Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Mantario Trail, Part 1

Then I went on vacation again. It didn't occur to me when I was taking random chunks of time off in late summer that I was only giving myself two and a half weeks between trips. I came back from the Ice Age Trail and I had to vacation again! Crikey! My rashes had barely cleared up. I was planning on hiking the LaCloche Silhouette Trail but a cursory inquiry into backcountry reservations in Killarney quickly taught me that hiking Killarney is significantly more complicated from a bureaucratic perspective than hiking in Whiteshell so I decided to do Whiteshell. The Mantario Trail defeated me in June 2014. Now was the season and all the Canadians on the internet said it was beautiful. I had to watch the episode of Little Mosque where Amar, Thorne, Baber, Fred Tupper, and Fasil, but not Joe, go camping to settle my nerves about the advisability of camping in Canada. And I realized that camping in Canada is about contrasts. One might find a London punk and her insane Ukranian twin in the Canadian wilderness, or an imam and a conservative talk radio host. As a solo hiker, I would need to balance extremes. But I could do it. I'd done half of it already.

My alarm didn't go off and I accidentally slept in 'til 7:00 in the morning. I didn't mind much though. This was a travel day. I petted Guinness for forty five minutes, slung my pack over my shoulder, and headed out. The drive up was uneventful if longer than necessary. I never stopped for a meal. I had rolls and cheese and a clearance organic energy drink, but once I finished that I got into the problem cycle of buying pop at a gas station and drinking it and needing to pee and stopping at a gas station and buying pop. What with road construction, I didn't make Winnipeg until 4:00pm. And that was okay. I had nowhere to be for real, and I didn't know where I was going to sleep. Probably in my car. But I wasn't sure where I was going to sleep. Probably in the parking lot at the trailhead. There was the charming West Hawk Lake Campground, but I would be a forest troll surrounded by old people in campers whose alarms wouldn't go off at 5:30.

I made it up to Winnipeg with the intention of Wilderness Supply, but I took the wrong exit on their ring road and ended up trying to drive through some light industrial zone with a Tim Horton's. I was about to turn left and get back on the ring road and there was Wilderness Supply! Hurray! I bought my Manitoba Parks Pass and got back on the road to West Hawk Lake. The Trans-Canada is a two-lane divided highway for ten miles and then it goes down to one lane for a long time through pine forests and granite blasted away to make room for a road bed. Lakes! Manitoba only has 9,999 but they are spectacular. I was still weighing the idea of camping and there were a lot of potential campgrounds in towns along the road, but nothing tugged at my heart enough to make me abandon West Hawk Lake. Canada has a confusing series of symbols for roadside attractions and they put everything a town has to offer on one sign. Some towns have camping, or camping, eating, or camping, eating, horsie, golf, pool. Some towns have camping, eating, swimming, golf, massage, falconry, cholera, waterslide, mausoleum, pine tree. I stopped nowhere and made West Hawk Lake in the early twilight. Ah, West Hawk Lake! I immediately stopped for gas because in the event that my credit card was cancelled while I was on vacation because some computer decided I'd stolen my card and crossed the border, I wanted a tank of gas. It was 7:50 and the West Hawk General Store was winding down for the night. I bought my gas from the owner, from Forest Lake! and became Canadian in the '80s. She and her husband were flying to Jamaica on Friday to relax after the season. I crossed the street to the West Hawk Diner and it was two minutes from shutting down for the night. I was very sad. I did have one option, the slightly fancier bar and grill next to the general store. (Technically, I had another option: getting into the trail food early.) I walked back across the street and checked on the hours of the fine restaurant. I had hours. It was a nicer place than I deserved, considering I was wearing trail clothes with a blazer . I went in the bathroom and realized I was wearing hiking boots, a teal paisley skirt, a pink striped shirt, and a floral blazer. Three clashing patterns, three weird lengths, three different styles. But there was nothing for it. I opted for the Greek salad, since I was about to spend a week without vegetables. Nom. I enjoyed it immensely. The waitress said they'd had a lot of Mantario hikers the previous weekend. I wondered if I was too late in the season and I would be alone in the woods, but when I rolled through a couple miles of rural roads into the parking lot at the trailhead, there were four cars and I knew that I would have four friends on the trail. No one else was sleeping over. I put down my backseat and got ready for bed. There was a scary time when I thought I lost my InReach and couldn't contact my family and I would have to go back to the telephone box at the West Hawk convenience store and place an international call on my credit card to let my parents know I was okay. Can telephone operators still do that? But I finally found the InReach in my fanny pack. I still had some useful junk in my trunk from the garage sale: a coat, a couple shirts, and some broken shoes I need to recycle in the shoe recycling box. I put the coat under my sleepy bag and made things comfier. I could stretch out well in the trunk. Yaris! There was a weird gap where the trunk floor and the backseat separated for a few inches, but as I slept my coat worked its way in there and I was even more comfortable. The stars shone brilliant.

I woke up to windows all steamed up and a cold morning. Hey, I had an extra coat! I fussed through my stuff and checked supplies. I did not get as much of an early start as I wanted considering that all I fundamentally needed to do was put on my boots and go. But mornings are tough and it's hard to tear yourself from the security of a cozy car and head out into a wilderness that defeated you last time. I did it though. I walked across the parking lot. I took the obligatory selfie. I walked up the sandy gouge where the Mantario starts on a dirtbike track. I walked to where the ttrail shifts off the track and onto a footpath and starts to go up through the forest with pink rock underneath your feet and girding the path and grassy clearings and pines. Then all of a sudden the trail goes downhill and crosses the Whiteshell River on a sturdy little bridge of greying wood. The first thing on my map. I was making good time, and here was water and unimagineable beauty. I crossed the bridge after forty five minutes of hiking. When I attempted before, I'd hiked from my car to a campsite forty five minutes in and then I'd taken another half an hour in the morning. I must've been tired, and very possibly out of shape. And here I was, forty five minutes in and already at the first milestone. I could do this. But maybe I shouldn't? I tried to set an intention and realized I couldn't use Meghan again. I'd done a Meghan hike, devoted to dangling my toes in the water, but this hike needed to be about something else. And I don't believe in hiking for something like World Peace. World Peace can be acheived by concrete actions, not hiking a trail or running a 10k. I didn't have anybody whom I could hike in honor of. Everyone I know is bored of my walkabouts or they're flat-out worried about me. And here I was alone in the woods again. I would at least need to keep my mood up, which is hard when you're on your own. In 2014, this area was so mosquitoey that sometimes I couldn't open my eyes all the way. Now, everything was a pine-scented idyll with a few drying logs from the old blow-down. Through a marsh, and I crossed the first set of railroad tracks and walked down them a bit to find the little orange flag that marked the trail. Mantario is usually blazed blue, and I wondered who'd been through marking orange. A school group in two chunks, maybe, with one adult blazing the trail for the slower kids? A caretaker enthusiast? It was nice, whichever. There were spots where the blue blazes did it, and spots where the orange blazes helped. I went uphill through thick woods and had a snack at the abandoned airfield, built to defend central Canada during the War, now decomissioned. There's a falling tower and a broken trail sign, left for East Caribou and right for the rest of the trail. I ate a Pearson's nut roll and went right. A while later, got my first glimpse of Caribou Lake. My second glimpse of Caribou Lake had a weird rowboat in it. Who leaves rowboats lying around the back country? But there it was, pulled up on a rock with no oars. I continued up and away from the lake , then down and over a stream, up and along a ridge, down more, streams feeding the lake, more lake views. I began to worry that I'd missed the campsite. I didn't need it: I could eat lunch anywhere, but it's nice to check landmarks. I was relieved to find it finally, but it was filthy ! Ugh. I've seen beer cans and old pants in my life, but this was the worst thrashing of nature I've ever seen with a semblance of camping. Most people who hate nature this much just run a bulldozer over it. The bearbox was piled with decomposing garbage. Somebody left their entire foul camping trip. There was a coffee can full of dirt, a busted up tent , a tarp, a cooler, cans, nastiness, food containers. I wished I had the gumption and the resources to pack it out but that was too much and too disgusting. I went down across the big flat rock to the picnic table and a ton of little garbage on the ground, but nothing gross. Little corners off packets of things and tiny wrappers. There was another rowboat with the most ghetto canoe paddle in it: the blade off a kayak paddle attached to a stick with rusting wire. WTF. I ate my PBJ burrito to the lapping of little waves and enjoyed sitting down in nature. I was making good time, but I still had places to be and things to do. My next challenge was walking past a pair of ribs and a skull that I'd seen in 2014, and I spent an hour walking carefully in apprehension of that challenge, but they just weren't there. Do wolves gnaw old bones in winter? Pretty clearings, lush grass, drying mud, pines, and four or five mosquitoes left over from the season. I went in mud up to the top of my boot, and was cheered by somebody's lost hat stuck on a dead tree, and ate another Nut Roll. There was the survey monument, then the trail bears left into thicker woods, and I kept an eye out for the logging camp brick oven but missed it.

At Marion Lake there's a huge beaver dam crossing. The map calls this "treacherous" but there's nothing to it, especially in the dry. Go down a slope, hopscotch over some rocks separating a jewel lake from a lush beaver marsh in wide glacial vistas under an enormous blue sky, and go up the trail, probably. Except there was no up. Orange flagging around the bottom of cliff to the left and a rock ledge over the lake and then there was nothing path-like, just me and the ledge and a grassy cliff with no tread. Flagging, flagging, dead-end. There were about six places on the cliff that looked climbable but nothing that screamed, "I'm the trail! Go up here! You'll know where you are once you get to the top." I decided to ascend. I don't like leaving the trail, but ten feet up isn't getting lost in the bush. There's no way I wouldn't be able to navigate from the lake I was standing next to. I scrambled up the cliff and stood on top of it and it definitely was not the trail. Green and waving grasses up to my knees and scattered trees and mossy branches for tripping over. But there was something thirty feet away along the edge of the cliff that looked like a trail. I walked carefully towards it and it was the Trail. From the top of the cliff, I could see how I was actually supposed to go right from the dam around a curve and up some blue flagged slope to where I was standing now. I had done it the hard way, but that was okay, and now I knew that the orange flagging could lie. So I pushed hard around the lake edge for a long time, because it's a big lake, and finally I found the campsite and I was home! I did think briefly about going on to Peggy Lake but it was 4:00pm already. So I set up my tent in a nice tentsite on the beach and decided to kick back in my chair and sunbathe. It was a little cool out, so I had to put on my sunbathing sweater. There was a frisky little chipmunk running all over the place. It may have been two chipmunks. He or she would run close to my feet and away and into the fireplace and onto the rocks and everywhere. He even ran over to my tent and gave it a good looking-at but I told him not to do that. He wasn't very interested in me while I was eating supper but that night, when my tent was rustling, I was sure it was chimpmunks and not bears. The wind off the lake was strong and some brilliant asshole had built a windscreen at the fire pit. It was an utterly ingenious woven stick work of disregard for leave no trace camping and it really did block the wind. When I woke up at 5:30, as is proper, I was excited to have some windless peanut butter and headlamp time and there were little mice running all over the rocks by the fire pit, nibbling and leaping and being adorable in their mousiness. They were so cute that I dipped a pine cone in peanut butter, which is against the rules. The one who got it thought it was wonderous fare and ate most of it before his friends realized he was up to something. I packed up and was sad to leave my little mouse friends and my sleeping chipmunk friends, but there were more wild campsites with incredible beaches ahead of me and I needed to go to them. I pushed on through marshier terrain and some highs and crossed the power lines and the portage. I was coming up on Peggy Lake around 10:30, walking along some grassy granite way, when I spotted people. I had my fear reaction before they noticed me, and they jumped ten feet into the air when they saw me coming. After they calmed down a bit, we introduced ourselves. Their names were Peter and Curtis and they were doing the trail in five days, this being day four. Peter was excited about my hat. I was wearing a YMCA Camp Icaghowan hat because, after the Ice Age Trail, I was testing out whether I preferred baseball caps to my ladies' camping hat. Peter was a camp director at a Christian camp nearby and he looked similar to Peter the old director at Icaghowan; Curtis looked like Harold from Red Green. They'd met a couple going north in moderate distress: the man leaned against the wrong tree while they were crossing a beaver dam and got fifteen wasp stings. Peter and Curtis camped at Peggy with another couple whom I would probably meet up with because they were travelling slowly and taking their ease. I was so heartened to see people and I felt so much safer. I walked with an extra zing, crossing the next tiny little stream flowing over rocks between blue lakes, and up the massive rock the size of a duplex sloping at a seventy degree angle up onto the bald. I crossed on the lip of soil in the crease of the rock and felt a little bad doing it because other people were climbing there too and it the dirt getting a bit kicked up.
Peggy is one of the most beautiful campsites on a trail where everything is beautiful and windswept and next to some kind of epic Northern vista. You come out over a hill and descend a barren slope with little pine trees past the bearbox, which is well visible from the campsite, and then you have six different options to cross a little stream to the campsite where there are comfortable private tent pads on either side of a gentle ridge up to the privy. I stopped at the picnic table to fill up my water bottles and bask. The mad lasher left some sort of elegant yet non-LNT contraption made of sticks next to the fire pit which someone told me later was a chair. I took off my boots and dabbled my feet for the sake of the sunny day. It was lovely. But I pushed on. My plan was to lunch at Moosehead and make it to Mantario, which left no room for wiggling about on the beach. So I pressed on along the straight, woodsy path and walked by something that looked quite like a picnic table. I kept walking, decided I needed desperately to turn around and find out for sure if that was a picnic table, so I dropped my pack and went back to inspect what turned out to be the Olive Lake campsite, a sweet little spot with a picnic table and one tent pad but no breathtaking vistas. On the IAT, I'd give my kneecaps for a campsite like that, but on the Mantario Trail, it's disappointing.

