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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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.

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.

Michigan Midwinter Break

The Divorced Parenting God’s have smiled on me this winter.

Not only have a good portion of the school snow days fallen on my parenting time, but I also got the kids’ midwinter break and the Friday they’ve got off school for parent-teacher conferences. In preparation for this boon of potential winter fun time with the kids I spent weeks running around, meeting various strangers from Facebook to collect enough snow shoes for a mini “up north” vacation.

Local City Park (without kids)

Two weekends ago we finally got a good solid dumping of snow here in lower Michigan. Okay, there’s already been some snow this winter but I was happy to have another heavy snowfall. (I think we got twelve to fourteen inches over a couple days.) While everyone else was complaining about it I was plotting and executing some snow related adventures.

Okay, maybe adventure is too strong of a word. Really we just went for a winter hike around the city park to try out our snow shoes in some deeper snow.

We trekked across the very frozen lake to a couple tiny islands and then around the oldest corner of the adjacent cemetery.

The verbosity of some of these old tombstones is truly magnificent. One of them simply said “MOTHER”. To be fair, almost all the lettering had eroded so maybe it had said more at some point. And people definitely did not live as long at the turn of that century so maybe they just didn’t have time to waste putting more words on their tombstones. YOLO and all that.

After about an hour of leisurely strolling around on the snow my guy & I sledded down the hill a couple times and grabbed some hot chocolate and dinner before I had to get to work for the night. I was a little tired later but it was worth it to get out and play in the snow.

The little guy tried out his new snow shoes in the yard.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

I had never seen or even heard of the “ice caves” that form in the Munising area of the upper peninsula of Michigan but my boyfriend visited them years ago & told me about them. As soon as I knew they existed I wanted to go.

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There happened to be a snow shoe race at Taquamenon falls (also in the Upper Peninsula) the weekend of the kids’ midwinter break. It was perfect! We’d go up Friday, stay near the falls & do the run then go up to Munising, see the ice caves & spend Saturday night there. Drive home Sunday evening. The kids still had Monday off school to …I don’t know, be lame teenagers.

Needless to say it did not go down that way.

First, that happen to be one of the busiest winter weekends in the U.P.; we couldn’t find a hotel near Taquamenon OR Munising for either, let alone both, nights. (Instead we stayed in Manistique.) Second, we left later than anticipated. AND third, my kids decided to be lame teenagers ahead of schedule and started balking at everything and complaining when we were trying to leave on Friday.

After dramatic pouting from the daughter we finally hit the road around 7pm and arrived Up North around one in the morning. We had to summon the hotel owner from their near by home (and bed) to check in; it was close to two in the morning by the time we were getting ourselves to sleep. In the morning a combination of getting to bed super late, being over an hour from the snow shoe race, & the crabby state of the teenagers (who we had planned to leave at the hotel while we did said race) dissuaded us from doing the race. Instead we decided to head to breakfast and then Munising for the day to explore some ice formations.

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They just exude enthusiasm don’t they?

Before we went Up North exploring I had done some online exploring and learned that there were two popular sites for ice “caves”. One was on a small island roughly a mile out into Lake Superior. The article I found cautioned against hiking over the frozen lake unprepared, it warned of hidden thin spots in the ice and crazy shifting waters stealthily weakening it from underneath. That was enough to scare me off; I was more interested in the safe inland formations of the Eben Ice caves that required a hike across firm (but also snow covered and frozen ground) to get to them.

I hinted to my boyfriend about my desire to avoid plummeting through the ice to our cold, watery deaths by keeping all our feet solidly on the earth and he did what any good boyfriend would do: Tricked me into facing my fears.

Just kidding. I did mention that I was wary of hiking over the frozen lake but when we left the hotel in Manistique Saturday morning I told him we should probably hit the coolest spots first. That way if the teenagers suddenly got crabby again we would have at least seen that.

We drove along a surprisingly crowded little road until it ended at a couple parking lots and got out to see this:

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(Actually this was taken after we started hiking; we were almost a third of the way out at this point.)

