Companionship in extremis

(Warning: contains confession of possible craziness.)

In a short essay on the Adventure Journal website, Erin Windauer describes the occasional but not rare sense of athletes, adventurers, and others that they are in the presence of someone or something which is benevolent or reassuring but which isn’t actually *there*.

Ernest Shackleton’s epic tale of survival after the sinking of his ship the Endurance in Antarctic waters is well known, but less known is what he and two of his companions experienced after they made their way by open boat, above, to South Georgia Island and trekked across to a whaling station to find salvation. Each of the three felt the presence of someone with them: “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia,” wrote Shackleton in his memoir, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

Though I don’t quite see the link between this sensation and the lab experiments summarized in Windauer’s piece, I can’t stop thinking about the phenomenon, which is one I’ve experienced in some of my winter races.

I didn’t even know that my feeling of being… joined? guided? accompanied? was a thing; I just chalked it up to being hungry, cold, and exhausted. And yes, all those stressors might have contributed to my sense that *something* was with me while I rode and walked off Two Top on January 8, thirty-six hours into the Fat Pursuit.  

But still: to have that experience in common with Shackleton is strangely satisfying.

Happy Birthday, Carleton!

Carleton College was founded on October 12, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago today. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: the institution was founded as “Northfield College” on 10/12/1866; five years later, its trustees renamed the college in honor of a key donor.

Anyhow, the college is celebrating the sesquicentennial of its founding – and its 150 years of history – in a typically low-key but fun way, with events such as a “Town-and-Gown Celebration” in downtown Northfield tomorrow, a convocation on Friday by Minnesota’s favorite humorist Garrison Keillor, a carnival and fair on Saturday, and a little birthday video featuring scores of students, faculty, and staff – including me and my cowlick. I’m talking trash to our bizarre, unofficial, worse-for-wear college symbol, a bust of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller, who has also appeared with Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert.

Schiller and Tassava
Schiller and Tassava

I’m glad I wore my sesquicentennial button that day!

Quirks like Schiller and birthday videos remind me of other ways that Carleton’s culture has bound me – and, I hope, others who love the institution – to the college. I couldn’t possibly list all the examples that have come up in the eleven years that I’ve worked at 1 North College Street (7.33% of the college’s lifetime!), but for me, the deal was sealed in summer 2006, when the college held a farewell party for a wonderful but falling-down piece of outdoor sculpture called Twigonometry. (Anyone interested in public art should check out the gallery of photos of the piece in its prime.) Twigonometry stood gorgeously and mysteriously at the north end of the Bald Spot, where kids like toddler Julia could wander through its chambers and arches, swirling in an organically alien way:

Julia and Twigonometry
Julia and Twigonometry

What kind of place holds a farewell party for a four-year-old sculpture made from branches and twigs? The kind of place that I hope lasts another 150 years.

A Good Six Months

July 1 doesn’t seem to spur any of the usual January 1 cogitation that looks back at the previous months or forward to the next ones. But something about the last week of June inspired me to think about the first six months of 2012 and realize that the half-year just ended was an unusual and unusually good period of time.

The usual sources of goodness accounted for some of this. Shannon and the girls were happy and healthy and busy, which is the norm, and both girls changed in so many good ways. As fulfilling as usual, work got even better when, in May, I received a raise at work that will boost me, in the new fiscal year, beyond a psycho-financial barrier that has been off in the distance for years. And I’ve probably been outside Northfield more frequently in the last six months, for business and for pleasure, than I have during any other half-year period. Not including bike rides, I think I actually left the city limits at least once every week in June!

My bike riding since January, too, has been pleasing. Not only have I spent more time on my bike than I ever have before, but the saddle time paid off in fitness and speed, making my two gravel races this spring all the better. I like the idea that all I have to do to keep getting better as a rider is to keep logging the hours.

