Nick Kirchner while climbing with the duo from Spirit Guiding Adventures. | SUBMITTED
I wasn’t sure where to put my left hand.
For the first time since that awkward homecoming dance during my freshman year of high school—an event that featured the first slow dance of my life—I had no idea where my hand needed to be placed. And though the homecoming dance seemed important in the moment, this time I was rock climbing on a massive cliff at the end of the Gunflint Trail. And so my next move was important.
My climbing guides, Matthew Baxley and Lindsey Gau, kept the situation cool. Baxley sat on the crest of the rock face about 20 feet above me. Gau, who essentially held my life in her hands via a large section of climbing rope, was standing on the forest floor below.
“You’re doing great, Joe,” Gau calmly said.
Confidently, I found a tiny crack in the rock to place my left hand. Using the strength from my right shoulder and both legs, I gave a solid pull and resumed my mission toward Baxley and the top of the cliff. The scene took place along the shores of the Seagull River on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). And considering this was my first time rock climbing in any capacity, the efficiency of the process was amazing. I was, after all, dealing with professionals.
Baxley and Gau are the co-owners and lead guides for Cook County based Spirit Guiding Adventures. For the past year, the duo have led rock climbing, canoeing and other adventures along the North Shore and into the BWCAW. Baxley and Gau launched their business based on a shared passion for getting outdoors, and particularly for traveling where others might simply pass by. Or in the case of Spirit Guiding Adventure’s destinations, paddle past.
“When it comes to climbing, the Boundary Waters offers a unique adventure like no other,” Baxley said. “It’s unique because you have to travel into a wilderness only accessible by canoe, and then you spend the day learning to climb rock, surrounded by glacier lakes and rivers as far as the eye can see.”
I’ve been asked by the editors of this magazine to participate in some amazing adventures while on assignment. I’ve hiked the Border Route Trail. I’ve been fly fishing with a hall-of-fame angler in the Boundary Waters. And the list goes on and on. Through the years, however, the only story pitch I’ve been served that created anxiety was to go rock climbing up the Gunflint Trail.
In hindsight, the location likely had something to do with the mild concern. I associate—as do many hundreds of thousands of people—canoeing and fishing with the Gunflint Trail. However, with steep rock faces towering over many of the region’s lakes and rivers, Baxley and Gau appear to have tapped into a unique and largely unexplored sector that the area has to offer.
“The North Shore of Lake Superior is already the home of the biggest and baddest rock climbing in Minnesota, and probably even the Midwest,” Baxley said. “Palisade Head and Shovel Point are iconic destinations for many climbers. The Gunflint Trail, however, is a well-kept secret. There is something magical about specifically paddling into the wilderness to rock climb.”
So how does one get into the business of becoming a rock climbing and adventure guide in an area world-renowned for its canoeing and fishing?
“This land has an incredibly beautiful and powerful energy that pulses through its veins and most people who live here and visit feel this energy,” Gau said. “Grand Marias and the surrounding area has an incredible community of people whom we are grateful for. These people contribute to the energy of this place, which contributes to the success of the small businesses. This is evident in the wave of new small business owners either starting their own business or buying existing businesses in Grand Marias and on the Gunflint Trail.”
Both Baxley and Gau have a deep and well-educated background in family therapy. They were both practicing the healing arts and counseling those in need in the Twin Cities area until the wilderness pulled them north.
Gau said their new home is prime for like-minded business owners who have creative ideas and a desire to share the legacy of the land with the next generation.
“The sense of community,” she added, “along with the new energy and creative ideas that are being cultivated and supported, make this area a wonderful place for Spirit Guiding Adventures to be born and continue to grow.”
Back on the rocks above the Seagull River, I reached the top of the cliff not long after my left hand found where it needed to be. I did a quick hand shake and high-five combination exchange with Baxley before beginning my descent. It was one of those moments where you realize you’re onto something new and no longer need to be afraid of the unknown. Much like conquering that first portage, or catching that first lake trout in canoe country. And when it comes to something as technical as rock climbing, having two people who know exactly what they’re doing show you how it all works is essential.
“Adventuring in the wilderness, including rock climbing can be very dangerous,” Gau said. “I have witnessed people attempting to navigate difficult situations within these settings that had not yet gained that necessary knowledge to guide them through their decision-making process. It is important to take the time to learn from qualified and certified people.”
