Teen heading to the “greatest place on earth” after winning Boundary Waters essay contest

This week, Ely Outfitting Company announced the winner of its first annual Boundary Waters Teen Essay Contest. Julia Ruelle, the 16-year-old winner, was one of more than 70 entries. Her prize? She and up to three teenage friends will go on a fully outfitted, self-guided trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—that’s five days in the wilderness without parents and without a guide.

Teen essay contest winner Julia Ruelle and her dog in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo courtesy Julia Ruelle.
Teen essay contest winner Julia Ruelle and her dog, Rio, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo courtesy Julia Ruelle.

Here’s a copy of the winning essay and a look at the inspiration behind the contest.

Julia Ruelle’s Winning Essay:

It’s the start of the school year: everyone is sullen for being forced to sit still all day and teachers try in vain to pull us out of our school-induced slumber with a myriad of get-to-know-you activities. As I fill out yet another form with questions I am tired of answering, I come to the question asking me to list my favorite activities. I pause for a moment, wondering which activities to include this time: running, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, sledding, ice skating, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, camping, gardening, walking, hiking, biking, hammocking, or exploring. As a shortcut and with a melancholy glance at the sun shining through the window, I settle with writing, “being outside”.

Though such get-to-know-you forms are rarely very honest, one fact always holds true to me: I love being outside. In the summer, a typical day usually starts with running with the cross country team as the sun rises, paddling with a friend in the afternoon, and an evening walk with Rio, our faithful seven year old rescue dog, around a small lake of the over 10,000 our state is known for. For the past 5 years, Rio and my family have been lucky to have a change in scenery to the beautiful, pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for about four days each summer. 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. My love for these lands has caused me to be involved with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters movement, regularly donating and wearing the logo on shirts, stickers, and pins as frequently as possible. All my classmates know of this passion of mine, as I take any opportunity to educate my peers about the threat the proposed Twin Metals mine poses to the pristine waters so unique to the Boundary Waters and the many watersheds it affects.

Though Jerry Vandiver, a country singer with an album or two about the Boundary Waters area, sings that “winter is for…pull[ing] out the map” and “plan[ning] a new route” while keeping close to the warmth of the fireplace, to me, the snow and sub-zero temperatures of Minnesota winters make venturing outside even more exciting! I joined the cross country ski team last year and immediately regretted not having tried it earlier. Skiing taught me to love winter and pray for more snow, instead of begrudging it. Though I grew up loving to ice skate at the park across the street, learning to ski ignited a desire to be outside everyday, even when the cold was biting.

Unfortunately, this winter has been a little different. Around Thanksgiving, I started experiencing exhaustion, headaches, and nausea at rates I had never before had to withstand. As doctors didn’t perceive any viruses to be concerned about, we wrote it off as migraines and I continued to participate in life as usual, going to school and ski practices everyday. However, after trying to fight through it for two weeks, I ended up in Urgent Care one night and scheduled an appointment with my doctor three days later. During those three days, I slept pretty much all day and barely ate, thanks to debilitating headaches and nausea. Arriving at the doctor’s appointment, I threw up in the waiting room and the nurses deemed my low body temperature and slow heart rate alarming enough to rush me to the emergency room in an ambulance. At the end of that day, they still didn’t have any answers as to what was causing it all. However, the next day, my doctor suggested getting an MRI and I squeezed into their last slot of the day. Halfway through the MRI, my parents were rushed into a special room and my doctors got in contact with the radiologist and a neurologist. All in all, the verdict was that there was a mass in my brain causing pressure build up, also known as hydrocephalus. I required an endoscopic third ventriculostomy, which is essentially a tube put into my head to allow the fluids to flow, and a biopsy to find out what it was. So there I was, getting brain surgery, which is definitely not the curveball most expect during sophomore year. The biopsy revealed that I had a rare brain tumor called a germinoma, luckily with a high cure rate. Obviously, this has changed my life completely and kept me from doing most normal teen things. But, the worst part was not being allowed to run, ski, skate, or do anything that had the potential of making me fall until the surgeons deemed me ready. Still, I made it my priority to be outside at least once a day, usually taking short walks.  Getting outside even when I felt unable to do most other things has been a type of therapy for me. Breathing fresh air and feeling the cold on my face refreshed me and made me feel better, at least for a little while, every time.

After six weeks of limited activity, the Friday I got the OK to do any activity I wished began the best weekend since the diagnosis. In the afternoon, I went snowshoeing on a trail through the cattails. At night, I ice skated with friends. The next morning, I cross country skied on a frozen creek. On Sunday, I ran for the first time since the diagnosis and though it was incredibly slow-paced, the feeling of fighting through the burn and completing an entire loop of my go-to trail can only be understood by those who have experienced the phenomenon of a runner’s high. Better yet was the soreness that almost kept me from making it down the stairs Monday morning. I had been sore many times due to the chemotherapy, but this pain was something I had caused myself by working hard and, in a weird way, made me very proud of myself.

Reading the announcement of this essay contest in the paper this Thursday, I could hardly withhold my excitement! I danced around the house, imagining the essay I would write and how much fun it would be to share my favorite place with my friends. 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. This contest has the potential of granting me this wish. In addition, I am lucky to have a short treatment plan of chemotherapy and radiation that will be wrapped up in early May with no physical restrictions. This enables me to be perfectly ready for a summer trip to the greatest place on Earth with my closest friends.

