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.img_8936

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 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, passed 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 that make Madeline Island so special, one of them is the view of the Big Bay Lagoon.img_8637

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 to the right 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, grass covered islands, some with small, sparsely filled trees, fill the landscape as it reaches deeper and wider into the distance, surrounded by lush, green, wilderness, with the blue sky reflecting on the water. I could (and have) stare at that view for hours.090-001

We descended the wooden 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 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 The Island’s energy.

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.DSC_0958

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.118

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.094

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 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.

All Uphill to the Appalachian Trail: The Hike That Made Me Say “F*ck” A Lot

We woke up early in the morning with our girl-power mentality in full effect, totally ready to conquer our day of serious hiking. The first two days were the warmup. I thought it would be sufficient to get my body prepared for our all uphill, hot, 8 mile trek up to the Appalachian Trail. I was wrong. Unlike the previous hike that crisscrossed the river over a dozen times, this hike only crossed the river once, and then was just. . . up. So much up.

It had only been about 7 months since I’d hiked out of Supai at the Grand Canyon. A trail that had defeated me a decade earlier, I conquered it with ease in October. I assumed, and very stupidly so, that because I’d done that hike without an issue, this hike would be no different. There were two super obvious things I hadn’t considered:img_8160

First of all, I didn’t take into account how out of shape I was compared to my fitness when I’d hiked the Grand Canyon. I’d gone from running 30 miles or more a week, and hiking on a regular basis, to running zero miles a week, and watching a shit-ton of Netflix. I’d gained 30 pounds, I didn’t even feel good, yet I somehow thought, yeah, sure, no big deal, I got this.img_8161

Secondly, I didn’t take into consideration the drastic differences between these two hikes. Yes, the hike out of Supai had been ten miles, while the hike in The Smokies was only eight. But, Supai only had about a mile and a half of switchbacks, gaining a total of 1500 feet in elevation. The rest of the trail was relatively flat. Jonas Creek and Welch Ridge Trails, on the other hand, gained over 4000 feet in elevation, and went uphill virtually the entire eight miles. It was on a whole different level than my Canyon hike.

I was doing alright for the first couple miles. In my head, I thought, we have to be almost done with the switchbacks by now. Every time we came to another bend, I’d hope against hope that the trail would level out as we went around the corner. And every single time my hopes crumbled as I looked up at another hill. My legs grew heavier and more clumsy with each step, and by mile four I was done. Fuck. This.img_8163

The sun was blazing down from a nearly cloudless sky, and the temperature was well over 80, but it felt like it was 100 degrees with the humidity. I was sweating so ferociously that each time I took a step another drop of perspiration would literally drip off my face, and into the dirt. I had the thought, if I go down, and they use rescue dogs to locate my body, it’ll be the easiest job those hounds have ever had. Add the astronomical number of gnat swarms that covered the trail, and I felt like a giant piece of exhausted, sore, easy-to-locate fly paper. Fuck this sweat. Fuck these bugs.img_8159

My clothes were drenched, my eyes were burning from the sweat pouring into them, my back was killing me, and I smelled like the inside of an NFL locker room. Extreme physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation, compounded by absolute disappointment in myself for how far I’d clearly let myself go during the winter months, had turned me into a bitter, bitchy, angry whiner. I tried to talk myself out of it, to remember that each step behind me was one less in front of me (something Lindsey tried to remind me of as well), but it wasn’t working. I just kept seeing the trail go up and up and up, and it felt like I was going to die on that mountain. Fuck this. I’m over it. This isn’t fun anymore.

I ran out of water shortly after we’d gone half way, which made me even more angry. I drank more than two full liters in less than 3 hours, and I still felt like I was getting dehydrated. Lindsey was kind enough to split what she had left, and though I am certain I didn’t appropriately express my gratitude in my foul mood, I was so thankful.img_8162

Just when the trail mercifully leveled out for all of 50 yards, and we were able to catch our breath, it narrowed and became so overgrown it was hard to tell if we were even still on the trail at all. Mostly it was just tall grass and ferns, but then the prickly branches started crisscrossing our path. Sharp, razor-like, evil, thistle branches that tore my arms and legs to shreds. Let’s just say that didn’t improve my mood.

