Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When Decisions Go To The Dogs

I've been reading several blogs, with lively commentary, regarding the definition of Adventure.  Some say adventure is doing things you've never done before, others say the purest form of adventure involves giving up a "normal" life to hike across New Zealand or kayak the Nile or some other such extreme endeavor.  True adventurists scoff at guided tours and companies that capitalize on the human spirit by promising adventure while doing all the hard stuff for you.

I don't fit neatly into any of those categories.  Most of my adventures come about accidentally, and almost all of them involve my friend Debbie, who is not an adventurer at all.

Every year in October, Debbie and I go camping together.  At this point I can't even remember how this tradition started, but in the beginning I tried to ignite a passion for outdoor adventure in Debbie.  She gave it the old college try, but our annual trip has evolved into a few days of Debbie reading by the campfire and me restlessly prowling around the campsite.  Debbie knows how to relax and unwind; I do not.

This year I told her we would be camping in Petosky, Michigan, because Petosky is synonymous with shopping, restaurants, and luxury hotels.  I figured if she equated camping with Petosky, she would be more likely to enjoy the experience.  But camping is camping, and the Petosky State Park is a world away from the posh downtown area.  Throw in four straight days of torrential rain, and we had ourselves a true outdoor camping experience.  Sorry, Debbie.

By the third day, I was very restless, wanting to explore and hike and find myself immersed in nature.  Debbie and I had walked 25 feet away from our campsite to look for Petosky Stones on the beach.  But I found that foray into nature boring, so I left Debbie to go walk the dogs.

Because dogs are domesticated animals, they generally are not as adaptable as wild animals.  In other words, dogs are creatures of habit, and my big dog, Rooney, was having difficulty in this new environment with his digestive system.  To put it bluntly, he hadn't pooped.  In three days.  I was a little concerned.

Normally, when I take Rooney camping (which I do often), on our first morning in a new place I will walk Rooney until he picks a spot he likes to take care of business.  Every day for the remainder of the trip Rooney will go to that one spot each morning for his daily constitutional.  Even though there was a nice wide trail right behind our Petosky campsite, a 2 mile jaunt with plenty of weeds and underbrush, Rooney hadn't taken advantage of this perfect spot.  So after fifteen minutes of staring at the waters of Lake Michigan looking for that one special stone, I announced to Debbie that I was going to walk the dogs down the trail again, in the hopes that Rooney would find relief there.  I said to Debbie,

"I will be back in about 15 minutes."  Famous last words for someone who has a tendency to get lost in the woods.

As I walked the dogs down the familiar trail, Rooney pulled off on a side trail.  I thought maybe I should let him take the lead to find his spot where he was comfortable.  I left the decision of the direction of our hike to Rooney, thinking that we were in Petosky State Park; we couldn't possibly get lost.

We crossed the road that leads into the campground.  On the other side, the Yellow trail began and Rooney pulled ahead.  Had it not been such a pretty trail, perhaps I would have paid closer attention to the trail markings.  But at the first juncture I simply followed Rooney, and it wasn't until much later that I realized the yellow marker was in the shape of a diamond.  A DIAMOND.  For you non-hikers out there, that means the highest level of difficulty.

We climbed a very steep hill.  We went down another steep hill.  Then we plodded up a steeper hill, with the rain turning the loose soil to mud and the wet trees I had to use to pull myself up the hill were slippery to grasp.  I won't tell you that I slid back down a few times on my knees, because in my mind that didn't happen.  The dogs and I labored up and struggled down.  Finally, we reached a high ridge and I thought the trail had to be almost back to the campground.  But then, in a break through the trees, I saw something that made my heart drop into my stomach.

Earlier in the day, Debbie had wanted to visit a French antiques shop in Petosky.  We drove 2 miles down the State Park road, and another 5 miles on the highway to get to this shop.  Across the street was a four-story brick building that had been converted into a pub.  From the top of the ridge I was now standing on, I was looking down on the roof of the four-story pub.  I was 7 miles from my campsite!

I hadn't planned on this hike.  I had no water, no food, and no cell phone (not that it would have worked in the deep woods anyway).  I didn't even have a camera to capture the amazing beauty around me.  I debated about whether to turn back and re-trace my steps, or keep going.  Because the demon hills I was traversing were on a more direct route to the campground than the road, I decided to keep going ahead thinking it would be the shorter way to go.  We forged on, down and up, sideways, upside down once, looking for any sign of the end of this trail from hell.  After a particularly slippery slide down one ridge, I looked up to see a trail marker pointing to the easy yellow trail, and the campground.  I almost wept with relief.