As I reviewed the details of the contest, I found something additional that links me to this mission: Joseph [one of the contest judges]. Hi! I read that you were diagnosed with leukemia at 13 years old and I imagine you and I share many similar experiences. Other than just the typical cancer similarities, I wonder if you share the experience of growing a little sick of your parents. I know, it might seem impossible to them, but after being surrounded and worried about almost exclusively by my parents for the last couple months, I’m very ready to escape their concern for a little while. Of course, I have always and will always love and appreciate them for their constant love and support, but distance makes the heart grow fonder, right? My desire to spend a couple days deep in the wilderness, sharing unique experiences with my closest friends, has increased greatly in the last couple months.

As a long-time lover of the outdoors and the Boundary Waters and a recent parent-escape hopeful, I would cherish this opportunity to navigate the lakes and portages I’m so fond of with my friends. I know my dreams will soon be filled with mornings looking out over the water, long days of paddling, dinners laughing beside the campfire, and nights sleeping with only a tent between me and a sky full of stars. I pray these dreams will be made a reality.

High schooler Julia Ruelle and her family in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Julia won a fully outfitted trip (without parents) as part of a teen essay contest hosted by Ely Outfitting Contest. Photo courtesy Julia Ruelle.
High schooler Julia Ruelle, pictured here with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Julia won a fully outfitted trip (without parents) as part of a teen essay contest hosted by Ely Outfitting Company. Photo courtesy Julia Ruelle.

The inspiration behind the contest

Julia’s essay was one of more than 70 entries in the contest—a number that far exceeded expectations. While most entries were from Minnesota, Ely Outfitting Company received one from Texas and one from England from a girl whose family had moved there from Minnesota.

“We were really blown away by the high quality of all of the essays,” said owner Jason Zabokrtsky. “In general they were really high caliber, and it was amazing to see that these young people wanted nothing more than to go to the Boundary Waters and be on an adventure with their friends with no parents along.”

To participate, students had to be high school sophomores, juniors or seniors. And while Jason said the idea of a trip without parents might have helped boost the number of entries, most essays did not focus on that. Overall, the students expressed genuine desires to visit the Boundary Waters and get away from the digital world—particularly social media.

They also tended to fall into one of two camps: they’d visited the Boundary Waters before and wanted to return, or they had never been but knew the BWCA as the mecca of outdoor adventure.

“The main thing I learned is that these kids are absolutely craving this sort of adventure in the Boundary Waters with their friends. To read these essays and hear how passionate these kids are about wanting this experience really impressed upon me the significance of the Boundary Waters in the eyes of these young people,” Jason said.

He wanted to host this type of contest for years, and finally decided to do so after outfitting a group of four teenage boys last summer. A group of parents arranged the trip for their fifteen- and sixteen-year-old sons as a way to give them a positive learning experience. Over five days and four nights, the boys traveled 35 miles, even navigating bigger lakes with lots of islands.

When Jason asked the boys what they liked best about the trip, the answer was simple: everything. When he asked what they didn’t like, they said “packing up and going home.”

Inspired, Jason launched the essay contest. Entries were numbered and all identifying information removed. A panel of five judges read every essay. Among them were Jason, adventure activist Amy Freeman, and Kemia Sarraf, M.D., M.P.H, who is the founder of Generation Healthy Kids. Add a 16-year-old boy who’s explored the Boundary Waters every summer since the age of 7 plus a northwoods entrepreneur, and winning was no small feat.

Julia, of course, is very excited and already thinking about which friends to invite on the trip.

“I am excited to continue the chain of love for the Boundary Waters as my dad did to me and my uncles did to him,” she told Quetico Superior Wilderness News. “The Boundary Waters is such a dear place to me and I feel that it has played a major role in helping me become the person I am today. Though I have never experienced the Boundary Waters without my parents, I am anticipating that being the expert of the group will give me a new perspective.”

She’s looking forward to learning a lot not only more about the Boundary Waters, but also gaining a deeper connection with her friends and herself.

“Living in a world where the main method of communication is virtual, opportunities to unplug are few and far between. Yet, every time I find the experience incredibly enlightening. When I am in the Boundary Waters, I feel like I am in harmony with the environment that surrounds me and am reminded of what is truly important in life. I hope that by bringing friends to the Boundary Waters I can ignite similar responses in them and increase the already giant number of people enamored with this beautiful gem,” she says.

As for planning the trip? Jason and Ely Outfitting Company will spend time with Julia and her friends helping them plan and instructing them about things like safety. The group will have an emergency communication device in the unlikely event that something happens. And everything, including group size, has been designed with safety in mind.

“We didn’t want more than four, because with kids sometime there’s a group-think that starts to happen in a large group. It becomes more of a party, and we thought that a group of three or four was a good number for safety and a solid experience,” Jason said.

Students who didn’t win this year, or who missed out on the contest, will have the chance to try again. As Jason pointed out, this was the first annual contest. And with more than 70 participants this year, who knows what next year will bring?

As Jason said, “The astonishing thing is that these kids decided they were going to sit down without anybody telling them they have to do this… and use their energy and their focus and limited time to write an essay about why they want to go to the Boundary Waters with their friends. It was eye opening.”

You can read more about the contest and the prize at http://elyoutfittingcompany.com/essaycontest.

Julia Ruelle (right) and some of her friends. Julia will lead up to three of her friends on a Boundary Waters trip this summer, outfitted by Ely Outfitting Company. Photo courtesy Julia Ruelle.
Julia Ruelle (right) and some of her friends. Julia will lead up to three of her friends on a Boundary Waters trip this summer, outfitted by Ely Outfitting Company. Photo courtesy Julia Ruelle.
Teen essay contest winner Julia Ruelle swims in the BWCAW with her mom and sister. Photo courtesy Julia Ruelle.
Teen essay contest winner Julia Ruelle swims in the BWCAW with her mom and sister. Photo courtesy Julia Ruelle.

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