Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Porcupine Mountain Series Part 4: I Need A Trail Name

I came across a wonderful article in Adventure Journal.  I love reading AJ's stories about adventurers all over the world, and this one was written by a backpacker, Mary Emerick.  She captured what I feel about hiking in the wilderness.  "After about a week in the wilderness, I forget that there is a world other than this. There is only what happens out here every day: the 5:25 a.m. sweep of Cherry Pie’s headlamp under his tarp, the shoving of everything we carry into our backpacks, the first step onto the trail. This is my life now.  Mostly, we walk. We walk for all the hours that add up to a 21-mile day, up the passes and back down again, along the traverses and past the alpine lakes, each mile stretching into another. And because it is the North Cascades in late August, it sometimes rains, and we bundle up in soggy jackets and endure, until it stops. Then we spread out all of our gear to dry over talus boulders — a hiker yard sale."

Ms. Emerick also introduced me to something new about hiking in the wilderness; trail names. 
"Though my hiking partner, Scout, and I camp with him for days, we never know Cherry Pie’s real-world name until our last day, and he doesn’t know ours. We exchange only our trail names, monikers bestowed on us by circumstance and behavioral quirks. Other hikers we meet identify themselves as Diesel, Bambi, and Lorax.
We are a traveling tribe, bound together only by this slender ribbon of trail. None of us would meet in real life, but here we are kin. What we have accomplished at work, in our other lives — none of this counts. We size each other up instead by our daily mileage and the weight of our packs."
This is why I hike in the wilderness, to seek out people who share a common bond and know me only as I am when removed from the rest of the world.  But I usually tell them my real name.  I didn't know about the monikers.  I need a trail name.

Based on my most recent hiking experience in the Porcupine Mountains, a few come to mind, but none I would be proud to share.

I only had a few days in the Porkies.  While immersed in the wilderness of the Porcupine Mountains, I experienced inadequacies and triumphs, challenges and rewards,  wanting to give up and being glad I kept going.  I felt fear and peace, sometimes in the same moment.  Each trail offered something different, yet each trail left me with the same thought; I just got my butt kicked, and it feels good!  I must reflect on my time there and use the experience to identify myself to other hikers.

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The first trail I hiked was the Government Peak Trail.  I chose it for the close proximity of the trailhead, assuming any trail with "Peak" in the name would take me up a mountain.  The total distance of Government Peak Trail is 7.3 miles, with the first mile consisting of a challenging hike on rounded cobble left over from the glacial Lake Duluth, which no longer exists.*  About 1.75 miles up the trail, I encountered a level opening in the virgin forest, with an unexpected swath of sunlight, a wet, marshy bottom, and an extremely narrow path through tall grasses and wildflowers.  In other words, prime snake territory.  Even with my Hunter boots on, I experienced a burst of panic, and literally pushed Rooney the Newfie through the next 50 feet at breakneck speed, not breathing until I reached the top step of a wooden bridge over the wettest patch.  I felt like a rodent in a field of 1000 snakes, but the magical powers of my incredible snake-repelling boots kept me safe. Potential Trail Name:  Mouse

Once past the unexpected snake pit, the trail gradually heads up again, hitting Trap Falls at the 3 mile mark.  At Trap Falls, you can see signs of friction created within flowing lava, called banding, in the rhyolite, and also look for andesite.  Both are leftovers from millions of years ago when volcanic eruptions formed the mountains.*  Another three miles brings you to Government Peak, the second highest point in the Porcupine Mountains at 1,850 ft.  Continue on to the South Mirror Lake junction, or turn around and go back to the trailhead, as I did.  You might, however, want to avoid stepping on a loose rock and sliding halfway down on your bottom, as I also did.  Potential Trail Name:  Slider

The next day I hiked The Escarpment Trail, which is my favorite so far.  You can see evidence of glacial activity here; look for striae (scratches on the rock from glacial movement) and glacially-smoothed rocks that cap the basalt on the escarpment.*  If you begin at the Government Peak trailhead, and take the Escarpment Trail from there, you will hike 4.3 miles to Lake of the Clouds, which gives you the opportunity to see this unreal beauty from a more private vantage point.  Portions of the trail are also virgin hardwood and hemlock forest, which I came to love on my hikes.  So much so that while hiking and looking up at the closed canopy, marveling at its intricate patterns and thin shafts of sunlight fighting to break through, I walked smack dab into a centuries-old Hemlock.  Potential Trail Name:  Tarzan

I hiked the lovely 2 mile Presque Isle loop, with its stunning waterfalls, and the Summit Peak trail, a 250 ft ascension from the parking area to a 40 ft. tower on top of the highest point in the park, the 1,958 ft Summit Peak.  Breathtaking views captured my attention, but the day so far was without incident to foster a trail name.

