Lake Camping: Beach Days at Big Bay Town Park

Last week I wrote about the history of Madeline Island, how it became a part of my life, and why I love it so damn much. But it’s not just my own sentimentality that makes The Island such an incredible place. If you like beaches, sailing, really any kind of outdoor activity, if you like exploring quirky small towns or funky bars, you dig history, or stargazing, then you’ll be crazy about Madeline Island.

Big Bay Town Park campsite and beach map
Map of Big Bay Town Park

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of big campgrounds. When I go camping, I go to get away from humans, and surround myself with the peacefulness of nature. Big Bay Town Park is the exception to the rule. Surrounded by a forest of birch, White Spruce, and Balsam Fir, the campground is situated on a 2.5 mile, sandy beach along the shore of Lake Superior. Separating the beach from the campground is the Big Bay Lagoon that parallels the shoreline with 130 acres of tranquil, island dotted, wilderness paradise. It combines camping with a beach vacay which, like wine and cheese, is the perfect combination.

Big Bay Town Park has 61 campsites, including primitive drive-in, walk-in, and electric sites. It’s one of two campgrounds I’ve ever camped at that had flush toilets, and even coin operated showers (though, with Lake Superior right there, they seem unnecessary). Like most things on The Island, it combines modern comforts with Madeline’s own eccentricities. You know the park is a little different when you pull in and see the sign that says, “8 m.p.h. is plenty.” That is Madeline Island.img_0138

We always choose one of the “old” campsites. One of the primitive, drive-in, original sites, filled with beautiful, tall, old trees, and backing up against a hill that drops down into the marshy wetland surrounding the lagoon. The campsite is deep, quiet, with a picnic table, fire pit, plenty of room for our three tents, and even a bonus second picnic table this year. Even better, it was one that I’d carved my initials into several years earlier.

It didn’t take us long to get our site set up. It struck me how different the whole process was when I first started taking my kids camping. I taught them immediately how to set up the tents, and get a fire going, how to gather the best kindling, and prepare for a storm, but they needed a lot more direction and supervision when they were younger. Now they just unloaded their tents, set them up, and started setting up the picnic table area, hanging the clothesline, and hammock. It was a proud camping-mom moment.

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Once we’d made our campsite our home, our first priority was to head down to the beach. It’s the beach at Big Bay Town Park that makes this campground so amazing. From our campsite, at the far end of the loop, it’s about a quarter mile walk to the beach. My childhood friend, Zach, his fiancé Kim, their son Stone, and a whole group of friends they’d brought with them, were already down there as my kids and I started our walk.

Walking through the wooded campground at Big Bay Town Park isn’t like walking through a KOA. There’s no playground, no concrete, no pool. Instead you’ll find cozy, rugged, peaceful campsites, filled with couples and families on vacation, groups of friends looking to hike, kayak, fish, or just spend a few days soaking up the sun on the beach. It’s generally quiet, despite the number of people that can fill this campground up.

We crossed the large dirt and gravel parking lot that’s lined with more campsites, past the Park Office, and bathrooms, and the wood shack that’s replenished daily with firewood, to the trail that leads to the bridge over the lagoon. Every step we took, my excitement grew. Of all the things I love about Madeline Island, one of my favorites is the view of the Big Bay Lagoon.

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The parking lot leads to a wide trail, cut through the birch trees, above the lagoon. Before reaching a set of wooden stairs that descends to the bridge, the trees open up to reveal the lagoon below, stretching across the 130 acres separating Big Bay Town Park’s campground from the sandspit of 2.5 miles of golden sand beach. It’s my favorite view in the world; tiny, green islands, some with small, sparsely filled trees, fill the landscape as it reaches deeper and wider into the distance, surrounded by lush, wilderness, with the blue sky above, its reflection on the water. I could stare at that view for hours.090-001

We descended the staircase and crossed the wooden bridge to the beach. Few people were still there as the sun had begun to set, and it was dinner time. We walked down the boardwalk that runs the length of the beach and found Zach, Kim, and their group of friends easily. Kim was in the water, beckoning us to join her, while Zach and some of the other adults were relaxing in the soft, cool sand, and the kids horsed around nearby.

I immediately took off my shoes and slipped my toes into the water at the shoreline. The lake was calm, and as I stared out across the bay, and felt my feet sink deeper into the sand as the gentle waves kissed my ankles, I knew I was home. I was connected to The Island, engulfed by it, complete and content. Every breath I took seemed to fill me with her energy and nourish my soul.

Once sufficiently filled with Island Spirit I joined the others on the beach. Zach has been my brother’s best friend since they were infants in daycare together. He’s very much my brother from another mother, I’ve known him most of my life. And like my siblings and I, Zach’s love affair with Madeline Island began when we were kids. He came to spend the weekends there almost as soon as we started going there ourselves. In the winter months, when my mom, sister, and I would opt to spend some weekends back in Duluth, Zach and my brother would spend the entire sisterless weekend outside, building snow forts, sledding, playing on the frozen lake, and watching movies in the parsonage. He fell in love with Madeline right along with us, and feels just as strong a connection to The Island, and to Big Bay Town Park, and he’s passed that love onto Kim and their son, just like I have with my own kids.

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We spent every single day on that beach for the week we were there. It was the first year that the weather had completely cooperated the whole time we were camping. Every day was warm and filled with sunshine, and the lake wasn’t even as paralyzingly cold as usual. Each morning Olivia and I would take our biodegradable soaps and shampoos down to the beach, slide into the lake, and take the most glorious lake-baths you could imagine.

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During the day, particularly on the weekends, there can be a good number of people on the Beach at Big Bay Town Park. However, despite its number of visitors, it’s easy to escape the crowds and have a whole section of beach to yourself. With two and a half miles of beach at your disposal, all you need for some solitude is a willingness to hike a ways past the other beach-goers. With the boardwalk that now connects the Town Park to the State Park, with the exception of one missing section with a sandy trail, it’s easy to find the perfect, quiet spot to spend the day.

