Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring Thaw on the Ice Age Trail

As spring arrives to Wisconsin, hiking on the Ice Age Trail can sometimes become a challenge.  With the traffic some sections of the Ice Age Trail receives during the winter, the snow gets packed down on the trails.  As the spring thaw comes and this packed snow melts and refreezes, it creates an ice pack on the trail.

Last week I hit up the Ice Age Trail which travels around Devil's Lake and it was a challenge in a lot of areas due to the ice.  This week I hit up the Ice Age Trail in Northern Kettle Moraine heading south from the Greenbush Recreation area and again there were some challenges.

Spring Thaw on the Ice Age Trail

Heading up to the Ice Age Trail from Milwaukee I had the thought that I'd be hiking through a lot of mud since in the city and north of the city, the snow has melted and things have started to dry up.  But as I hit Northern Kettle Moraine and was driving through it via the scenic route, I noticed a lot of snow yet still on the ground in the forest.  My first thought was - yeah, I get to enjoy a little of winter one more time this year.

Ice Age Trail - Northern Kettle Moraine - Greenbush Rec Area
Ice Age Trail - Northern Kettle Moraine
Arriving at the trailhead, I realized there is a lot of spring thaw still going on in this area.  And the 50 degree weather today was going to really help it along.  That's both good and bad on a day like today.  Immediately hitting the trail, I was on ice.  Melting ice.  Slippery melting ice.  Great.  Today I am training again with a full pack and I brought the dogs with me so no trekking poles along for support.  Ok - so off trail we go around the icy hills.

Ice on the Ice Age Trail - Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest - Greenbush Recreation Area
Ice on the Ice Age Trail - Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest

Melting ice on the Ice Age Trail Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest Greenbush Recreation Area
Melting Ice, Slippery Melting Ice.  Ice Age Trail Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest
Spring thaw also hit the open areas on the trail.  Ice. Snow. Mud.  Again - great.  The dogs are finding all of it.  And I know it will all be brought into my car.  But finding the open fields that were drier and having the sun hit us was a good feeling because it is a reminder, spring is coming.

Spring thaw on the Ice Age Trail - Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest - Greenbush Recreation Area
Spring thaw on the Ice Age Trail - Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest
Though I am a lover of winter and snow, having a spring thaw reminds me that with spring comes a refreshing newness.  And with this comes new life in the forest.  And hiking the Ice Age Trail in a few weeks will be completely different than it was today.  Beautiful greens from the plants, vibrant colors from the flowers, buzzing of bugs flying through the air.  I think a hike today with the spring thaw has finally mentally prepared me for the next season.  Though I'm sad to see winter gone, it will surely come again and I'll be right here ready for it to arrive.

“Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm.”   John Muir

That's kind of how I felt today.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring Training at Devil's Lake State Park

Spring Training at Devil's Lake State Park

With another trip just around the corner to go backpacking in the Pacific Northwest I figured Devil's Lake State Park would be the perfect spot to get in one last good training day.  Devil's Lake State Park, located in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin has some great bluffs bordering each side of Devils Lake.  Great for training when you need to get some quick elevation gain.

Devil's Lake State Park: East Bluff and West Bluff trails
Devil's Lake: East Bluff and West Bluff trails

Spring At Devil's Lake State Park

Having trained in Spring 2013 at Devil's Lake State Park for my Mt Whitney trip with Backpacker Magazine for Big City Mountaineers, I knew to expect the East Bluff Trail to be in a little worse condition that the West Bluff Trail due to the lack of sunlight in some areas.  Well, I'm not sure that was the case today.  With our crazy winter this year of freezing temps and snow on the ground for 90+ days, spring is coming slow.  

The trails were clear in some spots, snow covered in locations and ice covered in many locations.  Carrying a full pack of gear, maneuvering off trail to get around the ice on the slopes of the bluffs was a challenge.  But one that I was willing to take and enjoying.  

