I first met Ken Oelkers in March 2005, seven months into the Sea-to-Sea Route. His beloved Superior Hiking Trail was buried under feet of snow, and he understandably was looking for an excuse to keep him out of the house and close to the trail after a long winter in Silver Bay, Minnesota, a small blue-collar town on the Lake Superior. I became that excuse.
As I moved up the North Shore, admiring the sturdy bridges that Ken had helped construct as the trail’s Trail Maintenance Supervisor, he met me at various road crossings, offering a warm truck, fresh water, an endless supply of Spanish nuts, and — on March 25 — even an angel food birthday cake. In typical thru-hiker fashion, I ate most of it on the spot. The birthday cake photo and story was a standard part of my slideshow for many years.
In contrast to my ultralight 800-fill parka and moisture-wicking base layers, Ken proudly wore a blue cotton sweatshirt with American flag and Superior Hiking Trail patches, in both 2005 and 2007, when I hung out with him again during a January hike from Duluth to Ely. Salt of the earth, no pretense, 100 percent real.
When the logistics worked out, Ken would ferry me back to Silver Bay, sparing me another night of camping in the snow and near-zero temperatures. In the 2.5 months prior, I had snowshoed about 1,000 miles from Battle Creek, Michigan, and didn’t feel like I had anything to prove still. We’d sit around his wood stove, which he never seemed to think was burning too hot, and talk or read.
Ken had an extensive collection of books about Alaska, which at the time he had never before visited. Perhaps fittingly, the last time I saw Ken was in 2011 or 2012, at a presentation in Minnesota about the Alaska-Yukon Expedition. He was coping with health issues at the time, but managed to attend briefly. His obituary says he was able to experience Alaska first-hand before his death — I’m glad he finally had the chance to go.
Thanks for the memories, Ken. Among many people I have met in my travels, you stand out. I’ll see you on the other side.