Monday, October 29, 2012

Backpacking in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve

It was a Halloween-themed backpacking weekend, complete with Franky, Ghost and Jack lanterns!

How did the Kickapoo get its name? Well I have my theories, which I conjured up in my mind as I hiked Saturday and Sunday along some really awesome regularly and recently used equestrian trails. There were many a’ poo I nearly kicked. But after getting home and doing a couple of simple Google searches, I learned that the Kickapoo is really the name of an Indian Tribe (which was my second guess). Kickapoo actually means “stands here and there” or “wanderer.” I like that. I like everything about the name – and everything about the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. What a wonderful place to spend outside. And it’s got a really interesting history. 

A super-quick history lesson by Robin: Because of some major clear-cutting lumber work done on the land in the late 1800’s, the water tables got all goofed up, causing too much runoff and some pretty major flooding, so in the 1960’s, several families were forced to move out of the valley because they were going to dam it all up and make a giant, man-made lake to help with the flooding issue and create some recreational opportunities. In fact, one of the businesses we stopped at was going to have lakefront property and be a yacht club. But the early 1970’s brought on the environmental movement, and they didn’t think it would have the positive benefits they originally thought, so the project was abandoned half-way in. There’s still half of a dam built, and it sounds like some local residents are still kinda’ ticked off about the whole situation. I don’t know how it would’ve been as a giant lake, but for now, it remains a beautiful valley of trees, trail, the Kickapoo River and some really cool bluffs and overlooks. And that business we visited? It’s a really cool bar/restaurant that invites in hikers and horse riders (the trail goes right by it!) and it also rents out canoes and river equipment... instead of yachts. Now that’s some cool stuff right there.

If the dam had been finished, we'd be lookin' at a big lake here instead of trees, hills and farmland.

This backpacking trip was another Fox Cities Backpacking Meetup trip, and one of my bestest backpacking buddies, Randall, was the organizer. He did a great job bringing all 10 of us to a new place, and the route he planned for us was really fun with some spectacular views. We started out on Friday night meeting at a cart-in campsite at the Wildcat Mountain State Park. We arrived during daylight, which is always nice, and we started off the weekend with a Halloween-themed camp. Randall brought along a few glowing lanterns for ambience, and later passed around some banana-liqueur-soaked gummy tarantulas. They were scary-looking for sure, but tasted pretty good! One of the Friday night highlights was a unique, random flyover. We had about 3 GIANT planes fly over our camp – I mean RIGHT over our camp. RIGHT over the treetops. It was super-loud and super-awesome. We all stared up into the sky and followed them out of site. I have no idea what kind of planes they were, but I was so excited that I exclaimed, “Hey! I can’t believe those flanes just plew over like that!” Sigh... yeah, that was the beginning of my oral-ambidextrousness during the weekend. All in all, we enjoyed a nice fire and slept in warm sleeping bags at night as the temps dipped down to 22°F.

Gummy tarantulas! Scary!

The next morning we woke up, ate breakfast and packed up camp. Rachel was first to don her Halloween costume. Returning from the bathrooms, she came up the trail towards camp dressed like a bee! We later learned that Darth Vader also enjoys backpacking – although sleeping out in the cold leaves a chilly layer of frost on his helmet. We also had a prison inmate amongst our group, but he was a pretty cool guy, so it was cool with us. I went as a two-part costume. I wanted to find something easy and not too expensive, so I safety-pinned about 50 mini Snickers bars to myself and went as “Bear bait” or, as a few of our Meetup members would refer to as a “Snicker Locker.” My costume lasted about an hour on the trail before I stopped and unpinned the remaining Snickers that hadn’t already fallen off and/or been eaten. It didn’t look like the hikers behind me minded as I dropped them along the way!

Costume: Bear bait/Snicker Locker

Saturday morning, after shuttling cars, we hit the trail for a little over 8 miles. We hiked some nice rolling hills, through woods; down into a little river valley with a snaking creek and bluffs on either side, then through some farmland, and then the trail went right past the Rockton bar. Well, why not stop in for a quick drink!? We all enjoyed a drink of choice, then head back out on the trail, past a line of “parked” horses (riders were having lunch in the bar – what a great idea!), and then continued towards camp. We hiked past some gorgeous fields of seeding wild grasses that glowed in the sunlight, and back into some hilly forest until we came out onto a dirt road where our campsite was located.