Snow on the East Bluff Trail at Devil's Lake State Park
Snow on the East Bluff Trail at Devil's Lake State Park

Still Winter at Devil's Lake State Park?

The best part of training today at Devil's Lake State Park was that I found a little bit of winter.  With my love for cold weather, snow and winter, I felt like not only did I get a good day of training, I got to experience winter one more time.  Arriving at the park it was 28 degrees (20 degrees with the wind), small random flakes of snow falling were present and the lake was still frozen over.  I'll take it.  And I needed it - a little bit of winter is a great way to refresh the soul while training.

Devils Lake frozen over
Devil's Lake frozen over (March 2014)

“I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.”    John Muir.

And I hope I inspire some of you to look at, feel and be with nature - it gives far more than it receives.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Taking in Lake Superior's Ice Caves

With a winter that has lived up to the predictions of being piercing cold and snowy (Farmer's Almanac predictions for 2014), we are able to get a glimpse of something we don't get to see very often and it is predicted that we will get to see less and less in the future.  Lake Superior freezing over.  And as of this week it is about 90+% frozen over (NOAA).

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Ice Caves

Because Lake Superior has frozen and the shoreline along the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is frozen, we have an opportunity to visit the Ice Caves located along the shoreline.  And I took advantage of this opportunity.

Visiting the Ice Caves requires a 1.3 mile hike on the ice to arrive at the beginning of the shoreline where the Ice Caves are located.  Because of the national attention this has been getting I chose to splurge and take a few vacation days to visit during the week versus attempting to hike out there when the masses of people are there on the weekend.  This was the perfect decision and a great use of my vacation.

On a Monday morning, when the air temperature was -19 degrees fahrenheit, I laid out the gear I would need to defend against an air temperature this brutally cold and knowing that once I hit the shoreline of a frozen Lake Superior I would run into a cold wind which would drop those temperatures even further.  After inspection and packing - I felt good and was ready to go.

The drive up from Iron River was beautiful, the sun came out and I thought, this will be a good trip.  But as I arrived to the parking area, that all changed.  Snow was coming down, the wind was so strong it was blowing it sideways, there were whiteout conditions and within one minute at the back of my car trying to find gear without gloves on, I needed to get back in the car to warm up my now frozen hands.  As I sat there, I mentally prepared myself and thought - you have the gear, you have hand warmers, you have toe warmers and you came here to go see the caves.  I pulled on all my gear in the car and set out.  My first vision as I hit the shoreline was the view of walking snowmen, in reality it was a couple who were just returning from the caves - the wind and snow was blowing so hard, they were literally caked in snow.  Their word of warning was to be prepared for the trip back from the caves as you walk directly into the wind and snow.  Got it, I was going.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and a frozen Lake Superior
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore - Walk to the Ice Caves
The walk out to the Ice Caves was peaceful and quiet - with the weather conditions as they were and being a Monday morning, there was no crowd.  It was an amazing view for what you could see in the whiteout conditions. Lake ice piling up, a wooded shoreline and the anticipation of finding the caves.

After rounding a few bends, the shoreline changes and becomes less wooded and builds up with the sandstone bluffs that makes viewing ice caves possible.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Ice
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore - Ice

Once I arrived at the sandstone bluffs I spent my time exploring the ice caves and continued down the shoreline for another 1.5 miles.  The ice formations inside these caves was just amazing.  Between the water seeping through the porous sandstone rock to form the hanging ice cicles and the splashing of the water from Lake Superior before it froze over - Mother Nature did her job in creating a wonderland to explore.

Lake Superior Ice Caves
Lake Superior Ice Caves
After exploring for a while it was time to turn around and start the trek back toward my car.  Yes, it was windy just as the advice from the walking snowmen was when I started my hike.  But as I turned around to head back, the snow had stopped and the sun was just arriving along the shoreline.  I had timed it just perfectly.  The sun was hitting the ice and providing some amazing views of the sandstone bluffs and the tree lined shores.  