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Big Bay Town Park is an exceptional place for kayaking and canoeing. Whether you want to explore the lagoon, the bay itself, or even head out past the point to admire the rocky coastline of The Island, there’s an option for everyone, from beginner to pro. At the end of the bridge along the boardwalk one can rent kayaks or canoes for a reasonable price, so BYO kayak isn’t even necessary. Just head to the beach and look for the short, super tan, thin, barefoot man, with the messy, gray, beach hair, and welcoming smile.142

Though the beach is soft, golden sand, there is a field of polished stones that stretches the length of the beach along the water’s edge. Every time we get in the water we look like we’re having some sort of seizure as we step cautiously across the rocks. But once you get past it, it’s nothing but sand. Soft ridges of wave-rippled sand beneath the clearest, cleanest, most refreshing water imaginable.

It’s Lake Superior, so of course it’s cold. Some people won’t even go in, and I consider them ridiculously wimpy, as it’s not that bad (except when it is). However, it is one of those times when it’s just better to dive right on in and get it over with rather than slowly easing in deeper. Every time I go under, and come up for air, I’m breathless. It’s invigorating, a slight shock to the system that reminds me I’m alive, wakes up the senses. This year, it was warmer than usual, though still cold enough to feel amazing after lying under the blazing sun, and walking to the shoreline across the hot sand.DSC_0927

While I spent most of my time at the beach soaking up the hot sun while lying on the sand, or taking pictures, my boys spent it throwing the football around, or tossing sticks for the dog Zach and Kim’s friends brought. Stone and his friend Lily made up games, built sand castles, and splashed around in the lake for hours. Everyday was a different mix of people, and everyday seemed more perfect than the last.

Back at the campsite, my son Gavin and Zach had frequent Corn Hole tournaments. Bryant, my older son, even joined in on a number of occasions, and often with Stone and his little friend, Lily, cheering on whoever they had decided they wanted to win in that particular moment.

Kim, my daughter Olivia and I could often be found sitting around the fire; cooking lunch, or just chatting and laughing. One of the things that made this trip so special was spending time with those ladies. It’s quality time, without the distraction of cell phones, or TV, or any other connection to the outside world. Kim and I have spent very little time together in the grand scheme of things, just a week of camping during the summer for the past several years, yet she’s one of my most cherished friends. Perhaps a part of it is that we met on Madeline Island, and that it helped us form a bond that is characterized, in great deal, by how connected we feel to, and how much we both love, The Island itself. But whatever the reason, I genuinely treasure the time I get to spend with Kim on those trips, and wish I could have more of her in my life.

Big Bay Town Park by day is a beach vacation dream come true. At night, it becomes a whole new, and even more incredible an experience. Be sure to come back next week for LadycationSunday when we explore Madeline Island after sunset! Don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest tips, trips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking my friends.

~Steph

 

Madeline Island: A Brief History of Wisconsin’s Secret Paradise

Not all my ‘cations are Ladycations. Though I love getting away with my ladies, I also love getting away with my kids, and my favorite place to take them is to my childhood home on an island in northern Wisconsin (yes, Wisconsin has islands).img_8822

Madeline Island is a small island in Lake Superior. It is the largest, and only of the Apostle Islands that is inhabited year round. It’s 14 miles long and 3 miles wide respectively, and has a permanent, winter population of 302. That number swells to 1500 when the “Summer People” arrive.

The Island has a rich history going back to its first settlers: the Lake Superior Chippewa, a band of the Ojibwe people. According to legend, the Gitche Manitou, or “Great Spirit,” told them to go west until they found the place where “food grows on the water.” They traveled west along the south shore of Lake Superior until they came to the wild rice growing in the marshes along the lake shore near Chequamegon Bay. They eventually found, and settled on the island, naming it Mooningwanekaaning, meaning, “Place of the Golden-Breasted Flicker Woodpecker.” IMG_5557

In the 1600’s, French fur traders established one of the first colonial settlements in the region, that quickly became one of its most important trading outposts, and later the island’s town of La Pointe. Because most men worked outdoors during that time, beaver skins, which were waterproof, were a hot commodity. Native Americans would trade them for things like knives, blankets, and other goods.

With such lucrative fur trade, of course, came more white settlers, anxious to trade with the Ojibwe. This time they were British. A rivalry between the French and British, both vying for control of the fur trading industry, came to a head in the 1660’s during the Seven Years’ War, ultimately resulting in the French relinquishing all their territories east of the Mississippi to the British, including Madeline Island, and the town of La Pointe.

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The American Fur Company on Madeline Island.

After the War of 1812, control of the fur trade was gained by the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor, in 1808. If that name sounds familiar, it’s either because you’re a well informed history buff, or you watched the movie Titanic. Indeed, Mr. Astor’s great-grandson and namesake perished aboard the vessel when it struck an iceberg a century later. You may remember hearing he was the richest man aboard Titanic. That fortune began with his great-grandfather’s fur trading company, making him the first multi-millionaire in the United States.

As tends to happen when white people “discover” land and encounter its native population, missionaries weren’t far behind the traders. Jesuit priests were the first to arrive and establish a mission to the Ojibwe. The first Catholic church no longer stands, but on the site where it was erected remains the “Indian Cemetery,” a misleading name for this burial ground given its origin in Catholicism, and the fact that both Native Americans and white settlers alike are buried there.img_0137

Among the cemetery’s Native inhabitants is The Island’s namesake, Madeline Equasayway Cadotte, daughter of Chief White Crane. Madeline married Michel Cadotte, the son of a French-Canadian father, and Ojibwe mother. His marriage to Madeline helped him become the lead trader in the area.  Another notable figure in the cemetery is Chief Buffalo, or Kechewaishke. The Lake Superior Chippewa’s Chief for the first half of the 19th Century, Chief Buffalo was instrumental in securing land for his people by resisting the US government’s attempts to push them westward, signing treaties that granted them permanent land in the area. The reservations at Red Rock and Bad River are still home to many Lake Superior Chippewa today.img_5482.jpg

Though few Ojibwe still live on the island, Native American history is still very much a presence on Madeline. From the Ojibwe translations on the town’s signage, to the ceremonies still held on the sacred lands, Mooningwanekaaning honors its history as the Lake Superior Chippewa’s spiritual center.

