Of all the lessons learned in Harry’s packsack…

Dorothy’s faith in him was one of the most important

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From a young age, Harry was drawn to sleeping outdoors. He started out with a handmade lean-to that leaked when it rained.

From a young age, Harry was drawn to sleeping outdoors. He started out with a handmade lean-to that leaked when it rained.

Even if you were never called a packsacker or thought of yourself that way, I’m here to say otherwise. From birth on, each of us begins filling a packsack with experiences. Our packsacks hold a life of memories. From my experience, what a person packs away and what they bring back into the open says maybe more than they realize.

But let me keep the memory packsack simple by keeping it focused on the general theme of an urban packsacker kid intent on becoming an outdoor heboy. Keen to accomplish and achieve, I viewed the route ahead to include roughing it. For that, I needed a leanto. At the time these were featured as essential survival structures. Books showed them as a ridge held by stout branches set in the ground. The branches had forked tops. If you look around our balsam, spruce, birch, and aspen, you won’t find many of those at a size a lad with a hatchet could handle. I was flummoxed at the get-go.

Then, with the focus of a kid of 10 going on 11, I saw a solution. Not far from home was a gully with a vertical portion of wall that ran sufficiently high for 20 feet, more than I required. The cliff wall would replace the forked supports. All I had to do was cut poles.

“If an overloaded pack was bad, crawling along the trail with a canoe overhead was worse,” Harry writes. “I absolutely hated doing what, in later years, I’d find second nature.”

“If an overloaded pack was bad, crawling along the trail with a canoe overhead was worse,” Harry writes. “I absolutely hated doing what, in later years, I’d find second nature.”

Sketches of lean-tos made it look so easy, not at all like the flailing I did at the base of saplings. I’d furiously set into the wood for a few vicious strokes before slowly faltering to a halt. Each effort exhausting, I’d kneel to catch my breath and survey damage done. Negligible. I might as well have been using the hammer end of the hatchet. I wasn’t cutting so much as wearying the wood, or maybe it just laughed itself into giving up. In time (several days because many saplings would bounce with each hit to turn chopping into a paddle-ball exercise), I had enough poles to begin laying on a roof of boughs.

Boughs were much easier to cut, but for a boy of four-foot-plus stature most of what I wanted were well out of reach. I denuded the lower portion of every balsam and spruce in the vicinity and thought my unconventional lean-to done. And it had only taken a week, the last part of which my fingers and hands were black and sticky as those of you familiar with the resinous balsam fir will know all too well. Dirty hands, in Mother’s view a sign of damnation by the Almighty, were fixed by a visit to the garage where Dad introduced me to the parts-washer. Instead of balsam, I smelled like fuel oil. Instead of black, my hands were brown, a good enough transformation to satisfy Mother.

Now all that was needed was to try my lean-to home. The experienced, packsack filling gods are often remarkably generous in what they provide. Not dumb enough to pass on one of Mother’s excellent homecooked meals, I decided to practice the art of sleeping rough before moving on to camp cookery. A good meal in my belly, I took an armload of previously abused army blankets and a spare pillow to the leanto. The slight drizzle that began to fall was, to me, a good thing by making the roof overhead prove its utility. Sitting in a lean-to with nothing to do lost its charm in no time. Bored, I trudged home to listen to some radio (TV reception didn’t exist where we lived) before returning to my new home for the night.

I remember that damp walk as if it was yesterday. Thought it was still light enough to see, I had to guide my way forward with a flashlight beam. (Some of you will be rightly amused by that.) Things in the lean-to felt a lot wetter than when I’d left. To this day, I have no idea what depth of boughs (if any) would be needed to form a water-shedding roof. For sure, a couple of inches of boughs was not enough. If anything, it seemed to focus the rain inside.

Despite my boyish stupidity, at times an endless commodity, I quickly got wise to the error of trying to sleep in my lean-to. No matter the amount of work put into it, sleeping in the wet had no appeal. Flashlight again leading the way, I retreated. Quietly slipping in the back, I walked past my silent parents to the attic loft (a space like two lean-tos put together) that was my room. Wet clothes off, I got in bed with the idea of trying again some other time, preferably when it wasn’t raining, and a lean-to wasn’t needed.

Mother, who should have known better, seemed to think that by saying nothing about it I might drop the silliness of sleeping outdoors. Well, no. I didn’t pursue the matter because I was, as we might say, cogitating on it. I examined the lean-to from all angles to discover its deficiencies. Any attempt to make improvements was pushed away, however, when we shifted homes, in fact, three times that year; first to the north country, back to the city, and then to the Iron Range. This paused my interest, but only so long as it took for us to settle in a town with a Scout Troop. I was back in business!

