Thursday, June 9, 2011
Alone in the Woods = Bliss
I love the woods. I feel most whole, complete and happy when I am out in nature. I’ve enjoyed many camping and hiking trips with others. I’ve enjoyed many day hikes by myself. Last year I went on my first backpacking trip with some friends using borrowed gear, and it felt like I had been doing it my whole life already. This spring I decided I would invest in my own backpacking equipment. I had fun researching gear and coming up with the most minimalistic, light and economical set of equipment. I had everything I needed in a pack weighing approximately no more than 25 pounds. I could hardly wait to use it. I planned a trip to the Superior Hiking Trail for the three-day Memorial weekend holiday. I’m pretty sure I had the smallest and lightest pack of all the other backpackers I encountered on the trail the weekend of my trip.
It took about a month to find and purchase all the gear and plan the trip. I had time and could have found others to go with me. But I decided I really wanted to do this trip by myself. I would get to make all the decisions, do everything exactly the way I wanted to and have some blissful solitude to boot. And I wanted to test myself – how alone can I get? What fears and challenges would come up? Could I overcome those fears and challenges? How self-reliant and resilient am I?
I took every precaution for my safety. The route I was going to take was remote, but well-traveled, well-marked and I had planned my route to the detail. It was in cell phone range. I had a pocket survival kit, a first aid kit, pepper spray, pocket knife, a whistle and a loud, street-smart voice and attitude (that’s what I get for growing up in the inner city of St Paul!) I had a bear-proof canister for my food.
As a planner and a perfectionist, I have done better over the years, since I started practicing meditation, of letting go of planning more and more. Nearly to the point of being too spontaneous at times and not planning enough. So I pulled in the reins a bit and put my planning skills to work again for this solo backpacking trip, all the while knowing that once it was planned, I would need to let go of my expectations that all should go according to plan.
That proved difficult, of course, when I ended up having to change my entire plan at the last minute due to very wet weather conditions. I can’t plan the weather. That is something that is definitely not within my control. I was a bit optimistic (read: delusional) that weather conditions would be fair, despite the forecasts for rain that started at 30% and then gradually became about 70% chance of rain and thunderstorms.
I had a good rain jacket, water-resistant pants and a tarp, but I was in denial about my shoes. They are somewhat water resistant and I sprayed them with a waterproofing chemical, but there was no way they would stand up to the amount of water and mud I would encounter on the trail. The last time I hiked SHT, weather was dry and the boots I wore were hot and uncomfortable. I thought I’d be more comfortable in my Columbias, which are higher quality and better fit than the old, borrowed boots I wore last time that were a size too big.
I’m not sure the boots were more waterproof than my shoes, perhaps slightly more, but that actually wasn’t the biggest problem. My Columbias actually fit too well and there was not enough wiggle room for my toes, especially with the nice toe socks I had bought. I suffered from some pretty large blisters. So the Columbias were a pretty big error. Can’t hike very long or far when your feet are blistered! But I still did get pretty far. Let me start at the beginning.
I left the Twin Cities at 5:15 PM Friday evening. I figured I’d be getting to the Lake Superior North Shore pretty late, so I’d already pretty much planned to roll out the sleeping bag in the back seat that night rather than do the one mile hike to the nearest camp site at the Castle Danger trail head.
Rather than the usual 3-1/2 hours, it took about 5 hours to get to Castle Danger due to the Memorial Weekend rush to get up north, and it rained the entire time. It was just after 10pm when I got on Castle Danger road. I had a hard time finding the trail head parking lot on the gravel road and I had to back track. It was still pouring rain outside. It was hard to see in the dark and rain.
I finally found the lot and there were five cars parked there. I had a sinking feeling there may not be enough camp sites for the everyone this weekend. And I’m pretty sure I was not the only one camping out in my car that night. Since I was alone, I checked out each vehicle and noticed that one van had a window cracked open. Most likely other fellow, peaceful backpackers, but I just took note to be aware.
I took some deep breaths and prepared my back-seat bed for the night. I was feeling pretty anxious because I’d had trouble finding the parking lot and because of seeing all those vehicles. I guess I wasn’t surprised to see them all since it was a holiday weekend, but I had sort of hoped that particular lot would have been less busy. Then again, perhaps it was safer with more people around. Less likelihood of any one of them stirring up trouble with all the other people around.
