Saturday, May 28, 2011


So, I have returned from my great northern adventure, and am now able to add to the list of things I have accomplished, "Paddled a Canoe to Canada and Back".  This achievement is of monumental importance to me, but it remains uncertain as to exactly how to describe it, as I am not sure what it all means for me.  For now, I conclude that this trip was the capstone of a year and a half transformation in my life wherein God has revealed a part of my manhood (and thus, also my priesthood) that had heretofore gone unrecognized.  It was necessary that I paddle that canoe.  I had to prove that I could.  Having done so, I am a little disappointed that I did not experience a Braveheart "Freedom!" sort of moment, nor a surge of testosterone compelling me to return from the woods with a full beard and dressed in the skins of recently dead animals.  At the end of it, I find I remain very much the same as I was when I left.  It is all a bit anticlimactic, but nevertheless, it is a very big experience which will take me some length of time to digest.

There is too much to detail as a narrative.  I did it.  I am glad to have done it.  I don't anticipate repeating the experience soon, but who knows.  I am told that it gets a little easier every time.  In what follows, I will try to address various vignettes of the trip in a somewhat thematic way.

Near Death Experiences

Of these, there were only two.  It is worth noting that when we embarked on our little journey, the ice had only been off of the water for about two weeks.  It was still bitterly cold, generally very deep, and often we were what seemed like miles from shore as we crossed the various lakes.Likewise, it is worth noting that until last Saturday, my experiences with a canoe were limited to about a two hour paddle on Lake Pactola with Fr. Tim Hoag and Fr. Marcin Garbacz (actually Fr. Tim and I paddled.  Fr. Marcin sat in the middle reading and enjoying the lake as though he were Cleopatra floating down the Nile).  As a result, I did not realize, as we made our way into the wilderness toward our campsite, that we had arrived at a bit of a crisis situation when the nose of our canoe crashed into a rock while the current of the river pushed the tail of the same canoe into another rock leaving us sitting perpendicular to the flow of water.  Michael Hofer was very patient as he said to me "What you are doing really isn't helping."  I only began to grow concerned when I heard that panic in his voice as he announced that water was coming over the side of the canoe.  Somehow we managed to push off the rocks and right ourselves.  The remainder of the trip to the campsite was relatively uneventful.

Upon leaving the boundary waters on the last day, we encountered a little wind making the water pretty choppy.  It was impossible to see rocks hiding just below the surface of the water.  Their presence became immediately apparent, however, when Michael and I suddenly found ourselves high-centered on top of one.  After several minutes of trying to finagle our way off of it, Michael instructed me to balance myself and grab the rails of the canoe.  Because he was behind me,. I couldn't tell what he was doing (which, it turns out, was probably best).  He managed to get one foot out of the canoe and push off the rock with one foot.  We rocked and rolled, and finally righted ourselves.  "Were you just standing up in the canoe?" I asked.  "No."  Michael responded.  Like I said, it was best that I didn't see what he was doing.

Wherein I Felt Compelled to Beat Someone with a Canoe Paddle   

The entire trip to the campsite was somewhere between fifteen and twenty miles.  The paddling was occasionally interrupted by portages wherein we were required to carry canoe and gear overland to get to the next lake.  While the packs were heavy, most of the portages on the way in were pretty short, and I felt much more secure on terra firma than on the water, so I rather enjoyed these little walks.  The last portage came about halfway to the campsite.  It was at this point that I actually left the canoe and walked onto Canadian soil.  Reaching the end of the portage, we took a short break, and as I rested, spread-eagle, on a rock near the water, I explained to Michael that my arms had staged a coup against my brain and were no longer taking orders.  They would not paddle another stroke.  Michael laughed and assured me that I would get a second wind.  Within ten minutes of reentering the canoe for the longest paddle of the trip, the rain began.  It was not cold, and at first, not unpleasant.  It was however, quite wet.  I got even wetter a couple of hours later trying to disembark from the canoe for a short break on the shore when a convenient looking rock turned out to be as slippery as a trout.  Happily, Michael fell in trying to get out on the same rock, demonstrating that it was not simply a lack of grace on my own part that had landed me in the water.  We sat a few minutes and then decided that it was just as good being miserably wet in the canoe as it was being miserably wet on shore.  We took off paddling toward what Michael assured me was the second to last bay we had to cross on the trip.  As it turns out, he was wrong, and we had taken a scenic detour to explore the contours of Wednesday Bay.  Retracing our path back toward open water, I wondered if I had enough strength left to kill him.

