Two weeks ago we returned to one of my very favorite places: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It offers solitude, unbelievable views, and a 40 plus mile trail that hugs the coastline of Lake Superior. Backpacking paradise.
As always, when you return someplace you love, it feels comfortingly familiar, and yet, the lake also never ceases to surprise me. This time with ice. When we planned our trip for May, we figured it would be cool this far north, but we never imagined the horizon would be painted white. It felt like standing on the edge of the arctic even though the trail is laced with sand. It was worlds-colliding-beautiful.
Each day of the trip we watched how the ice changed, moved, breathed. From the beach we could hear it cracking, shattering, and moaning as the sun melted it and the wind swept it into the shoreline and then pushed it away. Each morning we hurried from our tent to see what the ice had done over night. It was like a game. Hide-and-go-seek with the ice.
During the day, we would take breaks along the shore, half the time just listening, the other half spent skipping rocks between the ice and into the ice and over the ice. We sunk an iceberg with a steady stream of stones.
Our weather, for the most part, was sunny or partly-cloudy and shifted in heavy breaths from warm to cool to cold and back again. One night, sitting on the beach after dinner, the wind suddenly changed direction blasting us with icy air moving directly from the center of the lake, and the ice pack, to us. We hurried into our tent.
Sunset has always been one of my favorite times of day when backpacking, and the ice only added to the layers of shifting colors and shadows as the sun sunk into the distant water. Watching was like breathing in color.
Our trip refilled me. The pleasure of walking and looking and being in one of my very favorite places once again!
As 2013 comes to a close, and snow drifts down in lazy clumps outside my windows, it seemed like the perfect day to look back. I have been blogging here for just over 2.5 years, which seems crazy and unreal and wonderful. So today I thought I would re-post some of my favorite memories (oldest to newest with links to the blog post).
Thanks for sharing in our journeys and we look forward to new adventures in 2014!
Happy New Year!
The Adventure Continues…
Day five on the trail included a whole lot of wind! Wind, wind, and more wind. We started the day hiking along steep cliffs that dropped into the churning ocean. The trail hugged the coastline and wandered through wide open fields of heather, coastal grasses, and haphazardly placed boulders. It made me feel like a tiny speck compared to the landscape.
The wind pressed in around us, pushing us off the trail, and then back on, tossing us like toy boats. We saw no other hikers on the trail all morning and it made the power of the elements seem that much more intense. Here wind and water rule. They carve and shape the land.
The boulders, speckled across the horizon, also added to the magic of this sunny, windy day. The rocks looked like lost marbles dotting the land. Just before lunch we reached Motion Head, a small rocky point jutting out into the sea. I loved watching the waves pound this low-lying point. They crashed into the geometrically broken rocks and sprayed, several feet into the air, a wall of water fanning out towards the sky. Very cool.
In the afternoon, we ascended “The Big Hill,” aptly named. It offered us impressive views back down the coast, out into Motion Bay and took us through some of the prettiest wildflowers we saw on the trip. Waves of dancing, wind-swept pink.
At the bottom of the Big Hill, sits Petty Harbor, our favorite community link. It was spotted with bright-colored houses and friendly inhabitants and a little shop that sold us giant ice cream cones. We sat in the harbor, looking at all the fishing boats, sun on our faces, enjoying our treat.
The hike out of Petty Harbor takes you up onto another series of high cliffs overlooking Motion Bay. We enjoyed the views and particularly liked a little side trail that let us drop down into a tiny, rocky cove complete with a waterfall and clear, cold, blue-green water.
With all the wind, we settled on a narrow pocket under a clump of pine trees for our camp that night. And we heard the heavy gusts of wind plowing into the coast all night. We were glad to have found a sheltered campsite.
In the morning, amid overcast skies and a cool breeze, we set off for Cape Spear, the eastern most point in North America. We once again followed the coastline, seeing nothing but wide open space and endless views. We loved all the craggy beaches and little freshwater creeks that drop out of the coastal woods through the rocks to the ocean.
