Meet your neighbor: Mike Kwasniewicz from up the TrailApr 09, 2022 05:52AM ● By Editor
Exclusive to Boreal Community Media • April 9, 2022
I guess I grew up wanting a job that afforded outdoor recreation opportunities. My folks would take our family camping nearly every weekend and we were fortunate enough to even manage a few bigger BWCA trips around the Ely area in my teens. On those camping trips, I would engross myself in adventure books like "My Side of the Mountain" and "Hatchet" which surely influenced my desire to retreat to the wilderness. I also distinctly remember building bushcraft forts in the woods when my folks would let me roam. It was easy for me to wander from dawn till dusk making tree houses and deer blinds and just exploring. The desire to live in wild places struck me pretty early in life and has not let up yet.
I first came to Cook County in 2005 seeking summer employment at Clearwater Lodge. After my first semester at college, I was already itching to get out of the classroom and into the woods for a bit of adventure so I took a scattershot approach and applied to a few dozen resorts in the Cook County area. Clearwater seemed like the best fit at the time because they billed themselves as a "small by choice" outfitter. The idea of working for a small, family-run business with that kind of personal feel was very appealing as I wanted time to explore the area and enjoyed the idea of building one on one connections with the folks I was going to be outfitting.
Every time summer ended and I had to pack up to go back to school I always felt a little saddened and every time I turned back onto The Trail, up the hill and away from Lake Superior, I would feel refreshed. I distinctly remember driving up the Gunflint Trail for the first time and feeling a strange wave of excitement and relaxation wash over me that I had not experienced since wandering the woods in my childhood. It did not take long for me to think of this place as home. There is a quiet comfort on the Gunflint Trail I have never really found anywhere else. A feeling of serenity.
I love hiking. There is nothing better than a meandering walk through the woods, especially if there is something tasty in season. I usually forage for mushrooms, berries, and other wild edibles as I go, though I do also enjoy grouse hunting from time to time. The best way I can describe foraging to a layperson is that it is like a mix between a scavenger hunt and Christmas morning. I take great joy in slowly scanning the forest floor for signs of Chanterelles or Lobster Mushrooms. The excitement I feel when I finally see a glimmer of that vibrant apricot or reddish-orange color is pure joy. Foraging is as close to a ritualistic or sacred act as I partake in and I have never felt closer to nature than when I am hunting and harvesting the bounty that grows here.
Be like water. Take a note from the natural environment and learn to go with the flow. Life in the wilderness is all about one's ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Things can and will go wrong. Weather changes and problems will arise. One just needs to be pliable and adapt to the current circumstances. I have found the most valuable abilities I have are the clarity to analyze a given situation objectively and the sense to alter my course of action for the safest outcome. Rigidity and stubbornness only lead to more problems. There is not much of a safety net in the wilderness and we are very much on our own up here. This kind of isolation requires self-reliance and confidence in one's abilities. It is all about adaptation.
The simple answer is that I am already exactly where I want to be but if I had the opportunity I would probably pick somewhere on the other side of the world just to experience something new and beyond my current scope of understanding. Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Mongolia all seem pretty interesting.
I put in a few weeks at the Windigo. If you know, you know...
What is your favorite restaurant in the area and what is on the menu that you love the most?
If I had to pick one meal there it would be my old standard of a "wimpy" Bear Beatty burger with bacon paired with their cajun fries and a side of house dressing for dipping. I would eat two or three of those a week back when I was cutting wood regularly.
There are quite a few folks I have drawn inspiration from in my life but by far the one that stands above all the rest is my Grandfather, Marcin Kwasniewicz. He passed away when I was young but he still managed to leave an indelible impression on my psyche. It may be that I was so small then but I remember him being a gentle giant of a man, seemingly head and shoulders above all the other adults in my world at the time. His calm, deliberate demeanor always struck me thoroughly experienced and unshakable. It seemed he could fix anything and had a sense of ingenuity and resourcefulness I aspire to. To understand my respect for him you need to know a bit about who he was...
Marcin was born in Poland in 1919 and was conscripted to fight in the Polish military at the young age of 19. The Nazis and then subsequently the Soviet Union had both invaded and decimated Poland. After seeing his home destroyed and his nation effectively eradicated from opposite sides by two superpowers, he and a large portion of the remaining Polish army were exiled to Siberian work camps by the Soviets. Marcin and his countrymen were marched across a continent and then were imprisoned for a number of years until he was eventually released when the Allies brokered a deal with the Soviets to return Polish forces to the Western theater so they could again help in the fight against the Nazis. Being a proud and stoic people the Polish refused to fight with the Soviets who had previously helped destroy their homeland and instead the contingent of about 150,000 men opted to walk from the USSR to the Middle East in order to join with the English military. From there Marcin continued fighting through the Middle East to the Mediterranean and eventually landed with Allied forces in Italy to help in the Battle for Montecasino.
After surviving untold turmoil during the war and touring through vast portions of Russia, Europe, and the Middle East on foot he was granted English and then American citizenship and eventually decided to move to the Chicago area in the 1950s where he would find factory work in order to support his family. I only ever had a few opportunities to speak with my Grandfather about his first-hand experiences during his youth as I was so young when I knew him but there is no doubt that those exploits impacted him greatly. I can not imagine the horrors he saw or the suffering he experienced in his life but despite all of that anguish, his kindness was never diminished. That resolve stuck with me. The fact that a man could go through so much and still maintain a gentle kindness has always been an inspiration.
The best advice that was ever given to you?