Sunday, August 3, 2008

Aggressive Ice Age Trail Backpacking

Oh, did that feel good! 45 miles in 3 days on some pretty tough trails in the Chequamegon National Forest -- along the Ice Age Trail here in Wisconsin... my feet haven't hurt like this since the ADT in 2006! It was a happy ache, and brought back some fond memories. I think my feet were having flashbacks, thinking, "Here we go again! We don't know when she'll stop!" :)

There were 4 of us to start: Me, Pam, Ken (he organized the trip), and Dave.

Day 1

Day one was a Friday. Pam and I got done with work early and did some grocery shopping for the weekend. We went shopping while hungry, as anyone knows is always a bad idea -- especially when backpacking. The more food, the heavier the pack. After getting A LOT of groceries, we head up to Ken's house where he and Dave were just about ready to go. We filled our water bladders in Ken's sink and head out. Ken was driving his car, and Dave was riding along, and Pam was driving her car with me riding along. As we went, I sat in the back seat and organized our food. We ended up leaving quite a lot back just because there was too much weight!

We got to where we would come out of the woods on Monday and dropped off Ken's car. Our maps indicated a Parking area, which did not exist, so we ended up parking in a grassy patch off of a dirt road about 1 mile from the trailhead. There was a National Forest post, so we figured that would be fine. We all piled our packs and ourselves into Pam's car and head towards the start trailhead. When we arrived, there was a parking lot, and it was getting dark. We got our packs and head out. One of my trekking poles finally gave in and as I was turning to adjust it, it stripped and wouldn't tighten. So at the trailhead as we head out, I picked up a dead stick as my 2nd pole. It was conveniently about the same height and weight as my trekking pole, so that was nice.

We head into the woods with our headlamps lighting our way on the trail. We looked around for a spot to camp right away -- we just wanted to get a little ways in to set up camp so we could get a nice early start in the morning. We found a nice cushiony spot under some pine trees and set the tents up. We shared the one beer I carried in, which was still nice and cold, hung our food bags in trees (I climbed a pine tree to hang our food, which was a lot of fun!), then we crawled in our tents and went to sleep. Pam and I shared my Hubba Hubba, and we were in a great spot. It was so comfy sleeping on a soft layer of pine needles.

Day 2

It was Saturday, and we were planning on camping at Jerry Lake -- about a 15-mile hike. The first 6 miles were a little rough. We had some difficult trails to follow, with some very challenging navigating. Ken did a great job leading us through some very tall grass -- at times it was chest level with bogs and dead logs underneath. It was hard to walk steady-footed on that kind of terrain. It didn't take long to realize that Dave was falling a little behind and seemed to be having a hard time making his way along the trail. Ken, Pam and I stopped at a tricky intersection where the trail went in from a logging road and waited for Dave to come over the hill. We waited and waited, and no Dave. Ken walked up the trail to where we last saw him, and still no Dave. Then I went up with the intention of taking a side trail he may have taken by mistake. Finally I saw him come up over the hill. He said he got lost from following a blaze that was on a knocked-over tree. We were a little worried as we were waiting, hoping he hadn't fallen and gotten hurt or something, so we were thankful to see him. We continued on.

We came to a road and decided to take the next 1-mile section of trail to the next Forest Road where we'd stop to take our boots off and have some lunch. We payed a lot of attention to the blazes on the trees and the trail to be sure there weren't any tricky spots, and trucked on. We were getting hungry and anxious to let our feet breathe. Dave was falling a little behind again, so we just all payed special attention to be sure he'd be able to follow the trail okay. The three of us came out on the road a short time later, took off our boots, ate, and waited for Dave. 15 minutes passed, then 30, then 45, then 1 hour. We knew it shouldn't take that long to get through that section, and we knew it was very well blazed, so we were really getting worried. After a couple trips down the trail, shouting for him, we didn't see him. Finally, one last pass down the trail, Ken and I saw him coming up a small hill. He looked completely worn and sweaty. He had taken a wrong turn somewhere again, was out of water, and looked really tired. When we got out to the road, we assessed our situation. Having a car on each end of the trail, we would never make the 45 miles at this pace, and there was no place to bail out. So we all came to an agreement that Dave road-walk 4 miles to a campground. He agreed. I think we all felt bad that he was having a hard time, and looking back at the situation, even Dave realized that was probably the best choice at that time. Pam, Ken and I had all been hiking a few times this summer already, and it had been 10 years since Dave's last backpacking trip. We all figured this trip was a little too much for his first time back. He gave a good effort, though, and I give him a lot of credit for taking the road to that campground. I imagine that had to be a hard decision to give in to.