We still had another mile to go to connect back to the original trail.  As the dogs and I plodded down the wide flat trail, thirsty and tired and soaking wet, I was anxious to get back and let Debbie know we were ok.  She must be worried sick!  I had no idea what time it was, or how long we had been gone, but it was much longer than the fifteen minutes I had told her.  I hoped she hadn't informed the ranger we were missing.  Oh geez, what if they were out searching for us?  Debbie must be frantic!

We literally ran the last 1/4 mile, I was so worried.  As we burst into the campsite, Debbie looked up from her chair and the book she was reading, cozy with a blanket, sitting by the fire that was still burning despite the rain because I had set an awning up over it, a glass of wine at her side, and she said,

"Oh.  Did you go out again?  I thought you were napping."

What?  We were missing for three hours and she didn't even know?  She thought I was napping?

With a certain amount of indignation, I told Debbie what had happened.  I also pointed out that if I were ever to get lost for real I guess I couldn't count on her to raise the calvary.  I sat in my chair to pout, drinking a gallon of water, when Rooney stood up, walked a few steps from the fire, and pooped in the campsite.  He found his spot.

It was a mini adventure, but an adventure nonetheless.  The terrain was difficult, I wasn't sure where I was, and no one else knew where I was either.  After consulting the trail map later, I discovered that I had only hiked about 3 miles total, not the 14 miles that it felt like, but with the level of difficulty I had a pretty good hike.  I saw beautiful scenery deep in the woods, and it was all good.

I don't seek adventure.  It usually finds me when I am least prepared for it.  Spending as much time as I do outdoors, it is bound to happen.  When I leave decisions to the dogs, it is a given that an adventure awaits.  But I like it that way.  Sometimes when I plan an adventure, it falls short of the vision I had in my mind, but when adventure happens accidentally, I have a story to tell and fond memories to keep.  Maybe that's the true spirit of adventure, just going out and seeing what happens.

The dogs were exhausted that night and slept deeply, as did I.  As for Debbie, she suffered a restless night of tossing and turning, feeling deep guilt over my struggles while she sat cozy by the fire, not noticing I was missing.  At least that's the way the story goes when I tell it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Conversations with my Mom

Conversations with my mom have always been...interesting.  I suppose the proper word would be frustrating, or possibly irritating, or just plain crazy, but I am trying to be a kinder, gentler person, so I will stick with interesting.

So it was, on a recent camping trip, that as soon as I pulled into the State park, and a huge, black snake darted out in front of my car, I immediately reached for my cell phone to call my mom.  But then I stopped myself.

I can tell you exactly how that conversation would have gone.  I would have said "Well, mom, this trip is not starting on a good note.  I just saw a huge snake."  Then she would have said,

"That's because you've got no business being there.  It's a sign.  You should stay home with your family."

I guess I would have preferred a more supportive comment, like maybe "you'll be fine, don't let it spoil your trip"  or even "you're okay, honey, now you've seen one and you won't see anymore".  But that's not the tone of conversations with my mom.

I didn't talk to her once on that trip.  I didn't call her when I caught a Walleye for dinner.  She would have told me to throw that stinking fish away, it wasn't safe to eat because I don't know how to clean it.  I didn't tell her about the breathtaking view of the lake, or the lovely privacy of my campsite, which would have led to a major guilt trip about how she never gets to go anywhere and I should stay home with my family.  I didn't reach for my cell phone after I met a lovely American Indian woman who spent an hour telling me of her connection to nature.  Mom would have responded with a story of the woman she met who lost her job and husband and was trying to raise her kids all alone on nothing, but at least she stayed with her family.

Many times on that trip I reached for my cell phone to call my mom, but stopped myself.  My mom passed away in June this year, and won't ever answer the phone again.

What really surprises me is how much I miss conversations with my mom.  She was critical, sarcastic, and way too involved with the smallest details of our lives.  If I went to the grocery store and didn't tell her, she got mad.  She worried, constantly, that something would happen to one of us.  She was never satisfied with the way I raised my own children, she told me how I should be a better wife.  I talked to my mom on the phone 5 or 6 times a day, every day.  She knew when I paid my bills, washed my sheets, and how much I spent on camping equipment.  I told her when I filled the car with gas, what time the kids' practices were, and what time we would be home.

