Ignoring the Signs

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Michigan Ice Festival, 2016

Signs often give direction, suggestions, information needed to get from point a to point b. In my case, the signs I encountered on my way to the sheet of ice I was about to attempt to ascend at the Michigan Ice Festival in Munising said run the other way.

It started with my travel buddy being sick. She alerted me the day before and while it would have been easy enough to cancel the trip, we decided to go anyway. It was sunny skies and temperate weather in Iron River. A few hours later, as I drove over the Michigan border, visibility was deteriorating quickly. Within an hour, plows had abandoned all hope of keeping roads clear leaving us nothing but marginal trail tracks, rumble strips and snow covered signs guiding us through the UP. By the time we hit Marquette, even my well-trained winter driving skills were maxed out.

We fueled up at a UP favorite—Donckers. Walking down Main Street headed to get our fill of chocolate, I couldn’t help but question my sanity. The road was shutdown and packed with several feet of snow in anticipation of an evening sled dog race scheduled to take place in sub-zero temperatures. We didn’t hesitate to tromp over the barricades and snow piles for our caramels.

wroadclosedBut, perhaps the biggest sign was the one I almost hit (literally) on our final leg of the journey. MI-28, the main interstate between Marquette and Munising, was closed. Somehow, I missed the sign notifying me that this main artery was no longer passable. The barricades, while barely visible, were hard to miss. Did I mention they were placed nowhere near a detour as well?

Did we turn around? Absolutely. Did we head home? Absolutely not. Instead, we navigated our way through the back roads of the UP. At first, we thought the steady stream of hazard lights approaching us was a funeral procession. We later learned, this was common during white out conditions in Big Snow country.

The signs didn’t stop here. Once in Munising, temperatures plummeted. Even the hardcore climbers were talking about how unforgiving a cold, winter day in Munising can be for folks heading out. Rather than wimp out, I just put on another pair of pants. There was of course the embarrassing gear check-out moment where I had to point out that my supersized ass would not in fact fit in the harness designed for the normal climbers body type. After several attempts and a lot of wriggling around, I was told I was equipped with straps that’d withstand me falling from a cliff.

And then there was the trek -in. Did I mention there would be an uphill climb in a snowy, ice-covered trail full of steep ledges? Or, that I wasn’t aware of said trail and had an extremely top heavy backpack on me that was packed with shoes (yes plural), coffee, snacks, extra clothes, 3 cameras and other miscellaneous outdoor gear.

This is what was below us when we climbed. Lots and lots of hill.
This is what was below us when we climbed. Lots and lots of hill.

The first time I fell over on an uphill incline, I questioned whether I’d get up. Like a turtle straddled on its back, I somehow waddled my way up the hill. There was of-course the embarrassing and somewhat frustrating attempt to secure my crampons while sporting 4 layers of clothing. But somehow, despite all of these signs, I soon found myself at the base of a 40-foot cliff with only one way to go—up.

We were handed some pick axes and given some basic instruction on how to ice climb. It seemed as though the ice hated me. If I swung hard, the ice shattered. If I swung delicately like our instructor, the pick ax ricocheted back at me, threatening to take my eyes out. This didn’t seem promising. But again, I ignored the signs.

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One of our instructors giving us some tips on how to climb. That is what it looks like to get to the top. This was not me.

My girlfriend and I were in an intro teaser course. Our instructors were awesome. One was from Salt Lake and a rep for Black Diamond. The other, a world cup ranked speed climber. (Yes, that’s a real sport and she is an amazing athlete). They made climbing look so easy. They provided serious encouragement and didn’t scoff as I fumbled about like an idiot.

Given the time limitations of our course, we only got two chances to climb. And, despite the our class title has intro in it, most of the guys in our class had climbed before. The gals, while less experienced, were primarily rock climbers. I am neither. We lined up like little soldiers, each taking our turn at the base. When it was finally my turn, I clipped myself to the rope and climbed. And fell. And climbed. And fell. Even though I knew that each time I slipped off the icy rock or my pick ax gave way, I wouldn’t in-fact plummet to my death, my survival instinct screamed what the F**** do you think you are doing? I managed to ignore that voice and kept trying. Progress was slow but progress just the same.

