Friday, August 30, 2013

Indian Creek-Ice Age Trail

Indian Creek Headwaters

 “My favorite thing to do is to go where I’ve never been.” – Diane Arbus

I find that a very true statement-though there is nothing wrong with returning to favorite places as well.  A “place” I’d never been is almost all of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, although I’ve been able to knock off a couple segments this summer.  The IAT is currently undergoing an update of it’s field guide, an ongoing process to be sure maps and segment descriptions are current.    The update procedure involves editors hiking  sections of trail, noting any changes from previous descriptions and adding additional information.  It’s also important to describe the “feel” of the trail-intangible things that help characterize hiking a segment.  Checking map accuracy, GPS waypoints and local points of interest are also part of the field editors duty.

A last minute request to hike a segment in Polk County in North West Wisconsin was forwarded my way in hope it could be completed before a September 1st deadline for the field guide.   The 140 mile drive from home could fit into an early morning journey on a  day off, so I agreed and hit the road before things got too hot during a recent heat wave.   At 4:00am, the traffic, even on I-53 headed north, was light and I was able to reach the segment terminus as daybreak arrived.  The plan was to lock my mountain bike there, drive back around west to the trailhead, hike the section of trail taking notes, waypoints and photographs and pedal the bike back to the car. 

The Indian Creek Segment of the IAT is the eastern portion of what once was the much longer McKenzie Creek Segment.  There are ample parking areas at both ends of the trail and it’s well marked and maintained.  All IAT trails have yellow blazes-either painted, plastic tags on trees or in open areas, carsonite posts, which make navigating easy.  In some of the lower fern covered areas of Indian Creek, I’d check the blazes often to stay on course.  This segment isn’t as glacially featured as others, with the first and last part of the trail fairly flat and easy, but there are some good glacial hummocks at the midpoint challenging hikers up steep climbs and descents. 

The majority of the trail is on public land and the forest is mostly managed for larger stands of hardwoods by select cutting.   Crossing 30th st. (a gravel town road) marks the midpoint and the start of a trek through open woods and dry (at this time) rocky creek beds.  A short ridge climb puts the trail above a small picturesque water lily filled lake, the headwaters of Indian Creek, which flows north.  The habitat is ideal for wildlife, and I saw several deer and grouse and plenty of black bear sign-rotted stumps tore apart, fence posts raked and chewed on and berry filled scat.  It is berry season, so it really wasn’t a surprise when as I stopped to make a photo, a movement of black caught my eye a short distance away.  A year or two old bear slowly ambled through the brush toward me, unaware I was fumbling with the zoom on my camera.  Realizing he’d need to be too close for a good image, I decided it’d be wise to talk loudly to announce my presence, at which point he stared, turned and trotted off.   A pretty neat encounter to say the least!

The final mile of the trail consists of narrow hand carved trail, a short bridge crossing and an open mowed meadow, finishing at the trail terminus parking lot. From this point, the IAT continues a 1/2 mile south on Cty. Hwy. E, and then climbs into the woods east on the Sand Creek segment into Barron County. The bike was waiting and I had a 7 mile hilly ride ahead of me to return to the start-not a bad thing,  my legs enjoying the change-spinning pedals and producing a little breeze on this hot morning as a relief.

 The trailhead and waiting car are within the McKenzie State Wildlife Area off Ct. Hwy. O, perhaps another place I’ve never been to explore another time.  For now, a quick change, a look over my notes and a slow drive back, stopping to investigate other nearby points of interest for the trail guide.

Location: The Indian Creek Trailhead is located approximately 19 miles north west of Cumberland between Cty. Hwys O and E.  in Polk County.  The trailhead is also accessible 10 miles east of Fredric, WI off Cty.Hwy. W. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hangin with my Gnomies-Gnomefest X

Bouldering-Nicolet Roche

Every day that we live, every person we meet, every turn on the trail is another opportunity. Simple as that. –anon

So true, and such is the case with “GF-X” (Gnomefest ten).  As I read and re-read each part of that quote, I realize just how perfect it is when describing the gathering of people that took place recently at The Bear Paw Adventure Center in Langlade Wisconsin.  The Bear Paw served as host and the magical Nicolet Roche trails (and others) were perfect for the fat tired bikes and riders.

