A Walk in the Woods

“I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.” ~Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods was (surprisingly) a delightfully engaging read. I realize I’m a latecomer to this book as it was originally published in 1998, but I picked it up in the name of research for my own non-fiction writing. I wasn’t expecting much in terms of new inspiration. I’ve read a lot of travelogues, and even more about both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails.  But I was inspired, in a wholly unexpected way.  He did something that I have had a really hard time with, especially lately.

Mr. Bryson forgave himself.

He set this life-changing goal of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, all 2,200 miles of it.  He’d mentally and physically prepared for, trained for, and scheduled for this incredible challenge.  He suffered through the first weeks of hiking when your body and your mind is adjusting to the activity.  He hiked until he learned to love the trail.  But when he realized he wasn’t going to finish all 2,200 miles, not only did he not wallow in the depths of self-pity, but he didn’t give up.  He. Kept. Hiking.

This would have been really hard for me.  Extremely hard.  Once I came to the despairing realization of not finishing, I probably would have given up the whole thing.  Why even keep hiking at all if I failed to reach my goal?  What’s the point?  With aching feet, depleting finances, and a lonely heart, I probably would have just walked to the nearest cell tower and arranged my ride home.

I’ve been so swamped lately in my personal life, with several lofty goals in mind that are taking me in several different directions at once, and I feel as if I’m not making much progress towards any of them.  But, reading this book, at this time, has helped a little.  Even if some of these goals are truly unattainable at the moment, that doesn’t mean I should stop walking towards them. Progress, even a little progress, towards any goal at any time, is worthwhile.

After all, getting something done, is more than getting nothing done. In the final chapter, Bryson mentions that yes, he fell short of the 2,200 miles of the trail, but measured by any other standard in life, the amount of miles that he did hike would be impressive not only to all of us, but to himself as well.  And he was satisfied with that.

And that’s the lesson I’m taking from this book. There is good in trying. Failure isn’t the result of not reaching a challenging goal, but rather the not setting one in the first place.  And so, I will keep working towards mine.

Happy Reading,
Cassie

~Note:  If you like audio books, this is a great one, with Mr. Bryson narrating himself.

Muddying it Up in Big Bend National Park

I’ve been organizing some old photos from our 2011 trip to the National Parks in the Southwest.  One of the great surprises of this trip was Big Bend National Park.  It may be a one of the lessor-known parks, but we loved everything about it… the smells, the silence, the window views, the wide-open spaces, the hot springs, and of course, the one and only, Ranger Dan.

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But what we loved most?  Playing in the mud!!

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Our hike along the Santa Elena Canyon trail on the banks of the Rio Grande started off ordinary enough.  But then the magic happened.  The magic of what kids do when they have the freedom to just… be kids.  They discovered a particularly muddy bank next to the rock face and the antics began:  the chasing,  the swimming, the slipping, the climbing, the laughing, the playing.  Even my 13 year old daughter had a blast with her younger siblings.

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And when we climbed out of that particular section of the trail, into the wide-open mud-flats along the river, they were actually crawling their way across the bank on their hands and knees, playing mud monsters.   I thought at first the well-dressed Japanese tourists were shunning me and my parenting methods as they watched my children crawl their way back to the car caked in mud from head to toe, but soon enough one of them pulled out his video camera and started recording their hilarious progress.  We were all, adults and children, Japanese and American, sharing the laugh together.

I will never, ever, ever forget that day.  What is one of your favorite National Park moments?

~Cassie

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Our Backpacking Debut: Part 1

“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  ~A.A. Milne

Can we do it?

The question rolled through my head for months.  My family of five on a four day backpacking adventure in an unknown park, two thousand miles away, without experience, and without a guide was a somewhat overwhelming adventure to plan.

But my kids were undaunted.  As soon as I said “backpack” they were assured of their success before I even had the opportunity to convince them.  The challenge exhilarated them, and inspired visions of Alaska wilderness survivors naked and fishing in streams as they built brush fires by rubbing two sticks together.   Thank you reality TV.  However, the adults in the household were teetering on the far side of fear.  My husband had nightmares of kids falling down cliffs and I did the mom thing where every potential danger is magnified to a situation of certain doom.