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This is me early on. It did not get better as time progressed.

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Did I make it to the top? Absolutely not. Did others? Absolutely. But, I’d be willing to bet our experiences were equally as scary, exhilarating and frankly fun. There I said it. Despite all of these signs and obstacles, ice climbing is a pretty big high. If given the opportunity, I definitely would have kept trying to get to the top. And, knowing the stubborn Fin in me, I would have at some point made it. In hindsight, I wish I had taken two days of classes so that the second go around I’d maybe experience more success. Who knows, I might even go back next year. It is unlikely the weather or road conditions could be any worse.

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After my climb. Did I mention it was cold out there?

For everyone curious to know how high I went… I honestly don’t know. The Go Pro was stopped about 10 seconds into my first climb and I later realized I had nobody take shots on my second climb. I don’t want to pull a Paul Ryan on his half-marathon time or a angler’s tale of the big fish by exaggerating my climb, so suffice is to say, let’s just say I went high enough. The second time, I climbed even higher. But, by far the hardest part of the climb was getting to the base.

Crampon Casualty 2016.
Crampon Casualty 2016.

And, I’m just happy that in total, the only real casualty of the day was my snow pant leg that got shredded by my crampons when I tripped attempting to pose for a group photo.

That evening, I had the opportunity to listen to keynote speaker Tim Emmett. An athlete for Mountain Hardware, he redefines adventure. I loved his presentation and the photos and videos to accompany it were spectacular. In his presentation, he mentions that life is what we do before we die. It sounds stupid but it is so true. So much of life is about the unknown day-to-day stumbling we make trying to navigate this thing called life.

Afterwards, Aaron Peterson premiered The Michigan Ice Film. It was an enduring combination of extreme ice climbing and the people and culture known as the UP. Peterson did an awesome job intertwining the two to create a solid story line amongst a backdrop that only Michigan ice can provide. Two thumbs up for sure.

At the end of the day, I loved my experience at the Michigan Ice Fest not because I was good at ice climbing, discovered a hidden talent or because it changed my life. Instead, I love that this festival and instructors opened my eyes up to the fact that I can in fact climb, even though every sign along the way said I couldn’t.

Future ice climber in the making! Watch-out Michigan Ice Festival 2025...
Future ice climber in the making! Watch-out Michigan Ice Festival 2025…

Becoming an Outdoor Woman – Pure Michigan

bow bow1A fresh snow on Moon Lake made it finally feel like winter. The snow coincides with me getting the latest travel guide from Pure Michigan. Inside, I finally got to see an article I put together last winter in print. It is all about being an outdoor woman. The assignment was perfect for me. I absolutely love the UP and being outside. The trip was my first time away from Jake for a vacation. Granted, I was working the entire time but I left being reminded of how much I love experiencing nature and how I couldn’t wait to share some of these experiences with Jake once he’s a bit older. The edited version of the piece can be found here. Or, here is a much earlier draft that shared a bit more about some of the amazing women I met over this 72-hour period in Big Bay, Michigan. For anyone interested in experiencing the outdoors in an environment that embraces women and all of the insecurities we sometimes face when exploring the great outdoors, this camp couldn’t be better. Happy Reading!

Girls just want to have fun! The DNR provides a grown-up version of Summer Camp for women twice a year in the northern tip of the UP.

Ding, ding, ding! A bell rings signaling the start to my weekend long adventure along with dinner in what’s fondly referred to as the Big House. I follow the bright eyed, enthusiastic group of 70 women to cafeteria style tables where food and stories are passed with similar enthusiasm. Glancing at the hearty homemade lasagna and catching a whiff of the fresh baked garlic bread, it is easy to understand why. By the time I savor my last bight of homemade apple pie, it quickly becomes clear there will be no carb counting this weekend.

In fact, nothing is off limits this weekend at the Winter Becoming an Outdoor Woman (BOW) Camp at Bay Cliff Health Camp in Big Bay, Michigan (25 miles north of Marquette). Over the course of the next few days, I watch and participate with mother-daughter teams, friends, seniors and strangers as we build snow forts, sleep outside in sub-zero temperatures, dogsled, snowshoes, ski, cook, learn self-defense, tie flies, fish and laugh… a lot.