I cracked open the car windows and laid down to the sound of rain pounding on the roof for the rest of the night. I looked at the silhouette of pine trees against the stormy night sky. In my mind I chanted the metta (lovingkindness) phrases: “May I be safe and protected, happy and peaceful, healthy and strong, and may I live life with ease and joy.” I went to sleep in my cozy down sleeping bag. The back seat of the Camry wasn’t bad. I’m so short I barely noticed bending my knees all night, since I tend to sleep that way anyway. But I wished my Saab wagon was still running. Then I could have stretched out in a luxurious car bed!
I felt like such a vagabond that night. And the whole weekend, really. I had my car and a tent. I could have gotten a motel room that first night, I suppose. I was surprised to see quite a few “vacancy" signs on the drive up. But I was trying to keep this trip low cost and simple – and have a sense of renunciation rather than indulgence.
In the morning, the rain was still going strong and even that car bed felt incredibly comfortable. I found myself not too crazy about the idea of starting out my hike cold and wet. I craved comfort. I really noticed that craving for comfort. I fancy myself to be a pretty tough minimalist. I like to push myself sometimes to see just how much I can do without. I suppose that was truly my goal for this trip – to see where my limits are in making do and going without – including going without a companion.
I had planned to take a shuttle from that lot at 8:30 AM to Split Rock, but I looked again at the forecast on my phone and there were no signs of the rain stopping any time soon. I studied my maps and ran through all the options in my mind. I decided to choose comfort. This was a vacation after all, and I was in charge of it 100%! There was no one around to debate about anything with. No one to try to talk me into taking a different direction with my plans. No one for me to blame if the choice turned out to be wrong. No one but Me!
I packed up, cleaned myself up, and started the car. I headed over to Betty’s Pies for warm and yummy coffee and a hearty breakfast. I emailed the shuttle service to cancel my reservation. I lingered in the restaurant to relax and come up with a new plan.
I had a nice chat with the waitress and an outdoorsy-looking woman who had come in for some food to go. I mentioned that I should know better than to plan a hiking trip over Memorial Weekend. It always rains Memorial weekend! The outdoorsy woman laughed and nodded. I felt comforted by the good food and some women companions to commiserate with.
It was still raining after breakfast so I headed to Duluth. I stopped at Walgreens to get cash and a cheap rain poncho. I didn’t have a rain cover for my pack so I thought I could use that thing to throw over myself and the pack. What a great $7 investment! It ended up being quite the multi-purpose tool: rain jacket, pack cover, tarp, cushion, blanket. Highly recommended. Small and light too.
Next I headed over to the Glensheen Mansion to take the tour. I’ve been to the Superior north shore countless times, driving by that mansion countless times – and never went there. On the drive up, I was thinking to myself that maybe I would have time to visit the place on my way home. It ended up working out best to do it before I even started my hike. The rain created the perfect opportunity.
I bought my ticket and waited in the carriage house for the tour to start. I didn’t know anything about the mansion or its history. Just standing in the huge brick carriage house, I was taken aback by the wealthy extravagance, and I started to wonder how this show of indulgence was really going to fit in with my goals of simplicity and austerity for the weekend. I started to feel like maybe I’d gone in the wrong direction.
The tour started and I learned about Chester Congdon, a well-educated school teacher turned entrepreneur in the iron ore business. He used his money to build this fabulous castle of a home with the finest of everything. Clearly he had a vision of the place to be enjoyed by many, in his day and in the future. It was willed to the U of M after the death of his last remaining child. The many rooms were filled with visitors then and now. People today can go there for weddings and social gatherings and take pleasure in its elegant beauty and interesting history.
The tour came to the master bedroom. It was plainly appointed. There were no fancy art glass light fixtures or $100 tiles. The wood furniture was plain. The tour guide said that the room was purposely made plain for Chester and his wife Clara so that they could always remember their humble beginnings. An island of austerity in a sea of indulgence. Did that really work to help keep them humble? I can’t say. But I thought it was a good idea just the same. We all need an island of humility and renunciation to keep ourselves in balance in the indulgent society we live in.
The tour ended and so did the rain. After some deliberation, I decided to head to Gooseberry State Park. I would park there and just do a good long back and forth hike that day, Sunday and Monday. I would try to hike from the Gooseberry picnic area at Lake Superior where I would park my car, to the Crow Creek Valley campsite near the Castle Danger trail head.
