“Unlike many things in life,” says career wildland firefighter and smokejumper, Timo Rova, “once you jump, you can’t stop the process. You’re going to land. You’re jumping into mountains, into a little opening full of rocks and surrounded by trees and brush, on a super steep slope, and you can’t even stop and take a breath to figure it out. You are totally focused. Your life and health depends on it. It’s all about being calm, reading the wind, figuring out how to get into that little spot.”
For Timo, launching his canoe into the late November chop takes some of these same considerations. In both these scenarios, Timo considers the weather, the wind, and the surrounding topography—he thinks of the flora and fauna and what effect the conditions and season might have on them. These skills of observation, Timo learned from an upbringing of living off this northern Minnesota land. He honed them during a 30-plus year career as a wildland firefighter, including 18 as a smokejumper.
He’s jumped from airplanes into wildfires in some of the most remote terrain in the country across 13 different states, literally hitting the ground running to combat fires and survive in the wilderness with only the tools on his back.
Through this career, where the difference between success and failure—and life and death—relied on reading the subtle cues of nature, Timo developed an acute awareness of his surroundings. He utilizes these skills now daily as he hunts deer, moose and grouse, forages berries, wild rice and mushrooms, and keeps the shed stocked with wood for the stove and sauna. Each season brings with it a different challenge and a different kind of beauty.
“When I start hunting deer during bow season, the leaves are just starting to turn and the aspen are starting to rattle because they’re beginning to dry out before they turn colors,” he says. “By the end of muzzleloader season, it’s after Christmas and it’s the new year, and you’re dealing with 10, 20 below and deep snow and the stillness, when the only birds around are ravens croaking. At the beginning you were hearing loons leaving. That’s the thing about hunting and gathering that I love. You’re really observant of those things—you’re not just walking through it—you’re attuned to what that mood is.”
Seven miles due north of Ely, Minnesota, Timo lives in a small cabin on a lake that’s a headwater for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. His ancestors first came here to northern Minnesota from Finland to work the iron ore mines and logging camps of the area. They lived a life of hunting and gathering as well—netting fish, hunting game, gathering berries, traveling the area on birch skis they crafted themselves. Though he’s spent significant portions of his life living in the western United States, this land and lakes next to the Canadian border has always called Timo back.
It’s times spent solo in the woods that Timo feels most at home here. Though one of his favorite aspects of fighting fire is the stories and camaraderie shared by the crews on which he’s worked and he loves people and community, it’s this time alone that truly fuels his spirit.
“I really cherish the times I’m hunting by myself,” he says. “Those times I can go where intuition leads me. Times like that, things open up, and I start thinking about things I haven’t thought about for a while.”
During these solo trips, Timo makes camp in much the same way he did as a smokejumper—ultra-minimalist. He carries a knife, a tin cup for warming coffee by the fire, a small tarp called a hooch, and the clothing and sleeping bag to keep him warm. During deer season, he typically paddles his aluminum canoe, which is better at breaking ice than his Kevlar boat. Packing light leaves room to paddle out anything he harvests.
While this style of hunting can be challenging, Timo loves it.
“Hunting in the backcountry—in the elements—having to work hard is normal for me—the same feelings as smokejumping but often much less dangerous,” he says. “It feels raw and real, like you belong there, you’re part of that environment and cycle and system. You’re like the animals and mushrooms and critters are.”
This way of life helps keep Timo grounded. It helps him enjoy all aspects of his life, both big and small.
“The real thing is to enjoy what’s around you, and the challenge is to not always be striving for the next biggest, best thing and so focused on that that you aren’t seeing everything around you,” he says. “Sometimes the biggest challenge is learning how to break away from that to see what the real treasure and trophy is.”
For Timo, living off the land is a choice, but it harkens back to his ancestors who lived in the same way out of necessity. Timo believes that this kind of life has brought with it an emotional, spiritual and mental resilience.
“Yes, hunting and gathering is about getting food,” he says, “but that’s just the practical, tangible part. The other thing is you’re part of the system, you’re knowing the moods, you’re connected. Humans are part of nature. Everything we eat, we drink, the air we breathe is the environment, is nature. We can’t deny that.”