Walking (and Driving) on Water: Winter on Madeline Island

Madeline Island in the winter is a completely different experience than it is in the summer. Tourism doesn’t just slow down in the off season, it damn near stops entirely. Save for a handful of winter adventurers and an even smaller handful of badass, die hard locals, the island feels all but deserted from October to April. The stores and restaurants close for the season; Tom’s Burned Down Cafe boarded up, waiting for the warm breezes of summer; and you’re just as likely to see a snowmobile cruising down Main Street as you are an actual car. But the beauty of winter on Madeline Island cannot be denied.

You might be wondering how one gets to an island in Lake Superior in the dead of winter. Depending on the day and how cold it’s been, you could get one of three answers:

  1. Ferry. Happening with increasing frequency thanks to climate change, milder winters have meant a year round ferry season when the lake never fully freezes.
  2. Wind Sled. The least appealing and sustainable option, before the lake is thick enough to drive on, but after it’s too thick for the ferry, islanders travel back and forth to the mainland, skidding across the thin ice on what’s essentially an everglades boat with an airplane propeller on the back. Bring earplugs.
  3. Ice Road. The lake between the mainland and the island, once frozen, is actually considered a part of State Highway 13. img_1500

The Ice Road begins in Bayfield next to the ferry docks. With a speed limit of 15 miles per hour (to prevent creating wake in the waters beneath the thick, frozen layer of lake), and Islanders’ discarded Christmas trees marking the route, the Madeline Island Ice Road is, like all things on Madeline, something you just have to experience to fully appreciate.

The day I arrived was bitterly cold. So cold, in fact, that Duluth set a record for the coldest March day ever (a fact I was thrilled to have been present for). The entrance to the Ice Road was frozen solid as I slowly inched my rental car from land to the frozen expanse of lake before me, with sparkling snowflakes blowing across the well-worn path.

When I reached the middle of the “road” I stopped the car and got out, feeling like a kid again when my dad would stop and let us run around on the ice before continuing on our way. I realized very quickly that I hadn’t dressed appropriately for this adventure. Since I don’t own a winter coat, I was sporting two long sleeve tee shirts and two hoodies, jeans that had holes in them, and my cute, but not functional boots. I had a scarf, but no hat or mittens, and definitely no snow pants. My nose hairs were frozen within seconds. jonis beach madeline islandAfter taking a moment to appreciate the experience and revel in happy childhood memories I got back in the warm car and continued on, passing some ice fisherman, one other traveler, and the wind sleds parked at the island’s shore, before I felt my tires grip the solid ground of Madeline Island. I was home.

I drove down Main Street, past the closed up storefronts and eateries, the summer homes that had been winterized for the season; abandoned to the snow drifts until the spring melt. I passed my old house and church, Joni’s Beach, with the dock where I used to spend hours with my girlfriends, our feet dangling into the water. I drove around the empty marina with its lonely, snow-covered docks, and then headed out to my favorite place on The Island: Big Bay Town Park.

As I drove it occurred to me that unless the town was maintaining it during the winter months, the park may not be accessible. I was grateful to find the entrance plowed, but as I parked the car I realized I still wasn’t in the clear. Though the driveway was plowed, the trail to the beach most definitely was not. My jeans and fashionable boots suddenly seemed alarmingly ineffective. I hesitated for a few moments as the wind whistled through the air, wondering if hiking through snow up to mid-thigh was wise, but ultimately decided: fuck wisdom, I wanna be on that beach, and frostbite is treatable.

It took considerably longer than usual to reach the staircase that leads down to the beach. Trudging through snow that deep is no joke. I was winded and sweaty despite being freezing by the time I reached the end of the trail and was gazing out across the lagoon. Even in the winter, under a blanket of snow instead of a blanket of summer stars, the view took my breath away. Though, to be fair, that may have partially been the wind whipping in my face. So cold was the wind that my revelry ended significantly earlier than it does in the summer months.

The next challenge to getting to the beach was the stairs. Previous visitors had packed the snow down so tight that each step was now coated with a thick mound of ice. I once again questioned the wisdom in continuing, and once again was too determined to reach that beach to be wise. I slowly sidestepped my way down the stairs, across the bridge, and finally found myself standing safely on a deserted Big Bay Beach.

I thought Big Bay was peaceful at night, but I’d forgotten the peace of Big Bay in winter. Instead of the sound of the waves kissing the shore, the frogs croaking, and the loons calling, all you can hear at Big Bay in the winter is the wind as it blows the dusty top layer of crystallized snowflakes gently across the frozen expanse of the bay. The flat, snow-covered lake against overcast sky made it impossible to see the horizon. Everything had been whitewashed. The glare was so bright it made me remember that snow-blindness is a thing, and I was grateful that I had at least one piece of proper gear: sunglasses.

I walked out on the lake that I’d been skinny dipping in just a few months before, my feet crunching on the snow with each step instead of my toes sinking into the sand, and stared into the white void ahead, engulfed by the same sense of peace in my many layers of hoodies as I had been when I’d slipped naked beneath the surface of the water I was now standing on. Despite the cold I could’ve spent a lot more time enjoying the solitude of Big Bay. The feeling of absolute isolation was intoxicating. I was only on Madeline Island for about an hour. I could’ve spent days cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, sitting by a fire and staring at the stars, but I had a plane to catch, so I set off back towards the car. Miraculously, I made it back in one piece, without injury, and only a couple spots of frostbite (in the spots where my jeans had holes). As is always the case, even in winter, my visit home to Madeline Island was enchanting.

 

 

 

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.┬áMountains 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