The second church built on Madeline was a protestant mission in 1832. “The Old Mission” was built on land that now houses the La Pointe Post Office. In 1925 a new church was built a short distance down Main Street, St. John’s United Church of Christ.833

It’s that church that brought my family to Madeline Island in the late 1980’s. My dad was an out-of-work pastor who ran a non-profit organization in the island’s nearest city: Duluth, Minnesota. “The Anchorage” ministered to the working people of the city’s downtown area, providing counseling services, fellowship, and Bible studies. It was through this ministry that a member of one of his Bible studies suggested he talk to the church council at St. John’s.

Before too long our family was loading up our minivan and driving 90 miles every weekend to my dad’s new parish on Madeline Island. It was supposed to be a summer gig. The church was in the process of looking for a permanent pastor, one that would be a full time resident on the island. We thought it would be a few months in the summer and then we’d be back to business as usual in Duluth.img_8900

What started out as a summer job turned into a fall job, then a winter job, then a spring job, then another summer. While the church council sought a full time, permanent pastor willing to move his family to this tiny and, in the winter, somewhat isolated community, our family was falling in love. Our parents were making cherished, lifetime friendships, while us kids spent our summers swimming in Lake Superior’s crystal clear (albeit freezing cold) waters, eating pizza and ice cream at Grampa Tony’s, and riding our bikes all over the island. In the winter we would go sledding, build snow-forts, and cross country ski across the lake. My siblings and I all agree, our time on Madeline Island afforded us the most idyllic childhood imaginable.

When St. John’s found a full time pastor we were devastated. Though we’d known this was always the plan, Madeline Island had woven its way into our hearts. It had become a part of us. We belonged there. Even as a kid, I could feel it: The Island was special.img_9100

Lucky for us (though not for he or his family), the new pastor turned out to have some mental health issues. Once he was hospitalized, they asked my dad to come back and fill in for a couple weeks. And once it became clear the other pastor would not be returning, we were ecstatic. My dad tried to keep us Christian about it, rein in our celebrations of another man’s nervous breakdown, and teach us some humility. But as a kid, all I cared about was that we got our house back, our beach back, our friends back, our home back. The fact that it came at another man’s expense was inconsequential to me. I just wanted to go home, and by any means necessary. Suffice to say, my dad’s lessons didn’t stick that time around.

Instead of going through the painstaking process of finding another pastor all over again, the church offered my dad the job as permanent part time pastor. We could remain in Duluth during the week, and come to “our” island every weekend, just like we’d done before. We continued doing this until we moved to Cleveland when I was 18 years old, when the weekly travel had become too much for my mom’s failing health.1123

Leaving again, knowing not only would we not be returning each week, but that our new home was almost 1000 miles away, was indescribably difficult. No place else has ever felt like home the way Madeline Island did. Not even our actual home in Duluth held the same level of sentimentality. It was Madeline Island that made me realize “home” isn’t a building, it’s a state of mind. “Home is where the heart is,” as the saying goes, and my heart is on Madeline. Always. It’s like a piece of me is always there, and until I’m there, too, a part of me is missing; as if I’m not complete unless I’m there. I’m my most authentic, contented self when I’m on The Island. I think one of the reasons I love backpacking is that it’s the closest I’ve come to recreating that feeling.050

That’s why almost every year I load an absurd amount of camping gear into (and onto) my car, grab the kids, and head north. I want my children to share my love of The Island, to feel the serenity that I feel when I board the ferry, to appreciate the natural beauty and quirky community that makes Madeline Island my favorite place in the world. I want them to keep visiting long after I’m gone, to share the sacred piece of land with their children. And since I already have my burial plot there (the best Christmas present I ever received. Thanks, Dad!), in the same cemetery where my mom was laid to rest, I think I’ll get my wish. Wanna visit my grave when I’m gone, kids? You know where to find me. No, I’m not above manipulating my children from beyond the grave for a good cause.

This summer, like most, we were Island bound. Since my daughter is now a sophomore in college and considering an internship next summer instead of coming home, I saw this as possibly the last family vacation I’ll get to take with all my children, at least for a while. As always, we spent the week camping at Big Bay Town Park, a paradise in its own rite.img_8664

Big Bay is a literal bay on the island’s eastern shore. Flanked by red rock cliffs on either end, it’s home to a 2.5 mile golden sand beach, a lagoon, and both the State and Town parks. The Town Park, which we prefer due to its lagoon access, a lower price tag, and plain old nostalgia, has drive-in campsites that back up against the lagoon, and are surrounded by White Spruce, Balsam Fir, and even Birch trees. At night the sounds of croaking frogs, and the haunting call of loons fill the air, occasionally mixed with the distant sound of crashing waves when the winds kick up, and Lake Superior shows her might.

While we spend our days on the beach soaking up the sun and splashing around in the Great Lake, night brings a totally different, and even more incredible experience, in the same place. With almost no light pollution, Big Bay is a phenomenal spot for stargazing. On clear lights the Milky Way is on full display, and when conditions are right, you may even see the Aurora Borealis. Meteor showers are particularly amazing, as you seemingly have a front row seat to seeing every single one that streaks across the sky.img_8622

This summer was especially awesome. We arrived at the ferry in Bayfield at the same time my childhood friend (actually my brother’s best friend since birth, so he’s like my other brother) arrived, and our vacation had begun. Zach, his fiancé Kim, and their son Stone, who still live in Duluth, join us every year for a week of camping on The Island. They’re some of my absolute favorite humans in the world, and getting to spend that week with them each year makes the whole experience all the more special.

So, though it’s not technically a Ladycation, I hope you enjoy this next collection of stories as I try to capture my childhood home, and most cherished place: Madeline Island. Thanks for reading! Join me next week on LadycationSunday as my peeps and I begin our week-long camping adventure at Big Bay Town Park! And don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

 

 

 

Hiking Recovery: Hot Tubbing in Asheville (with Beer and Pizza)

After spending three nights backpacking through the mountains in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, eating little more than granola and crackers, all we could think about was food. Hot food. Fried food. Cheese-covered food. Cheese-filled food. Really, any kind of food that’s unhealthy, hot and greasy.