I was a ball of energy, and I’m not really sure where it all came from. Maybe it was the jelly beans; maybe it was the crisp fall air. But I cruised up the giant hill next to our camp and sat on giant tree for quite a while as I looked down on our camp and everyone milling about getting tents set up, starting a fire, and chit-chatting about this and that. It was a nice moment. Then I got another burst of energy and started to collect some big downed branches for firewood and had fun dragging it down the hill with me. I felt like a plow through the crisp leaves, using the steep decline to give me some momentum. Fun!

Pretty-colored pheasant feathers

After that, with still a little left in me, I explored the area around our camp. There was constantly-flowing water well at our camp that created a small stream, so I followed that for a while until I came across an area where local pheasant hunters decided to clean their birds. We saw a couple of live pheasants on this trip, which was pretty cool – they are beautiful birds. Even though the butchering area I stumbled upon was kinda’ nasty, I did enjoy getting some pictures of their pretty feathers close-up. The colors are just amazing. Then it was back to camp for hot drinks, dinners, more Halloween-themed fun (Randall broke out the temporary tattoos!) and an appropriately haunting nearly-full moon. I picked up a kid’s activity booklet for Smokey Bear at the Visitor’s Center on Friday, so I pulled that out while sitting around the fire, and as I read, I discovered the truth to his name... finally! I’ll get to that later. But for the evening, we again had a great fire, Mad Libs, fun conversation, laughs and more hot drinks until we all crashed into our tents and the warmth of our sleeping bags. This weather was getting COLD!!

Halloween-style full moon. Can you spot the food bags hanging in the tree?

On Sunday morning, I woke up at about 5AM with the urge to pee. I hate getting up to pee when it’s so cold outside – it’s so hard to get out of the cozy warmth of that sleeping bag! I tried to ignore it, and was successful for about 45 minutes, but had to finally give in. I strapped on my headlamp and found myself enclosed in a beautiful dome of diamonds. No, I wasn’t dreaming. We had a nice, decent layer of sparkly frost covering the entire inside of our tent. It was definitely cold! We later found out that the temps dipped down to 14°F overnight! Awesome! Even more awesome that I slept nice and warm all night! Yay!

Anyway, I found my booties and put them on, crawled out of the tent and took my walk. It was still pitch black out, but it was really nice. It was completely silent, and the stars were super-bright against a deep, black sky. That explained why it was so cold! Everything in the forest had a sparkly layer of frost on it, just like the inside of our tent -- every blade of grass, every edge of bark on the trees and every fallen leaf. It was pretty amazing. But... not amazing enough to keep me from crawling back into my warm sleeping bag for another hour!

Bear rope stash bag all frosty.

After I got up again we had breakfast around the fire. I tried something new, and that was fun – and successful. I mixed an instant packet of Jell-O vanilla pudding in a bottle with 2 cups of water and a scoop of protein powder. It was tasty and nutritious! I’ll be doing that again for sure. I also had a packet of oatmeal, a latte and wouldn’t ya’ know it... a couple pieces of bacon fell from the bacon tree right above us and landed right next to me! That was a nice treat... it had been taunting us since all the low-hanging bacon had already been scavenged.

Packing up the cold, frosty tent was a serious reminder of winter. Snowballs of frost fell out as I stuffed the cold nylon into the stuff sack with quickly numbing fingers. After the job was done, I ran over to the fire to rewarm them and continue with the morning chores. It didn’t take long before we were all packed up and ready to hit the trail again.

Things got really interesting right away Sunday morning. Just a little ways down the trail was a stream. Our trail crossed that stream. The outside temp at the time was a chilly 35°F, and the river water was even colder. And there were not any places for a dry cross – no downed trees to balance over, no rocks to hop across on... just a wide, low, running river. And it was wide enough that there was no chance of jumping across. We had one choice. Wade. Boots came off, pant legs were rolled up, and we all followed one another across through the chilly water. The water was definitely a bit shockingly cold, but the killer was the sinking mud on the other side. Our feet would sink down into the mud just over our ankles as we quickly crawled ashore. By the time I sat down I could not feel a single toe. I took a towel to them to wash the mud off, and it may as well have been someone else’s foot altogether! I could not feel a thing! Once I got the mud off I pulled out my booties and put them on to try to get at least a little feeling back in my toes before putting my socks back on. That worked pretty well. 

