In the distance I saw a spark shoot up toward the sky. A sight like that could only mean one thing...FIRE! Eric arrived approximately 20 minutes ahead of us and immediately had set to work on a fire. While the fire did little to warm us, it did help us boil some much-needed water and give us the feeling of security, and for that we were thankful. It wasn't until we were feeling settled that the realization that a misread distance on the map was the explanation for the extended leg we had just completed. It no longer mattered; the most important thing now was to set up our sleeping arrangements.
These sanctuaries in the middle of nowhere are nothing more than three-sided wooden structures with a slanted roof and a bench along each wall. They are not complex buildings, but merely a place to retreat if an emergency requires it or a break from falling snow or rain perhaps. The condition I was in was a far cry from ‘a break from the rain’ and some where north of ‘emergency’. "Stay in this moment", was what I kept repeating to myself as I worked on the task of putting my pad and sleeping bag together with my water, food, and extra clothing near by. Surprisingly, it didn't take long for me to arrange the setup in the ultra freezing air. However, during my haste to complete the task I had left my hands exposed to the air for more than the 90 seconds that they seemed to be able to handle. I had lost feeling in my fingertips, especially on my left hand. Once secured in my bag with a Nalgene bottle full of hot water tucked neatly into my crotch I found that I could not turn off my headlamp, I had no feeling in my fingertips and couldn't locate the button. The project of turning the light off was frustrating and soon becoming dangerous as my already frozen hands were continuing to be exposed to the air. I fumbled with the light for what felt like 15 minutes pushing on that might be a button until the light finally blinked out. The last thought through my mind before I drifted into unconsciousness was, ‘I hope I wake up in the morning’.
The night was filled with periods of deep sleep followed by delicate attempts to shift into new positions in order to warm different parts of my body while not allowing any air to find its way into the bag. It was far from a great night of sleep, but when I did doze off it felt well earned having spent about 16 hours on the trail the previous day.
I awoke to a sea of white. A fresh, fluffy snow had gently fallen throughout the night. My surroundings had taken on an eerie beauty as everything was covered in four inches of delicate snow. My two partners were fast asleep and I took a moment to contemplate the scene. I was deep in the north woods, there was not another living soul for miles, and I was a part of something much bigger than myself. It was an awesome feeling, one I'll never forget.
Soon, we were all bustling about the shelter organizing gear and eating a morning meal. We'd be on the trail soon, hoping to cover at least 50 miles. However, with the limited experience that I have on my Mukluk I've learned that fresh snow doesn't always equal easy riding, and the snow was falling faster now with no sign of letting up. I was quietly concerned with what the new snow would do to the trail, but as any northlander knows, when it snows that means it's not that cold out, and for that I was happy. It wasn't long before it was time to move out.
The best way to describe the trail on our second morning was ‘squirrely’. Clearly, a well-rounded skillset was paramount on this day as handling the 60-lbs machine became a chore. The snow continued to fall with the occasional snowmobile ripping past us as we clamored on, pushing, riding, and more pushing. To say the going was tough would be an understatement. We were approximately 70 miles into the 146-mile trek, somewhere north of Finland, Minnesota when I first began to wonder whether success would be possible. Averaging approximately three miles per hour for hours at a time made it clear that we were not on pace to reach Grand Marais in our allotted time. Not long after these thoughts ran through my head did Charlie and I begin to discuss contingency plans. We hoped for a change in the weather or maybe a rash of snowmobile traffic or even a pass by of a groomer, anything that could improve our chances of making better time. Instead it seemed that the woods only became quieter under the heavy squall that held the area. There were no animals visible, no sled traffic, and no noise. A message was being sent.
I played out every possible scenario in my head over and over, the good ones as well as the bad ones. I saw the signs that indicated what we tagged as bailout points, little offshoot trails down to the small hamlet of Finland. I wondered if bypassing these trails would put us deeper into the woods with little chance of being able to ride our bikes, as frigid temps would descend upon us again.
While cascading down a ravine toward the West Branch of the Baptism River, my decision came clear to me as my front wheel washed out, launching me over the handlebars into the eight-inch fluff. My adventure had reached its conclusion and, although I did not reach my goal, I took pride in the fact that while uncertain of the outcome of such an endeavor I had still stepped into that white, wild, arena.
As I put the North Shore Trail behind me and pointed the front wheel toward Finland, I reflected on my condition. I knew great enthusiasm and great devotion and although I failed, I failed while daring greatly.
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Tim (Eki) Ek
Tim Ek was born and raised in Duluth, Minn., and still calls it home. He’s always had a passion for competition and seeking his own extremes. Tim's true love is the woods: Out in the wild is where he clears his head and finds his peace, and he prefers getting there by bike. Tim Ek: The Eki Chronicles, ekichronicles2.kinetic-fitness.com