“Mike?” The woman, who had looked at me a little strangely when she had put her jacket down before ordering, sat on the couch across from me at The Front Porch, a small coffee shop in Ely. I had wondered if I knew her. The odds were against that, as Ely has a population of 3000, of whom I knew exactly three women and one man.  Two of the women I could immediately exclude. 

“Jett?” I replied, and the ensuing smile confirmed that I had the right third.  Wow, I come here once, occasionally twice a year, spend a night, then head out into the wilderness for days, and this is the second time I have run into someone I knew at The Front Porch.  Nineteen months prior, I saw Becca Manlove, widow of Mike Manlove,  with whom I had taken many canoe trips into the wilderness as a forest service volunteer.  Mike died hiking the Bass Lake Trail in 2007 and was was one of my best friends.

I knew Jett from two veterans scholarships I created, originally to student-veterans attending Vermilion Community College (VCC), now open to relatives of veterans.  Two of Jett’s nephews died in Iraq, and for several years, I funded scholarships given in their names. I have created four scholarships in all at VCC and am deeply satisfied to help even a little.  Money goes a long way in the North Country.  I have no direct ties to the college, but I have been coming to Ely since 1981, taken 68 overnight canoe trips into the woods to more than 300 lakes, spent 300+ nights, and want to give back to the community.

I have trod in the steps of the wilderness writer Sig Olson, once dean at then Ely Junior College.  I met Dorothy Molter, “The Loneliest Woman in America,” on Knife Lake in 1981.  I was interviewed for a newspaper article by the late Bob Cary, editor of the local Ely Echo, writer (including a book about Dorothy), fisherman and legend.  He and his wife endowed an annual scholarship, now presented by his daughter.  Both my parents met Bob, and my father died the same year as he, both having lived long, good lives.

My first scholarship was for a student, chosen by the faculty, currently taking course work leading to a career helping the wilderness.  When I can, I try to go to Ely in late April to present it at the annual banquet. This was the scholarship’s 14th year, and I’ve been there for half. It’s a long way to go, but it means a lot to the Foundation members and recipients that donors come.  Besides, I can canoe, hike, or snowshoe, depending upon the conditions.

In 2007, I created a second scholarship, believing that the Friends of the Boundary Waters should be an environmental organization saying a loud “Yes” to education in the neighborhood of the wilderness they wish to protect. The Friends and I split the cost; it has their name and they present it.  I had not gone to the banquet for six years, but I knew I would go this year when I learned that Patti Z., Executive Director of the Foundation, was retiring in June.  An era was ending. 

That day, after meeting Jett, after hiking 9 miles on a wet, beautiful spring day in the north woods,  visiting five still-frozen lakes, seeing a couple of eagles, and almost nobody else, I stopped by the Forest Service office on my return to town. Becca worked for the Forest Service and I hoped perhaps she might be free to meet with me.

She had retired.

Dry Creek Falls emptying into Bass Lake, Superior National Forest

I had two quick realizations: one, I wasn’t the only one growing old.  Others were, too.  Second,  another era had ended.  For nearly thirty years, I had known someone working for the Superior National Forest.  No more.

I then went to nearby VCC to talk to Patti, and for once we both had time to chat.  She was looking forward to retiring, but she was going to miss a lot of what she had been doing—in her three jobs.  She would stay busy, of course, because she is that kind of person. Already, she had possibilities lined up.  She decried the polarization in Ely with mining vs.no mining groups.  

I told her how several years ago at the banquet, a father of my scholarship recipient told me he worked in the mines on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota.  He was so happy that his daughter was getting an education, “so she won’t have to follow me into the mines.”  I continued that many were looking for short term profit and not dealing with the real, catastrophic risk that mining could unleash sulfide into one of the most pristine watersheds on the North American continent, poisoning it forever.  

I didn’t add that such would be called “An Act of God,” rather than an act of man, the company would of course be bankrupt and “just not be able to pay for the damages,” and likely My Side would end up being blamed for the disaster, due to “regulations, obstructionism, extremism,” because it is always My Side’s fault.  I could have mentioned that VCC calls itself “The Boundary Waters College,” not the School of Mines, which is in Golden, Colorado, not Ely, Minnesota.

In discussing the scholarships, Patti said that some members of town asked her why the Foundation would accept money from the Friends.  Patti laughed, when she saw my jaw drop and the “O sign” appear on my face.  “I told them the money is for educating the students we have in the wilderness programs, and if they felt their organization should have a scholarship, they were welcome to create one themselves.”  She paused for effect.

“Funny how I never heard from them again.”

Stream at south end of Angleworm Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area

I went to the banquet the following night, my spirits remaining high.  That day I had hiked another bunch of miles into three different lakes, on trails having snow, ice, mud, streams and small lakes. I was happy to see young people at the banquet who will try to fix the mess my generation left them, the mess created in the name of jobs, quarterly earnings targets and balance sheets that never once looked at environmental impact liabilities.  I sat next to the executive director and the northern cities director of the Friends.  They were happy to be present, had looked forward to meeting me, and were so grateful I had created the scholarship. It is one of the better ideas I have had.

Angleworm Lake, south end, nearly ice-free, BWCA
Agassa Lake, Superior National Forest

Seated on my other side was a geology teacher at VCC with the last name Terwilliger, as in Terwilliger Hot Springs in Oregon, where I have done trail building as recently as two weeks ago.  He got to see pictures of the place he had long known about.  This year’s Friend’s scholarship recipient had paddled in a Louisiana bayou, fought fires in Montana, and done research on the Tasmania Devil in Tasmania. 

The following morning, I again ran into Jett at The Front Porch, and she told me that one of “my” scholarship recipients years ago went into law enforcement, began training as a first responder, until the instructors said he ought to go into medicine.  He’s now a physician, returning to Ely to practice.  

“We’ve come full circle,” she said.  

At the banquet, in the Grand Ely Lodge, I saw a flier for Hidden Valley, a winter sports facility near town with many trails which I had never visited in all my years coming there. Before I left, I stopped by and hiked up on now bare ground to one of those trails.  I do winter trail marking in the Cascades, and I have snowshoed a hundred miles this winter on them.  I went to specifically see and walk the loop trail named “Mike Manlove.”  

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