The Great Birthday Backpacking Adventure Day 1

The great birthday backpacking adventure happened, though not as expected. Unfortunately my writing about it has been delayed, first by a crazy week of work (which of course became crazy weeks) and low data on my phone and then by the shocking and untimely death of my sister (which I’m sure you’ll hear much more about… eventually). So now, over a month later, I’m finally getting around to writing about the backpacking trip.

Long story short, it was amazing.

Not making it to the Appalachian Trail was disappointing but it gave us the opportunity to log some miles on the North Country Trail. We noticed this equally impressive though less popular National Trail on other trips to the Upper Peninsula this past year and had even hiked a short ways on it once. So when the forecast for Virginia promised rain for all three days we were planning on backpacking, the North Country Trail made sense.

There’s a popular section that books and stuff call the Lakeshore Trail; it runs along the coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (and I do mean right along the coast) from the National Park’s Grand Sable Visitors center near Grand Marais to Munising Falls (which is where we saw ice caves and frozen waterfalls back in February). You can park on one end, book a shuttle service to the other, and hike back. It’s just over 42 miles of trail with designated backwoods camp sites scattered throughout plus whatever side paths you take for the various scenic overlooks and whatnot.

The Lakeshore trail is that dashed line that runs…wait for it… Right along the lakeshore.

We had three days, three and a half max, to get back to Munising Falls. This meant we had to cover at least fourteen miles a day, I was hoping we’d get a little farther and get a night in a hotel (and a shower) before the 7ish hour drive home. Because this was our first experience backpacking we really weren’t sure what our pace would be. Hiking with a 25-30lb pack for the entire day is very different from the light couple hours at a time hiking we had experience with previously.

It was still chilly in the UP on the first of June; forty-two degrees which was startling after leaving eighty plus days. The start of the trail was nothing too exciting, a grassy field that fed into a woods with a river. The trail wound around a lake by way of the highway for a couple miles before returning to the forest. We stopped a couple times to adjust the packs, turns out placement of the weight is crucial for comfort. Well, relative comfort. It wasn’t until we reached the “log slide” six miles later that we saw the great lake we had been hiking alongside all morning.

And what a breathtaking view of the lake it was! Quite literally. The wind up there was a little intense.

This part of the upper peninsula, like most of it, used to be a booming logging area. The steep dunes were used to slide logs down to Lake Superior’s shoreline for transport. There was an old logging shed nearby with a sled for dragging logs in the winter and a giant cart thing for when the ground was less frozen. According to the signs most the log harvesting was done in the winter.

(I took pictures of this and a few other features of the beginning of the trail on an older digital camera but somehow managed to either delete or thoroughly hide them from myself. Doh!)

We sat at the top of the dunes, ate lunch and rested about half an hour before continuing. Lunch consisted of tuna packets, baby bell cheese, and some trail mix.

The trail was very well maintained with scenic steps built into the steeper hillsides and plank bridges covering the small crossing rivers as well as the muddy areas. It was super nice to not have to worry about wet or muddy shoes especially when we were less than half way through our first day.

The next point of reference on the trail was the Au Sable lighthouse on Au Sable point about four miles away.

It was cool because it’s a lighthouse but as far as lighthouses go it was kind of meh.

We poked around at the lighthouse station for a minute, used the rough outhouses, and continued on. Shortly after that we found the stone foundation of an old structured in the woods. It was covered in moss and underbrush type growth but you could just make out the outline.

(I had pictures on the camera of this too.)

Our goal for day one was to make it to a rustic campsite a little past twelve mile beach. We had started hiking around 9am, if I remember correctly, it was close to 4pm when we reached twelve mile beach.

I was using a hiking app on my Garmin to track our progress throughout the day but at this point its battery was running low. As were ours; both the boyfriend and I were exhausted. Twelve miles with heavy packs on low sleep was a lot! So we got out one of our fancy lightweight quick-dry towels, laid it on the sand at the top of some steps leading down to the beach, and took a nap.

We set an alarm and woke up 45 minutes later, right around five o’clock. After another snack & some water we moved on.

The group campsite just before the Beaver River basin area was about an hour away & by then we were so beat neither of us felt like hiking just a little further to the non group campsite. Plus we were starving again. At least I was. The guy wanted to start a fire; we didn’t need one, he just wanted one “for warmth”. It was admittedly chilly in the shade of the woods but when you trekked down to the water less than a quarter mile away the beach was basking in an almost-sunset glow and was comfortable.

Our “one person” hiking tent on its maiden voyage at a Scout overnight the week before the Birthday Backpacking Adventure.