One of the trip's highlights was having to wade through a freezing cold creek and up a muddy bank! Awesome, but cold!

I like to think I’m invincible, but admittedly, I am not. I think my nemesis is cold feet, and walking through that freezing cold river gave me flashbacks from my childhood. Whenever I went ice fishing with my parents, they knew to bring along at least one set of extra boots, socks and snow pants, because EVERY SINGLE TIME, I would step in an ice-fishing hole up to my hip. Every time we went. At least once per trip... right up until my feet were a little too big to get in the hole. Then I just tripped over them and fell onto my face. I don’t know what it is with me and ice fishing holes. I am happy to say I’ve gotten less clumsy over the years and haven’t stepped in one in a long, long time. But how much do you want to bet now that I said that here, it’ll happen this year!? That’s the way it goes! Hah!

Anyway... so once I got my feet dried, cleaned and a little bit of feeling worked back into them, I strapped on my shoes and hit the trail hard. Thankfully there was a hill right away. My feet warmed right back up and felt normal within 10-15 minutes. Ahhh, yes.

Fun scrambling rock bluff.

The trail came to a neat overlook that had a rock that jutted out over the forest, and it was perfect for climbing on. A few of us scrambled to the top and snapped some photos, and then we hit the trail once again until we reached another amazing lookout over the Kickapoo Valley. We ate lunch there, and I discovered that I really love cereal for second breakfast! I mixed my powdered milk with cold water and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and really enjoyed that. It was a sunny spot, too, so the break felt great, and it was warm! The next stretch was back out to the visitor’s center where the cars were parked and the hike was over. We all met up at the Rockton bar for burgers and drinks before heading our separate ways back home.

And, as promised, back to Smokey Bear – to top off such a great weekend, I was really excited to come home with the story behind the famous Bear’s true name. This has been a conversation that has come up quite a bit on past trips – in fact; it was quite the conversation on a Pictured Rocks trip a few years ago when a group of guys were actually conducting a survey to see what other people thought because they couldn’t stop arguing as to which one was correct.

So, what is his true name? Is it “Smokey Bear” or “Smokey THE Bear?”

It’s amazing what you can learn from a children’s activity booklet! His real name is just “Smokey Bear,” and the confusion came in when they added the word “the” as his middle name – get this – because they needed an extra syllable for the “Smokey The Bear” song! There ya’ have it folks. That’s the story! It was a serious revelation for us backpakin’ folk. For reals.

Here it is in writing! It's a big deal!

“Hey, I just ate pizza grass.”
This trip was awesome. Bacon trees and pizza grass. What else could you really ask for?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Hiking in the rain is hard.

Those are some seriously, soaked-through backpacks, folks!

Hiking in the rain is hard... but just like any tough experience, it is also rewarding.

I remember back to 2007, shortly after my mom and I finished thru-hiking the American Discovery Trail. We did a few speaking engagements to a variety of audiences. There were a few questions we were asked each time. The most popular was “How long did it take?” to which we’d answer, “8-1/2 months.” The second most popular was, “How many pairs of shoes did you go through?” to which we’d answer, “Nine each.” And third, “What did you do when it rained?”

I thought back to that question and it came back to me, quickly and clearly... as I hiked along, soaked to the bone. I have a poor memory, but with repetition things tend to stick.
“What did you do when it rained?” My answer to that question? “We got wet.”

We were totally soaked through at this point (about 12 miles in). Still smiling, though!

