Tag Archives: hiking

Of love and lakes

We found ourselves on top of this bluff, only a short hike from the car. Canada was just a couple miles to the north. Lake Superior 30 to the east. A BWCA lake stretched out before and below us.

It was quiet and lonely, surprisingly so, being just a couple hundred yards from a wide spot in the gravel road and a sign marking the trail. Truthfully I could have used a bit more of a walk for the physical distance and exertion that might have paralleled the mental distance admiring such a view brought on.

A Whiskey Jack spotted us from down by the lake and we watched him fly toward us, and then up to the top of the cliff, where he fluttered from tree to tree, waiting for us to drop or offer just a single morsel.

We didn’t stay long. This vista was just a stop on a leisurely morning of wandering the Gunflint Trail. And the only thing that we knew of our uncertain destination for the night was that it was many miles from here. But, catching me by surprise, this place seemed like somewhere I could stay forever and never tire of the view.

And if that isn’t like life and love, I don’t know what is.

“The sere brown hills”

Sam above the treelineMy friend Sam is thru-hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail this summer, a 1,200 mile trek from the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park to the Pacific Ocean. I mentioned Sam on this blog once before, when he thru-hiked Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail back in 2005.

This trip is a serious undertaking. Sam started walking on June 21 and doesn’t expect to finish until late August or early September. So far, he’s been traveling up to 20 miles a day. He’s sent two e-mail updates so far, and it sounds like it’s been a great hike, though not without its challenges. He gave me the go-ahead to repost some of his thoughts here, so I’ll let him speak for himself:

Sam cooking by a creekThe snow that plagued my weary ankles in the high country of Western Montana and into Idaho is gone in all but the smallest little patches now. With the disappearance of the snow will also come the disappearance of some of the small snow-melt creeks which made stocking up on water so easy. I’ll have to pay close attention to “tanking up” with water when the chance arises and have made notes in my trail guides as to where the best water resources are in the upcoming miles.

I’m now in the sere brown hills of Eastern Washington which albeit not the tremendous peaks and valleys of Montana’s Rocky Mountains or Idaho’s Selkirks still hold their own in elevation gain/loss (especially compared with my homeland of Minnesota). The area I am about to embark into is not as highly developed from a recreational standpoint so more of my immediate travels will be on Forest Service roads than on trails. The roads provide good grade and level walking and typically are closed to vehicular traffic so they still provide for quality walking.

An alpine flowerI’ve seen some diverse landscapes, from the rocky balds and snow packed heights of Boulder Pass in Glacier National Park to the old growth cedar forests, complete with trees in excess of eight feet in diameter of the Salmo Priest Wilderness. Next is the drier hills of Easter Washington’s Kettle Crest with the deep canyons of the Paysaten Wilderness and the lush expanses of North Cascades National Park to follow. Alas, I get ahead of myself. I’ve much country to explore in Colville and Okanagan National Forests first and you’ll hear from me again mid-exploration of those lands.

Tomorrow morning I set off with eight days of food in search of Bonaparte Lake Resort (NE of Tonasket, WA) where I’ll pick up three more days supplies for a quick jaunt up to Oroville, WA.

Sam’s shelterA note on his method: Sam is a subscriber to the ultralight-hiking philosophy and counts every gram he carries and wears. For nine days of hiking (his standard interval between food resupplies) his entire “skin out” weight (everything) is a scant 36 lbs, 15.92 oz. As an example of the lengths he goes to to cut weight, rather than a tent, Sam uses a simple homemade tarp that uses his two trekking poles for support.

He also mailed home a memory card from his digital camera and his brother Scott posted the pictures online.

Winter in the Woods

We got snow. Three or so inches of the lightest, fluffiest snow fell last night and suddenly the world which had been brown and sickly for so long was white and soft. Corners were rounded and in today’s sun it sparkled like infinite diamonds. As the breeze tossed it from the trees, the very air shimmered in the sun.

To honor that great man of peace and justice, Martin Luther King, Jr., my workplace was closed. Rosie’s, unfortunately, was not. As such, Lola and I tagged along with Rainier and Sleepy and their friendly dog Quercus for a hike at Crosby Regional Park along the Mississippi River.

I had never been to the park before, but it is a favorite of theirs. I was very glad to be introduced to it today. When we arrived, there were perhaps 10 or 15 cars in the parking lots, mostly exultant cross-country skiers finally out on their boards on a glorious, bright winter day. Rainier and Sleepy were shocked at the number of cars, though I didn’t think it was that many. Apparently it’s usually much quieter.

