Sunday, December 12, 2010

Deep In The Heart Of Wilson Creek

MST – Day 30 – 9-15-10 – Highway 181 to Forest Road 464 – 14.3 Miles

Time to get back on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail with Danny. Our Linville Gorge plans were thwarted back in June and for the time being we chose to skip that section as we revised our strategy. Little sister to Linville Gorge, very scenic and nearly deserted in mid-September is the Wilson Creek area. My son and husband talk with misty eyes about Boy Scout expeditions to Wilson Creek, waterfalls, swimming holes, grilling steaks that they have backpacked in. I was finally going to see it!

Danny and I met at Mortimer Campground as our base camp for hiking in Wilson Creek, a nice little spot with hot showers and flush toilets and a couple of serious compounds set up with pop-up campers and tarps galore. How do you get to Mortimer Campground? Well, just take Brown Mountain Beach Road for a few miles after it turns to gravel and turn left at 90. This area of our great state of North Carolina has not seen pavement. Most all of our driving while based at Wilson Creek was kicking up dust and gravel.

Our first hike began from Highway 181, the main road from Morganton, NC up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. 181 is a sort of dividing line between Linville Gorge and Wilson Creek. And believe it or not, we are still in Pisgah National Forest. National Geographic Map #779 for Linville Gorge/Mount Mitchell is essential for hiking this area. Some trails have names per the map and there is intermittent signage. As always, the white dot blazes were a lifeline for us, even on fallen trees.

An amazing view of Grandfather Mountain - we will continue to spy on the old man for the next 150 miles

 Bowman's root

Pink turtleheads

 Cardinal flower

Wilson Creek is a wilderness area and camping is allowed. Scot Ward’s book points out established campsites – they are numerous and well- situated. The key feature of this neck of the woods is water, water and water. Ironically, we never hiked along Wilson Creek itself, but we became intimately acquainted with Upper Creek, Raider Camp Creek and Harper Creek. Scot also notes many fords, and when Scot says “ford” he means wet feet. We decided to skip carrying water shoes and go all in – the day was very hot and the water would be refreshing. Because of the relatively dry conditions I was able to rock hop more than a few but four of them got the better of me. One was up to the hem of my hiking shorts and even higher on Danny.

Do you see the gator
lurking at the surface?

One of many pools along the way

Today was an easy hike for the most part as the trail switched between easy track, deep trenches and old roads. We made one small mistake and kept straight but soon backtracked to a left turn, where the trail changed character, becoming very narrow and steep – more interesting but more treacherous – or is it more interesting BECAUSE it’s more treacherous?

We ended the day at Forest Road 464, yet another gravel road.


Old railroad tracks from logging days

Busy beavers create dams along Harper Creek

 Yellow jacket nests were everywhere along the trail

What a hidden treasure - an unnamed waterfall on Harper Creek.

Wilson Creek exceeded my expectations, maybe because I love hiking along creeks, maybe because the skies were blue and the sourwoods were changing to red, maybe because we were still catching some late bloomers – or maybe I was just happy to be back in on home turf. There is no place like the North Carolina mountains.

Read Danny's story about the day here.  

Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.~ Winnie the Pooh

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sea Caves

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Trip – 9/4/10 - Day 8 – Lakeshore Trail at Meyers Beach - 10 miles 

The last day of this big adventure at Lake Superior. First stop: Gruenke’s for breakfast! A different table, totally new view of the restaurant’s atmosphere, fantastic veggie omelets and fluffy pancakes. Now we were fortified for a trip to the Apostle Islands Visitor Center.

We were curious about the sea caves that we had missed on our kayak day. At the VC we saw an excellent slide show of the sea caves visible from the Lakeshore hiking trail at Meyers Beach – decision made! The rangers described the hike as muddy (maybe for normal people but not for us) and the turnaround at about three miles (again, for normal people but not for us – we stretched the six-mile out-and-back hike to ten miles).