I chugged on along through forests and a few little marshy spots. There was one place where I went astray. The trail goes down and straight into a marsh and one stands there for five minutes and wonders how the trail goes through a marsh before one decides to backtrack ten feet and realizes that the deer go into the marsh and humans go up and around the lake. There were other footprints down in the marsh, so I knew all my other trail comrades I hadn't met yet were also confused. I walked hard and long and ate a nut roll and it was nearly 2:00pm when I started climbing over the boulder field at the Alice Lake campsite and heard a a funny jingling I thought I'd heard once hours ago right around Olive. I looked around and there were people at Alice starting to cross the beaver dam. I wanted to be their friend but I had a whole basketball court of boulders to get across safely first. I went like a mountain goat but they were crossing the dam while I crossed the bridge. They didn't see me at all. I scurried through the campsite to the marsh and extensive beaver dam system, went out on a flat rock to get to the dam and hit a dead end. I tried another rock and found a dead end. There was only one way to even approach the big beaver dam and I had to skirt a lot of likely looking routes to get to it. My ding-a-ling-a-ling friends were across the dam and disappearing into the trees, and I took myself firmly in hand: if I didn't meet them at Moosehead, I'd meet them at Mantario. I walked carefully around the tide pools and onto the beaver dam, which needed some beaver love, but it was so much easier crossing now in low water season, than when it was when I crossed this dam before and it was one floating stick. I stepped carefully, and there were shoddy bits, but I made it across safely with ease and went up the slope into the woods. Moosehead was up ahead and I was deeply confused about why the lake was on my right when the lake should be on my left and whether something disastrous would happen, when the lake opened out on my left and I was walking into Moosehead campsite in all its beautiful granite-beached slopiness and vastness. My new friends were at the far picnic table out of the chill wind from the lake and I went over and introduced myself. Their names were Scott and Becky. Scott vaguely reminded me of a guy I used to volunteer with and Becky had the black Irish thing going on. They were both lovely. They'd been out for three days already. They slept at Caribou the first night and Peggy last night with Curtis and Peter, and they were heading for Mantario tonight. I said I was too, "...if you don't mind sharing." They said of course, and invited me to sit down at the picnic table with them and all their food that was all over the place and covering the entire table. I didn't want to make them move; I also had my cool reclining ground chair, so I thanked them but declined and impressed them by sitting down in my chair and leaning back. Ah. We chatted while Scott lit their stove, Becky dug out the soup mix, and I unloaded my peanut butter. I took out my InReach to let my family know the exact location of my lunch by magic and Scott asked me if I found the GPS useful. I explained how it wasn't a GPS, or technically it was both a GPS and a Facebook machine but I didn't have those activated, but I could text with my family, and Scott said to Becky, "Let's not tell your mom those things exist." We had a nice lunch, or at least I did. Their soup, delicous though it looked, was still cooking when I ran out of room in my tummy and put away my peanut butter and all the detritus I had scattered around me for the lunching of. I said goodbye to Scott and Becky with the sureness that we would be back together in a few hours and set out.

The stretch between Moosehead and Mantario is one of the most beautiful, the hardest, and the starkest sections of the Mantario Trail. From the campsite, you walk along the shore of Moosehead Lake for a few hundred yards and onto a beaver dam so old it has trees taller than a man growing out of it. The dam has real tread, and beach, and looks more like skinny long peninsula, except the one place where the beaver left a gap and you can see that all this land is built on sticks. From the dam, you hike up and then you stay up. There is nothing but a granite table stretched in front of you with trees far away down steep slopes and the sky and the sun and the wind. Then the sweetest blue lake comes into view like a picture from a storybook, and once that passes, you find Mantario Lake on your right and it continues for ages. Finally, two waterbottles later, the trail starts going up and down, and painfully up, and why am I going up?, there are a couple portages and then you're going through thick woods and walk right into the Mantario campsite. I was disappointed my hike didn't take longer because it was amazing. I love the wind. But Mantario is amazing too. It wasn't a windy day at water level, just on the tops, so there wasn't a particular wind off the lake, which was nice because Mantario is at an inlet on the northern edge of the Lake Mantario and the wind could whip the water into whitecaps and freeze the whole site; Mantario was the farthest I made it in 2014 and I had to sit huddled on the far side of a tree to eat a power bar without the wind blowing through me. But this evening it was calm and sunny. The tiny little island out in the lake was perfect. A person could swim out there under thoroughly different conditions. Then they could stay there and eat pine nuts and lead a miniature life. Ah beauty. Scott and Becky were far behind me so I got first tent padsies and took the one off to the side where there was less space and more privacy and wind protection. After I set up my tent, I went banging through the woods looking for the bear box and gathering firewood. There were a ton of false trails in back of the site but I just couldn't find the bloody thing, or the privy. After I'd collected ample firewood anyway, I gave up. I sat in my chair on my picnic table in the sun with the water laking in front of me and relaxed and the trees rustled and various things happened in Terry Pratchett's head that he wrote down for me to find out later and then I read them. After a while, I started wondering whether Scott and Becky were going to show up, and if not, should I go looking for them? Obviously a night search would be a bad idea but we had hours of daylight left and if they were in peril, I had a device for summoning helicopters. Conversely, if they'd just gotten tired and decided to bivy down, I wouldn't want to search needlessly for safe people. What if they'd stayed at Moosehead because they didn't want to camp with me and then I blundered up and started trying to splint them? Finally, they saved me from worrying by walking into the campsite. They took the tent pad straight back from the picnic area and I continued kicking back. Scott walked down the trail past the campsite and found the bearbox right there, and the privvy a little ways back in the bush. We chatted and ate our respective dinners. I had beans, they had a boil in the bag meal.

They went off to get more organized and I decided to get the fire going because dark was falling and I was getting cold. I'd been worried that I would be camping with adamantly anti-fire green people, but Becky and Scott had made a few comments already indicating that a fire was obligatory. We had a crackling fire going and I was getting something out of my tent when I heard a tinkling bell come from farther down the trail. I hung around to see who it was and two women walked into the campsite. I greeted them loudly since I was covered in twilight and they didn't spook. They seemed a little desperate and very happy to sit down. Their names were Amy and Claire. They had nice puffy jackets on, and trekking poles, and looked like people who knew their stuff, or people who take gear reviews seriously. It was hard to tell in the dark. One of them dug a cook pot out of her pack and the other one pulled out a a hanging water filter. "We ran out of water," Claire said. No wonder they looked so rough even in the dark. It transpired they'd hiked from Richie Lake and Amy hurt her leg somewhere in the morning so they'd been going slowly all day. They'd filled water at some point but hadn't filled it again and they had this retarded hanging water filter. I gave them a bottle of my iodine water to start their food and we chatted. Claire and Amy had such thick accents I thought they must be Quebecois but they were from a town half an hour outside of Winnipeg. Scott and Becky had accents a little bit, and they spoke in kilometres and thought it was fifteen degrees out, but Amy and Claire were from a different land. They were funny too. Claire said, "Should I tell them my story about Pop Tarts?" Amy said she definitely should. Claire said, "I was looking for backpacking food recipes online and it said on this one website, 'Pop Tarts are a great morale booster! Bring some along,' and I decided to get some when I was food shopping. We ate them today and they were gross." I was on my chocolate and apertif course and I offered everyone some tiny booze. I always bring enough that if I make new camping friends, I can share, and this was only the second time ever I'd had camping friends. Amy didn't want any but Claire chose a tiny hard lemonade. She said, "A great morale booster. Ha!" They'd had a rough day. They'd gotten off the trail somewhere up past Richie Lake, climbed a cliff, and found a sleeping bag, a bunch of food packages, and a pair of boxers, shredded up and mauled. They'd gotten the hell out of there. Claire said, "The bear didn't maul the guy. If some man was mauled by a bear, we'd have heard about it, but the bear definitely got his pack." They'd had to climb up a cliff where a scraggly, manky rope was tied to a root to make the ascent, but there was a scramble next to the root where most people avoided the rope and hauled themselves up. They had ingredients in Ziplock baggies and I was horrified when they chucked the empty baggies into the fire. Come on. We sat around the fire a little more. Scott and Becky were yawning. I decided it was really time for bed. Seriously past time for bed. 9:30. What kind of wild night was I having? I left my Canadian friends with the fire and crawled into my tent and my snuggly clothes. Camping is so easy when it's dry. I made a sleepy time mix on my iPod and fell asleep before the first song was done. I woke up cold but pumped. I was only wearing one pair of long underwear, one t-shirt, and one sweater, cold!, so I put on my a long undershirt and my fleece. I listened to my music even quieter in my tent because I didn't want to wake my friendly buddies at this ungodly hour. Out of my tent, it was even colder with damp chill. I put my arm back in my tent and found my other long underwear shirt and my mitten gloves. So glad I brought them. I tied the shirt on my head and rememebered why this was worth it: A mist covered the lake right up to the shore. The island was disappeared but the crescent moon and Venus shone through the haze. My breakfast had a chipmunk friend and I took turns watching him and the mist so slowly disappear while the sun rose. I had my peanut butter tortilla in utter peace. Then I fiddled around a bit and got my tent down with my freezing hands. Amy woke up and said goodbye to me on her way to the bathroom and I set off along the trail uphill in an early morning in thick green woods. I was scared for today. Claire and Amy made the trail sound difficult and I'd already climbed things hard and hiked far and stepped carefully. I have no idea how to freestyle up granite precipes.