When it comes to climbing, one thing Baxley and Gau are not short on is experience. Baxley has been climbing for over 12 years and obtained a guiding certification with the highly accredited American Mountain Guide Association. The duo are also insured and in compliance with all U.S. Forest Service requirements to guide on federal land. In addition, Gau has over a decade of professional water-safety experience, including lifeguarding at both indoor and open-water areas.
Aside from the outdoor credentials, Baxley said the duo’s background in family therapy plays a large role in what Spirit Guiding Adventures is all about.
“Our training and background in mental health has gifted us with tremendous experience assisting people of all ages with overcoming personal barriers,” he said.
Baxley and Gau arrived to northeastern Minnesota full time in 2015, though they have both held the area in high regard for many years. They worked at a local canoe outfitter and lodge up the Gunflint Trail to find their footing in the region, and have since branched out to other local businesses as they work to support Spirit Guiding Adventures.
Pat Campanaro is a consultant with Cook County’s Small Business Development Center, a program aimed at assisting ambitious entrepreneurs that is supported in part by the University of Minnesota. She helped Baxley and Gau gauge the realistic possibilities of their vision. And indeed, Campanaro said, the dream for what is now Spirit Guiding Adventures is a perfect example of two people following their passions.
“In a lot of cases, when you get older you’ll regret what you did not do, not what you did do,” Campanaro said. “Matthew and Lindsey are going for it and have hearts of gold. And they are showing, if you have a dream, nothing can stop you.”
And much like starting a business, when it comes to rock climbing, often times the first step is the hardest one to take.
“These adventures can be incredibly beautiful, exciting and fun,” Gau said. “However, many people are unsure of where to start, how to plan and how to safely move along in this process. This is the space where Matthew and I like to meet people. We want to walk alongside others through the discovery, navigation, and learning process of re-connecting with themselves and with others through nature.”
Andrew Ashcroft is a Grand Marais resident who has participated in several guided climbs with Spirit Guiding Adventures. For Ashcroft, climbing has nothing to do with being an elite athlete. In fact, it’s a family event. Along with his 9-year-old daughter Esme, Ashcroft has journeyed into the wilderness with the hired adventure guides leading the way.
“Any time you get into the Boundary Waters it’s usually amazing,” Ashcroft said. “But doing something you don’t always associate with it that is a mix of adrenaline and physical activity like rock climbing, it just takes it to a new level.”
Esme said the duo from Spirit Guiding Adventures made rock climbing in the wilderness both exciting and understandable.
“They’re just really nice,” she said. “And they’re not just like, go climb up the hill. They talk you through it and make you feel safe and comfortable.”
Esme is a direct link from a larger outreach by Spirit Guiding Adventures and other North Shore climbers to get youth involved in the sport. Now in its first summer, Baxley and Gau helped organize what is known as the North Shore Youth Climbing Team in hopes of getting more youth outdoors and enjoying the natural playground the Northern Wilds has to offer.
“I’ve seen over and over how climbing teaches people, especially children and teens, essential character skills such as how to overcome challenges,” Baxley said. “Because of this, we want to develop the North Shore Youth Climbing Team into a sustainable, long term resource for our youth and children.”
Starting this winter, Spirit Guiding Adventures will offer guided ice-climbing trips that can also involve snowshoeing and Nordic skiing as a sanction of the trip. All of this in addition to a focus on the youth climbing program and general merrymaking in the vast outdoor setting they now call home. It’s a perfect combination of work and play, the duo agreed.
“Both the wilderness and adventure activities allow for the perfect opportunity for any family to build strength, relational bonds, and shared memories that can be taken home and applied in everyday life,” Baxley said.
Not long after I reached the top of the cliff successfully for a second time above the shores of the Seagull River, we packed up all the climbing gear, climbed in our canoes and paddled back to the vehicles. It was growing dark at the end of the Gunflint Trail and I was no longer a rookie in the field of rock climbing.
My wife and I made it home about an hour later and I sat down to look over my notes. It was summer in the Northern Wilds. The sound of waves and rustling trees hung heavy in the night air. And a statement from our climbing guide stood out at the end of another day well spent in the woods.
“When life can feel consumed by business, stress and the need to always be moving, there is no better time than now to step away, reflect and reconnect,” Baxley said. “We provide the time and space to do this in the context of wilderness and adventure.”
For more information on Spirit Guiding Adventures, visit: spiritguidingadventures.com or call (612) 702-7032.
By Joe Friedrichs