“Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” – John Muir
In years past, I would head out for a night or two in the woods and take some sort of adventure to get there. I would use that time for introspection and personal growth. I find a lot of benefit in getting outside of my comfort zone. Some of my favorite memories are from those trips.
Recently, one of my favorite people in the world started hiking the Ice Age Trail and this year has been checking off segment after segment. She invited a group of friends to join her when we can, and it worked out to do a hike the weekend of September 25-27th, 2020. I had plenty of time to locate proper gear that I’m currently lacking, thanks to a generous friend. I love the planning and preparation of these trips. Unfortunately, a couple of days prior, that friend was ill. The prospect of back-to-back 11 hour days and a significant drive to/from the trail was not happening. I was already packed and by that point really looking forward to some adventure. With the encouragement of my amazing husband, and the trail information from my friend, I decided to do a solo. Just one night in the woods. I would depart midday Saturday and return Sunday. And then Friday as I was preparing for work, my husband was checking the weather. Storms Saturday night, but just a chance of light rain Friday. It was clear I should head out Friday after work! The whole segment is 14.5 miles (supposedly). I would hike nearly 5, camp, then hike 9.5 the next day. Not bad. I am fit and active. My pack weighed 22# even with 2 quarts of water. Several times during the hike I thought about the fact that I used to carry the equivalent of 2 of those packs wherever I went by way of excess weight!
It has been 5 years since I’ve done a trip like this. Yes, sleeping in Wisconsin’s Northwoods in a tent in the middle of nowhere both scares and excites me. I felt energized as I did my Friday morning work and got the final things ready to go. I was in a great head space, and happy to be bringing our adopted Red Heeler, Kyah, on her first such adventure!
I reviewed the map with my husband, made sure I had a copy saved on my phone, made sure we had tracking apps on our phones, let my mom know my plans, and wore my ID bracelet. I posted nothing about it on social media. Safety first!!! And then I was off to the woods. To hike the Harrison Hills segment of the Ice Age Trail. I parked the van, put packs on both Kyah and myself, and off we went! 3:30pm. Yeah it’s called Harrison “Hills” for a reason! My goodness! On top of Baldy Hill I caught my breath and took in the view. I decided once we crossed Highway 17, I would take a water break and check the map.
I had been so excited that I parked west of the highway instead of east. Basically I was going the wrong way. And I had to turn around, get over Baldy Hill, and hurry it up a bit to find this supposed campsite in time to set up before dark. I do carry a headlamp, but it’s just much easier in the daylight! As we hiked back towards the van, I noticed Kyah’s pack had come open and she was missing her cloth booties and half of her food!! Crap! So, we turned around again…. collected the items as we went, and made a pit stop at the van for a safety pin to hold her pack together, bug spray I had forgotten, and to top off water.
Heading the correct direction, I picked up the pace. I noticed my heart rate was 130-145. Also I noticed the scenery and it was absolutely amazing. The fall colors are perfect. The bugs are minimal. The breeze was blowing through the trees and rustling the leaves. And you know the smell of the forest in autumn??? Yeah….. I just want to drink it in and savor it…
At about 6:15 I saw a sign that said “Campsite –>”. YES!!! There are 2 in that area, but I figured if this one was empty I’d happily take it. Not only was it empty, it was gorgeous. Right on a beautiful little uninhabited lake, complete with a fire ring. The MSR Hubba 1-person tent that I borrowed practically sets itself up. It’s so easy! Next was the Big Agnes Axl Insulated Sleeping Pad (also borrowed) and a warm, lightweight quilt. Camp was set up.
I boiled a little water and added the following mix: herbed dried potato flakes, homemade ranch style seasoning blend, crushed soy curls, dehydrated veggies and a scoop of plain pea protein powder. Tasted great! I had a belly full and my dishes washed by 7, which was good because it was getting dark fast. I put on my headlamp and started searching for things to make a fire.
And then a large black animal came running at us!!! What the ????? It was my friend, Brenda’s dog! And then Brenda! I felt such joy in seeing her smile. While I was fine with the solo night in the woods idea, visiting around a little fire with this friend was even better. She knew where I would be and knew where to park to make it a quick hike in for herself and her sweet, crazy black lab named Spoke.