As we left the mountains we picked a random restaurant and sat down, suddenly acutely aware of our appearance and smell, but not caring cause we were starving. We’d been at the table for less than a minute when a waitress came over and directed us towards the buffet. Ummm, what? That was definitely not what we had in mind. Hard pass on the mountain buffet, thanks. So instead of getting up and getting in the line, we got up and headed right back out the door.

However, once we’d smelled food, we went from starving to freaking ravenous. Of course, there was essentially nothing between the buffet restaurant and Asheville, so we had a while to wait before our hangriness would be satiated.

While trying not to think about our stomachs, our focus turned to how unbelievably sweaty and filthy we were. It’s amazing how amplified smells become once in a confined space–like my car. We had the windows down, but dayyy-um. We stunk. Had we not left the buffet on our own, we may have been asked to leave anyway. Since we needed gas and wanted something to drink, we pulled into a gas station, grabbed a clean change of clothes, and headed inside.

Lindsey went in the ladies room and, since they were single occupant rooms, I went into the men’s room to get cleaned up. My clothes felt like they’d fused with my skin as I peeled them off. I was covered in sweat, dirt, scrapes and bruises, and I don’t even want to think about the mixture of smells coming off me as I dropped my dirty clothes to the floor, and wiped myself down with paper towels and gas station handsoap. img_8242

Meanwhile, as I was finishing up, someone started pulling on the door of the bathroom. Not knocking on the door like a normal person, mind you, but jiggling the doorknob and shaking the door like they’d never come across a locked bathroom in their entire lives, and couldn’t imagine what was preventing it from opening. After the third time they tried, I yelled, “Occupied!” and finished getting dressed.

I exited the bathroom to see a very angry, confused looking man standing by the potato chips, arms folded across his chest, staring at me. Not only was he perplexed by a locked men’s room door, but when it finally opened, and a woman came out I think I blew his mind. He muttered something under his breath as he went in, and I simply smiled and said, “Yeah, you have a great day, too.” in my most passive aggressive, condescending, but not overtly rude voice. I already missed the solitude of the mountains.

I think one of the biggest challenges Lindsey and I face on our Ladycations is finding restaurants that accommodate both my unbelievable pickiness, and Lindsey’s healthy vegetarian diet. There are probably five foods we both actually like (thank god she likes cheese). Luckily, we found a place that had a veggie burger and fried cheese curds just a few minutes from our AirBnb, that also had a patio. And since I was pretty sure our gas station baths hadn’t completely solved our stench problem, a restaurant with outdoor seating had serious appeal.

Lindsey ordered a beer, I got a Coke, and we sat there sipping our drinks, and munching on the giant basket of cheese curds we ordered, while listening to the locals around us. I’ve never spent any length of time in the South, so it was quite a new experience for me to hear so many southern accents and people saying “y’all” as often as I say, “you betcha.”img_8234

We devoured our food until we were both so full I wasn’t sure we’d be able to walk. I felt like I needed a wheelbarrow to carry my gut as we walked back to the car. We passed several hippie shops and street fairs on our way to the beer store, so we decided to explore the neighborhood before heading back to the AirBnb for the night.

From everything I’d heard about Asheville, I was expecting to immediately fall in love with the place. Unfortunately, I don’t think we were in the area people fall in love with. The number of homeless people sitting and sleeping on the sidewalks was both heartbreaking and rather shocking. There was a homeless man sleeping in a storefront doorway, several folks with their dogs taking up the entire sidewalk in front of another shop. I’ve never seen so many homeless people congregated in the same place like that anywhere but New York City. So while I’m sure the rest of Asheville is amazing, the area we were in sort of just made me sad.

We did some window shopping and checked out one of the street fairs, but ultimately decided that we were way too exhausted to explore, or deal with the throngs of people wandering around. All we could think about was the amazing shower and hot tub awaiting us at our AirBnb.img_8232

I was the first to shower, and wow. . . I honestly don’t think I’ve ever taken a more glorious shower in all my life. The bathroom at our AirBnb was as large as my bedroom at home. The shower itself was big enough for a party and even equipped with a dual rainfall shower head and a bench to sit on. I stood in there for far longer than necessary simply because I didn’t want to get out.

After we’d both taken extra long showers (double hair washing, deep scrubbing of every inch of flesh) we realized we were actually hungry again. Since we had no desire to go anywhere we ordered some pizza, then climbed into the hot tub in the backyard. We were still in the hot tub when the pizza arrived (much to the amusement of the pizza delivery guy), and only stayed out of it long enough to stuff our faces and grab another beer.img_8244

We stayed in that heavenly hot tub for hours and hours, talking and laughing and drinking our beers, before Lindsey finally decided she needed to hit the sack. I smoked a little bit before deciding it was time to get out. It felt so good, and I knew that once I woke up it meant our Ladycation was over, so I resisted going to bed until far later than was probably wise. But that’s just how I roll.

Once inside and dry, I surveyed the damage to my body. The dirt was washed away, leaving a multitude of scrapes, scratches, bruises, and bug bites in all their glory. I couldn’t help but laugh. I looked like a 7 year old boy on summer vacation. Battle scars, I thought. I’d climbed up that mountain, across rivers, over trees, through swarms of bugs, and had lived to tell the tale.

Even now, 4 months later, as I write this, I’m looking at the scar where one of the overturned trees caught my shin and tore away the flesh. My whole body has scars: my left knee from when I slid down a gravel hill as a teenager, the finger I sliced with an Xacto knife as a kid when I was trying to teach myself to whittle, the stretch marks from growing three human lives. Our scars tell a story, they show where we’ve been, what we’ve been through, what we’ve survived. I realized that each and every unsightly mark on my body has a story, and all those stories help make up my story. I wouldn’t be who I am without them and the experiences that they resulted from.img_8251

That night I went to bed with a grateful heart. I was grateful for the hot tub that had just soothed away 3 days worth of aches and pains. I was grateful for the break from reality, and the chance to get out of town for a few days. I was grateful that those days were spent with my best friend and number one travel companion. I was even grateful for the struggle of Day Three when I thought I might not make it up that damn mountain, for it’s the struggle that helped me appreciate everything else.

