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Duluth author pens book of poems about daily outdoor treks

Eric Chandler's poetry reflects on his runs, hikes and paddles.

Eric Chandler
Eric Chandler, a Duluth author and avid outdoor adventurer, has compiled a book of poems he wrote while journaling after every outdoor excursion he made in 2018.
Contributed / Eric Chandler
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DULUTH — Author Eric Chandler likes to move fast. He moved fast as an Air Force F-16 fighter pilot in combat. He moves fast as a United Airlines Boeing 737 pilot. He sometimes moves fast when he trail runs, setting a record time to run from Lake Superior to the top of Eagle Mountain — Minnesota’s lowest spot to its highest — and back.

But Chandler will also slow down to take time to soak in what’s around him when he’s outdoors. And, fast or slow, he seems to have an uncanny knack to absorb what he sees and experiences along the trail — hiking trail, ski trail, running trail or contrails — and then reflect on those experiences in words.

Cover of Kekekabic
The cover of Eric Chandler's new book of poetry, "Kekekabic," named after the trail and lake in the BWCAW.
Contributed / Finishing Line Press

In 2018, Chandler kept a log or diary of sorts for every one of his outdoor jaunts — paddling, running, hiking and camping, often with his best buddy dog, Leo. For each day he wrote an entry of when and where he was outdoors (and indoors on some inclement days) and then added a poem. For much of the year Chandler focused on haibun, a form of Japanese poetry that combines prose and haiku.

“I wasn’t just jogging. I was trying to pay attention. To carve out meaning,” Chandler explains in the book. “I saw little things. I heard snippets of conversation. Sometimes while hiking in the wilderness, sometimes while running through some hard neighborhoods. … It’s a loss if skiing through the woods is just a workout. All these miles moving over the earth under my own power have meaning. These haibun help me find more.”

Out of 224 workouts that year, Chandler says 154 of them were outdoors and 60 had entries he thought were complete. He picked 45 of his favorites for a new book titled “Kekekabic,” after the trail and lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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Chandler and Leo through-hiked the Kekekabic Trail in 2018 from Snowbank Lake near Ely to the Gunflint Trail, an area hard hit by multiple windstorms over the past 20 years that left the trail in disarray. It took him five days to hike the 40 miles and it wasn't easy.

The entries of his experience on that wild, sometimes hard to navigate trail are a highlight of the book.

Chandler, 54, lives in Duluth with his wife, two children and Leo. He’s been here since 2002 and, because he grew up as a Forest Service brat and spent much of his adult life moving from base to base in the Air Force, his 20 years in Duluth is now the longest he’s ever lived in one place. He seems eminently glad to have settled in the Northland.

“When the year (2018) ended, I stopped writing haibun,” Chandler notes. “But this project had a lasting impact on me. I keep paying close attention when I’m out moving around, even though I don’t write a daily poem anymore.”

You can preorder Erik Chandler’s book of poems, “Kekekabic,” now through March 25 at finishinglinepress.com/product/kekekabic-by-eric-chandler or wait until it becomes available at local bookstores starting May 20.

Chandler, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate who has 3,000 hours at the helm of an F-16 and flew 145 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, is also the author of "Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War" (Middle West Press, 2017).

His writing has appeared in Northern Wilds, Grey Sparrow Journal, The Talking Stick, Sleet Magazine, O-Dark-Thirty, Line of Advance, Collateral, The Deadly Writers Patrol, PANK, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, Consequence Magazine, and Columbia Journal.

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Chandler was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014 for creative nonfiction. He’s a three-time winner of the Col. Darron L. Wright Award for poetry.

The News Tribune recently asked Chandler to reflect on his new book and why he writes.

News Tribune: When did you start writing poetry?

Chandler: I got my first poem published in 2013.

News Tribune: Why did you start writing poetry?

Chandler: It’s a different way of looking at things than if you try to write a story. I think of poetry as another kind of nonfiction. It allows me to look at real events that are too small for a story. Poetry also allows me to look at things that are sometimes too big for a story. Some of my combat experiences, for example.

