OPINION EXCHANGE | Adventure and activism: The worth is out there (2022)

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  1. ​When I regained consciousness, I saw that Mike had also passed out. We were lying in snow at about 17,000 feet on the side of Mount Popocatepetl in Mexico. When he came to, we retreated down to bare volcanic ash, buffeted by an incoming storm but relishing richer air.
  2. As Martin and I cheerily entered the hugely biodiverse Mata Atlantica forest in Brazil, the first creature we saw was a 3- to 4-foot-long jararaca, one of the most venomous pit vipers in South America. It was rustling through a layer of leaves between the tree trunks of its kingdom. We paused to let it pass, then eased warily down the narrow trail with blunted cheer.
  3. On a storm-riven night in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Pam and I lay wide awake in a snapping tent, its puny frame highlighted by almost constant flashes of lightning. We listened helplessly to drumming rain, rolling thunder, and the crashing of broken and uprooted trees. We'd be eating that frame or we wouldn't.
  4. I hiked several miles through Sitka spruce forest to the base of a glacier in southeast Alaska, and amid the freshets emerging from the ice, smelled a strong and pungent odor of bear. Was it a black or a grizzly? Locals had deemed this solo trek unwise. ​
  5. On a subzero day in northern Minnesota, I broke through the ice of a pond, immersed to the waist. I shattered a path to shore where my pants froze solid, encased in ice. I lumbered — stiff-legged — for two miles in deep snow before reaching shelter.
  6. While paddling a northern Minnesota river swollen with snowmelt, a standing wave at the head of a rapids engulfed our canoe. I surfaced 10 yards downstream, gasping for air, chest constricted by the frigid water. John was struggling several feet away, and I assumed the mask of fear on his face mirrored my own. Overpowering current shoved us into rocky shallows where we reunited — shivering — with our submerged and damaged canoe.
  7. Ryan and I felt intense heat on our backs — like someone opened an oven door. The forest fire chased us into a spruce/tamarack bog where a helicopter with tundra pads was landing in the muskeg at the edge of a small kettle lake in northwest Ontario. With sphagnum moss sucking on our boots we slogged to the ship and clambered aboard. Safely in the air, we saw all the ground we'd traversed engorged with flames.

​And so on.

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Adventure stories can be shared only if you survive. There's a stark difference between a campfire tale or a tavern yarn and the narrative of an obituary. As I sit contentedly at my desk and scribble down these fond memories, I marvel at the efficacy of good luck, while acknowledging that a feeling of fondness was not always foremost at the time.

​There is also a line between beneficial boldness and foolish risk. As a teenager enamored of buccaneers and trailblazers, I had a quote from adventurer, coach and writer Bil Gilbert taped to my bedroom wall: "Those who stop where reason and instinct command never make it to the best and highest places of all." For a callow teen it was naive bravado. Several years later, as a firefighter and leader of firefighters, I'd learned to value reason and instinct as tools for personal and collective survival. And why survive? To continue to serve, continue grappling with risk for the greater good. To recklessly cheat survival is an act of selfishness. Regardless of your motive and no matter how much you prepare or how intently you focus, failure is possible, but risk for the sake of risk is childish.

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That said, I don't completely reject the audacity of youth. After all, it is appealing to reach "the best and highest places of all." These days, however, my adventures are of a different nature and caliber, the challenges transcendent and more difficult. No mountains, white-water or wildfire, but instead:

  1. I pick up the phone and over the course of 20 minutes dial three numbers in Washington, D.C. — two Minnesota senators and the Eighth District representative. Regularly, with a host of issues. I'm always a little tense.
  2. Vigorously wielding a pen and checkbook I spend a half-hour writing a dozen checks to political candidates, environmental action organizations, human rights nonprofits and public media. Not only does money talk, but for better and for worse, it often wins the argument.
  3. Fearlessly feeding paper into a printer, but nervously watching the ink supply, I produce the first 50 of 200 nonpartisan form letters to voters in potential "swing" states (first batch to Texas) which I'll personalize by hand, urging them to vote. Later, fingers cramping, I'll address and stamp the envelopes, to be mailed in late October. In 2020, under the aegis of Vote Forward, 200,000 of us produced and mailed 17.6 million letters.
  4. To appropriately channel anger at the latest outrage, I hammer on a long-suffering keyboard to compose a letter to the editor, then let it nap in the documents file for several hours. I bring it back up to delete bad words and nasty sarcasm before I send it. Feels good.
  5. Paddling to a deep spot on a local lake I've been monitoring for three decades, I take a Secchi disk reading and record it for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency; 377 such readings so far. It's gratifying that a canoe can be useful while providing volunteer service.
  6. With mosquitoes lodged in nose, mouth and ears, I make an early morning portage into another lake for the 28th consecutive year to count loons for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Non-Game Wildlife Program. I'll count and pluck the ticks later. So far the statewide population is holding steady, and be advised the DNR is looking for more volunteers.
  7. While delivering a classroom session on weather and wildland fire behavior to rookies, I emphasize the influence of climate change and disruption. It's not in the official syllabus yet, but they need to hear it. Their lives may depend upon it.

And so on.

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There is satisfaction in meeting these obligations. Do they make a difference? Yes, when leveraged and magnified by the efforts of many others. I like to believe the work also helps justify my personal appropriation of resources from the biosphere. Payback.

I do admit to a nostalgic wistfulness for an era that seemed easier and less fraught, a time when the small adventures at the beginning of this essay enjoyed a worry-free priority. I understand the relative innocence was at least partly due to ignorance. Still …

My hands grasp the wing strut of a Cessna 172. My left foot is on a tire, the right hanging out over the farmland of southeast Oklahoma, 3,500 feet below. Only minutes before I was gripped by terror, on the verge of losing bladder control, but when the jumpmaster barked, "Put your feet out the door!" I did. "Get out on the strut!" I did. "Go!" I dropped off the wing.

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I rationalized the risk by considering the jump a rite of passage, a way to "prove" myself. On the ground, injured but alive and euphoric, I recall thinking, "I'll never have to prove myself again." Wrong. Our worthiness should be re-established every day. Get out there and do it.

Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of "Ghosts of the Fireground" and other books.

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