This spring’s bike riding also connected me to a new group of friends and acquaintances, cyclists who are more experienced and fit than I am but who are also very welcoming to the new guy – and who were great partners on rides and races. By putting in hundreds of gravel miles this spring with guys like D.S., J.P., and S.K. (among others), I’ve learned a lot about how to go faster, which has naturally improved my actual ability to go fast. And those 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. rides have paid off in being able to easily go 3 or 4 miles per hour faster over two- and three-hour rides than I could in January, much less last summer at this time.

In many ways, the group of riders is the first set of friends I’ve really made in Northfield, which is weird since we’ve been living in Northfield for more than five years already. Of course, I have been hanging out with other guys in that time, but I’ve mostly been connected to them through our kids and wives, through work, or, Northfield being Northfield, through both connections. It’s nice to extend my network of friends away from home and work.

Maybe because my in-town social sphere has expanded, my out-of-town social sphere has likewise grown in some wonderful and surprising ways. Acquaintances like G.P., S.B., A.F., D.F., and B.R. have turned into real, valuable friends, people whom I would have liked to have known better many years ago, but am very happy to know now. This has been a big surprise to me, though I’m not sure why.

These new relationships complement some old friendships that have deepened markedly since January – in large part because of a personal crisis experienced by one old friend. He asked for support and help and sympathetic ears from his friends, including me, and I think we did a good job of rallying for him. In turn, he’s become an even better listener and advisor – a great friend – to me. Again, I’m not sure why this surprises me, but I’m very happy to be surprised.

Ironwood (Essay)

Note: This is the second essay in my (prospective) series of monthly essays. In January, I posted the first essay here.

In some sort of poetically proportional process, I think more and more about my childhood the further I get from it. I’m not awash in waves of capital-m Memory, but constantly splashing through puddles of remembered events, places, people.

For whatever reason, much of what I am remembering these days took place when I was a little kid living, from third grade to eighth grade, in Ironwood, Michigan. (Actually, I know exactly why I’m thinking so much about that time and place: because I was then about as old as my kids are now.) Ironwood was, and still is, a tiny town at the far western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Not knowing any better, I didn’t know that the place was almost incredibly remote. Despite the fact that many inhabitants root for the Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, and the Red Wings, Ironwood is much closer to Green Bay, Duluth, and Minneapolis than to Lansing or Detroit – and closer to North Dakota’s biggest city (Fargo) than to Michigan’s biggest city (Detroit).

Being so remote, Ironwood and its environs – really, the entirety of the Upper Peninsula – is thinly inhabited but thickly endowed with natural resources. The most notable one is snow. Tons and tons of snow. In fact, Ironwood serves as the de-facto capital of “Big Snow Country,” a swath of Wisconsin and Michigan along the southern coast of Lake Superior that – thanks to the Big Lake – gets as much snow as any place east of the Rockies. All that snow means that Big Snow Country is a mecca to skiers and snowmobilers, especially those from further south who bring their big-city money with them. If there’s one thing that Ironwood needs to survive, it’s that snow.

The Ironwood area is blessed with natural resources besides snow, though. A hundred years ago, the area’s iron ore attracted thousands of immigrants, including my paternal great-grandparents, who came from Finland – that is, from Russia – sometime before the First World War. As family lore has it, the Finns worked in the mines just long enough to earn the money they recreate the lives they had enjoyed (or at least led) in Suomi: to live in or near the woods – the area’s third major natural resource – and cobble together a livelihood out of farming and logging. The area’s forest must have been magnets to 19-teens Finns, just as they’re magnets to present-day vacationers – in the long, snowy winters or the short, temperate summers – and for good reason. Never as thoroughly cut over as Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula still has decent-sized tracts of virgin timber, nowadays almost indistinguishable from cutover areas that have long since grown back.

