Firefighters walking

Three firefighters stop in NB during 150-mile walk for a cause; local fire officials come to their aid

From left: Ron Hawkins, Justin Nelson and Jeff Loeks prepare to hit the Sunrise Prairie Trail at North Branch in resuming their journey to White Bear Lake. Hawkins is hauling the air tank, which has been signed by new friends along the path. Nelson and Loeks are carrying packs that weigh about 30-35 pounds each.

From left: Ron Hawkins, Justin Nelson and Jeff Loeks prepare to hit the Sunrise Prairie Trail at North Branch in resuming their journey to White Bear Lake. Hawkins is hauling the air tank, which has been signed by new friends along the path. Nelson and Loeks are carrying packs that weigh about 30-35 pounds each. Photo by Jon Tatting

Three firefighters are on no ordinary walk, and they found a few helping hands this week in Rush City, North Branch and Stacy.

Ron Hawkins, 46, Jeff Loeks, 43, and Justin Nelson, 31, are enduring a 150-mile journey from Duluth to White Bear Lake to raise money for the purchase of an all-terrain rescue vehicle for their fire department. They set out Friday morning, Sept. 20, and plan to reach their home destination — that is, White Bear Lake Fire Station One — around 8 a.m. Friday, Sept. 27.

“We underestimated the effect on our feet,” said Loeks during a brief break around noon Monday at the Sunrise Prairie Trail in downtown North Branch. “Walking on pavement didn’t seem like a big deal, but we’ve literally had blisters the size of our toes.”

Added Nelson, a self-employed contractor, “It’s by far the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done.”

Yet it’s the cause and a few rejections that keep the men motivated. Prior to the trip, the White Bear Lake Fire Department was denied a few times when requesting the funds to buy a six-wheeled, fully-equipped ATV for ice rescues, wild fires and search and rescue operations. Though the vehicle was viewed as “vital” for the community and those assisted by the fire department, city budget restraints and a grant denial by a known ATV manufacturer just about wiped out the department’s hopes.

From left: Jeff Loeks, Justin Nelson and Ron Hawkins, members of the White Bear Lake Fire Department, talk about their journey during a brief break just after noon Monday near the Sunrise Prairie Trail in North Branch. Photo submitted by Bob Carlson

From left: Jeff Loeks, Justin Nelson and Ron Hawkins, members of the White Bear Lake Fire Department, talk about their journey during a brief break just after noon Monday near the Sunrise Prairie Trail in North Branch.
Photo submitted by Bob Carlson

But there was hope, along with no hard feelings about the rejections, as one of its members had an idea to raise the funds.

“I’m the guilty party,” said Loeks who thought of and coordinated the walk. “But if my feet are better in a couple of months and I think about making this an annual thing, someone needs to hit me or do whatever they have to do to stop me.”

While Loeks and Nelson have military experience including multiple deployments in the Army Rangers and Marines, respectively, Hawkins has been called “the rock” of the crew. Employed by the city of White Bear Lake, he has trained for marathons without much physical adversity, but he, too, has seen the walking take a toll. “I’ve never had a blister in all my running,” he said. “(Walking) is not as hard, but it’s a major workout on the feet.”

They realized the poor condition of their feet at about the 12-mile mark from Duluth. “We stopped for foot care and found that it hurt to get up,” said Loeks, who works for Regions Hospital. “It takes a good mile to get back into it.”

A look at the firefighters’ feet after three and a half days of walking from Duluth. Photo by Jon Tatting

A look at the firefighters’ feet after three and a half days of walking from Duluth. Photo by Jon Tatting

On their first night, they attempted to sleep on a concrete slab outside the library in Barnum. “It was so cold, your teeth were keeping you awake, and I’m not exaggerating,” Loeks said. “We stayed there for four hours and decided we better keep moving. That was the only time I ever doubted the trip.”

On the second night, they conceded any thought of sleeping under the stars and checked into a little motel in Hinckley. About five hours of shut eye later, they were back on the path. And while the going continued to get tough physically, emotionally it got better.

“The best part has been meeting people along the way,” Loeks noted. “We met some wonderful people in Mahtowa. It’s just been a blessing. The highlight was meeting Chief Carlson in Rush City.”

That would be Rush City Fire Chief Bob Carlson, who provided the men with medical and health supplies, a home-cooked meal by Bob’s wife, Karen, and even a place to stay at their home Sunday night. It was either that or the floor inside the Rush City Fire Hall. Carlson also called other fire departments along the path to see if they could assist, as well.

“He totally lifted our spirits,” Loeks said. “He took care of us.”

And the help continued at their Monday afternoon stop in North Branch, where Renee McDonough of Hugo and Shannon McDonough provided a donation. Also there was Joe Carlson, of the Stacy-Lent Fire Department, who brought some supplies and word that his department would welcome the men for another respite. The men were looking forward to staying at the Forest Lake Fire Department later that evening.

If anyone is interested in supporting these White Bear Lake firefighters, donations are accepted at www.firefighterspecialteams.com. For those unable to donate, the men hope for a thumbs up along the way. Follow their mission on Facebook-Firefighter Special Teams.

 

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