Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

I Got Lucky at Tahquamenon Falls

Every year, I venture to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to experience a real Yooper Winter.  All alone, I have hiked, snowshoed, crawled, and pushed my way through 3 feet of snow (or more) in sub-zero temperatures to live outdoors under harsh conditions.  I have driven in blizzards, witnessed a fatal car accident during a white-out, and generally been so scared and cold and miserable,  I question my sanity and motives.

But this year I got lucky.  When Mike Wendland, of Roadtreking: The Group, posted an open call to Roadtrekers for a Winter No Rules Rally at Tahquamenon Falls, I asked if I could join him, even though I don't own a Roadtrek or any kind of Class B Motorhome.  Mike assured me I was welcome.  I packed up my Yukon for a winter weekend of car camping and headed north.

I decided to leave a day early, giving myself time to figure out the whole "living in my car like a homeless person" thing before the others arrived.  I got lucky with clear skies, clear roads, and mild temperatures in the upper 20's, making it to the U.P. in a record 5 hours.  Arriving at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, I set up a small tent, placed a tarp on the floor, and created my own bathroom with the Luggable Loo, a folding table, and a bowl to pour hot water in to wash up.

The Yukon was then converted to a rustic cabin, with an electric extension cord running through the window, an electric heater set on high, and an electric blanket in my sleeping bag.  Everything I needed to survive was in the back of the vehicle, including warm layers of clothing, food, a Jet Boil Stove, jugs of water, a lantern, and a good book, which I never read because I was having too much fun all weekend.

At the suggestion of a Roadtreker from the group, I bought an insulating product called Reflectix.  For $23, I easily cut pieces from the roll to fit every window in my car.  It made all the difference in keeping the car warm with just a small space heater.  However, I didn't plan on spending much time in the car, so I started looking for the fire pit outside.

The staff at Tahquamenon Falls State Park had plowed enough sites for our group, one of the largest groups the park has ever seen winter camping on the same weekend.  Unfortunately, when they plowed my site, they buried the fire pit under 6 feet of snow.  I got lucky again when one of the rangers came by and gave permission for a ground fire.  With 30" of snow on the ground, it was a safe bet I wouldn't burn down the campground.  I dug a path through the snow, dug a hole, and started a roaring bonfire.  My evening was perfect.

The first night in the car was less than perfect.  I folded the backs of the rear seats down and spread a camp pad door-to-door, with a sleeping bag and electric blanket on top.  This left me no headroom, so my first challenge was undressing while lying down.  Once settled in the sleeping bag, I quickly realized that I didn't have enough room to straighten my legs, forcing me to sleep on my side.  Then my other side.  Then the first side again.  I tossed, turned, rolled, and contorted myself all night, never getting comfortable and sleeping little.  With the insulated windows and the space heater, I was too hot.  I turned the space heater off.  Then I opened the sleeping bag, tried to straighten the tangled mass of the electric blanket (while still lying on it), rearranged myself, and tried again.

I was up before daylight, just so I could stretch my legs and move my aching joints.  Opening the door and stepping outside, I was greeted with a winter wonderland.  Snow falling, complete quiet, sun just starting to rise.  I went for a walk, and met the first Roadtreker who had arrived last night, Malu from Canada.  We walked in the snow and got to know each other a bit, then started greeting other Roadtrekers as they pulled in.  Unfortunately, the temperatures were still mild and the falling snow was very wet, soaking my coat and boots.  By lunchtime, I was wet and chilled, and wondering how I would dry my stuff out.  I got lucky when Malu came to my rescue.  She invited me to sit in her warm Roadtrek for a cup of coffee.  I hung my coat just inside the door, put my boots in front of her heater, and sat back for engaging conversation and hot coffee.

Malu had traveled alone from Ontario, Canada.  Her Roadtrek was bought used, and she had made some minor modifications to fit her needs.  The Roadtreks aren't roomy, like a larger Class C Motorhome, but you can stand up straight, her modified bed was wider, she had a kitchen, and even a bathroom!  Because it was winter, all the Roadtrekers had winterized their vehicles, using water from jugs just like me and dumping it in a tub.  They flush their toilets with RV Antifreeze.  I was a little envious.

Malu and I stayed in her Roadtrek until my coat and boots were dry, then Mike Wendland, our
Jennifer and Mike
Photo Credit: Mike Wendland
Captain for the weekend, arrived with his wife, Jennifer, and Tai the dog.  We bundled up and went outside to greet them.  Others were arriving as well.  Everyone stood together, greetings exchanged, when a man walked up to us, not quite dressed for the weather.  It turns out, Darryl and his wife had driven all the way here from Georgia to experience their first winter.  Ever.  In their Roadtrek.  Awesome.

Photo Credit: Roadtreker Jeff Martyka
Dinner at the Upper Falls Brewery brought more new faces, all Roadtrekers who enjoy the freedom of simply unplugging their vehicle and driving off to the restaurant.  A nighttime walk to the falls, then a bonfire back at the campground, where I met my RT neighbor Jeff.  We didn't see much of Jeff, because this necktie salesman was off Fatbiking and snowshoeing and hiking, and even going solo to the falls at night to experiment with his fabulous photography.  At the first bonfire, one of us may or may not have introduced Fireball as a means for keeping warm.  We had a group of 25 hearty winter campers, all ready to play like kids again in the snow.