Would that hot tub have felt as incredible if I hadn’t worked my ass off trudging up the mountain? Hell no. It’s the struggle, the pain, the hurt, that allow us to appreciate so much more thoroughly when we aren’t struggling, in pain, or hurt. If everything is great, nothing is great. We need the contrast to provide perspective.img_8254

The next morning we stopped for breakfast at the Sunny Point Cafe before we hit the road. A bright, eclectic, hipster-type establishment, the food was delicious, the helpings plentiful, and the service was great. As an added bonus, the restaurant chooses a different local non-profit organization each month to partner with. When you leave your tip, you can also leave a donation in the dedicated envelope on the table. Breakfast with a conscience. This is the kind of place I’d expected when coming to Asheville.

The long drive home was a relatively quiet one. I think we were both still tired from all our adventures, and all talked out from the night before. Instead of conversation we were both in our own worlds, silently reflecting on our trip and the battle scars we were taking home with us, proud of what we’d accomplished, and ready to start planning our next Ladycation.

Thanks for reading! Check us out on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and don’t forget to follow Ladycations here on WordPress to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Hiking Forney Creek to the Appalachian Trail: A Complete Guide

Parking: There is plenty of parking near the visitor’s center, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be parking right next to the trailhead. Clingman’s Dome is a popular destination, even for those who don’t plan on hiking. It can get pretty crowded, particularly on summer weekends. My advice is to arrive early.

Distance: This loop begins and ends at Clingman’s Dome and is a total of just under 23 miles. There is an elevation gain of nearly 4000 feet, and the trail is rated as strenuous. Before embarking on this trek make sure you’re physically fit enough to manage the climb.

img_8160-1Terrain: When we hiked this route there were a lot of obstacles on the trail. From rocks and roots that tripped us up, to overturned trees we had to climb over, to the multitude of river crossings, this trail will test your physical limits as well as the integrity of your gear.

River Crossings: This trail crosses the river more than a dozen times. You are going to be very wet by the time you’re through. Be sure to pack a good pair of water shoes and your trekking poles. The rivers swell in heavy rains, so be sure you pay close attention to the weather leading up to your hike, and adjust your dates or your expectations accordingly.

Water: As long as you have a water filter, you’re not going to have a hard time finding water on this trip. The trail follows Forney Creek, and all the campsites have sources of fresh water. Just don’t drink it until it’s been filtered or treated!

img_7960Campsites: There are several campsites along this route, all of which require a reservation, which you can obtain online through their backcountry permit system. Permits are $4 per person, per night, with a maximum charge of $20 per person. Some of the campsites are actually shelters, so make sure you have some kind of mosquito netting if you plan on sleeping in one!

Wildlife: As with a great many wilderness locations, there’s a lot of wildlife in the area. This includes, but is not limited to, bears, snakes, and a whole lotta bugs. Bring a lot of bug spray, and always be mindful of your surroundings. Click the link here to learn how to stay safe in bear country.

Bathrooms: Aside from the shelter on the Appalachian Trail, there are not pit toilets on this trail. You will need to pack your trowel for when nature calls, and be sure to adhere to the rules of Leave No Trace: keep your bathroom visits 200 feet from all trails, campsites, and water sources.

Climate: The temperature will vary depending on when you make this trip. Always check the weather before your hike, and be sure you pack layers in case the temperature drops. And regardless of what the weather report says, pack your rain gear! The Great Smoky Mountains are not known for their dry climate, so even if the weatherman is calling for sunshine, a shower can come seemingly out of nowhere. Be prepared.

5 Keys to Successful Backpacking

A lot of people ask me how I can trek into the wilderness for days at a time. They can’t fathom a vacation that involves that much work, and so few amenities. Some of them surely think I’m crazy. And while there’s certainly more work involved than a luxury vacation with pools and room service, the reward more than matches the effort. Here are 5 key things you can do to help ensure a successful backcountry backpacking trip.

IMG_3369Drink a Shit Ton of Water: If there’s one thing that can ruin a backpacking trip faster than you can say, “I’m thirsty,” it’s dehydration. Headaches, dizziness, lack of energy, muscle cramps, rapid heart rate, even confusion, fevers, or fainting; these can all be caused by dehydration, and prevented by drinking plenty of fluids. Remember that you need to drink considerably more water than you normally would, your body needs it. Take breaks, remind each other if you’re hiking with friends.

And make sure you’re replenishing your electrolytes, too. Fruits high in potassium like bananas and avocados, or coconut milk are great, but to save on weight and space, you can always take packets of Gatorade powder to put in your water bottle. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, people!

img_7992Stretch Like Crazy: In addition to dehydration, not stretching can cause muscle aches, along with stiffness, and potential injury. You’re working the hell out of your body, trekking all over the backcountry, carrying all your gear. Getting a good warmup before your hike can help prepare your muscles, and help prevent injury. But make sure you stretch afterwards as well, to help lengthen your muscles and relieve the tension that builds up throughout the day. Few things feel better after a day of hiking than a nice, deep stretch.

img_8132Learn About, and Be Prepared for the Terrain and Wildlife: Every area is different. Whether you’re hiking in the mountains, the desert, the ocean, or the forest, do some research. Never hike in a new area blindly. Do you need to bring a tide chart? Special gear? What kind of predatory animals are in the area, should you bring bear spray? What about poisonous snakes and spiders? How much elevation change is there? Will you need rain gear? I could go on and on, but the best thing to do is just research the hell out of wherever you’re going, and prepare accordingly.

When Lindsey and I hiked in Washington we knew we’d be in bear and cougar country. In Arizona, Mary and I were watchful for rattlesnakes and scorpions. Washington required warm layers, and rain gear. Arizona required a shitload of sunscreen, shorts, and a bathing suit. That’s the fun of backpacking! You get a whole new adventure every single time!

