Home—an abode filled with love from family and friends. A place which nurtures growth, teaches life-skills, and prepares us for the “real world.” My childhood home embodied all of those traits. Unfortunately, for most kids in the Big City Mountaineers—a program designed to teach critical life skills to urban youths in experiential learning wilderness settings—home is anything but a sanctuary of solace. Most “BCM Kids” live well below the poverty line in single parent households. How can we expect these youths to excel in such a difficult world without the privilege of said sanctuary?
For BCM, the answer is simple. You don’t expect them to excel, you help them excel.
Thanks to the incredible generosity of an anonymous donor, BCM kids in the Midwest now have a cabin to call “home.” The generous donor recently gifted a North Woods cabin—including 120 acres, a bunk house, garage, and private island—to the Big City Mountaineers. The cabin lies on the southern flanks of the world famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota.
In spring 2016, youth agencies from the Twin Cities area will bring under-served urban youths to BCM’s Boundary Waters Base Camp for week long wilderness mentoring trips. Kids ages 13-18 will undertake week-long paddle trips under the watchful eye of positive adult mentors. They won’t just be learning how to paddle on these trips; they'll be learning critical life skills—like confidence, team work, self reliance, communication skills, etc.—which they can incorporate into all of their future endeavors.
In early January 2016, a group of BCM executives and I ventured to this new base camp with the goal of turning an empty cabin and overgrown property into a “home.” The task proved to be quite daunting. Within minutes, we flipped the breakers and turned on the water valves, only to have the basement pipes and outdoor spigots explode and create a water show with no boundaries. The water and all hopes of a shower were immediately shut down for the week, and finding a prompt plumber in the “good ol’ boy” construction industry of the North Woods proved to be no easy task either.
After the initial shock of our plumbing issues, we began chipping away at a large list of projects. First off was unloading a 26 foot U-Haul packed to the brim with gear from BCM's amazing sponsors. Next, we gathered the boats. Sixteen water-worthy canoes donated by Wenonah had to be picked up from the nearby adventure town of Ely, MN. This was quite the herculean task for four people in a VW, but luckily multiple outfitters donated 15 passenger vans with canoe trailers to ease our load.
Laid out side by side—or “side by each” as they say up North—the canoes took up the entire yard, so the next up was constructing a set of canoe racks with just a chainsaw, a drill, and a cinder block for a hammer.
With the racks completed, the next step was figuring out a way to get the boats down to the water. A pine beetle infestation had recently ravaged the predominant Balsam trees on the property. The masses of tangled deadfall left a life-sized and dangerous version of pickup sticks in our path. After hours and hours behind a chainsaw, we cleared a viable path down to the water. A longer trail leading to our bluff overlook was in just as much disrepair. Eventually we lumberjacked our way to the shoreline. And the path now leading to the water bares the name of our recently fallen loved one, Skip Yowell. Twenty five years ago, a 100K check from Skip through Jansport spring-boarded the BCM charity into existence. We will forever be honored to have built that trail with his namesake.
The entire team worked steadfastly all day, every day. We assembled an oversized Boundary Waters map, built a fire pit, hung 80+ expedition flags, cleared the property of accumulated junk, and even assembled a classy perch for the infamous Skip Yowell bobble head. On the last night—staring stoically up at Skip—Jeff Weidman, BCM board member and outdoor guru, finally declared: “this is starting to feel like home.”
Throughout every task, the driving force of knowing that every effort would create a lasting memory for a kid who truly needed that memory was omnipresent. It was an honor to work with the Big City Mountaineers, and hopefully the Boundary Waters base camp will be used for years to come to help Midwestern urban youths discover the joys and life values that can be found in the wilderness.