After some annoyance and possible nagging on my part, he gave up the fire attempts and we hooked our tiny cooktop to the small butane tank. Within seven minutes we had boiling water, another ten yielded a complete Mountain House meal of something resembling beef stew. It was a surprisingly satisfying dinner finished off with candy bars we had picked up at the gas station that morning. We ate sitting on a driftwood log on the beach a short distance from where Seven Mile Creek (according to the map above) meets Lake Superior. Not another human was in sight, not even evidence of one, it was peaceful and refreshing; the perfect ending to an exciting and tiring day.

There was talk of watching the sunset but in the short time it took us to scarf down rehydrated stew we realized all we both wanted was sleep. Clean up consisted of adding the meal package to the gallon ziplock that help our garbage for the day, rinsing off the spoon/fork combo eating utensils and closing all of them in a scent proof bag. After we tucked anything that would possibly attract a bear (other than ourselves) into the metal “bear box” at our campsite we climbed into our tiny tent and crashed. It was maybe 9:30pm.

Total for day one: @15.5 miles hiked over roughly 7 hours.

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This grief is making me tired.

I wanted to be writing about backpacking in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula today, to be sharing with you some details, lessons, and views from my recent adventure. But I can’t, not right now. Life as we know it has been interrupted. There’s been a huge bump in the road, a snafu. A shift in the fabric of the universe.

My sister died. And that’s all I can think about right now.

It was sudden. I’m stumbling around wondering what exactly to do with myself, as I have been for the past 28 hours or so. My family came together last night, all who could make it, to cry and hug (two things we do not do often); to offer support and share the pain that each of us were just beginning to feel. There’s been an outpouring of condolences, thoughts and prayers, and well wishes on social media as well as multiple organized efforts to help her husband and two young children through the next few weeks. It’s touching to see the reach my sister has had in her community. She is, or was, an amazing person. Everyone is sorry and sad.

This loss, her death, the permanency of it is only just starting to sink in. It’s still catching me off guard as the initial news did. A sucker punch to the gut, a riptide pulling me off my feet to sweep me into the tumultuous depths. Waves of numbness followed by deep, hollowing grief are washing over me, changing the shape of my soul. I’m not sure what to do with it all, not sure how to adapt, how to be okay today. Or tomorrow. Or next week.

There aren’t words in my head, there is no vocabulary for a world without my sister in it.

My sister and her daughter circa 2014

Bugs & Bears

There’s an old saying, something about God willing and the creek not rising…

Well, folks, the creek is rising. Quite literally.

As I recently mentioned my boyfriend and I have been planning a backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. We decided we wanted to take a mini vacation to celebrate our upcoming shared birthday; the legendary Appalachian Trail seemed to be the ideal adventure, mostly because I’ve got a brother who lives not too far from it. That gave us a good jumping off point. The plan was to drive down, stay with him a night, and head to Shenandoah National Park in the morning for three days and two nights of hiking and backwoods camping. With that idea in mind I delved deep into the rabbit hole of planning for Appalachian Trail backpacking.

It’s a totally new world for me. I’ve hiked and I’ve camped but never have I carried everything I needed for camping, nor have I hiked from sun up to sun down. Heck, I’ve never even backwoods camped; the lovely and plentiful state parks of Michigan are my jam. You pretty much know what you’re getting at the state parks. They’re like the Holiday Inn Express of the camping set, nothing too fancy but they get the job done and you know they’ve got toilets. As I researched more about backpacking and wilderness camping a few major concerns caught my attention. Water. Bugs. And bears. (Oh my!) Specifically getting and carrying water, ticks, and bears. Frankly these are legitimate concerns especially in Virginia’s portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Water has been the easiest of the three to figure out. There are tons of efficient and light weight water purification systems out there and even more reviews or sites with people talking about each of them. We chose a reasonable priced, easily packed filter system and a back up Life Straw (I love that they give one to people in water challenged areas when you buy one). A couple bladders with straw tubes attached and another without for extra water and that was taken care of. Easy peasy as not too crazy expensive.

Ticks and bears on the other hand are a little more tricky.

We invested in “bear bag” systems for hanging food and smelly toiletries out of the reach of furry friends. (Apparently bears have an even stronger sense of smell than blood hounds.) I spent some time reading about bear interaction etiquette. A large part of the bear problem along the trail and in the more well used national parks is because of people being irresponsible. As soon as a bear learns to associate people with food they probably will not leave them alone. Eventually the problematic bear has to be relocated to a more remote area or put down. All that because of irresponsible backpackers. Not only did I not want to attract bears to our campsites but I definitely did not want to be the cause for bears having to be kicked out of their habitat.

