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Serenity in motion: Prior Lake man finds sanctuary in a kayak

For the last five years, Mike Stout’s kayak has been his sanctuary.

A way to bring him serenity and peace that few other outlets could. The cool water brushing against his hand, wildlife breathing the same natural air and stars standing brilliantly still.

But now, after giving his all to the sport, Stout is soon expecting to call his paddling life quits.

AN OFFER HE COULDN’T REFUSE

Originally, Stout, 58, from Prior Lake, wasn’t thinking about kayaking at a high level. He was working for Tamarack Consulting Group, a strategic marketing consulting firm, when he started telling a client in California that he wanted to pick up kayaking.

She wanted to support his endeavor and offered to buy him any kayak he wanted to get started.

He researched and found a 17-foot, eight-inch NC 17 Quest Open Sea Kayak.

Travis Goldman, owner of NC Kayaks based out of Tacoma, Washington, builds 24 NC 17 Quest Kayaks every year.

Along with building Stout’s kayak, Goldman is one of his biggest supporters. After receiving a kind note from Stout complimenting them on building a great kayak, Goldman and NC Kayaks have kept tabs on Stout’s accomplishments in the last five years.

“He has put more miles under his boat than I can think of,” Goldman said.

When he first got the kayak, Stout originally thought paddling would only be for good sources of outdoor recreation and exercise.

So did Elizabeth Stout, his daughter.

A high schooler at the time her dad picked up the sport, Elizabeth had no idea that kayaking would become this big for her father.

“He has exceeded my expectations,” she said.

Soon, Stout began started traveling waters with determination. He wanted to push himself to the limits. His journey had begun.

“When I got into it,” Stout said, “it became more than a hobby … some would say it was an obsession.”

In the last four-and-a-half years, Stout has kayaked over 4,500 miles. Each year, his goals rise as his skill level and passion do. The first year, he kayaked across Lake Michigan. Lake Superior the next year. Then he focused on distance and last year was meant for speed.

“Every year I push for greater challenges,” he said.

All his training seemingly has brought him to this point.

In two to six weeks, he will embark on a journey on kayak reportedly never before taken.

From Rawley Point Lighthouse in Wisconsin to Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Michigan, Stout will once again cross Lake Michigan. The only difference is that it will be a round trip.

The 100-plus mile excursion will require everything Stout has. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.

He estimates the Wisconsin-to-Michigan portion to take anywhere from 13 to 15 hours, and then about two to four additional hours on the way back, interrupted by 4-8 hours of rest in Michigan.

Kayaking is a sport that necessitates strength. The physical strength is obvious: strong arms and wrists, a stable core and many other factors go into being able to paddle the great distance.

“If you don’t have the ability, equipment, or technique, there is not a chance you’ll make it,” Stout said.

But in tandem with the physical aspect of paddling comes the equally important mental side.

When paddling long solo trips, the unique element kayaking presents is you are all you have. No one there to cheer you on or give you support. You and your thoughts are the only conversation taking place.

Which is why it is so important to tame thoughts of panic and doubt.

“You can’t let a sense of fear overtake you,” Stout said.

Easier said than done.

What he does is try and put everything in perspective. Yes, that might sound cliche, but when he is alone on the water that long, it helps immensely. For example, in waters he knows are abyssal, he thinks back to what he knows.

He practices in waters where the depth is eight feet of water, where he knows he cannot touch the bottom. So, it doesn’t matter if he’s paddling in depths of 50 feet or 500 feet, his mind is at ease because he has trained his mind not to worry, even in deep waters.

Along with the cramping abs and aching arms, Stout is fighting two battles when he paddles across waters like Lake Michigan.

ROUGH WATERS

Some of Stout’s 4,500 miles have not been smooth riding.