Each year for ten additions mountain bikers have gathered at a prime trail system somewhere in the state for a weekend of fun, camaraderie and always at the heart, riding bikes.   My indoctrination came when Gnomefest made several stops at my home trail at Levis Mound.  At the time, I really didn’t have a clue what it was about-it wasn’t a race, although there is “racing” and “festival?”  Well, yes, but laid back and more a congregation of like minded riders.  

What Chainrings?
The G’fest had been around for a few years before I experienced it,  so I wasn’t in the core group who’d made it into an annual event.  Still, the enduring quality to me was meeting all these new people with a common love of riding dirt and how quickly friends are made.  Most live way outside of the area-riders coming from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and even as far away as Winnipeg Canada, as in this most recent addition.  They meet once a year, and as I have found pretty commonplace, act as though they’d ridden together yesterday.  Friendships are picked up where they left off the previously.   Of course, with social media like Facebook, we tend to stay in touch and may even hook up for rides or events at other times, but for the majority, it’s GF as the gathering.

Post Derby Fire
The fest started at the Nine Mile Forest in Rib Mountain, held there several years, then moved onto Levis Mound outside of Neillsville for several more.  A quick return to it’s roots at 9 Mile and then it ventured east to Langlade.  Between the trails of the Nicolet Roche and Bear Paw, there could hardly better a better location for unique riding opportunities.  Much discussed around the campfire was how different each trail in the state can be, and play host to a GF.    Nicolet has giant boulders to (attempt to) ride over and around, flowy fast singletrack and some of the longest sections of uninterrupted trail in the state.  Trail builders like Lloyd, Charlie, Scott and the rest there have created a system that all serious riders should not miss.  As a trail builder myself-I’m humbled by the effort these people have put into the trail there.

Dirt Cat Talent
Typical Gnomefests surely put “fun” high on the list of weekend goals, and “Mayor” Julio dished it up.  A huge campfire serves as the gathering place each night and a launching pad for night rides and perhaps an impromptu “derby” – a short circular “race” with the last person riding declared the winner.  Saturday is the big event day, with a Womens ride headed out early, the ladies this year exploring sweet trail on the Bear Paw property and then along the scenic Wolf River…perhaps getting little more scenic.  All riders head out later for the uber fun “Dirt Cat” which involves some orienteering skills, bike riding, talent and this year a good poker hand and yatzee score to win.  A non- timed event, riders could hit the check points in any order and just enjoy riding the trail.  My friend Dave and I rode plenty and our tails were dragging a bit by then end-the Nicolet whipping us a bit!

Dwarf-Cycle race of Death
Topping the fun checklist is the “Dwarf Cycle Death Race.”   Racers sign up to compete in single elimination bouts, riding tiny kids bikes in a figure 8 course around cones-usually in costume.  Spectators pop up lawn chairs and cheer on their favorite riders.  “Rules” were mostly followed this year, and I have to admit, it was some of the best racing I’d witnessed at a GF-some real talent out there keeping those unruly two-wheelers upright. 

Steve-O-Punk, Cameraman
There is plenty of swag as well-some of the prizes festers bring to exchange, some from generous sponsors.  Awards are given for the Dirt Cat and chili cook-off and plenty of freebees are tossed to the crowd.  My chili didn’t make the cut again this year, but I’ll keep trying.  It is so cool to have everyone gathered at the food and beer potluck, where riders just being everything, hang out and visit.  More new friends made as we talk of bikes, trails and riding. 

Have DOg-Will Moto
With long drives ahead for most, the final morning is usually filled with relaxed easy group rides offering plenty of time to spin the legs out, stop for pictures and explore trails missed during the weekend.  Packing up is always the worst of course and saying good bye.  Almost everyone camps and the grounds return perfectly clean and picked up if not a bit quieter….the knobbie tires silently resting on bike racks now.

The Mayor-Dirt Cat
Each Gnomefest offers that “opportunity” to live, meet new people and take every turn on the trail.  Simple, like the quote reflected.  GF is now a perennial date on my calendar for I’m not quite done riding, meeting new people and living.

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race. -H.G. Wells
West Loop-Nicolet Roche

Big Wheels=Big Traction
Mr. Gomez

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Sound of Fall

It happens every year about now and most would miss it-one has to spend many hours in the woods to catch on and be reminded of what is to come.  It’s the sound of fall.  Not anything loud and in your face, like fall colors, but rather just subtle things that you pick up on and think-“ oh yeah, it’s almost here, autumn is around the corner.”

