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Minnetonka student and cancer survivor wins trip to BWCA

Mar 24, 2018 10:42AM ● By Editor
Julia Ruelle is ecstatic to be heading this summer to the serene Boundary Waters Canoe Area as winner of an essay contest sponsored by the founder of Ely Outfitting Co.

By Gail Rosenblum - The Star Tribune - March 22, 2018

Julia Ruelle is ecstatic to be heading this summer to the serene Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) as winner of the first ever essay contest sponsored by the founder of Ely Outfitting Co.

Ruelle, a 16-year-old sophomore at Minnetonka High School, beat out about 70 other Minnesota high schoolers for the five-day, fully outfitted canoe and camping adventure.

While this is far from Ruelle’s first trip to the BWCA — she’s been going with her family since she was 8 — it will undoubtedly be the sweetest. In December, Ruelle was diagnosed with a rare but highly curable brain tumor. She completed chemotherapy in February. Six weeks of radiation at the Mayo Clinic is scheduled to end in May, with no restrictions placed on her after that.

That means only one thing to Ruelle. “This enables me to be perfectly ready for a summer trip to the greatest place on Earth.” And, best of all, not alone. Electronics and parents are out, but contest rules allow her to bring up to three friends, as long as she gets the OK from their parents.

“Though I am such a lover of the BWCA, most of my friends have never experienced its hypnotic serenity and I’ve always wanted to share it with them, but not wanted to have to bring my parents along,” she said.

Not that she doesn’t appreciate, deeply, their constant love and support, she said, particularly over the past few very frightening months. “But distance makes the heart grow fonder, right?”

Mom and Dad are all in. “She’s 16 and she’s so responsible, and the kids she’s asking are, as well,” said Julia’s mom, Linda Ruelle, a second-grade teacher in the Minnetonka schools.

Linda did admit with a laugh that she originally thought the contest included an adult guide. “Mom! Did you read it?” Julia asked her.

“Quite honestly, when I go up there with her, she’s very aware of everything that is going on,” Linda said of their family trips to the BWCA. “The outfitter will get everything right. [Husband] Steve, too, has prepared her well.”

In preparation for the five-day trip, Linda said she plans to take the girls on a few canoe trips on Lake Minnetonka.

Jason Zabokrtsky, founder and head guide of Ely Outfitting Co., created the contest to encourage kids to put down their phones and take in the abundant beauty surrounding them, particularly Up North. He’s lived in Ely year-round for 14 years.

High school students were asked to answer, in 1,000 to 1,500 words, “Why do you want to go on a parent-free BWCA Wilderness canoe-camping adventure with your friends?”

The winner, he noted to assuage panicked parents, will have clearly marked navigation maps and specialized trail meals. The teens will carry an emergency communication device and are required to wear life jackets whenever canoeing or swimming.

Zabokrtsky and five other judges called the essays “inspiring, well-written and impressive.” But only one wrote this about being in the pristine BWCA:

“These days are when I feel most connected to my soul and surroundings and most at-home, with no social media or material concerns to distract me from the purity of the air in my lungs, dirt beneath my feet, and the sounds of birds, water, and all things natural in my ears.”

Crafting the essay was the first time Ruelle wrote candidly about her medical condition which, “obviously … changed my life and kept me from doing most normal teen things.

“I felt very vulnerable talking about it,” said Ruelle, who describes herself as “the kind of person who just plows through, one step after another. I hadn’t really had a chance to view the whole process of diagnosis, getting chemo — it helped me see the scope of it all.”

Ruelle was in Rochester in early March, between doctors’ appointments at the Mayo Clinic, when she got the happy news that she had won.

“I was in an elevator and I saw that the call was from Ely. It was super exciting!”

Throughout her treatment, she has kept up with her studies and is grateful to Minnetonka High School for allowing her to follow a slightly modified schedule so she can sleep in, and leave a little early in the afternoons.

“She went to the Sweethearts Dance with a bunch of girls,” said her proud mom. “The friend piece has been really instrumental in her well-being.”

As has being in nature.

Linda Ruelle said that Julia, the youngest of three, “latched onto the outdoors more completely than the other ones.” Ruelle loves cross-country skiing and running, and is eager to return to those activities.

She’s also active with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters nonprofit, to which she donates money and proudly wears the logo on shirts, stickers and pins.

The family, originally from Wisconsin, moved to the Twin Cities in 2006 and Steve, an investment banker, quickly discovered the Boundary Waters. Now Julia will discover it anew.

She is still in the process of picking which friends will join her.

“I want kind of all my friends to go,” she said. “I know all my friends would be interested.”

She hopes to head up sometime in June, after school gets out — and before the bugs arrive in force.

“In this world, you always have your phone, you’re always texting and not quite living in the moment,” Ruelle said.

“In the Boundary Waters, it’s just you and the canoe and the water, and you feel really in touch with yourself and everything around you.”

To read Julia’s complete essay, go to

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