Sexual Harassment, Wilderness-Style

Mt Lake

A couple of my crewmates clowning around during a break on a bluff above Mountain Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Back in the early 1980s, my first summer job in college was as a volunteer for a U.S. Forest Service trail crew in northern Minnesota. This was the first year the Superior National Forest ran a volunteer program, and I looked forward to spending time in the woods after living in a big city where trees grew out of cement. Our task was to clear several long-neglected hiking trails along the Canadian Border in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The experience not only taught me how to use a crosscut saw, but also an effective and rather devious method to counter sexual harassment. (No saws involved, however!) You see, I was the only female crew member. One woman and four men tromping around and living in the wilderness together, 24-9 (twenty-four hours per day for nine-day shifts). You do the math. Between each shift, we had five days to recover.

Because the boundary waters is a federally designated Wilderness, we were not allowed to accomplish our task via any motorized or mechanical means. This meant we carried in all our gear by hiking or canoe. This gear consisted of hand tools such as axes, saws, nippers, and shovels, plus our own food and camping equipment. We tented on lakes near the trail and fixed up the campsites along the way, too – digging new latrine holes and smoothing out the dirt tent pads.

Volunteering had seemed like such a good idea at the time. But after about four days, I started asking, What have I gotten myself into? We hiked for miles each day. It was June and the blackflies, mosquitoes, and ticks were out in full force. I could easily slap twenty mosquitos into my jeans with one swipe. We used government-issue bug dope that could take the varnish off of furniture – slathering it on at least five times per day. I’d also never cut through a tree before, and learning new sawing and chopping skills was challenging.

Portaging a canoe was new, too. The crew decided a good initiation for me was to carry our heavy aluminum canoe (this was before the era of Kevlar) up the 120+ steps on Stairway Portage between Rose and Duncan lakes. I made it, although my legs were shaking quite badly once I reached the end of the portage.

I tried not to let all the challenges discourage me. After all, I was in the outdoors that I loved. I was reading John Muir and Sigurd Olson’s books and was buoyed by their idyllic descriptions of nature. I wanted to help the wilderness.

I wrote this in my journal:

Save this space
for that lone bird
blending with the sky
and hill-green water.
Save it
for that flight.

I did not complain, and in fact, volunteered for extra work like hiking back to camp to collect a forgotten canteen, or going on a reconnaissance hike with our crew leader to assess the next day’s trail work. It looked overwhelming. The trail hadn’t been maintained in years, and massive piles of fallen trees blocked our path. In some instances, it was going to be easier just to reroute the trail instead of trying to cut through the deadfall.

Randy*, our crew leader, was a 225-lb. fair-haired Swede who was at the mercy of his vices of drinking and smoking cigars. Another notable crew member was Peter*, a divorced 29-year-old who worked odd jobs in Minneapolis – everything from dish washing to acting in television commercials. Handsome, but mercurial and insecure, he seemed mature at times, but at others, like he had a chip on his shoulder. His perpetual five-o’clock-shadow gave him the look of a stereotypical prison convict. He was also always sharpening his knife, which gave me the willies.

Our evenings were spent around the campfire. Collectively, the guys had brought enough liquor to fill a whole backpack, which came out at that time. Their conversations, which centered around whisky, wilderness, women, and hopping trains, were punctuated by swearing. “Sh*t” and “motherf**ker” were their favorites. They called the tourists that we came across “peasants,” as if they were the wilderness-poor who could only stay in the boundary waters for a short time, while we were truly rich because we got to stay here for most of the summer. I tended to agree with them on that point.

Because I was a woman, I slept in my own tent. The guys slept two or three together in the other tents. Near the end of our second trip, several of the guys started making comments at night when we were all in our sleeping bags. They’d yell over, half-joking, half-not, “Hey Marie!  What does it feel like to have a c**t? Hey Marie, come over here, I have something I need your help with.” You get the drift.

I had never encountered anything like this before. I can’t remember if I acknowledged their taunts or not. And where was crew leader Randy during all this? I don’t know. Probably asleep, or feigning sleep. By the second or third night, I was finding their comments tiresome.

The next day, after the hard labor of constructing erosion control bars on a steep portage, the guys went skinny dipping while I was in my tent reading.

After a while, they mentioned getting cold and that they were thinking of coming out of the water. Instantly inspired, I made my move. I came out of my tent and sat on a rock not far from the lake, enjoying the view and all that nature had to offer.

With me sitting there in all my femininity, the guys did not have the courage to walk naked out of the water. So I sat, not talking, for a good long time. After their teeth started to chatter, I stayed a few minutes more, then nonchalantly ducked back into my tent.

You know what? The vulgar comments stopped, and I didn’t even need to complain to any authority figures. I only needed to muster a little spunk and show them what it felt like to be vulnerable (and very cold and shriveled) because of their gender.

The gender thing wasn’t all bad, however. One evening before the harassment started, Peter volunteered to heat up water over the fire and help me wash my hair while the other guys were gone fishing. He rinsed the suds out onto the ground instead of into the lake, which was our drinking water. His fingers massaging the luxurious warm water through my hair felt divine.