The trail climbed through the nice forest up to another granite top and view of the forest. There had been a burn up there and it was an easy mess of tree trunks and low bushes, along with the rock and the astounding view of the next lake or Mantario Lake. It was a little hard to tell. I was descending from Three Lake to Two Lake to One Lake and felt backwards. The important thing was that I was walking on the correct path, which was easy because there's only one path in the whole of the forest. The terrain wasn't so easy but it wasn't any more difficult than before. When I found the place of the helping rope, I was surprised, firstly because when I looked at the trail, it went straight down. I took some vertical trail pictures, and then I looked around and there was another route and maybe another one. There were plenty of ledges and places to rest while descending, and I wasn't afraid to climb down. The rock chimnied and I scooted carefully down past a yellow rope two feet to my left and said, "Oh, that's what Amy was talking about" and then I was at the bottom of the cliff and not worried about getting up again because it was not hard. There was one place where the path stopped. I crossed a little stream and went up and the trail went around on a wide ledge on the side of a cliff and then it ended. I couldn't find the bloody thing at all, and I was definitely still on the trail because it was flagged. But where was the next flag? There was an up climb that could be the trail and it was the most trail-looking thing I could see, so I climbed up the cliff and stood on top of the cliff looking around for more trail, but it seemed that the place I had climbed was not trail at all so there was no trail to follow past that. I tried walking along the edge of the cliff to see if there was any trail around, if I had climbed up in the wrong place and I should've climbed up nearby, but there was no trail, just the wind blowing in the grass and the rocks and the sky and the sun. It was one of the more beautiful places I've ever seen, up there. I sat for a while, looking, and then I got down and tried walking the trail to where it dead-ended again, and found a little bit of trail on the other side of a bush and kept trucking. So much pretty. I had a long haul that day so I kept pushing. There was a lookout on the map and I looked out over it, but it had a view of more trees. I'm not sure why that was the lookout, since I'd seen thirty places of equally spectacular beauty, but it was very high up. Then I met two men walking along a granite top between some trees. The first one saw me, and I saw the first one, and we said hi, and the guy behind him jumped a mile. I'd met so many trail friends by then that I don't even remember their names. They asked me where I was coming from and I said "Mantario, but I left at 7:30," so they wouldn't get over-optimistic. The first man said, "At 7:30, I was trying to get five more minutes in my sleeping bag but he made me get up." They'd camped at Richie and they were doing the trail in four days, heading to Mantario tonight. They'd met the couple who got stung by the hornets on their way out. I told them they'd be meeting Scott and Becky soon. The front man asked me if I was the girl who'd said she was solo hiking the trail this weekend on the Mantario Trail Facebook page. No, but wow. Unicorns! The second guy didn't say much, but he had a hunting knife on his hip and a stubby blaze orange knife on his shoulder strap, which is overkill. We wished each other luck and I headed on for Richie Lake. I hiked along and started seeing lower land, more mud and trees and less granite tops. There were portage trails and places where a tree had fallen and people kicked another trail around it. Everything got a little damper, and the mud crust appeared. I pushed on into the thick forest and the rises and falls, all the clustered pines and the knowing that there was a lake, at least one, nearby, but I'd never see it from here. Richie Lake campsite was meant to be off the trail somewhere and I wanted to find it and have lunch there but I was worried I would miss the turn and never find it and I would never have lunch until supper time. So I was that much more surprised when I came up on a huge blue peeling board sign, "Richie Lake Campsite 400km" in big letters with a big arrow. It was the kind of sign that you could see if you were stumbling exhaustedly through the woods hoping to find the campsite in moonless dark, which was probably the point. I followed the turn-off, went up and around and down through sparse pines past a bear box and a privy off in the woods but not as discreet as these things usually are, and here was my picnic table at Richie. Lunch! Today was a sad day because it was the end of my tortillas and from now on I would be stuck eating peanut butter off Wasa crackers like a health martyr. The lake had a seagull flying off in the distance and I watched it and ate, then checked out the campsite. The picnic table had space for a tent behind it, and then there was a step, as with a sunken living room, up to a perfect campsite with an illegal fire ring and space for one flat tent and one slopey tent, then back through some trees was a lovely tent pad where someone had taken an enormous shit. That explained the flies. Toilet paper too. Then there was another, smaller tent pad and another trail to the privy. I moved on. I was definitely moving faster with better muscles and less food weight. The terrain from Richie was forested and post-muddy. There were massive steep hills to climb, but the trail was dirt not rock. Hemenway was close by, according the map and I got high up again and gazed at the massive Crowduck Lake and then started lowering down onto granite tops that wove around each other like little rooms. I was wearing my stripey t-shirt and enjoying the stripes and my lemonade and all the prettiness. I was a little distracted when two men popped out somewhere and I said hi to them and we chatted a bit. I asked them how far to Hemenway and they said, "You're almost there." From then I walked about two hundred feet and turrned somehow and there I was looking at a picnic table and a little lake and two more Canadians. Friends! They were monkeying around with a kitchen tarp a little ways from the kitchen. The campsite at Hemenway Lake is a vast rock room,one wall the lake, one wall forest, one wall forest and rock, and one wall a thin line of trees separating it from another room. There were two obvious paths into that room and I found out later that the bearbox and privy were in there. The floor of the campsite room was all granite and flat the first ten feet from the forest wall and sloping down to the lake 'til at the end there was a forty degree angle of beach granite. So there was a ton of space, but not many tent sites, unless you like sleeping on igneous rock and waking up in lakes. Cate and Karen already had their tent set up in spot near the kitchen and there were other places where a person could set up the tent if they wanted to chip away at the precious topsoil. I wanted to avoid that so I went and checked out the other room, but stabbing the topsoil with tent stakes was my only hope really. I chose a spot barely bigger than my tent set up. My tent stakes went half an inch into the soil, hit granite and I ended up finding some rocks to hold the ropes down. Then I moved to the picnic table and sat with Cate and Karen, not being too sure if I was intruding or if hanging out by myself by the lake in full view of them would be weirder. Obviously, I chose the expedient of holding a book but not reading it. They were Winnipegers, and fun people. Cate had step-kids and when I said I was Minnesotan, she said, "Winnipegers love Minnesota." She said she hadn't gone down to the States for back to school shopping this year because the dollar was up but she usually does. She talked about all the things you can get for cheaper in the US, like cheese. I said I wanted to spend a day being a tourist in Winnipeg before I went home and asked them what I should see. They said, "The Forks," the new riverfront shopping district and Human Rights Museum. Cate told a story about Duluth last month with her husband and step-kids: she forgot her sandals so she bought some cheap flip-flops, sprayed herself down with bug spray, and the sandals melted. A tingling ding started from the south and I said, "Ah, I wonder if that's Scott and Becky." Karen said quietly, "I wouldn't say this to someone with a bear bell, but they've done studies with black bears and grizzlies in Alberta, and bear bells attract black bears. They're naturally curious so if they hear a rhthymic noise, they'll get closer to see where it's coming from." Scott and Becky came through the trees just then. I was glad to see them, as I had the same questions about what to do if they didn't turn up that I'd had the previous night. They set up their tent on another little patch of dirt closer Karen and Cate and came to sit around the picnic table with us. We checked in on our relative days, hiking the same terrain. They'd also gone off-trail somewhere, and met those two guys with two knives. Karen and Cate had great stories. They were both a little rounder than they used to be, I'm sure, but they'd done adventuring, and not just American things but Candian outdoorspersonship. Cate said, "Never try to cook with a white gas stove in your tent in northern Saskatchewan in winter because it will flare up and burn a hole in your tent and you will spend the night freezing and being snowed on." Scott asked her how they'd survived the night, and she said, "Slept in the tent with twenty dogs. We were far away from everything. Like, the nearest town was three hours away." Cate started a fire to eat supper by, and I was even more surprised. Some people are so anti-fire, but not these people. They weren't anti-throwing their plastic bags in the fire either. Different cultures! I've never seen a massive poop on a tent pad in the States either. But regardless of what is warm, or produces carbon, or the state of a nation's bowels, we had a pleasant evening and sat around the fire until the brilliant sunset in pinks and oranges over the pines. I went to bed around 8:30, which is pretty late for me camping alone, and they tucked in a little later. I wore all my clothes to bed, but the temperature didn't drop as much as the night previous, (we were also on a cute little lake, not a huge lake) so I had a toasty warm night.

I woke up well and didn't dally in my tent too much, because today was the day, and the haul, and the climax, and the midpoint. I followed my headlamp down the eight foot trail to the other granite room. The bearbox and privy were off to the left in a little wooded area. The bearbox was plumb full what with three sets of food bags and the random crap that somebody left in there: a bottle of cooking oil, a huge metal army first aid kit, and a box of crackers. People.