The Apostle Islands are an archipelago, an island chain, of 21 islands. The steep sandstone walls of the mainland fronting on Lake Superior along Meyers Beach and on some of the islands can rise over 50 feet above the lake. Sea caves are carved from the sandstone by the relentless wind and waves and ice. Formations called windows and arches are also formed on sandstone that juts out into the lake. Sea stacks occur when the sandstone rock erodes between closely spaced joints. Click here for more info and great photos of sea caves.

The Lakeshore trail undulates around curves, at times jutting out into the lake to look back at the caves, at other times skirting the edge of the cliffs:

Sea caves (photo by Jeff)

Me on the edge of a cliff

Neil on top of an arch

A window

Wonder how that tree is hanging on?

Mike on top of a cave - would have been awesome to paddle in and out of them

Sea caves

Eventually the trail swung away from the shoreline (turnaround time for the normals) and we followed the trail looking for its end point on our map, near a backcountry campsite… or is it a beach? Or both? At this beach we took a lunch break and then some of us turned back while some looked for the connection between the beach and the alleged backcountry site.

 By the time we regrouped back at the cars the day was fading and we went back to Bayfield in search of our last meal. This being Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, a few thousand other tourists were also hungry so we had some wait time before we pulled up chairs to our table at Maggie’s. Our server was an older gal who needed a night off, but otherwise Maggie’s was lots of fun, especially if you like flamingos everywhere. Great food, a beverage or two, and then it was time to retreat to our luxurious cabins and cram stuff into duffel bags for the flight home.

Our North Shore/Isle Royale/Apostle Islands trip was a unique adventure that just gets better with the telling. I am so very fortunate to have the time, money, health, energy, friends and understanding spouse combo that makes it possible for me to enjoy these wonderful national treasures.

How to shake the let-down from a fabulous trip? Get back on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail!

 “Take nothing for granted. Not one blessed, cool mountain day or one hellish, desert day or one sweaty, stinky, hiking companion. It is all a gift.” ~ Cindy Ross, Journey on the Crest, 1987

Monday, November 22, 2010

Love Many, Trust Few, But Always Paddle Your Own Canoe

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Trip – 9/3/10 - Day 7 – Sea Kayaking

All night the wind howled and tents flapped. I was pretty sure we would not be paddling today on Lake Superior. Outfitters near the Apostle Islands will not rent you a sea kayak unless you take their orientation class, so we were part of a guided tour with Living Adventure. When I made (nonrefundable) reservations they emphasized that they do not cancel for rain but wind is a different story.

Wind notwith- standing, it’s time for wet suits and an alternate route. Our original hope of kayaking in and out of the famous Apostle Islands sea caves was scuttled in favor of the more protected Red Cliff Point shoreline near the outfitter’s base. In addition to our group, there were six other brave souls who paid a significant chunk of change to paddle on Gitche Gumee. We had plenty of gear to keep us warm, hats, gloves, and fleece under the wet suits.

Our pre-trip instructions were cheerfully delivered by our seasoned college student age guides, Zack, Chris & Jennifer. Key words to remember were “dude,” “right on,” “sweet” and “cool”. The surfer dude vernacular was so pervasive that it became part of our own for the remainder of the trip. And the guides were really very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna and all things paddling and kept up a steady stream of information sharing all through the day…sweet…(plus the guys were not at all hard to look at…)

Partners in kayaks: Cathy/Mike – Kim/Neil – Sharon/Jeff. Jeff should have been in the rear because he is stronger, but I enjoyed this first opportunity to work the rudders. Despite the lessons about using my waist to pivot rather than my arms, I still finished the day with exhausted forearms. No, Jeff, I swear I was paddling (nearly) every stroke right along with ya…

We were awed by bald eagles, Jeff’s first sighting ever, and cormorants, a first for me. One of my favorite childhood books was Island of the Blue Dolphins – remember how Wonapalei made a dress out of cormorant feathers?