With a couple of hours of daylight left, I decided to top off my day with a hike to Overlooked and Greenstone Falls.  Again I found myself in a virgin Hemlock forest - they are so majestic! - and took some time to climb down the banks, sit on glacial boulders, and absorb the grandeur of the cascading water.  As I hiked further on, I tripped and stumbled my way around the exposed tree roots, looking around to see if any other hikers witnessed my clumsy trek.  Potential Trail Name:  Tripsy

Eventually, I made my way to Greenstone Cabin.  Unoccupied, I was able to peek in the windows, sit
on the porch, and envision a life lived here.  The simplicity of it took me to another time, long ago, when hard work produced sustenance and the closest relationships were with God and family.  I breathed deeply the air of my ancestors, feeling their triumphs and tragedies in every rush of wind, hearing their voices in the trees, and remembering their strength as solid as the rocks in the river.  I lingered in another time until eventually I noticed the sun moving toward the horizon.  I had to get moving.

A bit further down the trail, I crossed a wooden bridge to the Section 17 Cabin.  I think I would like this one, because it is a ways off the trail and would offer privacy from hikers.  On the return trip, as Rooney and I walked across the bridge, without warning he jumped in the air and threw himself to almost-certain injury toward the river, nearly pulling me with him.  He hit the water, splashing and drinking happily, while I waded in from the other side to retrieve the handle of his leash.  Potential Trail Name for Rooney:  Marley

I had made it my goal to hike as much of the Porkies as I could in my short time there, so on my last day I drove to the Lake Superior Trailhead, knowing I would not be able to cover the entire 17.1 miles of it, but hoping to get about 7 miles in before turning back.  As I was letting Rooney out of the car, a park ranger pulled up and asked about the dog, as most people do.  We chatted for a bit, when the ranger asked me if I had seen any sign of the wolf on the Escarpment Trail.  Wolf?  Umm, no.  He said there is a pack of wolves that live further south, deep in the wilderness where trails are sparse and people are few, but they had kicked one of their members out last year, and the lone wolf was known to  live on the escarpment.  He had caught a flash of him the day before.

Ah, well, I was not so lucky.  Determined to stick with my plan, I bid the ranger good day and headed down the Lake Superior Trail.  I made it 400 ft. before turning around and heading back to the car.  I wanted to see that wolf!

Rooney and I spent the entire day on the escarpment, but found no tracks, no scat, nor did we hear any growls or howls.  But just knowing he was there, and I was there, brought me a sense of contentment like I rarely experience.  Maybe he was watching me, looking for weakness or power, letting his instincts guide him deeper into hiding.  My own instincts were telling me the time had come to go home.  Potential Trail Name:  Walks with Wolves
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As Mary Emerick concludes her article, she tells the same story that every person who has ever lost, and found, themselves in the wilderness feels upon leaving.  "Despite the rain, the lingering soreness in my feet, the weeks without a shower, I am not quite ready to be done. There is no buffer between our time on the trail and the next day’s Greyhound to Vancouver. We linger for a time in the last clump of trees, but eventually we just have to do it, take our last steps out to the road.

I both want this and I don’t. I love the wilderness time as much as I want to see my husband and our dogs and our cabin in the woods. I want to blend the two worlds I inhabit even though I know they will forever remain separate.
The best I can do, I realize, is to take a kernel of wilderness time with me: the patience, the awareness, and the acceptance that wilderness gives me. On a day awash in meetings, deadlines, and screaming headlines, I vow to remember what wilderness has taught me."