With temperatures in the single digits, a distant southern sun in the sky, and the world bursting with pure, sometimes blinding, light, many people were very happy that it finally looked and felt like winter should.

We left the parking lot and walked along a trail with a small lake on our right side and a steep, wooded bluff above us on our left. Once off the leash, Lola was in heaven. She loves the snow. It is great to shove her snout through it, coming up with a muzzle coated in white, her whiskers frozen. And she ran and ran and ran. Up the hillsides, just to see what was up there. Ahead on the trail until I called her name and she would run back, stopping to smell something under the snow, then running ahead again, forging our path.

Our course took us along the lake and then another that adjoined it. The trail which had already been marked by a few cross-country skiers went the other way and we walked on through untracked snow. I took off my hat, my scarf, even my gloves at different times during the hike, it’s amazing what the pumping of the heart can do to keep you warm in cold weather.

Above us, out of sight over the top of the hill, we could hear traffic, but not too loudly. I don’t think I was alone in feeling far-removed from the world of the concrete and steel along our path in the snowy woods.

After a mile or so, we crossed an unplowed park road and went on into a bottomland of beech and cottonwood trees, with as many laying on the ground as standing. It was apparently very swampy under the snow but you wouldn’t know it with everything frozen.

It wasn’t long before we emerged on the banks of the river. To our left was the I-35E bridge, which I have driven across to work every weekday morning for more than two years. Every morning I look down at the river, it is always beautiful, always a different view, and it is always a brief, welcome escape from the artificial world I am driving toward. Every day I wonder what it is like down along the river. I watch as the water levels rise in the spring and reach the edge of the vegetation, as it sinks back down over the summer to expose more and more beach.

Now I was standing on that beach for the first time. I couldn’t believe I’d never come down here before. Again, I felt so very far from that rusing world of the highway. I will definitely have a new perspective on the view when I drive to work tomorrow.

We walked along the beach for quite some time, still not seeing anyone. Lola ran ahead and would disappear into the woods briefly, then come galloping back to my call.

Shortly after we went back up into the woods it transitioned from the big cottonwoods and the such to a tight forest of small pines. It was thick and impenetrable. Out of the tangle of wood a form suddenly emerged, the giant frame of a teepee, dozens of logs leaning into each other in a circle. There was no covering on it and no inner area, just a pyramid of logs.

Sleepy explained that this area had been home to the Dakota American Indians for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. When the whites came, they eventually made a prison on an island out from us where they imprisoned the Indians before expelling them from the land altogether. How awful, to be prisoner in your own home, then driven from it with no hope of having it back. Neither Sleepy nor Rainier knew anything about the teepees, they said they’d noticed them in various stages of construction, but never seen anyone working on them.

We slowly worked back toward the car, and slowly started to see more people. Never many, but here and there a skier or a couple hikers. We hiked through some more hardwoods and then came to the far side of the lake that we had walked next to on our way in.

Two skiers were crossing the lake length-wise and we watched them and then decided to walk back across it so we could walk out on the trail we’d come in on. Underneath the snow, the ice was hard, solid and perfectly smooth. Rainier and Sleepy said the previous day, before the snow, people had been ice skating on the lake.

It felt good to walk on some hard water. The warm temperatures of this winter have made that impossible before now. Being in the middle of a frozen lake, everything so white and flat, is a good feeling.

It wasn’t long before we were back at the car, having walked about four miles. And it wasn’t long before we were right back in the heart of the city, with bustling traffic and noise. My cheeks were flushed from the cold and the wind and I felt purified by the clean winter air.

I can’t wait to look down on my drive to work tomorrow morning and see my tracks on that snow-covered beach.

[tags]hiking, winter, minnesota, mississippi river[/tags]

Stomping

For Lene

There is that feeling almost everyone had when a small child: in a big store with your mother, you walking along, minding your own business, perhaps playing in racks of clothes or causing some other mischief. Suddenly, Mom is out-of-sight. Perhaps you walked up to another lady, so tall you can’t see past her shoulders, and pulled on her pants leg. Perhaps you panicked and wandered around, feeling the end of something.

It is a common, and important experience, that momentary feeling of lostness. Luckily, for most of us, it is fleeting. Though the seconds stretch on like hours when you’re small and powerless and misplaced, a mother won’t go long without wondering where her child is, and a mother won’t long wonder where her child is without finding him.