There's just no other way. You just get wet. Water is tricky. It’s not like snow that will pile up, and might get damp as it melts, but still allows you to brush most of it off. Rain seeps into every nook, cranny, wrinkle, divot, weak spot... and it just gets you wet. Plain. And. Simple. When you’re hiking in rain, all day, and there’s no place to hide from it, there’s no way to avoid it. You just get wet. And to go out into the wild thinking you’re going to stay dry because you bought a $400 “waterproof” rain jacket is just going to bring you down. If you are in a light rain or an off-and-on rain, and you are naturally granted the opportunity to give your gear a break, “waterproof” works. It’s perfect. And you smile and think to yourself, “I’m so glad I spent all that money on this jacket!” I’ve been in that exact situation before! But when dealing with an unrelenting, all-day downpour? Nope. It doesn’t matter – it’s not going to work. It will get in. Rain will find its way!

I consider hiking in 35-45°F temps with an all-day rain without a break one of the toughest conditions out there, right next to a strong, cold, nonstop wind – that’s right up at the top of my list, too. The toughest conditions usually end up being in the “they never give up and go constant all day long” category – because you don’t get a mental break from it. And 9 times out of 10, I’ll break mentally before I break physically. Which can also save my ass, to be honest. If I break mentally, I’m more likely to set up my tent and curl up in my sleeping bag to get warm and start over again in the morning – or high-tail it to the car and crank up the heater. Even if I wanted to hike 20 miles, but only hiked 16.5. Conditions can sometimes create an equally or even tougher challenge than what you originally set out to do. And know what? That’s one of the coolest things about this kind of stuff. That’s why I love it so much!

One big advantage to rain-hiking? It makes the late-fall colors even more vibrant!

So let’s go back to the rain thing. When Rachel and I were hiking on Saturday we had the 40-50°F conditions, with the all-day downpour that never let up. We did just fine for the majority of the day, but as the day wore on, the rain came down harder and harder and the temperature actually dropped about 5°. Our trails became rivers in some places, and in others it became ponds 6 feet in diameter. The rocks and roots were slick; the leaves covered some of said rocks and roots, as well as some deep puddles. Cruising along on the trail, you wouldn’t even realize there was an eight-inch-deep pool of rainwater built up until you stepped in it. When I’d find myself stepping into one of these pools through the pretty, floating layer of leaves and feeling the cold, fresh water hit my warm toes, it reminded me of a booby trap. Remember when you were kids, and you’d dig a small hole, then cover it cross-wise with small twigs, then cover that with leaves? Then you’d sit behind a tree and wait for your sister to walk by and step in it? I was never successful with this kind of booby trap, but my brother and cousin sure were! Well, it made me think of that. Thankfully, by the time I started stepping in deep pools along the trail, I’d already given up on dry feet, so it just made me laugh and feel a little nostalgic for my childhood... and miss my brother.

We did manage to find a pavilion to take a break in at about 9 miles in. Hot caramel latte to the rescue!
However you look at it, my and Rachel’s 20-mile dayhike on Sunday turned into a 16.5-mile crazy-rain challenge. We tested gear we weren’t originally planning on really “testing.” It was all good stuff, though. We smiled, laughed, hiked and had a typical good hikin' time – even when we lost our trail and had to bushwhack up and down a steep hillside full of unstable, moss-covered rocks, wet leaves, tangled vines and lots of downed trees. Towards the end of the day, though, we knew we were done when our gloves were so soaked we had to wring them out, our fingers were freezing cold and our bodies were starting to follow, despite the layers we switched out throughout the day. Everything was wet, and once that happens thrown in with a chilly temperature, and no matter how much you walk, you just get and stay cold. Hypothermia can set in during just these types of conditions (wet + cold = bad), and we weren’t at that point, but we sure as heck weren’t going to push ourselves another hour or two and see if we could! We were going to keep this a happy hike, and that’s exactly what we did! We were smiley and happy when we finally got back to the car, stripped ourselves of the heaviest and wettest of clothing and gear as quickly as we could, jumped in and cranked up the heat. It was fabulous.

We drove straight to the nearest gas station, changed into a dry set of clothes, grabbed a hot cocoa, a corn dog and a rice crispy treat, and went back to Rachel’s house to unpack and just see exactly what kind of “wet” we were talking about.

First observation? The giant puddle underneath where we set our packs on her entryway. Um, yeah. Kind of wish we’d had rain covers on. Mostly everything else inside was wet, too, with the exception of a few things that were in sturdy gallon-size ziplock bags or a hardy waterproof stuff sack.