As we neared Cape Spear on our way to St. John’s we saw more day hikers, and got updates from the outside world, like the status of the Stanley Cup hockey series, and the weather. It is so interesting how you can just dip out of the world for five days, and I felt a twinge of regret as we realized we were headed back to “civilization.”
We took a lunch break at North Head, a spur trail on a large piece of land that bows out into the ocean. From here we could see Cape Spear, and the two lighthouses in the distance. I love that on this trail you can continuously see both where you have been and where you are going.
Cape Spear is an interesting mix of history, rugged coast, and tourism. We loved the old battery there and seeing the historic lighthouse, but it was strange to see fences and warning signs along the coast, keeping people back, putting the wild just out of reach.
Due to weather concerns we decided to make a final push on this day and hike the rest of the ECT. It would make for a long day, but I loved this last section of trail, especially once you reached the plateau that would lead us into St. John’s.
But first we wander along the coast, then headed up to the dummy fort on Blackhead, and passed through the tiny town of Blackhead proper. In this section I also spotted a humpback whale! A fellow hiker suggested looking for tour boats slowed or stopped in the water to help up your chances of seeing a whale, and that is just what happened. We saw a boat sitting ideal in the ocean, then scanning the area, I saw a blow. A few minutes later the whales back then tail. It is the first time I have ever seen a whale from land. Very cool.
We continued to curl down through a coastal woods and had small glimpses of the coves that pocket this section of the trail. In Freshwater Bay, we passed across “the gut,” a long stretch of rocks separating the fresh water from the salt water. It was tough on the feet and we were glad to head back along the coast.
This is where we went up and up and up. It was out steepest and most continuous climb of the trip, but it was also the first spot that we saw pitcher plants, the provincial flower, and something I had been really hoping to see. They are a strange and impressive flower with a deep pink and yellow belly and fuzzy “ears.” They seem a little alien. For the rest of the hike, we saw them in small clumps and standing alone on the edge of the trail like bright-colored jelly beans.
When we reached the top of the plateau you could see back to Cape Spear, out towards the harbor, and the distant ocean horizon. The sun poked through creating spot lights that dotted the landscape and as we crossed rolling rocks we passed through another section of beautiful, pink wildflowers. The landscape up here was very different from the rest of the trail and uniquely captivating.
Finally, we had to go back down towards the harbor, Fort Amherst, and St. John’s. It was sad to know that when we reached the bottom our time on the ECT would be over, but we were looking forward to a shower 🙂
What an amazing trip!
The Adventure Continues…
With clear, sunny skies, we continued down the East Coast Trail (ECT) past Cape Neddick to the LaManche Bride, a long suspension bridge that stretches across a quick-moving slurry of blue-green water. The bridge rocks slightly in the wind and offers some awesome views of the ocean and the river feeding into it.
Our next stop on the trail, and also camp #2, was one of my very favorite places, Doctor’s Cove. This pebble/boulder beach is tucked in behind a massive wall of rock and curls like a spoon before it opens to the sea. It was the perfect place for us to throw off our packs, set up the tent, and relax for the evening. We scrambled on the rocks, dipped our feet in the icy Atlantic, and had the privilege of spotting two seals at play in the cove. They spent as much time watching us as we did watching them! We fell in love with Doctor’s Cove.
The next day we tackled a long section of the trail (17.5miles) that included several community links. During this section we also met our first, and only, fellow thru-hiker. He was from Maryland, and it was fun to exchange stories and thoughts about the trail so far (he was headed south while we were headed north). During this stretch we also saw Gull Island, which was appropriately named, and swarmed with a cloud of birds so thick that without binoculars it looked like a heavy, gray cloud, crazy!
Today was also our first taste of the famous Newfoundland wind. As we ducked back onto the trail and pushed away from town we were tousled by gusts of wind as we soaked in long stretches of rocky beach. At Tinker’s Point it was so windy my shirt billowed out like a kite as I used the binoculars to search for whales. No luck with whales, but we enjoyed the 180 degree views. It is so neat to be able to look back at what you have already hiked and to look forward at what you will cross over in the future.
