Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Tracking Story

Although I seldom hit the woods with just one objective, the blessing to living in Wisconsin is you can appreciate several things at once.  One of my warm weather favorites is mountain biking of course, and when I get the chance and am in the right place, a little tracking as a side dish. 

Recently, while visiting a far eastern county forest, I took the opportunity of a late night rain storm to provide only fresh tracks on an early morning ride.  Normally houndsmen would be out running bear, but none were in the area that I observed.  My knobbie tracks were the only ones on the sandy forest road. Some friends had sadly described a lack of tracks and sign in the area over the course of the past year, but I was hopeful.  Deer, turkey and bear tracks were pretty common, with the former scattered everywhere, but what I was interested in were prints from wolves that had been more common a few years ago.

Distressingly, the local game warden had reported five or six poached wolves over the course of the past 12 months in this area and with the newly created wolf hunting season also in force, the pack that once roamed this particular territory had dwindled.  Nevertheless, a chance to return and ride the fatbike and explore a little may turn up something. 

Forest roads and ATV trails have been in the past good places to track in the summer.  The heavy traffic churns the soil up into long stretches of deep sand, fairly easy to spot imprints in the soft surface.  The recent rain firmed the surface and made pedaling easier at the least.  For miles on end it was clear the whitetails had quickly been out and about after the evening storm.  Some sign was mashed in the now drying road, indicating the animals had been out right after the drops had stopped. Others were like perfectly stamped imprints with dry sand grain edges-animals that maybe passed by an hour or two before I.

Deer leave a sure tale scuffed up print that one can spot far down the road-dainty walkers they are not.  But a few miles later there were different tracks-more pressed in, one deep, the other less so.  Common in the area are coyotes, but their tracks are more oval and the center toes a bit larger than the side ones.  These were wolf tracks, an adult and pup, now 4 or 5 months old.  The adult stayed the course and had trotted nearly straight down the road for a 1/2 mile.  The youngster for the most part did as well, but scattered deer bones in the sand, remnants from a last November carcass dump in the county forest, pulled him (or her) aside, curiosity could not be contained.  Sign read that the partial bleached spine had to be pawed and sniffed around, then a quick scat left as a maker before returning alongside the adult, now a ways down the road. 

As they traveled together the pup eventually walked in line with the older wolf avoiding any other distractions along the way.  I stopped and shot a few photographs, excited that there would be a next generation roaming this area for now.  They ultimately turned off the forest lane into a woods trail and from there my tracking would end.

 It may be just a little thing-following two animal’s paw prints, but for me, they told a story, maybe just a very brief paragraph of how they live, but the sentences in their steps  described their life and survival, something I was happy to read.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The "Porkies"

Backpacking the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...”
John Muir

I believe Muir was correct in his opinion that “wilderness is a necessity” A break from our “civilized” world, a chance to be in a place that time has not changed, our ancestral  roots so to speak.  Sometimes we need to seek out and experience living a day or two where all modern safety nets and/or distractions are far removed.  Although Wisconsin does have seven designated Wilderness areas  (Blackjack Springs Wilderness, Gaylord Nelson Wilderness, Headwaters Wilderness, Porcupine Lake Wilderness, Rainbow Lake Wilderness, Whisker Lake Wilderness, Wisconsin Islands Wildernessthey tend to be of smaller parcel size and scattered throughout the northern part of the state.  For a larger unbroken wilderness experience, one just has to venture across the border into the U.P. to visit the Sylvania Wilderness and Porcupine Mountains.

The “Porkies,” Michigan's largest state park and designated wilderness comprises 60,000 acres of old growth forest along Lake Superior and is just north of the Wisconsin border. Besides the shear natural beauty of this park, friends Mark Haferman from Marshfield (backpacking instigator) and Dave Borman of Ladysmith and I hoped to explore some of the 87 miles of backcountry hiking trails spread thought the forest. 

As with all good trips, a plan is formulated weeks ahead (more or less) and there are always a few new gadgets to buy-one always needs a good excuse for fresh gear!  New boots, tents, sleeping pads and an ample supply of freeze dried food started arriving by Fed-Ex at front doors leading up to our hike.  Mark is our most experienced backpacker and has made the trip to the “Porkies” a few times before.  We usually rely on his good judgment to plan our itinerary and work out the details of the trip.  With one of the worlds largest freshwater lakes it’s doorstep, we'd planned to spend at least one or two days along it's shore.  Mark had been driven back from the big lake previously by cold winds on shore, so we'd hoped the weather would be more cooperative.

