Something about the K-Plan inspires the desire to start a journey, and, according to John Hitchcock ’78, develops the wherewithal to make it work. Things like planning, leadership, and adaptability. John shares the story of such a journey. He graduated with a major in psychology and did his foreign study in Aix-en-Provence, France. Today John is vice president and managing director for Energy Intelligence Group in New York. Mentioned in the story are Leo Hurley ’78 and the late Kate Plaisier ’77. Leo majored in health sciences and did his foreign study in Caen, France. He is an epidemiologist for Kaiser Permanente in northern California. Kate earned her B.A. in biology. She passed away on August 29, 2012.
To invite 20 students on a seven-day ski trek along the northern edge of the Upper Peninsula, you need SNOW. Snow is non-negotiable. It’s also not controllable. Even as a sophomore two terms away from a course in experimental design I knew what an uncontrollable variable could do to you. Tarps, food, fuel for stoves, sleeping bags, boots that fit, skis that glide—all those could be reliably assembled and accounted for. Not snow. Not even in late December in Michigan’s most remote wilderness; not even in 1975, decades before global warming had cast its existential pall. An end-of-fall-quarter cross-country ski expedition would be nothing without snow.
Thanksgiving came and went without a meaningful accumulation of snow in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The four of us who had organized the trip prepared to refund to 16 trusting souls the $80 they’d each paid for this first-of-its-kind finish to the fall quarter. And then, the weekend before final exams, a storm crossing Lake Superior brought a half-foot of snow—enough to turn the century-old logging roads that were the national park’s entry points into skiable paths.
We became intimate with the weather reports after developing an intense appreciation for what could be learned over the telephone; at first from daily calls from our dorm room phone to the recorded voice of the Upper Peninsula Michigan Bell weather lady, and, later, from more desperate conversations with state troopers stationed in Munising, the only town bordering the Pictured Rocks preserve.
Some of the life skills learned in Kalamazoo’s mid-1970s foray into wilderness education (the origins of today’s LandSea program) were imparted even before we reached the wilderness. “Working the phones” was one. These lessons in rotary technology would later contribute to my career as a journalist covering Iran from outside Iran, China and Indonesia from Tokyo, and Margaret Thatcher’s rise and fall at a careful distance from the sharp edges of her blue handbag. Phone work could uncover so much.
In true K fashion, some of our lessons were learned on the road. We drove the 405 miles to Pictured Rocks the night after finals in a school van and three private cars, led by freshman Kate Plaisier’s Volkswagen Beetle. Her car would become as important to our journey as the Lunar Module had been to the Apollo 11 moon mission six years earlier. At times it seemed as cramped.
By the middle of the morning after finals we had reached a store near an eastern entrance to the park. The mounds of snow described by the weather lady and troopers six days earlier had sagged. The sky was an unbroken gray, the temperature a degree or two above freezing. We drained the store of its coffee and drove the final 20 minutes to the trailhead we had picked to be our base camp. As uninspiring as the weather was, our site, by contrast, buzzed. The 20 of us divided into our carefully chosen patrols of 10. Tarps were set up. Fires lit, cooking areas organized. Skis were laid out. A gentle mist set in.
Many of us had never skied before, much less winter-camped. The open area at the trailhead, cleared by loggers and forest fires decades before and now rimmed by white pines, became our practice ground. Northwest of base camp, a three-day ski away, awaited our destination: the sandstone cliffs and dunes that dropped more than 200 feet into Lake Superior, to be reached via two separate routes through stands of birch, hemlock and beech, winding past marshes, streams and waterfalls.
The mist continued overnight, but under the tarps life was dry and still. Besides, sleep lost from finals week and the previous night’s drive left no one awake to complain. But by morning the snow had disappeared. The drizzle, the mud, the above-freezing (though barely) temperatures were more than an inconvenience. They threatened our plan, which had been to send the patrols on their separate ways after breakfast. We considered carrying the skis and doing the first day’s trek in boots. The forecast was for colder weather, which would eventually bring the comfort of dry snow. But what if the forecast continued to be unreliable?
Lunch came and went, and still it rained. I don’t recall anyone from either patrol upset. They all seemed to think it was an improvement over finals. My leader-mates and I were less at peace: we’d lose daylight in four hours. One leaky boot, one irreversibly cold foot and we’d be forced to evacuate in the dark, and to where? If there was to be a Plan B, better to search for it now. Leo Hurley and I volunteered to head off with Kate Plaisier in her Beetle to visit the state police post an hour’s drive to the west.
The troopers couldn’t have been more amused by our muddy, wet-woolly selves. They also couldn’t have been more helpful. Could they make a call to a church or a school where our soggy band could put up for the night? Three hours later the 20 of us were camped in the Munising High School gym, cooking Sunday supper on the parquet floor. There we slept until students filed in for a Monday morning assembly.
Overnight, rain had turned to snow—perhaps no more than an inch, but it was falling at an encouraging pace. We broke our gym-camp and were ready to return to the woods. Except for a single leaky boot. It belonged to a sophomore who had been bravely mum the day before. She was already shivering despite our night indoors. Her toes were numb.
Weeks before, planning the trip over a meal in the dining hall, we had figured 10 percent of the trip budget would be adequate for an emergency reserve. I pulled the 10- and 20-dollar bills of our reserve fund from the plastic sandwich bag buried at the bottom of my pack. Marquette, a university town two hours by car to the west, offered a hospital and an airport. Off we went.
Leo, whose career would be in medical research, and Kate, who would specialize in adolescent psychiatry, proved great company in a medical evacuation. For our shivering skier there was nothing a round of hugs and a ticket home to Kalamazoo couldn’t cure. We walked her onto the runway and reassured her as she boarded that all would be well. Back at base camp, the two patrols would be off on a trek in fresh snow. Yes, we had lost a day’s skiing to the weather, but we’d make up for it with an early pre-dawn departure the next morning. Our “wounded” comrade, in turn, had a good story to tell. Everyone wins.
The plane lifted off. The storm stiffened. Leo, Kate and I drove the two hours back to base camp. The snow had drifted over the narrow roads. The Beetle, propelled by its rear-mounted engine, ploughed on. We reached camp well after nightfall and dinner with a plan to wake up in the middle of the night to ski.
The cloudless midnight sky gave us our first look at the Upper Peninsula in winter wonder. I remember a full moon, but the night could as easily have been lit by the stars alone. The trails were unbroken and glowed magically. For an hour or more the three of us skied in silence through the forest. The way emptied into a small clearing. We paused, still without speaking. A quarter of an hour went by. An owl, backlit by the moon or the Milky Way, flew in from the right, dipped into the snow at mid-field, and lifted a rabbit into the sky.
Snow was abundant for the remainder of the trip. We reached Lake Superior as planned. I remember being so frightened by its wind and waves that I turned back immediately. The woods, by contrast, were peaceful. No toes were lost. Maybe it was the diet of gorp, mac-and-cheese and hot chocolate. Maybe it was the regular breaks for under-the-armpit foot-warmings. We returned home two days before Christmas Eve.
Nearly 40 Christmases later I’m left with a fine wilderness education, one that includes phone skills (which are now digital), an eagerness to take up nature’s invitation to come out (often) and play, and a confidence in what small groups can overcome—not to mention a favorite story.