Ticks are a fear inducing problem because they carry the infamous Lyme disease along with a host of other unpleasant illnesses. There’s a newer tiny tick species that looks like a spec of dirt but their bite causes a meat allergy. Yeah, a red meat allergic reaction that you may be stuck with for the rest of your life. I’m a meat-a-terian. That shit ain’t cool! Tick keys and permethrin along with tall, tick repellent socks were bought.

All the information and pre-planning has helped to ausage my fears a bit but with so much unknown and so little you can do about it (you never really know what bad things might happen) there has still been a lingering, lurking fear of food getting eaten by bears and us getting eaten (bit) by ticks. (I’ve talked so much about ticks and tick repulsion and such that my tick paranoia (or healthy sense of caution as I call it) has begun rubbing off on my boyfriend.) But the unknown is what makes this an adventure, that and stepping outside of the day to day comfort zone.

Which brings me back around to the aforementioned literal creek rising.

After seeing some blurb about hurricane Alberto, I realized I should probably check the weather for Virginia before we leave. Turns out a large part of Virginia, the part we wanted to traverse on foot, has been very wet this week with more rainfall in the forecast. The three days we had planned to be backpacking all had 80-100% chance of rain. Carrying close to 30lbs while walking over hilly terrain for three days sounds super fun. Doing that soaking wet definitely does not!

So, plans have changed. Instead of south we’re north bound. Instead of the Appalachian Trail we’ll be treading the lesser known but still very cool North Country Trail. The creek rising is part of the adventure, we’ll still have bugs and bears to contend with.

Hobbies, My New Pastime

Since graduating nursing school and my short-lived time at a hospital, I’ve been on a 9a-5p schedule since February. It’s amazing. I had seven years of 2nd and 3rd shifts, a ton of weekends and generally being unavailable when the rest of the world was off work. I had forgotten what it was like to have a relatively set schedule that falls in line with day light hours. I still must work the majority of Saturdays but it’s really a small price to pay for a consistent schedule. Now I can plan things with reasonable assurance I’ll be able to do without requesting time off. It’s freeing.

I started a photography class, a continuing ed type, at a local community college back in February. It was my Christmas present to myself. I really loved it. I enjoy school, the learning aspect anyway, and I enjoy it even more when there aren’t grades. I decided to take the next level of photography class this spring. As I was looking through the classes I noticed I wanted to take them all! There was a craft beer class, wine tasting, cooking, ceramics, and language classes.

It feels as if there’s been a shift in my focus. For so long I was focused on getting through school, working full time and generally just trying to keep my head above water. Now I get to slow down and have some fun. I want to do All The Hobbies!!

Of course, that’s not totally practical, at least not to do them all at once. The joy is the possibility. Sure, I have all the normal life adult crap to deal with and home renovation projects to complete but I also have the opportunity to do some stuff just because it’s enjoyable. And to do it without the guilt of knowing I should be doing something else. It’s a good change.

The Next Big Adventure

I’m exhausted and at work.

Like, alternating caffeine sources and there’s still eight hours left on this shift exhausted (it’s a twelve… And I work nights).

Like, haven’t had a real night’s (or even day’s) sleep since Tuesday and it’s Sunday night (technically Monday morning).

That kind of exhausted.

Plus my shoulders ache every time I lift my arms and the deep scrapes on my knees (that are eleven days old and should be healed) are throbbing.

It’s a good feeling though, the hurts. Though not so much the exhaustion. (You know your schedule is not okay when you can’t wait for dental school to start so you can get some regular sleep.)

But the muscle aches and the bruises and the extended life of these scrapes are due to something resembling adventure. (As is a small portion of the exhaustion.) See, my boyfriend and I did a muddy obstacle course run less than two days ago. My shoulders ache from crawling through mud a foot deep and climbing over walls made of tires or rope nets or rough wood. The scabs on my knees, caused by tripping on a run when I was very tired, got a new lease on life when I oh-so awkwardly clambered over a web of tubes serving as a water crossing. So, yeah, I hurt but it’s a good kind of hurt, one that I earned.

Before I started dating my super awesome and great boyfriend I was uncomfortable even running with or in front of any guy I was interested in. Somehow, though, things are different with him. Last year around this time we did our first 5k together (his first race ever). It was pouring rain and quite chilly out but we had so much fun. There was nothing awkward or uncomfortable about it.