The many lessons I learned in the Porcupine Mountains came home with me.  The answer to my own
question, what should my trail name be, becomes obvious as I reflect on the experience.  I can be strong enough to weather the storms, and when they've passed, I can raise my arms up to soak in the light.  I can use the wind, the rain, and the sun equally to keep growing and stand strong.  My feet are planted firmly on the ground while my soul rises above my body in joyful gratitude.  These things remain, even after I leave.  Who am I on the trail?  My name is Hemlock and I will not fail you.

*The Last Porcupine Mountains Companion, Fifth Edition by Michael Rafferty and Robert Sprague (2012, Nequaker Natural History Associates)

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Porcupine Mountains Series Part 3: We All Need Something To Hang On To
Boots.  Tall, rubber, waterproof boots.  That was what I needed.

About three years ago, I saw a picture of my beautiful and very fashionable niece wearing a pair of Burberry boots at a tailgate party.  I was fascinated with her boots.  They looked so…safe.
Then last summer my nephew, who had been pouring concrete, dropped by my house wearing tall rubber Muck boots.  I kept staring at his feet, thinking they looked so safe.

Do you ever get an idea in your head that has no basis for credibility but you believe it anyway?  You believe it because you have to?  This is what happened to me with the tall rubber boots.  I got this idea in my head that if I wore tall rubber boots, the snakes couldn't get me.  I came to believe that if I wore those boots while hiking, the appearance of a reptile with no legs would not throw me into a complete panic, because my boots would protect me.  Snakes can't suddenly cross over your foot and climb up your pant leg when you're wearing tall rubber boots.  They can't strike at you through thick rubber.  The boots would keep me safe.  I believed it, I needed that thought to hold onto, and I knew I would never experience a completely peaceful hike without those boots.

But the boots are not cheap, and since I am always stockpiling my money for gas to take my trips to the U.P. of Michigan, boots were not in the budget.  At least, not until my compassionate husband surprised me with a pair of Hunter boots, complete with fleece liners.  They…are…awesome, as is my husband.

Armed with my tall rubber boots, I headed into the Porcupine Mountains with confidence.

Since I spent my first day in the mountains not hiking while I dealt with a shredded tire on the tin can, I had ample opportunity to meet other hikers in the campground.  Asking each of them where they had hiked so far was always accompanied with an inquiry into the snake population out there on the trails.  The 4 Guys had hiked the entire 17 miles of the Lake Superior Trail in one day, and saw two snakes.  The hunter had just emerged from several days of backcountry camping; he saw lots of snakes.  When I asked the couple next to me if they saw any snakes on the Presque Isle trails, they casually replied "oh, just a few".

The freakishly warm weather in October was keeping the snakes of the Porkies active.  No worries; I had my boots.

The next morning, after the sudden storm of the night before, I walked Rooney early.  Wearing my Hunter boots, I headed up the drive through the campground to a field where Rooney could sniff all the bushes.  Along the way, there was a short stretch of road that had deep brush on either side, with tall grasses and wild flowers.  As I strolled through this wild alley, I saw something on the ground.  Upon
closer inspection, I realized it was a snake, which had come out of the weeds seeking the heat of the asphalt after the storm, only to be flattened by a late night arrival of an RV to the campground.  I'll be honest; my heart did that little skip-a-beat thing it does, but I stayed calm.  I had my boots to protect me in the unlikely event that the early morning sunshine would breathe life back into the flat snake.  I kept going, with even breaths and a new-found confidence.

However, stepping foot on the Presque Isle trail gave me pause.  I mean, these snakes would be alive.  I pulled myself up by my boot straps - quite literally - and hiked with confidence.  Over the next several days I hiked many miles on
many trails.  The only time I took my boots off was when I went to bed each night.  They were comfortable, kept my feet dry in muddy areas, and warm.  Most important, my boots removed my fear.  I didn't want to see a snake, but I didn't worry about it either.
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The funny thing is, I never saw a single snake, except for the dead one in the drive of the campground. I think I am the only hiker that was in the Porcupine Mountains that week who never came across a snake, which leads me to believe my boots have magical powers.  They don't just protect me from snakes, they scare them away!  Hey, we all need something to hang on to.