I mean, we were planning to hike 45 miles!  Someone was bound to twist an ankle, strain a muscle, tear a ligament, or simply collapse under the weight in a fit of tears and irrevocable stubbornness.  Or what if one of them became dehydrated, or suffered heat exhaustion, or got sick from water contamination?  What if we had a bad reaction to the insect bites we were sure to get?  What if we ran out of food, or couldn’t find water when we needed it?  What if we were eaten by wolves in our sleep?  I mean, anything could happen.

And there’s no doubt about it, anything could happen.  But is that reason enough to not do it?  I guess we all need a challenge at some point.  I mean, we’re American, it’s practically part of our moral code.   Eventually, I stopped worrying, started planning, and set my wild fears aside.  We talked safety, we read, and we prepared for the trip of a lifetime.   For in the end, a complete four-day immersion into the incredibly wild and remote wilderness of Isle Royale National Park is worth every bit of effort, and bravery, it takes to get there.

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2014 – Isle Royale National Park, Greenstone Ridge Trail

Getting Prepared

One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.”  ~A.A. Milne

Surprising discoveries are always nice, but not with your kids, in the middle of an unknown wilderness, with no cell service, two days hike from any help.  Be prepared for this trip.

Logistically, you have to think of this almost as planning for a trip within a trip.  Our entire 2014 road trip consisted of 33 days, 8 states, and seeing everything from parks to skyscrapers.   However, more people visit Yellowstone in a day then do Isle Royale all year, for good reason.  It is remote, difficult and expensive to get to, and fairly short on comfortable resources.  Do not expect ice cream shops and clean restrooms evenly distributed across the backcountry.  There are no motor powered vehicles allowed on the island, and in fact, if you can’t walk or paddle to it, you aren’t going to see much beyond the visitor centers.  Everything you need has to be carried in, and out.  However, there are other things infinitely more valuable to be found here:  untouched wilderness, astounding beauty, and solitude.

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2014 – Getting ready to cross Lake Superior!

Here are a 5 tips for getting prepared for Isle Royale:

1. Decide how long you will be on the island.  Spend some time studying trail maps and websites in order to determine which route you want hike and how long you think it will take.  Tally the number of miles you plan to hike each day and where you expect to camp each night.  I chose the Greenstone Ridge Trail, divided among four days.

2. Purchase your ferry tickets as soon as you’ve decided the dates that  you will be travelling to and from the island, as space fills quickly.   Unfortunately, this will not be a cheap park to visit.   Round trip ferry tickets for the five of us cost $700.  Then, you will have to pay a per person, per day, park fee in cash to the captain when you board the ferry.   Our fees came to about $60.

3. Acquire your backpacking gear:  a backpack with water bladder (for each hiker), a backpacking stove and fuel (nobody is gong to carry that huge Coleman double burner across an island), and the water filter are the absolute necessities, each ringing in at about $100.   Also, if you haven’t purchased durable hiking boots yet, now is the time.  Taking care of your feet is the most important thing.

4. Decide everything else you are going to carry in your packs.  I used the Isle Royale backpacking list that is on their webpage, as it is concise and tailored to the conditions on this Island, but you can find packing lists anywhere.  Aside from food, sleeping bags, and proper clothing, these are the things I would definitely not leave without:

  • Bug Repellant – and maybe even a face net.  Be prepared to do battle with an army of insects.
  • A small first aid kit – We used a lot of Cortaid and Ibuprofen.
  • Sandals – being able to remove your boots and wear a pair of sandals around the campsite is your new definition of bliss.
  • Cook pot, cup, and spoon – for boiling water, eating, and hot drinks
  • A plastic bag – for your dirty clothes.  They stink.  A lot.