IMG_3853Get Really Good Hiking Boots and Socks: Don’t skimp on this. Your feet are invaluable. Do yourself a favor, treat yo’self. I’m not a name-brand girl. You’ll never see me carrying a Coach purse, or wearing Jimmy Choos. I choose to spend my money on experiences as opposed to stuff. But those experiences can go to hell really quick when a hot spot on your foot turns into a gnarly, painful, oozing ulcer.

Lindsey didn’t break her boots in before our trip to Washington. After one day of hiking she had small blisters on her heels, and sore spots on the balls of her feet. By our last night her heels were giant, open wounds, and the blisters on the balls of her feet went between her toes, and were filled with goo. It was horrific, and it kept her from climbing the final couple miles to the fire lookout tower at Mt. Rainier. Trust me. Buy the best damn boots you can find, and quality socks with plenty of padding, and moisture wicking, and BREAK THEM IN! You’ll regret it if you don’t!

img_5727Embrace the Simplicity, Let Go of Your Pride: You’re in Mother Nature’s house, now. Respect it. Admire it. Enjoy it. Don’t get wrapped up in things like how bad you smell, how dirty you are, what your hair looks like, not having internet access, the fact that you may have to bury your poop. . . The biggest benefit of backpacking is that you can let go of your ego and just embrace being surrounded by the beauty and majesty of nature. It’s humbling, to be sure. But we could all use a little humbling every now and then.

Luxury vacations may be relaxing, but backpacking, when done right, can free you of all the mental clutter that accumulates in the everyday grind, and give a sense of both mental and physical strength that simply cannot be matched by laying around a pool for a week. Best of all, a night or two in a luxurious establishment is the perfect way to recover from your badass, wilderness adventure. And you appreciate it even more, cause you know you earnedthat shit.

If you follow these 5 simple steps you’re well on your way to a successful and amazing journey! Be sure to check out my other posts for more tips and stories of our Ladycation adventures. Thanks for stopping by!

~Steph

Back to Backpacking: Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains

It had been over 6 months since I’d strapped on my backpack and headed into the wilderness. The winter had left me yearning for green trees and wide open spaces. Seasonal depression is no joke. Add to that the loss of endorphins due to stress fractures bringing my running to a halt, and I was one giant snowfall away from a full-on meltdown.

I always go west when I travel. I just feel drawn to it. But there’s some pretty spectacular country east of Ohio, and most of it is only a day’s drive from home. With time and available funds being an issue, Lindsey and I decided we’d explore some of what the Eastern US has to offer.img_7776

I ultimately settled on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’d always heard Asheville, North Carolina was my kind of place: good food, near the mountains, full of hippies, lots of art, and a drum circle on Fridays. Yes, please. It’s less than an hour from the National Park, and seemed like the perfect place to recover from some mountain hiking. Before long I had our entire trip planned and booked.

Speaking of recovery, it had been a rough winter. . . My year of activity had taken its toll, and a series of athletic injuries had left me laid up for months. I was most definitely not in the same shape I’d been in the last time we’d trekked into the forest. I had gained some weight, and lost all the muscle I’d worked so hard to build. So though I was determined to hike in the mountains, I should’ve realized how much more of a challenge it would be this time around.Screenshot_2018-08-19 Backcountry Permit System - Great Smoky Mountains National Park (U S National Park Service)

The first two days of hiking I’d planned only totaled roughly eight miles, and were all downhill. We’d start at Clingman’s Dome and take the Forney Creek Trail to campsite 68 for the first night. Day two we’d hike to campsite 70. The third day was going to be the challenge: eight miles and almost 4000 feet of elevation gain, we’d trek all the way up Jonas Creek Trail, to the Welch Ridge Trail, until finally meeting up with the Appalachian Trail, and spending the night at Double Spring Gap Shelter. We’d take the AT back to Clingman’s Dome to complete the loop on day four, then drive to Asheville for a night before heading back home. I definitely overestimated my athletic prowess and backpacking readiness when planning this trip.img_7736

Unlike our previous Ladycations, we were road trippin’ it this time! We met at my house on a Wednesday after work, loaded our packs into Mary Jane, my trusty VW wagon, and hit the road.

Since we didn’t get on the road until after 5:30, we had reservations at a cheap motel just outside Lexington, Kentucky for the night. Finding cheap motels in Kentucky is like finding corn in Nebraska. They’re everywhere, and for $56 a night, I was impressed. The Quality Inn in Berea, Kentucky was clean, quiet, with comfortable beds, and a limited, but decent continental breakfast. I will, however, say that the guy working night shift behind the desk was creepy as hell. He was most definitely on drugs and potentially a serial killer, with a stare that, when directed at me, I can only describe as feeling like I’d been visually licked. I dead-bolted the door that night.

We set out the next morning and drove to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The forecast had been predicting rain, but the sun was shining down through puffy, white clouds on an absolutely perfect day. We walked around the observation area, admiring the brilliant green of the forest covered mountains, and I could feel my spirit start to lift.img_7787

We headed towards our destination for night one: Campsite 68. It was only a few miles, and all downhill, but once we’d gotten past the first half mile of well maintained, gradual, man-made steps, things got a little trickier.

The trail winds back and forth across Forney Creek and was riddled with rocks and tree roots. We hiked more slowly than usual, using extra care so as not to roll an ankle or face-plant into the dirt when a root caught one of our feet. Every so often the creek would cross the trail, making the uneven path wet and slippery. Despite my best efforts my clumsiness kicked in, and I bit it while crossing a particularly slick spot. I went down on my side, my pack slowing the crash. Apart from the bruise to my ego, I was unharmed, and we were able to laugh at my mud-covered self and keep going.img_8239-1

I’d read that we would encounter over a dozen river crossings throughout this trip, and as we’d crossed over slippery, but not particularly “rivery,” points I wondered if that’s all we’d come across. Shortly thereafter we came upon a legit river crossing, where the trail ended at the riverbank and picked back up on the other side. We took a break and had a snack as we assessed the situation and plotted our course. Once we were ready, we changed into our water shoes and stepped into the river.img_8043

The water was cool and refressing, moving fast and ferociously as it cascaded down a series of waterfalls that didn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. I could feel the knee-deep water pushing against me, and we were cautious about maintaining our footing. Had we slipped it would’ve been nearly impossible not to get injured in the fall. Knowing that one misstep would mean certain disaster, and feeling the might of Mother Nature as we fought against the current was such a rush. We’d been nervous when we began, now we’d realized that what had given us apprehension turned out to be the most fun part of the hike. Just another example of why ignorance is not necessarily bliss.