Laughing is key. BOW is a national program that originated in the 90s when a professor recognized one of the reasons women weren’t getting into fishing and hunting is because they prefer to be taught by women and want to learn in a non-competitive atmosphere.

This weekend, that sentiment rings true. “I love the instructors,” says Catherine Sanborn of Bruce Cross, Michigan. For 10-years, she’s made the trek to Big Bay. “They teach you to do things without yelling at you the way your husband might.” Over the years, she’s tried everything from fishing to handgun safety, while making friends along the way. “The people here become life-long friends.”

It is easy to understand why, given over half the participants and most of the volunteer instructors have been making the trek to Big Bay for years. “I’m a BOW junkie,” laughs 5-year veteran Carrie Moritz. Each year, she and her mother-in-law drive up from southern Minnesota to attend the summer and winter camp. She’s taken many of the classes, but one in particular has stuck.

“I’ve taken wood burning every year. Over the years, I’ve really honed my skills and now I’m selling pieces on Etsy and making things for friends,” she explains. “It is something I love that I never would have discovered without BOW.”

Woodburning, like so many of the other courses, empower you to try something new. As someone who is more comfortable running a half-marathon than drawing a stick figure, I quickly learn that pushing your comfort zone isn’t just physical. By the time I’m done etching a flaming red pen along a freshly sanded piece of Baswood, my charred name tag and swirling oak leaves are barely legible. But, this doesn’t stop me from wearing it like a badge of courage the rest of the weekend.

In-between classes, impromptu snowshoe hikes along Lake Superior, bonfires and S’moreos, saunas, board games, and relaxing in front of the fireplace provide a backdrop for new friendships to develop and memories to be made.

For Ilene Smith, her only goal was to do something special with her college aged kids. Chatting with them prior to our final meal together, her 19-year old daughter Alex casually says, “I don’t want to be morbid. But, this is something I could see talking about at my mom’s funeral. My mother doesn’t have a ton of money but what she’s given me is memories.”

Mission accomplished mom.

As I make my way to my car, I pause for a moment under the gazebo basking in the surprisingly warm winter sun. Before me, the world’s largest freshwater lake looms large. I soak it all in and can’t help but think back to our speaker the first night who shared her personal story and struggles while circumnavigating Isle Royale. “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just worth it.”

Fall’s Final Hurrah – UP of Michigan

High winds have taken a toll on fall in northern Wisconsin. So, I opted to head east to the Porkies this week to see what’s left of fall in the UP of Michigan. The Porcupine Mountains never cease to amaze me. Grandiose, humbling and frankly beautiful. Someday, I’d like to take a week to just throw on the backpack and log some serious miles within the Michigan wilderness. In the meantime, here’s a few shots of some popular hot spots at the park. (Please note: I did refrain from posting a pic from the Lake of the Clouds overlook. It wasn’t easy).

Final Reflections

25,000 mornings, give or take, is all we humans get. We spend them on treadmills. We spend them in traffic. And if we get lucky.. really lucky it dawns on us to go spend them in a world where a simple sunrise can still be magic.

I understand this is a commercial promoting a place I already love, but frankly it’s true. 25,000 seems like such a large number until one starts to think of how many mornings one’s wasted. How many mornings I’ve wasted unable to be present with the moment.

My jaunt around Lake Superior wasn’t magical. It didn’t change my life. As my husband put it, it wasn’t even a journey but rather a trip—a simple 8-day trip around a large lake.

Despite this, it managed to remind me of some life lessons. That in fact, people, especially those closest to you, are what matter. The most spectacular sunsets, sunrises, gushing waterfalls, and grandiose overlooks evolve into something much grander when you are with the ones you love.

As an amateur photographer, I often find myself enjoying the solitude of the Big Lake while attempting to freeze a picture perfect moment with the simple click of a shutter. This trip, I found myself almost too busy immersing myself into the experience that I almost forgot to capture the beauty surrounding me. Instead, I was living it. This is after all how memories are made.

The trip reminded me that the unexpected surprises in life are at times the best gift of all. The turquoise toilet, unguided tours, camping on Lake Superior’s shoreline, and sipping the suds off a cold brew along a sandy beach—these moments are the one’s I’ll take with me wherever I go in life.

