Can you imagine spending your honeymoon with 16 sled dogs? Very few individuals, and even fewer couples, would consider toting along such company on their honeymoon. This morning I enjoyed a fabulous visit with Stephanie Love and Blake Cazier, who did just that. Imagine driving to Ouray, Colorado, all the way from Northern Minnesota in December with all those dogs, and calling it relaxing.
Now 11 years into their marriage, this is emblematic of how their work (or mission, if you will) is entwined with their family life. It also displays an unusual level of integration, for this day and age at any rate, between man and animal in pulling a tremendous workload together.
Positive Energy Outdoors, located just 15 miles north of Duluth, is truly a one-of-a-kind gem. The term “youth camp,” does not adequately describe PEO to the world. Frankly, I don’t even have room in this short post to do it adequately, but I think “outdoor education center” comes close.
Here’s a sampling of what a van load of seven to nine-year-old girls from the local Boys and Girls Club will be experiencing after school this coming Monday (November 2nd, a time of the year when most people confine themselves to the insides of buildings as if quarantined): driving a team of draft horses, learning forest history in an actual working forest, becoming acquainted with a lovely bog and the creatures in and around it, as well as a tour of their kennel comprised of 55 enthusiastic sled dogs. By the way, Positive Energy Outdoors typically collects between five and ten dollars for each participant of such programs. They remain deeply committed to making such experiences accessible to children from low to moderate income homes. Because girls and puppies go together like peas and carrots, here’s a bucket of puppies from a recent litter:
The animals these girls will meet aren’t just pets, however. They’re vital partners in PEO’s mission of encouraging people and animal-powered exploration of the outdoors. Here’s a picture of two champions. Stephanie Love, on the left, has devoted her life to the many children and adults who benefit from their outdoor education, interpretation, and guiding—at great sacrifice, I might add. The pretty gal on the right, Sota, is an 11-year-old lead sled dog. She has led at least two teams to victory in the 103-mile Mid-Distance John Beargrease sled dog marathon. (PEO takes in retired sled dogs.)
I joined Stephanie’s husband, Blake, on a training run with team # 2 this morning. At 8:30 am, they had already finished with team # 1 (another 14 dog team). Though it was incredibly damp and a chilly 39 degrees, I was told it was a touch warm for the dogs this morning. Thus, they get these runs done as early as possible, before the real “heat of the day.”
Here the dogs endure a short break, but really just want to keep running:
For years I’ve wanted to ride behind a team of dogs, and though there’s no snow yet, the experience reawakened this dream. Judging the excitement of the dogs as they were hitched to the team, this is their entire reason for living. Oh how they love to pull a load through the forest! They are eager to get into shape before the real dogsledding begins after the snow flies, when children and adults alike will thrill in perhaps the most unique form of winter exploration ever conceived.
Today we rode their regular training loop while utilizing both private and public trails. Perhaps more than anything, the availability of public land keeps the sport of dogsledding alive. In fact, the issue threatens the very existence of PEO. Fredenberg Township recently kicked them off 80 acres of “parkland,” which has served as a corridor to beautiful Island Lake and trails that could take them all the way to Canada. Blake has used this land as such since he bought the property in 1997. PEO enjoys the support of most neighbors and of the wider community-at-large.
We all have a stake in this, especially those of us living in St. Louis County. Our county board of commissioners gifted this parcel of 80 acres to the township to manage, with the understanding that everyone currently using the land would continue to have access to it. The township, due to the outsized influence of just three or four families, has gone back on its word by kicking PEO off this land. This land is densely forested, and has always served to provide access for nearby residents to countless recreational opportunities on Island Lake and nearby trails. Access to public land is necessary for dog sledding, kayaking, rock climbing, and many other endeavors that virtually all of us CHERISH.
We need to guard access to public land. This is something worth fighting for. I have lived in areas where there is little to no public land, and I can’t say enough about just how limiting this is to outdoor recreation activities. PLEASE CONSIDER SIGNING THE PETITION ACCESSED THROUGH THIS LINK in order to help ensure the continued existence of this extremely valuable outdoor education center. There simply is nothing else like it this close to Duluth
County Commissioner Frank Jewell says it well, as quoted in the paper recently:
“This is exactly what the majority of the county board did not want to see happen. They (town officials) seem bent on closing this camp,” Jewell said. “The township said one thing when we were giving them the land and now they are doing something completely different. It’s blatant dishonesty.”
This non-profit outdoor education center means a great deal to our community, and to disadvantaged kids from lower income households in particular. Access to activities like kayaking, rock climbing, stand up paddle boarding, dog sledding, and simply to THE LAND, should not be for the wealthy alone. Reading between the lines, this just might be a case where wealthy elites are attempting to close access to prime forest and lake frontage. I’ll refrain from wading further into the controversy, but it’s hard not to draw this unfortunate conclusion.
I asked what keeps them going. This situation has been beyond stressful, and it’s not like they are making big bucks. Last year Blake drew a small salary for the first time, and PEO was founded back in 2004. Dog feed alone runs about $15k annually. Then there’s vet bills for them and the horses, insurance, equipment, and on and on. Steph does youth development consulting work on the side and some CPR training so they can make a buck. Why keep at it? Her answer came back to me as follows:
I asked Blake what his answer was to your question about what keeps us going, and he and I have the same answer—this is our chosen profession—we have a unique skill set and we love sharing the outdoors with kids and adults. Everyone needs more opportunities to get outside and learn new skills, have opportunities for challenge (both mentally and physically) and experience the adventure experiences we provide with the support and encouragement of the group and the facilitators (Blake, myself, our staff and volunteers). We feel lucky that we are able to do this work because it is rewarding and challenging, and the children and adults we serve, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, need these opportunities. Most kids today spend the equivalent of a full time job just interacting with screens… Who would would provide these programs if we didn’t? Neither of us could imagine doing anything else.
In conversation she also commented that a disadvantaged child’s “whole perception of what’s possible is expanded through such experiences, by being challenged appropriately, and from positive reinforcement from adults.” She also relayed a story of a Native American girl who gives them a lot of credit as a major influence on her life. She not only became the first person in her family to go to college, but she received a full ride from Harvard.
There are many other stories that could be shared. Please consider signing the petition, and even offering financial support to this couple who are pouring their lives into this work. If an amicable solution cannot be reached, they could be facing legal bills in the near future.
Due to grants from the United Way, they are able to offer scholarships for experiences like their day camps. The cost would normally be in the hundreds of dollars. Having twins, this wouldn’t be possible for my family. I am grateful for a scholarship we received a couple years back, which enabled our children to participate in a weeklong day camp. They’ve also received grants from entities like The North Face and Maurices over the years. Individual supporters are also crucial.