We had a nice talk around the fire afterwards, during which he asked me out to a play in the nearest small town. I don’t recall my exact answer, but it was probably something non-committal, given that I had a boyfriend of sorts back at college. And then there was all that knife-sharpening he liked to do….

I found out later from the other crew members that Peter had in fact just gotten out of the state prison, so it was probably a good thing that the hair washing didn’t woo me.

The harassment didn’t stop me from eventually working for the Forest Service. I volunteered again as a photojournalist on another ranger district in the same forest during my first summer after college. That eventually led to my hire as the forest public affairs specialist.

During the five years I was a Forest Service employee, I never got harassed by another employee. But that could be because I had a reputation. 🙂

*Names have been changed.

Clearwater Lake

The view from one of our campsites on Clearwater Lake.

Elephant of Love

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Photo of African elephants by Gorgo, Wikimedia Commons

My youngest graduated high school this month. The milestone has triggered some reminiscing in me. He was the one they had to cut from my belly when he was born eighteen years ago. Before the doctors lifted him out of that airless world, the anesthesiologist said, “Now, you’ll feel like an elephant is sitting on your stomach.”

I was glad for the warning because that’s exactly what it felt like – a deep pressure that I never experienced before and hoped never to again.

Despite his rough start, we both recovered quickly. The nurses were charmed by his big blue eyes and dark hair. They also liked that he was loud. “He’s a good baby,” they said. “He’ll always let you know when he wants something.” They joked that it was hard to keep diapers on him because, “Your baby has no butt!”

My son’s roars and spunky nature garnered him the nickname of “Tigger,” after the bouncy stuffed animal from the Winnie the Pooh books. He met his big brother and seamlessly fit into our small family.

He took his first trip at four months when I had to go to New Orleans for a work meeting. He wasn’t one of those babies who cries on flights. Instead, he smiled at everyone and had all the stewardesses wrapped around his tiny pinky finger by the time we arrived. He got to ride the St. Charles Streetcar and stay at the Inter-Continental Hotel downtown. Pretty good for a little guy.

He was so cute that sometimes I actually welcomed going away to work because it helped me avoid “cuteness overload.” Just to test whether all his cuteness was in my head or not, when he was two, I entered him in a Cute Baby Contest held at a local mall. Turns out, the judges agreed with me. He won first place for his age group for Prettiest Eyes, and second place overall. He could have advanced to more contests, but he did not enjoy the experience, so I spared him. I had the proof I needed by then, anyway.

On the first day of kindergarten, he was so excited, he ran down the street to the school at the end of our block. Soon, he knew the names of everyone in his classroom, and even those of kids from other classes.

The only pause he gave us growing up was his accident-proneness. Once, he wore his Superman pajamas (complete with red cape) and tried to fly off the basement steps onto the concrete floor below. That did not go as he planned. (Concussion.) Another time he tripped in the kitchen and hit his forehead on the corner of a wooden bench. (Stitches required.) Then when we went to Mexico and were eating at a restaurant in the sand on the first night, he turned quickly and ran his face into one of the poles that supported the hammocks. (No stitches, just lots of crying.)

Weird accidents with other kids happened on the playground and in school. There were black eyes, bruised hands, sprained ankles, and innumerable scrapes. Oh, and I mustn’t forget his third-degree arm burns when a classmate mishandled a hot glue gun.

He kept us busy with swimming lessons, baseball games and soccer practices. His transition to high school seemed to go well at first but he had a hard second year. He became quiet, elusive, moody. He rallied in his third year when he was chosen for the varsity soccer team and was required to keep his grades up to play. He finished his senior year as one of three co-captains of the team.

Even though a torn knee ligament sidelined him for part of the season, he earned the title of “most dedicated” player. And when he returned to play, he completed the most beautiful head shot into the net that I have ever seen.

Now, he has a long-term lady friend, a job, and he’s poised on the cusp of a new life stage. We are having a graduation party for him this weekend, and I expect that sometimes during it a certain feeling will overtake me — a deep pressure in my gut that I hoped never to feel again.

But I will be glad to feel it, because this time, it’s the big-assed elephant of love.

Here’s to you, my son.

Invisible Gold Medals for Mom

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My parents in 1946, when they were married.

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My parents on their 60th wedding anniversary in 2006.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
My mother Dorothy passed away this week. She was ninety-two. Her passing was expected and it was peaceful. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

I was looking through some of my parents’ old papers last night and I came across a one-page tribute that my father (an avid jogger who passed away this summer) wrote for my mother for their fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration twenty years ago. It’s a fitting tribute. So this is a guest post written posthumously by my father.

I want to thank each and every one today for helping us celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.

Dorothy is the master of ceremonies today, but this ceremony is for her, the master. In the Olympics, Carl Lewis was hoping to be the first one earning 10 gold medals. But alas, Dorothy just beat him out.

Her medals are invisible because they are coming from my heart. They are:

#1 Gold medal for best travel agent.
#2 Gold medal for best highway navigator.
#3 Gold medal for best mind reader.
#4 Gold medal for best budget maker.
#5 Gold medal for best psychiatrist.
#6 Gold medal for best homemaker.
#7 Gold medal for being a model mom.
#8 Gold medal for being my love.
#9 Gold medal for being my wife.
#10 Gold medal for putting up with me for 50 years.