The subject came up the other day when good friend Butch McCumber and I were digging dirt, bench cutting a section of mountain bike trail on a hot humid summer morning.  Sweat had already drenched our clothes, arms were getting sore, but we’d made good progress.  Then it was there- high and unseen, a Blue Jay sounded an alarm call, having seen something of concern and letting the woods know.  Other animals can decipher that call and are put on alert.  Butch and I heard it and remarked- “fall is coming.” We both bow hunt and that alarm is one we hear too frequently, as the jays point out to every living creature- “There he is, there HE IS….THERE, in that tree…a man!” In times like that, we just want the raucous bird to just shut up, but in August, it’s a reminder that our favorite time of year is coming, one that will come and go too soon.

Squirrels will do the same thing, that scratchy-squealy alarm call peeking out from behind a trunk and then there are crows-forming their flocks and calling out in seemingly hundreds of curious vocalizations.  To us, it’s just saying the next season will be here soon.

There are other signs as well.  Already, white birch and butternuts are turning yellow and dropping leaves-alarmingly too soon it seems.  Daylight is barley showing itself at 5:00am, when a few weeks ago the day was awake and ready to go.  Sandhill cranes down the road, who were just fluff balls on stilts earlier are now lifting off with their parents.  Fall mushrooms like Black Trumpets and Hen of the Woods are showing up as well, but it’s those sounds that really signal to me what is about to happen.  It’ll be confirmed soon enough when nature mixes in the smell of fall-that dry leaf earthy smell as color begins to litter the forest floor.  At that time, it’ll be a done deal- Autumn is here- the sounds had predicted it’s arrival correctly and I’ll be lovin every minute of it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Isle Royale Wilderness

I think each of us have a bucket list of some sort-some write it down, some have it floating around in our soul, maybe constantly changing from time to time.  I have one I guess when I think about it, usually involving something outdoors.  Hike the Grand Canyon top to bottom, build a wood kayak or backpack a wilderness.  At least I can check one off, not that I won’t go back- the Isle Royale Wilderness is the most re-visited National Park in the states, and I can see why after just returning.  There is something about it and it’s hard to put a finger on exactly.  It doesn’t have over the top features like Yosemite or Yellowstone, but rather something more subtle maybe that is just what connects with some.

As mentioned, Isle Royale sits offshore of Wisconsin, is just 22 miles from Grand Portage MN (our jumping off point), 55 miles from Copper Harbor MI and actually closest to the mainland of Canada. When viewed from a map, the island looks like the eye in the wolf shaped Lake Superior.  Summer to fall, ferry service shuttles park visitors from Minnesota and Michigan (2-5 hours one way) and around the 105 miles of the island coast.  The National Park has a rich history, dating back to native people using the island for copper mining, maple syrup gathering and of course hunting and fishing.  Scandinavian fishermen were among the isle’s more recent permanent settlers, along with loggers, miners and vacationers.  During the 1920s and ‘30s, the national Park Service began establishing a National Park and with most inhabitants leaving the island. 

Nearly all of Isle Royale was officially designated Wilderness in 1976 meaning there is little human impact here besides hiking trails, two main harbors and a few scattered cabins.  That is the real attraction-at least for me.  To be in a place where for almost 70 years or more, nature has reclaimed the land and left it without interference from man. 

Our group of six included 4 rookie backpackers, (myself included if you don’t count Boy Scouts more than a few years ago) and two experienced and returning Isle Royale trekkers.  Close friend Mark Haferman from Marshfield was the real instigator and organizer, pimping me for years about going on this adventure-I finally gave in…fortunately. We made the long journey along the North Shore and jumped on an early morning ferry for the start of what would be a three day backpacking trip.  Visitors are given an introduction to the park upon arrival by Park Service Rangers, register and set an itinerary.

Feldmann Ridge
Most of our packs came in around 40# with all the gear and food for the days ahead and I found it took the first hour each day to get it adjusted just-right to be comfortable.  Day one we hit the Feldmann Ridge Trail, a 8.5 mile hike to Feldmann Lake and our first camp.  Steep ridge climbs with outstanding vistas of the southern part of the island and Lake Superior were part of this section, along with deep spruce forests.  It seemed the forest type changed constantly, so different from what we’d have back in Wisconsin.  Giant Yellow birch dominated the latter part of this hike-trunks so large two of us couldn’t reach around!  At other times, the path also included my least favorite part for Red Elderberry and Thimbleberry plants formed almost an impassible barrier to wade through.  Luckily, the Thimbleberry were in season and quite good and we’d snag handfuls along the way for a treat.  Tired and a bit sore, the effort is always worth it. After making camp, we had a chance to make the short journey to Rainbow Cove, a black sand beach reaching out from the southern most end of the island.  Nothing needed to be said or done there, just 6 tired bodies taking it all in as the sky began to change color.