I questioned whether or not it was safe to hike across what I thought was a bay until my boyfriend pointed out the groups of other people coming and going and the well worn path through the deep snow that covered the ice. Obviously we went for it.

The snow on the lake was pretty deep and while there was a trodden path, the snow shoes still helped make the 0.70 mile trek out there easier.

He didn’t think it was easier with snow shoes but, trust me, it really was.

The frozen lake was impressive in and of itself. Before we knew it those sort of cool giant icicles were amazing shelves of ice, water that looked like it had been hit by Elsa from the movie Frozen and halted mid fall, suddenly finding itself a solid.

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Frozen waves. How cool is that?!?

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We abandoned our snow shoes and climbed around behind the ice shelves.

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This was one of the coolest things I have ever seen!

The kids were duly impressed, even the two teenagers. And remember the ice climbing festival that prevented us from staying closer to Munising? Well, it also gave us the opportunity to watch these random folks climb the ledges of hanging icicles.

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I’m pretty sure my youngest wants a set of ice hooks & cleats now. And it turns out this was the “dangerous” “mile” hike across frozen Lake Superior that that website had warned me about. I think they oversold the danger aspect a bit. And maybe the mile part too; Garmin GPS told me we hiked 2.13 miles in the two hours we spent exploring.

Munising Falls

After we left the main attraction of the ice cliffs we found another national parks site. This one boasted a waterfall and only an 800 foot hike.

The different textures in the ice were beautiful and amazing. Who knew water could find so many configurations to freeze in?

Frozen Lake Michigan

Our second and last morning of the trip started with a healthy serving of requests to leave asap. One teenager wanted to get home to hang out with friends and the other just wanted to be in her room. (Seriously, kids?) We did not acquiesce and instead went to the Lake Michigan shoreline in Manistique where we were staying.

Just breaking the ice a little.

Those hills are not sand mounds, they’re frozen waves complete with ingrained sand.

Lake Michigan was not as solidly frozen as Lake Superior. The inlet had almost a gradient of textures leading out to the active water.

Everything from frozen foam…

To slushy clouds…

And piles of frozen glass…

A few of us attempted a walk along the pier to the lighthouse.

Which ended up being an ice climbing alongside the pier.

This is as close as we got.

After an hour of playing on the beach it was time to head home.

Despite the teenage grumbling and complaining everyone had a good time and we were all blown away by the natural phenomenon of the Great Lakes in the winter. I will definitely try to make a winter up north trip a reoccurring event!

Quick Change and New Orleans Vacation

After some time, okay only seven months, I’m changing jobs again. I’m switching for a more normal schedule which means no more night shifts or twelve hour days. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the hospital schedule I was working it did allow for some days off and sometimes in a row. So, with my last chunk of random free time during the week I grabbed my friend with excess vacation time and took a quick trip. I used google maps to scroll around and find a cheaper flight to someplace warm. Michigan is deep in the snowy season and getting out sounded great. New Orleans, LA was the winner. The flight was probably cheaper because it was just before Mardi Gras. But that was perfect for us, as neither of us wanted the craziness or expense of Mardi Gras. New Orleans also offered 70 degree weather! And sunshine! Plus I’ve been dying to put my new camera to use and¬†New Orleans seems like the perfect place.

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With Mardi Gras coming up soon there were beads everywhere!

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In a cemetery 

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I made my travel buddy get up for the sunrise. Unfortunately it was very cloudy but I got some fun photos anyway.

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New Orleans style coffee & donuts. Yes, I had them all three days I was there.

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Bourbon Street around 7:00pm. The night was just getting started

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The iconic shot of New Orleans

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A loom shop that had some special sales cats

It was a fun quick three day trip. Boy, did I get a bunch of photos too. Some turned out well and, some, not so much. There’s a bit of a learning curve with the new camera.

 

With the start of my new job and normal schedule I’ll be on vacation freeze for six months. That makes me really happy that I fit in a quick trip. With the advantage of a normal schedule I’ll actually get to spend some weekends with my significant other and have other adventures.