By the time we finally reached the Appalachian Trail I was too tired and pissy to even get excited. I’d always wanted to hike on the AT, and instead of really appreciating that I was finally doing it, I just wanted it to be over. However, I still held out the slightest bit of hope that once we went over the next hill, and then the next, or maybe the next, that we would finally find flat ground, that the ridge walk would provide a respite from the uphill trek. That did not, in fact, happen.img_8184-1

When I read “ridge walk,” I thought of trekking across the narrow ridge at the top of a mountain range; breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains in every direction, the wind whipping through my hair. . .  That’s what I was expecting when we reached the AT. What it actually was was a forest that went slightly downhill on either side of the trail, and any views were completely obstructed by the trees. And we were still going uphill. On an ordinary day I would’ve been slightly bummed for about two seconds. On this hike, however, I was irate. I at least wanted all that work to yield the reward of a panoramic view of the Smokies.img_8190-2

When we finally reached the shelter I almost started to cry. Had there not been so many other people around, I probably would have. Instead of our usual solitary campsites, the Double Gap Shelter was booked solid, and there were already a half dozen people set up and milling around. They all seemed like perfectly nice people, and when our water filter broke (just like the last trip–I just can’t win with those things) they were nice enough to let us use theirs. But, I was not in a mental place that was conducive to socialization.

The bugs at the shelter were absolutely out of control. We couldn’t stand still for 15 seconds without being swarmed and eaten alive. Since we didn’t have any netting to put around our sleeping bags at night, and we really didn’t want to be around the super nice, but super chatty people (when they started singing I wanted to throat-punch them), we decided to just set our tent up in the woods behind the shelter.img_8175-1

We left the rain guard off the tent so we could feel the breeze and watch the sunset through the trees. Once we’d set up, we climbed in and did some serious stretching. Our bodies were wrecked. My back and my legs were so sore I could barely get in and out of the tent. I could practically feel the toxins leaving my muscles as I stretched as deeply as my body would allow.

With the physical relief came mental relief. Out of the bugs; dry, and in comfortable clothes, my aching muscles felt more relaxed, and I was finally able to appreciate where I was and what I’d just accomplished. I may not have been in top physical shape, but I just hiked eight miles up a goddamn mountain anyway. And I didn’t die!img_8202-2

We ate some dinner and smoked in our tent, while the sky turned various shades of orange and pink between the trees, as the sun sank below the mountain. We used what little daylight we had left to do some journaling, both of us in our own form of silent meditation, as we processed the adventure we’d just completed, and the one still yet to come. Before the last of the sunlight had been drained from the sky we were both passed out.img_8196-1

The next morning we awoke ready to be out of the mountains. We stretched some more before begrudgingly strapping our packs back on, and hitting the trail for the last leg. Though it was only two miles to where our car was parked at Clingman’s Dome, I was dreading every step.

We began walking through a forest that, with the morning light peeking through the old, moss covered trees, looked enchanted. Beautiful though it was, my fascination soon ended when the trail began going upwards. Not again, I thought. Still weak from the day before, my legs were not having it. Fuck. This.

We hiked slowly and quietly, too tired (and for me, too bitchy) for conversation, as we trudged up the trail. At one point I saw a building on top of a mountain peak, towering above everything else. I knew it was Clingman’s Dome, but I refused to believe that we could possibly have that far up still to go. Once I accepted that we did, in fact, have to climb all the way up that mountain, I strongly considered just building a log cabin right there next to the trail, and living like the Unibomber (minus the terrorism, of course) for the rest of my life.

By the time we reached the parking area I was half running, half falling to my car. I just wanted my pack off and to be sitting. My car has never looked so inviting. We got a lot of sideways glances as we emerged from the trail. Sweaty, filthy, exhausted, and loaded with gear, we didn’t blend in with the throngs of tourists who were just there for the view and the gift shop.img_8228

Once we took off our gear and chugged some water, we picked up a couple of souvenirs (bumper sticker for my car, keychains for the kids), and recruited a Park Ranger who was gracious enough to take our “after” picture. Then we climbed into Mary Jane and drove out of the mountains, bound for Asheville, where we had fried food, beer, and a hot tub waiting to reward us for all our hard work.