Lake Superior is a graveyard for many shipwrecks. We explored the ribs of the ill-fated Fedora as our guides gave the background story. At various points we could see several of the Apostle Islands at once, Oak Island, Hermit Island, Stockton Island. This is a paddler’s paradise, but in the height of the summer season there are boat shuttles to help you hop from place to place. Some of the islands have lighthouses and hiking paths. (Note to self: this area is a great place to return to.)

Kim and Neil modeling paddling skirts

Jeff and me

Around the last bend, the wind worsened and the waves grew noticeably choppier – a quick turnaround and some strong paddling and we landed near Frog Bay for a not-too-soon lunch stop. Our guides unpacked a folding table, spread it with a tablecloth, served up hummus and wrap sandwiches, apples, granola bars and cookies – a little bit of luxury on a cloudy, drizzly day. Yes, sunshine would have been nice, but we were getting wet anyway, right? So this really was the best day for rain on our trip. Except for that part about peeling out of the wet suit to take a potty break behind a tree…
Jennifer, Zack and Chris ~ lunch is ready, dude!

Back near the take-out point, we grouped together to get a lesson on how to paddle onto the concrete ramp and get out of the water. For fun, Guide Chris demonstrated a full roll in the chilly waters. We taunted Zack until he did one too – a round of applause for both!

We changed clothes, gathered our piles of wet stuff and prepared to leave. We noticed our guides were cleaning up all the equipment in the rain and agreed that they had made the difference between an okay day on the water and a fantastic fun paddling experience in the rain. We pooled money and gave them a very big tip that brought smiles to their faces – beer money! Sweet!

With plenty of daylight we drove on to our last accommo- dations for the trip, “luxury” cabins at Apostle Islands Area Campground near Bayfield, Wisconsin: no lights or heat but dry and cozy and bathhouses nearby with lights, flushing toilets and free hot showers (hot being relative). Gals shared one cabin, Jeff and Neil shared the other, while Mike opted for his custom home-on-wheels. No one snoring in there but him!
Jeff is pretending not to be tired

Back in Bayfield, we chose dinner at Greunke’s Restaurant. This place was very eclectic, old album covers on the walls and movie posters everywhere, mismatched place mats, silverware, dishes. Another lake trout extravaganza appeared and we ate off each other’s plates until all the food was gone. I guess we can’t do that when we get back to the office…

After dinner we walked around Bayfield, talked to a couple of shop owners, and asked another outfitter what he recommended we do for our last day: go back to Little Sand Bay? Go to Meyers Beach and hike along the tops of the sea caves? Take the shuttle over to Madeline Island and Big Bay State Park? Stay tuned…

One day an Eskimo sitting in his kayak got chilly; but when he lit a fire in the craft, it sank, proving that you can't have your kayak... and heat it too.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

God Is Great, Beer Is Good, and People Are Crazy

Isle Royale Backpack Trip – 9/2/10 - From Michigan to Wisconsin via Minnesota 

Cathy and I woke up at almost 7:00 a.m. to the sound of Mike creeping into the shelter to retrieve his food and cooking utensils. Great temps for snuggling down in the sleeping bag and we had all morning to get ourselves together.

After breakfast and packing up we walked up to the Visitor Center to kill time while waiting for the ferry, which was not due in until noon. I only wanted to do the walk once. I carried my loaded pack while wearing my yellow Crocs, a very stylish look. I thought my Crocs might get noticed, but as usual my Liberty hat drew all the attention.

At the camp store we scored pieces of apple pie (Jeff and I ate ours right away), then sat in the VC writing up notes about the trip and browsing through books and posters. Another camper came in to report a wolf sighting right outside her tent in the Washington Creek group camping area. The wolf population, currently around 25, is carefully monitored and any sighting is a very big deal.

Under the shelter by the docks an Isle Royale ranger conducted a program on the Park's moose population and winter ticks. His presentation was excellent for such a non-sexy subject and included audience participation where we drew “blood” from a jar with an eyedropper (water with red food coloring). I hope I don’t come back in my next life as a moose.

