A life of Superior sailing
They grew up in landlocked Minnesota, met on St. Olaf College’s hilltop, and earned their livings in classrooms and at the occasional Lutheran altar throughout Wisconsin.
Yet Ron and Bonnie Dahl have achieved an international reputation on the great waters of the world.
Bonnie, in particular, has created a wide wake in the sailing community, writing for sailing publications for more than 20 years. Through two books, she translated the use of complex navigational systems into language that recreational sailors can grasp.
The Dahls’ decades of sharing their knowledge of Lake Superior has in all likelihood saved lives — or at least enabled the heartbeats of beleaguered sailors to calm once they’ve anchored in the safe harbors Bonnie meticulously researched for Bonnie Dahl’s Superior Way: The Cruising Guide to Lake Superior, now in its fourth edition.
Their sailing days finally have ended, though. They sold Dahlfin II, their Columbia 10.7, last year, although they spent a week last fall in an RV circling the lake, “just to be near it,” Bonnie says.
Their home in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, is filled with art collected in their post-retirement years while traveling the world. At lunch on their deck overlooking the lake, the conversation ranges from Venezuela to South Africa to China to Norway.
For all their adventures at sea and on land, some of their most memorable moments are the products of chance interactions with a country’s people. Bonnie, a striking woman with an insatiable curiosity, and Ron, one of the most affable people you’ll ever meet, credit St. Olaf with instilling in them the willingness and the confidence to connect with others.
When you’re traveling in a foreign country, “so many opportunities come from meeting people you don’t know, from getting to know them,” Ron says, then adds pointedly, “from trusting them.”
They recall catching a tramp steamer — a cargo ship without a set schedule — while traveling through Chile in 1999. The other passengers were some shepherds and the 130 sheep they tended.
Bonnie remembers the “clitter-clitter” of hooves as the sheep shifted with the boat’s motion and how the shepherds worked to soothe them. But when one sheep succumbed to the rigors of the trip, the shepherds promptly cleaned it and rigged a grill in what seemed mere minutes.
Together, they dined. “They made us feel we were a part of their community,” Ron says.
Adds Bonnie, “We were not tourists anymore.”
Whether hitchhiking on dirt roads or riding on chicken trucks, the Dahls found that they often were among a country’s poorer residents. Yet they say they felt a commonality that they might not have felt at home.
“Sometimes, when we talk about poor people in the U.S., sometimes poverty is not the problem,” Ron says. “It may be more a question of self-esteem, of confidence, of being acknowledged.”
“St. Olaf helped us know how to communicate with others, gave us the skills to do that — and the permission to do that.”
Then he lightens the mood: “Travel enough, and you learn there are two simple, but important, phrases in life: ‘Where ya headed?’ and ‘What’s going on?'”
“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” John Lennon is credited with saying that out loud, but the unspoken sentiment is familiar to so many young Oles, including a young Bonnie and Ron.
Bonnie Schardin arrived at St. Olaf to pursue a pre-med track, majoring in chemistry and biology, while Ron, a year older, favored a more classical education, majoring in philosophy. They had some ideas about careers, but it’s fair to say that the future wasn’t clear.
In fact, Bonnie says, upon becoming engaged to Ron in December of her senior year, she was “so head-over-heels in love with this guy” that she could barely bring herself to return to school for that final semester. “I just wanted to set up house with him.”
Thankfully, she recalls, Ron insisted she get her college diploma first. “Ron said he wouldn’t marry me unless I got that piece of paper — which is the best ultimatum I ever got.” This past August, they celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary.
While Ron attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, Bonnie decided she didn’t want to be a doctor. But she needed a job, and so took one at the University of Minnesota Medical School, assisting with research into microbial genetics.
“I know that coming from St. Olaf had everything to do with me getting that job, because I really didn’t have that training,” she says. Yet over the next four years, she went on to co-author several research papers.
That experience, she says now, crystallized a growing sense that one’s destiny often involves following a force that some call fate, or perhaps faith.
“More than once, I know I have gotten a kick in the pants from somebody upstairs,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “It’s not always your idea.”
After Ron was ordained, he was called to a Lutheran parish in Sloan, Iowa, southeast of Sioux City. They stayed there for four years before moving in 1969 to Bruce, Wisconsin, not far from Rice Lake, where Bonnie got a job teaching high school physics and chemistry.
They bought a cabin on Rice Lake, on land where they still live today. Amid their busy lives — by now they had two young children, Peter and Kristen — the couple sought a way to nurture their relationship.
“We were looking for something that both of us could enter into on the same footing, that we could learn together,” Ron says. Bonnie had briefly been exposed to sailing while working a summer as a nanny on Lake Minnetonka and liked it. At the Minneapolis Boat Show, they bought a 12-foot sailboat.