Sun is coming out along the Lake Superior Shoreline
Sun is starting to shine along the Lake Superior shoreline.

Sun hitting the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore - Lake Superior
Sun hitting the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore - Lake Superior
This was an amazing journey, one that I definitely will not forget.  And thanks to my advanced planning of what gear I would need to survive a cold, windy, snowy day - I never got cold.  I'd definitely do it all over again.

For those that are curious, what does one wear in conditions like this to stay comfortable and warm. Here's a list of what I had on:


  • Smartwool NTS layer
  • Polartec Fleece
  • Mountain Hardwear Jacket - used my synthetic (similar to the B'Lady)
  • Patagonia Capilene 3
  • Old pair of Columbia pants
  • Old pair of Columbia snow pants
Head / Hands / Feet
  • Balaclava
  • Hat
  • Glacier Glasses
  • Scott Gloves (similar to the Traverse)
  • Hand warmers
  • Wool Boot Socks (LL Bean)
  • Toe warmers
  • Lands End winter boots

"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." John Muir

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Searching for Fall Colors - Shawnee National Forest

Fall is in the air and so is the search for fall colors.  In Wisconsin for Fall 2013 - colors have been hard to find.  Multiple trips to Kettle Moraine State Forest have left me high and dry.  Lots of yellows, browns and greens.  No eye or breath catching oranges and reds or any of the other colors that make Fall feel like Autumn.

Finally, after weeks of searching and researching online, a perfect opportunity presented itself for me to find fall color.

Shawnee National Forest, Garden of the Gods Wilderness and the River to River Trail

Southern Illinois.  Shawnee National Forest, Garden of the Gods Wilderness and the River to River Trail.  I heard the colors were peaking and the weather was going to be warm after a couple of days of rain.  So on November 1st with a day of vacation, 7 hours of driving, the dogs and I were heading down to the southern tip of Illinois to do a backpack trip on the River to River Trail out of Garden of the Gods Wilderness area.

I visited this area once before in October 2011 and was completely amazed by the landscape.  The Shawnee National Forest is in the Ozark and Shawnee Forest area of southern Illinois and was the southern end of a glacier.  Because of this, there are many hills, valleys and some amazing rock formations in the area. It also lies between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers - thus leading to the River to River Trail.

Garden of the Gods - Shawnee National Forest, Illinois
Garden of the Gods - Shawnee National Forest, IL
Arriving at the backpacker's parking lot, I was one of two cars in the lot - and the other car was camping just inside the wilderness area.  To me, that meant, once I was away from the parking lot - I probably had the forest all to myself (well me and my two dogs of course).  And I was right.  The tranquility of the trail, the beauty of the fall colors and the swampiness conditions of the muddy trail made for a perfect way to welcome in November.  

Fall colors Garden of the Gods Wilderness
Fall colors from a side hike into Garden of the Gods Wilderness
After a day of hiking and taking in the beauty around me, I found the perfect camp area on the edge of a bluff overlooking a valley.  And with day light dwindling early, I made dinner and settled in to watch the sun set over the hills of the Shawnee National Forest.

Backpacking on the River to River Trail - Shawnee National Forest
Sun setting on the trees at camp on the River to River Trail

River to River Trail - Shawnee National Forest
View out over the Hills of Shawnee National Forest from the River to River Trail

After a restful night and watching an incredible sunrise - I packed up camp just as the next round of rain hit.  A quick hike back to the car and we were off to do a little more exploring of the eastern side of the Shawnee National Forest for another day before heading back to Wisconsin.

Finding fall colors, spending a night in the wilderness was just what my soul needed.  

"Going to the woods is going home." John Muir


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lessons Learned from My Dogs

Watching my dogs today as I was getting things organized so we could go for a car ride and then go for a hike to look at fall colors, I started to think about what little things like this mean to them.