Therein lies the difference from being lost in the woods: your mom isn’t looking for you, or at least she won’t start doing so for quite a while…

I called it “stomping.” Not as in Hell’s Angels “stomping” but just wandering in the woods. It wasn’t hiking, it wasn’t climbing or even just walking. It usually involved finding trackless pieces of woods and field around Stillwater and wandering around them. Oftentimes the dogs Juno and Gus came along. Usually it was just me and Canoeman. Often it was on a Sunday afternoon. Winter or summer. I remember a particular “stomp” when Fisherman and Airborne came along, middle of winter, one of the coldest days, we went to William O’ Brien State Park on the St. Croix, down to the river and stood on the snow-free ice, the most ferocious wind blowing down river, us just standing there staring into it.

I digress. A night in late summer or early fall, around this time of year probably, Canoeman and I got together one night. It was dark, which wasn’t the norm, but added a new element to the stomp. We went to one of our favorite pieces of land, a couple square miles of federal land where we had frequently wandered. Going at night was a way to make the familiar new again.

We walked past the boundaries of our previous wanderings, going straight through the woods and over the hills, past two big waterfalls, dry now but thundering at certain times of the year, past the campsite and fire ring where we had drunk many a beer.

After a bit of stomping, we came to a fence. On the other side was a pasture or field of sorts. On the side where we stood was a typical stand of planted pine you’ll often find edging fields. Canoeman produced two tall cans of Guiness and we drank those by the fence. We had never been out here before, didn’t quite know where here was. Over a rise on the other side of the field a couple hundreds yards off were the lights of a house. Over the trees to our south we could see the smokestack of the coal plant on the river a couple miles downstream. It’s not pretty, but it’s a landmark for miles around the valley.

We stowed the empties in our pockets and hopped over the fence. We walked over the field and followed it as it tapered and melted into woods on its south edge. When the forest finally began again for real, it dropped abruptly. We scrambled down and found ourselves at the bottom of a deep gully as is common around there. It was damp and dark and quiet. We figured the way back was in the direction of up the gully. We clambered up the side, the foliage was strangely lush and the humidity thick, my glasses even fogging up. It felt like we could have been in a rain forest on this steep slope.

At the top of the gully were thick woods that we continued to crash through. Talking about the woods and about life. It was such an ordinary evening I don’t remember all the specifics. We found ourselves on flat land pretty soon, still going through hardwood forest. Then we were in a stand of pines that became quite uniform. We expected to be back near the cars pretty soon, or at least in some familiar woods. It was still very dark and we were quite surprised when we came to a fence again.

Actually, it was the fence.

We had managed to complete a very large circle thinking we were walking in a straight line, and come back to almost exactly the same point along the fence.

This threw us for a minute. I thought back to standing here a half-hour before and drinking those beers. Wondered if that might explain our problems with navigation. We looked south and saw the smokestack again. With that in sight, we had a general idea of which was south-southeast was. Our cars were south-southwest.

Canoeman produced a compass, we found south-southwest and after a little discussion decided on a general angle that should get us toward the road and our cars. Peering off into the dim moonlight, we spotted a clump of trees directly on that line and set off toward them. When we got there, we spotted another tree another 50 yards off and we stomped toward it.

Keeping this up, we crashed through the underbrush and up and down the little rises, pausing to consult the compass every minute or two. We went quickly, if only because we were eager to prove we could get out of this. Soon, our reference points began to lead us down a long gentle decline and then we were at the small, dry stream that we knew flowed over the first of the big falls just a bit downstream. Just up the opposite hills was the road and our cars.

We had emerged from our moment of confusion to chart a nearly perfect course back to safety. The woods were still dark and we were both a little tired, though worked up from the excitement, when we stepped out of the woods and onto the hard asphalt. I don’t know about Canoeman, but I might have even been a little disappointed that it had been so easy.

Distance

Rosie and I wanted to get out for a walk in some woods on Sunday afternoon, but we didn’t have the time to drive very far to get it or to go for a very long walk. The morning before I had gone to a meeting at the visitor center at the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge; I had never been there before and was surprised to find such a beautiful natural area only 10 minutes from our middle-of-the-city apartment. I didn’t find out anything about trails, but I figured there had to be some.

We went back on Sunday afternoon and a friendly volunteer pointed us in the direction of a trail that took us down the bluff and into the vast bottomland of the Minnesota River, less than a mile upstream of where it joins the Mississippi River. I’ve seen broad marshes and backwaters before, but this really blew me away. It is a sprawling land of oak savanna, marshes and a little bit of everything else.