During Easter weekend last year, he was kayaking on the Minnesota River near Le Sueur when he felt the high floodwaters pushing him. Soon his kayak caught a hanging branch of a tree and he fell in. Able to keep himself above the tree debris, Stout grabbed his paddle and kayak and began dumping the 40-degree water out of the seat.

After making it back to the main river, he fell in again. Exhausted and bitterly cold, he waited 30 minutes in the water before he heard sirens after a bystander saw him and called for help.

Now before every trip, he prepares for the possibility of an accident. Depending on the season, the layers of clothing vary — more during the colder months and less during warmer ones.

CALLING IT QUITS?

Almost five years into his kayaking passion, Stout senses that the routine he’s gotten into has stripped away some of the invigorating adventure he originally had.

“The sense of adventure isn’t quite what it used to be,” he said.

After his upcoming round trip across Lake Michigan, Stout is planning one more big excursion before he moves on from paddling. He and his friend Brian Edward are planning to go on a 320-mile trip on the Rock River in Wisconsin in late August.

Edward met Stout last July at the Wisconsin Canoe River Race in Muscoda. Later in the year, they discussed trying an excursion on the Rock River, which Edward lives along. Though he had never tried it before, Edward had it on his bucket list.

The record for the run is 112 hours. As is Stout’s nature, he will try and break it.

“It is mind over matter,” Edward said. “It will be quite a feat.”

For every kayaking trip, Stout has paddled alone. This will be his first time someone will accompany him. And Edward will revel in it.

“He is so inspirational,” he said. “I have a saying: ‘When in doubt, follow Stout.’”

Once Stout pulls his kayak from the water, a new journey might await him. Regardless if he decides to end his kayaking passion, he hopes to now take “an adventure on land” — a motorcycle.

Elizabeth, however, is not convinced he will leave the sport.

“He’s in such good shape, I can’t see him do anything else,” she said. “He says it’s his last year but I don’t quite believe that.”

“I highly doubt Mike will stay out of the water for good,” Edward said.

Even if Stout chooses to hang up the paddles, Elizabeth will support him. “I just want him to know how unbelievably proud I am (of him),” she said. “He inspires me.”

“I have pushed to be the best I can at what I am doing,” Stout said. “After this year, I think I have done all that I can.”

Stout has seen it all. Starry nights in the middle of a Great Lake, wildlife roaming in their natural habitat and bridges of all shapes and sizes. If this is his curtain call, he is not leaving this passion out of spite or regret. He will be content.

“I’ve had an incredible journey,” he said. “I’m thankful for all of it.”


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What COVID-19 contact tracing looks like in Carver, Scott counties (copy)

A global pandemic was always coming, it was just a matter of “when,” not “if,” said Carver County Director of Public Health Richard Scott.

“Those of us in the field knew it was inevitable,” he said.

A pandemic hitting in 2020? No one foresaw that, Scott said.

But that doesn’t mean public health officials weren’t prepared for something of the novel coronavirus magnitude. Now that COVID-19 has arrived and is spreading through communities, public health officials in Carver and Scott counties — and across the state — are using the time-tested practice of contact tracing to help slow its spread.

“They’re probably one of the most effective tools we currently have to control the spread of the coronavirus,” Scott said of contact tracing, which is the practice of tracking down those who may have been exposed to an infected person.

Contact tracing has been used for centuries for infectious diseases like measles and tuberculosis, he said, and now it’s being used daily to determine which area residents may have been exposed to COVID-19.

How it works

When COVID-19 started to pick up speed in Minnesota earlier this year, the state health department found itself overwhelmed with case loads as it began contact tracing, so it turned to the counties to help, said Scott County Public Health Director Lisa Brodsky.

When someone receives a positive test for COVID-19, the lab results are sent to the Minnesota Department of Health. Those results get loaded into a database, and each time a local resident tests positive, the county health department is notified. Scott County began case investigations May 10.