Last observation? That was a brutally awesome 16.5 miles that we took on strong, laughed at, tumbled over, cruised on and got totally 100% completely soaked through on. Thanks, rain. We’re always up for new learning experiences when it comes to backpacking.

Even the waterproof camera struggled in the pouring rain!

Things we learned and/or were reminded of:

1.       Nothing is waterproof when it rains really hard, constantly, all day long. Nothing. No matter how you describe it, no matter how much you pay for it, and no matter how you use it. Water will get in. It is really sneaky that way.

2.       It’s important to eat and drink when you’re hiking lots of miles, even if the weather makes it difficult. Unless you enjoy bonking and feeling random parts cramping and hurting. Eat. Drink. And keep eating and drinking.

3.       A good pack rain cover would be worth gold on an all-day-rainy kind of hike. Even referring back to #1 above, it won’t keep water out completely, but for the amount that it would...  it would be worth it. Packs get heavier as they (and everything in them) get wet. Ugh.

I’ve ready SO many opinions about “oooh, yaaaah... just make sure everything INSIDE is in waterproof stuff sacks and ziplock bags.” First, it still gets heavy; second, your pack is SOAKED and no matter how you look at it, that sucks; third, that only works in a sprinkle, not a pourdown; fourth, it’s hard to get at anything when everything is tucked away in ziplock bags and stuff sacks – referring to #2 above, even food, and that’s no good.

Lesson learned! This is my new opinion – rain covers are GOOD.

4.       Bathroom hand dryers are the freakin’ BOMB diggity when it’s cold and rainy outside. If you can be lucky enough to find one on your route.

5.       Black squirrels are super-awesome. And they’re not afraid of the crazy down-pouring rain. Just like me and Rachel. (Can you hear that horn tooting? Yup, that’s ours.)

Enjoying the hand dryers in the bathroom. Aaaaaah.

It was a great hike, we were totally worn out at the end of it, and that exhaustion even carried over to the next day. It was good. As challenging as the weather can be when backpacking or hiking, it’s always good to have a plan, and we did. We took the opportunity to talk about our strategy if we were actually out backpacking and needed to spend the night in the woods – how we’d first set our packs down on our sleeping pads and get the tent set up as quickly as possible. Pull whatever was dry out of our packs and toss it in the tent. Then we’d take turns getting in and putting on dry clothes and rolling up in our sleeping bags to get warm. We’d toss as much of our soaking wet clothing in a trash compactor bag and tuck it under our feet. Then we’d pull out a cold dinner – probably the bagels and peanut butter we didn’t eat for lunch because it was too hard to stop and get out in the rain. Then we’d sleep and start over in the morning. Hopefully it wouldn’t be raining. But if it was...

We’d get out, we’d hike, we’d get wet, and we’d talk about how awesome it was to be out hiking.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fall Backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains, 2012

Fall colors at the Government Peak Trailhead along M-107 where we started hiking on Saturday.

“I have a backpacking hangover and it’s pretty awesome” was my Facebook status yesterday morning, and that’s exactly how I felt! I had puffy eyes, was tired and my skin hurt – probably a little dehydration mixed in with forcing my body into acclimating to colder weather a little too quickly. It was freaking out. But what better way to get used to the colder temps of late fall and early winter than to dive into the beautiful woods of Upper Michigan and sleep in it... hike in it... eat, pray and laugh in it...?

This year’s annual Fall Porkies Backpacking Trip was another good one. Each time I go on a backpacking trip it is different from the last – each trip turns out amazing in its own unique and sometimes unexpected way and I’m unable to compare it to any other. The reason I even mention this is because when I get home from the latest excursion and start writing out my blog, I feel tempted to say “this was the best trip ever.” But I can’t do that every time or it would totally lose its meaning. Each adventure is just as awesome as every other one, but in its own way.