Direction

I’m a sucker for juxtaposition. The wildlife refuge is probably less than two miles from the Mall of America, the largest indoor shopping mall in the country. It is also probably less than a mile from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The city of Bloomington is a first-ring suburb full of airport hotels and chain restaurants and lots and lots of pavement. I-494 running through the area (and on a long bridge over the bottomland maybe a half mile away) can be clogged with traffic at all hours of the day. The photo above is looking down the trail. The photo below is of the hotels looming over the area just behind. I wondered how many people who fly in to town for business, stay at the hotel, shuttle around in taxis for a day or two, eat room service and watch HBO in their rooms have any idea of the wildness below.

Juxtapose

Also very near the spot where those photos were taken was a cool dead tree that looked like a bony hand reaching toward the sky and a little creek rushing through the marshland. The creek tumbled down a little drop behind where I took the photo and we both agreed it was nice to hear the sound of running water.

Fingers

Location

We walked further on and came to the main channel of the river, which seemed very small in contrast to the sprawling valley it flows through. As we stood looking at the icy river, a man came along paddling a solo canoe. While we agreed that it took some serious guts to brave those frigid, funny waters where a small mistake could leave you very cold and in big trouble, it got our minds us looking to the open-water season ahead and the adventures of summer.

Balls

A ways further and we stopped and sat on the bank and had a piece of chocolate and talked about life. Across the relatively narrow river channel the other bank rose up and then beyond that was easily a mile of solid reeds before the other bluff rose up. The broad valley of this area, with historic Fort Snelling (one of the first permanent outposts in the region, constructed in the 1820s) positioned at the junction of the rivers, has always made me wonder. I wonder what it must have been like for that small outpost of soldiers, for the Indians that surely must have depended on the fertile valley. It must have been so big and quiet. Now there’s the jets overhead and the distant hum of the highway. It is still a remarkable and beautiful place.

On our way back we saw what the body of what we thought was a dead red fox alongside the trail, right by where I took the pictures above. I don’t know how we didn’t see it the first time, except that it was on the other side of the trail from the view out across the expanse of the river which had captured our gaze.

Dead Fox

The walk was very flat, which isn’t what we usually go for, but it did have a good climb back up the bluff at the end. It got the heart pumping and I was sweating when we got to the top.

The Outside Loop

Yesterday morning I woke after a short night and with a bothered head. I didn’t give in to my pillow and blankets but got up to coffee, water and a friend passed out on the couch.

We sat for a while recalling the night, a funny night celebrating a wedding at a studio space in the warehouse district of Minneapolis, one with a jazz quartet and keg stands, a chocolate fountain and noise complaints from upstairs, well-dressed friends and the bright skyscraper horizon, and congratulating a lovely couple on a smart decision. As much as I write about being in the woods on this blog, and as much as I read about wilderness and wildlife and fishing and all those kinds of things, I can’t help loving the city.

Rosie was in Madison, Wisconsin for the weekend so I was flying solo at the party. It’s strange how now that we’ve been married for a over year, I feel off when I go to something like that alone. Luckily, many of our friends were there and they looked after me, but I realized that the more dependent you become on another person, the more you don’t feel like yourself when you’re separated.

After dropping Mac off at his car where we’d left it outside the party, I stopped at home and then drove out of the city and to a park that I know better than any other park, and that I love because of it. I understand this little piece of woods.

***

It’s a city park, but at least a couple hundred acres. When I was on the cross-country ski team in high school we practiced there four nights a week in the winter. We skied every one of the many hills. My friends and I also spent many nights and Sunday noons at this park playing capture the flag, sometimes getting 15-20 people out there to run and hide in the snow or in the moonlight. It is also where we frequently rode our mountain bikes during the summer.

I had a backpack with water and snacks in it. I wore boots and jeans and the shell of my jacket. I didn’t linger long in the parking lot because I was already getting lost in my thoughts and a dog came up the trail from the other direction warning of its masters’ imminent arrival.

I walked up a trail and around a corner and found where someone had dumped their garbage from what appeared to have been an interior painting job. There were sheets of plastic, five gallon buckets, ground cloths, old newspapers. Disgusting. I poked through it a bit hoping, just hoping, that they left some piece of mail or something that would have their name or address on it. No such luck. Sooner or later the city would come and remove the garbage, in the meantime it would scar the land a little more.

Quiet wooded bowls
Windy ridges
Glacial land

The next section of trail ran along a high ridge looking down on the small interior lake. The hill next to where I walked dropped sharply down for maybe 100 or more feet. A few hundred yards down the path I came to where they had installed a nice bench with a good view of the lake. Unfortunately, they had also seen fit to take out a swath of the hardwood forest that blankets the park on the hillside below the bench to improve the view. It didn’t upset me that bad: this is just a city-owned park. It’s not wilderness or even a state park or forest. And it was a nice view of the lake after all.

