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Barbara Drake Minn. Trip

Roughing it in Minnesota

By Barbara Drake

Barbara Drake recently visited Bert Hyde and his wife in Ely, MN. In his altonhigh65.com profile he describes himself: Outward Bound Inst.Course Director Wilderness Ranger Dogsled Musher USFs. Homesteading a40 acre inholding in the Superior National Forest.

In February 2015, I traveled from the civilized world of the Kentucky Bluegrass to a wilderness in northeast Minnesota.  Sounds crazy, right?  My family and friends thought so.  But a couple of close friends understood my passion for wild places and animals.  They shouted "Carpe Diem" at me until I summoned the nerve to book the trip.  

I've always had a passionate interest in wolves and other wild predators.  Visiting Ely, Minnesota, home of the International Wolf Center, was on my bucket list. Through Facebook,  I had recently learned that Bert Hyde, an old home town friend [and '65 AHS classmate], lived in Ely and was a wilderness guru.  We chatted a bit online and he extended an invitation to any of his friends who wanted to visit.  I really don't think he expected me to take him up on it.  I hadn't seen Bert since 1965.  FIVE decades ago!  I was unaware that on the night of our high school graduation, he hopped a bus and moved from southern Illinois to Ely, MN.  He has lived there ever since.  He and his wife, Johnnie, live in a log home that he built on 40 acres of wilderness, bordered in part by a pristine lake.  Bert spent his adult life working for the Forest Service and Outward Bound.  Johnnie owns Raven Productions, Inc., a small nature-focused publishing company in Ely.  They have both worked as EMTs and fire fighters.  They raised their daughter, Kahsha, in that 40 acre wilderness.  In winter they ski, snowshoe, hunt, trap, and snowmobile.  In warmer weather, they camp, canoe, garden, and explore.  

Bert and Johnnie enjoy their life off the grid and what may seem like "doing without" to most of us is for them just figuring out how to get what they need without a power line or running water.  They recently installed solar electricity to power their satellite internet connection, and they use solar and propane for lighting.  Most of their water is collected from the lake just down the trail, where they have built a sauna/cabin.  From that lake, with help and camaraderie of neighbors, they cut huge ice blocks in winter for refrigeration in warm weather.  Much of their food is grown in their garden.  On the wood stove, they cook and heat water for washing, sometimes wearing headlamps at night, also needed for trekking to the outhouse in the dark.  In cold weather, the fire always burns in the living area stove, and another stove heats their bedroom.  A loft upstairs stays warm due to the heat rising from below.  It's not at all difficult to stay comfortable, even at -30F.  The good side effects of this lifestyle are a small carbon footprint and very low utility bills.  

This self-sustaining lifestyle isn't for everyone, but Bert and Johnnie prefer and enjoy it.  Still in his teens, Bert knew he felt most comfortable outdoors.  Educating himself to thrive in wilderness life was a labor of love.  He passed his knowledge on to countless others through Outward Bound programs.  Johnnie grew up living the outdoor life in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, camping, hunting, and fishing.  Together, they translated their experiences into a rugged, but fun and rewarding life in Minnesota.  Now she utilizes her expertise through her publishing company, with the hopes of educating our youth about the wonders of the wilderness.

I, on the other hand, am no expert at outdoor living.  I do enjoy being in nature, and have hiked and camped often.  But, I've always lived like most of us, using electricity and indoor plumbing.  When I booked my flight, I wasn't aware of what I'd be going without.  My mindset had to be altered dramatically to prepare for a 10 day stay.  I figured I could handle the no electricity part.  I'd lived in a frigid climate before, having spent several winters in NE Wyoming where it had reached -30F.  I'd spent lots of time hunkering down next to a toasty warm wood fire.  I could do that again, but what tilted my world off its axis was Johnnie's comment.  She admonished me, saying my biggest challenge would be the outhouse!  Now, who hasn't used an outhouse?  Who enjoys it?  Not I!  Bad dreams about potty breaks in sub-zero temps haunted me for weeks.  

Without sharing too much information, I will spare your sensibilities by leaving outhouse details to your imagination.  But I must remark on how difficult it was (once I located the correct trail), to get myself situated enough to let nature take its course.  This involves manipulating the reams of coat, pants, boots, hat, and mittens needed to reach the outhouse in the first place.  The enclosure is not heated, but styrofoam seats do lessen the shock of exposing areas where the sun don't shine.  I didn't like it but I got used to it.  At least the air was so cold that my sense of smell was not offended.  That's all I have to say about that.  