On this section of the trail we also loved all the deep narrow coves and the way the water rushing in pulled the pebbles up and back making a rock slide-waterfall kind of noise. It seemed like a day of endless beaches: rocky and blue and echoing with waves pushed by wind on a smashing collision course, overflowing with churning whitecaps.
But the section of trail right after the community link at Bay Bulls Harbor was probably our favorite of the day. By then the wind had pulled in clouds and it rained, heavy, then slow, then gave way to more wind and fog, but before the fog settled in we saw some amazing, massive rock sheets, broken in clean rectangular lines that stretched out until they disappeared underwater. It looked like giants had dropped huge slabs of rock into the water. These crazy rock formations lined the whole edge of Useless Bay. As we moved up the trail the fog rolled in. A thick layer the swallowed the sea and the coast and us. By the time we reached the Bull Head Light House, we couldn’t seem more than 10 yards in front of us. And we made a final push to Freshwater, the home of an abandoned village, marked now only by leftover stone foundations. We camped at Freshwater, happy to have a protected, flat space to sleep.
All night it rained and the wind gusted, but in the morning we woke up to sun and clear skies and an endless coastline. We decided to back track (without packs!) to see a few of the places hidden by fog the night before. The steep drops and sea caves at Dungean Cove were worth the extra hiking! We climbed up into the solar-powered lighthouse for 360 degree views and enjoyed seeing the same place in such a new way.
It was a day of warm weather (our only day in a t-shirt for the trip) and great views. At Sculpin Island we scrambled out on tilted rocks to get up close with a series of cascading water falls that dropped into the sea. We loved how these huge rocks lifted up towards the sky and then broke off and dropped straight down to the water. It was like standing on a chunk of ancient ruins.
As we continued down the trail we saw a series of impressive sea caves, a sea arch, and several huge sea stacks. The sun made the water a tropical-blue and we were a little giddy. Every corned seemed like another picture perfect moment. Our favorite sea stack stretched over a hundred feet into the air and was separated from the cliff by a small gap, like a missing tooth. The waves pounded the bottom and birds swirled around it calling to one another like white dots of confetti. As we skirted around it from the cliffs, we saw a bald eagle nesting on top of it like a wild cake topper. It was hard to stop smiling.
For lunch we pushed ahead to the Spout, one of the iconic features of the East Coast Trail, and it certainly lives up to that status. The Spout is a freshwater, sea-driven geyser that blows a hissing puff of cold water into the air every few minutes. It looks like the bed of rocks is spitting out a gulp of water. We sat just below the spray, listening to the waves crash below us and watching the geysers puff into the air. When the wind pushed in the right direction we were drizzled in icy drips of water.
At this stop we also met a work crew clearing the trail. The ECT was created by the East Coast Trail Association, a volunteer group who also continues to maintain and expand this amazing wild, coastline trail. It is pretty amazing that a group of volunteers can do such a great job maintaining a trail this long. During our 6 days on the trail we met several Association members and they were both surprised and pleased that a couple from the states was out backpacking on their trail. We also obtained our maps and some great travel information from this organization. Click here to learn more about the East Coast Trail Association.
As we continued down the trail, it was really neat to look back and see the Spout flair to life in the distance like a whale breath. We could still see it as a tiny speck when we reached our next stop, Long Point. Here we took another moment to enjoy the endless views, gushing wind, and soft heather underfoot. I never got tired of putting my feet up and just looking as I stretched out on the soft, spongy ground cover. We also watched the gulls “deep-sea fishing.” They would fly in a large loose circle then almost on command rocket straight down into the water, disappearing for a moment, and then reemerge. It was pretty cool.
From here we made the last push of the day to Minor Point campsite, the only established campground we stayed at during the trip. It has two sites, but we had the place all to ourselves complete with an ocean view. Lucas even found a crab buoy when we was exploring the rocky river that emptied into the ocean near our hilltop campsite. A great view to end the day!