It drove me crazy.  I swear, she knew how many times I peed in a single day.  Or at least, she thought she knew, because that was my go-to excuse for getting off the phone with her.  Mom called me to tell me she and dad were going out for breakfast (which they did every day at precisely 8:00am), then called me to tell me they were safely home, because she assumed I sat there staring at the phone, sick with worry, every minute that they were "on the road".  I didn't.  She called me each morning to make sure we had all "made it through the night".  Why wouldn't we?  And sometimes when she called, I gleefully let the phone ring, in a selfish ha, you don't know where I am move.  Then I would pay for it dearly as she called every five minutes until I answered the phone and she would start with "where in the hell have you been?"

Yet, I miss her phone calls.  I miss her voice.  Right now, I would give anything to hear her say, "Why are you wasting your time on that computer?  You never come see us anymore".  And I would give anything to shut down the computer, drive over to her house, and have a cup of coffee with her.

She was my mom.  She was the way she was for reasons I understood, and while she may have often left me wanting after phone conversations, she was always there for me.  When the chips were down and I really needed her, she came through every time.  Mom may have loved in a very unique, and often intrusive, way, but I never doubted that she did love us.  She always answered the phone.  Always.

I still reach for the phone to call her and tell her something about my day, and when it hits me that she won't answer the phone, its like losing her all over again.  Every day.

I suppose, if I could tell her that, she would say "Oh, get over it, I'm the one who's dead, how do you think I feel?"  Then I would call my sister and we would laugh and laugh at the outrageous thing mom just said.

From now on, conversations with my mom will exist only in my head.  But I can still hear her voice, I know what she would say, and I talk to her in my mind frequently.  I know, without a doubt, that she would be absolutely delighted to know that her words are still influencing me.  She would say, "you can't get rid of me that easily!"  For once, she would be right.

In loving memory of my mom.  Miss you.

 Margaret Sue Hensley
February 25, 1936 - June 15, 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Top 10 Things I've Learned About Camping

Since I started tent camping 25 years ago, and added camping in the tin can 10 years later, I've learned a lot about exploring outside and camping.  Some of these lessons will help readers who are new to camping or getting outside, and experienced adventurers will most likely be able to identify.  At least I hope they will, otherwise I am the most incompetent outdoor adventurer ever!  (Which actually might be true).

1.  Never leave your Mackinac Island Fudge on the picnic table overnight.

Chip discovers 5-Star Dining
This one is more important than you'd think.  Leaving fudge, or any other food, out overnight is an open call to all the creatures of the woods.  I only needed to spend one night in a tent listening to Rocky the Raccoon munching on my fudge, then rolling on his back with indigestion to learn the perils of leaving food out.  This same rule holds true for coolers.  Raccoons, bear, chipmunks, and other wild animals are rather industrious.  Put your food in the car or camper, folks, and this includes the dog's food.  Lets keep wild animals wild, and not habituated to people; that's when animals become dangerous.

2.  Never stake your tent at the bottom of a hill.

It was all fun and games until it rained
A newbie mistake, I was scouting out a campsite on a windy day, and discovered the hill behind me blocked the wind, making it easier to set up and keep the tent warmer.  But guess what windy days usually lead to?  Rainy nights.  All that water running down the hill has to go somewhere, and most likely it will all go into your tent.  If I wanted a houseboat, I would have bought a houseboat.  Put your tent in an open, high, flat area, away from trees and hills.

3.  Always carry a walking stick while hiking.

I visited Drummond Island once for a week, snowshoeing and hiking during a mild winter.  I fell in love with the island and its people, so while there I bought a hand-made walking stick from a local merchant, more for sentimental value than anything else.  However, that stick has been a lifesaver on a few occasions.  A clumsy hiker like me finds it very handy to complete my hike even after I've sprained my ankle or twisted my knee.  It also works as a snake beater.

