Each May I make a nearly six-hour trek to the end of the Gunflint Trail, to one of Minnesota’s beautiful border lakes and join a crew of folks to volunteer our time opening up a canoe camp base from its long winter slumber. Wilderness Canoe Base has been my go-to for the past 30 years, for grounding myself in the disciplines of giving back, centering, community building, and finding my connections to the earth. It is a practice that has become a way of life for me and has led to the way I operate my little corner café in southwest Minneapolis.
Like many wilderness camps, improvisation and flexibility play a key role in helping things stay together. Regular rules don’t always apply in a wilderness setting, and although the theory may be sound, the actual practice might require a bit of fiddling with the formula.
Walking paths are not straight, nor smooth, nor dry. Buildings shift on their foundations, because the island that holds the camp is itself shifting. The lake might be cold, icy, or even still frozen in mid-May. The camp was once heavily wooded, but is now quite sunny and open after the July 4, 1999 blow-down storm and two subsequent forest fires that nearly destroyed the camp. In theory, our weekend opening up the camp is the same routine each year, in practice though – every year is something brand new.
As a restaurant owner, there also is a great need for improvisation and flexibility. Yes, the health inspector holds us to the rules, and yes we do our best to abide by them. Yes, there are recipes and it is obvious when there is a missing ingredient. In theory, our inventory, ordering, and prep work all lead to having everything we need for a day’s service and sales of products. In theory, our customers follow the usual patterns, regulars order their standard drinks, and nothing breaks.
But that’s not the actual practice. Life has a grand way of turning us upside down and shaking us a bit to say, theory isn’t real, it’s just theory. Real life is the real stuff, and it’s not very easy to practice for!
This past month, as we prepared to move the café to a new model of compensation and pricing, all of the planning and all of our theories felt solid enough to move forward. But as the day arrived, I was carrying the same anxiety of my first day opening the cafe back in January of 2006, wondering if anyone would show up!
I found myself lying awake, hoping customers would like what we made. I stayed up worrying that our new prices weren’t going to work. The day before our switch, a group of staff members met to practice the conversations we were going to need to have with customers and we leaned on our theories of why our cafe needed to make the change. We needed both the theory and the practice.
In reality, the first days offered us much support, more learning, and lots of practice. We did rethink one of our theories – that lots of press and a big event would be a good idea as we got started. While we’re happy with our start up, I feel much the same way as those first days; we just needed to have some time to settle into this new reality.
Although it feels good, it is still too early to know if the change is working out the way we thought it would in theory. All we can do right now is just practice.
A few years ago, Wilderness Canoe Base changed its management and took on a much more formal planning for its future. An overall building plan was put together to help rebuild after the second fire, and it included a desire to use a common theme for its building styles. This was a major change from the previous method of constructing items ad hoc out of whatever was available, leading to a very eclectic collection of cabins and structures. In theory the new plan should make for a better way to grow the camp and keep it sustainable into the future.
However, I miss the uniqueness gained from the practice of creating what you can out of what you have. There were once two small camper cabins at the camp named Theory and Practice. They were built at the same time in the same location, aiming to be alike. After they had been built, there was a discussion about which should be named which. The second one, Theory, had turned out much better, after a bit of practice building the first one, Practice.
Or was it the other way around? Was it that the second one, Practice, that benefited from the building of the first one, which was Theory.
The last fire took them both but we are still left with the experience gained and willingness to keep walking the path that leads to a sustainable future, through theory and through practice.