So perhaps this journey was just a trip. An 8-day pause in a somewhat overextended, desensitized thing we call life. Regardless, it was a trip worth taking. Would I do it again? Absolutely not. Some things in life cannot be recreated… and I think that in itself is what made this trip so worthwhile.

Divide and Conquer

We awake to sunny blue skies and plenty of heat. By mid-morning temperatures approach 80 degrees. Our jaunt through customs proves to be brief and unadventurous. I cannot complain. We stop at the tourist information center to pick up a map. After Steve struggled to find Lake Superior on the Ontario map, I question whether we’ll ever make it back to the states. A helpful volunteer points him in the right direction (or in this case, the correct side of the map).

After a brief drive thru the urban sprawl of Sault Ste.Marie, Ontario we enter the woods. It quickly becomes apparent that today will be one of the most isolated, undeveloped and in many respects, scenic stretches of the trip to date.

As we approach Lake Superior Provincial Park we make several stops along the coastline. The lake looms large here, dotted by a rocky coastline and endless horizons of towering pines. Our first major stop of the day is Chippewa Falls. This falls divides the Trans Canada Highway at its halfway point. The highway, which is the world’s largest national highway, extends lengthwise across Canada and is the only road we’ll travel today. During our stop we meet a couple from Germany that is making the Trans Canada trek over a course of 3-months. Our 8-day journey suddenly seems short.

After several more stops along the scenic coastline, we enter Lake Superior Provincial Park. It is here that my heart begins to race. We pull off at Agawa Rock. Here, we descend down a steep, unstable, and undeveloped quarter-mile drop through jagged rock. The trail alone is a heart stopper.

We finally reach the lake, where a steep drop-off with a tiny ledge awaits. After removing our shoes and socks, Steve slowly tiptoes out on the ledge. A rusty old chain is his only support. Beneath him, slippery rocks fade into the icy cold waters ofLake Superior, daring him to make one misstep. My heart is pounding through my chest.

He soon returns and questions whether I have the courage to walk out. This is something I must do. Why, you might ask?

The answer is simple. I am a photographer. And, along the rock ledge are multi-century old paintings created by native people. As I make my way down the slippery rock, my husband provides these words of encouragement, “if you fall into the lake, I can’t come get you. Just don’t panic and if possible, don’t smack your head. Once in the water, just make your way over to that point and pull yourself out.” As he’s shouting these words of advice I see the life vest attached to a 10-foot pull along the ridge, just in case.

Snap, snap, snap. I focus on balancing and trying to take a good snapshot of the faded caribou etched in the crimson stone. My adrenaline is pumping. On the way back, my legs seem weak but I somehow muster the courage to grab the rusty chain and make my way back to Steve. He grabs my camera and snaps a quick shot before I pull myself to safety. Another couple watches, patiently waiting their turn. Within moments, they strut their way to the rocky edge. They make it look so easy… Despite this, Steve says he’s proud of me. The coward in me is conquered. In this moment, I feel fearless.

Our next stop isn’t quite as adventurous. We decide to enjoy an afternoon beer on the beach at Katherine’s Cove. Under the sunny afternoon sun, I sip away at one of the last Keweenah brews we have left, enjoying an entirely deserted beach. Joey frolics by the water, barking uncontrollably at a rock. Suddenly I hear my husband chuckle. It appears the sun has taken a toll on our lounge chair, leaving him anchored in the sand.

From here, we head to Wawa. We check into a questionable motel at best. But somehow, the turquoise toilet seems appropriate here. We look forward to our free muffins in the morning, which marks the start to another day on our adventure.

Working Port

Our pace is considerably slower today. In addition to sleeping in, we came back to the hotel this afternoon to relax before heading over to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario for an authentic Italian dinner.

Our day was spent learning about and experience the Soo Locks. We had the opportunity to watch two boats go through the locks. This in itself is quite impressive and reminded me of the working docks in Duluth.

We also went to Clyde’s Drive-Inn, which is located on the outskirts of town along on the water. Their burgers are delicious but extremely greasy. (This might be partially to blame for why we’re taking an afternoon rest). Sitting at the old school counter, watching the ships come in, it quickly became apparent this is a working town that hasn’t seen the tourism boom (and financial benefit) Duluth gets. If anything, this part of Sault Ste. Marie is authentic.

