming etched into my core. I did not plan for nor expect this feeling to arise, but it was really cool when it did.
  • At one point, the kids were using the toys that I had brought in ways I would never have imagined – they were outside, using the jump rope and ladder golf ladders, and other items from nature to construct a sort of… bridge structure. At one point, in between the gathering and placing of sticks, rocks, and pinecones on top of this structure, my kid looked to me and said, “We know that water is the glue of nature, so we’re going inside to get our water bottles.”

Building a bridge together

MORE FUN OUTSIDE AND FINDING INSPIRATION EVERYWHERE

Our camping trip was from Sunday-Thursday, so when we got home, we still had the weekend to enjoy, and although one might think we would have been depleted of energy from the time outdoors and the long car ride, it was quite the contrary – we all felt energized from living a more simple life and spending time together. So, we went out for some more activity!

The day after we returned from camping, the weather was gorgeous and Kristyn was still not feeling 100%, so I took the kids to a park in town. They simply could not get enough of being outside! I felt proud at how easily they made friends with other kids at the beach. As they played with newly-made friends, I went for a nearby stroll, and I happened to notice this dedication placard on one of the park benches. It reads: “Jerry Gale [In Honor Of]. High-energy dad, grandpa, & eternal optimist who went to bat for causes he believed in.” I don’t know who Jerry Gale is, but I know he must have been a great man. If, once I pass away, my family remembers me in this way, I will consider my life a success.

An inspiration

THAT’S A WRAP ON SUMMER – WHAT HAVE I LEARNED FROM ALL THIS TIME WITH MY KIDS?

The end of this week marks a wrap on summer. A sabbatical summer. I spent so much time with my kids, intentionally so. Earlier in the season, I consciously made the choice that this summer was going to be a time of me being a kid again, of letting go of what’s “supposed” to happen. So, what did I learn from my two little sources of wisdom?

  • We are social creatures. My kids love making friends with anyone. It’s a credit to their friendly personality and disposition, and it’s also their plain humanity shining through. Their “flow state” is enabled when playing with or talking to new humans.
    • What does that look like in the adult world? How do I suppress my natural urges to connect with a new person? Why do I do that? What do I fear? What would it look like if I gave all strangers the same benefit of the doubt that my kids give other children on the playground?
  • Siblings are extremely valuable. My kids practice so many life skills together: communication, problem solving, teamwork, debate… They don’t really realize how lucky they are to have each other.
    • This makes me more grateful for my own brother. Even though we don’t talk much these days, I’m very grateful we had each other in our formative years. I believe I’m a better person because I had him (and my parents) around to teach me the kind of things an older brother needs to be taught: humility, thinking of others, sharing, and so on.
  • Parenting is easier when I let go of personal wants. In spending heaping amounts of time with my children, moments of my impatience or frustration inevitably arose. When I examine the root cause of those moments, they almost all originate from having my own desire. I want to finish the chapter in my book. I want to go on a long hike. I want to start making progress on preparing dinner. I want, I want, I want. Whenever I have a want that doesn’t align with my kid’s want, friction occurs.
    • If my goal is for parenting to be easier, and for my relationship with my child to grow positively, there is a simple answer – let go of my want. It fixes everything.
  • My kids simply want me to be with them. During the day. At night. They seem to not be able to get enough of me, of my attention, of my love, of my energy. They want me to be their witness. Their cheerleader. To be there in case something bad happens. To have someone to read to them. Someone to snuggle. Or climb on. Someone to play pretend with. To hold the heavy things. Someone to help. Sure, they’re getting old enough to be able to play on their own for a while and enjoy it, but it’s never their first choice. I am not this great to anyone else on the planet.
    • For two people to have this much pure love of me, I owe them my energy and my time.

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