Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

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.