12 May, 2014

Transitioning Seasons and Attitudes

I’ve watched enough Weather Channel over the years to know that Minnesota is notorious for its lengthy, frigid winters. I did not, however, expect to see icebergs on Lake Superior. Nor did I expect to push through the occasional snowdrift alongside Lake Bemidji, or be told we might not get to go canoeing at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area because most of the lakes were still frozen – in May! And the next time we arrive in a campground with running water will be the first. “We’re supposed to get a few more nights down below freezing so we decided to keep the water off“ is an explanation I’ve grown tired of hearing. Kristin is convinced I timed our departure and planned our route in order to chase winter, to skip spring entirely, then thrust us into the heat of summer. If that was my intent, it was a plan well-executed.

Our outfitter in Ely managed to find some open lakes for us to paddle after all.

Our outfitter in Ely managed to find some open lakes for us to paddle after all.

Despite the unseasonably-cold temperatures, signs of spring abound. We’ve spent the past few days riding along the scenic coast of Lake Superior’s northern shore and it seems as if we can’t go ten miles without crossing another thundering river overflowing its banks and hurtling itself over cliff and log into the Big Lake with reckless abandon. We can spot a river crossing from a half-mile way – the mouth of each river is marked by a slick of chocolate brown sediment and tannins – and then hear it moments later, well before we can see it. We stared in wonder at the volume and ferocity of the water gushing over Gooseberry Falls then, further up the coast, from the mouths of the Cross, Temperance, and Cascade Rivers, among numerous others. We saw the snow in the interior, we pedaled past dozens upon dozens of frozen lakes, and rolled alongside the endless sparkling reflections of white paper birch forests glistening in watery roadside ditches and bogs. Yet the mind still struggles to understand where all this water is coming from. Kayakers from all over the country reportedly flock to this area of Minnesota each spring to catch the melt-out. Sadly, we’ve only seen their creek boats strapped to the roofs of their Subarus. Perhaps the flow was even too much for the daring.

The amount of water flowing out of the MN interior was positively mind-boggling.

The amount of water flowing out of the MN interior was positively mind-boggling.

Spring is coming a little slower along the Big Lake's northern shore.

Spring is coming a little slower along the Big Lake’s northern shore.

The melting ice and swollen rivers isn’t the only change we’ve encountered as we make our way east. The attitudes about our trip are changing as well. Up until this past week we’ve never once been asked if we were doing this trip “for a cause.” Not once in all the years we spent planning and saving did our Seattle-area friends and acquaintances ever ask us that. Neither did any of the strangers we chatted with during our weeks spent cycling across Washington, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota. It was understood that a trip of this sort doesn’t need justification. To do it was enough. But here in Minnesota we were asked about “a cause” a half-dozen times in two days. By people who knew us for less time than it takes to read this paragraph.

Not so mighty near its headwaters, but an important dividing line between East and West nonetheless.

Not so mighty near its headwaters, but an important dividing line between East and West nonetheless.

The question at first bothered me. A lot. But as the miles ticked by and I thought about it some more, I started to get depressed. I felt sorry for these people whose first inclination, rather than shared excitement or astonishment, was to seek justification. It wasn’t lost on me that these questions only started to come once we crossed the headwaters of the Mississippi River; Minnesota may not consider itself an Eastern state, but, to this former New Jerseyite, these observations suggest otherwise. I wonder about a place whose people (some, not all) instinctively seek to justify and assess the actions, even those of complete strangers, by first asking about a stack of dollars. Has the need to maximize productivity become so hardwired that the mere thought of the outrageous delivers a short-circuit to the conduits of politeness? Or is it a function of guilt or peer-pressure? These are two phenomena that I’ve striven hard to distance myself from as an adult — with some success — so there is the chance that I just don’t understand it.

Split Rock Lighthouse from a nearby beach.

Split Rock Lighthouse from a nearby beach.

But if the layman on the street is wondering about the “cause” for our our trip, then perhaps you are too?

Those who know us well know that we’re not the type to ask for money or donations to a charity. Whenever we’ve decided to do a charity bike ride or other such event, we’ve never done any fundraising. Doing so feels icky. We just wrote the modest checks ourselves to cover the fundraising requirements. I have two very personal thoughts about this. For starters, in my opinion, everyone is already inundated with options to donate and don’t need new suggestions. Bike rides like the Tour de Cure, for example, are great fun and generate a lot of money for diabetes research. People know about diabetes and don’t need me to educate them. If they want to donate, I believe they will on their own accord. Secondly, and perhaps more to the question at hand, I don’t believe in trying to disguise my own personal interests and hobbies as some sort of noble deed. I’m the type who believes in giving, and I do, but if I want to run a marathon or race a triathlon, I’ll just do it. If I wanted to climb Mt. Rainier or ride my bike around the world, I’d save up the money and do it. This isn’t to say that charity-based activities are bad and that everyone who does them are disingenuous, but I personally don’t believe in masking my own selfish interests in some sort of cloak of benevolence. Similarly, I didn’t seek any sponsorships for this trip for a similar reason: I didn’t want to contaminate this trip, a life’s dream, with the need to plug product.

Since that’s too much to explain to a stranger in the street, let me add my freshly-rehearsed response. I suspect I’ll use some form of it often as we venture further east. “The cause is to inspire others to not postpone their dreams for a retirement that isn’t guaranteed. The goal is to inspire others to travel more, slower, and further than their two weeks of vacation allows. The purpose is to encourage people to rethink the prescribed way of life.”

But the true cause for doing this trip is because I couldn’t think of a reason not to.

Shot directly below our campsite at Lake Tettegouche State Park.

Shot directly below our campsite at Lake Tettegouche State Park.