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From Birchwood Rock Climber to Outdoor Educator + Sailboat Captain

For more than 50 years, we’ve used wilderness experience as a vehicle to inspire self-discovery, growth, and a shared sense of purpose amongst our campers and camp counselors.

The experiences they have at Birchwood as young men are oftentimes the foundational blocks of their adulthood. It’s not uncommon for an alumni to paddle up to our dock with children of his own to regale us with stories of his youth and the many ways Birchwood impacted his formative years.

These are the stories we are most proud of so, in the spirit of celebration, we’ve decided to share them with you in this series titled “Where Are They Now”.

We continue our series with a staff member from the 1970s who embodies our founder, Jim Bredemus’s, original mission fully:

Mark Gordon (aka Rodent) 1978, 1979, 1980

Mark grew up in Red Wing, Minnesota where he spent a lot of time at the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center, this is where his love of the environment and his adventurous spirt began.

He later found interest in the outdoor program center at Bemidji State University in Northern Minnesota.

The first time I met Mark was at Gunflint Wilderness Camp in 1980. He was a camp counselor and wilderness guide and I was building a log building at the camp.  This was Mark’s third year on staff with the camp.

One of Mark’s achievements at Gunflint was the development of the rock-climbing routes on the Palisade on Seagull Lake, routes that campers from many camps use today, including Birchwood Wilderness Camp (formerly Gunflint Wilderness Camp and Camp Birchwood for Boys).

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At the end of the summer in 1980, Mark and a co-counselor (along with two other friends) set their sights on a 500-mile canoe trip to Hudson Bay.  The group made their way down Canadian Highway 17 to Ignace, Ontario where they caught Ontario 599 north.

This gravel road travels North into the interior of Ontario for hundreds of miles. Eventually, the group made their way to the Attawapiskat River that flows into James Bay at the south end of Hudson Bay.

This was a thirty-day adventure that encompassed countless rapids, several lakes, and unforgettable wilderness.

When the party arrived at James Bay, the temperatures were already below freezing, and water bottles froze at night!  The only way out was by airplane. This canoe trip was the first of many impressive adventures that have become a big part of who this man is today. 

The next time our paths crossed was in 1982 when I enrolled in a rock-climbing instructor course through the Bald Eagle Outdoor Learning Center affiliated with Bemidji State University.

Low and behold, I recognized my instructor right away, Mark Gordon!

We started with ground school, knots, slings, and harnesses then progressed to rock climbing techniques and graduated to a two-day, on-the rock program that Mark lead at Ennis Lake near Ely, Minnesota.

It became obvious that Mark loved the outdoors and had devoted his life to teaching outdoor skills and respect for the environment. 

For eleven years he taught outdoor education at the Thistledew Camp in Northern Minnesota. This became a chance to work with some at-risk young people.

This is also how the founder of the Birchwood Camps, Jim Bredemus, started his business. Jim took young boys at-risk into the forest of the Boundary Water Canoe Area before it was the BWCA. The therapy of the woods still exists today.

Sometime during this time period, Mark made his way out west and honed his rock-climbing skills. At one point he found himself on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in California!  El Cap is a 3,000-foot monolith that was first climbed in 1958. This is often thought of as the crown jewel on any rock-climbers resume. 

During the spring of 1992, Mark was employed by the Red Cross and one of his responsibilities was teaching a Red Cross Sailing program.

Once again, I was the student and Mark was the instructor! Our community started a youth sailing program and required Red Cross certification for the volunteer instructors in the program. Because of his love for sailing, Mark had purchased a boat and operated a sailing business on Lake Vermilion near Ely. This love for sailing soon turned into a fulltime career. 

Mark and his wife, Katya, met while working at Thistledew Camp.  Katya, employed by Amicus, Inc.,  was directing a restorative and gender-specific program for serious and chronic girl offenders in the state of Minnesota. 

Four years later, parents of a baby girl (Lamar) and a toddler (Cedar), they moved aboard Amicus, the 34-ft. steel ketch they’d bought along the north shore of Lake Superior.

The Gordons lived aboard for a year and sailed to the Bahamas and back.  Discovering that “there is no place like home,” they returned to Minnesota and moved to the town of Two Harbors along the north shore.

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Three years later they bought Amicus II and founded Amicus Adventure Sailing, a small family-owned charter sailing business that operates out of Knife River, MN.

Mark, Katya, Cedar, and Lamar still live in Two Harbors, still host potlucks and invite newcomers into their world, and still homeschool part-time.

They strive to live Arctic Explorer Will Steger’s words, “the solution to climate change is social engagement.”  They believe that today’s problems call for radical changes in lifestyle and community, and they try to live intentionally even (or especially) when it takes them far from the beaten path. 

When asked, “Why should young people attend camp?”

Mark’s response was: 

“I spent my whole career working with mostly kids and helping them develop an appreciation for the outdoors in various ways.

There is a lot of research that says kids need to get outdoors more. Kids are just so much healthier when they can get outside. My experience with Red Wing outdoor center started my love of rock-climbing and the outdoors.

That immersion experience, especially at Birchwood Wilderness Camp, goes beyond the immersion of the sound of the loons, the paddle experience, it’s the self-confidence and the development and sense of purpose, it helps develop a young a person’s place in the world, it develops so many things that you just can’t get staring at a screen all day!

It’s so important to get kids away from all those distractions. I’ve seen so many wonderful things happen with youths on those kinds of trips. My experience at Birchwood really did set me on a course that helped me figure out what I want to do with my life.”

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It’s always exciting to see where our campers and staff go after leaving camp!  Marks’ journey has taken him from a young man at Birchwood Wilderness Camp, through a lifetime of adventures, and now a career doing what he loves with the people he loves most. He continues to leave his mark with the young and not so young people that he meets and works with.

Mark embodies the goal and mission of BWC!

 Happy Trails to Mark, Katya, Cedar, and Lamar!

-Dan Bredemus

  1. Carol Erickson says:

    Thank you for this blog and thank you, Dan, for all that you have done for so many young people, whether in the classroom or the outdoor classroom..
    Carol

  2. Darren Kammer says:

    What a wonderful and meaningful life he’s lived! I have often wondered about Mark (Rodent)…he was a great counselor with extensive knowledge and a good heart.

    Thank you so much for the update!!

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12586 Gunflint Trail, Slip 85, Grand Marais, MN 55604 | (218) 388-4402