On February 12 I flew into Duluth where Bert met me at the airport.  I chose these dates because Ely hosts an annual Ely Winter Festival.  Lots of creative snow sculptures encircle the city park, and local art is displayed in the shops.  It would be a fun time to go.  But Bert and I hadn't seen each other for 50 YEARS  and we were virtual strangers.  It was a leap of faith for me to commit to a visit and an even bigger gamble for them to invite me.  Our chemistry could have gone sour the first hour.  But happily, we got along great and I tried hard not to play any Diva cards.  It was going to be a tough 10 days but I am a stubborn person and, for me, it's do or die trying.  

From Duluth, we drove to the Ely area, then further on to the Hyde homestead which is located in the woods several miles off the hard road.  While still on the highway, a moose stood on the side of the road to welcome me .  It was beyond exciting, even for Bert who hadn't seen a moose in two years.  A good omen! Soon we reached the end of the road where their cars and snowmobile are parked.   In winter, with several feet of snow, the only way to reach the  property is by snowmobile or skis.  Fortunately, I didn't have to ski and drag my luggage (I'd still be out there).   Bert's snowmobile seats two and he pulls a sled for hauling groceries and other gear, so that was my introduction to a snowmobile and their secluded woods. 

Ready for the ride, I thought I'd be plenty warm with my down parka and snow boots, which were guaranteed for below zero weather.  Well, maybe, but not for a freeze your ass off  -20F below, plus the biting wind of a snowmobile ride.  Bert knew this and brought along REAL Minnesota outdoor gear.  After over an hour of a nice, warm car ride, I had to shed my city clothes and change into what felt like a 20 pound parka, snow pants, huge leather mittens, and mukluks made of moose hide.  Not to mention a helmet that covered my entire face and head and basically made me feel like a caterpillar in a cocoon.  Fortunately, Bert showed great patience while I struggled to tug myself into this unfamiliar wardrobe.  Actually, I never did get used to it because the sheer bulk of all that clothing was like suiting up for a moon launch.  Gearing up for outside would be like going to war, every time.  First I had to latch the zipper of the parka at the bottom, then pull it up to my neck.  Sounds easy, right?  Not when reams of heavy material gather up in between, and I lose sight of the zipper completely!  Then it unlatches at the bottom and I have to start all over again! Frustrating does not begin to describe what would become a daily battle for me.  It always took several attempts to complete what should have been an easy process.  And here at the snowmobile on my first day, trying to do it outside in sub-zero temps was nearly impossible.  After about a minute, I was sure my fingers were frostbitten and would soon to fall off.   It's so hard to make your hands work when they've turned into frozen sticks that would shatter before they would bend.  

With Bert's help, I was finally all suited up and we zoomed off down the trail toward the house.  I held onto him for dear life, imagining I would be tossed off, only to suffocate in a snowbank.  But, travel weary as I was, I soon settled in to a slightly hypnotic trance and could have easily fallen asleep.  It was like that on every ride from then on.  If you're ever nervous or need some relaxation, just hop on the back of a snowmobile and find your zen.  However, I was suddenly jolted out of my dreamworld when Bert stopped to check out some tracks.  They were wolf tracks right there on the trail!  I could just imagine a wolf pack sniffing around on the trail, hunting dinner. I've spent several years around captive wolves, but have never been in close proximity to a wild wolf pack.  Thrilling does not describe my feelings on seeing those tracks.  Many people don't know this, but healthy wolves do not attack people, and I've never been afraid.  Wolves are shy and wary of humans, and are probably miles away at the first hum of a snowmobile.  To have seen them there would have been a dream come true, with absolutely no fear.  Bert has had encounters with wild wolves which have always been mutually respectful.  

After about 20 minutes, we reached the log home where Thistle, the domesticated cousin of the wolf, waited for us.  Thistle is a husky, the last of a sled dog team. Yes, Bert and Johnnie are mushers, too.  Thistle is now old and wobbly from bad hips, and is spending the winter inside with his people.  A sweeter, more gentle soul cannot be found, and he was our constant companion during my stay.  