I love my Hunter boots, and I love my husband for getting them for me.  Next year, I might even hike the Cedar Swamps.  Okay, no I won't.  I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid!

Cedar Swamp, Porcupine Mountains
Courtesy of Google Images

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Porcupine Mountain Series Part 2: Dr. Seuss Would Like It Here!
One of my favorite books is Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"  I have been many places, both in body and in mind.  Some were great, some not so much.  But when I live in the tin can and go outside I am often reminded of this book, and have found that I do not need to travel far to find the best places.  For me, they are all in my home state, Michigan.

Once I have the tin can hooked up to my car, and Rooney in the back seat, and I am driving on the highway headed north, I think not just of the places I'll go, but the people I'll meet.  I always meet plenty of people on my tin can trips that are just like me.  They don't care who I am, or what I've done, or how much (or how little!) money I have; they are drawn to me, and I to them, by a common love
of living in the wilderness.  No one I meet on a hiking trail has ever asked me what I do for a living.  Often they don't even ask my name.  They are not concerned with who I am outside of the wilderness, only who I am in that moment.  We share stories of our adventures, talk about what we have seen that day out in nature, and form an instant bond born of our similar experiences.  I have met some amazing people!

I was nervous about going alone to the Porcupine Mountains, because the wilderness area is far removed from cell phones, gas stations, grocery stores, and hospitals.  Help, if I needed it, would be far away.  So it was that I experienced a moment of panic when I pulled the tin can into my camp site to discover one of the tires was completely shredded.  I asked a Ranger if he had any advice for how to get a new tire, and he gave me the number of a guy who lives 35 miles away who might be able to help.  I couldn't call him, though, because I didn't have a cell phone signal.  Fortunately, another camper overheard my conversation with the ranger, and said he and his buddy would help me.  They jacked up the trailer, took the wheel off, found the spare tire, and sadly told me the spare was the original one from 1970, and useless.  But they knew the area well, and sent me an hour away to a shop in Bessemer, with very good directions, where I met a life-long Yooper and really good guy.

Jim, from C & M Oil Company, took one look at my tire and said,

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"Oh ya, you don wanna be driving on that, eh?"  He pointed out that I really should have radial tires on my trailer, and proceeded to put a new, much better tire on the wheel.  When he brought it back out to me, I showed him the spare, and he put the same new tire on that as well.  Then he said,

"Ya, these here new tires are bigger than yer old ones, yer gone want ta put da spare on da other side, you betcha."

Alrighty, then.  I worried that eventually I would need the third tire for the spare, so we agreed that on the day I left the mountains, I would drive back to Bessemer and get a third tire put on the wheel.  That way, I would have two new tires on the tin can, and a spare, and they would all be the same tire.

Jim was really nice, and went out of his way to make sure I would be safe.  He only charged me for the tires, no labor.  And he agreed to meet me early at his shop later in the week, to get me back on the road at a decent time.

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When I left Bessemer, I stopped at a Michigan Roadside Area.  In the U.P., there are no Rest Areas like downstate, where there is a big parking lot and nice bathrooms with flush toilets and electric lights.  U.P. Rest Stops consist of pulling on the shoulder of the road to park, and using an outhouse.  I will, however, say that Michigan outhouses are very clean, always have toilet paper, and many use composting to keep the odor and fill line low.

I stopped there to let Rooney out of the car for a walk and a potty break.  We wandered behind the outhouse to a narrow trail in the woods, when we heard a low growl.  The hair on the back of my neck stood up, Rooney immediately went into defensive stance, and my hand went to my gun.  A rustling in the branches produced an old geezer, complete with white beard to his belly, flannel shirt, and a missing tooth.  I laughed and told Rooney to relax.  The growl had come from the old man's sled dog team, tied up in the woods.

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He had been driving and camping for three weeks in an old, beat-up VW van with his sled dog team.  He's from Alaska, where he has lived for the last three years in a small cabin with no utilities.  He chops his wood for heat and cooking, grows his own food, hunts for meat, and is completely self-sustained.  I asked where he was headed, and he told me he hadn't seen his wife and family in three years, so he was going home to southern Michigan for a visit.  His life-long dream had been to live in Alaska, but his wife did not want to go with him.  She stayed behind to run his business.  I naturally asked what kind of business he has, and he casually replied,

"Oh I've made millions.  About 50 years ago, I got the idea to sell deer urine to hunters.  Now we manufacture the stuff and sell to all the outdoor stores, all over the world."