I was an odd mixture of emotions. I remembered the anger I’d felt during the hike, the desperation when I wasn’t sure I’d make it. But I also had this, “Holy fuck, I can’t believe I just did that,” sense of accomplishment. I had pushed myself, both physically and mentally, harder than I had in a long time. It really is true that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It was like in addition to exerting every bit of energy I had, I’d also purged my mind of all the negative clutter. I’d gotten exactly what I’d needed from this trip.

Thanks for checking out Ladycations! I hope you’ll come back for LadycationSunday next week to read the last chapter in our Great Smoky Mountains Adventure! Don’t forget to look us up on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Great Smoky Mountains: Forging Rivers and (not) Charming Snakes

So far, I’d been having a fantastic time in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Our first wilderness Ladycation in almost a year was proving to be just what the doctor ordered. Fresh air, sunshine, and none of the distractions of normal life; I already felt more clear and relaxed than I had in months.img_8095

Lindsey was sleeping soundly when I got out of the tent to a warm, sunny morning in the wilderness. We only had about 4 miles of hiking to do that day, so I was in no hurry to wake my bestie and get moving. I used the couple hours of morning alone-time to journal and sort through some of the thoughts swirling through my mind, while I listened to the sounds of the waterfall, and the song of the birds.img_8108

Morning also brought a new backpacking experience for me. I had yet to dig a hole to poop in, but the bliss of that ignorance had come to an end. So here’s my assessment of pooping in a hole in the woods: it’s really not that bad, but it’s a pain in the ass (no pun intended). The actual act itself isn’t wholly unpleasant, it’s the digging that sucks. Just finding a spot to dig your hole can be a challenge. Leave No Trace requires you to dig 200 feet from any campsite, water source, or trail, so depending on the terrain this can be nearly impossible. Once you find a spot, the next hurdles are the roots and rocks you’re probably digging through. Suffice to say, don’t wait until you really have to go to start looking for a spot, or things could get a bit uncomfortable.

Once Lindsey woke up we ate some breakfast and began packing up camp. We didn’t anticipate the short distance would take that long. However, we hadn’t taken the many river crossings into consideration.img_7917

The first crossing came shortly after leaving the campsite. We switched from our hiking boots to our water shoes, waded through the cool water, then dried our feet, and put our boots back on. It was less than a quarter of a mile later that we came upon the next river crossing. Clearly, switching our shoes out that often wasn’t optimal. We changed into our water shoes one more time and decided to keep them on for the remainder of the hike.

The downside to hiking in water shoes was our lack of ankle support or traction. The trail and riverbeds were uneven, and riddled with rocks, dips and tree roots. Throughout the course of the day I rolled my ankle three times. The final time I rolled it, it made the most horrific, bubble-wrap-popping sound I’ve ever heard. Lindsey thought I’d stepped on and crushed a stick. I had to keep going. No one was going to come rescue me (although, I would’ve given anything for Ranger Blondie Buns to come walking out of the forest at that moment), so I womaned up, and we kept on moving.

I had been hiking in front of Lindsey for a while, totally in my own world, when I heard her behind me, “Oh hell no, what the fuck, Steph?! Did you see this thing? How did you not step on it?!” I turned around to see what she was freaking out about, and was alarmed to see a rather large, unmoving, but definitely scary looking snake right in the middle of the trail. Judging from the diamond-like pattern down his back, there’s a good chance it was a rattlesnake, but I didn’t get a closer look for fear of finding out the hard way that I was right. The fact that I somehow didn’t step on him is an absolute miracle. Lindsey gave him a wide berth as she passed, and we spent the rest of the hike hyper-conscious of the path before us.

img_8046Our next obstacle was a downed tree that was blocking the trail at one of the river crossings. We’d climbed over and around several trees that day already, but this was an old, tall, thick-trunked tree that was perched in such a way that we weren’t immediately sure how we were going to get past it. In hindsight, a simple solution would’ve been to just take off our packs and climb under, but that thought somehow never occurred to me (or maybe I was just too lazy to take my pack off). Instead, we decided to climb over. Both of us, balancing precariously, nearly face-planted into the ground from the weight of our packs pulling us down, but were grateful we didn’t since we landed right in the middle of a deep mud puddle. Covered in sweat, mud, scrapes and bruises, we were really starting to look like mountain-dwellers.

