When Army Col. Mark Vande Hei travels to the International Space Station (ISS) in March 2017, he will bring with him a Laketrails Wilderness Award patch…but that’s not all. He says all that he learned as a Laketrails camper 32 years ago will also go with him into space.
Since that summer, Mark’s life has been a steady and impressive progression of accomplishments within the ranks of the U.S. Army and NASA. He is a highly decorated colonel and was deployed twice to Iraq. He reported to NASA in 2006 to serve as a Capsule Communicator in the Mission Control Center. He also served in Russia for a year as the Astronaut Office’s Director of Operations. (Read Mark’s full bio here.)
But in the summer of 1984, it was a canoe trip around the Aulneau Peninsula that gave him pause.
“It was probably the first time that I had been away from civilization for an extended period but I’ve always, always loved the idea of living outside,” said Mark, who was part of a church youth group that came to Laketrails for a session. He recalls first, learning how to paddle a canoe, and then having a big discussion about which trip to go on. “There was a lot of talk about a previous group that had set a new record going around the Aulneau and some wanted to break that record,” said Mark. “I don’t know if any one else thought it, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one who said that I didn’t want to canoe all night to set a new record!”
In the end, the trip did circle the peninsula, but at a speed that allowed the future astronaut to experience a connection to nature and develop a self-confidence that he has not forgotten. “Anytime a kid gets to do something new, it makes it seem more possible to do those things on your own in the future,” he said. “It builds confidence and opens up opportunities.” There were a few experiences on that trip that could be classified as character building.
“We were in Whitefish Bay when a storm was coming. We were trying to get closer to shore and it was lightening,” Mark said. “We were really cranking to get to shelter. It all turned out okay but part of me really loved that experience.” He also remembers a slight food shortage. “The guides didn’t tell us at the time, but we had left one of our food packs at our first camp site, so we were rationing the food for the whole rest of the trip,” he said. “I was pretty glad my mom had sent a care package!”
Mark said there are similarities to being a good “crew member” on a Laketrails canoe trip and one of six crew members on the ISS. “You are isolated from the rest of humanity and you need to rely on each other and look out for each other’s safety,” he said. “And you also want to be the type of person who can add enjoyment to the trip for the other people.”
Imagining how people might have lived long ago in the remote wilderness of Lake of the Woods was food for thought along the Aulneau trip, along with feeling a connection with nature. He says he remembers a lot about the trip, most of all how it connected him to the earth.
“Honestly, I think the way we are so tied into technology, we are missing the deep meaning of being outside,” Mark said. “It is essential. People need time to think, to get back to basics. These experiences [like the Aulneau trip] give you an idea of what it means to be a human being on the earth.”
While he will not be able to be out in nature during his six-month stint at the ISS, Mark said he expects it to strengthen his earthly connection. “I will have a perspective on nature that few people get to have,” he said. “I will not feel deprived, so much as blessed.”
When he learned that he was assigned to an ISS expedition, he was told he could bring small items with him representing “organizations that have positively influenced me.” So he contacted camp director Sue Lemm and requested a memento from Laketrails to take along on the trip.
The Wilderness Award is already packed up for its trip to the ISS. Mark said he plans to put it in the cupola of the ISS, the panoramic window where the astronauts can view the earth. When he returns to earth, he will send the Wilderness Award back to Laketrails along with a picture of the patch in space, linking the camp to Mark’s trip into the wilderness of space.
Looking at the stars over Lake of the Woods, Mark said, “I never conceived then that being an astronaut was a real possibility for me — it is an amazing thing. I think when I am at the space station I will have a sense of wonder at what it means to be human and how we are connected to the planet,” he said. “Laketrails helped me understand that.”