Emily Stirr is in the backyard of her parents' residence on Madison's far west side. Joined by Meg Casey and Nina Emery, she is pitching two of the rugged tents they plan to call home this summer. It is a warm, sunny day in late May. The foliage is green, the sky a rich blue and the breeze light.
But the tents won't be staying here this summer, and this pleasant backyard setting will not be home. Along with Beth Halley and Karen Stanley, these three women will be 2,500 miles away in Canada's remote and wild Northwest Territories. By the time you read this, they will have embarked on their second Borealis Paddling Expedition.
A sequel to their 90-day, 1,200-mile traverse of Saskatchewan tundra in the summer of 2005, this year's 65-day itinerary will follow a different but no less challenging route along a series of rivers and portages north from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean.
All five women are alumni of the YMCA's renowned Camp Manito-wish in Boulder Junction, Wis. Between them, they accumulated 65 seasons as campers and staff members. With their Borealis expeditions, the group strives to demonstrate the skills and ethics they learned and polished at the camp, and raise money for an endowment fund that underwrites camp scholarships.
The first expedition yielded a $50,000 campership fund. This second one will, they hope, yield more.
Starting in early June from Fort Rae, Northwest Territories, the Borealis team will paddle and portage their Bell Alaskan canoes up and down rivers and across stretches of watershed. The expedition will conclude at Kugluktuk, Nunavut, a small Inuit outpost on the Arctic Ocean.
They hope to arrive there by Aug. 10, then drive back to Camp Manito-wish by Aug. 16, to help celebrate the camp's 90th anniversary festivities with a slide show.
Two weeks before the launch, the Stirr residence is serving as base camp. Beth Halley is absent because she is completing her first year of medical school at Ohio State; upon finishing her exams, she will fly to Yellowknife to rendezvous with Casey, Emery and Stirr en route to the put-in. Karen Stanley, meanwhile, is a program director at the YMCA's Seafarer camp in North Carolina, and will join the team at its re-supply site on July 22.
"It'll be right before we begin this really long, arduous watershed," Emery observes, "and Karen is a pack horse."
All five women are in their mid-20s. Since the 2005 expedition, Casey has been leading expeditions in Alaska's Brooks Range and weeklong wilderness therapy excursions in Oregon's Cascades. She plans to enter law school this fall in Vermont. Stirr is in graduate school in Wyoming, focusing on ecology and education. Emery is a graduate student in philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I've been living the city life for a few years," Emery explains, "and I want to be up there on the tundra and just be living the simple life. The good life."
Stirr agrees, citing "the chance to be up north and just be paddling on the river, all day, every day" as one of her leading motivations for signing on to Borealis II.
"The wildlife is always out there," Casey adds, elaborating on the appeal she finds in the "vast and empty" wilderness. They expect to see wolves on a regular basis, but hope to avoid a repeat of their first expedition's encounter with a black bear that did some damage to their camp.
Their Camp Manito-wish experiences had prepared them for such a possibility. In addition to its summer camps and leadership training center, Manito-Wish maintains a rigorous schedule of wilderness excursions of up to 45 days in locations as disparate as Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, northern Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains.
Camp Manito-wish's programs are familiar to scores of Madison residents who have visited the place. The Borealis women are trying to "help make the Manito-wish experience available to others," says Stirr. At Manito-wish, they were schooled to set challenging goals that emphasize commitment, minimum-impact exploration and respect for landscapes and cultures.
"On more brutal days, it can be hard to get out of the tent," Stirr acknowledges. "You think about it for a long time, like, I know I have to do this. Then there comes a time when you just have to start moving, you put on your wet clothes, you get out of the tent, you get blasted in the face. And then you find out Nina has already been up for half an hour and she already made a pot of coffee."
Emery laughs, and if she doesn't say it, this is implied: Without the challenge, the rewards would not be as rich.
The Borealis group will be blogging about their trip at www.borealispaddlingexpedition.com.