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.

Google Images
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
Google Images

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)