My grandfather Leonard Tossavainen didn’t quite follow the mythic mines-to-woods path. He was born on a farmstead north of Ironwood in a district full of Finlanders like him. His father, my great grandfather, must have acquired that land, maybe by working in the mines. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Grandpa lived his whole life on those acres, farming and cutting timber outside while his wife, my grandmother Helmi, tended to the big square farmhouse and to my dad and his two siblings. (Grandpa also shortened his extremely unwieldy and unpronounceable surname to the merely unusually unwieldy and unpronounceable “Tassava.”)

Twenty-some years after moving away to go to college in the U.P.’s biggest city, Marquette, my dad moved back to the farm with my mom, my sister, and me, partly to keep Grandpa company after my grandma’s untimely death a few years before. I spent four years living on the farm, which was in many ways a very good place to grow up.

Here’s the farmhouse in 2007. My old bedroom is behind the double window on the second story; the windows below on the first story open onto the kitchen. My grandpa sat there all the time, looking east toward the barn. His dog slept on the roof of that cellar entryway.
The House on the Ironwood Farm

* Ironwood is 115 miles from Duluth, 230 miles from Green Bay, and 240 miles from Minneapolis, but 550 miles from Lansing and 610 miles from Detroit. Ironwood is closer to the biggest city in North Dakoka (Fargo, 350 miles) and to the capital of North Dakota (Bismarck, 540 miles) than to its own state capital.

The Hunting Camp (Essay)

Note: I’m going to try to write at least one biographical essay each month this year.

The Hunting Camp
When my family lived in Ironwood, in the early 1980s, we owned (or, I think, shared, with my dad’s brother) a tiny cabin way out in the woods north of town, about halfway between the farm and Lake Superior. We called it the “hunting camp,” and that name suited it better than “cabin” or, worse, “cottage.” The hunting camp wasn’t much of a building. It was a square one-room shelter with wood-framed walls (probably made from trees cut down to make a clearing for the structure) punctured by three small windows and one clattery door, which opened out onto a narrow porch.

The porch itself was mostly covered by firewood we fed to the big cast-iron stove that stood just inside the door, next to an equally old and wood-fired cooking stove. The two stoves were the dominant feature of the building’s interior. We cooled the hunting camp by opening the door. Northwoods weather being what it is, sometimes we had to use the stove for heat and the screen door for cooling in the same day.

As its climate-control features suggest, the hunting camp was far more rustic than a “cottage” in which a retired couple might want to retire or a family – like my cousins from Ohio – might spend a few summer weeks along the lake. Besides the stove, the hunting camp contained a bunk bed, a bigger regular bed, and a rickety kitchen table with three or four chairs around it (and an ashtray and pack of cards on it). I think there may have been a rug on the floor, and maybe some rough shelves near the stove. Was the floor wood or linoleum? I don’t remember, probably because the interior was always half-lit. The towering trees outside kept much light from coming in the windows. At night, a kerosene lantern over the table provided just enough room to play cards, but not enough – as I recall – to read a book while lying in your sleeping bag. You needed a flashlight for that, and for making the quick, spooky trip to the outhouse in back, under a towering evergreen that often sheltered porcupines. I remember seeing porkies up there, prickly even from a distance, slowly shifting from branch to branch.

The hunting camp was as remote as it was rustic. We could only way to get to the camp by driving down a long trail that started off as a very rough gravel road, mostly used by loggers, but turned into parallel tire tracks through the woods. This track was nothing a car could traverse, so we always took my dad’s gray International Harvester Scout, a sort of proto-SUV. Even the Scout got stuck more than once in a muddy low spot on the trail or blocked by a windfall tree. I would love to know how long we took to make the drive in from the road to the hunting camp – fifteen minutes? half an hour? an hour? I recall it seeming like a long but enjoyable ride, jouncing through the woods. Too, I would love to know the length of the trail. A mile or two? Ten? (Being then deeply fascinated with the military, I always thought it would be fun to rappel from a helicopter down to the camp. Nowadays, I would love to try to ski or bike in to the camp.)