I parked and set out hiking at noon. Gooseberry State Park was really busy with tourists. I felt funny walking along the river path with my big pack, behind all these clean and well-dressed people with nice hair, make-up and cameras. It was a about a mile long hike to the visitor center from where I was parked. It would be an additional eight miles to the campsite I had in mind. I was fresh and full of energy so I decided to go for it.
The falls at Gooseberry are truly beautiful, especially the upper falls where there were fewer people. I had some trouble getting on to the Superior Hiking Trail. There were so many trails within the state park so I had to be careful not to veer off onto the wrong one. I had to back track a little just to figure out how to get on the pedestrian bridge at highway 61 to get over the river. Once I got over though, I just made sure to stick close to the river. I met some other backpackers coming the opposite way and they had veered off the SHT a bit. So I didn’t feel so bad about wondering if I was on the right trail.
At the Fifth Falls bridge, I met some other backpackers and had them take my picture. The sun was peeking out and suddenly it was feeling like a whole new day. I was surprised by far it was to the state park border. From my car to the border was about three miles. Six more to go!
I had some really nice miles that day. The sun was warm, the spring leaves fresh and gree, and the river was sparkling. I loved how the trail followed the river for quite a few miles. It was very pleasant. I was getting used to the pack on my back and my body felt good.
I reached the Middle Gooseberry campsite and sat down to rest. It was hard to stay still. Once you get moving on the trail, it feels good to keep up the momentum. I get into a flow. And when I sat down, I had a sense of, “Well, now what?”
Hiking is so busy. At least it is for me. I tend to be a bit goal-oriented more than just enjoying the journey itself. I gave myself a break on this though. This was the first time I’ve ventured out to do such a trip by myself. I had to consider logistics very carefully. There was no one around to call me on any errors of judgement. I know too well that my delusional nature can get me into trouble sometimes, the “everything will be just fine” thoughts, when in reality everything is going to hell. Positive thinking is not helpful when it is out of touch with reality. Everything can be fine even when it goes to pot, but I still have to look at the pot.
After my short break, I pressed on again. I passed the East campsite which was occupied and then to the West site which was also occupied. A man was there with his son and he gave me a heads up that the trail I was going toward was ankle-deep mud. I paused for a moment. I could go back to the Middle site and set up camp, or I could see how bad the mud really was and contue on to the site I’d planned to get to at Crow Creek Valley.
I decided to go for it. I wanted to go my long distance that day, Saturday, then take my time going back Sunday and Monday. If I stayed at the Middle site, I wasn’t sure what I’d do with myself. In hindsight, it may have been that going back to the Middle site probably would have worked out fine, but what I ended up actually doing worked out fine too. And I doubt I could have avoided muddy feet anyway.
I continued on. Most of the mud I was able to navigate around. I got into a flow of mud avoidance maneuvers. I watched every step carefully and my feet stayed dry. I met up with 2 couples coming from the opposite direction. One of the women had given up trying to keep her feet dry. The mud stains on her pants were calf-level. They asked if there was an open site ahead and I said there was. I asked about the site I was headed toward and they said it was taken.
I had a bit of a sinking feeling (not just my shoes sinking into mud) that there would be no camp site for me. But I was glad the foursome would have the site I would have gone back to. A larger group would not be able to make their own site in the woods so easily. I on the other hand, could. So I contemplated this as I hiked on.
Mud, mud and more mud. The trail was more like swampy marsh. Still amazingly, I was able to keep my feet pretty dry. Finally I came to a steep climb on rocks that pulled me out of the muddy area. I reached the landmark of Mike’s Rock. I continued on about another half mile and reached an awesome overlook.
It was about 5:30 PM and definitely time to set up camp. There had been some sporadic thunderstorms that afternoon and more were expected. Fortunately, the few showers that had come through that afternoon had been warm and short-lived. I was still dry and warm.
It was very woody west of Mike’s Rock and a bit of a challenge to find a clearing suitable for setting up my tent. I settled on a spot well tucked away out of view of the trail. I cleared a spot and set up. There were a lot of mosquitoes, little baby ones. I did my best to send them love and compassion so they would not make me have to get out the deet. I put my hood up and got to work.