The middle of the trail was icy and I mostly walked on the shoulders where the snow hadn’t been so compacted by feet and skis earlier in the season. There wasn’t a lot of room to the sides so I frequently crossed the icy middle to take advantage of better walking on either side of the trail.

I walked as fast as I could on the slippery trail, planting my feet hard to dig the tread into the crusty snow. I wanted to work up a sweat and I wanted to get to the farthest reaches of the park. When our ski coaches wanted us just to rack up some kilometers we would ski what was simply called the “Outside Loop.” It was actually more of a figure-eight, but it took us around the perimeter of the park. I hadn’t been to the back half for several years and I wanted to go there today.

All of this
God
or in his image

The sun was out. There’s been little of it for the past month, and when it has shown up it seems like I’ve always been at work, buried behind tinted windows and flourescent lights. Now I was in the woods and the leafless trees cast sharp shadows across the snowy ground. The sun also finally seemed to really be coming north again and with a clear sky it didn’t feel so far away like it often does this time of year.

My quick pace shortly brought me to the powerline cut that slices through the middle of the park, creating the front and back halves. The cut is wide and raw, though I’ve never minded it all that much. It’s kind of like the bench with the trees cut below. A quiet reminder of where I really was to punctuate the occasional sounds of far off cars on the highway. I would rather not be allowed to ever pretend I am in a wilder place than I am. The powerlines bring us light and heat and running water, the highway had brought me here. Someday when I’m far away from asphalt and steel I’ll appreciate it as much as I should.

I took my hat off and stood for a while soaking up the sun. I was breathing a little heavy and happy to feel the cool air rushing into my lungs.

Memories of lost days
flicker on these
shadowy trails
Sun coming back
Images take shape

The powerline cut is like a gate to the back part of the park and as I re-entered the woods I was happy. The trail shortly brought me to a junction where five trails came together. The intersection formed a small clearing which was silent and still. The woods around me were the typical hardwoods and I could see through them in all directions to where hills rose and fell in every direction.

I had three trails facing me that all led further back into the park but I already knew which one I would take. I took the leftmost trail and soon came to a corner where a chain link fence ran along one edge. I walked up to the fence and looked at the strange barren landscape on the other side. Some years ago the land had been contaminated in some way, I’ve never known why. Either a landfill or a dump or something. Now it’s bare of trees and there are strange posts sticking up out of the ground and in one spot something that looks like a giant water sprinkler creates wild ice sculptures in the winter. The land is being cleaned by people who are smarter than me and I just stood on my side of the fence and looked at it and wondered for a moment before turning back toward the woods.

The most dangerous hill in the park for skiiers now lay below me. It started with a steep top section where I remembered how it was nearly impossible to keep your speed down, then took a slight short jog to the right before making a ninety degree left turn around some big trees. The whole trail was closely bordered by the woods and was truly dangerous, especially after getting skiied by 100+ members of the ski team, half of whom snowplowed the heck out of it, turning the trail to ice. On foot it was not difficult and as I picked my way down the hill I remembered the feeling of making it around the corners and racing down the steep and straight bottom section.

Dancing birch
Asleep
Like a dog
running in his dreams

As soon as the descent was over the trail went right back up. I leaned into the hill and welcomed the burn in my legs. At the top I stopped for a drink of water and then saw a rock a few feet of the trail with a nice view over the depression which I had just skirted on the trail. There was just a little snow on the rock so I scrubbed it off and sat down to enjoy having made it this far corner and having such a nice view.

Creaking trees
Unknown banging
over that hill
train whistle
clattering cars

Cold green limestone
Breeze and gusts
The hill below me
Calls

Even though I had zippd up my jacket as soon as I stopped moving, my sweat soon began to chill me and I knew I should get moving again. I also knew that on the far side of the bowl another trail ran back to the five-trail intersection so I decided to cut straight through the woods which I had just been admiring from above and afar. I slipped my backpack back on my shoulders, put my gloves on and went down the hill.

***

It was a much needed sojourn outside. I’m leaving for the east coast for the week in about two hours. I’m going to Connecticut for work for two days and then down to New York City to visit my brother. As is my tendency, I am nervous about leaving home. But I am also excited. I love New York. It is gigantic and loud and there are people everywhere always. But in ways it can feel more like a small town than anywhere else I know. Like I said before, I like the city in many ways. New York is the greatest city I’ve ever been to. It is a wilderness all its own. It is so big and so loud that you can be whoever you want, do whatever you want, and chances are no one will think twice about it. The open-mindedness is refreshing.

So, look for some photos and some stories of that different place this week.