Though I recall once having to turn around and head back home when the track was impassably muddy, we usually made it out to the hunting camp, where we’d unload the Scout and settle in for a few days, mostly spent – as you’d expect, given the camp’s spartan character – outside. A tiny brook – inevitably named “Mud Creek” and pronounced “mud crick” – ran along the edge of the camp’s clearing. At most shin-deep, the creek held no fish except for a few silvery minnow-sized things that were impossibly adept at holding themselves in place against the creek’s current. My sister and I loved to wade in the creek, squishing our feet down into the thick, cold mud along its bed.

And then there were the trees – seemingly endless forest, stretching out in every direction but always up. The track we used to drive in to the camp extended on beyond the campsite, so we could use it to walk further into the woods. I remember that such walks took us over a surprisingly big and sturdy log bridge. The bridge spanned a wider, deeper, and faster creek that I realize now must have connected somehow to Mud Creek. We fished off that bridge, catching fish that were big enough to cook and eat.

Somewhere around that bridge were trees that had strange S-shaped curves in them. My dad told me, at least a few times, that the trees had been kinked by bulldozers or logging trucks, and never straightened out. By the time I saw them, the bends were four or five feet off the ground, but I remember thinking they would be good chairs for giants.

Taking the road in the other direction, back toward the road, we drove past a couple other hunting camps, usually deserted. Once, the biggest one was occupied, and my dad, sister, and I dropped in. My dad must have known the owner, who was hosting a big all-male card game. I remember the players being very loud; they must have been very drunk, too. I also remember the owner/host cursing all the time as he played. I was old enough to recognize the f-word, so this visit must have occurred when I was in late elementary school or even junior high. I remember that the owner/host kept apologizing to my dad for cursing so much, what with my sister – maybe eight years old then – being right there.

Running away from the road were faint but discernible paths. I always thought of them as Indian trails, but of course they were probably deer paths. Following them, I never had any sense of being in danger of getting lost. I wonder if I’d feel that way now. My favorite paths ran north away from the hunting camp and to a big hill that we called, with what must have been Finlander irony, Mount Ilola. We climbed Mount Ilola a few times. From its peak, we could see exactly what you could see anywhere: the forest. I don’t think “Ilola” had any special meaning, but Googling the word now, I find this on Wikipedia:

Ilola (Swedish: Gladas) is a city district of Vantaa, Finland. It is located in the northern part of the administrative district of Koivukylä

Not very informative, except to indicate what sorts of people had the notion to put up shacks in the woods around the hill.

The hunting camp’s name was not a misnomer. In the fall, we did use it for hunting – mostly deer, I think. Others hunted in the woods too. I remember being at the camp one time when a group of bear hunters walked past, barely controlling a big group of hounds. I think my dad went out to talk to them for a few minutes, since that’s probably what you do when hunters cross your land. My mom was disgusted by hunting in general, but especially by the use of dogs to track and kill bears. Her basic anti-hunting argument – “What did those animals ever do to you?” – resonated with me after seeing the bearhunters.

That’s not to say I didn’t like hunting itself. I liked the few times I went with my dad into the woods to find deer, and I still recall the weird pleasure of actually bagging a buck once, somewhere in the general area of the hunting camp. Even more than hunting, I liked shooting guns, which was a big activity at the hunting camp, whether we were hunting anything or not. We would stand a few steps off the porch and fire our .22 rifle or, even better, our .22 pistol off into the woods, aiming mostly at empty cans and bottles. I usually had my BB guns along, too – a pistol and a rifle. These were less satisfying to shoot (less power, less noise) but I could fire them off without supervision as long as I still had BBs, which were sold, as I recall, in little containers that looked like milk cartons.

If walking around and shooting guns were the main outdoor activities, eating was the main indoor activity. My parents did most of our cooking on the cooking stove, and a bit on a green Coleman kerosene stove that we hauled in with us. I remember being slightly amazed by the fact that my parents could toast bread simply by buttering it and laying it in a pan on top of the stove, right next to the bacon. It tasted awfully good.