Part 3 (our last two days of the trip) coming soon 🙂
Three weeks ago (yikes, I’m behind!), I was hiking my way along the East Coast Trail (ECT) in Newfoundland, Canada with Lucas. We hiked 60 plus miles in five days and managed to soak in an incredible, rugged coastline, spot some stellar wildlife, and to be reminded how wonderful it is to disappear into the wilderness for a while.
I think I have been putting off writing this blog because life has been a little crazy, and because I never know quite where to begin when writing about a place we spent so much time and saw so many beautiful things. But I will do my best to capture this special place. So here goes…
Our adventure really started on the plane, when we met several friendly folks from Newfoundland, who were more than happy to talk about “the rock,” as it is known to locals. We learned that Newfoundlanders, particularly those who live around St. John’s (our starting and ending destination), are mostly descendents of Irish immigrants and that we should expect to hear thick accents during our travels. It was a wise and helpful piece of information as we did indeed meet many Irish Canadians, some of whom we did have a difficult time understanding.
Our new plane friends also expressed surprise, a common occurrence when talking with locals, that we would be hiking and backpacking on the East Coast Trail. Many of the locals we met had never been on the trail, and most seemed shocked that we would be camping along it as well. This was a bit of a surprise to us, but it also meant that we ended up having this incredible trail mostly to ourselves. Pretty amazing.
We arrived in St. John’s late, spent a little time getting our supplies reorganized, and crashed. The next morning we wandered around downtown for a bit, took a walk up Signal Hill to Cabot Tower, an iconic spot that overlooks the narrows and St. John’s, and grabbed fuel at a local outfitter before catching our cab south to start on the trail.
We began our first few miles in typical Newfoundland weather: rain and fog. At the trailhead our cab driver, a very nice Irish Canadian, seemed reluctant to leave us, even as we layered on rain gear, put on our pack covers, and started down the trail, it was clear he had doubts about our trip. During the drive he even asked us, “Have you done this kind of thing before?” Which made Lucas and I chuckle. I can only imagine him telling his family at dinner about these two crazy kids he dropped off in the rain who were going to hike from Cape Broyle back to St. John’s, 109 kms, he would say throwing his hands up in the air, “Can you believe it?”
I liked that he was worried. It reminded me that Lucas and I share a passion for something that not everyone understands or would enjoy in the same way we do. I, for one, couldn’t wait to disappear down the trail, to sink into quiet and calm. For five days no cell phone, no internet, no life decisions besides the basics: food, water, shelter, and movement, one foot in front of the other. I love how simple life becomes on the trail. It slows you down, lets you think, cleans you out.
Our first day on the trail was a short one as we didn’t even arrive in Cape Broyle until late afternoon, but right away we got a glimpse of what we had come to see: a rocky, rugged coastline, pounded by crushing waves. The fog sunk in so deep you couldn’t see the horizon, but instead, enveloped the world in an eerie, magical cloak. It felt prehistoric.
The trail snaked along the coast with views of white caps speckled along the shoreline, jagged rock pile islands, and clear, cold water. We also spotted our first bald eagle of the trip. We hiked, hoods up, for several hours before we made camp in an open grassy field right on the water’s edge. All night we listed to the waves breaking and the rain tapping on our tent. It seemed like a good initiation to the East Coast Trail.
On day two we set off in a light mist through our first community link, South Brigus, a sleepy village along the shore, before climbing up and into thick coastal woods. Again, we enjoyed the way the fog danced along the coast hiding and revealing at the same time. At Frenchman’s Head, we marveled at the steep drop-offs and clumps of bone-breaking rock outcroppings. We stopped for a short water break in Deep Cove, thick with the mist of fog, and marveled at the clear, green-blue water, and the breaking, geometrical lines of the rocks walling us in. It seemed like a pirate ship could have floated into the cove at any moment.