After getting my tent up, I gathered up my pasta primavera pouch meal, a spoon, my GSI cup and my Esbit stove, fuel and lighter and walked to the overlook to cook dinner and enjoy the view. My water boiled perfectly on that tiny stove and the rocks I had set it near acted nicely as a wind shield.
Just as I started to enjoy my meal, some storm clouds rolled in and it started to rain. I packed up my dinner and headed back down the trail towards my secret campsite in the woods, when it started hailing. I hauled ass down the trail and jumped through the brush as fast as I could to get to my tent. I’d left the tent flap open and my pack out and everything was getting wet! I quickly tossed everything into the tent and closed the rain fly. I stood out in the rain in my rain jacket, and then it stopped. I stood there and finished eating, trying not to rush. Then I got my tarp and rope out.
I’m not a good tarp hanger. But there was no one around to laugh at my tarp hanging skills or do it better. I strung the rope through the holes as I weaved the rope around several trees. I was surprised that it actually looked pretty sturdy and functional. But I still didn’t take a picture because you would probably still laugh!
That gave me some dry space outside my tent. My tent is too small to just hang out in. It is strictly for lying down and nothing else. I gathered some wood and started a small fire. I warmed my hands. I had gotten a bit wet that last rain and was starting to feel cold. The fire was short-lived though, as it started raining again. This time the rain was here to stay. I was so grateful that I’d been able to set up camp and cook my dinner before the serious rain came.
I was sitting under the tarp using the rain poncho as a dry cushion on the ground. But the wind was starting to blow the rain under the tarp and I was getting wet, so I finished off the fire and retired to my tiny, one-person tent to lie down for the night. It was only 7:30 PM. I passed the time by looking at my trail maps and checking the weather. Then I just laid there and meditated during the thunder and lightning until I fell asleep. Being in the back country by myself at night during a thunderstorm was pretty scary. I managed my fear with meditation. I was able to stay calm. I felt safe and was able to sleep well.
In the morning there was no more rain. I woke to a strange sound – a multitude of whining voices (that were not my children!) I wondered about it awhile. Then after some silence I heard the long howl of a wolf off in the distance, quickly followed by the cacophony of yips and yelps of the pack. Wow.
Everything was pretty wet outside. It had rained most of the night. I dreaded how the trails would look after all that rain since they’d been bad enough on the way out. But first I had to take down my wet tent and tarp through a cloud of mosquitoes. I thought longingly of the mosquito net jacket my late father had so kindly left in the trunk of the car I inherited from him. The car was about 7-1/2 miles away. The jacket was kind of bulky so I had decided not to bring it. I would have to make do.
I packed up fast then went out to the lookout, hoping to sit down on the rocks and have breakfast, but the swarm followed me out of the woods. I scrambled to get out the insect repellent, slathered it on and started walking. I had to be content with a Cliff bar for the moment as I tried to outrun the swarm.
I did finally get clear of them, and then came the stretch of muddy trail that was no longer muddy trail, but straight up swamp. I did my best to maneuver around it as I had the day before, but the rain had made it impossible to step in anything but ankle-deep water at many points. I took a deep breath and stepped in, watching my shoe disappear into the water and mud. I would experience wet and squishy feet for the next few miles.
I was happy when I reached the river, as I knew the trail ahead would not be quite as squishy. I found a sweet spot to sit on a downed birch whose bark had dried over the hollow, wet trunk. It was a perfect dry seat. The sun was shining and the river sparkling. I made a point to linger there awhile. That was a blissful moment. I washed my face, brushed my teeth and had some dried fruit to eat. There was a slight breeze blowing away the mosquitoes. I enjoyed having that spot and the river all to myself. I felt like it was my own private river.
I debated about my plan for the day, Sunday. My revised plan had been to camp that night at the Middle campsite. But more rain was forecasted for that evening, meaning another early bedtime in my tent and no fire. It was also supposed to keep raining in the morning, which would mean packing up in the rain and hiking back the remaining 3 miles or so in the rain. I decided to hike on it.
I squished on. The trail was much drier, but my feet were soaked. When I reached the Middle campsite, I took off my wet shoes and socks and had lunch. I laid out the rain poncho on the ground like a blanket and laid down to warm myself in the sun. It was so early in the day yet. It seemed too soon to set up camp. So, after a long rest, I decided just to hike the rest of the way back that day while the weather was nice instead of through the rain the next day. Then I could either camp at the state park campground or just get in my car and start heading home.