It was not until we were on the return trip that my homicidal longing was reignited.  The packs on the way out were, despite all logic, heavier than the packs going in to the campsite.  This was not such a bad thing.  They were heavy, but I was doing alright.  I was winded when we reached the top of one portage, not long but very steep, and asked who had placed a lake on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  The next portage, however, was at least a mile long - significantly longer than any I had walked before.  When I finally reached the far shore, I looked at the man who had arranged the trip (and who, coincidentally, had decided that it was necessary to bring a small gas stove, camp chairs for every camper, and a variety of other items I deemed more and more unnecessary every time I took a step), and without even a hint of sarcasm told him that if I had had to walk even one hundred yards more, I would have beaten him with a canoe paddle and thrown all the gear in the lake.

Of Fish

The fishing was amazing.  Within ten seconds of dropping my line in the water I had caught my first walleye.  I caught two more within the hour.  By the end of our trip we had caught 142 walleye, and well over 200 fish total.  Of them, we ate twenty-five and threw the rest back to breed another year.  The largest catch was a eight or nine pound walleye.  There is photographic evidence of this somewhere.

These campers were walleye snobs.  If they caught a bass, they threw it back at the water with disgust as though it were a bullhead or a bluegill or some such thing.  In South Dakota, we would have been proud to have kept fish like they threw away.  Absolutely great fishing.

The twenty-five that we ate were perhaps the best tasting fish I have ever consumed.  One of the survival skills natural selection has given to the vast majority of fish is their repulsive odor and taste.  Too bad for the walleye that when battered and fried, they are succulent.

Sundry Boundary Water Horrors

I am not sure that in the boundary waters there exists a truly pleasant day.  While there we experienced all of the following in greater or lesser quantities:  Mosquitoes and Sandflies (like tiny houseflies, and undeterred by deet) in quantities akin to the Plagues of Egypt.  I accidentally ate many of them, some took up residence in my ears, and others in my nose.  Wind.  Rain.  Scorching heat.  Cold, cold nights.  It was all par for the course, though, and a necessary part of an authentic boundary waters experience.  I must say, however, that I have bites in various places on my body where no insect had any business being.  I'm not sure how they got there.

Small Treasures

One learns to really appreciate dry clothes, warm feet, and wood dry enough to start a good fire.  One also learns to appreciate one's own foresight in having brought along a goodly amount of pipe tobacco and a couple of pipes.  One appreciates good friends who live along the way who let you stay at their houses for the night, and wait up for you as you get lost trying to find them.  On returning home, one appreciates a bed, a pillow, and the familiar smell of woodsmoke from one's own area.  Most of the wood we burned was birch.  It never smelled quite right to me.  Give me pine and ash smoke over birch smoke any day.   

Behold, I am With You Always

It is pretty cool to celebrate Mass in the wild knowing that regardless of how far I was from humanity, I was still able to do the most essential thing for the salvation of their souls.  God was not necessarily more apparent to me in the natural world, but he was close in new ways.  I liked that a lot.

Insight Into the Lives of Our Forefathers

Had it been my responsibility, the people of the great lakes region would never have been evangelized.  After one day of paddling, I would have said to my companions, "I've had enough.  Let them go to Hell."  It is amazing to me that people once traveled everywhere by canoe, or by horse, or on foot.  They carried everything.  They made everything themselves.  When crippled, they had to care for themselves.  When sick, they lived or they died without the ministrations of a medical professional.  I thought of that often as we swung the ax to split firewood, or as a hook tried to lodge itself in a finger.  People used to be tough.  While I am awed by them, I do not envy them; I harbor no desire to live as they did.  I rather like my cell phone and indoor plumbing.


Beyond the fish, I saw beavers and beaver dams.  After crossing over the dam, I decided that beavers are a menace.  We killed a mouse who was helping himself to our supplies (among them, the Ibuprofen).  We saw a small snake, and a junebug.  There was also a moose in our camp one night, but I did not see it.  That was a disappointment, as moose are pretty much my favorite animals.