Huh.  Millions, eh?  I guess the money really doesn't matter to him.  But if the Discovery Channel ever decides to produce a reality show about him, I think they should call it Piss Posh.

I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the old man, he had to have been at least 85.  He patiently answered all my questions about living off the grid in Alaska and told some great stories.  I wished him well and went on my way, but I will never forget him.

Back at the campground, my new friends returned to help me put the wheel on, and I was good to go.  I may have lost a day of hiking, but it was worth it to experience the friendly help of strangers and meet the old man.

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That night, a storm blew in.  As it approached I took Rooney for a quick walk, and passed by a campsite with 2 tents and 4 guys.  I stopped and asked if one of them had been playing "Amazing Grace"  on a harmonica the night before.  One of the guys raised his hand, and I let him know how much I appreciated hearing the mournful notes drift on the wind to my campsite.  The 4 Guys had anticipated the storm, and they were the only campers to have a massive tarp hung over their campsite and a fire going.  As the rain started, I ended up sitting by their fire with them and hearing their story.

The 4 Guys had been destined to be friends since birth.  They grew up together, married each other's sisters, and are now raising families of their own together.  The bond the 4 Guys shared was deep and strong, and I found myself longing for that kind of closeness and companionship.  They made a pot of coffee over the fire and shared it with me, and told me how the raccoons had gotten their cooler and they had little left to eat.  Long time outdoorsmen making a Rookie mistake like leaving the cooler out made them that much more real.

We compared notes about hiking trails, told funny camping stories, and waited out the storm.  When I went to bed that night, I was grateful to have been given the gift of their friendship, if just for a moment in time.

Everyone I meet in my travels to the wilderness is of a special nature.
They all prefer to be outside, away from society, and all appreciate the miracle and wonder of the balance of nature.  Living simply, for whatever time they can get, and loving all of life is what these people share.  I think Dr. Seuss would have liked it in the wilderness, and if he had written a book about my travels, it might have gone something like this:

Oh, the people you'll meet
when into the wilderness you go
Some are tall, some are short
Or small, or big, some "just so"

You will meet ones who are rich, and ones who are poor
But none of that matters, who cares?
They have no need of money or things
When getting lost in the middle of nowhere

Oh, the people you'll meet in the wilderness
When you hike on the shore and the trails
They all have the same smile, as they walk and they see
Through the sun, rain, snow and gales

They are young, they are old
and everywhere in between
They all know so much of the world they are in
They all know what it means

The people who come to the wilds each day
Are all seeking the same thing
The people you meet deep in the woods
Have hearts that know how to sing!

Oh, the people you'll meet at the end of the day
When you're tired and achy and weary
Some will be smart, some will be not
But each loves the wilds so dearly

They will tell you their stories
Which sound just like yours
When you live in the wilderness
There are no walls and no doors

Oh, the people you'll meet who know how to be free
In the wild where space is a given
The calm ones, the excited ones, all of them know
Being in the wilderness is livin'!

Some will come happy, some will come not
Some will be angry or tired or sad
But once in the wilderness none of that stays
They will forget the life that they've had

Oh, the people you'll meet when you walk in the wild
All put one foot in front of the other
They are never alone, no matter their troubles
In the wilderness we walk with each other!

On my last night in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Park, I took Rooney along the Lake Superior shoreline to climb and jump the rocks and watch the sun set.  Coming up over a steep rock, I was startled to find a man, sitting in a camp chair on top of the rock, beer in hand, quietly watching the waves.  Not wanting to interrupt his reverie, I apologized and tried to move on, but he invited me to share the sunset with him.  Rooney and I sat on the big slab of rock, and the man and I told each other about our time in the Porkies.  We had seen many of the same things that week, but had not crossed paths until now.  I found a sense of peace sharing a sunset with a total stranger who understood me better than any of my friends at home.  We fell silent, and as the sun hit the distant horizon with a sizzle and the waves lapped at the rocks, I was content.  Oh, the People I've Met! who have enriched my life for mere seconds.  They all have a place in my heart.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Porcupine Mountains Series Part 1: Hallowed Hollow Ground

I like trees.  This is a bit of an ongoing argument at my house, because Scuba likes to cut down trees.  I understand his concern with things like pine needles and leaves clogging eaves troughs, and roots
infringing on the driveway.  However, I always point out the trees were here first, so I win.