The crew at Trap Falls (from L-R): Tim, Jen, Caitlin, Matt, Rachel, Robin, Ross, Jason, Brian, Jan, Graham, Nancy, Jenna & Darwin, Randall, Patty, Keith

We originally set this trip for a maximum of 12 backpackers because that is what the group limit is on the backcountry permits in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Area. The trip filled up so fast, Rachel and I decided to take advantage of our co-organizing and open the trip up for more people. We changed the max to 20 people, and we’d just purchase two backcountry permits, each with a group of 10. It was stretching the rules a little bit, but it’s exciting to see so many people interested and it’s really hard to turn anyone away. We had a few people that had to drop for one reason or another last-minute, and we had a couple people add on, too. Our final attendance was 16. That’s a pretty big group, and the incredible thing with this large group is that all of us had great backcountry chemistry - meaning we all got along great - and from comments I received and smiles on faces, I think everybody had a really awesome time.

One of the biggest highlights of the trip, which is the whole reason we planned this trip this time of year was the fall colors. They were AMAZING. We got there a little after the reds fell from the big maple trees, but we got some super-vibrant golds and oranges that were still strongly hanging on. The forest was literally lit up with a golden hue in many places, lighting up the trail like a naturally golden-lit tunnel. Leaves were also scattered all along the forest floor, still just as vibrant as they were when hanging for their last minutes on the branches above. Being completely surrounded by the bright colors made for some seriously jaw-dropping hiking. And it never got old. Each corner or hill brought a new scene, and we all “oohed” and “aahed” as we wound through the forest. 

Feeling rich in a forest of gold.

We got some challenging weather on this trip, too. It was colder than normal for this time of year, or at least it seemed that way. But for a beginner trip, we all did great dealing with that challenge. We hit some pretty crazy snow on the drive up that made us feel like we were traveling in a galaxy far, far away. It was on and off for most of Friday night and Saturday morning, and with a forecast of cold daytime temps, below-freezing nighttime temps and a “100% chance of snow,” we were all prepared for some nasty weather. But guess what? The weather decided to not be quite as dramatic. I think the weather said, “Hey, just for you hikers down there, I’m gonna give you a little of this: BOOM! SUNSHINE!” The sun peeked out for us every once in a while and really warmed us up and lit up the woods’ vibrancy even more – and on Sunday, we had mostly blue skies, with an almost electric fall breeze. This made for the perfect combination, allowing us to witness leaves being softly wiggled from the branches and flutter down to the ground. After this trip I feel like we’ve truly entered cold-weather hiking season, and now I’m mentally ready.

Welcome sunshine with a forecast that called for a 100% chance of snow!
 On the last day we hiked through some amazing pine forests with giant trees towering overhead, and a soft, windy trail until we reached more deciduous forest where we began the climb back up to the Lake of the Clouds overlook where our cars were parked. We were rewarded for that climb back up to the escarpment with some stunted maples still donning their gorgeous, deep-reds. Those reds were mixed in with the strong oranges and yellows – and when you added in the green from the pines and other shrubs along the rocky cliff, we were all finishing our walk through a rainbow of foliage. It was shockingly beautiful.

Colors along the Big Carp River Trail with Lake of the Clouds in the distance.

Another highlight from this trip was, as I mentioned earlier, our group chemistry. We had a larger group of 16 people (and one awesome dog), and we all got along great! We had a variety of experience levels, but everyone was supportive of the others, and we were all still able to hike at what pace we wanted and enjoy our day. I really enjoyed the mix of current friends and new friends. I love meeting people on the trail and find it’s the best way to really get to know people. I laugh because if these people stick with me on a 2-day backpacking trip and can put up with my poop-humor, then I’ve found friends that I’m sure I’ll see again! It’s all in fun, and everyone had a really good sense of humor. I’m just always happy that people don’t run from me when I get on a roll with the potty humor. I figure, ‘hey – we all poo in the woods, why not crack some jokes about it?’

To add onto the highlight of having such a great group, I had the extra bonus of my parents hiking with us. My mom and dad are super fun, and have become really great friends with a lot of my backpacking friends, too. I love to hear my closest friends complimenting me on what awesome folks I have! I tend to agree – and I really enjoy sharing their awesomeness with others, so I usually nudge them to come along on some of these trips, although I don’t have to try too hard... they really enjoy it, too. I felt blessed that I was able to hike with them this weekend – it’s always great fun for me and it always brings us a little closer. There’s nothing like spending time in the woods with someone you love – friends become family and family becomes friends.
My mom and dad hiking on a steep decline. I love hiking with them!!