The following days awakened me to a lifestyle of an earlier century.  With no tv, books are a major source of knowledge and entertainment.  Their house is a virtual library, books literally wall to wall; most are nature and "how to" books.  No tv, but they do have a radio, always tuned to NPR.  The kitchen window spans an entire wall where right outside is a large table for feeding the birds.  Bird watching substitutes for tv and I saw many species not found in Kentucky, which was always a treat.  In addition to books, layers of animal hides are stored around the house.  Bert traps beaver and hunts deer; the hides are a useful by-product.  He has skillfully created hats from beaver fur, which are warmer than anything I could buy at a store.  He crafted a unique knife for me with a handle made of deer leg bone, and an elk hide sheath for storage.  It's one thing to live "off the grid"; it's quite another to create masterpieces harvested from the environment.  

The first outdoor activity I tried (and I use that word loosely) was snowshoeing. Let me tell you about snowshoeing.  It's hard!  You have to bend your knee and lift your leg up sideways at the hip.  The human body (at least my body) is not designed to move that way.  And, snowshoes are wide, like a whole lot wider than feet.  Once you get your legs up and out at that ridiculous angle, you have to set your feet down far enough apart so those huge webbed saucers don't cross.  If they cross, you fall down.  I did that a lot.  Fortunately, I wore many layers of clothes, and the snow was heavy and soft, so falling just felt like floating in a cloud.  I guess we were out there about an hour but it felt like I had run a marathon.  Even though it was -20F, I was sweating like I'd been in a sauna and I was exhausted.   By the way, we did take a sauna one night in their cabin/sauna down the trail.  On its wood stove, water was heated for use as a shower after we expelled our toxins in the "sweat lodge".  I'm told that after the sauna, it's their practice to jump in the lake to wash off.  I decided to take that on faith.  

Another day they took me cross country skiing.  I should say Bert and Johnnie skied.  I wobbled and crash landed like a toddler in a bouncy house.  I had skied before but it had been more than 20 years.  It was humiliating, especially since Johnnie skis to and from her car, an hour's trip, several times a week.  Again, I spent considerable time butt-planting in the snow.  Finally, Johnnie went on ahead to get some real skiing done and Bert patiently stayed with me.  I think I could have eventually found my zone and maybe even some swagger, but my feet were getting numb so I called it quits.  Next time I'll be swishing like an Olympian.  

We made several trips to the small town of Ely (remember, 20 minute snowmobile to and from to the car). I met some of their friends - congenial, home town folks who actually choose to live in that climate.  But, really, I can see why.  Even though it's a deep freeze and there's snow everywhere, the roads are always plowed.  They know how to get around in Minnesota, unlike Kentucky where the first snowflake brings a mad rush to the grocery for milk and TP.   Ely attracts many naturalists and tourists.  It's home to wolf experts Jim Brandenburg and David Mech, and naturalist and explorer Will Steger.  Tourists and locals alike ski, snowmobile, and mush dog teams in winter.  In summer, a wilderness awaits for campers, fishermen, canoeists, and kayakers.  It is, after all, the Land of 10,000 Lakes.  

One evening, we visited the International Wolf Center where we viewed a special dine-in experience with the resident captive wolf pack.  Once a week, a deer carcass is dragged into the outdoor enclosure.  We watched from the other side of a glass wall while the wolves tentatively sniffed, then selected choice morsels to chew on.  They did not fight, they did not gorge themselves.  They would spend the next week slowing devouring the carcass until all that's left are hide and bones.  Those they use for chew toys.  Nothing is wasted, unlike us humans who throw out more food than we eat.  A Bear museum also calls Ely home, but it's closed in the winter since the bears hibernate.  Of course, plenty of wild wolves and bears live all around Ely.  Bert and Johnnie have had many encounters with their wild neighbors.  As I said, wolves mostly keep to themselves.  Bears, not so much.  You can ask the Hydes about that.  

Another thing about Ely:  It has Showers!  The modest local gym seemed like the Hotel Ritz to me.  Showering there allowed me to wash away any accumulated grossness.  Mind you, I live in the "modern" world and am used to my daily showers, shampoos, and leg shaving.  After a few days without those luxuries, I felt like a cast member of the Walking Dead.  But, it was worth it because of all the exciting experiences I had that can't be provided by soap and a razor.  