Sargeant Carolyn 
I got really lucky Saturday morning when I met Jim and Rhonda, who invited me into their Roadtrek for warmth and coffee.  Note to self:  One-cup coffee makers do not work with distilled water.  But once Jim figured out the problem and used regular water, I had a nice, hot cup of coffee with their dog, Cricket, in my lap.  We all got lucky with unseasonable temps in the mid-thirties, and throughout the day, we snowshoed to the lower falls as a group, with Sergeant Carolyn leading the way and not putting up with any foolishness.  Some of us did our own thing later, and I drove out to Whitefish Point, which was 20 degrees colder with a monster wind coming off Lake Superior, while others snowshoed some more, explored the area, or napped in their warm Roadtreks.  One Roadtreker, Jeff, even went exploring on his Fat Tire Bike.

Lake Superior at Whitefish Point
I've never been much of a "group" person, choosing to go it alone and welcoming the solitude.  But Roadtrekers are not your average group.  The No Rules Rally was quickly becoming one of my favorite trips of all time, due to the warmth and grace of the people who embrace exploring, new experiences, and lots of laughter.

There is good reason why they all travel in their Roadtreks.  I was welcomed into many of the Class B Motorhomes, and they are very comfortable.  I would have thought the smaller size of a home on wheels would feel confining, but through ingenious design, the Roadtreks feel spacious, even with 3 people and a dog inside.  There is much more storage space than I have in my Airstream Trailer (and certainly a lot more than inside my car!), with useful space conveniently arranged for ease.  The best part of a Roadtrek, though, is the versatility it offers for travel.  Completely self-contained, a Roadtrek allows it's proud owners the freedom to go anywhere, for long periods of time.  Many of the Roadtrekers modify their homes with solar panels, extra batteries, wider beds, and additional tables, which just adds to the ease of their travels.  They can boondock, which means they can park overnight (often free of charge) with no hookups and still have full functionality.  Because of their compact size, parking is not a problem, small campsites are easy to access, and a Roadtrek can handle the dirt roads that lead to some of the best places in America.

Photo Credit:
The people who own Roadtreks are even better.  Darryl and Taera bought theirs just to provide a place to sleep for their two dogs and cat while the couple stayed in hotels.  Vowing to never sleep in the Roadtrek, Taera didn't need much time to change her ways and embrace a life on the open road.  Hotels are a thing of the past for them now!  There were new Roadtreks and old Roadtreks, extended versions and compact versions.  RTer's use their Roadtreks to visit family without imposing, to go grocery shopping, or to carry artwork to a show.  Peter uses his Roadtrek to raise his son, Grant, with a sense of adventure and an appreciation for being outside.  Others load up their dogs and grandchildren for day trips.  And they travel to see America the way it was meant to be seen, by parking their home and getting outside.

Saturday night, while sitting under a brilliant canopy of stars and feeling the temperature drop rapidly, we enjoyed a final bonfire and shared stories of the weekend.  We were approached by another camper, who wasn't part of the Roadtrek Rally but had pulled a huge Fifth Wheel Travel Trailer with a Toy Hauler in the back into an impossibly small campsite.  He stood there a moment, and during a lull in the conversation, he spoke.

"I've been watching you guys all day.  While I've been trying to get my snowmobile to run and hanging out in the Fifth Wheel, you guys have been outside all day.  I saw you go snowshoeing, and hiking, and you stand outside around the fire.  I'm starting to understand that you guys have got it right, that what you are doing is the way it should be done."

Squirrel House
Photo Credit: Yan Seiner
He had a point.  Snowmobiling is fun, but you miss out on conversation, and the sound of running rivers and waterfalls.  You can't hear the snow falling, or the birds singing.  You don't see the squirrel run across your path and disappear into a hole, the way Yan did.  You miss the animal tracks and the ensuing debate over whether they belong to a Pine Marten or a Coyote.  You spend half your day kicking a machine that won't run, instead of laughing at yourself for snowshoeing on your derrière.

Yeah, I'd say the Roadtrekers got it right that weekend.  At the end of it all, Mike Wendland awarded me with a Roadtrek hat, making me an official honorary member of the Roadtreking Group.  I am both proud and humbled to be considered one of them.  I got lucky at Tahquamenon Falls, meeting such a great group of adventurous people and having a terrific weekend outside full of winter activities, laughter, and new friends.

On Sunday morning, the temperature was -6º F.  My bed stayed warm, but the heat didn't travel to the back of the Yukon, and my water was frozen, my propane heater was frozen, even my toothbrush was frozen.  The tent frame was frozen together, the Luggable Loo was frozen too.  I got lucky with milder weather most of the weekend, because if it had been this cold all weekend, I wouldn't have made it.  As I was using a clicker lighter to thaw the tent poles, I watched all the Roadtrekers unplug their vehicles and drive out, waving happily to me from their warm cabs.  Maybe, some day, if I'm lucky, I will be able to buy a Roadtrek and go anywhere, in any weather, and then just drive off.  For now, I will be content to bask in the warmth of new friends, new experiences, and new goals while I pack up my frozen stuff using fingers I can no longer feel and trudge over to the pit toilet as I longingly stare at the taillights of all the departing Roadtreks.  I can't wait for next year's No Rules Rally!
Photo Credit: Jeff Martyka

If you'd like to see a recap of our good times, check out Mike Wendland's video of the Roadtrek No Rules Winter Rally.  It pretty much says it all.

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