Friday, June 6, 2014 | FEATURE
An 1,800-mile jaunt for Grace
"Bucket List" Alaska goal doubles as way to assist the truly needy
Greg Marsten | Staff writer
LUCK – In a roundabout way, the whole deal started with Chuck Langeness' bucket list goal of walking to Alaska from his home on Big Butternut Lake.
That dream-based trek became a topic of loose conversation last year between Langeness and Mike Broten, a close friend who also is part of the same Luck Lutheran Church Bible study group.
After months of discussions, the duo agreed it could be an interesting challenge.
Eventually, the plan coalesced into details, agreeing they would like to walk from International Falls, Minn., to Prince Rupert, Alaska, in just 30 days. They would need to average at least 60 miles per day, across mosquito-infested tundra, wetlands and prairies, with a looming 11,000-foot Canadian Rocky Mountain speed-bump halfway to their goal.
"I'm not getting any younger," Langeness said with a grin. "But it was amazing to hear how many people thought we couldn't do it, were sure we couldn't do it."
But as the plan came together, they also faced hurdles of timing, and as the daylight hours fade, the window of "walking hours" does, as well. But the duo continued to dream and plan, even going so far last fall as to making the jaunt from Luck to Danbury in one day, via the Gandy Dancer Trail.
"We were sore and pooped out, but we discovered we could do it," Langeness said with a nod, as that jaunt tightened the reins on making it happen.
"I was really sore, but it felt good," Broten said.
But as often happens, many of the great plans made are interrupted by life; The Alaska Walk remained just that, a plan.
Broten and Langeness continued to attend the Bible study class, and as the group of a dozen or so men were talking, their pastor told how a man had come into the church that week, asking if he could get a hand with some gas money for a job interview.
As Langeness tells it, the pastor said that even if he could, he had no "slush fund" or discretionary money for such a request.
"I wanted to donate some money immediately for a sort of (discretionary fund) to serve exactly the kind of need he had described," Langeness said.
He added to that desire a short time later, during a conversation with another local pastor who mentioned that there was a great need for food and clothing in and around the region, how many children were struggling to get needed nutrition, and how even in this climate, winter coats were often considered a "luxury."
"I was blind to it, the poverty and the need, especially for kids," Langeness admitted, noting that while he had raised his children in and around the Luck area for decades, the local need and financial insecurity had never surfaced on his radar.
Langeness cited the biblical commandment to love thy neighbor, as he proposed a way to help alleviate those struggles.
He proposed a sort of "grace fund," and started with the Bible study group, who agreed there was a need but also noted that there are many great local organizations and causes, from Interfaith Caregivers to the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and others, there was no established way for local pastors to assist in those discretionary requests that every pastor has probably had at some time or another.
"I bet it's the hardest discussion someone has, and it's got to be even harder when they (the pastors) say they can't do it, that they can't help," Langeness said.
The men of the Bible study group had volunteered for and been involved in many of those assistance and charity organizations over the years, but there were always some who slip through the cracks, either because of their age, situation, pride or other extenuating circumstances.
While they thought about going through the school districts, privacy and confidentiality issues left little room for the type of assistance they were hoping to pass along.
"We had a lot of stumbling blocks," Langeness said. "We really want to help our neighbors, but didn't know about all the hurdles or things in the way."
That was when the idea for a "grace fund" made the move to the upper case, and became The Grace Fund. They now have a true 501 c(3) nonprofit status, courtesy pro bono work by the law firm of Doar, Drill and Skow, and they have leveraged an initial handful of donations to earn the status they now are trying to promote.
The little idea that was first mentioned in a small study group has since blossomed into a true force, and now has the money to get traction and become a formidable and tangible way for local pastors of all denominations to have a sort of "kitty" to tap for just such a request.
In their research, Broten and Langeness have queried local pastors and found that while some churches have such a discretionary fund already, most do not, and almost all of them have admitted to the need.
"It's up to them (pastors), if they want to use it or not," Langeness said, adding that all they ask is that they keep track of the requests, confidentially, so they can make sure it is not abused or double-dipped at different churches.
"Many people, including several pastors, are convinced that we're going to get ripped off," Langeness said. "But we also want to be able to celebrate success stories."
Broten and Langeness want people to know that while there are a number of local programs meant to help the needy, pastors are often at the forefront of the pains of those on the fringes.
"Pastors often know where the needs are," Langeness said. "It's all nondenominational, and some say they've got it all covered, others have said 'thank God!'"
With The Grace Fund now established, they had to find a way to bring the cause to the forefront, and that was how the Alaska trek came to mind, as a way to sort of highlight the idea and seek donations to assist in building the funding up.
"We've let the Lord lead us in that regard," Langeness said with a wink.
While the Alaska venture is now firmed up, the duo is hoping that people will see the need and donate unconditionally. Langeness is hoping the Alaska venture leads to heartfelt support, and Broten likes the idea of an annual fundraiser for The Grace Fund, possibly a golf tourney or a concert, but regardless of the future, the duo begins their training regiment next week, preparing for the trek.
"I think we can handle the physical part," Broten said, hinting that they don't really know what they're going to face on their journey, but that their Danbury jaunt showed they are capable.
But the plan has also changed slightly, due to time constraints; the walk has now become a bike/walk journey, where they will go 60 miles daily, with 50 of those miles by bike and the other 10 miles on foot.
"Or some other combination," Langeness said.
The Alaska jaunt even has assistants, as they have a driver and a camper with supplies for support, as well as ways to document the journey.
The duo does a lot of walking already, from American Cancer Society walks to daily hikes, but the demands of the 1,800-mile journey leaves little room for downtime.
"We have a three-day cushion built in, that's all," Langeness admitted. "We're blind to what we'll face."
The duo has started working with several locals on things like training and supplies, while also admitting that they are relative rookies for the biking end.
"We're working with Frank (Lundeen) at Cyclova in St. Croix Falls to get us set up," Langeness said. "He's our (biking) coach, but he's also getting us set up for what we need to know, how to do what we might need to do."
Langeness admitted he hadn't been a bike since high school, but Broten has done several long bike treks, including a ride to Duluth for Multiple Sclerosis.
"But we're learning a lot (about biking) as we get into it," Langeness said.
Yes, they are sure to get flat tires and the like, and they need to be able to do everything to fix their bikes, or it really will become an 1,800-mile walk.
"Our big fears? Well, I guess bears, weather, moose, bugs ... and I suppose the 11,000-foot altitude," Broten said.
Langeness smiles and shakes his head in a confident shrug.
"There's a lot of naysayers out there," Langeness said. "They talk about everything from the medical care and insurance issues to, I don't know, whatever, you name it."
But the trip will take place, starting on Aug. 9 at the U.S./Canadian border, north of Grand Forks, N.D. They have until Sept. 15 to return.
"We want to do it and prove we can do it, we've got a great cause for it, as well," Langeness said. "We're going to do it!"
The Alaska jaunt is not just for the pride or the ability to scratch it off their bucket lists, it is now for The Grace Fund, and the duo is adamant that they can make a difference, even as they develop muscle aches, blisters and saddle sores.
"Where The Grace Fund goes, God only knows!" Langeness said. "It's going to be a great adventure for a great cause."
In fact, they are so confident of their success, they've already planned a party on Aug. 19, celebrating their adventure and The Grace Fund.
"Now, let me tell you about the 'party of the century ...'" Langeness said with a sly grin, as Broten leans back in his chair and holds back a deep laugh.