As it turned out, weather would not be our biggest challenge.  Warm temps and a small chance of rain lead us to tackle the "Lake Superior Trail" first, a 9+ mile trail starting high above the water at the Lake of Clouds.  To access the trailhead, we actually had to hike a steep blacktop park road down to the trail entrance and into the dark primeval hemlock forest. We’d guessed the trail would follow along the shores of the lake, making for spectacular views of the big water.  Instead, the majority of the route lies deep in the forest, starting in rocky shale downhills, then into wet muddy sections, a challenge to navigate.  At the midpoint a spur trail led us to the lake and the first campsite.  It was at that point we discovered what would be a real test.

According to locals (we found out later) there are peak times for the ferocious black flies (“fish flies” “sand flies” *#$@% flies etc.) and we were unlucky enough to hit them in swarms.  (For another great account here:  We quickly retreated to the mosquitoes inland, which were a bit more tolerable (though very bad by all standards).  Stopping for a break, lunch or to even zip on lower pants legs was all about impossible.  Five hours into our trek, we really wondered what our options would be as the trail headed back to the lake again.  More bug spray was showered on, head nets donned and our pace quickened to little avail.  Even reaching the Little Carp River trail intersection provided no relief and slight winds off the water did little to deter the little buggers.

At this point, our only option was to head upstream and hope the deep hemlock forest would be less suitable habitat for the bugs and we could at the very least quickly pitch a tent and hide.   A mile or so along the river found our strength fading-we’d run out of water (no chance to stop and filter during the day) and hiked much further than planned.  We found a campsite along the beautiful Big Carp River and decided this would have to be it.  Surprisingly, the ‘sqeetos were not to bad, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

This is wilderness, so one has to take the good and the bad.  My thoughts during the day at times went back in time to those who actually lived here-a 100 or 200 years ago and how difficult life would have been.  Much tougher than us I know.  The campsite along the rapid filled Carp was so perfect that the swarms of insects were soon forgotten.  Feet were soaked in the ice cold water, a good meal prepared and a few hours chatting around the campfire ended this testing day.  Tomorrow, a decision would have to be made on the remainder of the trip.

The Big Carp River trail in the old growth Hemlock sections are beyond what a camera can possibly capture (though I tried) and constantly amazed us.  Day two had us heading upstream past small waterfalls and through dark cathedral forest- a great way start even with weary legs.  Several hours later we needed to determine which trail to continue on.  The Big Carp would be 3 more hours of challenging climbs to the escarpment and end at Lake of the Clouds, while the “Correction Line trail” would end at Mirror Lake (the parks highest lake). We’d met several groups of hikers along the way, (one band, loaded down with pistols on hips and bowie knives strapped to chests….really???) and all reported the bugs were thick at Mirror Lake.  Tired of getting bit, we chose heading uphill instead.

We again found ourselves in beautiful Hemlocks and though the trail steadily tilted upward and the legs felt it, the hike was great. Frequently stopping, just to look and see, this was the best trail we’d been on.  The escarpment high above Lake Superior here is a strenuous climb up to about 1400 feet.  With heavy packs on, it was one-foot-in-front-of-the-other until reaching the top.  In the end, it was well worth it-the views cliff side were breathtaking.  It would be another hour or so until we reached the Lake of the Clouds observation area in the distance. Not quite done with us yet, the trail played cruel jokes on us by descending and re-climbing a few times along the way.  Day hikers, with nary a waterbottle along would fly by, somehow (in our minds) not worthy of this trail.

Muir spoke of places like this as “home” and in some primitive way it is.  No conveniences, no cell calls or texts-no help or aid if something should go wrong.  The late "Dick" Proenneke (Alone in the Wilderness) once stated that you do everything very carefully-a cut or fall could be life threatening-good advice.   We were deliberate to pick good foot placements on wet slippery hills and take our time.  Although our time spent in the backcountry here was limited, it was satisfying to be tested and challenged-not always something that happens in our daily modern life.  This big block of roadless territory is a place we’ll return to for it seems we have unfinished business and more life to live there.

“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” -Aldo Leopold

33303 Headquarters Rd.
Recreation Passport Required: Yes
Ontonagon, MI 49953-9087
Approximate Size: 59020 (Acres)
Phone Number: (906) 885-5275

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Frustration of Poaching

"Seca" (now Deceased)

Last fall, a photo of masked "hunters" (facebook, Sportsmen & sportswomen Against Wolves; Note- Closed Group) and a pile of wolves killed in Wyoming garnered over 500 likes and 300 shares in just three days.  Comments accompanying the image were quite disturbing (to me anyway): 

"Love this!!!!! I fully understand the masks, yer not idiots like those daring you to show yer faces!!!! Keep on killing guys"
"Smoke a pack a day"
"Kill everyone you see boys!"