I carried my stuff back through into our campsite and looked around for where to eat. Not at the picnic table, because Cate and Karen were asleep close-by. The nicest spot was near the beach but that sloped enough that if my water bottle fell over, it would wind up in the lake before I could catch it. I went down to the shore to see if there was anywhere flatter, like the illegal fire ring I couldn't see in the dark. I heard a plop. There was a beaver in the water and I'd disturbed him. He was wary of me. I froze and went slowly down on my haunches. He was floating in the water a foot off shore, eating a medium-sized tree branch. The beaver ate the tree and the sun started coming up glowfully. He adjusted and I got to see his beaver tail. Beaver! I watched him for a long time, doing his beaver thing. He was pretty great. Finally, I left him to it and set up my little stove next to my tent's grassy patch. I missed my tortillas, but my peanut butter was just fine and I had cocoa in my coffee and a little bit of fruit. It was a really nice morning. Finally, I rolled up my tent and most of my clothes and food, stuffed them in the bearbox, and I was ready to roll and be back in a few hours. It felt great having a nearly empty pack. I had a couple sweaters, my rain fly, lunch and some sundries, but there was nothing to stop me flying down the trail except that it immediately dead-ended across the rock sheet from the privy and I had to retrace my steps twice to figure out which stand of trees I was supposed to go through. From there I chugged along through thick forest not very far at all before I got my first glimpse of Big Whiteshell. Hemenway is a teeny-tiny kettle lake between Crowduck and Big Whiteshell, and Big Whiteshell is so big that it has civilization. It was a little disappointing to stand at the edge of the forest and see houses far away across the lake, after the wilderness. The first time I came to a sandy beach, I made a sand castle, as is proper. The weather was warm but blowy off the lake, and I started to see fishermen and fisherchildren and fisherdogs out in boats. There was another sandy beach, and a walk through woods ten feet from the shoreline, and an unofficial campsite. I kept weaving between beaches and woods, crossed a few streams with bridges and stepping stones. There was more excrement. Apparently Canadian outdoorsmen subscribe to the laws of Manu (http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21607837-fixing-dreadful-sanitation-india-requires-not-just-building-lavatories-also-changing). Nice unofficial campsite was ruined by poop. There was no chance of stepping in it because of the clouds of flies. But mostly the walk was sunshine, lapping waves, interesting ducks, trees, fishermen, and the sensation of moving quickly. Then there was a road, which was a huge deal. I crossed it and thought I might be getting somewhere, but the trail wove still quite onwards after that. This was the segment that everyone on the internet complains about, the long ATV trail that's all mud. Curtis from Peggy Lake got stuck in mud up to his waist here three days ago. In spring, they say, it's impassable. In September, the middle of the road was glossy wet, but it was easy to walk along the high shoulders. Mantario hikers say this segment is boring, and I hope they never do the Ice Age Trail. Then an elderly couple appeared. Nice people. They said hello and were very much impressed that I was nearly done with the trail. They were from Winnipeg and had a cottage on Big Whiteshell, and were surprised that I was an American. I said goodbye to them knowing that I'd catch them on the flipside and went on. And on. And on. And then I came down a hill and here was the road and the trailhead! It was so uneventful and yet full of accomplishment. The trailhead wasn't too exciting, with no amenities like potable water or a toilet. Just an informational kiosk with a map and a wee bit of history, a shiny black bench dedicated to a Canadian soldier who died in Bush's Iraq, and eighteen cars parked on the roadside. I took an oodle of selfies in front of the sign and sat on the bench and ate a nut roll and wondered where all the people in these cars were, since I hadn't seen them on the trail. I think they were all out in boats. I waved goodbye to the trailhead, took a few more pictures of myself, and turned around to do the entire trail over again. It was about 11:00am. The old couple weren't very far when I found them again. We said hello again and chatted some more. The lady said she'd heard somewhere that Thanksgiving was the most American of holidays and she wanted to know what I thought. I said I supposed it was true, because everyone in America does the same thing and eats the same thing on the same day, unlike all the other holidays which are celebrated variously by culture or family. (Judith Martin makes a compelling argument that high school graduation is the most American of holidays, but that's not annual for all.) She told me about Canadian Thanksgiving, which is completely different and in October. She said, "It's a harvest festival," and I didn't explain that our Thanksgiving is also a harvest festival that just happens to come six weeks late. She said they were Jewish and told me a little about Sukkot, which was also coming up. Finally, she patted my arm and wished me luck and I hiked on, and ran into Scott and Becky five minutes later. They were looking forward to getting out and taking showers, and I assured them that they were twenty minutes from the trailhead, with the conversation with the sweet elderly couple factored in. From there, I hiked on alone, through the wood, across the road and along the shore of the lake. There was one confusion where the trail went into a swamp and dead-ended. It took me four tries to figure out where I was supposed to be going. The crazy ducks were back after I'd disturbed them, sunning on a rock. Some fishermen within waving distance waved at me and I waved back. I ate lunch on a beach with the sun on my arms and it was delightful. My sandcastle was falling apart already when I went past it. Then I was back in the wood and then I was back at Hemenway. It was a little disappointing to walk into the campsite when all my campsite friends had left. I repacked my pack and chugged off quickly, even though it was a pity to say goodbye to the nice slanty beach and the beaver. And then I made my quick and uncomplicated way through the forest to Richie Lake. I was a little worried that I might somehow miss the enormous sign that said "Richie Lake 4600km" but I didn't. I turned left, followed the trail, and met my new friends. They were the two dads I'd met right before I got to Hemenway. They said they didn't mind me staying the night at their campsite. They had their tent pitched close by the picnic table, so I climbed up the little rise to the next tent pad and said hello to my next new friend, Jason, who had his stuff in a pile on the best tent spot. I didn't want to sleep next to the giant poop, so I started pulling my stuff out and setting up my tent on a the sloping tent pad while Jason sorted out his gear. He was solo, which I thought was pretty cool. He went to look around at the other tent pads and then came back and started doing foot care. I had my tent up, so I sat down next to him in my chair and we chatted. He said his wife was actually in St. Paul that weekend to see the Taylor Swift concert. I did not know that there was a Taylor Swift concert on in St. Paul. He asked me if I would have done anything different had I known, and I said I would have stayed out of St. Paul to avoid the traffic. He'd stayed at Peggy the previous night with a group of people who were too rowdy for him and planning to camp at Mantario tonight, so he'd pushed a little farther and ended up at Richie. He went to set up his tent back in the wood behind the poop . I was confused. If he wasn't sleeping on the flat spot, why was I going to spend the night sliding downhill? Still, I'd slept steeper and I believe that sleeping on a hill presents a healthy challenge. I moseyed down to the shoreline and looked around. The giant rock underneath my tent and the unofficial fire ring and a lot of other space stuck out into the lake. There was van-sized rock at the shore and some boulders at its base so a person could climb up onto it and stand there for a while and watch a canoe paddle far off in the evening water, wondering if we were going to have even more camping friends tonight. Then I got bored, slipped down the rock, and wandered up the beach on the other side to fill my water bottles on the dads' side of the campsite. The canoe pulled up, and it had a male and a female in it. The guy was their spokesperson and he discussed with the dads whether they should camp here and where the best spot would be. The girl and I said hi to each other. The guy decided, with the girl's consent, that they should pull around a little bit and camp a hundred feet around the other side of the peninsula. They never came back to visit. For the rest of my camp there, I could see the end of their canoe parked onshore, but they were camped within easy reach but not connected to our site and I didn't want to go bashing around the shoreline invading their privacy just to have a wee chat. The dads had their fire going for an hour by then, and Jason was getting his own fire started six feet from my tent. It was definitely supper time and I was very confused about everyone's campcraft and need for personal fire and where I should eat. I'm no LNT fire hater, but three people needing two fires between themselves when the sun would be up for another two hours, that's excess beyond Americana. Jason was eating next to my tent too, and if I got eaten by a bear during the night, let it be on his own head. I hopped down the ledge, tipped back in my chair at the dads' fire, and heated some water for my soup. We chatted about hiking and stuff. They were doing a two night out and back; they'd hiked to Richie yesterday, today they'd hiked up to the place where it said Lookout on the map, and tomorrow they would go back to the trailhead and get their car. They wanted to know how I filtered my water and what kind of stove I had and these gear questions, which was nice of them but, as much as I'm proud that I camp efficienlty, it's hard to talk gear to people who clearly have better (more expensive) stuff than you. They had a nice hanging bladder water filter like the two girls from Mantario, but they were using it well by staying at one campsite and not wandering around unable to hang it. They'd already eaten and they were drinking cocoa by the fire. I asked them what I should go see when I was a tourist in Winnipeg and they also said The Forks and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. One of them said that it was a Canadian National Museum, one of only a few outside of Ottawa. The other dad hadn't been there. The one had been there on his son's field trip and he wanted to go back when he wasn't herding fourth graders. He said the Holocaust floor was like a heart attack, and there was a contemplation room on top. I'd had some good soup, powdered Lipton's style, on my Ice Age Trail adventure, and I assumed that a similar powdered soup from Costco would be as nourishing, but I realized after my first few slurps that this stuff was unbearably salty and not umami at all. I tried to get down as much as I could, slowly. The dads switched topics from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights to sheds and roofs and dad stuff. I read and sipped and tried to nutriate myself but the soup was gross. I tipped my cup into the fire, built it up a little, and ate a chocolate bar. The dads laughed when I pulled out my mini-booze. They declined, their froggie water bottle was full of whiskey. I sipped and read and enjoyed the warm until I got too tired and decided it was time to sleep. Jason's fire was dying down and there was an incredible sunset. It was a pity to get into my tent but I wanted to be by myself and not bogart somebody else's camping trip. I fell asleep before the first song on my sleepy mix was over. I woke up warm and cozy because I had all my sweaters on. The morning was beautiful as I snuck quietly around the dads' tent to the bearbox and dug out my food. I had my breakfast next to the illegal fire ring looking out over the lake drinking cocoa in the dark listening to a loon far off. And then the sunrise came and turned the whole sky pink. I shouldered my pack and waved goodbye to Jason, who was sitting on the giant rock heating water on a white gas stove silhouetted against the last colors of the sunrise like a Backpacker ad.

I climbed the high ridge above Ritchie Lake and joined up with the main path. My pack was so light I was going wicked faster. I cruised the thick forests and started pushing upwards a little slower. There was a lot of terrain here. I needed to walk carefully, slow down, climb a rock, choose the real turning out of a few options. But the weather was perfect and I was by myself again, just me and whoever else I happened to come across. I was walking hard downhill past a giant boulder in an area where I'd already passed some wolf scat. On top of the boulder and there was some wolf poo and a jawbone. Just a jawbone. All those little white teeth. Immediately an unearthly howling started and I thought I was going to die. I pulled out my bear mace and remembered that no wolf has ever killed a human bigger than a toddler. Yelling nonsense, I kept on trucking while the wolves moved around me in the near woods. Or they were extra loud and in the far woods. I couldn't tell. I climbed a rugged hill with the bear mace in my hand and came out on top of another bald granite hill. Walking across it through jagged bushes, wondering if the wolves were gone, I saw a pack of humans coming at me. This was the group Jason camped at Ritchie to avoid. There were four guys, and a girlfriend: leader who got the trip organized, the short funny one, two unremarkable ones, and the girl struggling along the rear. Dudes three and four were struggling too a bit. The leader was going flat out. No pacing, no letting the slowest member go first. When the leader stopped to say hi, everyone else fell into line and got a breather. The short funny guy said, "You're the girl who's hiking the trail by herself both ways! You're a legend!" I said, "Thanks." Aw, shucks. I like being called a legend. He said, "There's a wolf pack after you." I said, "I know." We chatted a little and the girl and I had a smile at each other. They'd stayed at Mantario with two women and they warned me that I'd be catching them on the flipside. The short funny one was darn impressed. As we parted ways, he said, "Legend! You're a leg." I could get used to that. It was nice to see them amid the struggles. Like the struggle up the cliff with the ganky rope. It wasn't hard but it was careful, climbing with my legs and my arms and putting my feet in the right place. I like going up cliffs like that. It's fun to scramble. I walked hard. The trail was getting eas... I could do it quickly.

I was up on top of the first big hill looking down at Three Lake when Cate and Karen turned up. I was surprised. Cate said they'd decided to just do a there-and-back. The hiking was a struggle when they really wanted to be swimming and reading. I totally got it. I said I'd heard they'd stayed with a rowdy crew last night. Karen said, "They did have a bottle of vodka, but everyone got to bed by ten o'clock." We said our goodbyes and I hiked down the sloping shores of lake Mantario, which must have been huge when it was a pool of melting glacier. That slope went on forever, not least because I got lost on a deer trail and took ages to find where the trail actually turned off on an undiscernible jog through a tree. Finally I made it to beautiful Lake Mantario around 10:00am. So early in the morning and I had gone so far already and I was so disappointed in somebody. Not sure who was disappointing me, but one of the Mantario buddies left a smoldering firepit full of Alpine meal wrappers. I didn't want to pack out their ashy, gross food trash, so I dumped a few bottles of water on the fire, stirred it around, and ate a nut roll because I needed energy and the lake was beautiful. I gave myself a good sitting down before I pressed on to Moosehead. Mantario to Moosehead, I've decided, is my favorite hike of the Mantario Trail. So many views. It's all view really. It's unbelievable. Just granite descending into sylvan forests and splashy lakes that are so blue. I decided to have my lunch up on a massive piece of solid granite overlooking the last little lake before Moosehead. The temperature was Canadian 30º and sunny pleasant breeze all over. I put my shirts to dry in the sun and kicked back in my chair with the sound of the birds and the air and the great land of Canada and the bear bell. Oh no. I whipped my shirt back on just as two teenage boys and a girl popped through the last screen of trees. I stood up and said hi and we had a slightly awkward conversation. I think shirtlessness is legal in parts of Canada but I don't think it's common. They trundled on and I kicked back again. It was a pity to get up, but I was between getting to Moosehead too early and getting to Peggy too late and I knew I was probably aiming for the Peggy Lake campsite with its windswept bearbox on a hill.