They loved that boat from the first moment, happily sailing on Rice Lake as its sails filled with the breeze. But Lake Superior, looming to the north, beckoned.
The Dahls upgraded to a 30-foot Coronado, which they cleverly christened Dahlfin, and in 1974, they untied from a dock for the greater lake.
It was a barebones boat. “All we had was a depth sounder, compass, and knot meter to show how fast we were going,” Ron says. They navigated by dead reckoning, the traditional means of figuring where you are based on where you began, your speed, and how much time has passed.
Back then, recreational sailing on Superior was in its infancy. There were precious few charts, and most were related to commercial fishing or shipping.
So began the Dahls’ ritual of documenting various anchorages in terms of water depths, dangerous rocks and shoals, shoreline features, and anything else that sailors need to know. Bonnie began keeping fastidious journals, sketching each anchorage, and creating a track, or route, that boaters should follow. She also wrote about an area’s geography and history, about hikes and waterfalls, about properly equipping a boat.
“What Bonnie was actually doing was helping people find safe harbors,” Ron says. “That’s the real point of Superior Way.”
Her account of coming into the anchorage at Passage Island, east of Isle Royale, is typically detailed:
Approach must be made from the SW hugging close to the island shoreline in order to pass between the island and the shoal. Once past this outlying shoal, there are two more shoals extending into the entrance off each side of the opening, thus necessitating passing through exactly mid-channel. Here a bow lookout is helpful, and with care a minimum depth of 8 feet can be maintained when passing through.
Anyone who regularly sails on Lake Superior pays full heed to each of those directives.
Bonnie began sending these accounts to the Lake Superior Cruising Club as a means of sharing what she’d mapped, which led to submitting an article about her efforts to Cruising World magazine, which promptly requested more articles.
Her writing career was launched, resulting in thousands of articles for various sailing publications over the years.
By 1983, the Dahls had documented enough of Lake Superior to publish the first edition of Superior Way, now published by Lake Superior Magazine.
Bonnie followed that in 1986 with The Loran-C Users Guide, breaking down the complex Loran-C navigation system into language that an ordinary person could understand. “Sometimes, I look at that book now and think, ‘I wrote that?'”
After the Loran system was supplanted by other systems, she wrote The Users Guide to GPS, which has been used by the U.S. Coast Guard in its cadet training programs.
One reason the Dahls were able to spend so much time on the water is a result of Ron’s decision to take a break from the ministry. An intended sabbatical of a few years stretched to 15 as Ron began teaching third graders in Rice Lake. This change carved out more flexible summers for sailing, yet Ron always made himself available when a parish needed an interim pastor — sometimes for a few Sundays, sometimes for many months.
After Bonnie and Ron retired, their voyages took on a worldwide scope. In 1999, they set off from Lake Superior to the Caribbean and then to Venezuela, where they docked the boat for three months.
The couple went backpacking and hitchhiking, clear down to the Straits of Magellan, the “inside passage” around Cape Horn. They saw the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu and watched whales off the Argentinian coast. When a government gas crisis put a crimp in land travel, they set off for the Galapagos Islands.
They didn’t know much of the native language, “but when you live with people, you learn it quick,” Ron says.
While in Trinidad, their publisher called, wanting an updated third edition of Superior Way for 2001. “So we returned,” Bonnie says with her trademark wryness, “because it’s really hard to do a Superior sailing guide from South America.”
That job completed, they resumed traveling, going on the first of several Semesters at Sea, a sort of floating school designed to nurture global perspectives. They boarded as passengers, but when others learned with whom they were sailing, the Dahls did impromptu presentations about their experiences. Such trips brought them to the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and other international landmarks.
The one part of the world they never sailed to was the South Pacific, although Bonnie says that was her dream “from day one.” Their son, Peter, however, also is an avid sailor and may realize that destination.
Medical challenges played a role in the Dahls’ ultimate decision to sell their boat, although they made their annual trip to Ontario’s Red Rock Folk Festival in August and are taking a second RV trip around Lake Superior this September.
As they reflect upon their lives, their travels, their unique contribution to sailing on Superior, and the connections made with people around the world, Bonnie and Ron begin to speak with passion about how a liberal arts education provided a firm foundation for their pursuits.
“We were exposed to so much — to music, to art, to museums,” Bonnie says. “We learned to appreciate these things, and so it was important to seek them out in all of our travels.”
This lively curiosity invariably led them into conversations with strangers, which helped them appreciate and delve deep into various cultures and their artistic accomplishments.
And this gained knowledge, in turn, has always led to the best of conversations: those between themselves.
“We have always talked, whether camping, hiking, traveling, looking down on Machu Picchu or the bluffs of Lake Superior, or sitting in the cockpit of our boat,” Bonnie says. “To this day, we still reserve a half-hour or more each day before supper, when we just sit and talk — about the day, our children and grandchild, future plans, politics. We are still solving the problems of the world.”