Bonding in Boundary Waters

By Dick Mason, The Observer February 24, 2012 12:49 pm

Tim Vandervlugt of La Grande,  a veteran of the Iraq war, stretches out as he climbs a portrage trail on skis during an Outward Bound trip into Northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness in January. SAM COOK / MCT photos
Tim Vandervlugt of La Grande, a veteran of the Iraq war, stretches out as he climbs a portrage trail on skis during an Outward Bound trip into Northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness in January. SAM COOK / MCT photos

La Grande man forges friendships with fellow veterans on 7-day adventure in Northern Minnesota 

Tim Vandervlugt of La Grande, a 29-year military veteran, wanted to step out of his comfort zone.

So he stepped into Northern Minnesota’s  Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness last month. 

Vandervlugt embarked on a seven-day, 31-mile trek through forests, over hills and across frozen lakes on an Outward Bound course along the Minnesota-Ontario, Canada border. Vandervlugt was with five other veterans and two Outward Bound instructors, one of whom is also a veteran. Party members skied, rode two sleds pulled by dog teams and on the final day hiked.

“It was an amazing experience,’’ said Vandervlugt, a member of the La Grande-based National Guard unit, the 3rd Battalion, 116th Calvary. 

Vandervlugt, an experienced long distance runner, made the Outward Bound journey in part to test himself. 

“I wanted to do something outside my comfort level.’’ 

This meant a cold weather adventure was in order since Vandervlugt has a hard time dealing with freezing weather. He experienced plenty of this in Minnesota, especially during the early days of the journey when the temperature once fell to 15 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Vandervlugt and his fellow team members were taught innovative ways of staying warm. These included placing bottles filled with boiling water in the bottom of their sleeping bags. 

Tim Vandervlugt 

The water bottles did a good job of keeping people comfortable and by sunrise were still lukewarm, Vandervlugt said.

A major highlight of the journey was the chance to ride the party’s two dog sleds. Vandervlugt said this opportunity helped lure him to the Outward Bound trip.

The 11 dogs on the trip absolutely loved pulling sleds, he said. This was most evident each morning when Vandervlugt and other skiers would leave 15 minutes early so that they could break trail for the dog sled. 

“The dogs would really howl when they saw us (leaving),’’ Vandervlugt said.

The dogs were excited because they knew they would soon be pulling sleds.  

A key to having a good sled dog team is placing dogs next to ones that get along with each other. This means dogs should only be placed next to ones of the opposite sex. Vandervlugt said dogs do not work well together on sled teams when next to dogs of the same sex. 

Dogs paired with companions they did not like would often nip at each other. The dogs, all husky mixes, may not have always gotten along with each other, but they had no trouble getting along with the seven men and one woman on the trip.

“They were really good with people,’’ Vandervlugt said.  

The canines were also quite tolerant and helpful, especially when they knew that this behavior would help them get back on the trail. For example, when harnesses were being put on, the dog’s front paws had to be bent and pulled into their   bodies. People never had to do this.

 “They (the dogs) folded their paws up for you,’’ Vandervlugt said.

The dogs pulled sleds carrying 500 pounds, ones that crossed frozen lakes. The lakes the party camped on were at least 18 inches thick. This was many times the thickness needed to be secure.

 Team members would cut through the ice to get fresh water.

Frozen lakes made good camping sites because they are flat and smooth.

Throughout the trip skiers pulled supply sleds.  

The sleds made skiing up and down hills difficult, Vandervlugt said.

Skiing became increasingly difficult later in the trip because the weather got warmer. This caused snow to clump up on skis. By the end of the journey, members of the party had to walk instead of ski.

The expenses of all the veterans on the trek, including travel, were covered by Outward Bound, an international non-profit outdoor education organization.  Vandervlugt said that without Outward Bound covering the costs, the trip would have cost him between $1,700 and $2,400 plus airfare. 

Outward Bound is able to offer trips for veterans because of donations made to it specifically for veterans. 

Ironically, the route veterans traveled is one that Vandervlugt’s wife, Celine, covered about two decades in the summer. She canoed across some of the lakes her husband camped on last month.

 Celine Vandervlugt once worked for Outward Bound. Her familiarity with it helped spark her husband’s interest in an Outward Bound adventure.   

Five of the seven veterans, including Vandervlugt, had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. The only who had not been deployed was Sam Cook, a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune who wrote an article about the veterans’ Outward Bound trip for his newspaper. Vandervlugt said Cook fit in well with the group.

 Vandervlugt was in Iraq for nine months from the fall of 2010 to the summer of 2011 with La Grande’s National Guard unit. 

During evenings on the trail, Vandervlugt and his fellow veterans had long discussions about their military experiences.

“We were able to talk about similar experiences. It helped with our readjustment (to civilian life),’’ he said.

The talks helped forge bonds of friendship, which will probably last a lifetime, Vandervlugt said.

“We are now emailing each other all the time. It was such a good group of people.’’