My next surprise was soon and German. I was crossing a big bare expanse of rock when a lone man popped into view. He asked me if I could do him a favor. I said yes, probably, as favors can go in any number of directions. He explained that he, Dietlieb, a German fellow with trekking poles and possibly technical leiderhosen, was supposed to be meeting his co-workers at Caribou Lake but he'd been having such a lovely hike that he decided to ditch them (not his words) and continue on his own. He been trying to text them from the tops of mountains but he didn't have bars in the valleys. If I ran into his co-workers, could I tell them that Dietlieb had continued on without them? I said of course, because why wouldn't I? I was supposed to be on the lookout for Chris and Jeff. Chris had "Asiatic features" and Jeff was not Asian. I assured him that I would keep my eyes out for an Asian guy and white guy. Soonly, I was going downhill through thick marshy forest on the north end of Moosehead lake, which turns wildly through swamps and pines and unmapped lakes until one ends up on the beaver dam so big it has trees growing out of it. A person could live on that beaver dam like on the olde London Bridge. Moosehead had Alpine meal packets in the firepit too, but at least they weren't on fire. Morons. I kicked back on the picnic table on the beach and read the whole trail journal that was still in a plastic bag in a box nailed to a tree. Everyone had been there, people who wanted a beer and lonely people and highschoolers and people with dogs and happy people and me last year, and people who were being eaten by mosquitoes, and Winnipeg Muslims, and people with hornet stings.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Ice Age Trail- Polk County

This hiking trip rather snuck up on me.

In May, I arbitrarily requested two chunks of vacation at the end of summer for tick and mosquito avoidance purposes, and suddenly it was August and I was obligated to go vacationing. Annie and I had a Wednesday-Thursday hiking trip at Governor Knowles State Park, Wisconsin, then I worked Friday and Saturday, and on Saturday night I was far less prepared than I wanted to be and that was only a bit by design. My first hiking trip, I took two weeks to research the pants off my gear and route, went on multiple shopping trips, and planned. Since then, I've been feeling more and more like I know enough to throw stuff in a pack and go, at least on the Ice Age Trail. So I did that, more or less. I chose an area of Polk County trail that was mostly green (private land is mostly yellow), made a vague overestimate of how far I could get in three days, and contacted the volunteer IAT chapter head to check trail conditions. The Indianhead chapter head, Dean Dversdall, kindly invited me to park my car in his yard. I had plenty of food left over from hiking with Annie, so with the strategic purchase of certain foodstuffs at Lunds on Saturday that gained me a bounceback coupon for an iced coffee drink, I was easily ready. Though I was up 'til 2:00am cleaning. Not an auspicious start to a hike, but my pack appeared lighter than usual and I was full of enthusiasm and a large iced bounceback coffee beverage, I was hitting the road. With less guilt too. My neighbor Carol kindly agreed to give my bunnies craisins every morning so I knew that they would be extra-spoiled, and my parents would feed them every night.

I crossed the border and stopped for gas and a beverage, which wound up being a Mountain Dew Kickstart, the cheapest beverage available. I became worried when I realized that the Kickstart was having no effect on me, but the best thing I could do was press on and go to bed early. I arrived at Dean's an hour late, as Wisconsin is vast and confusing. He showed me where to park, between the pines by the boat trailer. Then he went and got his van. I was confused because I thought I was just hiking out from his house; I also wanted to pretend I would make it somewhere camping-allowed before nightfall. I said, "I can just hike from here so I can get into the state forest by tonight and camp." We were looking at my map. He said, "If you're with a group, yeah, but one thru-hiker, solo, LNT camping five hundred feet from the trail, and you're leaving by seven in the morning. No one cares." I've always suspected as much. I grabbed my pack and Dean said, "How much does that weigh?" It's a huge pack but, I had the weight down significantly. He was thinking he was going to have to throw away Cheryl Strayed's binoculars. I said, "35-40 pounds." That was okay. We drove off, I wasn't sure where to. But I was in a van with a kind person who wanted me to see the Straight Lake segment of the Ice Age Trail, the largest something in North America. Dean told me about other hikers while we drove. He'd just had the two veterans, Warrior Women, thru hiking after Iraq. He'd picked up a guy at the airport earlier that summer who'd moved from Chicago to Arizona for a new job, got laid off immediately, and flew back to Minneapolis to hike the Ice Age Trail back to Chicago and the rest of his life. Dean met the 20-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother who thru-hiked the Trail in two months ending in July. The 16-year-old is the current youngest IAT thru-hiker, but there's a 13-year-old who's talked his dad into segment hiking it so he's on track to take the title. Dean dropped one girl at Taylor's Falls. She'd hiked the AT with her boyfriend the summer before, and she was going to solo the IAT. She called him the next night and said she couldn't do it, no one to talk to while she set up her tent, got water, ate. He knew another group in the area so he shuttled her to them and they spent a few days together but he hadn't heard from her since. He'd helped so many people who'd come through. I was a solo female and he never batted an eyelash. He dropped me in a prairie near a house owned by the people who had gotten him and his wife into IAT volunteering.

I did a quick run through of supplies and realized that, with all the getting into the van, I'd forgotten my hat in the car. He offered me his own hat. I was very much obliged. It was a great hat: it said Ice Age Trail on it. I thanked him again heartily, put on his hat, and hit the trail. I was somewhere. And in beautiful, bounteous prairie with the wind waving the grass and the sun shining on my cool, borrowed hat. The prairie ended soon and then I came to bridge with little painted rocks on it, somebody's project, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," and, "I took the road less travelled. That has made all the difference." It was nice to know that rock painters were pulling for me already. I walked along in the perfect weather and thought about setting an intention for the hike, like we do in yoga, and came up with Meghan. Meghan is my co-worker who moved to Boston to live with her parents and finish school. She cried sobbily at her going-away party. I had no idea she liked working in a bookstore so much. She was planning a solo trip for this summer, the Boundary Waters, a two day route over six days so she could camp and fish and relax and enjoy, not push. She had to scuttle her trip in the end because of time and expense. I set my trip to a walk of good intentions for Meghan and a focus that Meghan wanted to have a slow, relaxing trip and I could have a slow, calm, non-pushing trip too. I went through mixed forest and Straight Lake, big and delicious. A nice glacial erratic was featured prominently and there were spots of prairie and birch mixed in. I took my shoes off and dangled them in the first creek I pulled water from, like Meghan, and enjoyed the coldness on my toes. I hiked on while the sky vascillated between sunny and grumpy, and I hit the road to Dean's property right when the rain started. I stood for five minutes and debated whether to turn off and walk the half mile down to his house, bring his hat back, and grab mine out of the car, or keep going. It was 5:00pm by then, and I was quite tired from lack of sleep. I decided to continue borrowing the hat and press on.

Dean had mentioned that the Warrior Women stayed by the Straight River on his property. At the end of the county road abutting Dean's place, the Trail went down a hill into a marsh that didn't look like fun camping. There was a Big White Pine on the map and I looked around for it but didn't see it, or I saw at least eight big white pines and couldn't decided which was the biggest and whitest. The trail ascended the marsh onto a fantastic esker. I love eskers. I thought I was supposed to cross the highway and camp on the Straight River in that area, but checking my map, Dean had circled a spot before the highway and I was coming up on the highway so I might as well camp around here, if you can camp on an esker, which would be cool but bad in the wind and rain. The rain was getting a lot worse. I hiked along the esker and came upon... cabins! They were like the three bears of vacation housing. The first one was huge with stilts bracing it on the slope. You could easily fit the whole extended family in there for a weekend. The second was tucked neatly into the hillside with a lower level deck built into the esker, and the third was just a little cabin resting on the ridge. I hiked down the private driveway, found the highway, hiked back up the private driveway, and wondered where I was going to camp now that there was lightning in the sky. The esker was beautiful and in other circumstances I would have loved to camp on top of it in the wind and sun, but the wind and gushing rain had other plans, and I eyeballed a spit of land steep down next to the Straight River. Going down was a scramble. Going up and down and up and down and up and down to eat and bear bag and brush teeth, I would need multiple walks up a 120º slant covered in leaf litter and small trees, but it was nothing I couldn't handle carefully. A deer trail so clean it was almost terraced ran along the middle of the slope. At the bottom, I chose a nice spot on the flat ground by a tree trunk, squatted down under my soaked raincoat and ate a nut bar. What the hell should I do now? There were three things I needed to do: eat supper, hang my food up, and pitch my tent. I couldn't hang my food up without eating my food first. I couldn't eat my food without opening my pack. I couldn't open my pack without getting everything wet. I couldn't pitch my tent without everything getting wet. I couldn't change into dry clothes without pitching my tent. I couldn't stay dry in my tent without eating dinner and hanging my food. I pitched my tent wet. Bloody Northface. Tents are mesh nowadays because mesh saves weight. The rain fly is waterproof. My tent has clips instead of pole sleeves and it is impossible to lie the rainfly over the tent while one is clipping in the poles. Impossible. I just set it up and flung the fly over it and let everything wet. I was dissapointed in Northface and the whole tent industry and I was even more disappointed when I realized that getting in and out soaked my back rubbing up on the soaked vestibule. Stupid vestibule. But now that the tent was up, the rain pattered out. I bailed my tent with my pack towel and climbed my esker with my food bag to eat my supper: palaak paneer and a tortilla. Super fantastic beyond everything else ever. A couple deer ran by on their deer terrace while I was looking for a tree with a nine-foot high branch extending eight feet out, like in a camping manual. I did not find one. Trees on the Ice Age Trail are basically telephone poles. I hung my food in a thoroughly inadequate tree and carefulled my way down the slope to my tent where it was warm but not dry. My sleeping bag and sleepy clothes and all the important things that one needs to be dry were dry, but the tent was wet on the inside and my inside tarp was like an island that had some water on it. I was rather cheered though. There's nothing survivalish about rain on the last day of your trip when you can just pack everything wet and hang it out at home, but when it rains on the first day of your trip, you can use your impressive camping skills to dry everything out again, while camping. The rain started back up and I went to sleep. When I heard bumping and stepping around my tent at night, I knew it was deers and not murderers and bears.

In the morning, the rain was stopped and I ate a toasty, leisurely breakfast on the esker in my wet clothes which were slowly drying on my body. Then I spotted a little sandy spit down the other side of the esker and decided that instead of pulling water awkwardly at the Straight River crossing on the freeway bridge, I would go down to Long Lake and pull water there, where it was beautiful. There were more cabins across the lake but not many people around at 7:00am on Tuesday, although I could hear children somewhere. I dabbled my hands in the water and made a little cairn of pretty rocks. Then I rose vertically up the esker, went past the cabins of the three bears, crossed the Straight River and continued on my long and merry way.