There’s no explanation on earth why one person is drawn a particular direction and others are not. Mom and Dad weren’t campers. Dad, an excellent machinist, was all but useless in the woods. Mom required flush toilets and electricity. I was the exception. I was never sure if they found this amusing or embarrassing. No longer fixated on leantos and a few months wiser, a tent made fine sense. I didn’t have one. The Scout Troop did. Case settled.

Having to meet basic Tenderfoot (a term I much resented) standards, I was ready for my first campout. After we, through no fault our own, got the tent up, my sleeping bag (meant for use in the back of a station wagon) took up space meant for the other two occupants. We worked that out because other more important things pressed. Food.

Whoever thought Tenderfoot Scouts had an ability to successfully use the basic cook kit lacked any and all understanding of how boys instinctively do things; that is in absolutely the worst possible way. Luckily, the menu was simple, canned pork ‘n’ beans plus hot dogs.

After producing the Tenderfoot standard smoking-sizzling fire that blinds cooks with smoke, we set about cooking. In our case, this meant the destruction of food. Whether incinerated in the little fry pan with the handle too hot to hold or burned in the can, the majority (perhaps a blessing) of our beans were inedible. Jammed on a stick, hot dogs were foolproof and able to be enjoyed cooked or raw. Left to our own resources. we were pathetic without ever realizing it.

But, oh, there was a bright spot! I can’t say exactly who thought of it, but seeing as none of us could master the skill needed to use the silly little cook kit pot, we thought to use two cans of alphabet soup in an interesting experiment. Would a can of soup explode if put in the fire? The answer, even though the fire was mostly smoke and sizzle, was yes, though a soup explosion was more fire douser than aid.

Deeply intrigued and involved, we rekindled as best we could and tried can number two. That “ka-whomp” was satisfyingly better but brought attention, as it turned out, unwanted. An upset leader demanded, “What’s wrong with you kids?” So far as we knew, nothing, but we pretended contrition all the while thinking, “Wait ’til next time.”

Most adults can’t conjure up their younger mind, but to three equally ditzy Tenderfeet, there was little on earth to equal the happiness of discovering a P over on one part of our alphabetized site and an F or mangled E at another. Ours was a simple joy that transcended the potential dangers of exploding soup cans. In fact, the opposite. We’d have been supremely satisfied if some kid, or even one of us, got the entire alphabet contents right in the kisser. As Tenderfeet, we were not ready for responsibility.

Were it not for hot dogs (a staple in food and conversation), bean scrapings, and bread, we’d have starved. Starting with three strips of bacon in a tiny fry pan and repeat grease fires, I ended up with one due to one falling in the fire and another snitched by a boy who burned his lips and tawked-funny-affer, which was no repayment for the lost bacon. Of two eggs, one hit the dirt while the other, along with some shell, made it into the pan for cremation with burned bean residue.

Making cocoa in that little pot wasn’t going to work, so I did the sensible thing instead by eating the powder and drinking some water. Good enough. Plus, there was bread to toast, or as it turned out, to burn black. I’m not sure why experienced Scouts and leaders left us alone. Was it for their self-preservation or amusement watching Tenderfeet make fools of themselves?

At that point in my development, there was no indication I could possibly become a proficient camper. The next several campouts showed little improvement aside from sneaky escalation to double up on exploding soup cans. Nope, absolutely no clue the kid grinning and splattered with alphabet soup would become a canoe guide and author books on the subject.

Mom and Dad were possibly the most surprised, given they had front row seats to my arrival home after campout one. First order, as Mother saw it, was to get me disinfected in the tub where, after a weekend of fresh air and high jinks, I fell asleep and nearly drowned as I was going under. Pasty wrinkled fingers and ravenous, I first had to endure interrogation about the sleeping bag inspectors found full of leaves, twigs, stones, alphabet letters, and my hatchet. I pled believable ignorance about all but the hatchet, which I said was in the bag for safe keeping.

There was no advantage to admitting I’d not undressed for three days and, in consequence, dragged in every bit of debris possible. Nor was I going to say I fell asleep both nights with hatchet in one hand and knife in the other to be ready for any bears that might be hungry for a Tenderfoot. Dad’s assessment of my weekend was, “I see you taught your socks to stand on their own.” He was amused. I was not.

How was it a hopeless maker of soup bombs improved? No fault of mine, rather I got lucky when the other two bomb makers left the troop and I joined a different patrol with a competent young leader who knew his stuff. He told me precisely my fate if I got to thinking about tomato or alphabet surprises. Not wanting to be strung up by my underpants, I began settling down.