At last the ferry was ready to go and we waved goodbye to our unique adventures on Isle Royale, a place I will likely never see again because there are so many more awesome national parks yet to experience. The ride back was not as choppy and I snoozed a little down in the enclosed cabin.

Back at our vehicles, we got gas and began the long drive back down the Minnesota North Shore on Highway 61 to our ultimate destination, Little Sand Bay Campground near the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin. Mike was driving and I was riding shotgun again, listening to one of Neil’s CD mixes like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates…you never knew what you would hear next. Mike skipped tunes he didn’t like, such as “Who Let The Dogs Out?” and we loved “People Are Crazy.”

The drive was frustrating for me as we seemed to chase the other car from place to place. We stopped at Betty’s Pies (Minnesotans do love their pies) and then got separated looking for a restaurant in Duluth. Communication was breaking down because we were all tired and decisions were being made by a few and not getting passed on to everyone else. It didn’t help that cell reception was spotty. At Grandma’s Restaurant in Duluth we had a good meal and tried to regroup. By then it was dark and we had a couple of hours more to drive and a campground to find. The short version of the rest of the day is that I had a meltdown at the lack of communication (which I was also at fault in). I talked with Cathy and Kim later that night and set things right, because I know they are not doing anything intentionally, but they assume that Mike is always going his own way and do not realize that I did not want to be lumped into that mentality – just because I’m riding with him doesn’t mean I want to be left behind - a lesson for the future. Why am I writing this here? (1) so I remember this when I contemplate another trip and communicate more clearly, writing things down if necessary, and (2) to warn others that I can sometimes be the problem child in the group (to which Mike and Jeff can attest).

This day of traveling ended with setting up my tent very late, bedding down at 11:30 p.m., knowing that we had to be at the kayak outfitter’s place by 8:00 a.m. Are we on central or Eastern time? And is it raining again?

Nobody trips over mountains. It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble. Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find you have crossed the mountain. ~Author Unknown

Monday, November 15, 2010

Moose On the Loose

Isle Royale Backpack Trip – Day 3 – 9/1/10 - Island Mine to Washington Creek + Huginnin Cove Loop Trail – 16.4 Miles

“There’s a mama moose and two calves in camp!” Mike whispered outside my tent.

I scrambled into clothes and Crocs, unzipped my incredibly loud zipper door and stepped out. There were Jeff, Cathy and Neil each standing by their tents and staring into the woods. Kim was sitting in the doorway of her tent and Mike was standing nearby. In the dim morning light (where the heck are my glasses?) I saw the dark outline of a very large moose and two smaller versions, standing still and eyeballing us right back. Mama moose was no doubt wondering why we were in between her and the creek. Had she ever seen a bright fuschia tent before? The calves were nosing around, tentatively taking a step or two from Mama but no further. We all held our places and our breath for about ten minutes and then suddenly…they were gone. Mama moose and her calves slowly turned and melted back into the woods, no sticks cracking, no leaves rustling, no sound at all. What a moment of reverence and grace! No wonder we haven’t seen any moose until now. I did not realize how quietly these magnificent animals move through the trees. Probably 50 moose have seen us pass, but this was our only sighting of them while on Isle Royale.

That makes two amazing wildlife moments that I’ve had while camping with Mike – the other one in the Grand Tetons last year. I think I’ll stick around him more.

Well, now we’re up, so let’s start the day. After eating and packing up, I followed Kim and Cathy out of camp. A half-mile away was our intersection with Greenstone Ridge Trail. Greenstone Ridge runs nearly the entire length of Isle Royale, 42 miles from Washington Creek campground east to Lookout Louise. We turned left and followed this easy boulevard of a trail back to Windigo and Washington Creek. Along the way we met a few day hikers. Eventually I dropped behind and was caught by Neil and we chatted about our kids, their good choices and bad choices and what they are doing these days. We marveled at the selection of fungi on the island. Before I knew it we were strolling by the turnoff to Washington Creek.