Map 4f of the Ice Age Trail Atlas is the beastliest maps I've ever encountered, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Most IAT maps cover five or ten miles of trail and then you turn the page to the next map and feel a sense of accomplishment. Map 4f spans the length and half the breadth of the map, and covers fourteen miles of trail so you can hike all day and never leave the map. But the country is beautiful. First there's cultivated fields, corn as high as elephant eyes, and a mama turkey and some baby turkeys in a fallow field. I stopped to take pictures and more turkeys popped up and there were two mamas and twelve babies looking warily at me. Then there was a lovely swath of replanted diverse prairie with blue stem and cone flowers and hundreds of bees and a sign about the Wisconsin turkey stamp program. Then you climb a rickety step-over in a barbed wire fence and see somebody's elaborate deer stand. This person's land had a nice creek dawdling along with me, then there were a few miles of road walk so I waved at locals. It is very important when you are in the country to always wave at everybody. And then I was in the McKenzie Creek Wildlife Area, the long bit of the map, where a picture of the trail runs along a picture of a creek. The signs at the entrance to McKenzie Creek make it sound like it exists for hunting and trapping purposes but people are also allowed to look at the wildlife humanely as long as they don't run wild; McKenzie Creek is a shooting gallery during deer gun season, but you can't shoot things in August so I was golden. And there was McKenzie Creek, babbling along in luscouis wateriness with thick bushes growing on the banks and lovely melodic water noise pobbling lappily. I wanted to dangle my feet but I decided to wait for an easier egress. Then the trail began ascending a ridge and soon I was thirty, mostly vertical feet above the creek, kicking myself with the feet that should have been dangling in the creek when I had the chance, but enjoying the view and the mixed pine and grassy woods on my right. McKenzie Creek segment is absolutely beautiful. If I had to choose my favorite place on the Ice Age Trail in this segment, McKenzie Creek would be a strong contender. The trail clung to the edge of the cliff in places, like an Inca trail overhanging an Andean gorge, except Wisconsin. I yearned to dabble my feet in the creek and cool my body from the pleasant but insistent sun and deal with sock hotspots and live like Meghan Bedsted, and there was the creek down there, so close but so vertically inconvenient.

I finally did start descending and soon enough I was at the creek and I just had to find the right spot where I didn't need to shove past too many tall flowers and pokey plants to get my sitting down on. There was a rock here, with space to set my water bottles. I carefully squeezed myself through a few plants and flowers and removed my shoes. Then the anticipation of something is often sweeter than the fulfillment of that anticipation. The weather wasn't hot and the water was a little cold. I dabbled my feet a little, got chilled, and put my shoes on feeling more like an iceberg than a woodswoman. Still, it was beautiful and I'd made my socks clean. I hiked on to warm up. Once I left the creek past the bridge over Clam Falls Flowage, which was big deal Wisconsin trout stocking river according to a sign, I kept my eyeballs open for Dinger Lake, which Dean had recommended as a campsite. I found it, and it was getting to be the time to start looking for a campsite, but there were plenty of mosquitoes and the spot just didn't allure me as much as I wanted it too. Besides, camping in the McKenzie Creek State Wildlife Area is technically illegal, although, as Dean said, no one cares, and if I crossed the road into Polk County State Forest, I could camp anywhere, secure in the knowledge that I was doing the Right Thing. I pushed on, I crossed the road and felt joy. So many miles! One whole page of the map traversed! Polk County Forest was nice and varied. The sodden pines that I would sleep under if they weren't indicative of moist soil and mosquitoes, then the close-growing maples and oaks with all their branches and giant nuts on the ground. I hiked through the first bit of Polk County Forest with nothing that charmed me so much that I wanted to pitch my tents in its sylvan glades and drink of its trickling brooks, but your campsite standards drop as the day goes by. As everybody knows, you find the best campsites at noon, the really cool ones at 3:00pm, the okay ones at 4:00pm, and at 6:00pm the only piece of bare ground in the world is a damp, bumpy hill. It was getting close on 6:00pm and as soon as the Trail pulled away from the road, I found my campsite. It was just a little clearing, but it was nice, it wasn't buggy, and there was a grassy spot to put my tent. I would have a two-foot tree in my foyer, but that's interior design. Poor tree. I set up my tent, hung my food. I didn't really hang it over a branch, I just looped it over a nub because that was the only tree in the whole forest that worked. I had an exciting new supper: dried onion soup mix, that, according to the box, should be the secret ingredient in your casserole. It was a thin dinner of few calories, but I had an amazing guacamole trail mix from Lunds, a mini-bottle of blue vodka, and a bar of Ikea chocolate, and I was happy. My tent was warm and snuggly. I had to zip up my sleeping bag this night, but zipping is what sleeping bags are for. In the morning, I lollygagged in my tent a bit listening to music and being toasty and I didn't get going as quickly as I'd like. Then I kicked back in my chair with my Pratchett and boiled my water on my stove in the Trail. If I'm camping near the Trail, I usually just use a bare spot of tread as my kitchen. That wouldn't fly on the PCT but the Ice Age Trail is so underutilized that I'm significantly more likely to be clipped by a running deer than to actually encounter another hiker at six in the morning. I was down to one bottle of water and there was just one lake on the map, so I made a special detour as soon as I saw it through a gap in the trees. I bushwacked through the some knee high ferns and found that I wasn't quite at the lake, I was next to the lake in a beaver marsh. The lake was next door, through some old pines so uniform they may've been planted by foresters after some spot logging. The lake was shallow and a bit grubby, but I need my water. I got slightly turned around on my way out. I was through the pines aiming for the ferns and the trail and I came to the end of the pines at some other forest in the wrong place. I'm pretty confident in my orienteering skills, but it's scary to be lost in the woods even for thirty seconds. Of course, once I bore left a little bit I found my road of ferns and went onwards with water and a slightly de-elevated mood. Once I got going, I made my chipper way through the rest of the Polk County Forest and some private land to the Sand Creek State Fishery Area. The trailed continued on as rolling mixed deciduous with some boggy pines, and a beautiful stream right away. It gurgled cheerily and there was a tiny wee bridge adding romance to this beautiful dark red and green landscape. The bottom of the stream had thick red mud like pudding which I pray wasn't agricultural runoff, but I pulled water anyway and dangled my feet for the sheer pleasure of foot dangling. I liked that place. I kicked back and felt the pudding mud and breathed the pretty pine air. Eventually, I had to get up and press on. The Trail stayed simple and beautiful until Sand Creek itself which crossed over a bridge that looked pretty pedestrian but you could get a truck over if you needed to. I stopped for water where it was, appropriately, sandy-bottomed. Quick after that, the Trail joined a fire road over rolling hills with a red sand track and it was easy to walk on and beautiful around. I stopped for lunch toward the end of here after the trail left the fire road. The sky was cloudy and starting to mist and it could only get worse. My tortillas ended here. From now on, I was down to flatbread. Sad. Feeling vaguely deenergenized and knowing I would need to give one hundred and ten percent in the afternoon, the ten percent being rain, I lamented my sad hungry tummy and then I remembered that I had a pouch of chia goop that I got out of the clearance bin at Lunds. Apple cinnamon! This pouch was astronomically wasteful and I could only hope that chia loving lefties had let it go to clearance because no one needs a high-quality single-use package and grippy screw-off top for their four ounces of fruit mush. I enjoyed my delicious goo though. So fruity. So apple with a hint of squash. So chia power. Chia seeds aren't even real seeds though, they're just droppings from chia pets. They're last year's coconut oil and 2013's gluten free diet. But a satisfying mush is a mush that makes hiking in the sprinkling rain bountiful. I crossed 30th Ave and I was in the X-C ski area. This was one of the most beautiful segments of the whole trail of beauty. I entered by the parking lot where you would park if you were inclined to go skiing and then the trails divided. Hardcore skiiers over there, middle skiiers somewhere else, and the Ice Age Trail synced up with the snowshoeing trail so as not to cheese off the skiiers. So much serenity, so many wide trails, little meadow flowers, cool mushrooms. I wished I could camp there but the best campsites always turn up at 2:00pm, and it was. There were almost no bugs, but plenty of lakes, and the trail crossed a beaver dam so easily it was like the beavers were trail volunteers. At the end, I popped onto the incredibly empty road, like the only people who lived there were cabin people who weren't at home. I didn't see a single car. The trail turned onto a smaller road that rolled past a lake, and went up some kind persons' driveway and through their gate. They had a prominent, detailed sign on their front gate about sustainable deer harvest. "We promote the taking of not many year-old females and more year-old males." I couldn't tell if they were a sustainable deer management business or just some folk who were heavily invested in the idea. They had a huge amount of land, for hunting or croquet. Their mowed front yard was at least two acres and the trail skirted away from the house past the edge of the wood by a knoll and onto an ATV trail and summer ski trail. There was less undergrowth in this part of the forest than most anywhere else I'd ever seen. I thought about camping somewhere in the pretty forest in the rain, but at the end of this trail the map said I would find something wonderful: a toilet. No digging holes today. I passed a few signs with arrows. "Parking lot B" "Parking Lot G" "Parking Lot L" This was a skiing maze. Do we lose a few cross country skiiers in Wisconsin every winter and no one talks about it? I could see the clearing for Parking Lot A through the trees now. And here was a greying shack with a carved moon and a caving roof. I peeked in at the derelict two-seater and prayed it wasn't the toilet I was looking forward to. The trail twisted into the parking lot and now I had a modern toilet! I'd been hoping for a cement foundation, maybe dual-gender, a pump outside. I got a port-a-potty, but it was good enough. Garbage on the floor too: a bag of toilet paper rolls, some wads, and an ancient pad. I used it anyway, and it was warm and dry in there.

The ski club had a building across the lot and I went to check it out and see if they had any potable water in their faucets. They looked heavily closed for the season but I did stand under the awning on their porch and dig a fleece out of my pack because the temperature was dropping and the rain was pounding down. I would find a campsite somewhere in this land of timber, this timberland, this Timberland Ski Area. This IAT segment was the farthest I was realistically getting on this hike. I'd been on trail for two and a half days. Tomorrow I would ditch my pack, hike to the end of the Timberland Hills segment, tag it out and spend the next few days getting back to my car. For now, I needed a campsite. It was past 5:00, the rain was coming down hard, and I was chilling rapidly. I walked and looked. The forest on either side of the ski trail lay open, lightly tree'd and easy to traverse; if I wanted to I could get back in the ferns and camp anywhere, but nowhere was perfect. I kept walking. The rain pattered down and I kept moving to stay warm. When I did find my campsite I would be in a cold pickle, and it was going to keep raining. The sky was a wall of grey. The ski trail was amazing. Someone with a ride-on mower needed to go up and down it before the summer ended but it was so wide, so well-edged, so roadish and tidy. The pickiest skier in the world would fall in love immediately. I kept treading on with my tough little footies. Timberland Hills was an accurate name for this area. The terrain rolled gently up and down . I walked hard, because I needed to find a campsite. The rain was pounding down Where was my campsite?

I found it forty five minutes from the parking lot. A fallen tree lay across the trail. I climbed over it and dropped my pack. I camped in this lovely mowed trail instead of making the little effort to go a hundred feet away and camp somewhere a little bit more stick-y and branch-y. Unless Jim from the ski club decided that tomorrow was "get up early with a chainsaw and take care of those fallen trees before ski season starts," I was in an easy, safe camping spot, on flat ground, safe from vehicles. I scouted along the trail twenty feet to another fallen tree. A hawk swooped across the trail, followed by a buck, too fast to take in any detail, but I took it as a sign that I should camp here. It was beautiful.