 

We reached Campsite 68 by early evening and were absolutely blown away when we arrived. Though the name is a bit lacking in pizzazz, the site itself was incredible. It’s a beautifully shaded site nestled in the trees, and right on the riverbank. There are several spots for tents, a central fire pit, and a waterfall that rolls effortlessly down polished stone like Mother Nature’s water slide. The sound of the water flowing down the smooth, flat rock, and crashing into the boulders below was indescribably soothing. As an added bonus, the entire fire pit was filled with firewood. Home sweet home!

 

We set up camp and did some yoga stretches before Lindsey decided to meditate for a while, and I started to get our campfire going. Though we’d had a perfect, sunshiny day, it had definitely rained recently (which also accounted for the river being so high). All the wood was wet which made getting it burning a challenge, but eventually I had that bad boy roaring. There’s something about starting a fire that feels good on a primal level. It’s like the caveman instinct that tells us, “fire good, fire life,” is still hiding in a corner of my psyche.

 

We ate our dinner around the fire as the sun went down and the shadows crept in. When darkness descended, the light show began. With the stars shining brightly through the treetops, the forest itself lit up with hundreds of lightening bugs. I mean, they were everywhere. It was so spectacular that we just sat there for hours watching the whole world sparkle all around us.img_7997

Unlike when we hiked in Washington and had to pile on layer after layer at night to stay warm, the temperature never dipped below 65 degrees that night. Though we didn’t need the fire for warmth, the bugs were eating us alive when we weren’t near it. Next to the fire there were no bugs, but I felt like I was melting. One of the benefits of the seclusion that comes with camping in the backcountry is the lack of dress code. As I discussed in a previous post, I love being naked in nature. There aren’t too many feelings as liberating or humbling as standing stark naked before the stars, surrounded by the trees and all of Mother Nature’s other creations; unified in a state of natural, bare vulnerability. So, since I knew Lindsey wouldn’t care about seeing my boobs, I ditched my shirt and sports bra, and let the cool night breeze and the warmth of the fire kiss my naked flesh. It was the perfect combination of sensations.

Eventually I put my shirt back on and we settled in next to the fire. We stayed up late, or rather Lindsey stayed up later than usual, talking and alternating between watching the lightening bug show, the blanket of twinkling stars, and just being mesmerized by the flames dancing in the fire. We were consumed with our surroundings, acutely aware of every sound, every movement in the forest, every crackle and pop of the fire. I felt so present, so grounded and serene. It was everything I’d been craving throughout the long, Cleveland winter.img_8223

Lindsey ultimately called it a night around 1am, and I followed not long after. We’d had as perfect a day as we could’ve imagined, and went to bed with the sense of tranquility, clarity, and strength that we’ve come to expect from our outdoor adventures. It’s like immersing yourself in the loving embrace of Mother Nature’s arms. And who doesn’t feel great after a hug from Mom?

I was also pleased to discover that I don’t have to fly to far away places to get my nature on. I could hit the road in the morning and be in the mountains by dinner time. Knowing such a beautiful place for my forest therapy is always within reach provided a sense of relief. Like, Well, if I approach a nervous breakdown, I can flee to the woods on one tank of gas and be sleeping on a mountain within hours.  Ohio may not have much by way of serious backpacking opportunities, but it isn’t as out of reach as one might think. That’s good information to have.

 

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to take this journey with me. I’d love to hear your comments! And don’t forget to come back for LadycationSunday to read all about the next chapter in Lindsey and I’s Great Smoky Mountain Ladycation Adventure!

Check me out on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and make sure you follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking my friends!

~Steph

 

When Mother Nature Strikes: A Las Vegas Kinda-Cation

Half the fun of taking a vacation is planning one. Researching where to stay, what to see, where to eat, what to do; it’s part of the adventure. I’m a planner, it helps get me psyched up for the main event. That means I always have a very clear vision of what my trips will be. But the Universe doesn’t always cooperate, and all the research in the world can’t save the best laid plans from a blizzard.

Winter in Cleveland is a dismal time. The trees are bare, the grass is brown, and leaving the house in the bitter cold of morning freezes your soul as much as your flesh. Sure, the snow is pretty while it’s falling, but soon it turns to dirty, gray sludge that outlines the entire city. Seasonal depression is all but inevitable.img_6724

In January I was in full hermit mode. A series of athletic injuries had left me laid up for months by that point. I was feeling fat and lazy, and leaving the house for any reason seemed like more trouble than it was worth. I needed to flee. I needed to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, see a color other than gray, just get the hell out of the Midwest for a while.

I recruited my fellow Ladycationers, Lindsey and Mary, and began planning our adventure. We only had four days and a limited budget to work with, but we needed to get far enough away to escape the cold and snow.

My first and only time in Las Vegas had been the previous year for my step-sister’s wedding. I hadn’t really had the desire to go to Vegas, I’m more of a nature girl. But the kids and I hopped on a plane and partied with the whole family for three solid days. I had such a fantastic time that I vowed to go back–without my kids. Flights from Cleveland to Vegas are pretty cheap, and splitting a hotel three ways wouldn’t be too terrible, but it wouldn’t give me the nature fix that I so desperately needed.img_6736

Lucky for me, Google has all the answers. I looked at a map, realized how close Zion National Park is to Las Vegas, and the decision was made. Two nights of camping and hiking in Zion, followed by two nights of partying on The Strip. The perfectly balanced mini Ladycation.

