Fall Sabbatical by Rachel

At the tender age of 26 I find myself holding down my first office job. All through high school and college I swore up and down that I would never be stuck behind a desk, so finding myself at one for more than the past year and a half has come as a bit of a shock. I figured my degree in horticulture should easily keep me away from a desk. However, in a poor economy when opportunity knocks, you open the door no matter how reluctantly you may do so. Don’t get me wrong, my desk job is good to me. I enjoy the people I work with and the bulk of the work. Regardless, accounting is a bit of a leap from horticulture, and a desk is a giant bound away from a prairie of plants.

Lately I had found myself surfing the internet over lunch. I scoured the web for blogs and articles about people on trips so that I could vicariously go on adventures while I ate my leftovers in front of my work computer every day. For brief 30 minute interludes I escaped my deskly shackles and dream, only to be brought back to work by the jarring ring of the accursed phone. I imagine that many of you reading this can easily relate and perhaps wonder what your life would look like if you had nailed shut that first door and waited for another.

It is with another fortuitous knock of the door that I find myself at Tuscarora. This door I slowly cracked open, being careful not to let the fragile wings of an idea escape before they could find their strength. In July I brought a group through Tuscarora, renting a few canoes for a short trip. While settling up with Sue, I learned that they were in need of a little fall help. Back at work the next week, I phrased this infant idea as a joke. The response I expected never came. My boss was perfectly ok with me taking time off to go play in the woods. After rephrasing the question multiple times to ensure I was in fact not currently daydreaming in front of my computer, I contacted Sue to apply for the job. In a whirlwind, the door was opened and I found myself back up at Tuscarora, if only a bit dizzy with the speed at which things had changed.

After being here for over a month now, I often find myself reflecting on how this job differs from the one I have put on hold. Now it can be argued that one job is just like any other job. You get up, go to work, get the job done, get paid, and go home all while looking forward to the weekend. At Tuscarora the daily grind, or more accurately the daily scrub, may be just like any other job, but there are a few notable differences.

Getting up – Now here is a step in the daily routine most probably think very little of. Waking each day to the blaring alarm clock, rolling out of bed and getting ready becomes so mundane, some of us accomplish the whole feat without actually waking up. The trick up here is, if you are not awake, you may run into some shrubbery, or perhaps if you are soundly asleep, into a lake. The staff cabins are rustically charming, but contain few of the creature comforts that are common place in the cities. With no running water or heat to speak of, my daily morning routine has become brisk and brief. The distance between bed and bath is a bit of a hike (or swift jog, depending on the temperature that morning) which makes things interesting. Hot, hot tea has become a necessity each morning and it takes a bit longer than usual to get the engines running. Despite all of that I find myself waking up earlier and earlier. I like to leave my cabin window shades up and smile when I wake with the first morning light, which has such a beautiful fresh quality that it deserves special note. (Side note, since the mercury has dropped below the habitable level for anyone without a thick fur coat, the staff has been relocated to a palace which contains all of the creature comforts including my favorite by far, a bathroom in the same building. This has drastically reduced my chance of wandering in an early morning stupor into Round Lake.)

Go to work – Here’s where it starts getting really good. The daily commute takes only a few glorious minutes. Car keys? Haven’t seen those for weeks. Road rage? Forgetaboutit. Worrying about being late while you sit at the longest red light in the history of the world? Nope! The walk to work takes me through some of the most beautiful white pines I’ve seen anywhere, which soar easily sixty feet above me, enough so that the first rays of the morning sun ignite their tops with gold. If the morning is nice, I tend to double my daily trip distance by swinging past the lake. In the fall, any glorious morning worth its salt is going to put a dense layer of fog on the lake. At this point my jaw usually drops and all I want to do is sit straight down and watch the lake as the sun slowly burns off the fog, revealing more and more of the shoreline. This has become my gawker slow down, and I rather prefer them over the ones in the cities. Occasionally, the urge to sprint back and grab my camera is sometimes too much to resist. I get the feeling that before I leave here, I will have at least 60 gigs of pictures on my hard drive.

Get the job done – There is a lot of monotony that comes along with both the housekeeping and outfitting worlds, plain and simple fact. The key to sanity is learning to appreciate the small nuances each day. You never know what exactly you are going to be cleaning today, nor how dirty it is going to be. Now this is not some commentary on the cleanliness of our clientele, it’s just the way things work. If you took your trip during monsoon season and did some serious bushwhacking, your tent is going to have a skosh more dirt in it than those who went out on a sunny overnight trip on a well worn path. So we scrub, a lot, because Tuscarora prides itself on being a clean and caring outfitter.

During all this cleaning, I have learned many lessons that I have taken to calling transferable skill sets. The method I use to Soft Scrub a sink in cabin 3 is directly transferable to the method used to clean a camp plate so that it becomes shiny enough to use as a signal mirror when in distress. Vacuuming and mopping are strikingly similar and that same motion can be used when cleaning a tent. I’ve also learned some very specific skills, like how to fold towels and sheets. It would shock the average person, myself being one of them a few weeks ago, how many incorrect ways there are to fold up towels. It is, however, comforting to know that the new skills I am acquiring I will be able to draw on the rest of my life. I will never look at a clean house the same way, nor any piece of camping gear I own.

What makes this job unique from any other cleaning position is once again location, location, location. The window above the outfitting scrub sink commands an encompassing view of Round Lake, which is much better than a computer screen. A staff development day involves loading up the crew in a giant Northwoods canoe with the boss in back to go climbing on Seagull Lake palisades. Walking from one freshly clean cabin to the next vacated cabin rivals any good hike. And just the other day, after sweeping the porch of cabin 2, I looked up and spotted two otters playing in our bay. How can you beat that! All in all, it’s a lot of hard work, but that is what I was looking for. I enjoy the physicality and rarely find myself behind a desk or chained to a phone. At the end of the day, I can look back and see a clean cabin or a pile of clean gear and know that I did a good hard day’s work. I go to sleep each night tired but with a content smile on my face, knowing full well I will rise to scrub another day.

Get paid – When I signed on for this work-cation, I did not put any though towards the paycheck. One guest actually asked how much I made working up here and was taken aback when I could not answer her (to be fair, I had yet to reach a payday). That first paycheck is now somewhere in my room somewhat forgotten (the closest Wells Fargo is Silver Bay, and I still have yet to bother with doing a mail-in deposit). The heart of the problem lies in the fact that money just is no good up here. I cannot tip the sun for that fabulous sunset, nor can I pay a loon to sing for me. The nearest town is an hour away, and I cannot really come up with anything I need. I’ve got a place to stay in, three delicious meals a day with more desserts than on Christmas morning, and use of a canoe whenever I get a spare hour or two. What more does a girl really need?

Go home – This is where the job gets really unique. I do not go home after a hard day’s work to a tiny apartment and kick back with perhaps a refreshing beverage and flip on the telly. Instead I return to the rustically charming staff cabins to spend more time with my coworkers, or to partake in the deliciously rediscovered delight known as the afternoon nap, or take advantage of some of the fantastic hiking in the area hoping all the while to spot a wolf or two as a recent guest did one morning. Then in a few hours eat dinner with exactly the same subset of people, only to return once again to that rustically charming piece of real estate. There is no quicker way to get to know a group of people then to spend time in the woods with them where there are minimal outside distractions. With coworkers in the cities, you can choose to spend more or less time with them, depending on your tastes. Up here, you get what you get, which can be a huge disaster. I am pleased to report that is not the case here. I genuinely like the people around me and enjoy their company. Conversations run the gamut from silly to serious discussions about world problems. Evenings are passed playing games or cooking (which is a highly prized pastime, for it not only fills the tummy but heats up the crew cabin). I cannot remember the last time I have laughed as hard as I have up here with this great eclectic group of people. Cheers my friends.

Weekends – My last “weekend” is what inspired this entire ramble. At Tuscarora, we get one day off a week. Now I don’t really know what the typical routine for this place is, but in the fall everything seems to be a little more chill (and yes I do mean that figuratively as well as literally). For the most part, we get to provide input as to which day we would like off. This week, co-worker Zach and I were slated to have the same day off. After consulting the weather gods, we chose Wednesday, which turned into a fine choice indeed. Right after work on Tuesday, we loaded up the Escape and pointed the canoe towards Tuscarora Lake with plans for a one night stay, then swinging back through Gillis to return by dinner on Wednesday. Tuesday night was a little sketchy with a great deal of wind and leaden skies. Wednesday dawned calmer but still a bit ominous in the northwest. Could those gambling weather reporters have been wrong again? Moving sluggishly in my double pair of still wet socks stuck in oversized blue elephant rubber boots, we loaded up and shoved off. Just as the sore paddling muscles loosenedd up, the sun started to battle its way through the clouds. By the time we reached Gillis, the lake looked like glass, reflecting an azure sky with perfect marshmallow clouds. When I looked at the water slipping past the bow of the canoe, it was as if we were gliding through the very clouds themselves. A section of ‘The Singing Wilderness’ by Sigurd Olson came back to me as we slowly glided along;

“Should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth, of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves”

I had finally found that day and was truly transfixed by the sensation. The reflection of the sky was only broken by the watercolored reflection of the vivid fall forest. It was after this spell was broken by the next portage that I began to reflect on the polarity of my two jobs. If this was a weekend in the cities, I would be sleeping in, maybe doing some laundry, catching up with friends, perhaps driving across town to catch the latest flick. How starkly different it is to be spending all of your time off in such a remarkable place, far from modern distractions, in a place where I used to simply daydream about while eating leftover soup.

It is truly a privilege to be able to spend such an extended amount of time on the Gunflint Trail. With each trip I take into the deep north woods, the more I understand that to truly know and understand something, you must return year after year, to take the time a place such as this truly requires. Attempting to summarize this unique work experience is difficult and I do so with the deepest respect to those summer staffers who have been faithfully returning for many summers. You know far better than I why a good green scrubbie is coveted, why a dirty 2P is vastly superior to a dirty 6P, the delicate aroma that is Scrub Free, the proper way to flip a canoe, and all the many quirks associated with each cabin. Not everyone sees with the same eyes, or speaks the same thoughts, which makes everyone’s experiences here unique and beautiful. I have also attached some of my own photos, which let loose a thousand more unspoken words. It is with these images that I can truly express how I feel about the lake country and my gratitude toward Tuscarora.

To all of you desk jockeys out there. I hope that this brief interlude into the inner workings of Tuscarora and the grandeur of the Boundary Waters has entertained you on your lunch break. In less days than I care to admit I will be dragging myself kicking and screaming back amongst your ranks to return to daydreaming over last night’s spaghetti. And yes, the phone is ringing, get back to work.

1 Response

  1. KEN says:

    Love the article-love the photos even more
    Ken F-
    former visitor-continual dream visitor