My rain fly was on the outside of my pack and soaking. My tent was pre-wettened and I pulled it out and set up quick. Inside my tent, it was just as cozy and dry as a mouse house. I had to bail the tent floor a little bit, but that's to be expected. It's amazing how a mesh tent can be immediately warmer than the outside air. I leaned back in my chair and puzzled. I was wet and cold. I wanted to be dry and warm. I'd also been going sixteen or so miles and I wasn't ravenous but I probably should be and I needed to eat. To eat I had to get out of the tent and back into the rain. That wasn't dry and warm. To stay dry and warm I needed to stay in my tent and hide from the rain. That wasn't eating. This was an impossible situation and the solution went against everything I'd ever learned. I could eat in my tent, like this hilarious story I read about a guy getting attacked by a polar bear. (It was hilarious because he lived.) He and his buddy were on an extremely serious adventure in the Arctic. The problem with the Arctic, as he explained, is that there are no trees, nothing to break the wind so your stove blows out and your body is battered by Artctic gusts while you eat, so he and his buddy cooked in their tent, until one night when he woke up to a polar bear trying to gnaw him through tent and mummy bag. He was wrapped up snuggly with the drawstring pulled tight, "Like trying to untie a granny knot while your friend beats you over the head with a baseball bat." His friend managed to unwrap himself enough to fire off their shotgun and the polar bear bolted. Black bears are less into humans, but I didn't want them to know I had soup. I talked myself into. I could put my stove in the vestibule. I was really just heating water. I could minimize crumbs. I knew for sure that I wouldn't get enough calories if I went and froze to death in the rain. So I lit my stove in the vestibule and poured some cocoa and mixed it with a liquer and and nibbled some appetizers while my water boiled and then I kicked back in the toasty warm and and ate comfortably to the amount that I needed. This was nice. But never again. But so much kicking back. In my chair in my warm clothes. Then I painfully put some wet clothes back on and hung my bear bag on a decent tree while the sky moved to twilight and the rain poured down. My tent was much better than outside. The ground was comfortable and flat and my bag was warm and I had on plenty of warm things and I remained dry while all around me the forest got leaked on. I fell asleep cozy for many hours until the thunder woke me up.

"What time is it?" my sleeping brain asked. "Time to get in lightning position," my safety brain said. I sat up, folded over my sleeping mat and squatted like a non-conductive object. My watch said 3:30. The thunder boomed and the lightning lit up the sky. How was this possible, meteorologically speaking? It was 3:30 in the morning! The sky was cold when I went to bed. Thunderstorms come from too opposing air currents rubbing together. Was the cold air I'd been walking in yesterday rubbing against some even colder air? I counted between lightning and thunderclap. Six. This storm was three miles away? Good heavens. My book and headlamp were carefully retrieved from the floor, hoping that the moment I touched them wouldn't be the moment the lightning hit the ground, or any of the trees. I held them and thought about reading but I was too tired. I drifted near sleep, squatting. At 4:00am, I modified my position because my ankles were asleep. At 4:30 the storm was still booming a ways away and I just couldn't keep squatting anymore. I laid down and went back to sleep for an hour. When my 5:30 alarm went off, it was cold. So cold. I forced myself to sit and my ankle itched. I scratched my ankle for a while. The rain was globbing down like a billion angels spitting exuberantly. But I had to pee. Finally I went out, unhung my bear bag, and got back in the tent and my sleeping bag, which was a faux pas. Rolling up your sleeping bad is the first thing you should always do so that you can't get back into it. It was so toasty though. I said, "I'm on vacation. Today is my tagging-out-the-end-of-Timberland-Hills-and-going-back day. I can stay in bed. I'm on vacation. Some people spend their whole vacations lying down in warm places. I can lie down in a warm place on vacation." And I fell back asleep in my toasy warm bag while the rain globbed around me. When I woke up again, it was 10:00am. The rain was still coming down, though possibly with less bulk. I made the executive decision to eat in my tent again. Bad bad bad bad bad. But I would barely be eating, just peanut butter, jelly, and coffee. Being crumb careful. It was marvelous. Like being at a bed and breakfast spa. I had so much warmth. Just kicking back in my sleeping bag with my cocoa and my peanut butter, listening to the rain pound on the roof. It struck me that, before this trip, I hadn't been cold in about two months. I might have been a bit cool in air conditioning, or walking down the grocery store freezer aisle, but I hadn't experienced cold since May or so. I didn't care for it. But I couldn't snuggle in my warm tent all day. I was on a hiking trip! I put my wet clothes on and stashed my pack. The sky wasn't dropping globs of water but it was misting heavily. My plan was to tag out the end of Timberland Hills, come back, grab my pack, and hustle on back to the car (for two and a half days). The path was still wide and even, like a road made of tall grass. The forest beyond had heavy canopy and low underbrush, the kind where people and animals could move freely and still be sheltered by the trees. Forests should look this way and yet they rarely do because of logging and lack of burns. I'd never felt closer to the First Nations and their gods, the Manitous, and how they still lived here, right now. I felt immense respect and loss and I was glad they still had some place in this, their land. Simultaneously, I'd never seen a better ski trail. I wondered vaguely if these hills had actually been bulldozed into perfectly even, gently rolling, slightly curved, shape. Every time I peaked a hill I went "Swoosh!" because everything about these hills made me need skis. I held the Manitous and the skiiers in my mind while I walked and admired the beauty. Little flowers bloomed on tall prairie stems when the land dipped and opened up on a wide lake. My boots wicked the rainwater from the tallgrass into my socks, and then the trail became a puddle four inches deep. The waterproofing on my boots has been shot for ages. I had my breakaway camping pants on in shorts position and my legs were all scraped by sawgrass and its cousins. The trail went up and skirted the lake with woods on another side and went uphill, and got a little sloppier. I descended and came into a logging run. If you're going to shop at IKEA, you have to accept logging. Keep us in paper, Wisconsin. All the gouged earth and tree bits look terrible, but I know I'm walking through tree farms. The trail crossed a logging road and at the bottom there was a nice little spring that poured clear water over clay, ran under the road and down into the fresh forest. I stopped to pull water and sniff the air. Beautifulness. From here, I went uphill and around another little lake. A random cabin came out of nowhere, then a bit of road, some more trail, birdhouses, and a Muir bench. I went farther than I thought, but at the end, it was worth it. I came to a road and a farmhouse, fields, civilization, took a picture, and headed back the way I'd come. Descending a hill towards the little weird cabin, I thought I saw a red clay lady face stuck to a log. Faces in the sky and face shapes and nature, faces in the dark, they fade out and you realize that what you were looking at wasn't a face at all, just a piece of driftwood, or a crack in the rock, or your own fear, but this maintained its faceness as I approached, and as I got closer I realized it was Art. Mermaid lady, and she was stuck on a giant fish carved out of a log with dorsal fins made out of planks. Cool sculpture!

More than an hour later, I got back to my pack and the rain was gearing up again. I grabbed it and followed the signs back to the ski club and the toilet. It was warm in there and I spent a while texting and enjoying not being rained on. I went back onto the trail and walked on and on forever now that I was shopping for campsites. I was also walking onto private land at some point and I'd avoid camping there if I could. Really, I wanted to sleep in the X-C Ski Area, but I wasn't going to make it. And that was okay. I was walking through acres of decent campsite, but I was still holding out for a good campsite. It was too late to find a great campsite. And then a ray of sunshine cut through the trees. The drizzle stopped for the first time in two days, and I beheld my campsite. Sunlight shone on this magical junction of three ski trails. Dry path, no standing water, a little road shoulder that would be my tent site because the sun's sparkling rays could make my tent less wet. I set it up, hung my wet shirts in a tree and put on two dry long underwear tops and a sweater. In the sun. So warm, I hung my bear rope and squatted in the grass making a delicious cup of beans, and drank a little blue vodka. I brought my book along but I decided it was nicer to squat back and listen to the birds and the wind and all the moist earth and naturey noise and motors in the distance. My little blue vodka and my chocolate were so yummy and I was so warm and dry and buzzed and I realized that it was a very important time, which was Wednesday between 6:30 and 7:30 and it was time for Wednesday Zumba. I did all my favorite songs loudly in the road and flexed and stretched and jumped and shook some of the forty pound pack off my knees. It was fun. Bailando, bailando, tequila, fantasia, Margarita, etc. And baile maraca, maraca, maraca, en Italia, en Francia, baile maraca, maraca, maraca. That song involves sticking your butt out. Also the caballo song, which is about riding a horse. I kept up my Zumba mix for half an hour and it felt good. I did still crawl into my tent before dark and when the sun set the rain started again, but I was pretty warm. Not super warm. But I was good. I told Tim I was a little cold, and he offered to drive the hour and a half to where I was and bring me a blanket, but then I would have a blanket to carry. I told him I wasn't on the road where his creepy stalker phone said I was, I was heaven only knew where on a ski trail and possibly on private land. I went to sleep snuggly but slightly damp in my bag and when I woke up the sky was still dripping. I put on my wet clothes happy that they weren't too cold at least and pulled down my wet food. The rain was slowing and there was sun over in the south and while I was packing up my tent, the rain stopped completely and I got a sunbeam. I waved goodbye to my pretty campsite and its big sunny space and walked forward, or backward considering I had already come that way, to see how close I was to the yard and the house I'd passed. I hoped I'd not been camping in their backyard but I also wanted to be close enough. I'd definitely hiked a ways from the ski chalet and I felt that I'd gone a good firm distant and should meet the road pretty soon. Happily, after twenty minutes of trudging I was circling these kind people's yard again. Twenty minutes meant I was probably camping on their property but I wasn't hanging around sleeping pervertedly at the end of their driveway. I spent a long time in their yard though, circling around. The thing was massive, mowed, and moundy. What could they be doing with all that mowed space? Family reunion? Two rugby games at once? Herds of sheep? Three acres of green grass. But they were good people who let the IAT use their yard and practiced quality deer management including the correct harvesting of one-year-old bucks and non-interference with does. This all seemed sensible as I slipped out of their gate and headed down the road, wondering where the bathroom was. Those people didn't have a yard bathroom, and there was no bathroom on the road. I hiked quickly into the X-C Ski Area and found a nice, private bathroom. Ah. The X-C Ski Area is simply beautiful and I saw a swan. I've only seen a pair before once, in a run-off pond off 494. This swan swam swanningly in a small lake. He wasn't interested when I started taking pictures of him, he just floated around in the mist of the beautiful morning while I contemplated simply being within nature versus attempting to photograph it. I wish the whole trail could be the X-C Ski Area. The perfect mix of wide, wet trails and dense-ish forest, but it was only around 10:00am when I crossed the road into the Sand Creek State Fishery Area. The trail went through a bit of forest and cut on to the fire road made of wet, red clay. Everything was wet, especially my shoes, even though the rain was over and the sky had warm and sunshine pouring out of it. It was a nice morning for bears to be out because there were definitely some enormous bear prints in the road. Long claws. Huge. I took a picture and went on a few feet and the bear prints went on too. With me. He hadn't just crossed the road, he was using the road to get from point A to point B. The rain stopped at 7:30 in the morning so these prints were fresh. So there was a bear. And he was going faster than me probably. Unless he was stopping to eat at one of these roadside berry bushes. I was travelling where a bear had been not less than two and half hours before. I could stop and hang out for a few hours, but I might run into a returning bear or some bear friends, and I had miles to go. I pulled my bear mace out of my holster and undid the safety wedge and then I started yelling Camelot. I didn't know I had the lung capacity. IN CAMELOT! CAMELOT! I KNOW IT SOUNDS A BIT BIZARRE! The bear tracks kept going. I expected them to turn off somewhere, wherever the bear had business eating berries and doing bear things. WHERE ARE THE SIMPLE JOYS OF MAIDENHOOD? At the end of the day, he was, of course, more scared of me than I was of him, which meant he was already gone or getting wary because I'VE NEVER STRAYED FROM ALL I BELIEVE, I'M BLESSED WITH AN IRON WILL. He had probably been by earlier and was already long off the road because I was making plenty of noise. AND SHOULD I LEAVE YOU RUNNING MERRILY THROUGH THE SNOW I wasn't seeing any speed marks or turn-offs so we were probably closer to two hours apart. On the other hand the tracks kept going and the map showed a long straight until I hit the bridge crossing Sand Creek. THERE WAS WONDER FAR AND NEAR, WOULD THE KING BURN GUINEVERE. How long could this fire road go on? ONCE THERE WAS A FLEETING WISP OF GLORY CALLED CAMELOT There was no end in sight. What really got to me were the inch and half long claw prints in the red clay. I ran out of songs and switched. WITH MY FREEZE RAY I WILL STOP THE PAIN I barely remembered walking down this road before and now it was eternal. LOOK AROUND AT EVERYBODY'S HEART AND HEAR THAT BREAKING SOUND I was going to follow a bear forever. But I could belt like I never knew. SHINY NEW AUSTRALIA Finally the trail turned off the fire road and the bear tracks stopped. I didn't investigate too hard. The bear might have crossed the bridge too, but I couldn't see the prints. The warm sunshine and the bridge and the lapping water flowing under the creek barely accessible through the thick aspen and grasses and foliage. I managed to fill my water bottles and made myself the last of my mango caffeine aspartame powder packet combined with a black raspberry lemonade powder packet that tasted unconvincingly but deliciously like fruit. Since Rainbow closed, I've been unable to find my good old Kool-Aid individual sachets and am forced to drink powdered adult flavors of juice, which are mostly worse than Kool-Aid and terrifying. I bought the mango aspartame in a moment of desperation at Cub because I needed something flavorful to bring camping with Annie, and then I found the lemonade packets at Lunds. They are "natural," which means stevia, and every little packet says, "Only 10 calories." Every time I tipped one of them into my water bottle, I said, "Only 10 calories! I can't stand up on ten calories. I need two hundred calories! How am I supposed to hike for ten hours on ten calories of lemonade?" I can tell, too, that drinking low-cal beverages give me less of a power boost than simple Kool-Aid.