Here we had some options for accommodations. There are secluded small tent sites or group tent sites or shelters with wire screen fronts. Jeff and Mike chose to pitch their tents again, while the rest of us chose the shelters (hey, no wrestling with unpacking and repacking tents). Jeff and Mike put all their food and extra stuff in our shelter. Now for the most important business of the day: going back to the Windigo store to retrieve our duffel with clean clothes and to purchase tokens for the hot showers. One token costs $6 for a five-minute shower – I bought two just in case. And we remembered the delicious sandwiches from our first day, so we eagerly ran to the fridge to get some more…well, the selection had dwindled to cream cheese and jelly on white bread, but it’s amazing how good that tastes after a few days in the woods. The store lady was waiting on the ferry to bring food supplies. As we ate on the porch overlooking all of Windigo, I wrestled with the idea of doing another hike that afternoon versus, say, taking a nap. In the end we all opted to hike to Huginnin Cove via the loop of Minong Trail, East Huginnin Cove Trail and West Huginnin Cove Trail.

Once again I did not check the map to see for myself, so the 6-mile hike that Cathy advertised was really 9 miles. Huginnin Cove is on the northern side of Isle Royale and as it skirts the shoreline you can wave at Canada. This shoreline is more dramatic than what we had seen thus far on the island, high cliffs and pounding waves, a prelude to what we would see later on at the Apostle Islands. Again I was with Kim and Cathy as we arrived at Huginnin Cove campground and picked our way among the slippery rocks down to the shore. The water that had been so chilling all week felt downright therapeutic today and we sat with submerged feet for quite a while. The guys eventually caught up and we enjoyed another “sigh” relaxing interlude in the solitude that is Isle Royale.

From here on back to camp I walked with Jeff, who thankfully kept up a steady conversation about other hikes and future plans. By now I had caught on that this would be a 16-mile day and I was tired like a horse headed for the barn.

At long last: hot showers! There are three showers at Windigo, one of which was not recommended, so we lined up for the two good ones. Each is just a big concrete room with a door, no dividers, maybe a chair to put your clothes on. The idea is to get naked and be completely ready before you put in that precious token to start the water. One woman came out proclaiming that it was the best five minutes of her life…and I concur. And I didn’t even use my second token.

Jeff went in after me. Cathy and I were standing around talking and waiting for Kim to finish up. Suddenly Jeff popped his head out the door and said, “My token doesn’t work.” He looked like someone had just told him there is no Santa. I have never seen such disappointment on an adult face. Was it the shower or the token? I had just used it myself with no problem.

Jeff waited for the other shower and I gave him my second token (see, there is a God, right?). I am pleased to report that it worked fine and Jeff was a happy camper.

Kim and Neil

We had clean bodies, clean clothes, a little more food and a bottle of Red Guitar wine that had been squirreled away in the extra duffel bag. After dinner, we toasted another wonderful day in the backcountry while perusing my National Parks Passport map, telling stories about places we’d been (Mike: everywhere; Kim: only one state to go and she will be done with all 50 before her 50th birthday) and places we want to go next. Night fell, the temperature dropped and we snuggled way down in sleeping bags while visions of hot showers and ferries danced in our heads.  

In the woods we return to reason and faith. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Glimpse of Heaven

Isle Royale Backpack Trip – Day 2 – 8/31/10 - Feltdmann Lake to Island Mine – 14.7 Miles

Only 10 miles to hike today…or perhaps more? Everyone was up early and feeling better after a good night’s sleep. A nice surprise that we were all totally dry, no rain, no dew, not even moisture underneath our groundcloths. And a blue sky above…we must be doin’ somethin’ right! We ate breakfast, packed up, and left in dribs and drabs for our 10-mile hike to our next camp at Siskiwit Bay.
A rare sighting of the hiking girlz together - Cathy and Kim were usually way out in front of me

After a short steep section, Cathy and Jeff and I strolled on Feldtmann Ridge, easy hiking except for the high weeds. Just as I was wondering if this was the highlight of our scenery for the day, we found a spectacular view back down to Feldtmann Lake. Hikers enjoy looking back from other vantage points to where they’ve been (looking ahead is fun, too).