We had time to make up. We still had at least 8 or 9 miles to go, and it was already past 2:00 pm. If we were to make it to camp before dark, we would really have to cruise. And we did. We hauled it pretty good and made it to Jerry Lake by 7pm. The trails were tough with quite a lot of deadfall and tricky footing. But it was fun and challenging. It was hot, humid and there were an awful lot of mosquitoes, but I suppose this all comes with living in the woods for a few days, and the rest of it always makes up for the little annoyances. I enjoyed getting as sweaty as I was -- I really felt like I was hiking hard and getting a good workout.

We got to camp, rested for a bit, set up tents, filtered water from a very cloudy Jerry Lake (I had to clean my water filter about 4 times as we pumped water), ate some dinner and went to bed. I do have to share the story of our dinner Saturday night. I made this sort of promise to myself that I would try something new to eat on each camping/backpacking trip I take so I'm not always eating Ramen and oatmeal. I decided we should try something fresh the first night. We packed in English muffins, tomatoes, an avocado, some marinated mozzarella cheese, basil, salt and pepper, fresh parmesan and a tiny cheese grater. Yeah, it weighed a lot! But it was good! We could've done without the mozza cheese, though. The parmesan had great flavor, and in my opinion, the mozza was a waste of weight. But they were still delicious! Pam had some fresh green-leaf lettuce, too, so we wrapped the whole english muffin with all the toppings in a lettuce leaf so it was easier to eat. The fresh food was a real treat.

Day 3

Saturday night was a gorgeous night, so Ken slept with his rain fly off, so he was under a layer of mesh in his hammock tent hanging between two trees. Sunday morning at 6am we all groggily woke up to the sound of bear-hunting dogs barking like crazy way off in the distance. Then they sounded closer and closer until we realized that they were maybe running down the trail that went right past our camp. I remember that bear dogs generally don't bark unless they're chasing something. Then they chase the bear until it climbs a tree where the hunters can get a shot at it. And sure enough, they went running right by our tents -- just on the other side of the trail through some heavy brush. Ken said he could see through the mesh in his tent. First the bushes parted and rustled as something ran through -- it was large and NOT barking. Then about 12 barking dogs came through. So it's exciting that we had a bear run past our camp! We were seeing an awful lot of bear scat on the trail -- the berries gave it away... But as the joke goes, there were no bells in it, so we figured we were safe. :)

We got up after all that commotion, ate breakfast -- OH!! Breakfast Sunday morning was AWESOME! One of the top 2 best breakfast I've ever had hiking (next to my mom putting gumdrops in our 'snotty' porridge while hiking the ADT)! Saturday as we hiked through some tall grass, we came upon a LOT of ripe raspberries. There were so many of them that we decided we'd start collecting them in a ziplock baggie. I had about 3/4 cup of them after the day was done, so we added them to our morning oatmeal. I was a little bummed that we brought maple & brown sugar oatmeal until I mixed them in and tried it. It tasted just like some sort of raspberry torte. It was so delicious. My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it!! After breakfast we packed up and head out again.

The weather sure was treating us well. We had blue skies, and no rain. There was a chance of t-storms on Sunday, and it got a little cloudy and questionable for a couple of hours in the afternoon, but it never did rain. It sure did get humid, though! We came across a 2nd group of campers on a lobe trail that we decided to take. This group was called New Vision Wilderness from the Milwaukee area. They take inner-city kids out into the woods for counseling and confidence-building exercises -- and they do some beautiful trail work! We came across several nicely built bridges with a plaque stating their group name and the signature of the kids that helped build them. What a cool group of people! It was great to meet them in person and be able to thank them for the work they do -- it sure makes our hike that much more enjoyable having nice trails to hike on! :)

The lobe trail we took, which was about a 4-mile loop off of the ice age trail brought us a patch of wild blueberries, which we had to stop for. We collected about 1/2 cup for Monday morning's oatmeal, and we ate a few as we picked them. They were SO yummy!! We were so glad for the blueberries on that trail because the mosquitoes were probably the worst swarm I'd been in! We hiked 18 miles on Sunday, and camped by a "glorified swamp," as Ken appropriately called it. Ken sat down and about 2 seconds later had a deer tick on him. So we started being careful to look for them little guys. They're so tiny they look like a speck of dirt at first glance. We started a fire right away to ward off the mosquitoes. I think it worked a little bit, but at one point we all stopped talking and listened. It was one of the strangest, eeriest sounds I've heard in the woods -- it was the sound of SWARMS of mosquitoes in the treetops, and it was so loud (for buzzing mosquitoes), that it was literally echoing through the woods. Very, very strange.

We set up camp, got some water and started dinner. Pam was trying her new Jetboil, and she was going to make our tortellini. I told her to use my large Jetboil pan so it would fit better and be easier to cook, but failed to let her know that there were two lids that had to be removed. The bottom of the pan had a plastic cover, and when placed on the powerful Jetboil flame, quickly melts... as we found out! Ahh, but accidents happen, and these things can be replaced... :) After letting that cool and peeling some melty black plastic off our pan holder, we were back in business, and it wasn't long when Pam had some yummy torellini ready to chow. It was really good, too.

After dinner we passed around the plastic bottle of Peppermint Schnapps that I carried in. It was just enough that I didn't feel buzzed, but just good and relaxed. We all shared that until it was gone. Pam and I then brushed our teeth and head into the woods to hang our food. Ken said he had a really fun time listening to us trying to find the right tree. We pretty much circled him, giggling as we tried to hit a couple of branches that were out of our reach. Finally we found one that worked, and just before we headed back, Pam felt something bite her inner thigh. She reached in and pulled out a spider! She shreiked and threw it in the grass, and we both were laughing about that... it was quite the scene! Hee-hee... I was just glad the spider was in her pants and not mine. I probably would've reacted the same!

Day 4

Monday morning we woke up and had bluberries in our oatmeal. It wasn't quite as good as the raspberries, but still very tasty. We came across some more beatiful trail. There were a lot of ferns that were huge. Some were almost chest-high! They made for a very green forest floor, and fun walking.

A little ways into Monday's hike (our last day on the trail), Ken's right knee started to give him trouble. We had quite the long day ahead of us, so he took some ibuprofin and we hiked on. We came to a place on the map that read, "Hemlock Esker." It was a part in the trail that went directly north-south for at least 1/2 mile. We wondered what this "Esker" was. When we got to it, we saw that it was a very tall ridge that dropped off on both sides, and Ken started to remember from a geology class that an "esker" might be where two glaciers butted up against one another, creative a clump of land in between, this ridge we were walking along... the "Esker." We all 3 quickly fell in love with the "esker" (come on, it's a fun word to say!!). Since it's higher up, you get a wonderful breeze, which was more than welcome since we were all sweaty and hot from the humidity we were hiking in, and there were very little mosquitoes... probably from the breeze. Also, once on top of the esker, the trail flattened out nicely, and left us with some very nice scenery below on both sides, with blue sky above us.

Just looked up the definition of an esker: "A long ridge of gravel and other stratified drift which formed in a tunnel at the base of a melting glacier" (from this link). So it sounds like it was actually made from a tunnel in the glacier that carried a sort of river from the glacier melting. And as it flowed through this tunnel, left this "ridge" of sediment. Way cool stuff.

