Hey, high schoolers: Want to give up your cellphone and laptop?
Want to get wet and dirty?
OK, want to get away from your parents for five days?
Good. Now I have your attention.
You have until 11:59 p.m. Sunday to write an essay that could win you and up to three friends a free, fully outfitted, five-day canoe-camping adventure to one of the world’s most spectacular spots: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Jason Zabokrtsky, founder and head guide of Ely Outfitting Co., long dreamed of creating this parent- (and Siri-) free contest, not that he doesn’t love parents, or Siri.
He’s just eager to celebrate unstructured, unplugged time outside, and to show modern kids how much they are capable of when outfitted with top gear and a can-do spirit. (Clearly marked navigation maps also don’t hurt, so they’re included, along with specialized trail meals.)
“This is the perfect opportunity for a kid to be a kid outdoors,” said Zabokrtsky, 43, who has lived in Ely year-round for 14 years. “They’re going to challenge themselves, develop decisionmaking skills and think critically, all the great stuff that comes from being on an adventure.”
He added, “We’ll do everything we can to make sure it’s a great and safe experience.”
That, moms and dads, means that he and his team will help the teens select an appropriate route based on previous experiences (or lack thereof), abilities and interests, as well as conducting a detailed pre-trip orientation.
The teens will carry an emergency communication device and are required to wear life jackets whenever canoeing or swimming.
“We encourage high schoolers to talk with their parents about applying,” he said. “Parents know best, but one of the most wonderful things about the Boundary Waters is that there are canoe routes that fit people with all sorts of experiences. Maybe they’ll spend all four nights at the same campsite to build up their camping skills without taking on too much.”
It’s an important start.
Zabokrtsky nodded to recent studies showing that young people today spend as little as four to seven minutes outdoors each day. That’s less time than prison inmates get.
“Time in front of a screen is replacing time around a stream,” he said. “This new reality is leading to health issues, including increased anxiety, obesity and attention deficit disorder.”
Zabokrtsky was born and raised in east central Iowa on a “typical, old-time family farm” with cows, pigs, sheep, corn and soybeans. He regularly walked about a half-mile through a pasture to a river, where he spent his childhood fishing and canoeing.
He moved to Minnesota 20 years ago to work as a guide on the Gunflint Trail “and fell in love with this part of the world.”
Now he wants to share that love with young people.
The contest is open to high school sophomores, juniors and seniors, all of whom must be at least 15 and no older than 18 when the trip begins this summer.
Teens will be prompted to answer, in 1,000 to 1,500 words, this question: “Why do you want to go on a parent-free BWCA Wilderness canoe-camping adventure with your friends?”
Pay attention to spelling, grammar and flow. Be original and thoughtful. And don’t worry if the only canoe you’ve seen is on the bumper sticker of your neighbor’s car. No experience is required.
Along with Zabokrtsky, the judges are Kemia Sarraf, founder of Generation Healthy Kids; her 16-year-old adventurer son, Joseph Goldstein; 2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Amy Freeman; and North Woods entrepreneur Wendy Lindsay.
The winner will be announced March 6. More information on the contest is at elyoutfittingcompany.com/essaycontest.