5. Finally, before you leave home, make sure that everything you need, you’ve acquired, that everything you’ve acquired actually fits in your packs, and that once the packs are filled, every hiker can lift and walk in their pack.  Cheryl Strayed taught us all that this is no joke.  If you wait until you are on the island to pack and lift your backpacks for the first time, you might just turn around and take the very next ferry back to the mainland.

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2014 – Andy’s head net kept the bugs off and made him really happy while hiking!

You will have to make a decision about a tent.  All the really helpful and lovely people at REI will rightfully suggest for you to purchase a backpacking tent because they are very lightweight and take up much less space in your pack.  However, we had already spent a small fortune on this hike and decided to use our perfectly good, extra-large, pop-up, six-person car camping tent instead of buying two new backpacking tents.  We split the poles, the rain cover, and the tent body among our five packs.  Yes, we sacrificed weight and bulk in favor of frugality.  This may be the cardinal sin of backpacking.

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Many of our camp neighbors were laughing at our “huge” tent! ~2014 Isle Royale N.P.

Plan your meals for each day to determine how much food to pack.  We ate our last handfuls of dried fruit at our very last rest on our very last day.  I would advise carrying a little extra.  Instant oatmeal packets were great for breakfast.  For dinner, we split three dehydrated meals between the five of us and found it to be plenty.  For lunch and snacks we carried granola bars, beef jerky, dried fruits, and trail mix.  Make sure to add some M&M’s into your trail mix!  It was very motivating to have that little bit of chocolate during an afternoon rest.  Finally, make sure to carry hot chocolate or tea packets.  Whether it’s the end of the day and the total and complete exhaustion has set in, or a cool morning where you’re trying to get your sore muscles moving, the hot drinks are incredibly warming and comforting.

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2014 – Packed and Loaded:  Four days of gear, food, and clothing for five people.

Should We Practice?

When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure than an Adventure is going to happen.” ~A.A. Milne

Uhhh.. Yes.

Physically getting ready for backpacking takes time, and nothing prepares your muscles and joints for carrying the extra weight through day after day of hiking, unless you do it.

I planned on getting our backpacks and gear by April, and then doing progressively longer hikes together on the weekends with the weighted packs.  Great plan.  Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to great plans.  Extenuating circumstances like travel ball schedules, homework, real work, summer camps, and every other thing that pops up when you have three kids got in the way.  I think we bought our last backpack and pair of boots two weeks before the trip.  In an act of final desperation, the weekend before we left I forced everyone to drop what they were doing so we could go for a hike and at least try everything on.  Predictably, it rained and we couldn’t find the trailhead.   Thank you procrastination gods for that one last lesson in planning ahead.  We were “suddenly” out of time.

Within a few days, the house-sitter arrived, the truck was packed, we drove for 48 hours into the Eastern horizon,  saw a Twins game in Minneapolis, fished in Voyageurs, canoed Boundary Waters, relaxed at the Grand Marais Fisherman’s Picnic, packed our gear, and then boarded the ferry.  We had arrived.

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2014 – Arriving at Windigo!  The before picture.  So very excited for the unknown!

I’ll be back soon with the story of our adventure!

Happy Planning!
~Cassie

 

We have a Mountain to Climb!

I’m sure your kids have never complained about going for a hike in the woods, but mine do.. every single time.  So why all the hiking?  By now you might have noticed that most of my itineraries are centered around us doing a hike or five wherever we go.   However, I’ve learned the most important secret in the history secrets to hiking with kids.  Are your ready?  Here it is.  Once they are on the trail, they will stop complaining.  Every. Single. Time.

It’s all in the presentation of the task.  Kid’s love stories of superhuman hero’s and great epic journey’s.  They watch characters overcome incredible odds in their favorite movies.  Giving them the opportunity to accomplish their own great adventure, will not only inspire them to greatness, but will allow them the freedom to enjoy it without judgment.  They will create games, splash in the creeks, play in the mud, climb on the trees, and sometimes even stare in awe at the views.  And they will return stronger, more confident, and with a more adventurous spirit, ready to take on the next of life challenges.