A car ride means they get to go some where.  A hike means they get to explore the woods and wilderness; roam free and chase squirrels.  And the car ride home typically means we're going for ice cream.

Simple things.  Things that do not take a lot of effort.  Things that mean time spent doing what you love.  And time spent with what for me is my family that has four legs.

As my dogs continue to get older, I hope I can continue to give them the simple things in life that they love so much.  Because the simple things they love so much are a reminder to me on how to lead a simpler life.  Enjoy life at a relaxed pace.

Jasmine and Wailea hiking on the Ice Age Trail - Milwaukee River Segment - Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest
Jasmine and Wailea hiking on the Ice Age Trail

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pushing My Own Limits & Finding My Adrenaline Rush

Vacations and Comfort Zones

Vacations to me are not meant to be something that is about comfort.  Vacations to me are all about escaping the everyday comforts that we have.  Vacations are for pushing your limits, going outside your comfort zone and getting an adrenaline rush.  For me - it's also a way to grow personally and expand my world beyond the every day.

My most recent vacation took me to the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Northeast Oregon and to Goat Rocks Wilderness in the Cascades of Washington.  While both backpacking locations initially didn't appear to provide anything really out of my comfort zones, Goat Rocks Wilderness proved me wrong.

Goat Rocks Wilderness, Pacific Crest Trail & Leading Blindly into the Clouds

The trip to Goat Rocks Wilderness started out with taking a route up that connected us to the Pacific Crest Trail and backpacking into the Cispus Basin.  Cispus Basin was beautiful with waterfalls and wild flowers every where.  What a peaceful place to set up camp for the night.

Camp at the Cispus Basin on the Pacific Crest Trail - Goat Rocks Wilderness - Cascades
Camp at the Cispus Basin on the Pacific Crest Trail
Cispus Basin - Pacific Crest Trail - Goat Rocks Wilderness - Cascades
Cispus Basin - Pacific Crest Trail - Goat Rocks Wilderness - Cascades
What we didn't know on day one is that the forecast we had seen when we last had cell service had probably changed for the following day.  A few hours after the sunset and after settling in the tent to listen to waterfalls in the basin, rain moved in.  Light showers coming in off the Pacific Coast fell off and on all night.  By early morning the rain had stopped and we got up to make breakfast, pack up and get ready to go.  We knew we had a long hike in front of us to climb up, cross the ridgeline and then drop back down to where we were going to camp in McCall Basin on the opposite side of the mountain ridge.  

Shortly after leaving camp we started hearing thunder in the distance.  As we continued to hike up toward the trail that would take us up to the ridgeline and over we started to get a good glimpse of what was coming at us.

View from the Pacific Crest Trail of the storm rolling in to the Cascades
View from the Pacific Crest Trail of the storm rolling in to the Cascades

We finally took a quick break in one of the last grove of trees to put on our full suit of rain gear and cover our packs.  Once we realized the rain wasn't going to stop anytime soon and that there was no sign of lightning we decided to head out and brave the rain.  What we didn't expect was what we ended up getting ourselves in to.  

The weather continued to get worse as we hit the higher elevations.  The winds picked up, the clouds rolled in and visibility went down to almost nothing.  

Crossing the snowfield on the Pacific Crest Trail in Goat Rocks Wilderness
My brother crossing the snowfield in the fog - visibility was low.

As we continued up and hit the ridgeline with steep slopes on either side of us, the wind picked up to what we were guessing was hurricane force speed.  Just standing up at times was difficult and with the fog so thick you couldn't see the trail in front of you, this day definitely pushed my limits.  

Pacific Crest Trail along the ridgeline at Goat Rocks Wilderness.
Pacific Crest Trail along the ridgeline at Goat Rocks Wilderness.  Photo credit: Ken Vanden Heuvel
But what was most amazing up there is when the wind would push the cloud over the ridge and you'd actually get a few seconds to glance down before the next one would blow in - the brief views we had were amazing.  In the end after hiking the few miles of this ridgeline for a couple of hours and some breaks to take deep breaths to calm my nerves, we made it across in one piece.  The only incident we had was watching the wind take hold of the rain cover from my pack and blowing it out to who knows where.  