The final major river crossing of the day was a straight-up river forging. The swiftly moving water was waist deep, and very intimidating as we surveyed it from the bank. Before we set out to cross, we took a break for a snack and a smoke, and honestly to gather our courage.

Regardless of the low mileage in this hike, it was strenuous. So many ups and downs, and wading through rivers tends to use up more energy than hiking on more even, dry land. Add to that the fact that it was hot as balls out, and we were definitely running out of fuel quicker than we thought we would, on a hike that was taking significantly longer than we’d anticipated.

We stepped carefully into the river when it was time to cross. The current was powerful as we waded into deeper water and we were grateful (once again) for the extra stability our trekking poles provided. I have a feeling things would’ve gotten ugly if we hadn’t had them. I lost track of how many falls they prevented by the time the trip was over.

When the water reached our waists I was practically giggling with glee. It was so much fun! It felt incredible on our hot, sweat-sticky bodies, and the force of the waterfall trying to take us down gave us the adrenaline rush we love; just enough risk to be know we had to be careful, but not so much that we were paralyzed with fear.

This trail, though beautiful, didn’t have some of the advantages of the other trails we’ve traversed. There weren’t any sweeping views after leaving Clingman’s Dome, no massive volcano peaks, giant trees, rock formations, or ocean shores. But forging the river, and the plethora of waterfalls, gave this trek the unique characteristics that set it apart from your average hiking trail.

Once we emerged from the river we didn’t hike that far before coming to a bridge crossing that leads to campsite 70. The site was considerably larger than campsite 68, but far less aesthetically pleasing, and with a far more prominent critter population.img_8132

There were several separate areas for tents, all with their own fire pits. We chose a spot near the bear wire, where a makeshift table had been crafted from a downed tree. We set up our packs at the table, and put the tent in the shade of the trees near the riverbank.img_8126

The bugs were vicious. Mountains of mosquitoes, flocks of flies, boatloads of bees, and gnats galore were swarming everywhere. No amount of bug spray seemed to help, so it was time to get the fire going. This project was temporarily put on hold when we went to set up our tarp near the fire pit, and were greeted by a small, harmless, but totally snakey snake. He was only about a foot long, and was minding his own business, but he had to go. “Gray Worm,” as we chose to name him due to his color (and our affinity for Game of Thrones), had no desire to leave. We’d nudge him gently with sticks and he’d slither a few feet away, then coil right back up like, “Bitch, I live here. You leave.” If snakes had fingers, his middle one would’ve been extended for sure. It took some coaxing, but we were finally able to successfully evict him back to the forest, and were then able to get our fire roaring, and settle in for the night.img_8115

The lightening bugs didn’t have as much of a presence at the new campsite (basically the only bug that wasn’t there), but the fire was absolutely bitchin’. We stared at the stars as the light drained from the sky, and talked about how badly we’d needed this Ladycation. It felt so good to get a break from reality, a few days away from the chaos.img_8143

Lindsey went to bed early that night. As usual, I was not ready to hit the hay, so I stayed up and kept the fire blazing while I smoked, and admired the stars.

I kept hearing a scurrying sound behind me, and upon shining my light over the campsite, I saw a big, fat mouse darting around under the makeshift table. He took off once he saw my light, but he kept coming back, hoping he could find some dinner, and escape unseen.

I turned my light back on when I heard more movement near the table, this time it was an enormous frog. Or toad. I don’t really know the difference, honestly. But whichever he was, I wasn’t looking to hang out with him. He hopped away from the flashlight, but I saw at least a half dozen more before we left the site in the morning.img_8127

I started to get paranoid about all the creatures that could be lurking in the dark. I swore I heard something much larger rummaging around in the bushes in the adjacent campsite, but I never saw anything. I was a bit concerned it was a bear (or that Gray Worm had returned with his entire family, seeking revenge for our acquisition of their land). After a few minutes of trying to ignore the potential company, I decided to go just go to bed. My imagination was running wild, and whatever was going bump in the night wasn’t anything I wanted to come face to face with in the dark. Besides, the next day we’d embark on an eight mile trek up the mountain; I needed my rest.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll check out my other posts, and be sure to come back for Ladycation Sunday, with a new blog post every week! Follow Ladycations on WordPress, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

 

 

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