It’s then up to the county health departments to get in touch with the infected individual. They’ll usually call them by phone and first ensure they’re aware of the positive test result, Brodsky said. The contact tracers, which in Scott County include 24 trained public health employees and volunteers (even some volunteers from St. Catherine University), emphasize the importance of staying in isolation and away from others in their home.

Next, they try to determine who they’ve been in contact with.

“We go back two days prior of (the individual) having symptoms and try to identify who they’ve been in touch with,” Brodsky said. She added that could include any restaurants or bars they’ve frequented and their employer. Contact tracers don’t try to track down whoever an infected person may have come into contact with at a grocery store, for example, Brodsky said, because the risk for an environment like that is so low.

“If someone went to a bar and was there for a couple hours, that’s a much higher risk,” she said.

The contact tracer instructs the infected individual to find their contacts and inform them that they should be quarantining themselves for about 14 days after the exposure.

“Some of these contact investigations are quick, sometimes they take up to two hours,” Brodsky said.

As of July 13, Scott County had 899 positive coronavirus cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health and Carver County had 500. Generally, contact tracers are able to make contact with patients within a day of their results entering the state database, Brodsky said.

Of course, some of those contact investigations are never completed because of disconnected phone lines or someone not returning calls, Brodsky said. But generally, people have been highly receptive, she said.

Carver County has bumped up the number of workers assisting with contact tracing. Additional public health staff members have been assigned to track cases and new volunteers have been trained, including some from the Medical Reserve Corps, Scott said.

Beyond the calls

While county health departments are helping slow the spread and measuring prevention through contact tracing, they’re also providing services and supplies to residents who may be in need. About 10% of the infected people Scott County has made contact with need some sort of assistance — whether that’s food, cleaning supplies or even a thermometer. Scott County has partnered with area food banks and grocery stores to ensure those who are running low on food, but can’t afford it due to being out of work or being unable to leave their home for quarantining reasons, are able to eat — no matter what time of day it is, Brodsky said.

In Carver County, many residents are self-sufficient, Scott said — one of the benefits of a relatively affluent community. But there’s still a significant portion of the population that struggles, he said. The county has boots on the ground and in some areas has gone door-to-door to provide information, masks and food.

Both Brodsky and Scott said seeing the community pull together for their neighbors has been one positive outcome from the global pandemic.

Trends

In recent days, Scott County has seen an uptick in positive cases for those ages 0-17, representing 8% of positive cases, Brodsky said. The largest age group of positive cases in Scott County is those ages 18-34, representing 35% of positive cases, she said. Some of the uptick can be attributed to exposures at nail salons, restaurants, bars and even workplaces.

“In our case investigation, some folks are carpooling together and that’s how they got their exposure,” she said.

There have been clusters of outbreaks at apartment buildings where young children play together, and even at graduation parties, she said.

Bars and restaurants that are not practicing physical distancing, limiting capacity and changing up seating arrangements have been a trouble area in Carver County, too, Scott said, adding the county has been able to curtail problem areas in a robust way.

Masks

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cloth face masks as a simple barrier to help stop the spread of COVID-19, particularly in instances where social distancing is difficult to maintain. The recommendation is based on what the CDC knows about the role respiratory droplets play in the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another, so face masks can help stop respiratory droplets from spreading into the air when people cough, sneeze, talk or raise their voices.

Contrary to some concerns of the public, many health experts have maintained there’s no scientific evidence that wearing a mask can cause negative side effects like carbon dioxide poisoning.

“For the most part, I’ve been very pleased with the amount of people wearing masks,” Brodsky said, adding she does believe it would be helpful if Gov. Tim Walz would create a statewide mask mandate.”If we don’t get ahead of this, what’s going to happen during flu season?” she said, of overwhelming hospitals.

Scott said public health employees work at an interesting convergence of science and human behavior. Masks are strongly encouraged, he said, especially since people with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and spread the virus to others.

“Sometimes policies have to be made for the greater good,” he said. “Your behavior is going to affect me, it’s not just about you.”