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – Hiking the switchbacks up the Rampart Ridge Trail

Let’s talk about Mt. Rainier, one of my most favorite National Parks.  Why?  The hiking. The woods.  The smells. The views.  Everything is beautiful here, the hikes are challenging, and there is just so much to see and do!  We camped at the lovely Cougar Rock campground for three nights which gave us time for two very full days of exploring.

We kicked off our first day with the challenging Rampart Ridge Trail, a steep 4.6 mile loop!  Though the twins were only six at the time, they not only hiked up the endless switchbacks, but climbed on trees, dunked their heads in running streams, raced to the top, and made up silly games along the way.  Everyone completed the grueling uphill portion of the hike, we had fun doing it, and at the top we were rewarded with this priceless view of Mt. Rainier!

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – View from the top of Rampart Ridge Trail

After a long, lazy lunch we set out for our second hike of the day, a lovely romp along the famous Wonderland Trail to Carter Falls.  Although the waterfall was beautiful and well-worth the hike, our favorite part was crossing the Nisqually River!  This river was formed from the runoff of melting glaciers and so it is very wide and shallow with lots of boulders to climb around on and mud to play in.  The kids found endless ways to play on it’s rocky banks and we soothed our aching feet in the icy blue runoff waters from the mountains glaciers.  (If you like science, be sure to check out Rock, Ice, Life for a lot of ‘sciency’ information about this river and other features in our Northwest National Parks.)

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – Fun on the trail.  Fun on the river.

We began Day 2 at the visitor center in Paradise.  The paradise area of the park is well.. paradise.  It was still covered in snow in July, so we especially enjoyed the cozy visitor center while we explored all the exhibits and learned more about Mt. Rainer.  Our first hike of the day was the Nisqually Vista Trail, a 1.2 mile loop through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the park.  Although the hike was fairly short, it was exhausting trampling through more than a mile of snow!  And once again, although the kids were less than enthusiastic about a morning hike, once they were on the trail they had a lot of fun.  I mean, it’s snow!  Kids love snow.

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After lunch in Paradise, I overheard some strange mutterings of “No more hiking mom!” but I assumed they were somebody else’s children and we rode the Mt. Rainier Shuttle bus to our last hike in the park.  Comet Falls.  320 feet of breathtaking splendor!  The trail was only about a 4 mile round trip loop, but the hike to the Falls is a strenuous and steady 1.8 mile uphill trek, and half-way through a thirty day camping trip, not to mention spending the last couple days on the trails, the kids were a wee bit exhausted.  Once again, they approached the trailhead with all the exuberance of turkey’s on Thanksgiving.  Shocker.  I have to give them credit though; this time they came up with a whole host of alternative activities, but in the end what were my options?  Let them spend this beautiful afternoon in the wilderness sleeping in a tent?  No Way.  I found ways to get them laughing at me instead of dwelling on thoughts of quitting, and before they knew it, we were a quarter mile into the trail, they were resigned to finishing the hike, and suddenly they were just enjoying the simplicity of the moments, as children do.

Our path to greatness… setting out for Comet Falls.
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Climbing our mountain.
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A little rest…  I’m going to assume that look means “you’re taking another picture” instead of “why are we doing this?”
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Getting closer…
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Our first incredible glimpse of the plunging Comet Falls.
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We made it!  Standing at the base of the falls we could feel the pounding water through our feet, the powerful spray on our face, and the thrill of accomplishment running from head to toe.  Amazing.
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If the kids had given up before we even started, they would have missed this single irreplaceable moment.  This moment to learn that the most rewarding things in life, are often the most challenging.  It’s not something that can be learned through words; it has to be experienced.  I will never, ever forget that day.  The smiles on their faces.  The adrenaline that returned them swiftly back to the trailhead.  The laughter on the way home.   And for this reason, Mt. Rainier will always be one of my most favorite of all National Parks.

Happy Trails.
~Cassie