If I could get Scuba to take a day-long hike through the Porcupine Mountains, I might be able to change his way of thinking.  A long time ago, before settlers arrived in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, those lands contained 81 million acres of undisturbed, closed-canopy forest.  About half of this land consisted of forests of sugar maple, eastern hemlock, yellow birch, American basswood, northern red oak, and eastern white pine.  Today, less than 0.2% of these hardwood-hemlock forests survive as virgin (never been logged) forests.  The largest of these virgin forests is in the Porcupine Mountains, with 35,000 acres of relatively undisturbed hardwoods and hemlocks.*

I only saw a fraction of that while hiking the Porkies, but it is really something to see.

It's not that portions of the Porcupine Wilderness has never been logged.  In the late 1800's, tracts of land were purchased to log the white pine and cedar stands.  Sadly, remnants of the logging era still remain today, where century-old pine stumps can be seen all along the Lake Superior shoreline.*  But the difficulties of logging in this wilderness area pushed the logging barons to other places by the early 1900's.  As technology advanced, some logging activity took place until the early 1940's.  The last logging operations in the Porcupine Mountains occurred in 1953-1954, after a wind storm left a blowdown of centuries-old trees between the mouth of the Big Carp River and Summit Peak.  After the storm, park officials contracted with Connor Lumber and Land Company to salvage the timber in exchange for land the park wanted.  When the salvage of the timber was complete in 1954, the Michigan Conservation Commission declared the Porcupine Mountains a Nature Reserve, thereby protecting the remaining virgin stands from further logging.*

Darkness in Daylight
My favorite tree is the Hemlock.  When hiking on Government Peak trail to the top of a
mountain is halted by a majestic 400 year old tree, I can't just walk around it.  I must take a moment to study its solidity, its gnarled roots visible below my feet, yet stretching deep into the mountain rock for stability.  Standing under its branches, I am awed by the darkness at the height of day, the mighty Hemlock blocking the warmth of the sun, yet radiating its own heat down on the earth.  I am humbled by its strength, inspired by its endurance, and joyful at its beauty.

As I hiked, I noticed from time to time my footsteps made a hollow sound, like I was walking on a drum, and I wondered about it.
Later, a visit with Bob Wild of the DNR shed some light on this phenomenon.  The mountains are a result of millions of years of volcanic eruptions and tetonic plates moving around, and have a strong foundation of rock.  The Hemlocks traveled through pollination and took root in the glacial deposits and rock, but the roots necessarily grow down through the earth.  In various places, especially where the virgin Hemlocks stand, the root formations under the rock have created pockets of air, or hollow places.  At first I found this unsettling, but Bob explained that the roots serve to strengthen the framework under the ground.  He pointed out that the "hollow" ground on which I walked felt very hard and solid.  As my time progressed in the mountains, I came to think of these areas as walking on hallowed, hollow ground.  Bob liked my description.

Those same roots, exposed above the crust of the mountain, act like fingers, reaching out to claw and grab.  It is entirely possible that a lone hiker could find herself having some difficulty navigating the Hemlock roots, which brings up the age old question; if a hiker stumbles and trips her way up (and occasionally, back down) a trail, but no one is there to see it, did it really happen?  So I found myself being quick and light of foot, following in the steps of my American Indian ancestors with speed and agility on my hike.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

The entire 7.3 mile hike up Government Trail was made worth it by the rest stop I took at Trap Falls.  Stumbling…um, I mean, gracefully stepping, into a designated backcountry campsite, complete with a bear pole, and finding a rustic outpost of the most delightful design, was a much welcome respite from the hike.  Many others who had traveled this way before me had created an outdoor home complete with chairs, tables, fire pit, and the soothing sound of Trap Falls cascading into the Carp River.

