On playing outside

By Mike MannelinExplorebigsky.com Contributor

I could hear the train coming for a few minutes. It must have been a mile away. The ground started rumbling under my feet, and I knew it would come into view any second. When it appeared around the corner through the trees, I cringed with excitement. I’m not sure why, but I always used to do that when I was a boy.

The rusty and dented steel cars flew past, loaded down with steaming piles of iron ore. I counted the cars as they went by.

“14, 15, 16… 78, 79, 80… 123.”

Then it was silent. I raced over to the tracks to pick up pellets of iron ore that had fallen off the train, fresh from the mine.

When my pockets were full, I picked up my bike and ride to my friend’s house. In the backyard we shot slingshots at birds, squirrels and anything else that moved. The marble-shaped ore pellets made perfect ammo.

This was my life as a 10-year-old kid on summer vacation in a small town at the edge of the small world in northern Minnesota.

One lucky afternoon we stumbled across a hatchet and went into the woods, chopping down trees and mapping out trails. We used the trees to build forts, which came in handy when we were hiding from parents, playing army or camping.

Another day, we built a fire using a set of matches my friend found in his parents’ garage. I wasn’t allowed to make fires yet, and when I got home I was in trouble for smelling like smoke.

From my yard we’d scoop up handfuls of smashed and rotting crab apples and throw them at the garage and at other neighborhood kids. The fights often evolved into full-on wars involving all the kids from the block.

At the end of every summer day, our mothers would call us in for dinner, and we’d say goodbye reluctantly.

Not much has changed, although I now spend summers working in remote Alaska. At 7 a.m. the alarm goes off. The snooze button is hard to find sometimes, but the incessant, horrible sound magically disappears if I just swat my hand in its general direction a few times.

The steep stairs leading from the sleeping mats in the attic to the main cabin are always sketchy, especially in the morning. In the entryway, I sift through a few pairs of identical waders to find my own. My feet find their way into the damp boots, and I pull them up to my chest. I call the dog, grab the gun and head out the door.

The fish have their noses pressed into the gate as if they know that I’m about to open it. One pokes his head upstream, looking for danger, then swims through cautiously. Another follows a little less cautiously. Soon the opening is plugged full of salmon charging upstream to spawn. As they begin to slow down, my clicker-counting device is nearing 1,000. I pack up my gear and head back to the cabin to make coffee.

During the day, I wander outside to work on projects around the cabin. There’s the banya addition. I’m building a new diesel tank stand and a new boat shed. The boats need attention. And there’s bear destruction to repair on buildings.

By dinner time, when we have our scheduled radio meeting with headquarters, several projects have been finished, some new ones have been started, and we’ve been to the weir to count fish at least four or five more times. By 11 p.m., the sun is ready to set, and I’m heading down to do one last fish count before dark.

As I write, it’s the first day of summer. It’s been 26 years since the slingshots and childhood mischief. I still feel the same freedom now that I did when I was chucking crab apples at the neighbor kids. These days, my cabin is like a mansion-fort, I get to make fires in the banya, and once and awhile I chuck a fish at my wife.

Mike Mannelin is a skier with roots in Minnesota, Montana, and Alaska. He gains his inspiration in life by spending time in the mountains with friends.