DULUTH -- Ty Olson left the Rainy Lake Visitors Center at Voyageurs National Park on Thursday, starting a 254-mile ski trek across the top of Minnesota. It was 20 below zero at the time. He was alone. He won’t be indoors again for four weeks or more.
Olson expects to end up at Grand Portage, on Lake Superior, sometime in early March, having followed the Minnesota/Ontario border the entire route — retracing the path that Native people used for centuries and European voyageurs after that.
But they usually went that way in summer.
“I know it sounds pretty crazy. But I’m actually thinking it’s going to be fun,’’ Olson said while he was preparing for his ski trek.
He’ll spend time on the frozen surfaces of 35 lakes and nine rivers and cross land along 26 portages as he skis through Voyageurs and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Olson, 32, will be unsupported on the solo trip, meaning he’s taking all of his food, white gas fuel (for cooking and melting water, he has no heat source) and gear with him for the entire route. The Grafton, N.D., native will be pulling 150 pounds of gear spread out on two sleds behind him as he skis.
Olson expects to be breaking his own trail most of the way, which means slow going.
“Will Steger told me it would take at least 30 days, so that’s what I’m planning for,’’ Olson said, noting he communicated with several other polar explorers and wilderness experts, including Lonnie Dupre, Paul Schurke and Dave Freeman.
While Olson has never done such a long or wild winter trip before, this isn’t his first wilderness rodeo.
“I’ve done a lot of Boundary Waters trips solo, including in winter. I’ve been practicing camping out, sleeping outside and cooking my meals outside,’’ Olson said, noting he explored part of the route this past summer while solo camping the BWCAW. “I think I’m ready. I’m nervous, but ready.”
Temperatures when he started the trip reached 25 below zero, with wind chills under 40 below zero as he began in early February. But Olson said he didn’t want to wait much longer to begin the journey for fear that an early spring could end it.
“My concern is that the rivers, especially the Pigeon River, start to open up as spring approaches and I have to be done with the trip by then,’’ he said.
Olson has trained for months, at first pulling tires across bare ground and then practicing skiing and pulling his sleds on snow and ice at Ten Mile Lake Lake near Walker, where his family has a cabin.
A fundraiser for Native people in need
Olson has a website, skiforfire.com, where people can follow progress along the route thanks to GPS. He also has an emergency transponder that can also send texts or emails, should he be in grave danger.
But the trip is more than just a fun trek for Olson, who is trying to raise money for the nonprofit One Spirit that operates on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest places in America.
Specifically the money Olson raises will go to One Spirit’s firewood program that hires Lakota workers, provides them with saws, log-splitters, warm clothing and safety equipment, and then pays them to deliver truckloads of free firewood to Pine Ridge families and elders in need.
That’s why he’s calling his trek Ski For Fire.
“I chose One Spirit as my beneficiary because, of all nonprofits, they have the most immediate effect on the daily life of those living on Pine Ridge, which just so happens to be the poorest of these reservations. I'd ski for all of them if I could, but I have to start somewhere.”
Many homes on the reservation still heat and cook with wood, Olson noted.
“The poverty at Pine Ridge is just stifling,’’ Olson said. “There are people who need help right now just heating their home to make it through this winter. It’s an immediate, basic need that’s not being met.”
As of Wednesday, Feb. 10, the effort has raised nearly $14,000 toward Olson's goal of $20,000.
Olson is both dramatic and emotional when he speaks of his personal transformation to realizing that his Norwegian ancestors settled on Red River Valley land that had been taken from Native people. He said he wants his trip to help focus on a new narrative on how the U.S. relates to its Native peoples.
“I’m not ashamed of my heritage or my ancestors. But I realize now that I’ve benefited directly from their settling on stolen land. The frontier wasn’t empty when they arrived from Norway in the 1800s … it was full of Native people. Those people are still there and we still haven’t made amends, haven’t made them whole.”
Olson noted it was the ancestors of the Lakota people who used the border route at first, and then the Ojibwe people. He said he sought and received permission from the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe before making the trek.
“Not just for crossing their reservation land, but permission for me to cross the Boundary Waters that was all their land,’’ Olson said.
Olson, an independent filmmaker, said this will be his last big adventure before moving to Sweden to be with his girlfriend, who lives in Stockholm. He plans on staying in Sweden to pursue his filmmaking career.
For more information on Ty Olson's trip, to follow his progress on the ski trek, or to donate to One Spirit’s firewood effort, go to skiforfire.com.