With yards of heavy, white marine canvas, an awl, various woodstove parts, scattered spools of waxed nylon thread and a well-thumbed copy of Calvin Rutstrum’s book “Paradise Below Zero,” Nate Ptacek’s on-campus apartment at St. John’s University looked less like a college dorm than a wilderness outfitter’s shop.
Using the Rutstrum book as a guide, Ptacek hand-sewed his own winter camping tent — a battered old Singer machine broke within the first hour — and pieced together a stove. When the thermometer dropped to minus 13 degrees, he and his buddies decided to take it outside. They went camping in the university’s nearby woods.
“I made a few design flaws with the angle of the stovepipe and locating the stove in the back of the tent,” recalled Ptacek, of Ventura, Calif., now 33 and a video producer for the outdoor gear company Patagonia. “All in all, it worked great.”
Spoken like a true winter camper. As an environmental studies student back in Collegeville, Minn., Ptacek embraced the midcentury writings of Rutstrum, the Minnesota-raised wilderness adventurer who sold more than 700,000 books in his lifetime but has since faded from public consciousness.
For traditionalists such as Ptacek, “Paradise Below Zero,” published in 1968, remains a popular and even essential reference. Written before the wide use of many synthetic materials, Rutstrum speaks of moose-hide mittens tied on a cord, wool socks and underwear, mukluks, anoraks trimmed with wolf fur, goose-down layers, and Hudson Bay blankets. “I must have fallen out of the cradle and into the woods,” Rutstrum once said. “And enjoyed it.”
Rutstrum, who died at 86 in 1982, wrote 15 books on outdoor life, almost all of them with a vigorous how-to emphasis. His New York Times obituary (online at bit.ly/rutstrum) said he was a “writer who prepared countless future disciples for canoe travel.”
One of his crusades was to get dog sledders to stop using the clichéd shout “Mush!” (which he oddly claimed came from the French word “marché” for market) and say “Whoit!” instead. Kirkus Reviews said “Paradise Below Zero” is a “practical guide for the winter hiker everywhere, and a ‘whoit’ for the sale of woolen longjohns.”
Among his disciples is Dave Freeman of Grand Marais, Minn., who along with wife Amy were named National Geographic Explorers of the Year in 2014. “ ‘Paradise Below Zero’ is one of my favorites,” Freeman said. “I especially love the story about the father-daughter [pair] that snowshoed down Lake Winnipeg with him. I traveled down Lake Winnipeg as one of my first long winter trips and used his book as a reference while preparing for that journey.”
Rutstrum was born of Swedish immigrants in Hobart, Ind., and the family moved to Minnesota by 1898. At 3, he and his father caught pneumonia at the same time; his father died. Rutstrum dropped out of school at 13 to deliver dry cleaning, and by 18, he was on a 100-day canoe trip on the meandering Big Fork River to Rainy Lake, and he was hooked.
He held a series of odd jobs and served in the Navy before becoming a criminal investigator for the American Banking Association. For 10 years, he compiled daily reports, and he credited that experience with teaching him to write.
In 1946, after a decade as a counselor at an outdoors camp near Brainerd, he wrote a locally published manual, “The Way of the Wilderness,” a version of which eventually came to the attention of the New York publisher Macmillan. The revised work, with illustrations by Minnesota artist Les Kouba, became Macmillan’s “The New Way of the Wilderness” in 1958, with a first run of 52,000 and a selection for the Outdoor Book of the Month Club. From then on, Rutstrum, who also dabbled in land speculation on the North Shore near Hovland, Minn., earned enough to tramp and write full time.
He was old-school, suspicious of new gadgets, using only what had proven itself. But Rutstrum did not reject every new camping invention out of hand, if it increased comfort. “Why anyone should unnecessarily resort to corporal punishment for sheer bravado, I have never been able to grasp,” he wrote.
‘He was the end of an era’
Veteran wilderness adventurers fondly remember Rutstrum and his work.
The Arctic explorer Paul Schurke of Ely, Minn., said he is a “huge fan” of Rutstrum. “ ‘Paradise Below Zero’ was our ‘bible’ as we engaged in the winter world,” he said in an e-mail. He also recalled that during his first winter living in the Ely woods, while serving as caretaker for fellow explorer Will Steger’s cabin when Steger was on an Arctic trek, Schurke used Rutstrum’s directions for improving a wood-burning stove. He cut a hole in the floor under the stove and wrapped the whole thing in sheet metal, as Rutstrum’s book advised. “It worked great, but Will wasn’t too happy about the hole in the floor when he returned,” Schurke said. He added that he had recently returned from a camping trip marked by temperatures that dropped to 39 below, saying, “It’s ‘Paradise Below Zero’ out there indeed!”
Cliff Jacobson, the River Falls, Wis., writer and canoeist, met Rutstrum at one of his cabins in the 1970s. Jacobson had returned from an Alaska trip wearing newfangled neoprene rubber boots; Rutstrum was in his usual leather moccasins. “I said, ‘What do you think of these boots?’ and he said, ‘Cliff, if there was a better way of doing it, don’t you think I’d be doing it?’ ”
Bob O’Hara of St. Louis Park, who organizes the Far North Symposium for paddlers in the Twin Cities every spring, has canoed all over the North American continent for more than six decades; he hosted Rutstrum at a Boy Scout troop meeting in the early 1950s. “He was before the time of synthetic and lightweight options for camping,” O’Hara recalled.
Perhaps because of his focus on experiences, Rutstrum’s work has not had the staying power or a wider audience outside of hard-core adventurers as the writings of his contemporary Sigurd Olson, the nationally renowned wilderness advocate from Ely who wrote with a more philosophical (and less practical) touch.
“I do a lot of outdoor shows,” Jacobson said. “And I ask people to raise their hands if they’ve heard of Sig Olson, and about 80 percent do. And then I ask about Calvin Rutstrum, and maybe 10 percent do.” The state of Minnesota remembers, however; there is a 24-acre Wildlife Management Area named after the author (he donated the land) east of Scandia on the St. Croix River. “He was the end of an era,” O’Hara said.
A bent for poets and philosophers
Among the canvas, wool, leather and rubber, there is more of an environmental ethic in Rutstrum than first meets the eye.
“Man’s most valuable experiment in the ecological program so far, though he will not admit it, has simply been ‘hands off,’ ” he wrote. He supported his views with William Wordsworth, Aristotle and German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but nonetheless most readers (“that vast, captive urban population who daily cower from the cold”) would think of him as more Huck Finn than Henry David Thoreau, more technically competent than romantic. “You don’t have to be concerned with a prissy standard of fastidiousness on the winter trail,” he noted.
He died on Feb. 5, 1982, in a hospital in Osceola, Wis., not far from his home at Marine on St. Croix, three weeks and one day after his friend Olson passed away. Rutstrum was survived by his wife, Florence; they had no children. “I’m convinced, beyond any question of a doubt, that when this life is finished you are a forgotten entity,” he once told an interviewer. “I don’t think there is an afterlife.”
But for enthusiastic outdoor adventurers, he is not forgotten.
Mark Neužil teaches journalism and environmental studies at the University of St. Thomas. He is the co-author, with Norman Sims, of “Canoes: A Natural History in North America” (University of Minnesota Press, 2016).