The other surprising thing that day - for as busy as the Pacific Crest Trail can be with the hikers nearing the end of their journey, we saw no one else on the ridgeline this day.  We did run into one thru hiker later that day as we headed down to McCall Basin who crossed behind us.  We figure we were probably the only 3 fools who decided to cross that day.  It was definitely a nasty day and probably not the smartest move we've ever made in our lives, but it sure did provide for an adrenaline rush and great memories that I'll never forget.

Once over we headed down to the McCall Basin to camp and dealt with the rain for the remainder of the day and night.  The clouds finally broke sometime around morning.  We spent most of the next day exploring the McCall Basin with the elk that were in the area.  No other humans around.  This made up for what we went through the day before.  

McCall Basin in Goat Rocks Wilderness - Cascades
McCall Basin in Goat Rocks Wilderness - Cascades
After exploring the McCall Basin we headed back out and back up toward the pass and ridgeline - yes, we had to go back over the next day.  We camped right below the climb back up to the ridgeline and right in view of Mt Rainier.  We had great views for sunset and sunrise.

Finally the next day we hiked back up and over the ridgeline with the sun out and winds that you could stand up in.  It was an amazing hike back seeing all the glaciers and valleys below.  I was glad we were able to head back over and see what we couldn't see the first time over.

View of Mt Rainier from the Pacific Crest Trail and the trail along the ridgeline
View of Mt Rainier from the Pacific Crest Trail and the trail along the ridgeline
Our last stop for this trip was a night at Goat Lake.  The most amazing thing, it was August 31, 2013 and Goat Lake still had ice partially covering it.  Beautiful lake, but a little too crowded with it being Labor Day weekend.  Thankfully we found a campsite that had a great view of Mt Adams and the valley below.  And for a place call Goat Rocks Wilderness, this was the only place I saw mountain goats.  How fitting.

A view from the Pacific Crest Trail of Goat Lake
A view from the Pacific Crest Trail of Goat Lake
Overall this trip was amazing and probably more amazing because I pushed my limits, went outside of my comfort zone and crossed that ridgeline.  And if I had to do it all over again, I'd be right up there taking on the hurricane force winds and crossing that ridgeline.  

Hope your vacations push your limits and take you outside your comfort zones.  Make it an epic vacation and something that you'll always remember.

And as with most blog posts, I like to end with a John Muir quote - this one seems perfect as I received much more than I seeked on this journey.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.  John Muir

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Story of Trees

Hiking in the Forest

When I'm hiking in the forest I notice a lot of things.  Because of the peaceful surroundings I'm able to take in the sounds, the smell and the environment.  I think one of the things I enjoy most is the environment.   When left alone, a forest can grow, mature, die and start over again.  

Over the last couple of years, I've really noticed this more and more.  And I'm always amazed when I see old trees surrounded by much younger trees.  It always makes me wonder what is their story.

The Majesty of Trees

I love to photograph old / big trees.  When I do - I always stop and take in their structure, their location and their surroundings.  Many times if you look around the tree - most trees around it are younger growth trees.  I then often wonder, how did this one tree or this group of trees survive?  What was here before that only this tree is left?  Did someone plant this tree?  How old is this tree?

Old growth tree at Long Lake Campground - Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest
Old growth tree - Long Lake Campground
Photographing old trees in just the right light can always make it look powerful and strong.  And then makes me wonder will the other trees around ever get the chance to get that old and big?  Or will someone, some day come along and cut it down.

View from the Ice Age Trail @ Holy Hill
The view from the Ice Age Trail @ Holy Hill

Maybe a little philosophical - but old trees are like the heart and soul of what holds a forest together.  Without them and their presence all we'd have are young trees and forests.  The magic would be gone.