This post has been a long time in coming for me-stewing around in my head for several years, maybe farther back if I think of it. I was raised as an outdoorsman, hunting and fishing since a child with my father, grandparents and uncles. They grew up with those outdoor sports as a matter of need-the fish and game were table faire and supplemented a thin stock of food in the pantry. I was schooled with a "you eat what you kill" credo out of reverence to the animal. Game laws and wardens were to be respected, even if one didn't agree 100% with them (who wouldn't want five or six rods out when the fish are biting?).  My outdoor tutoring with family and friends carried on the tradition and responsibility that we are stewards of the land and it's resources. I had good teachers.

The masked "hunters" are not. They are criminals. Selfish criminals robbing the rest of us. The environmental scientists at the University of Massachusetts proposed poaching as "an environmental crime, defining any activity as illegal that contravenes the laws and regulations established to protect renewable natural resources including the illegal harvest of wildlife..." Sociological and criminological research on poaching points to the reason for doing so because of claims to a right to hunt, disagreeing with game laws or negative belief in legal authority. Again, just like driving 60 in a 55 zone, no one is pure, including myself, but flaunting and bragging of poaching takes it to a new disgusting level-especially in public.

The facebook image (now hidden) didn't spawn this post. It wouldn't matter if instead it were a pile of cute bunnys or rattlesnakes.  Rather it was a braggart in a local bar, with maybe 3 or 5 too many beers in him, loudly and proudly proclaiming their success in killing five wolves from a pack in the county forest this past winter. "There's four more out there and we're gonna git 'em." he added. For starters, the legal hunting season was long past and two, bragging of it, only succeeds in giving all hunters a bad name. His story telling, and sites like the FB page show blatant disrespect of wildlife. I wondered- what does this mentality teach the youngsters nearby lapping it up-let alone other patrons within earshot? In our day of age, we as a hunting and fishing community should do everything we can to promote the sport and show respect for the resource and the regulations that guide us-even if we don't agree whole heartedly. His self-indulgent gloating was setting us all back and he seemed proud of it. My first thought was to peel off the "no/wolves" sticker from the pick-up bumper in the bar parking lot, but it would gain nothing.
Poaching and worse, killing animals and leaving them to rot is especially offensive. It serves only the anti-hunting establishment and surly doesn't improve relations with the non-hunting public. Perhaps even worse in these county forest killings was the fact that little effort was taken to hide the crime-not the usual ("SSS"-shoot, shovel and shut up), but rather some of the carcasses were recovered by game wardens. It seemed almost a slap in the face toward law enforcement- "what ya gonna do about it?"

It became very clear how effective these poachers have become on a recent DNR wolf survey flight I joined. Three of the collared wolves in the study area from last year were now shot-victims of "lead poisoning" as the researchers call it. Disheartening, knowing how much time, money and effort scientists put into understanding the complex lives of this animal and their place in nature.  I constantly hear how wolves are overrunning the state, and the DNR population estimates are too low.  We’ve learned however, the illegally killed animals probably more than double the hunt quota-not a small number and they are unaccounted for.  Those who would disregard the resource, putting themselves and their groups above the law, are plain greedy.  They see their "sport" and their disdain for one animal over another as the only true way.  They see just one pinpoint perspective of how our natural world is-(or should be) …all other opinions (and laws) be damned.

That's a pretty sad outlook.  We are lucky to live in a state with so many resources, so many ways for everyone to enjoy the outdoors-an asset that could and should be protected by working together not by destroying anything outside of ones narrow self centered field of view.  Eventually, this group of wolf (substitute deer, bear, salmon, etc) poachers will be caught, but at too great a cost sadly, for how many more animals will be taken before then and will it stem their attitude?  We can only hope, for it's all about respect-of others and our natural resources. 