The downside to today is the shopping in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. The street of “gift shops” could also be called t-shirt and tacky tourism central. This alone would not be entirely irritating. What is, though, is the fact that every shop has the same set of hoodies, t-shirts, and random knick knacks that have absolutely nothing to do with Canada. The one exception to this rule is Fudge Du Locks. The complimentary Rocky Road Fudge was still warm when handed to us. I’m usually not a huge fudge person but this was exceptionally delicious, as was the fresh made saltwater taffy I ended up buying before leaving. One cheesy shop did catch my attention by having dog hats on display. It was $5 well spent 🙂

  

Photography wise I don’t have much to post today so I thought I’d take a few minutes to download photos from my other camera. This one tends to focus on the “candids” my husband is quickly growing tired of. To me, it is these photos that memories are made of. Tomorrow we begin the “rustic” end of our journey. I hope to keep posting but if not, expect some updates when I return to internet coverage.

 

 

Moose Capital of the World…

The sun is in full force today. With it, the bugs. More specifically, lots of hungry mosquitoes. Despite this, we forge ahead. Our first stop is the Seney National Wildlife Refuge where we encounter a variety of animals floating about the marsh. Eagle nests, baby geese, swans, and plenty of unidentified birds flutter around us as we wind along the unpaved road. At one point we let our puppy out to run full speed ahead. She loves the warm weather and open trail. All is well as long as we are moving. We pause to soak in the view and the infamous buzzing instantly becomes like a bad surround sound system. It is time to move on.

Our second stop for the day takes us to Newberry, Michigan where we enjoy a self-guided tour of an old CCC Logging Camp. In addition, the camp now features a variety of artifacts from that time period, including a museum of chainsaws. Suddenly, Steve thinks the $5 entry fee is the steal of the decade!

It is here we learn two things—first off,  Newberry is the Moose Capital of the World. Second, the main route to our next stop is under road construction. It turns out the road construction isn’t an issue. And, even though we never actually see a moose in the Moose Capital of the World, it makes for some fun souvenirs… including a sledding moose for our Christmas tree.

The drive to Tahquemenon Falls takes us down a windy, deserted paved road filled with garage sales that clearly are a weekly affair. Finally, we reach the entrance of the park. What a contrast. It is like the Disneyworld of northern Michigan. The packed parking lot reminds me of  Gooseberry Falls on on a fall weekend. Better yet, (or worse if you are going for an authentic hiking experience) a brewery sits within the park along with multiple cheesy gift shops. I cannot help but smile. A cold brew sounds good about now and I love a good, funny t-shirt.

It turns out staff isn’t expecting such a large crowd this Memorial Day weekend. The waitress apologizes at least a half dozen times for the obnoxiously long wait. It is after 2 pm and the lunch crowd is massive. The Lumberjack Lager settles our stomach until the fresh whitefish arrives. It is worth the wait. Then, a short ¾ of a mile hike to the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi (minus Niagara Falls of course). It is a spectacular view.

For those wondering how a brewery ends up in a state park, it turns out long ago a man used to canoe upstream to see the falls. A time came when he was finally able to buy all of the land around the falls. Eventually, he sold the land to the state with the condition that there always be at least a short hike to the falls so that its beauty is maintained. I’m guessing he somehow worked the brewery into the deal as well… I’m not minding this arrangement today at all.

After hiking the lower falls, we continue heading north for our last major stop of the day—the Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point. It doesn’t disappoint. The artifacts are authentic, including the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Growing up in Duluth, I always heard about the great ship and the “lake that never gives up her dead.” After touring the museum and outbuildings, we go by the lighthouse and over to the lake so Joey can get a drink from the big lake and stretch her legs.

As we climb over the observation deck, we are met with a graveyard of driftwood, endless calm blue water, abandoned pilings, a great lakes vessel, and an infinite number of skipping rocks. This is the Lake  Superior I love.

The tour book hinted at multiple moose sightings in the Moose Capital of the World. What it overlooked was the great sighting of all—A little slice of Heaven, right here on Earth.