We shopped at several stores on the main street, ate at a cozy restaurant, and perused the the library.   We visited Raven Productions, Johnnie's business in town, where they publish nature books focusing on local wilderness stories mostly geared to youth.  I brought home some lovely books for my grandchildren.  Johnnie's business is named after the raven, Johnnie's spirit animal.  Ravens and eagles are an important part of the food chain in northern Minnesota.  Wolves and ravens share a unique, symbiotic relationship.  Ravens alert wolves to prey; wolves clean up the carcasses and leave choice tidbits for the birds and smaller mammals.   

So, between a few trips to town and hanging out at the homestead, we survived one of the coldest spells the area had seen in awhile.  Even the locals and the radio station were talking about it. One night,  It reached -37F near Ely, and I was assured that the temperature sometimes bottoms out at twice that. I hadn't witnessed that kind of killing cold since living in Wyoming, but, really, it wasn't so bad.  As long as I had proper clothing and a toasty wood fire to sit by, I was fine.  

One problem remained, however.  I was not used to lugging myself around in extra pounds of coat, hats, pants, mukluks, mufflers, and mittens..  Kentucky gets cold, no question, but I can get by.  Below zero temps and snow don't last all winter in Kentucky.  I'm usually just in and out of my heated car so I don't need a ton of extra clothing.  Wearing heavy, bulky Minnesota clothes was another story.  Mindfulness is talked about a lot these days, but in frigid weather, it is mandatory.  I learned to be aware of what I was carrying and where I put things.  I was constantly losing items (sorry Bert) and we had to backtrack to locate items I'd dropped or forgotten along the way.  When you're wearing mittens the size of a small child, you don't even realize you've dropped something.  With hats and mufflers covering your face, you don't know where you're going or where you've been.  One day, I actually forgot which car I was riding in, but heck, I do that at home.  I wasn't good at being acutely aware of my environment, and it could have turned out badly if I didn't have an Outward Bound wilderness expert there to guide me.  

Amazingly, still friends after mutual adjustments and toleration, we finally had to say goodbye.   It was like leaving a chapter from history and re-entering a modern parallel universe..   Having developed such admiration for Bert & Johnnie and their self-sustaining lifestyle, I felt humbled and inept.  I thought I was doing my part for the earth by rolling my recycling bin to the curb every week.  Now I realize I should be doing lots more.  I will always opt for indoor plumbing (sorry Bert) but I can conserve my power sources.  Switching off lights and unplugging appliances is second nature to me, but instead of turning on a lamp, I can read at night by the light of an LED device.  I can grow some of my own food and I can compost.  Avoiding fossil fuel usage is nearly impossible these days, and few would want to.  I'm glad I have the internet to create, share, and educate.   But, still, it's one thing to talk the talk, another to truly walk the walk.  People like Bert and Johnnie, who live "off the grid" are literally practicing and enjoying what they preach.  Most of us wouldn't want to go to that extreme, but we can certainly educate ourselves and practice ways to reduce our carbon footprint.  

Because I took this trip that many called crazy, I learned that I could survive without a daily shower, that the snow sparkles like diamonds at night, that I'd forgotten how many stars are out there putting on a show that few ever see.  I learned what it feels like to be outside at -30F, that the night is as dark and silent as a tomb, except for the occasional hoot of an owl or the howling of wolves.  I learned that I don't need TV; I can go outside and follow animal tracks or listen to the wind.  Maybe I could see the Northern Lights.  I learned that wild rice still grows in the lakes (as long as they stay unpolluted), and that a fungus called Chaga grows on trees and can be used to make tea.  So much more awaits, and my only regret is that I waited so long to experience it.  Bert and Johnnie have embraced this life and are happy to share their knowledge and expertise.  I traveled to Minnesota to visit strangers and left with amazing new friends.  Back in high school, our senior yearbook featured Senior Superlatives: Most Llikely to Succeed, Friendliest, etc.  A select few out of over 600 students were voted on by their classmates.  Most of us were just somewhere in between.  I never in a thousand years imagined what the future had in store for Bert Hyde, or should I say what he had in store for his future!  He and Johnnie have achieved their dream and excelled.  I'd like to go back in time and put that in our yearbook.  

On our drive to their home the first day, a moose stood by the road to welcome me.  During the ensuing week, I saw tracks of snowshoe hares, martens, deer, and, of course, the wolves that inhabit the property.   On the drive out on my last day, a wolf stood at the edge of the road and watched us, as if to bid farewell.  I could not have asked for more.