Jeff the photo- grapher

Grasses bending in the breeze alerted us that it would be windy at the Feldtmann Tower.

Feldtmann Tower

In fact, it was too windy to stay up there more than a minute. We took a snack break on the ground before continuing on our route.

By now Cathy was formulating an alternative plan. The hiking was easy and we would be at Siskiwit Bay by early afternoon. Why not push on to the next campsite on our loop? Although we registered our route as required with the backcountry office, flexibility is tolerated as conditions warrant. After all, Isle Royale is not exactly crowded with backpackers. If we continued on to the Island Mine campsite then our third day could be shorter and we would have time for more exploration of the Washington Creek area. Seemed like a good idea…

As often happens on a long hike, you find yourself walking with different people at different times. I was talking with Neil as he was photographing butterflies when we entered this magical birch forest that took our breath away. Thin white trunks swaying in the gentle breeze, papery peeling bark, knee-deep green ferns, glimpses of Carolina blue sky and puffy white clouds above: surely heaven looks a little like this.

At 1:30 p.m. we all arrived at Siskiwit Bay, a favorite spot for boaters and fisherman, although we were the only souls here today. In addition to group sites, there are three-sided shelters with fully screened fronts and (small squeal of delight) pit latrines WITH TOILET PAPER. You backpackers out there know what I’m talking about. The decision had been made to push on to Island Mine rather than stay at Siskiwit, but we lazed around for a couple of hours with our boots off, massaging toes in those warm red pebbles again, snacking, refilling water bottles and cat napping.

That's me out on the end of the jetty

Exactly why are we leaving this paradise? Oh, yeah, because it’s early…

Nice walk along the beach at Siskiwit Bay - Jeff is happy with his new stick

Beautiful goldenrod

Back into the woods

But who put these mountains here? It seems that Cathy reads mileage but not elevation gain, and we were no better because none of us pulled out our maps to look at topo lines until we were gasping uphill. The 4.3 miles to Island Mine was a killer.

One bright spot: Jeff’s GPS map that he had uploaded showed that there was a cemetery somewhere along this section and we found it. I spotted a chainsawed tree that appeared to be blocking a side trail, and about 50 yards through the woods we found this interesting setup. The graves are outlined in stones, but the fence is quite new. (When I asked a ranger back at the ranger station about these graves, he was very tight-lipped and would only admit that there were “probably” graves around since people did once inhabit the island in mining camps.)

Neil and I were the last to arrive at Island Mine and set up tents. The water source was skimpy, certainly not a big enough creek to dip Cathy’s 4-liter gravity filter bag into, so we dipped water with a cup into the bag. Improvising is part of the fun.

We boiled water for rehydrating meals and tasted each other’s dishes. Jeff finished off my dinner because I couldn’t hold it all and Jeff’s stomach is bottomless. For a surprise treat, I brought a Mountain House mocha mousse pie which we all shared, a few spoonfuls of chocolate heaven per person. At this point in the trip all worries about germs were abandoned and we would have shared one spoon if necessary.

Backpackers rarely build fires because (1) they are a lot of work (2) we are usually tired and ready for sleep and (3) Leave No Trace principles. Fires on Isle Royale are only allowed at established fire rings like the one at our Island Mine group site. On this rare occasion Neil built an excellent teepee fire and for an hour or so we sat mesmerized by the flames, telling stories and drinking homemade cherry wine given to Mike by friends. Cathy hung her jog bra on a stick and held it over the fire to dry marshmallow roasting style.

For the two seconds after I lay down and before I drifted off to sleep, I thought about how varied the day had been: the lookout tower, the birch forest, the beautiful bay, the tough climb, the firelight and the jokes. What a splendiferous day!  

Never know when you’re making a memory; they will wish they was here together again someday ~ Rickie Lee Jones