Imagine this …
A week with co-workers on an island with no cell service, no running water and no electricity. Just you, two co-workers, a boat, Lake Superior, oatmeal and dehydrated meals in a bag. Could you do it?
Would you all return to the mainland alive? Fine, that’s too dramatic. Would you all still be on speaking terms?
Loaded with three, 40-ish-pound packs, camera gear and notebooks, Jimmy Lovrien, Steve Kuchera and I boarded the Voyageur II on Aug. 2 from Grand Portage for a week of story collecting on Isle Royale National Park — or Minong, the Ojibwe name meaning “the good place” for the island.
I’m no stranger to long work trips, most recently when the Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team made runs in the NCAA Frozen Four. But both of those trips were lavish in comparison. Sure, I had to sit in a car that smelled like beef jerky for eight hours as we drove to Chicago in 2017 and finding a restaurant open late at night in Buffalo in 2019 was nearly impossible, but I had my own hotel room, a hot shower and cable TV.
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This trip started out as most. Jimmy asks the questions, Steve holds down the shutter button, and I press record. But as soon as we stepped foot on Belle Isle and were taken across the channel on a C-Dory with Carla “Crash” Anderson to Johnson Island, I knew this would be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced for work.
At first, I felt like an imposter barging in on someone’s vacation. Here, let me sleep on your boat, ask you a bunch of questions and have you be my tour guide for a couple days. Thankfully, the families we stayed with were so easy to get along with that it didn't take long to become more comfortable. Within a day, we were all helping with island chores, sharing meals and jumping off the dock into freezing Lake Superior to freshen up after a day of bushwhacking on islands to find old abandoned cabins.
While it was great to spend so much quality time with our sources it also meant spending way more time than usual with my co-workers. Like, a lot more time. We ate all our meals together, which included working together to do the things it took to make those meals — gathering water from Lake Superior to filter and boil — and cleaning up afterward.
When we arrived at Tobin Harbor, we had access to our host Ellie Connolly’s 16-foot, 15-horsepower boat at Cliff Crest. Admittedly, none of us are very experienced with operating a boat, but Steve confidently took the helm, with Jimmy and I securing our roles as deckhands.
And even with all that time spent together, we enjoyed each other’s company in the idle times as well. We laughed and shared stories from the day’s events, from our childhood and from previous work assignments. One evening, we all just sat in the woods near the edge of Hidden Lake in complete silence waiting for a moose to appear. And when it started to get too dark, we quietly walked back to the boat, not minding that a moose never showed.
After a year of barely seeing any of my co-workers in person, I must admit I was unsure of how this trip would go. It turns out that after a week on Isle Royale, it’s possible to return to civilization alive, on speaking terms and with great stories to tell.
Would I do it again?
With the right crew, of course.
Samantha Erkkila is a digital content producer for the News Tribune. If you own or know of an island that you’d like her and the rest of the Island Team to report on and visit, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.