Rooney ran down the steep bank to drink from the cool, clear water, while I sat on a log and drank my bottled water.  I looked up, at the mighty Hemlocks.  I looked over, at the bear pole where countless hikers have hung their food.  I looked around, at the natural impression in the mountain that gives a small but flat place to set up camp.  I looked down, at the water flowing over and around ancient rocks, and I thought "God is good, and Michigan's DNR is awesome."

I stayed longer than I should have, but found it difficult to leave this magical speck of earth.  As I climbed up the steep bank back to the trail, a Hemlock branch was there to give me a hand up.  In gratitude, I saluted the tree, and envied its post.  To be a sentinel over this beautiful mountain, and this very spot where people seek shelter, is a duty that can only be given by God.

Eastern Hemlock can be found throughout the park.  They can live 500 years or more, and reach 100 feet in height.

Arriving here from the eastern Allegheny forests 3,000 years ago, their thick canopy of needles provides not just shade from the sun, but shelter in the winter, attracting deer in the snowy months.  Hemlock stands become deer yards during the winter, where the deer feed on buds and needles.  The tannins in the needles and bark of the Hemlocks also creates the reddish-brown color of the streams and rivers in the park through runoff.*  All through my hike up to Government Peak, I marveled at the Hemlocks, seeing the effects of them everywhere I looked.  They are a living, dynamic presence which urged me to keep going, even as I tired.

Root growing over Rock
I found a sense of inspiration in the woods.  The Hemlock will not be daunted, giving me the idea that the next time someone challenges me to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, I want to be a Tree!

Throughout my hikes up the mountains, I forged ahead, I reached the top, and I came back down.  I followed the rules, carrying out my empty water bottles and granola bar wrappers.  Because God has given us this amazing place, but the DNR, hikers, and nature lovers are bestowed with the responsibility of keeping it amazing, I was careful not to disturb the balance or leave anything but footprints, and possibly a little bit of flesh and blood from my leg, but that's a story for another time.  I hope that someday, my husband will walk the mountains with me, and see what I've seen, and never cut down another healthy tree again.  Then again, he usually cuts them down when I'm not home, so if I'm not there to see the tree fall, did he really fell the tree?  That's his story, and he's sticking to it.

*All of the historical and environmental information in this post comes from The Last Porcupine Mountains Companion, Fifth Edition, by Michael Rafferty and Robert Sprague, published by Nequaker Natural History Associates, 2012.   I strongly recommend reading this book prior to a visit to the Porcupine Mountains.  It will not only give you helpful tips for exploring the park, but will also enhance your understanding of what you will experience here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In the Back of My Mind…

I have an idea.  Whenever I utter these words out loud, my family groans and says, "Good God, what now?"  They know when I get an idea, it will become an obsession, and it will cost them.

There was the time I got this idea that I could be a professional photographer.

 Which I was, for a while.  Let's not forget the idea I had to take every photo I've ever captured, organize them, and make beautiful memory albums.  One year and several hundred dollars later, I completed the first of one memory album.  I once had the idea that if I joined the Junior Welfare League, I could learn how to fit in where I live, be part of a community.  I was eventually kicked out of Junior League.  They weren't ready for me.

But as I've grown older, I've gotten smarter, and these days, my ideas are better.  They are born of my true passions, so naturally my ideas are more possible.

How about when I got the idea to buy a simple camper at a cheap price to have a place to sleep, off the ground?  Actually, that idea turned out great, at least for me.  Even though my husband, Scuba,  has put a considerable amount of time and money into the tin can over the last 14 years, he knows it's been worth it.  I may have
completely renovated the trailer, but it still feels simple.  My family feels better about me going to the ends of the earth (or the U.P.) knowing at night I am locked inside with heat, water, and a bathroom.

But one of my better ideas was born when I was a child, and rekindled when I read Joseph Heywood's "Woods Cop" Series, about a Conservation Officer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  Even though his stories are fiction, the place is very real.  I found myself drawn to the U.P. again, wanting to see and
feel and experience this wilderness and be a part of it.  So I got this idea to travel there as often as possible with the tin can, live in the wilderness for brief periods, and write about it.  I can't say it has brought me any success, but it sure has brought me a lot of joy and peace.

