Firefighters plan fundraising walk from Duluth to CitiesThere will be gas station dinners, blisters and bonding. There will not, under any circumstances, be sleeping bags.
By: Sarah Horner , St. Paul Pioneer Press
There will be gas station dinners, blisters and bonding.
There will not, under any circumstances, be sleeping bags.
“Absolutely not,” said Jeff Loeks, a 43-year-old firefighter from White Bear Lake planning to set out on a 150-mile trek from Duluth next month.
“It’s not that kind of trip. There will be no fancy stops,” Loeks said. “If someone needs to sleep, then it’s ‘Go over to the side of the road, get on your back and look up at the stars.’ This isn’t supposed to be fun.”
Sticking with the theme of many of Loeks’ other life decisions, the idea is actually for the trip to be wildly hard.
With a backpack full of medical supplies, water and a couple of changes of clothes, the father of three and two other firefighters will depart from a Duluth fire station Sept. 20 and walk back to their home station in White Bear Lake.
They hope to average
42 miles a day. Eighteen-pound air tanks will be strapped to their backs.
The trek is aimed at raising enough money for the White Bear Lake Fire Department to buy an ATV for ice rescues. The station doesn’t have a vehicle light enough to drive on the slippery winter surfaces. A local dealership has agreed to let them buy one for about $15,000.
Loeks also is coordinating the department’s first firefighter calendar to aid the effort.
The mission is the latest in a string of charitable causes the Army veteran has taken up since joining the Fire Department five years ago.
“We do a lot of volunteering as a Fire Department, but Jeff is always trying to do more ... go beyond the average,” said White Bear Lake Fire Chief Tim Vadnais. “He is very focused, very committed. … He works hard.”
“Hard” emerged as a theme for Loeks when he was 18 and living in North Minneapolis looking for a ticket out.
He sought out a recruiter and inquired about the toughest assignment. Soon he was signing up to become a U.S. Army Ranger.
“It was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done,” Loeks said. “That’s definitely part of why I like to push myself.”
He took that grit with him to White Bear Lake, where he and fellow firefighter Ron Hawkins started a Special Operations unit two years ago.
Firefighters on the team commit to maintaining a certain level of physical fitness and partici-
pating in the unit’s various fundraising efforts for local charities. Each member also is expected to pick their own charitable cause to champion.
Loeks’ commitment to giving back ratcheted up after he found out his brain was hemorrhaging about four years ago.
Uncertain what complications were to come, he made a promise at the time to “not just take up oxygen anymore, and try to make a difference,” Loeks said. He has since recovered.
He has helped raise money for burn victims at Regions Hospital, coordinated visits to local nursing homes and solicited firefighters to get dunked in a hole in the ice to benefit Special Olympics.
The Duluth walk is his most ambitious undertaking since the Army, Loeks said.
“I wanted this project to be extremely hard, something that wasn’t necessarily a given, so people could appreciate our passion,” Loeks said. “I want them to see blisters on Ron’s feet.”
Hawkins, 46, is among Loeks’ walking companions, as is 31-year-old Justin Nelson.
Justin, a former Marine, said the military’s “you jump, I jump” mentality pushed him to agree to the challenge.
“I can’t just sit back and watch these guys do it and not do it myself,” Nelson said.
The group is starting to train by walking around Bald Eagle Lake with tanks on their back. They also are working out together in the Fire Department’s weight room.
They will drive to Duluth Sept. 19 and set out the following morning.
They will chart their progress on a Facebook page, which also will be equipped with a link for donations.