4.  Never trust someone who says "Trust me".

"Is this CO 412? or  CO 423?  Didn't we already pass that fern?"
My friend Debbie will tell you that all of my reassurances that I know what I am doing are of little comfort when you've been lost for eleven hours on two-track after two-track that all look exactly alike.  The experienced outdoor people recognize that in the wilderness, things change but look the same.  Never assume you know where you are going or what lies ahead.  Be prepared, and rely on your own skills to get out of a perilous situation, even if the only skill you have is to carry an emergency beacon so trained rescue personnel can find you.  Been there, done that.

5.  Always look up.  TRUST ME.

I can't stress this enough; educate yourself about wildlife and their habits prior to exploring the wilderness.  When it comes to the elusive black bear, especially in Michigan, they are likely to avoid human contact if you follow the rules, therefore you likely will never see one.  However, when hiking, kayaking, climbing, or just sitting by the campfire, don't forget to look up.  Do NOT carry fruit and berries in your backpack, unless in sealed containers.  You might end up with a close encounter you are not prepared for.  Learn how to avoid wildlife.  A bear might look cute and friendly, but he would tear you apart for an apple.

6.  Always unplug your electrical cord before driving away.

Is that a raccoon hanging out of that camper?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but for a camper new to RVing and in a hurry to leave, you'd be surprised how many things you can forget to do before you pull out.  The good news is, you will only make that mistake once.  Seriously, you wouldn't believe how much damage can occur when you drive off with your electrical cord still plugged in and locked to your camper.  Always remember, all those people waving at you on the highway are not being friendly; they are trying to tell you something.  Check windows, doors, steps, hook-ups, and awnings before you leave.  The same goes for tent campers.  Those straps are called tie-downs.  Make sure the kayak on top of your car is, in fact, tied down.

7.  The macho men in the campground are there for a reason.

No carbon monoxide poisoning for me!
I used to get offended by the men who would rush to my aid every time I backed my trailer into a site, but I have gotten over it.  Those same men have, at times, kept me from hitting a tree, changed a tire on my tin can, fixed my propane leak, and found the tiny fuse that fell out of my battery.  Macho men in campgrounds are wonderful.

8.  Always follow the rules.

How many times have I been hiking a trail and seen something very
intriguing off the trail?  Yet every trail head has a sign posted, "Please Stay on the Trail."  This is a good idea for many reasons, but the most important reason is the environment.  Michigan's DNR and DEQ have worked very hard to preserve the delicate balance of nature for all of us to enjoy.  You might think one person walking off trail would be no big deal, yet you'd be wrong.  Follow all posted rules in the woods, wilderness, and waters.  They really are for your protection, and the protection of the beauty all around you.

9.  Always keep your dog on a short leash.

I used to have a furry tail.
There is a narrow, dirt trail that follows a high ridge line along the Big Sable River at Ludington State Park.  When camping there, I walk my Newfoundland, Rooney, every morning along this trail, with the river running below a steep embankment.  I always keep him on a retractable leash and let the leash out 12 feet or so while he runs and does his thing.  After several days of walking that trail, one morning without warning Rooney took off down the steep hill for the river.  After I ended up wrapped around a tree about halfway down, still clinging to Rooney's leash, a macho man once again came to my rescue, pulling me and my dog back up to the trail.  Even if you have a well-behaved dog, the leash rule is important, because someone else might not have a well behaved dog (like me), and there are wild animals out there.  Keep your furry friend close by your side, unless you are sitting by the campfire.  Rooney has caught his tail on fire 3 times while sitting at my side.  It took us awhile, but lesson learned.

10.  Carry duct tape.

Even camping in a well-populated campground can bring unexpected challenges.  Be prepared for just about everything you can imagine going wrong, and a few things you haven't thought of yet, though eventually you will.  Weather, drunk campers, animals, equipment failure, and an aging, forgetful mind can lead to all kinds of potential disasters.  When the disasters come, make sure you've brought your sense of humor and an extra bottle of water along, but most importantly, always carry duct tape.  A fresh bottle of water and a full roll of duct tape can solve 99% of your problems while camping and enjoying the outdoors.  Hole in your boot?  Duct tape.  Sudden downpour?  Secure a natural shelter with duct tape.  Broken fishing pole?  Duct tape.  Leaky tent?  Duct tape.  Loose wire on your camper?  You know what to do.

I am sure as time goes on, I will discover many more tips for surviving outside.  But these are the top things I've learned so far.  Do you have anything to add?  I would love to hear your stories and advice!

Happy Spring everybody, and Go Outside!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rifle River Recreation Area: You Always Remember Your First Time

Sometime soon, when this long winter is finally over and the first week of sunshine and warmer weather is predicted, I will just up and leave my home.  With a tin can hitched to my Yukon and my dog at my side, I will drive north to Rifle River Recreation Area to live for a few days in my beloved woods.

I haven't been to Rifle River since 1998, but I have wanted to return there since my inaugural trip with the tin can.  After years of tent camping, I was ready for something a little more comfortable, but still looked with disdain at the RVers who "pretended" to camp while living in the lap of luxury.  I wanted to sleep in a warm and dry bed, but was unwilling to let go of the simplicity of tent camping, so I bought a tin can.

The 1970 Airstream Landyacht is not nearly as fancy as its name suggests.  Back then, it needed a lot of work, had no hook-ups, and some questionable upholstery.  But it had a bed and a roof with only one leak.  It was all I needed.

In late September 1998, after hours of instruction from my husband on how to back up a trailer, I hit the road for the first time pulling a trailer.  Driving up the highway, with my dog hanging out the window, I was on cloud nine!  I kept thinking "I'm doing it! I'm pulling a camper and going all alone to live in the woods!"  Maybe that doesn't seem like much, but I had never camped alone before, never pulled anything attached to my truck, and never felt so free.  I remember that later, my husband told me a truck driver he knew had seen me on the highway and remarked that I was pretty awesome to go alone like that.  I felt so empowered!
Photo Credit: Dave Case
I chose Rifle River Recreation Area for that first trip because it wasn't too far away, but off the beaten path.  Upon arriving, I was pleased that a few campers were there (I wasn't ready to be ALL alone) but they were spread out.  Of course, as soon as I started backing the tin can onto my site, five guys in hunter's camo and orange hats materialized from nowhere and began shouting instructions to me.  All they did was confuse me.  I had my method, and though I was slow to back in, I wanted to do it by myself.  I'm sure their intentions were good, but seriously, leave me be.

I hand cranked the trailer off the hitch, got her level, and hand cranked the stabilizers down.  It was raining, and chilly.  But once I had my site set up, I walked the dog, returned to the camper, and changed into dry clothes.  Sitting in the camper that first night, listening to the rain ting!  on the tin can, with a hot cup of soup and a lantern to light the pages of my book, I realized that maybe RV camping wasn't such a bad thing.  I was pretty cozy.
Photo Credit: Dave Case
The next day dawned cold but sunny, and I did some exploring.  Rifle River is a gem, with over 4000 acres of exploring, ten lakes, countless streams, and 14 miles of trails.  It plays host to fishermen, boaters, kayakers, hikers, bikers, and swimmers.  A 3-story observation tower presents sweeping views of the area.  Birders will keep busy with field guides and binoculars.  There are highland hardwood and pine forests, grasslands, lowland forests, cedar swamp, bog, and marsh.  There is also plenty of open water.  Hunting and fishing are permitted.  Rifle River Recreation Area has something for every lover of the Michigan outdoors, even offering modern camping and rustic sites.

Wildlife viewing at Rifle River includes deer, grouse, woodcock, duck, goose, and rabbit.  In season, hunters are welcome.  The park is also open to trapping for muskrat, beaver, and mink.  Anglers come to the area for trout, as well as yellow perch, bluegill, rock bass, and  northern pike.  Permits are available at Park Headquarters.
Photo Credit: Dave Case
Love waterfowl?  Look for Trumpeter Swans and Loons, but not too close!

Rifle River is even open in the winter for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling.

I spent my weekend at Rifle River exploring streams and trails during the day, and relaxing by a fire at night.  Late September is an excellent time to go;  its not too cold yet, and there are not many campers.  My first trip alone in the tin can brought to light a truth for me.  I can go anywhere, do anything, and be outside learning from my experiences in nature.  Even the coyotes fighting in the woods behind my tin can didn't bother me.  I was safe and secure, and could listen to their howls and yips as part of the symphony of the night woods with joy, not fear.

Since that trip, I have revised my opinion of RVers.  It doesn't matter if you are in a tent, or a Class A Motorcoach, or anything in between.  Campers all have one thing in common; they love to be outside.  Over the years I have added many updates and amenities to the tin can, and expanded my horizons by sometimes camping in State parks with hookups and showers, sometimes choosing State forests with an outhouse and shared water pump.  I can go anywhere in the tin can, depending on my mood.

I am eager to return to the Rifle River Recreation area, the place where my tin can adventure began.  It was the beginning of my journey as a part time wanderer, not to mention the place where I learned my first valuable lesson as an RVer.  Make sure the windows are firmly latched before hitting the road! And I thought all the people waving at me on the highway were just being super friendly.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Timing Is Everything: Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

A long time ago, my husband told me that all of life's happiness is due to timing.  When you do the right thing at the right time, good things happen.  After 6 months of planning a winter trip in the Porcupine Mountains, in Michigan's western U.P.,  it turns out my timing was all wrong.  Then again, my timing couldn't have been better.

This pretty much sums up the entire experience of snowshoeing through the Porkies and staying overnight in Yurts during the winter:  Extremes.

It turns out, a winter Yurt only has two temperatures; hot and off.  

Winter in the Porkies means you are either surrounded by dense forest, or in the middle of a vast emptiness.  

The terrain is either up, or down.  Snow is thigh deep and fluffy, while ice is flat and hard.  A gale force wind blows all night, then the sunrise brings an eerie calm.  Everything is extreme.

Another extreme is the level of difficulty I experienced, though this is not true for everyone, including the two young couples I met who bounced over the trails in their snowshoes while I labored with each step.  They carried everything they needed in packs that I know were heavy, but seemed not to burden them, while I huffed and puffed and fell down pulling my sled full of so many things I didn't need.  Perhaps experience is still the greatest teacher, but youth is the greatest student.

Maybe I wouldn't have struggled so much had my timing been better, but several things were at play.  A week before my scheduled trip, my dad had an accident which put him in the hospital where he received frustratingly substandard care.  It quickly became obvious to my mom and me that we would be responsible for his care, not the hospital staff.  Between making sure Dad was never left alone at the hospital, and running Mom to oncology appointments, and checking in on my 95 year old Grandmother, while trying to keep up with things at home and see my husband and daughter each day, I was exhausted.  It was an emotional week as well, and by the time everyone convinced me to go ahead with my trip, which I was ready to cancel, I couldn't think straight or see straight.  I was so worn out and tired.

Then, the day I was scheduled to leave, we got an ice storm.  I stayed up late the night before packing my sled and backpack, then started out the next morning.  I made it 10 miles out of town on the highway before turning back.  The roads were pure ice, and I just couldn't handle the drive on top of everything else.  I came home upset, discouraged, and thinking that there were an awful lot of signs that this trip was not meant to be.  My husband said to just wait one day, then try again.  My dad begged me to go.  My sister promised she would take care of things in my absence.  So I tried again the next day.

The next morning, school was cancelled.  So how do I leave my young daughter home alone all day?  A friend called and invited her over.  For every sign that said "Don't Go", a solution appeared.  I left.

After 8 1/2 hours of driving on icy back roads because the highway was closed, I had made it to Gaylord, about 58 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge.  In normal circumstances, I would have reached Gaylord in 3 1/2 hours, but there was nothing normal or even reasonable about that drive.  I found a hotel and hunkered down for the night to wait out a blizzard the likes of which I have never experienced.  My second day of driving wasn't any better, but I forged ahead and reached the Porcupine Mountains Headquarters with an hour of daylight left.

Once I had checked in with the Ranger and parked my vehicle at the trail head, all I really wanted to do was curl up in the back seat and sleep for a week.  What was I thinking, believing I could handle this winter excursion?  I gathered what little strength I had left and pulled it around me in a shroud, and set off on the groomed trail.  In about an hour, it would be fully dark, and Bob Wild, Park Naturalist, was busy on the trail filling lanterns with oil and lighting them for the Saturday night lamplit ski.  I took great comfort knowing he was close by, because I will admit to being uneasy about pulling my sled alone through the woods.  Bob pointed out the ungroomed trail to the Yurt, which I would have missed, and I left the safety of Bob's domain to break a new path, alone, to the Yurt.

It was very cold.  I was dressed properly and working hard to pull the sled and navigate the deep snow in my snowshoes, so I stayed warm, but my fingers and toes were cold.  It didn't take long to reach the Yurt, and God bless the previous occupants who had left me plenty of split wood for the stove.  Inside, I made fire my first priority, as it was just as cold inside the Yurt as it was outside, 8 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.  Without removing any layers of winter wear, I unpacked my sled and pack, gathered snow to melt on the stove for water, then stoked the fire up and left to join the lamplit ski tour.