I booked our flights, hotel room at the Paris, campsite, our rental car, I even bought our tickets to Zumanity by Cirque du Soleil. Everything was all set. We were going to flee the CLE and spend four days in the sunny Southwest. I was excited for Vegas, but Zion was all I could think about. I spent hours looking at pictures, researching trails, checking the weather forecasts, and reading blogs. I could barely contain myself when the day finally arrived.img_6762

Mary and I met Lindsey at the airport, and we all made it through security without incident. After toasting our friendship and the adventure to come with a cocktail at the airport bar, we boarded the plane, a trio of excitement.

That’s when it all went to shit.

It began snowing about twenty minutes before we boarded. Big, fat, wet snowflakes slowly drifting from the sky and covering everything in sight. We sat on the tarmac for over two hours watching it fall faster and thicker with each passing minute. Every half hour or so the captain would update us, “We’re just waiting for clearance to take off, we’ll be in the air soon” “We’ve been here so long they have to deice us before we can take off, we’ll be on our way shortly,” “That took so long that we have to wait for the runway to be plowed, shouldn’t be long now.” We all knew that was bullshit. No way were we going anywhere in the midst of the first blizzard to hit Cleveland in two years.

At two and a half hours they finally returned us to the gate–still claiming we were only delayed–and had everyone disembark the plane, supposedly to refuel. All the flights in our terminal had been canceled, so I wasn’t the least bit surprised a few minutes later when the announcement was made that our flight had been canceled as well. img_6645

Even thought I knew it was coming, to say I was angry would be the understatement of a lifetime. Not only were we not flying out that night, we couldn’t get on another flight until two days later. Those were the two days in Zion. My idea of what this vacation would be vanished, as though buried under the snow, and was replaced by absolute rage and despair. If I said I handled the situation with grace or dignity I would be lying. I was in tantrum mode.

We stood in line waiting to re-book our flight and I wanted to start a riot. Suddenly screaming like a maniac, tearing at my clothes and throwing chairs through walls didn’t seem all that unreasonable. So, when the Susie Sunshine behind me in line kept going on and on about how “no one can control the weather,” and we all “need to relax,” I started imagining what my fist would look like lodged in her face. If there’s one thing I can’t abide when I’m irrationally angry it’s someone telling me to relax.

My brother braved the roads and picked us up, the trio of excitement now a trio of sadness. The minute I got home I ordered pizza and poured myself a glass of wine, determined to eat my feelings and drink away my sorrows. On the plus side, I was far less aggressive and dickish by the time I cracked open bottle of wine number two.

img_6650Two days later, the three of us were back at the airport, this time more apprehensive than excited. I wouldn’t get excited until our plane was in the air. Thankfully, Mother Nature was more cooperative, and when the wheels finally touched down in Las Vegas, and I saw the light beaming atop the Luxor, and palm trees dotting the landscape, I was so happy I nearly cried.

My cousin Luke and his wife Kelly had driven up from Phoenix to meet us. They’d planned on hiking with us, but had instead enjoyed a couple days of kid-free time on The Strip, just the two of them. Knowing how frustrated we were with our two days of missed vacation, they were prepared when we arrived. They met us at the Paris and had three giant Eiffel Tower margaritas in their hands so we could begin drinking immediately. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have the best family ever.img_6659

Lindsey had tickets to see Zedd that night (a dream come true for her). Not being Mary or I’s scene, we dropped her off at Caesar’s Palace to dance the night away, and the rest of us hit The Strip. We set off with Luke and Kelly, exploring the casinos and hitting up a marijuana dispensary (obviously).

Luke and Kelly had never been to a dispensary, and I found great joy in being the one to facilitate their first experience. They didn’t partake, but we did get a discount for having Luke, a military veteran, with us. Though I know it made him uncomfortable (he gave a fake phone number for fear of going on a registry) he was a good sport about it. I know it can be weird for someone who’s not a smoker to be around that scene, particularly with the amount of misinformation out there, and the stigma that surrounds us “pot heads.” But they handled it with a sense humor and a grain of salt.img_6669

Since Luke and Kelly had a long drive the next morning, they retired early. The other major downside to our missing days of Ladycation was the limited amount of time we had with my fam. After we hugged them goodbye, Mary and I spent the remainder of our night walking from casino to casino, admiring how different each one is from the next, having many, many drinks, and trying a few slot machines.

The rest of our trip was typical Vegas. We walked the strip, we gambled, we went to Fremont Street, we saw a Cirque du Soleil show, and we watched the fountains at the Bellagio. It was great time, but I felt like a shadow was cast over the entire weekend, as I couldn’t fully get past the disappointment of missing Zion. It was the hiking, the escape from civilization, that I’d been so desperately craving. Although being drunk most of the time did help ease the pain (or at least make me forget about it).img_6668

Isn’t it strange how often we’re victims of our own making? We had two fun-filled days in Las Vegas with no work, no kids, no obligations, and legal cannabis, but I couldn’t escape the thought, “we didn’t get to . . . ”

I’m not going to say we can control how we feel, and I’m definitely not going to say that any emotion, be it happiness, anger, fear, sadness, or anything else, is wrong. However, what we can control is how we respond to those emotions. I know a lot of people will probably say we should be in control of our emotions 100% of the time. Maybe they’re right. However, I’m more of a let-yourself-feel-your-shit-for-a-minute kind of woman. If you need to be pissed off, go for it. Be pissed. If you need to cry, cry your freaking face off. Own your feelings, identify them, and learn how to channel them into something productive and get the hell over it; move on.

If I pretended I had it all figured out, that I was living a perfect life, and have all the answers to life’s greatest questions, I’d be a big, fat liar. No one has it all together (regardless of what their Pinterest boards or Instagram pages tell us). Everyone has good days and bad, moments of weakness and times of triumph. And every time we have a new experience we learn how better to relate to the world around us, making us better prepared for the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation. You live, you learn, folks. Alanis Morissette was right.

So while our mini Ladycation wasn’t what we’d hoped it would be, I’m thankful we were able to get away at all. And I’ve learned that I need to get better at being ready to accept the travel challenges and disappointments that are inevitable for anyone who travels with any type of frequency.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back next week for another chapter! And remember to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph