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.
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 prestigious Banff Mountain Film Festival, and I finally saw it when it was shown on Outside magazine’s website yesterday. 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“We went for a hike. The beach was a tumble of exposed bedrock, some formations looking like model pirate ships in silhouette, but soon the gravel narrowed and an outcrop of jagged rock faced us. The girls scrambled up a well-used trail, and then I saw Grace climbing, hand over hand, up the final short rock wall. I was about to yell my customary warning, but she had summited and Bailey was on her heels. They raised their arms, the Lake Superior wind whipping their hair, and I breathed two words: their Everest.”
- Chris Niskanen, Prairie, Lake, Forest: Minnesota’s State Parks
Chris Niskanen spent 17 years as an outdoors writer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, writing about fishing, hunting, camping and other outdoor pursuits popular in Minnesota. Then, in 2010, he left journalism to lead the communications efforts of the Department of Natural Resources.
During this career, he has written two books, one of which included photos from each of Minnesota’s 66 state parks and 16 essays by Niskasen.
The guy knows a thing or two about outdoors and nature writing. From the excerpt above, he also seems to know about raising adventure-loving daughters.
So I have two good reasons to attend a writing workshop being taught by Niskanen on Nov. 17 at Warner Nature Center in Marine on St. Croix. St. Croix River country being home to a lot of inspiring nature and inspired writers, this is an ideal location for the class.
The workshop is sponsored by ArtReach St. Croix (which I recently joined the board of) and will feature not only in-depth instruction about writing well, but a chance to get outside, too:
During this special writing workshop, author Chris Niskanen will talk about the importance of imagery, point of view, pace, dialogue and research in good nature writing. He’ll stress the importance of avoiding cliches and creating a strong voice and developing a sense of place. Chris believes good nature writing is rooted in keen observation and he will address the skills you should hone in your observation. Class participation is strongly encouraged and you will be challenged to take risks in your writing while enjoying a day of retreat at the Warner Nature Center. Meet other writers around the Nature Center’s 11′ diameter table made from a cross sectional “cookie” cut from the largest Douglas Fir that the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company ever cut down. Enjoy a guided mid-day hike on the Nature Center’s trails. Dress for the weather. Warner even has enough snow shoes for everyone if we need them! Bring a brown bag lunch. Hot and cold drinks provided.
The class costs $60 for ArtReach members and $65 for non-members. You can sign up here. I hope to see you there.
(Cross-posted from St. Croix 360.)
America’s original interstate highway system was its lakes and rivers. But most people today would choose automobile or airplane if they wanted to travel from the northernmost point of the Lower 48 to the southernmost point.
Not Daniel Alvarez. What would have been the adventure if he would have chosen transportation other than a kayak?
Alvarez is currently paddling from Lake of the Woods, specifically the part called the Northwest Angle, to the Florida Keys. His route has taken him across Voyageurs National Park, including Rainy Lake, and all along what’s known as The Border Route in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
From there, it was just a little eight-mile hike over to Lake Superior along the historic Grand Portage.
Outside magazine found the trip crazy enough to support with its first-ever Adventure Grant this spring. The magazine published a profile of Alvarez, calling the trip bold, inspired, and “slightly reckless.”
The word is that the Grand Portage paled in comparison to the other big portage on his trip, the Savanna Portage from the St. Louis River to the Mississippi. That six-mile trail is notoriously swampy and overgrown. Everyone following the trip was relieved when we heard from him after he finished it. It should be the last big portage of his 4,000 mile trip.
When Alvarez paddles into the Twin Cities this week, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness will be there to greet him. Indeed Brewing Company is graciously hosting a party on his behalf at their beautiful new taproom in northeast Minneapolis.
Everyone at the Friends is eager to congratulate Alvarez on his accomplishments so far, and thank him for his support. The adventurer is making a donation to the Friends and other conservation organizations working on behalf of the waterways he is paddling, as well as keeping up an inspiring pace on his well-written blog about the trip and the issues he learns about along the way.
I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite post from his blog so far, but Alvarez made as fine a case for wilderness in a blog post from July as anything I’ve read in recent years:
“Just look at a road map and ball your fist up,” Rolf Skrien said. “That”s how big it is, just the size of your fist on a map, that’s all the wild left.”
Rolf’s an old-timer, past 90, and other than when he was in the Pacific fighting World War II, he’s been paddling around the Boundary Waters. He used to run an outfitter off the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais and spent more nights on the lakes up there than off them.
The truth is, wilderness is indeed a dwindling resource. But Alvarez is paddling proof that it’s still out there, if you just go looking for it.
Cross-posted from The Heritage Initiative:
The seventh annual River Road Ramble is this Saturday, Sept. 22 along the scenic and historic highways of Polk and Burnett Counties in northwest Wisconsin.
The Ramble is a self-guided driving tour approximately 40 miles long. It features historic sites, open houses, food, garage sales, and fall colors along beautiful roads.
Ramblers are welcome to take the tour anytime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, traveling all or part of the route between St. Croix Falls and Grantsburg, and back again.
There are 20 historic sites on the route, including several one-room schoolhouses and churches. There are also about as many other kinds of stops, including the Festival Theater in St. Croix Falls, and River Roads Wolf Creek Bar, which has served liquor continuously since 1832.
Visit the River Road Ramble’s official website for details, including:
See you on the road!