A purpose, somewhat overlooked with newer Scout objectives, was for Scouts to develop competence in skills and leadership. I became living proof that a 14-year-old could do an adequate job wrangling the Foxes (the name of our patrol) into something functional. The basic knots were good for things other than tying one another up for torture. I deserve and take no credit for my transformation, one resulting from a constructive program to develop, such as it was, a boy’s often wayward potential.

Bear in mind I wasn’t thinking about filling a packsack with useful experience. My limited little aim was no more or less than to do things. Something to do and I was OK. Idle time on my hands and, next thing you knew, a can of alphabet soup and a starry look might appear.

Small, inconsequential steps turned me into a camper good enough to play a small part at summer camp. It could be I simply wanted to be away from home, but a life pared down to whatever could be fit in a footlocker was unexpectedly pleasing. It was nice not having to make my bed or weekly scrub the upstairs bathroom. Simple was a nice way to live. The glow of that basic satisfaction had to be upon me when I naively accepted an invitation to go on a canoe trip with four experienced camp staffers along with one other unsuspecting victim.

I thought of myself as a budding camper, but a few hundred feet down a portage with a Duluth #3 pulling me down brought a quick and sincere, “What am I doing here?” If an overloaded pack was bad, crawling along the trail with a canoe overhead was worse. I absolutely hated doing what, in later years, I’d find second nature. Back in that day, cans and bottles were allowed in the wilderness. The food pack (with loaves of bread squashed to the thickness of bologna) was a weighty affair. Flattened bread, canned beans, and hot dogs brought back images of not-so-joyful Tenderfoot days.

Marginal food and portage labor were easy compared to hour on hour of paddling. Equal in displeasure to swinging a paddle was the constant prodding to “Stay awake” and “Keep paddling” when my attention wandered. The people who invited me were supposed to be friends, not forced labor supervisors.

The one bright spot was a little bit of fishing now and then. Otherwise, my mind was on counting, as the four senior members plotted a wandering course, the days until it was over. And then we stopped at Isle of Pines. One of the Range guys knew someone who knew someone (Rangers will understand) who knew Dorothy, so there (after disappointment [not mine] at the absence of Benny Ambrose) we were.

For Scouts, doing good turns was a regular part of the routine, so we pitched in doing whatever Dorothy requested. To me, anything that wasn’t paddling or portaging was a gift from heaven. I’d gladly move rocks or stack firewood rather than swing the cursed paddle. We must have been helpful enough (or purchased enough of her awful root beer) because we were invited to stay for dessert of canned peaches. (Having been toted over several portages from Ely, the peaches were a treat.)

Being mouthy (no surprise there) in addition to disaffected, I expressed my opinion on the joys of canoe camping. That’s the act that changed everything. Dorothy asked if I knew how to flip and load a canoe on my own. She might as well have asked if I could play Bach with my armpit. A lesson was coming. I can’t claim Dorothy taught me, because what she did was show how she did it, a smooth sweeping movement that left me stunned with its easy simplicity. I was hooked.

You can be certain I had zero ability to perform what Dorothy demonstrated. Fifteen and built on the plan of a ruler, a standard canoe and I weighed much the same, the advantage going to the canoe due to gravity being on its side. It would be some years before I gained enough size and weight to do the trick myself, though never with the graceful ease Dorothy demonstrated.

The final few days of our little trip were no longer a battle. Dorothy’s demonstration showed me there was light up ahead. All I had do was take my time. I’d get there. The next morning when Dan christened the new day with a morning plunge, I felt contented to do my bit working on the breakfast fire. There were things I could do and others I’d have to work on. But, in honest truth or actual fact, I do not know what, when I wasn’t expecting it or cooperating very much, it clicked.

But it did. Something happened out there. Was it lying on my back on a pindot island on Knife Lake and looking up to see the bright dot of an early Sputnik pass over? Perhaps the experience of viewing a midnight gust turn moonbeams into a glistening path did the trick. Most of all, I credit Dorothy for wasting her time and effort showing me how to do something that was clearly out of my reach. Somehow, Dorothy had faith that a scrawny nothing might get the message.

Of all the many experiences and messages that went into my packsack, Dorothy’s faith that I had a future if I tried was one of the most important.

Harry Drabik lives in Aurora. His family moved to Hoyt Lakes in 1957. He graduated from Aurora-Hoyt Lakes High School in 1962, then went to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He has worked as an outfitter guide in the BWCAW and also did archaeological surveys in Canada for more than a decade. Harry lived on the North Shore until moving back to the Range five years ago.

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