Too often, we create circumstances where we feel we must kill individuals of one species to protect some aspect of ecosystem health... Do two wrongs really make it right?  The solution involves greater respect for life at each level in the great hierarchy. And the solution almost certainly involves better understanding the lives of individual organisms. -John Vucetich. Wild Wolves We Have Known

Sunday, April 6, 2014

April Fools Ride

Fatbike & Ermine

April 5th-not a date one is really supposed to be still riding in snow. But as recent memory recalls, last year was even more unusual-the first turkey season found me slogging thru six inches of snow in search of the big “V” of a tom turkey-few were found. But this year-come on, really? So many days of record minus 30 and deep snow that seemed to never end (not that I mind that!) but it IS April. Just to give us all one last kick in the pants, Mother Nature tossed another wintery mess our way this week. Rain, sleet, driving snow and wind-not exactly what us cyclists want to see. But for some of us, having a fatbike in the stable, the snow affords us one last “one last ride.”

With morning temps on this day hovering between 10 and 15, I could be assured the nearby forest lanes and snowmobile trails would be frozen down. A 3” deep fresh blanket of snow covered everything and was unbroken save for a very occasional deer, coyote and ermine track. As most rides start out, I had a plan in mind of where my venture would take me. But as the dead end road turned into a skidder trail, the effort required to pedal forward was a bit much, nixing my undertaking. Option B was a shorter route- just as much work, but I figured I could slog through and make it back alive.

Fatbikes are perfect for snow riding, but several inches is tough-my nearly walking pace spinning the granny gear was humbling, but also allowing me to take everything in. Rain had preceded the snow, so the forest was coated in jewel-like crystals. Every branch glaze coated with mini icicles and frost clinging to smaller brush. There is a certain joy in laying down the first tracks in snow, evidence of one exploring in uncharted territory-kinda. A few critters beat me to it for it is their home, anxious to find a few nuggets of food here and there I suppose and for the steeping sun to melt it all away. I'd been tired of snow too, but for now, it provided a clean sparkling surface to ride on.

A county park was ahead and relief expected as I could jump into truck tracks, making the pedaling effort insanely easy. Turning onto a town road of packed snow and ice (this time of year, thoughts of plowing are long gone) the big tires sang a whirrling knobbie song and a tail wind made me forget the earlier struggles. By afternoon, with the bike tucked away, everything changed. The high sun quickly deleted most of the new snow cover and softened all surfaces, turning them into sloppy mush. Any thoughts of riding again soon would have to wait, making me perhaps more thankful for getting out the door early. I have no doubt April will fool us with a few more snowflakes and raw temps, and if so, the fatbike will roll out again to happily greet it. 
Home Stretch-Arndt Road

April-Arndt Road

Wedges Creek Trail

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Rural Township Roadtrip

Arndt Road/Ram, Sunrise
April Fools.  Rain, sleet snow and it's April 5th.  Sunrise forced the boots on and cameras charged. Molly wags impatiently for the truck ride.  The rules are broken-centered composition, horizon smack dab in the middle but it's all okay-its the township, in all it's un-glorious  frozen slush snow.  The sun is up and it's the frantic golden hour in black and white.  The coffee is warm, the truck on empt, aperture priority and the lab panting.  It's how it is.
Middle Road

Arndt & Sterling

Poertner Road

Columbia Ave./Sturtz

Columbia Ave./Winter

Coumbia Ave./Sturtz 2

Coumbia Ave./Wedges Creek

Sidney Ave.

Maple Road

Fremont Ave./Matsons

Fremont Ave.

South Mound Road/Urbans

South Mound Road

Sterling Ave./Wandering Deer
Middle Road

Monday, March 31, 2014

Coup de grâce Ride

Coup de grâce Ride
The phrase can refer to the final event that causes a figurative death. After a winter that held all of us so tightly without reprieve, a day in the mid fifties would finally be it's end. Anticipating the season's impending passing, fatbikes would have to roll early to catch that small window of riding opportunity. Temps barely dipped below freezing overnight, but enough to firm the remaining snow and allow the big tires to float on top. A week previous, we could ride the crust everywhere, but the power of the late March sun ate away the surface integrity and now we were left with just ribbons of ice and snow on singletrack. Which is okay too.

It's been a long winter to be sure-record cold and snow and no typical thaw at any point. Our snowbike trails held up great and afforded us a lot of riding, even in below zero temps. In fact, at those cold temperatures, riding was preferred over skiing, where glide would be non existent. This year has really seen the sport of fatbiking explode and more and more riding opportunities are popping up around the state. The Midwest has been called the “Fatbike Mecca” in some national publications and I agree. That fact was illustrated in how many different brands were represented on this final winter ride- six manufacturers toed the starting line- defiantly mainstream now.

