COVID-19: An Exercise in Uncertainty

Sometimes you wake up in the morning knowing that your day is going to be much the same as the day before. But on March 21st, when I said goodbye to the six students I had been camping in the woods with for thirty days, I also said goodbye to predictability. I emerged from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to a world dealing with a global pandemic; the COVID-19 virus. At the beginning of my thirty days away from Sammie, Nora, Meagan, and the Ice Ties dogs, there were confirmed cases of the corona virus in China and a whisper of isolated cases in the United States. When I ended, international travel had been restricted, bars and restaurants were closed, “social distancing” was a household term, and people were warned not to gather in groups larger than ten. Although we live in a relatively cut off part of the world (friends and family often complain of how far it is from an airport and how unreliable my phone connection is), our slice of Minnesota Northwoods is not immune to the impact of the virus.

The Ice Ties spring training trip, originally scheduled to leave on March 24th and run for two weeks, went through rapid evolutions as our team adjusted to the new reality left in the wake our country’s diagnosis. The discomfort that comes with uncertainty is not unfamiliar–to our team or to anyone for that matter. How many times have we said to each other something like, “I don’t even care if I got the job or not anymore… I just want to know one way or the other!” But as our country’s experts continue to use words like “unprecedented” the security that comes from certainty, familiarity, and predictability feels very far away. Eventually we realized that our planned training trip was not feasible in this climate and given these current conditions.

When on expedition, life is simultaneously predictable and uncertain. It’s predictable because you know when the sun will rise. You know what you have packed out to eat for the day. You know you have to travel to your next campsite. You know you will have to boil water and set up shelter every night. In some ways life is very simple. But there is also ALWAYS uncertainty. What will the ice look like at the mouth of this river? Can we go around it? Will it snow all day today? Will our trails be covered in a foot of fresh powder tomorrow? Will the dogs get in a fight? Will I break a vital piece of equipment? So much of life on trail is unknown, and so many uncertainties can ripple out into an overwhelmingly infinite number of possible universes. Uncertainty is part of the deal, and even though it can be uncomfortable (and even scary), we as an expedition team are well trained in how to adjust to new information, talk through our frustrations, and make decisions that move us forward in the here and now.

So to the friends and family who have expressed concerns about our expedition, first we’d like to say: thank you. Nothing like an international pandemic to make you appreciate modern technology and the way it connects us! Every phone call, text message, group chat, and instagram comment makes us feel grateful that we have a community that is invested in our mission. As far as our spring plans go: our focus is to stay flexible and reach our goals in other ways. So we can’t go out for a two-week camping trip… we can still test our tent, stoves, and skis right here in our backyard! So our dogs don’t get the in-the-field training we were hoping for… we can still run loaded dog sleds and get miles in while there’s snow on the ground! So the four of us can’t meet in person right now… We can connect online and divide and conquer on bigger projects! There is certainly no shortage of work to be done. As we adjust to the new normal–the big uncertainties of health, the economy, the future–we know we can adapt and overcome. We also know we can rely on our dogs, each other, and our community. Of that we can be certain.

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