In total our party was eight.  Two of us were novice campers, the rest had varying levels of experience.  I was particularly impressed by one guy, about ten years older than me.  He grew up on those waters, worked for some years with an outfitter who prepared people to travel the waters, and he has vacationed there regularly for his whole life.  He was genuinely kind, always helpful, full of incredibly useful information about the flora, fauna, and geography of the region, and ultimately, a deeply devout man.  His example of true Catholic masculinity was incredible.  He is the kind of guy that other men are born to follow.  It was great to meet him.  The other men on the trip were great too, but as an introvert, it was a bit hard for me to be with a group I didn't know especially well.  Because of this, the conversations we had often remained superficial and sometimes dull.  If I go again someday, I will go with more people that I know.

In Conclusion . . .

The trip began on Friday, we paddled on Saturday, it concluded on Wednesday, and I was home on Thursday.  I find that it was good to be away from my phone and computer, and the trip allowed me a little time to get used to leaving this parish.  It will still be sad, but like any knight errant or adventurer, I have come to realize that it is time to move on.  As I said, this was a pretty significant trip.  I have some mementos of it that I will probably frame eventually.  In the meanwhile, I will content myself with catching trout.  That sort of fishing is a little more my style (I caught five last night).  One of these days, I suppose I will go back.  But not anytime soon.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On A Lighter Note

I think I might die on Saturday.

About two weeks ago, a status update appeared in my Facebook newsfeed asking if anyone wanted to go to the Minnesota Boundary waters.  Half-jokingly, I sent a note to the author suggesting that i would want to come.  He returned a message asking if I was serious and giving me a few things to consider before making a final decision.  Among these factors was that the trip would entail between six and ten hours of canoe paddling.  I thought about it but decided it would be hard to get the time off, and decided not to do it.

A few days later a seminarian from our diocese called to tell me that he would be joining that trip, but would be going later, and did I want to go with him.  It seemed too providential that this opportunity should present itself twice, and so after a brief conversation with the pastor (it took him about three minutes to arrange the schedule to permit me to have the time off) I called the seminarian and told him I was in.

I have wanted to do a boundary waters trip for about a year now.  The Lord has placed all of these new interests and hobbies (hunting, fishing, etc . . .) in my life, and such a trip seemed like a perfect culmination to a lengthy process of growth.  The idea of going into the wilderness with a bunch of other men was, for the first time, attractive to me.  I envied others who were planning such trips for themselves, and unsuccessfully tried to get myself invited.  It comes a bit of a surprise to myself, then, that even though I am excited to leave, I am also experiencing a vague feeling of panic.  Ten hours of rowing (One way) is a lot of rowing.  I am severely out of shape.  I am not a strong swimmer.  I get cold easily.  I like indoor plumbing.  I don't especially like insects.

But, this is a great adventure, and an adventure is just what I need.  I think it will help put into perspective the new leg of the adventure of following Christ I will undertake beginning July 1. 

I leave tomorrow and paddle on Saturday.  I'll write more when I return next week. Presuming, of course, that I don't die in the boundary waters.   

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What Becomes of the Broken-hearted

It's official.  Effective July 1, I will become the associate pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in Rapid City.  Soon thereafter, Fr. Nathan Sparks will assume his duties as associate pastor of the Cathedral Parish.

For months now, I have suspected that this would happen.  To some extent, because of that, I have been too easily convinced to go out and have fun with people rather than do my work in the office.  I have been trying to milk every moment of time I can with the people I have come to love.  For several weeks prior to learning this news myself, I found myself in tears for no apparent reason just because the thought of leaving was so painful.

I had hoped that once I knew for sure, it would get easier.  It didn't, especially because I was not allowed to tell anyone that I would be leaving until they learned it through the official announcements in the parish.  I have to admit that I did not keep this secret well.  There were plenty of people who knew before the announcement was made.  It was too much to carry alone.

For some, I suppose, this may sound silly.  I am just moving across town, after all.  It is much more than that, though.  I am leaving my family, and I am entrusting them to the care of another.  I am leaving my fishing buddies, my hunting buddies, my friends, my brothers, my sons.  While there will remain perpetually a special bond between us, from now on, they are no longer mine.  And as ridiculous as it is, a part of me worries, "Will I be replaced in their hearts?  Am I just one more in the progression of priests who pass through the Cathedral every couple of years?"  For Fr. Nathan's sake I hope I will.  For my own, I hope I will not.

I feel terrible too, because I worry that I approach my new parish with a heart divided.  I wonder how I am going to be able to love them?  They are good people and they deserve a priest dedicated to them?  How do I give my heart to them now?