Most of my ideas cost money I don't have, and involve me being away from home.  Ice climbing (which was awesome), kayaking, hiking, camping, taking pictures, and writing are all things that make me a better, stronger person.

This latest idea came to me during my most recent trip.  After years of dreaming and planning, I finally made it to the Porcupine Mountains, though all my planning did not prepare me for the awesome beauty and wild nature.  I spent my days hiking with Rooney, climbing mountains, splashing through streams, and seeing the most beautiful and complex ecosystem that has survived for over a million years, untouched by human intervention.  It is a wild and free place, and gave my soul wings.  I wanted to stand at the top of the Escarpment Trail and scream "I am here!" but found the silence too overwhelming to disturb.

I have many stories to tell, which I will over the next few months.  In the meantime, this idea is growing in my mind, and I've already begun researching ways to make it happen.

On my way into the Porcupine Mountains State Park, I made a quick stop at the Visitors Center.  My eyes immediately went to the shelves of books, and I bought two; a companion guide, and "The Porcupine Wilderness Journals", by Christopher, Stacey, and James Fralish  (Copyright The Stacis Group, LTD 2001).  In each of the rustic cabins available in the park for hikers, there is a journal.  Guests are invited to write of their experience in the cabin.  The Fralish family compiled a collection of excerpts from these journals, which I eagerly looked forward to reading each night by the fire.

Some of the stories were about small groups of women who endured challenges and struggles during their time in a cabin, but bonded and grew together from the experience.  I thought it would be amazing to hike here (all of the cabins have to be reached by hiking) with some female friends, but quickly remembered I don't have any friends who would be crazy enough to do it.  As I read more and more, it occurred to me that my favorite entries were from solitary hikers who came in the winter months to find absolute peace and quiet.

Hmmmm…three nights in a rustic cabin, with no water and no electricity?  Hiking in extreme weather with a heavy pack, and possibly pulling a sled, just to get to an isolated cabin that is cold and empty?  Having to find and chop firewood just to get warm?  Seeking a fresh water source for hydration and cooking?  Going outside at 3:00am to pee?  Sounds heavenly!
Dan's Cabin
The journal stories do not romanticize the cabins in any way.  They speak honestly of how difficult it is to get there, especially in winter, and how much hard work is involved once you have arrived.  Previous inhabitants wrote of the eerie silence at night, the total darkness, and the utter sense of being all alone.  There are tales of raging blizzards and deep cold.  But in all of the stories, there was an underlying sense of complete contentment.

I want to experience this hardship, and this contentment.  So the idea has been born, to go it alone in the winter to a remote cabin with no utilities or comforts of home.  Cell phone signals are nonexistent.  Computers and TV's have no place in the Porkies.  I've got the snow shoes and pack.  I just need a sled, water purification tablets, and canine booties for Rooney.  Oh, and waterproof matches.  And candles.  And courage.  But first, I need the courage to actually tell my husband about my idea.

I know what all the arguments will be.  He will urge me to go in the summer, when there are plenty of other hikers about.  But there are also plenty of snakes about in the summer.  He will worry about blizzards which would prevent me from getting out.  I am not known for being particularly graceful, so what if I fall and get hurt on the hike in?  These are all valid concerns, only because Scuba has never seen me in my own element, he has never watched me live alone in the wilderness, and he has no comprehension of how capable I am.  Not just capable, but I love a lifestyle of having to fend for myself while living off the land.  I will promise him to take every precaution possible.  But if it were going to be easy, why would I do it?  I want the challenge, and the misery of the cold, and the sense of accomplishment when night falls and my cabin is warm, my belly is full, and the quiet is absolute.

Trust me, it will happen.  I may not be able to convince my family this year, but eventually I will, because my idea is already becoming an obsession, and most often, my family gives consent just to shut me up.

Some people do not write stories in the journals; they draw pictures or pen a poem.  But one of my favorite entries comes from the Section 17 Cabin Journal, May 1974:

I came not to conquer and
subdue the earth
But to let the earth conquer
and subdue me

Wilderness Studies Club

When the time comes, I will be ready to be conquered and subdued.  See, I have this idea…