Even at an early hour, it seemed the sun immediately started softening the snow-especially on the south side of Levis Mound. Scattered oak leaves soak up the heat and burn postholes in the trail making for a bumpy ride even on big soft tires. Any thought of an nice easy spin was gone as our gang of ten mashed the pedals just to move forward. Switching from singletrack to an old ski trail made pedaling a bit easier until reaching an incline facing the sun-then I found it a challenge to keep traction and the lungs in my chest.

A freshly groomed skate ski trail still remained hard, so that provided an autobahn stretch to click off a few miles to a more shaded bike trail. Our favorite winter trail is Yellowjacket and on this day, some of it was buffed smooth and fast, others a grinder as the surface gave way to the warming sunshine. At the tail end, we gave up, left the struggling behind and finished the ride on the deserted ski trail.

In the end it was perfect, the chatter among friends resumed as we rode in close quarters finally spinning easily. As deemed appropriate, the group finished with one last climb and a blistering frost flying downhill race to the chalet. The consummate end of a great snowbike season. The post ride discussion revolved around the new bikes laying scattered in the parking lot, of brakes and fat tires and of maybe finally riding dirt again soon. I wasn't as keen on the last topic for I love winter riding. I love the pure white around me and the quiet and softness when I hit the perfect day of riding. There was a bit of melancholy when I hoisted the bike into the truck, knowing it'd be 9 months until we had this chance again. It felt like we truly did put the winter to bed and I'm glad I could share the day with so many new and old friends and look forward to the chance to do it all again.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Beauty on a Plain Day

The Beauty of a Plain Day

Winter's end is near-the signs are unmistakeable. Crust has formed on ski and bike trails and every square inch of snow in the forest-burned and melded by the high March sun-regardless of temperature. It can be one of my favorite times of year, tho my heart belongs to fall-it's just that the re-birth of the year is starting and it's something to look forward to.

A less than impressive half inch of snow covered the singletrack I headed out on, what a few days ago had been boilplate hard and fast. My hope was to get an easy spin on the fatbike before that ever strengthening sun finally wins the day this month. Shady portions of the trail were solid, but breaking out into the open forest left me floudering in a softer base. The gloomy overcast day didn't help my frustration as I pushed the big bike toward a firmer ski trail. I figured the skiers had abandoned the season now and the wide trail may provide some pedaling relief. It did, and it offered another perspective of the surrounding woods. Riding singletrack, ones attention is focused mostly on keeping the wheels on the ribbon of trail and not biffing into a snowbank. Now I could pedal easy and scope the forest on either side watching for wildlife or noticing subtle landforms I'd missed before.

The ski trail stretched out ahead-totally unblemished, a thin blanket of undisturbed snow. A surface I love to explore- revealing any tracks, and all sign that animals had been out and about this day. But none, save for a squirrel bounding across the path here and there in search of their final stash of food. Disappointing, but okay-keep moving onward, keep the cranks turning. Ahead maybe evidence of deer, wolf, fisher, or maybe an awakening bear in search of anything to quell it's hunger. Nope. It was virgin snow at every bend in the trail.

Moving forward, further from the trailhead, it began to sink in that even with the darkening thick cloud cover and haziness enveloping the trees nearby, there was a beauty here. This carefree riding afforded me a chance to ”stop and smell the roses” as they say and I did. My previous ride a few days ago had been crunchy and clear, very cold and crisp-the opposite of this silent plain day. There was something here to appreciate. After spending every day with not-so-quiet elementary aged kids, the stillness surrounding me, that muffled sound of tires on snow, was so welcome.

I didn't yet have a plan for how I'd return to the chalet-my starting point. The usual loop would be too soft to ride and I didn't relish the idea of tackling the huge hills ahead on the black diamond ski trail. I could jump on a logging road perhaps and take the long way around. Even on the timber trail, that veneer of snow continued pristine ahead revealing little activity and dampening all noise except my breathing. The next road was impassible so option B was to hop on the deserted hard pack sno-mo trail. A wise choice it turned out, for the wind was at my back the grade easy and the miles could be covered as quickly as I wanted to pedal.

The final home stretch was a softening muddy town road and my bike searched out the shoulders where snow had yet to melt and she could remain a bit cleaner. The beauty of this unremarkable day and ride began to fade as the realization that many miles lie ahead and cars and trucks had churned the road into spring slop-my very least favorite riding surface. But the fat tires help, floating for the most part on top and making the effort doable even with tired legs. Like winter, the worst was behind and after dumping a few gears cresting the final climb, I realized I'd make it, this unplanned route taking me to new places and revealing a new aesthetic on a plain day.