Since then we’ve done this obstacle run both last year and this year, a handful of 5 & 10ks, a crazy trail 15k, a run over a huge bridge, at least one “doubler”… And that’s just the running. The long and short of it is this guy challenges me, he pushes me.

Physically, I try harder when I run with him because he’s faster than me and I don’t want to look like a wimp in front of him. (But he doesn’t make me feel bad or think less of me if I’m having a bad run day and need to slow down a bit.) Mentally, he pushes me to step out of my comfort zone and try new things whether it’s food or a new hiking experience. He’s less cautious than I am, less of an over thinker. It’s a good balance. I am cautiously willing to try things and my hesitation keeps him from doing anything too ridiculous.

While things like this mud obstacle run and the various types of races we’ve done are contained adventure our next big thing is a little less so. In just under two weeks my guy and I are going on a backpacking trip that will include hiking a part of the Appalachian Trail.

We’ve lightly talked about hiking the AT since he stumbled on part of it while driving back from a vacation last year but our lives are a bit too complicated to venture out on a long section hike (though maybe that’ll happen at some point). Visiting one of my brothers in Virginia and striking out on a few day hike from there, however, is manageable.

So that’s what we’re doing.

So far we’ve bought a bunch of hiking/backpacking gear (apparently the lighter something is the more expensive it is), read a bunch of information about backpacking; extended hiking; and the Appalachian Trail. I’ve tested the tiny tent and I’ve even loaded up my rather giant backpack to a little more than 20lbs and gone for a five mile hike. (That was eye opening.)

I’m excited! We’re both excited, really. I’m also a little scared. (He’s not… But maybe he should be.) There are bears as disease bearing ticks. We could get lost out there in the wild. It does happen. There’s just so much unknown. I’ve never even gone backwoods camping (as in not in a campground with designated bathroom spots and stuff).

Even if we just go out and hike our pre-planned route and nothing truly unexpected happens this will be an adventure.

Aaaand, in case you’re counting (or really for my own running tally) the Hightail to Ale race is #4 for this year and the mud/obstacle run #5. That’s already half of my total from 2017.

A Two Race Weekend

I’m a little late to post about it but the weekend before this one that just happened my fun little running gang (aka my boyfriend and whichever of my kids I can coerce into running) and I had a two race weekend. (In case you couldn’t guess that from the title up there.)

Really just my boyfriend and I did both races but my two youngest sons (ages 13 & 8) did do the first one with us.

Saturday:

This small out and back 5k through a lakeside neighborhood was more than just a fun race for us. It was a fund raiser for a friend of the 13 year old who has had some major unexpected health issues this year. His story has a happy ending, he’s on the other side of them now, but it was a little scary for a bit. It was a difficult time for my sensitive and often emotional teenager; we were more than happy to contribute to the family by participating in this run.

Other than the cause and atmosphere there was nothing too exciting about this 5k. The course had some light, rolling hills that made it enjoyably challenging and the morning was chilly (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit) but it was a pretty basic 5k.

Usually running with my boyfriend pushes my pace a bit (which is good) but we planned on taking this one easy since the race on Sunday was going to be much more difficult and we were running with the eight year old. The attempts at getting him to run in the weeks leading up to the race were… Not entirely successful, to say the least, so my goal was to try to get my son to run the first mile and to finish in under forty minutes.

Lucky for us his teacher showed up and decided to run with us (my little guy loves his teachers). The teacher did a great job of motivating my little guy to run the whole race.

That’s right, he ran the whole 3.1 miles. The 8 year old, his teacher, my boyfriend, and I all finished in about 31:40. Not too shabby for an untrained eight year old!

The 13 year old decided he was not feeling so motivated that chilly morning and walked almost the whole first mile. At the 1.5 mile turn around the rest of the group was at least a quarter of a mile ahead of him. He must have really pushed himself in the second half of the race because he ended up finishing about twenty seconds after we did. I was a little surprised and quite impressed to see him hauling in right behind us. After the run we hurried over to a family First Communion party already in progress where we ate cake then ran around playing basketball. Everyone was pretty beat that night.

Sunday:

Sometimes I poke fun at the cheesy memes and sayings about “being your best self & living your best life” and all that crap but early Sunday morning I was most definitely not my best self.

My guy and I had to be out the door before 7am (on a Sunday!) to get to the five mile trail run we had signed up to do. And boy was I cranky that morning! First, my boyfriend didn’t have the clothes he needed so I had to scrounge up some running pants for him. Then the neighbors were texting me to complain about the stupid dog barking (she had literally been out for less than five minutes before turning on the obnoxiousness). And of course we were leaving late.. ugh.