Being the organizer for the trip (and I think I speak for Rachel a little here, too) can be a little stressful at times. You first have the pressure of trying to make sure everyone has a good time... and second, doing so as safely as possible. My theory when organizing is to just be sure nobody feels left behind, and as a result everyone will have a nice time. I think, and I hope, that we accomplished that this weekend. I figure if we get even one person on a new backpacking trip that comes back for more, we’ve done a good job. Organizing routes and planning trips is really fun for me, but hiking along with other people that love backpacking or are just starting out and learning is super rewarding and even more fun. I still learn something new every time I go on a trip, and it’s fun to share the knowledge I’ve gained from past trips with others, as well.

Every once in a while I feel creative and want to do something special for the group when I organize and this usually involves some sort of food. One year I made a tiramisu, and another time it was orange cakes. This time Rachel and I made mini pudding pies. I picked up some pre-made mini graham-cracker pie crusts, three flavors of pudding (pistachio, chocolate and cheesecake) and we brought different toppings – crushed pistachios, dried strawberries, dark chocolate chips and mini marshmallows that ended up all melding together, which was funny because they were impossible to top our pies with, so we ended up burning them in the fire. Oh well, the rest of the stuff turned out great, and it was a big hit!

Pie choice shown: Cheesecake with strawberries and dark chocolate chips. Yum!

And one more highlight – the simplicity of backpacking. There are so many fun things that happen in the woods as we’re walking or sitting around the campfire -- conversations we have of previous trips we’ve been on, or experiences we’ve had in life in general, or jokes, trail talk, or maybe a mushroom that looks like one of those yard decorations – you know the ones – with the lady bending over and her bloomers or whatever you call them are sticking out. I have a picture. Can you see it?

Anyway, a lot of the things we talk and giggle about on the trail or around the campfire are things I can’t even remember specifically. But that’s okay, because it’s all just a small part of the whole experience that makes it so wonderful. I come back remembering being bent over laughing so hard my belly hurt. And I know whatever the heck it was we were talking about was really freakin’ funny, and those are the memories I’m most likely to hang on to. I’ve never had a good memory – especially for specifics – but overall, I leave with a lasting memory like, "Wow, yeah. That was an awesome trip."

Also in the simplicity category of highlights from this trip is the exercise – this is a highlight of any trip for me. The fact that I’m walking with everything I need to survive on my back, and burning up so many calories in such an amazing place makes me feel so happy and healthy. I wish I could do this every day.

Beautiful swamp just before Mirror Lake.

The Porkies always feels magical to me. I’ve mentioned it before in my blog about how I took my very first backpacking trip here, so it holds a special place for me anyway. But others have said the same. It has some awesome trails, great campsites, and lots of pretty water – rivers, streams, lakes, and the big Lake Superior. The forests are wild, and if you don’t talk as much as I do, you might even catch a glimpse of a deer or a bear. Or a squirrel. I saw a chipmunk and a few birds on this trip. Yeah, I talk too much sometimes!!

After a couple of days of fresh air, finishing up and feeling the accomplishment of a good hike, and seeing everyone at the end full of smiles and still laughing about this or that is what this is all about. We had a few people that hiked out a little sooner so they could get on the road towards home, but the remainder of the group met up at the parking lot for a post-hike toast. We ended up finding a place to eat after much indecision and closed restaurants, and we all ate like we’d never seen food before. We had a few last laughs, I had a milkshake, we hugged, said our farewells and all hit the road in our own direction towards home.

Lined up along a bridge on the Big Carp River Trail.

I could go on and on and on about the incredible overall feeling you get from a trip like this, and I would never feel fully satisfied with my descriptions, because there are just not enough words, analogies or adjectives... you just gotta’ get out there and do it. Walk into the woods and absorb as much of the fresh, wonderful natural surrounding as you can. Sleep in it. Eat in it. Nap in it. Laugh in it... Live in it.

Besides, where else will you learn about “Robina the musical,” and Little Pickles, and Kneescab, and Snapper, and the newest, greatest gear invention – the Camelfront? ...among many other crazy, whackadoodle things? Yep, it’s here. It’s these woods, and it’s with these people.

Happy and blessed.

Mirror Lake. This was the view from our camp Sunday morning.