News Tribune:  Who is your favorite poet? Why?

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Chandler: I wouldn’t have the guts to write poetry without the support of my friend, veteran, and poet Randy Brown in Iowa. He convinced me that some of my poetry about flying, the outdoors, and war would fill a book. He uses humor in his work to get his points across, which is something I try to imitate. He helped me publish my first poetry book, "Hugging This Rock."

As far as nationally known poets, I’d say Louis Jenkins (who lived in Duluth for 40 years) and Billy Collins. They use humor to hook you, but reel you in to look at deeper stuff. I like all three of these poets because they write clearly and plainly.

Eric Chandler
Eric Chandler and his frequent hiking companion, Leo, pose in front of the trailhead sign for the Kekekabic Trail in 2018.
Contributed / Eric Chandler

News Tribune: How many entries are in the book?

Chandler: There are 45 poems. The book starts with “regular” poems. Then I switched to the haibun form for the rest of the book. Haibun is a Japanese invention that includes prose at the beginning and ends with a haiku. The haibun form is perfect for what I was trying to do.

News Tribune: Did you find it difficult to write each time after a hike, run or paddle?

Chandler: Sometimes. But I stuck to it because I wanted to record my immediate impressions while they were raw. I usually wrote the haiku in my head while I was running or skiing based on what I just experienced. I hurried to get that haiku written down before I forgot it. I usually wrote the beginning prose part after that. I wrote a lot more of these than I put in the book, so they weren’t all gems. I looked at the whole project like a photo album in the days of film: Some of the photos are out of focus, but you still keep them.

A lot of the poems are written about runs I did all around the country on layovers while I was at work. As the year went on, it became a way to compare other parts of the country to Duluth. It made me appreciate the outdoor opportunities in Duluth even more than I already did. That aspect of the project was a surprise and motivated me to keep up the writing as the year went on.

News Tribune:  Did you know from the start that you would compile a book of the entries? 

Chandler: No. I was just trying to practice discipline with a creative writing project. The process was an experiment and worth something on its own: paying closer attention when in the outdoors. I wanted to get more enjoyment out of my outdoor experiences and I thought this might be a way to do that.

However, in the back of your writing mind, you know you have to throw a bunch of spaghetti at the wall to get some of it to stick. You have to write. Produce material. I hoped to publish some of the poems in literary journals, but I wasn’t thinking of a book.

Many of these poems were previously published in journals and one was published in a British poetry book about running.

News Tribune: What's the yin and the yang about being a pilot and a writer? Or a hiker and a writer? 

Chandler: The guy who wrote “The Little Prince” was a pilot: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He said something about how the reliability of modern airplanes brings fliers into a closer relationship with the natural world. I think of flying and hiking as similar ways of interacting with the outdoors. Especially if you hike up a mountain to get a view.

Bashō is the Japanese poet who invented the haibun poetry form. He used his haibun poetry as a travelogue during his many long-distance hikes in 17th-century Japan. In one case, he hiked more than 1,200 miles over a five-month period.

I wrote haibun on my five-day solo backpacking trip with my dog, Leo, across the Kekekabic Trail in the Boundary Waters in 2018. It was spooky how similar my hiking/writing was to the way Bashō used writing on his hikes. My Kekekabic Trail trip inspired the title of my book.

News Tribune: Why do you write? What is it about writing, poetry or prose, that you enjoy?

Chandler: I started writing to keep a record. I’ve been writing magazine articles about outdoor recreation for 20 years and still do. Most of those stories have been about little adventures with my family. I killed two birds with one stone: The published magazine articles also served as kind of a journal. James Salter, a Korean War fighter pilot and writer, believed that writing things down and turning them into pages is the only way all those events are made real.

Later, when I tried fiction in 2009 and poetry in 2013, I was trying to make sense of things. Life is chaotic and comes at us fast. My writing lately is more of an attempt to create order from that chaos. To try to find meaning from our experiences.

News Tribune: What's next for Eric Chandler, the hiker? Any adventures planned for this year?

Chandler: Last year, I set a fastest known time running from the Minnesota Low Point to the High Point and back. It took me 10 hours to run the 37 miles from Lake Superior to Eagle Mountain and back. That’s the farthest I’ve ever gone in one day on my own two feet. I figure if I can run (OK, jog) 37 miles, I can probably run 50. So, I’m toying with the idea of running the local Voyageur trail race (50 miles) in July. Don’t tell my legs.

News Tribune: What's next for Eric Chandler, the author?

Chandler: I collected around a hundred of my outdoor magazine articles into a book. A publisher is chewing on that right now and I hope they’ll decide to put it in print. I’m also writing a memoir right now. It’s slow going, but I keep trying to put the words in the right order.

Eric Chanlder's dog, Leo
Eric Chandler's dog, Leo, naps along a lake during the duo's 2018 through-hike of the Kekekabic Trail in the BWCAW. Chandler used the trail name for the title of his new book of poems.

Some entries from 'Kekekabic,' by Eric Chandler

Feb. 18, Duluth run, 5.2 miles: “How many days in a row has the sun risen into a clear blue sky? The streak’s getting pretty long. The wind stacked the pack ice up at the fond du lac. The yellow sun sends a yellow stripe across the open water and it hits the shelf of ice and disperses. Brilliant sparkles randomly dot the expanse as the shards reflect the sun. My legs are rusty. The grass and mud are exposed. But they are not free. Winter still holds on.”

July 21, Whiteface Reservoir paddleboard, 1.9 miles: “Just the day after I forgot our anniversary, I took her paddleboard across to the marsh, chasing the shriek of the bald eagles somewhere across. In the bog/marsh, it sat in a dead tree and watched me walk on water. On the water that you can’t see down into. Black. Like tea when some of it washed up onto the board over my toes as I paddled. But in the deep, black and impenetrable. Like morning coffee the lake is also like black medicine water.”

July 22, Whiteface Reservoir kayak, 4 miles: “I drag the 20-year-old white plastic kayak down the railroad-tie steps before everyone’s awake. A loon. A bald eagle. A mom and some little kids and a dog out on a dock. A beaver lodge. Another bald eagle. Maybe the same one. An island, the one with the geocache on it. The one with the tiny cove, just big enough to fit the kayak into. Surrounded by a red pine amphitheater. I’d be okay if some of my ashes were placed here in the winter. When I’m all burned up, I’d be fine with being like Paddle to the Sea.”

Sep. 7, Day 3 of Kekekabic Trail hike, 12.4 miles “Tail-slapping beavers sounded like full-grown men jumping into the lake. Other than that, pretty good sleep. Thomas Lake portage was pretty. Single log bridge. Met Willy and Reggy from Switzerland! They were portaging down from a 15-day trip… Leo behaved. They had bear spray if he didn’t. Willy offered me a can. I turned it down. Hope I don’t regret it. Portage trails are crazy nice compared to the Kek. Tiny maples along ridge by Mosquito Lake. Good walking to Strup Lake and report said it was cleared to Harness, so off we went. Super-hot near 2011 burn as we climb in sun. Eerie burned out trees. Nice view of Bakekana Lake. Hard climb to Kek mountain spur. Misjudged water so stopped in a bog at the foot of the hill to refill. Short sharp hills to Harness Lake. No real spots. Tent is basically on trail. Couldn’t find latrine. No place to hang bear bag, so I’m putting it over by smelly fire grate away from us. Half-assed job of it in a pine but oh well. Today’s hike was hard. The body is holding up. Thanks, Ibuprofen.”

Dec. 30, Korkki Nordic Center cross-country ski, 10.4 kilometers: “I don’t imagine Grace thinks about the fact that Korkki was where she took her first strides on skis. I think about it every time. All the time. It was a day where all the trees are flocked in white. We stopped for a few pictures. We didn’t say much. I felt like my heart would explode due to an overload of blue kick wax joy, gliding through the trees in the silence. We got back to the cabin and warmed up. I told her it was one of the best skis of my whole life. She looked confused. Two human beings moving across the cold snow. Why does this please me?”

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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