It was dark inside the Yurt, and really dark outside the Yurt.  Again asking myself why I was here, I turned on my headlamp and started back the way I came, terrified at every sound until I realized that most of what I was hearing was other people.  Other people meant safety.

Every Saturday night in February, Bob Wild lights the lanterns and people come from all over to ski or snowshoe the lamplit trail to the warming shelter, an outdoor bonfire, and hot chocolate.  Some of the people are staying in various shelters throughout the park, while many others come from nearby.  I met some amazing people, people who didn't think I was crazy or particularly adventurous to be there alone.  They were people like me, who believe that snowshoeing through the Porkies in the winter and staying in a Yurt is just something to do, no big deal.  I felt like I belonged.  I actually did belong.

I returned to my Yurt about 10:00pm, this time feeling overwhelmed by the peacefulness of hiking alone down a barely marked trail after dark.  I almost went right past the Yurt, I couldn't see it, but I could see millions of stars winking at me, whispering a calm encouragement.

Remember those extremes of which I spoke?  Opening the door to the Yurt, I was hit with a forceful blast of heat.  Ten minutes later, I was stripped down to my underwear and standing in the open doorway trying to cool off.  It was a sauna in there!

I thought that if I kept the fire low in the wood stove, I could reach a comfortable temperature, but that first night I discovered that the Yurt was either stifling hot, or as cold as the outdoors.  There simply was no in-between.  Reading the Yurt journal, I was pleased to see that all previous hikers complained of the same problem, so at least I wasn't stupid.

I lay there that first night, thinking my timing was all wrong.  My parents needed me, I had driven
through one of the worst blizzards in 20 years, I was exhausted.  Many of the tasks required of me called for energy and strength and I struggled to collect firewood that was buried under 4' of snow, carry out my garbage to the bear-proof container, cook outside in subzero temperatures, and snowshoe through the mountains.  I did it all, but my limbs were tired and none of it came easy.

Then again, I was in the Porcupine Mountains in the middle of one of the coldest, snowiest winters ever recorded.  You might think this is another item for the "bad timing" list, but this is what actually turned out to be the best timing possible.

How many people can say they walked on Lake Superior two miles from shore?  How many people can climb on top of a 6' wave and stand there, only to slide down the back side?  How many people will willingly hike for days with the temperature below zero and the 45 mph winds creating a feel of -30 F?  It is unusual for Lake Superior to be 90% frozen, and I picked the best winter to experience her in a way few people ever will.

An awe crept into my days.  Awe for Mother Nature, the weather, snow,wind, and bitter cold.  Awe for the mountains, blanketed in deep snow, and then Lake Superior, frozen and suddenly reigned in from her fury.  There was awe for the fresh kill site in the deer yard, wolf tracks telling the story of life and death.  A curious pack of coyotes who came too close to the Yurt inspired me to be brave and trust that these wild animals had no real interest in me.  Mostly, though, I had awe of myself.  Little ole' me, who has always taken the safe route and lived such a normal life, was here, in a Yurt in the middle of the mountains during a brutal winter, surrounded by coyotes, and unafraid.

My husband was wrong.  The best things don't come from good timing, they come from believing.  

With elderly parents, kids, and a husband, it's not the right time for me to be an outdoor adventurer.  Yet, I believe the wilderness is pulling me to her, I believe there is a purpose for me that I don't quite understand, and I believe in myself.  I can be stronger, smarter, and a better example.  I can walk with wolves, stand on a tundra, climb mountains, and use these experiences for something good.

There is nothing special about me.  I am just like you.  But if you think you could never snowshoe in the Porcupine Mountains in winter and stay in a Yurt, or if you think you'd never even want to, you are wrong.  If I can do it, stumbling and frightened the whole way, you can too, and you should do it at least once, to believe in the balance of our natural world, believe in the role of every human, tree, wild animal, and body of water.  Most important, do it to believe in yourself.  But don't pull a sled.  You really don't need all that stuff!

For more information about winter hiking in the Porcupine Mountains, please visit the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park web page.  There you can find information for camping and activities in any season, and some great tips for a winter experience.  For a list of what you need to pack, check out REI's Winter Camping Essentials.