From here we went up, and the fog became so thick it felt like walking through clouds. The world around us disappeared. We took a short spur trail out and up onto Flamber Head, a small jut-out into the ocean like a thumb made of rocks. The cliffs reminded me of broken teeth, sharp and uneven. In the cove below we spotted our first otter of the trip. I was thrilled! It floated on its back bobbing and rocking with the waves until it dipped under water and disappeared into the foggy ocean beyond our view.
The next stop, and one of our favorites of the trip, was Cape Neddick. Dipping out onto another spur trail, we climbed up a steep rocky trail until we were on a point so high we couldn’t see the ocean below us through the fog. We ate lunch, shoes off, relaxing. This is when we had a “movie” moment. The wind picked up and the fog started to blow out and the sun, our first of the trip, poked through. It felt like a miracle. We watched the wind pushing the fog like a cold breath disappearing and suddenly the whole coast opened up. We could see both north and south in a single moment, and it felt like we were getting our first glance of a whole new world.
If I wasn’t already in love with Newfoundland, I sure was now!
For Memorial Day weekend this year we did one of the things we love best: head out into the woods. I had been waiting for this weekend like a little kid thinking about Christmas, jittery and overwhelmingly excited. Two reason this weekend felt so special, it was our first time full-on backpacking since leaving Alaska and my dad was coming with us. And the trip certainly lived up to my expectations!
We made a plan to head north and hike the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, which, ironically, we learned about while traveling through Canada last summer. After a little reasearch, it was clear that the 30 mile West Rim Trail would be our route for exploring the “grand canyon,” otherwise known as Pine Creek Gorge.
Fortunately, Pine Creek Outfitters, a local guide and rental shop, offers a shuttle service for backpackers so we could do the trip in one straight shot with no back tracking, ideal hiking. So after a three-hour drive, we parked our car at the north trailhead, hopped on the shuttle and headed south. We hit the trail just after 1PM and managed to pack in 10 miles before we made camp for the night. It was a strong push to start our weekend!
The first ten miles slowly rise to the ridge and include meandering streams with baby waterfalls, thick waves of fern undergrowth, and a mix of pines and deciduous trees. It felt great to be out in the woods and the weather was perfect, cool with a light breeze to keep the bugs at bay. We also got our first glimpse of the gorge. Although the vista’s get better as you head north, even on our first day you could see the curving, thick-green walls of the gorge mounded on both sides of Pine Creek. It is vastly different then the true Grand Canyon, but certainly beautiful in its own right.
My favorite vista on the first day was just north of our little campsite and we could see the rapids of the creek, the Tom Sawyer-like islands that speckled the gorge, and the sun just touching the top line of trees in a milky-orange. It was a perfect cap to the day and set the stage for a great dinner around the campfire.
Day two we completed the middle, and longest, leg of our journey, leaving us with a quick six miles for the final day. One of the best parts of day two was our lunch vista. The vista was the first place that really allowed us to see north up the gorge and we had a blast watching canoers and kayakers try to navigate the rapids far below us. We even got out the binoculars for a closer look. One guy lost a paddle and had to jump out of his canoe to get it back. It was a day of enjoying the peaceful way light filters through the leaves of trees making a polka dot-pattern on the trail and, once again, great weather!
Our second campsite, again we had the place to ourselves, was right along a creek and a waterfall rushed behind our head all night. Greatest white noise ever! Another campfire and cards and quiet. There is nothing like sinking into the woods so deeply you forget about the fast pace of everyday life. Instead, you eat when you are hungry and rest when you are tired and spend your day looking out because everything happens and exists independent of you. It is almost a relief to be so insignificant in the face of nature.
Our final day, an easy, short (6 miles- everything is relative!), mostly downhill, light-pack kind of hike, brought the best views of the trip. The trees gave way to vista after vista that allowed us to see the rim we had just hiked and north to a place we wouldn’t set foot on. It made the gorge feel large and deep in a way I hadn’t yet felt. I almost wanted to slow down, to make it last a little longer. I think we all did.