Later in the day, Ken's knee situation worsened, and there was growing concern that he might not make it to the trailhead. There was a lodge on our map a little ways up, so we made a plan. We'd stop and rest for a couple of hours, and depending on how his knee felt after that, he would decide if he could hike on, or if just Pam and I went and came back to the lodge to pick him up. We came to the lodge, and boy, oh boy -- a backpacker's oasis!!! They had cold CANS of soda, deep-fried deliciousness, and and ice cream cone the size of my head (which I ate entirely and endured a wonderful tummy ache afterward). I can never turn down an opportunity for ice cream on the trail. Gotta keep up my trail name from the ADT -- "Milkshake" -- it may not have been a milkshake, but had all the same effects of one, which ultimately gave me the trail name. Yes, admittedly, I was in the bathroom about 5 minutes after finishing it. :)

Ken rubbed some Biofreeze on his knee, took some more ibuprofin and rested. By the time we ate, used the flushy toilets, and drank a cold, bubbly can of soda, he was feeling better and decided to tough it out. We had 6 more miles to go, and we did it. We came out to the road at about 6:30 - 6:45. He's a tough guy. From the way he was walking and how he explained the pain, it sure sounded a lot like the "peg-leg" my friend Sarah and I suffered on the first 32-mile "Frozen Otter" adventure race we did. It's not like a muscle pain you can just stretch out and push through. It's different. I guess all knee-pain sufferers know all to well what I'm talking about!

So we were off the trail and at the car a short road walk later, and let me tell you, the excitement continued! As I mentioned earlier, Dave road-walked to a campground on Saturday, and we were going to pick him up on Monday. We thought about him often on the hike those next few days. We were all a little worried about his making it to the CG okay, and if he was actually feeling alright... we all had some nightmarish scenerios playing around in our head... what if he was severely dehydrated... what if this, what if that... when we got to Ken's car, there was a note on the seat. We all figured it was a note from Dave saying that he called for a ride and went home (that's probably what I would've done, anyway.) When Ken opened the note, there was a business card for the Sheriff's dept. stapled to it, and the note only asked Ken to call at his earliest convenience. We all sort of panicked. "Oh, no. Did something happen to Dave?" Ken's phone didn't get very good reception, so I turned mine on, and I hate pretty good coverage, so he called with my phone. Come to find out, since we weren't in a designated parking lot, some local folks noticed his car there for a couple of days and called it into the police in conern that it might be abandoned or something. So Ken explained our situation, and we were all quickly relieved that that's all it was about. Ken did later have to clear the situation up with his family -- the police apparently called some of his family inquiring his whereabouts and the location of his car, and sent some into a sort of panic... but I believe that was all cleared up.

We got in and drove to the campground, hoping to find Dave there, well-rested. We pulled in and there he was sitting up against a tree waiting for us. Whew. What an exciting weekend! We got Dave loaded in, drove to Pam's car where we started the hike, separated our gear and head out.

Pam and I got back to Oshkosh about midnight. We were all a stinky, sweaty, smelly mess, so the first thing I did was jumped in the shower when I got home. If felt good to get 3 days' layers of deet, dirt, and sweat off, as well as the caked dirt under my fingernails... and the stinkies out. I crawled into bed and don't even remember my head hitting the pillow.

We did 46 miles, total. 15 miles on Saturday, 18 miles on Sunday, and 13 miles on Monday. My feet hurt, but that was about all I suffered from the weekend. And I welcomed that pain. It felt good to know that I backpacked that far in 3 days, got some great exercise, and a clean, healthy hike in the fresh air. I'm a happy girl, and this one's gonna stick with me for a while. I needed a good, aggressive hike like that. I also found that Ken's hiking style is very much like mine. We hike the same pace, and seem to like to set up and take down camp in a similar fashion. I might be a little slower than him... he's got this super-cool hammock tent that just folds down so quickly... I'm thinking about trying one out! So, ahhhhh... that was a long entry...


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