In Defense of the “Stoke”-less

Birch Lake starts open and relatively trackless near Homeplace.

Many extreme adventures require intricate planning, pre-dawn starts, and an outrageous amount of what adventure blogger Brendan Leonard calls “The Stoke.” Leonard explains,

“People who have The Stoke do not hit the snooze button on their alarm clock and fail to get out of bed to go climbing/biking/hiking/skiing on their days off. They do not complain about food. They do not bail on a day in the outdoors when there’s only a 30 to 70 percent chance of rain. In the face of immediate danger, peril, or running out of chocolate, they crack jokes. Statistically, your chances of summiting any climb are increased by 50 percent if you are climbing with someone who has The Stoke. As are your chances of receiving high fives and exploding fist bumps, and in general having an awesome life.”

Ours was not that kind of endeavor. I had hit the snooze button. We sat around drinking coffee for a solid hour before stuffing layers into packs and comparing notes on what food we had. It was only then that Mary pulled maps and we looked at our route. We had plenty of daylight and temperatures were mild; leaving early would only leave us sitting in a dingy bar until our friends could join us. We were, however, no less excited than those infected with The Stoke.

Like many of the outlandish adventures undertaken at Homeplace, ours began at the toast bar the night before. We accepted on faith a friend’s estimate that the Junction Bar & Grill in Babbitt, our destination, lay eighteen miles away.  We checked the next day’s weather.  We watched a movie and ate popcorn.

Mary prepares for the big ski.  Layering ambivalence commences.

Mary prepares for the big ski.

We left Homeplace beneath leaden skies at 9:46 am. We zoomed onto the snow-covered Birch Lake and whooped into the teeth of windy gust. I fell into an easy rhythm of kick-glide-kick-glide, transferring my weight fully from ski to ski as my feet slipped back and forth. My hands swung opposite of my feet so that my left pole came forward as my right ski shot forward. My right foot drew back in preparation to kick again as my right hand swung its pole forward. These awkward individual movements flowed together into the classic diagonal stride of cross-country skiing. We kick-glided across the wind-buffed snow before us, skis shishing softly.

I simultaneously contemplate how far we've come and show how much I don't care how ridiculous my ski clothes look.

I simultaneously contemplate how far we’ve come and show how much I don’t care how ridiculous my ski clothes look.



We skied hard, taking breaks only to drink water, snack, and pee. We followed familiar landmarks as our route traced a common canoe route for its first six miles. Soon, though, we entered an unknown part of Birch Lake. Closely paralleled snowmobile tracks created a corduroy of the lake’s surface, and ice fishing shacks clustered in tiny villages. Pickup trucks, Jeeps, minivans, and a Ford Focus drove along the ice road pummeled into the snow down the center of the lake. Most spent a handful of minutes checking a shack, turned around, and raced back from whence they came. After eleven miles, my hip flexors and outer butt muscles began to tire. I didn’t realize how hard I was breathing until we stopped for water near Birch Point, a few miles short of where we made land. Fourteen miles from Homeplace, we removed our skis and left the ice. It was our first uphill of the day, and walking felt decidedly strange.

Eleven miles in, my muscles are starting to feel the distance.

Eleven miles in, our muscles are starting to feel the distance.

Since we hadn’t measured the route ahead of time, we had little sense of how far we’d come or how much we had left to ski. Looking at the map, we decided to follow Highway 70 toward town. As Mary put it, the Junction was “depressingly far away.” The sun started to sink toward the horizon, and the light took on the golden warmth of late afternoon. We sat beneath a massive white pine in Babbitt’s beach park and spooned avocado meat with rice crackers. We still had a ways to ski, and we’d need the fuel.

Our "end point"!  It turns out skiing to Babbitt is not the same as skiing to the Junction Bar & Grill.

Our “end point.” It turned out skiing to Babbitt was not the same as skiing to the Junction.

What better place to refuel, regroup, and recommit than beneath a massive white pine?

What better place to refuel, regroup, and recommit than beneath a massive white pine?

Progress was slower on land than on the lake. We walked where snow was thin, and we guessed which snowmobile trail would lead us most directly toward the Junction. Once, we skied a half mile down the wrong trail and had to turn back when it ended at a steep, brushy slope. Silence fell with the sun, but it was a comfortable silence. Experienced wilderness instructors, we knew when to put our heads down and slog through unexpected conditions. Sweat soaked my feet, we worried about snowmobiles whipping around corners, and Mary smelled fried food at every turn. Yet the setting sun ringed the scudding clouds with bright gold and tinged the sky purple and magenta. We imagined Babbitt locals passing us multiple times today. “Babbitt won’t know what hit them,” I exclaimed.  “Babbitt already knows we’re coming,” Mary responded, laughing.

Celebration was clearly in order.

Celebration was clearly in order.

When we finally propped our skis against the Junction Bar & Grill at 4:43 pm, I felt like we’d summited Everest.  We’d skied 19.25 miles, the longest I’ve skied in a single day. Mary and I high-fived, beaming at each other. “We did it!” I yelled. We swung the front door open, and I swept my fleece headband off my head. We swaggered ungracefully to a table as only the tired and sore can, ready to devour everything in the deep fryer. Bacon cheeseburgers, onion rings, and beer ordered, I leaned back in my chair, wholly content.

While the climber’s Stoke might shine hot and bright, the expedition leader’s Stoke burns long and slow. We may not have suffered through soaking rain nor looked into the face of death, yet we persevered. I did not expect to ski another five miles after we walked onto the Babbitt beach, and the jarring of expectations against reality might have soured me against the whole day. Years of facing false summits, unexpected river bends, and too-hopeful navigation, however, reminded me that adventures rarely go as planned. If they did, ambitious feats wouldn’t be nearly as tempting.

The Route:


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