Our campsite at Wonder Lake, Denali (Mt. McKinley) in the background 2012
A few weeks ago a reader asked if I would write a post about camping. She explained that she hadn’t done much camping and would be interested to know how we camped, since we have been doing so much of it in Alaska. So here is my post about spending the night outside 🙂
The great thing about camping is that there are so many ways to go about it. Everyone has there own “style.” You can adapt and change based on the location, who you are going with, and how much “luxury” you want or require. Lucas and I have certainly grown and changed as campers since we first started pitching a tent together six plus years ago. And continue to enjoy everything from “luxury” car camping to minimalist backpacking.
One thing I have come to strongly believe in is the “leave no trace” ethics of camping. Although I didn’t always know all the guidelines when I first started camping (and I’m still learning and trying to get better), I think it is so important to protect and respect the outdoor places we enjoy. I think learning how to camp in a low-impact way is SO important if we want to keep our wild places wild. Leave No Trace is a nonprofit that helps educate people on good practices for camping. Here is a link on the seven guiding principles of the organization if you want to learn more.
Okay, off my soap box and back to camping. Both Lucas and I camped before we met. I started camping as a kid with my family, and he was actively involved in Boy Scouts. As a kid I did a lot “car camping.” Which means you can pack your car as full as you want, drive into a campground, park, and drag out what you need. To car camp you can be a little less organized and add in items that I would never make room for when backpacking. This is a great way to start camping. It is low pressure and you always have an out (your car) if things get really crazy.
My parents have this fabulous camping story (before my brother and I were born) about a time it was raining. As the story goes, my mom says something like, it’s really raining hard. And my dad says something like, it isn’t that bad. And moments later as my parents are laying inside their tent, the Kleenex box floats by. That is a moment to head to the car.
Our 1st tent
For car camping you need basic equipment, tent, sleeping bag, extra, but it doesn’t have to be top of the line or high tech. I camped for years with family and friends in a huge, old, blue canvas tent that was a puzzle to set up and sagged like a wet doughnut, but it was perfect for that time in our lives (it has since been retired).
When Lucas and I first started camping together in state parks near Pittsburgh, PA we car camped exclusively. We would drive in, set up the tent, go out and hike all day, and come back to cook dinner over an open fire. We had a small two-person tent (that made it all the way to Alaska) that we bought with a sporting good store gift card we won in a raffle. A joint purchase, it was our first “home” together. Our early camping days were low budget and awesome.
Isle Royale National Park 2009
When we moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where outdoor paradise was less than a ten minute drive, we took camping up a notch and started backpacking. Our first big trip (7 days) was to Isle Royale National Park. We backpacked from one end of the island to the other, carrying everything we needed for the week on our backs. This was a whole new way to camp, and for the most part, it is my favorite way to camp. You step into nature and don’t reemerge until the trip is over, and I love that. Being submerged in wild. But it certainly isn’t the kind of camping everyone might want to do.
To backpack, you need to be prepared and organized. Since you don’t have a safety exit (like a car) it is important to be sure you have everything you will need (or could need) before you leave. Gear for backpacking is more expensive, but the good news is, once you have it, you are set for a long time (unless you want to upgrade or go lighter). Lucas and I started out with mid-range gear and have been slowly upgrading and adding as we move into our 4th year as backpackers. Like our new tent- larger and lighter than the original (which we still have).
For us, the big thing we did to transition from car camping to backpacking was research, talking to people who were already going into the backcountry, reading online forums, and then, going out and trying it. We started out with a one night trip to see what worked and what didn’t. (We took more crap than we needed.) And we began to figuring out our preferences. Some of the key differences are food (no coolers, unless you want to carry it!), water (you need to be prepared to carry or purify all water for the trip, depending on the area you will be backpacking), less (better) clothing, full first aid kit, stove (fires are often not allowed in the backcountry), emergency supplies (duck tape, whistle, extra), maps/GPS, and research (know the weather, terrain, camping conditions, and so on).
Denali State Park 2011
But as much as I love backpacking, I also love the comfort and convenience of car camping, which we still do often. And will be doing for approximately 19 days this summer on our road trip from Alaska to Ohio. More on this soon.
Until then, enjoy the long days of summer!