The realistic part of myself knows that this was going to happen sooner or later, and that when I eventually leave Blessed Sacrament it will happen there too.  That knowledge terrifies me.  How many times can I give my heart knowing that it will ultimately be rent in two?  It is this reality that I have been writing about for several posts now.  I need to let my heart be pierced, and to recognize this experience as a profound experience of love.  But it is, literally, the most painful thing I have ever had to do.

Once I made light of a difficulty a cousin of mine was having in a relationship with a woman.  My Father rebuked me, "Has your heart ever been broken?  When it is maybe you will understand."  

It seems that I am finally beginning to understand.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mission Accomplished (Sort Of)

One year ago today I published my first post for Prairie Father.  At the time, I had great aspirations of publishing one a day.  Then once a week.  Then, as the mood struck me.  I find, nevertheless, that the reasons for which I first began writing remain much the same: To have a place to help process the experiences of a young priest hoping to become a better priest, and to pursue holiness.  This blog has done a great deal to help me.  Without it, I would likely not have articulated the change of course I needed upon arriving at my thirtieth year.  Without it, I would likely not have understood how I was being called to allow my heart to be pierced like the heart of Christ.  Without it, I would likely not have been able to give a name to the ways in which God was calling me to give vent to newly discovered facets of my personality.  So, in many ways, Prairie Father is doing what it is supposed to do.  Thanks to all of you who are reading.  Because of you, I am encouraged to give words to thoughts, feelings, and experiences that would otherwise go unexplored in my own mind.  Thank you for your prayers, your encouragement, and your challenges to me.  Once again, I commend this work to the intercession of our Blessed Mother and St. John Vianney.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.
St. John Vianney, pray for us.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Self Improvement

For reasons I cannot fully explain at present,  I have been little inclined to write for a while. Suffice it to say that I am a little blue these days.  Every day, however, comes with its own set of blessings, and today's was a rather encouraging one.

As I noted in my last post, during Lent, I began visiting a dietitian.  I saw her again today, and  can report that after seven weeks, I have lost twenty-six pounds, nearly four inches around the waist, and almost two around the hips.  This has happened primarily through a major change in diet; more vegetables more often and less pasta (in other words, none).  I find that this is a small price to pay for the benefits I am already enjoying.

Though diet itself will help a great deal, I am told that I need to include an exercise regimen into my lifestyle.  I am encouraged to find something that I like to do, which is easy enough except that the things I like to do don't really lend themselves to everyday engagement.  For instance, while I sometimes walk great distances in giving chase to the wiley pheasant, I am only allowed to do this a limited number of times between the months of October and January.  Likewise, I am willing to walk some distance to do battle with the elusive trout, but my schedule permits me only a miserly quantity of time to devote to this pursuit.  One thing that my schedule does seem to permit, however, is two bowling.  I can bowl two games almost every day, and finish within half an hour or so.  Unfortunately, bowling is hardly an aerobic workout.  While it does seem to do a lot of good in terms of muscle, it dos little to actually raise my pulse.*

I recently went outside to play catch with some teenage kids and got a real kick out of it.  Sadly, I throw like a girl.  I would like to believe that this is the natural side effect of having thrown nothing but a rope as a child, and I might be able to convince myself of the veracity of this sentiment were that I had ever been even a mediocre roper.  Such is not the case.  I find that I rope like a girl too.  No.  Strike that.  Most girls rope better than I do.  As it is, I have decided that it is high time for my father to teach me to throw a ball.**

In the seminary, I walked a great deal.  I was glad for the anonymity an evening constitutional granted me.  In the neighborhood of the Cathedral, to walk is to beg encounters with parishioners, and it is therefore less appealing.

I would like to begin lifting weights, and I think that I could deal with the fact that most teenage boys could lift more than me, but I just can't stand the idea of going to the gym to do it, and I would need to find someone to go with me besides.  I have some light weights and an exercise band in my rooms, but I find that given my approach to morning (i.e. avoiding it as long as possible), I have little to time to commit to these tools.

But, I have lost twenty-six pounds and intend to lose a great deal more.  One thing at a time I have to remind myself.  One thing at a time.

* This statement is not altogether true.  I find that throwing a ball down the gutter three frames in a row actually does raise my pulse.  Just not in the helpful exercisey sort of way.

** This should explain m urgent demand that my father dig through the closet to find the ball, bat, and glove that live there.