The plan for day two was to continue to Siskiwit Bay, nine plus miles to the north following Feldmann Ridge, here a dramatic exposed basalt rises above the surrounding forest.  A now abandoned firetower along the way offered a break and a chance to really get some great views of the landscape.  With the island 50 miles long and 9 wide, it’s not quite possible to see it all, but enough to impress.  Our destination was clearly in view but still seemed many hours distant-not at all encouraging to my feet and back!  From the (literally) high point of the segment, we dove down into beautiful solid paper birch forest and then deeper into black spruce bogs, expecting at any moment to encounter a moose, which are fairly common.  The final push was a 2 mile arrow straight stretch we all dubbed “the jungle.”  It appeared to have once been a road or long forgotten tote trail, but now overgrown with brush and berries.  More than once we’d check the narrow worn footpath beneath the vegetation to be sure we still were on track.  It was taxing to say the least and the blue of the bay peaking through the final 1/4 mile was a welcome sight.

Siskiwit Bay
Staying at Siskiwit Bay was a gem of the trip-the bay was a mile wide and stretched northeast forever into the big lake.  Iron colored rock and beach stones covered the shore where we spent all evening after setting up camp.  One can’t quite top ending a hike absorbing the outdoors in a place like this.  Our only company a few shorebirds, ever present gulls, loons and one red fox, intent on scoring a meal.  We filtered water, talked quietly and discussed the daunting route ahead of us as the fire and sky gradually retired for the day.

Mark had set forth the toughest hike for our final day-there are no shortcuts on Isle Royale-once you’re in, you are committed to finishing the route.  He claimed our packs would be lightest on the most challenging day making it easier-I wasn’t so sure. Not really wanting to say good bye to the water, we began what would be a two hours of climbing-the Island Mine Trail ascending 700 feet above Lake Superior.  Island Mine was a failed copper mine established in 1874, operating just 3 years, before abandoning the “town” and one shaft.  A steam boiler, cables and giant geared wheels can still be found here among the tailing piles and offered an excuse to rest and explore before continuing our climb. 

There were many times we were relived to think we’d reached the summit, only to see another pitch through the forest ahead pointing skyward.  There were tricky rock strewn sections and then a short switchback descent-overall a tough hike.  After a break and a granola and jerky lunch we headed for the final section-the beautiful Greenstone Ridge Trail. Isle Royale is well known for it’s moose and wolf studies and here we did spot tracks of both, but with the wolf population on the brink of extinction  (just 9 left on the entire island) chances of seeing one were slim.  Continuing south, the forest changed again and we ventured through mostly soft maple and birch-somewhat reminiscent of back home, only more primeval with sharp rock outcroppings along the way.  The trail ungulates some, but the steep climbs were behind us and we could make good time.  This trail is well used and we met a few other hikers who were outbound from the Windigo Ranger Station to begin their treks. For me, once I got up to speed (basically keeping the backpack moving forward!) it was easier to keep going than to stop and try to start up again.  This 6.5 mile section flowed well and after swapping out my pricy (uncomfortable) hiking boots for lightweight Keens, even my feet felt good and I felt we’d finish the day unscathed. 

One more night of camping awaited us for our ferry wouldn’t arrive until afternoon of the following day.  As luck would have it, we found a suitable deck with chairs at the tiny store at Windigo, settled in with some beverages and enjoyed looking out over Washington Harbor-even spotting a moose in the shallows across the bay.  As my first “real” backpacking trip, I didn’t know exactly how it would go.  There are so many little nuances to make it successful and you very quickly learn to be efficient.  When seeing day visitors arrive later in flip flops and toting suitcases, I felt like I’d really earned my place here at Isle Royale, that we’d all experienced something they would miss or not fully understand.   That’s not taking anything away from other park visitors, but for me, I think you need to live with it, to take as much in as one can to really connect with a place, to explore, be fascinated and challenged.  I’m reminded of these words on the subject:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau
At Isle Royale, I felt like I’d really lived, I’d discovered and I’ll return.

Rainbow Cove