Four teenage girls. Two tents. One hundred and thirty hours of nonstop togetherness. No cellphones. Lots of bugs. And one relentless thunderstorm. No reality show here. Just the formula for a sensational week.
"It was really perfect," said Julia Ruelle of her recent weeklong adventure to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) with three childhood friends.
"By disconnecting and unplugging, we kind of lost the drama," said Julia, 16, of Minnetonka. "It was amazing having them all with me. I had to be responsible for so many things, but it was really cool."
Earlier this year, Julia won an essay contest sponsored by the Ely Outfitting Co. Its founder, Jason Zabokrtsky, created the contest to get kids away from technology by awarding a five-day, fully outfitted canoe and camping adventure with up to three friends. (elyoutfittingcompany.com)
No parents or guides allowed.
Julia, who in April completed treatment for a rare but highly curable brain tumor, wrote that she longed to be back in her cherished BWCA with its "hypnotic serenity." While she'd been to the area many times with her family, sharing the experience with friends would be icing on the cake.
She struggled to narrow down "quite a big list" to the final three. "A lot of it was just parents," she said. "Getting their approval was kind of a tall order."
Having a satellite phone and promising to check in twice during the week sealed the deal for the parental units of Anna Wander, 16, Madeline Wilson, 16, and Julianna Torelli, 15. Julia's mom, Linda, stayed in Ely throughout the week.
"The first thing that hit me when I saw Julia and her friends were the big smiles," Linda said, recalling their return. "They had such a good time."
The four Minnetonka High School juniors arrived in Ely on June 10 for orientation. Zabokrtsky guided them to an out-and-back route "with flexibility," Julia said, "and he pointed out a lot of good campsites along the way."
They set out the next day at 7 a.m., quickly developing a routine. "We would wake up early … oh, man … and, every day, we were done paddling by noon," Julia said. "We ate lunch at the campsites — we were pretty hungry by that time — then it was hammocks, read, write, make friendship bracelets, talk, nap.
"I have known them most of my life," Julia said of her three friends, "but I did definitely learn a lot. We always were talking before bed, about specific things and thoughts in general. There are intricacies in my friends' lives that I hadn't quite realized."
She even produced a delightful three-minute video that she posted to YouTube: https://youtu.be/svdZHboAnyo
Like Julia, the three friends all had some experience in the great outdoors.
Anna had been to the Boundary Waters with her family and backpacked on the Superior Hiking Trail. "I love how you are kind of separated from everything in your life, especially technology," Anna said. Without her phone, she said, "I'm a lot less worried about things. When I have it, I feel like I need to be constantly checking it to make sure things are OK."
Anna's favorite aspect was nestling into a hammock after their campsite was set up "and looking at the lake." She did the math to realize they'd be together for 130 hours, "without a break. We got along pretty well," she said.
" … But we joked that any longer," Madeline added, "and we might have had a couple squabbles."
Madeline joined Anna for most of the dish cleanup — without complaining, Julia noted. Madeline, too, had been to the Boundary Waters a few years back, "but I remember just going along for the ride the first time," she said. "This time, I had to paddle right, set up camp."
Not a fan of bugs, Madeline wore a mesh suit, which had the girls laughing quite a bit. "I knew I'd adapt, but it was not fun."
Julianna, who spent time in the Boundary Waters with YMCA Camp Menogyn, was the essential designated cook. Breakfast was blueberry pancakes, granola, oatmeal; lunches were sandwiches with pita bread. They had a propane stove but usually built a campfire for evening meals.
"A lot of the meals required boiling water, so Julia made the fire and I made the dinner," Julianna said. "My steak Stroganoff was pretty good."
No one was ever hungry, or homesick, Julia said. But they were admittedly on edge the final night as they waited out a sensational thunderstorm. They left soaking sleeping bags in one tent, and squeezed into the other for the night.
"Every thunderstorm in the Boundary Waters feels huge," Julia said. "It's really humbling."
On the car ride home, they were all on their phones catching up with friends, which was somewhat bittersweet.
"It was a little overwhelming turning my phone on," said Anna, who works as a summer camp counselor at her church. Her parents "were very happy to have me home, but also very impressed at how we were able to make everything work in the Boundary Waters," she said. "You just have to be prepared to rough it a little bit, carry things and figure out things for yourself."
Madeline, who returns to nanny and mentor kids, is relieved to know "there's an escape from society and, still, those untouched places in nature."
Julianna was back to competitive swimming three hours daily for her club team. She returns to the Boundary Waters with Menogyn in a few weeks, but noted with some relief that they'll have a guide.
As for supreme host Julia? The day after her return home, she headed to Washington, D.C., to join other representatives of Kids for the Boundary Waters, an offshoot of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which has long been her passion. The teens met with lawmakers to urge them to protect the pristine area for future generations.
"For me, growing up and going to the Boundary Waters has been pivotal to the person I've become," said Julia, who will continue to get MRIs every three months to make sure the tumor is gone.
"Mental health can be improved so much in the Boundary Waters. It really helps to get away and reconnect with yourself."