I felt unsettled by the constantly changing plan, but on the other hand, what reason did I have to strictly follow any particular plan? And why stay just to get rained on and then go home? Why not skip the getting rained on part? I remembered again that this was supposed to be a vacation. There was no need to stay for the unpleasantness of cold and wet weather if that could be avoided. The way I figured, there are plenty of unpleasant experiences in life that are inescapable. I don’t have to be a kamikaze on a holiday weekend, gritting my teeth and snarling, “Feel the burn!!” I’ll save that for other life challenges. I decided I would enjoy the rest of the beautiful day on the trail and then head to my car. I put on dry socks and makeshift shoe liners made from a plastic bag I cut up and voilà! Dry feet.
But my feet were pretty crowded and blistering. The last three miles through the state park were pretty painful for my feet. My legs and back were in great condition. In some better boots, I could really go far. And of course I realized how silly it was that I spent a good chunk of change on lightweight gear that I wore on my back, but minimal consideration was made for my feet.
I had been tempted to strap my hiking sandals onto my pack but decided against the load, figuring one pair of shoes was enough. But those sandals are on my revised checklist now. I could have waded through the swamp easily in those and my feet would have dried out fast. I had figured my feet would be safer from rocks and sticks in shoes vs. sandals, but now I’m not so sure that is a valid case for not wearing them on the trail. There are some people who actually do barefoot hiking. I’d say that sandals are safer than bare feet, especially sturdy, grippy sandals made for rough uneven ground like mine are.
As I got into Gooseberry State Park, I started seeing more and more people again. Now instead of mud, I had to watch out for all the tourists. I was hot and greasy and hopefully not too smelly as I made my way back to my car, along with the crowds of fresh, clean people.
My feet were so happy when I reached the car and pulled off the squishy shoes and freed my poor squished toes. I took off my muddy trail pants and put on clean capris. I was glad I had thrown some sandals in my car before I left so I didn’t have to put my shoes back on. The straps of the sandals fit perfectly around my blisters and I suddenly felt like I could actually walk a few more miles! Ha ha…
So in my clean pants, fresh sandals and greasy hair, I went to check out the visitor center. There was an exhibit showing all the wildlife of the area. I looked at the wolf display. A woman was taking a picture of it. I smiled and thought, “I don’t need a picture of a wolf in a glass case. I heard them with my own ears this morning!” And then I saw the case displaying wild cats. I felt a chill at the discovery that there actually have been some rare cougar sightings in the area. I knew about wolves, moose and bears, but there may have been some wild cats watching me too. I hope they felt my love for them and all the creatures of the forest!
I walked back to my car, got in and drove away. It was only about 4:00 PM so I made a few stops along the way. I didn’t feel like leaving the North Shore quite yet. There is an overlook at Silver Creek Cliff that seems to always be deserted, so I decided to stop there and gaze at the Great Lake for awhile. I was the only one there, blissfully alone, and I thought to myself, “Is this just wrong? To so completely enjoy being by myself?” But even in my bliss of solitude all weekend, a twinge of longing would pop up here and there. The longing for an intimate partner to share journeys like this with.
I had cell phone service all weekend so I shared status updates and pictures on Facebook as I went along. I have a suspicion that if I’d had a partner there with me, I wouldn’t have felt as much of a need to share things on Facebook. I think I still would, but it would be more of an after-thought.
Our existence here in this life is to share. Share ourselves, share our experience, our joy and sorrow. We are all in this human life together doing the best we can to be happy. I like to be alone to figure things out, but then I like to share the insights that come up for me during my time in solitude. I want to share my joy.
As I walked along the path at Silver Creek Cliff, absorbed by the expansive lake and sky, deep in contemplation, feeling peaceful, it started to rain. As I ran back to my car, I felt validated in my decision to head out.
I stopped for dinner at the New Scenic Café and had a lovely, tasty gourmet walleye sandwich. And the handsome waiter was a little eye candy for me too. And even though I looked pretty messy, I didn’t care. I was radiating love and joy.
On the drive home I checked out some different internet radio stations to keep me awake. I kinda liked Soma FM – Secret Agent. You know, like stuff in a secret agent movie soundtrack.
At home I had a nice long bath and a nice long sleep and then a leisurely Memorial day to reflect on my journey. And feel grateful for how comfortable my life is.