I put Kyah’s cloth boots on before letting her in the tent, to protect the air mattress and tent from her dog claws. She curled right up and fell asleep. Honestly it was so nice having her there. Between that, a friend nearby, and the quality gear I was borrowing, it was some of most pleasant camp sleep I’ve ever had. I listened to the coyotes and to the random sounds from the lake, like maybe a fish or a frog jumping. The weather was perfect, with just a couple drops of rain early on in the evening.
Saturday morning we had a casual time of breakfast (oatmeal), coffee and packing up. At 8am we hit the trail. At the 0.5 mile point, we stopped at a stream to fill my water bottles. My filter, which I haven’t used since probably 2015, was producing only a tiny drop of water at a time. So, Brenda came to the rescue with her better filter, got me all topped off, and sent the filter with me for the day.
I just have to say I really appreciate her friendship. Brenda is one of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. She inspires me. AND she is super fun! Some of my favorite memories from mountain bike racing include her. Anyone reading this who knows her, knows what I’m talking about.
Onward! As I previously stated, I was in for about 9.5 miles on this day. I was feeling good. I was happy to be using trekking poles for my first time. With the rugged, leaf-covered trail, they saved me many times from a potential sprained ankle. They helped offload some of the pressure on my knees on descents and helped me climb up some really steep hills.
In the absence of some major life decision or dilemma to ponder, I pondered gratitude as my theme for this adventure. Gratitude for the absolute beauty of moraines and kettles. For the colorful display of leaves. Purple asters. Large quartz rocks. Lichen on trees. Moss on rocks. Wind rustling leaves. Crazy steep hills. Views for miles. A husband who loves me and supports my adventuresome spirit. Being able to let go of the barriers to love that I’ve held for so long. My body. My friends. My dogs. The volunteers who maintain this rugged, “hummocky” trail that weaves through so many little lakes.
Around 5 miles in, an old and unwelcomed feeling came to the outside of my right knee. I’ve dealt with chronic connective tissue pain for over a decade. It has a lot to do with why I stopped racing mountain bikes. This year has been the best in a very long time. But, here it was. Every downhill step by about 7 miles in made it a bit more intense.
My rhythm was to hike 2 miles and then take a break to remove my pack, drink water, eat 1/2 of a No Cow protein bar, and take care of Kyah. My pace was around 24 min/mile. I knew I could finish the 9.5 although other connective tissues were telling me to be done soon throughout both legs and feet. I like to finish what I start. I could rest the next day. I’m not good at quitting when I commit to something.
At mile 8 I came to a small trailhead and had enough phone service to see the radar (rain coming) and the map. 3.7 more miles?!?!?!?!?!? I may have had a little meltdown. There may have been swearing. Kyah found a dead rodent to roll in with her pack on. I was out of food, anticipating being done at 9.5. I may have been struggling for gratitude in those moments. But, we kept going. In fact, mile 10 was my fastest. I was getting to the point of just wanting to be done due to the pain. I did stop to appreciate the scenery a few times, though.
The last 0.3 miles I could hear the highway and I started to actually run. I wanted to have the pack off and sit down. It felt so good to reach that sign!!! I felt accomplished and relieved. I reached for my phone to call my husband, who was to pick me up, and….. seriously??? No phone. F**** me. I left both my pack and Kyah’s there and headed back up the trail. About where I had started running is where it lay. Thank goodness!! So, I got over 12 miles. I sat in the ditch with Kyah, notified my husband who was mountain biking with a friend nearby, and listened to thunder rolling in. My phone alerted me to a severe thunderstorm warning. He was still riding. An hour after I got to the highway, there he was, just in the nick of time! He rescued me, and we stood in the rain visiting with our friend over a beer or two 🙂
I’m so glad I had this little adventure. It will be awhile before I try again, because clearly I’d need to better prepare my body for that type of activity.
Read more about the terrain here: https://www.ci.merrill.wi.us/index.asp?SEC=D55A65EB-671A-450D-B5A2-BD9EF5AC7F21&DE=982148AC-D9BC-44BB-8F9C-FA067DDB595D