(The script here says, “Tell her you love her and give her a big kiss.”)

I love you  XXXX

(Hold her hand and raise her arm.)

I recall that he really did kiss her, and then he raised her arm at the end of his speech, like they’d finished a big race together.

In the end, they both crossed the finish line of life not far from each other.

We will miss you, mom.

The Typical Motions of Love

birthdaycard-dad

I had to return a birthday card I bought for my dad to the store. The reason? He died before I could give it to him for his 98th birthday.

Returning the card was hard. I didn’t say anything to the clerk about why I was returning it, and she had sense enough not to ask. If she had asked, I might have started to cry.

I’ve been unusually unemotional through the death of my father. Part of it is due to being busy with funeral details and all the other things that go along with the death of a parent. But I suspect another part is because I realized long ago that my father didn’t have it in him to demonstrate his love to me in the ways that I needed, or recognized.

Sure, he loved me in his electrical engineer sort of way, but it wasn’t enough for me to form a strong connection with him.

Even his own mother begged him to demonstrate his love to his children more. She did so in a letter I found in a family scrapbook. I remember feeling so exonerated when I found that letter – so free. It wasn’t just me who noticed the absence of the typical motions of love.

But you know what I received instead? A father who asked me to jog around the neighborhood with him. A father who told me it was okay to get a low grade in college, or even to flunk a class. A father who stuck by my mother although she broke their wedding vows. He was a husband who missed being apart from her even when he was in his 90s and his brain was beset by Alzheimer’s. He always knew who she was and who his children were up until the end.

He wasn’t the father I needed, but he was the father I got.

These are the things I was thinking as I returned his birthday card.

Okay. I am getting emotional now.

My Father’s Passing

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My father is inside this piece of ham radio equipment.

My dad died last week. I’ve been wrestling with whether I should write anything about it, and if so, how deep I should get into our relationship. As you can perhaps tell from the photo, I’ve opted for quirkiness over soul-bearing.

My father lived a good long life, made longer because he took care of himself. His body continued to function even when his brain didn’t work so well. He was father to four children and grandfather to six. He recently got to see his first great-grandchild, but I don’t think it really registered.

In addition to his passions for stamp collecting, coin collecting, listening to classical music, and jogging, was my father’s passion for ham radio (amateur radio). He contacted people all over the world with the radio he made by himself. My childhood home was notable in the neighborhood for the tall radio antenna in the back yard.

My father wanted to be cremated. When my family was at the cremation society office talking about details, the topic of an urn for our father’s ashes came up. One of my brothers had the idea of using a piece of our dad’s ham radio equipment as a container instead.

It might seem weird, but we all agreed immediately to this unusual container. And I’m sure my dad would approve too, if he knew.

A Mind of One’s Own

Human_brain_NIH

Credit: National Institutes of Health.

I’ve written about my father a few times in this blog. It’s time to give my mother some attention.

My mom is 91, and she and my dad are still together, living in a memory care facility in the Twin Cities area. When my brothers and I moved our parents from my city to their current home last fall, I inherited a hope chest, of sorts, in which my mother stored blankets.

Once I got home and was cleaning it out, I discovered the chest was where she also stored some of her journals. I never knew she kept journals. And to think, all those times I was writing journals and squirreling them away at home, she was doing the same thing!

To ease some of my parental separation pangs, I read her journals, which spanned a period of over thirty years. Recently, I went back into one to look up a piece of information. I found the info, but also got caught by a short comment, where my mother mentioned that an acquaintance of hers who worked with her on a committee complained she was “willful.”

This is true. My mother is the sort who puts her foot down on a decision, and that is that. The problem is, she’s not good at explaining why she made the decision. She makes up her mind, and that is how it is going to be, gall dang it all to heck.

However, instead of her acquaintance’s comment eliciting self-reflection, my mother went on the offensive in her journal. (A good offense is the best defense, right?) But she didn’t go on the offense against the acquaintance who made the comment. Instead, her next entry was a complaint about how I had a mind of my own.

Now, I take that as a compliment. Why would I want anyone else’s mind, anyway? (Smirk.) I suspect my mom wanted my mind to be the same as hers.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while could tell you that I think a bit differently from most. The world needs different viewpoints, and as long as I’m not getting into huge conflicts and arguments over it, I think that’s okay.

The problem is, my mom’s style generates conflict, and she is too stubborn to change her mind once she makes it up.

This all reminds me of something I read recently, which described how people who don’t fit into groups shouldn’t necessarily feel bad. It might mean that they are leaders rather than followers. That gave me some comfort. There have been instances where I’ve felt on the fringes of groups, and maybe that’s why. (Besides the fact that I’m 60% introverted. Grin.) I have also successfully led groups, but it takes a bit of prodding to convince me to do so.

In any event, I love my mother, even if she is willful. And as for myself, I wouldn’t have it any other way than to have a mind of my own.