Despite all that we did get to the race course with (just!) enough time to get our shirts and numbers, hit the porta-potties, and join the large crowd behind the start line. Because this was a rather intense trail run the race started in waves. They weren’t time based or at all organized, just groups of people about the same size started a few minutes apart. I’m not sure which wave we started in but we didn’t wait too long before politely pushing our way to the start and beginning this challenging trail race.

It didn’t take us long to catch the tail end of the previous heat. I had heard that the trail got quite narrow in the very hilly woods. I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to push myself early in the five mile race, the course was intense and early morning races are really hit or miss for me. My guy, on the other hand, was full of energy and kept bounding ahead on the packed trails. This made me a little salty but I kept it to myself. I figured I’d already used my crabbiness allowance for the morning. Eventually he slowed down a bit and I realized I really didn’t feel bad.

Other than stopping to take off a layer (Did I mention it was just above freezing when the race started?) and some minor breathing issues on one particularly arduous hill I ran the whole five miles. And I didn’t feel like I was dying, I still felt pretty damn decent when we crossed the finish.

Garmin thought otherwise though.

My goal for this five miles was to stay under an hour and I’m happy to say we did it. As an added bonus, my guy finished 9th in his age group and I was 13th in mine.

Obviously that didn’t win us any additional bling but it’s nice knowing we’re not too shabby out there.

So if you’re keeping track these were races #2 & 3 for 2018; #1 was the St. Paddy’s day run. (Or rather to help me keep track)

Last weekend was a work weekend for me so it was totally devoid of races but tomorrow we’re running one of the bigger (beer themed!) Fun 5ks we did last year. Coincidentally it’s supposed to be cold and rainy again… even though it’s been close to eighty all week. Isn’t that just how it goes sometimes!

Sitting quietly in the moment

I tend to live life in a flurry of activity. I enjoy a certain level of busyness (or as some might call it chaos). I’m a bit of a challenge junkie, always pushing myself to see what I can accomplish next.

Imagine one of those old school cartoon characters juggling plates or carrying boxes, stuff gets stacked on, higher and higher until whatever they’re carrying is teetering dangerously (and somewhat humorously) close to toppling over. And every now and then it does all come crashing down around the ridiculous protagonist. That’s a pretty accurate metaphor (simile?) for me trying to manage my life. But I like it; I thrive in chaos and a certain level of craziness.

The sweet spot is that point where everything wobbles just enough to make you question if (or when) everything you’re piling on is going to fall. That visceral feeling in your gut, hovering between fear and excitement. The adrenaline that courses, turning into a pleasant, heady rush when your personal tower of nonsense stays erect. That’s it. Because when everything is about to come crashing down into a natural disaster level mess and you’re on the brink of being declared a national emergency but then, then at the very last moment, it doesn’t and you’ve somehow pulled it off (maybe with a few more grey hairs and slightly elevated blood pressure to show for it), you feel like you’ve accomplished something. You’ve succeeded. And, damn is it impressive!

The “I don’t know how you do it all”s and comments of the sort, made with a certain amount of awe but in a baffled tone that says “why would you even try?”, they’re gratifying. Sure a normal person would not take on so much at once but who wants to be normal. Downtime is overrated anyhow right?… Right?!?!

That’s the zone I thrive in. But right now my life is not there. Instead I’m in a place of seemingly static waiting. Everything is going to change, there is going to be a major shift towards chaos, but not for months. And in the meantime…. What?

Just daily life and waiting.

I’m trying to use these next few months before dental school starts to relax and enjoy life. Play games and go to the library regularly with my kids. Do all the fun runs. Start and finish projects. Take small vacations. And that’s all well and good, but in the day-to-day it’s slow. For me that’s frustrating. My instinct is to push forward, to be focused on the next hill. To go go go. Not to come home from the morning rush of getting the kids to school and look around and think “Now what?” So far I haven’t been handling the apparently empty days very well. (To be sure, there’s always things I should be doing but they’re the boring, mundane chores of daily living that I’d much rather avoid.) I’ve been restless, antsy and on edge. My temper is a little too quick and irritations often lurks just below the surface.

It’s a struggle to sit quietly and be content in the moment. But that’s what life is showing me needs to be done right now. It’s a time to embrace the stillness, take a few deep breaths and enjoy where I am instead of trying to jump to the next phase. I’m sure in six months, when I’m balls deep in the first semester of dental school and trying to manage four kids in school and fall extra curriculars, I’ll miss this phase.