I pressed on for another while and finished what I'd started HOME IS WHERE YOUR HEART IS, SO YOUR REAL HOME'S IN YOUR CHEST and went uphill through some late season raspberries yelling pop songs. Finally I decided that any bears nearby were probably different bears so I could stop singing and it was almost lunchtime, so I needed to find the lunchroom or cafeteria. I crossed into Polk County Forest looking for the cafeteria and I was happy when I found the best one ever on the top of a ridge among some blowing pines. It was warm enough that I could take off my shirt to dry out but cool enough that I needed to put a vest on over my naturism. I was starting to have back prickles I didn't understand. I had peanut butter and jelly which, without burritos, was getting a little old. Still, it was delicious and full of protein. I was developing dots on my hands. I felt good, though. And happy. I liked this section of dark, thick second-growth with the gushing streams where three days ago there were dry creekbeds. I'd been worried about water, hiking later in the season, but I'd been fine and now I was more than fine. My feet were never going to dry out. I was walking through a long puddle that was actually a trail and there were frogs everywhere. I was coming round a bend downhill when I saw a real thing! A person thing! Another person thing! Another actual hiker! I yelled out "Hi there!" loudly so I didn't scare the bejeezus out of him, and he kept plodding along like he was waiting until we reached a sensible distance to start talking to me. He approached. I approached. He approached. I could tell he was a hiker not a murderer because he had trekking poles and he was wearing a technical hat. When we were at a normal-tone-of-voice distance, he said, "You're the first hiker I've seen in ages!" I said, "You too!" He said, "The trail back there's completely flooded." I said, "Okay." And he kept on walking! Manners? When you meet another hiker, you're supposed to stop and check in. He'd barely done that. He looked pretty clean cut. Maybe he was a fundamentalist Christian who wasn't allowed to talk to girls alone in the forest wearing sweaters without bras. He was right about the flooded trail. It was pretty much identical to the flooded trail I'd already been on, but I almost slipped on some underwater leaf litter so I took it more carefully now that I was thinking about it. I chugged through the forest enjoying the challenge, picking half moon burrs off my pants and re-seeding them accidentally. I passed the place I'd camped three nights ago and knew that I was for sure on track to camp in the McKenzie Creek Area. I stood in a relaxing stream with my boots on because my feet were so wet it didn't make a difference. I crossed the road into the McKenzie Creek State Wildlife Area and read the sign again about making the Clam River happy and walked for longer than I remembered going before I reached Dinger Lake, where Dean Dversdall made a circle on the map for a good campsite, but it didn't grab me. There was a lake, sure, but there were boat put-ins that made me feel exposed to roads, and the rain had kicked up an army of mosquitoes. So I was going to camp above McKenzie Creek on the beautiful ridge overlooking the pattering water! I just had to find my campsite. McKenzie met me and I waved at it because I had already filled my water bottles at Dinger. The trail ascended and I was up in the pretty place looking down, with a thick forest alternating to decent camping spots on my left. I'd already dangled my feet in McKenzie so I was happy up on top enjoying the view. There were plenty of spots where I could've camped easily, grass and well-spaced oaks, but the whole McKenzie area was more or less nice camping and I wanted to see if I could cross County Road W before I settled, so I pushed on and the trail veered down and away from the creek and into a wide grassy alley that also would have made a decent campsite and I crossed W (no traffic) and got back to the McKenzie and the dire knowledge that it was almost 6:00pm and I needed to find a campsite now. And suddenly all the thick grass and well-spaced trees were gone and I was left choosing between thick trees and ferns. Of course there was the perfect campsite up ahead and forty of them behind me, but for now I should settle. So I chose a nice patch of ferns and little trees ten feet from the cliff edge and gratefully put my pack down on the ground that was drying and the air that didn't have drops of water flying through it. I gave my tent a good shake and hung up everything worth hanging up. There was nowhere to hang my bear rope, of course, but I threw it over an easy branch far enough away that if a bear did eat my food, it wouldn't be thinking about me while it ate. I'm generally not too worried about bears in unofficial campsites anyway. Following general rules of bear safety is important, but bears are sensible animals who won't go banging through the woods at night looking around randomly for food hanging inconveniently off trees where food has never hung before. Most of our knowledge on bear safety was developed at places like Yellowstone, where the bears know that five nights out of seven there is going to be a food piñata hanging in a tree nearby and a stray pack of hot dog buns on the picnic table. With those bears, it's important to go above and beyond every element of bear safety. Bears on the Ice Age Trail think the IAT is shamefully under-utilized and there aren't enough bags of food in trees to bother with. I made dehydrated beans of awesome for supper. I never cared much about Rainbow Foods while it was alive, but once my dehydrated spicy beans run out, that's it. On the other hand, they do bean things to your stomach so I'm always a little bit wary of eating them. With food and tiny vodka in my tummy, I realized that it was still early enough that I had time to relax in the sunset. I did. With my book. It was warm and pleasant out, and my tent was snuggly. I was still having having back prickles that I didn't understand, so I photographed my back, confirming a massive red back rash. I remembered the phrase "wool rash" and I'd been wearing a sweater over bare skin all day so I texted Laura because she has babies and knows about these things. She confirmed that wool rash is a thing, especially when wet wool is worn. That bottle of a calamine lotion in the car was going to be magical. I went to sleep all snuggly and mostly dry and that night I woke up and checked on the stars. There were oodles of them! Annie is whimsical and was excited to stargaze when we went camping and then the sky clouded over, so I'd been looking forward to seeing stars eventually. There they were. There was the Big Dipper, Orion's Belt, possibly the Pleadies, and all the other ones I don't know, and all the ones that are so far away they're just a blur, and the ones beyond that. All those stars. I do get scared being out of my tent at night so I kept it short, but it was beautiful. In the morning I got up at 5:30 as usual. I'd been debating getting up at 5:00 to get going earlier, but I'd stayed up until 9:30. Wild, I know. I had breakfast and got hiking. Ten minutes up the trail, I found the grass and scattered trees I'd been hoping for last night. There were some deer hanging out on a slope and when they saw me, they ran up the 180º hill quick as lightning. I saw more deer everywhere from then on. The trail went close to the ridge over McKenzie creek and then it went down and there were pines and a little bridge at the turn-off for a different trail. Everything was lush green after the rain, but the trail was dry. My boots never dried out and they were rehydrated by the morning dew, but I wasn't walking through puddles anymore. I was sad to leave the McKenzie Creek segment, but I had hours more private land and mixed weirdness to go through before I got to my car. There was a road segment with a farm but no farm people about this time. A bit of wood and another road. Then there was a great spot of restored prairie, thick and wildish, between the road and the highway. It was little but it was beautiful. The sun was getting warmer and grasshoppers started doing their freaky little jump around my feet. Bees buzzed like they weren't endangered and there were prairie flowers dappled everywhere. True to my goal of honoring Meghan, I hiked over to a depression in the grass that absolutely wasn't a buffalo wallow because there are no buffalo here anymore and kicked back in my relaxing mode with all the coneflowers and the blue stem and the tall grass. Then I got up and trudged on. It was lovely out. I passed two deer stands, some ag fields, more woods, a step-over gate, and more woods, and then I came to a lake and it was Straight Lake, which meant that I was quite almost more done than not done. I could stop at a diner and get a grilled cheese on my way home. There was another bench, because the Indianhead Chapter is all about Muir benches, and lovely access to the lake water and little fish. The trail skirted the lake for a while before it moved off and went uphill and crossed Highway 48 again. Now here I was on the private approach to those three cabins on the esker like the three bears, one excessively modest, one sensible, one ostentatious. I would live in all of them, although the excessively modest one had a garage as big as the cabin that didn't look great. The sensible one had cabin decor and a little lovely garden and a lower deck. The ostentatious one had two tiered decks and a balcony off the master bedroom. I could handle that. There was an alarming deer stand right past the cabins that was about 25% through the process of falling down the hill. My campsite was still down at the bottom of the slope and there was my beach and then there was so much green and the lakes on either side of me. I took a sitting down break on the esker Muir bench and then I pushed on. This was the home stretch but it was a longish home stretch. There were lovely views of green and careful stepping and a boardwalk through the marsh in a valley of pines. I could've stayed there forever but there was no grilled cheese. Then there was the Big White Pine. There were actually a lot of Big White Pines. I still couldn't decided which was the biggest and the whitest. I was on the backside of Dean Dversdall's property and my journey was sadly coming to an end. Nothing could replace the serenity of this forest except a grilled cheese. The trail went up past even more pines that were big and white and I left the forest and walked along the edge of a farm field that was not growing grilled cheese. My feet were tired and there was a road up here somewhere, farther away than I remembered. I hit it, turned left, went a few hundred yards and turned off the Trail onto the road that led to Dean Dversdall's place and my car. The last few hundred yards were difficult, hot and longer than they should been. Dean has an extensive driveway. I was so happy when I rounded the third bend and saw my car sitting there happily where I'd left it. I dropped my pack and stuck my hand under the passenger tire where I'd stashed my key in case Dean needed to move my car while I was away. I'd been worried that the key would wash away in the rain, but I had the opposite problem. My car settled into the mud while I was gone and the key was embedded in muck. I could just feel the tip poking out from under the tire but there was no way to grab it. I scraped with my hands in the dirt, but it was buried too far. A piece of bark lying near made a crude shovel and I scraped the earth away and pulled out my key. My key! My car! I put my pack down and walked to Dean's house but he and his wife were out. I left Dean's hat on a porch chair and walked back to my car. That was the last walking I did for a while. I changed my clothes as best I could and went away from the Ice Age Trail. But my journey was not yet ended. I needed grilled cheese. Luck, Wisconsin was the nearest town and just up the road. The sign said, "You're in Luck!" Luck has two streets and I pulled up on one of them outside Grandma's Diner, which sounded like the perfect place for grilled cheese. It was closed. Who closes a diner? It hadn't been open in some time, by appearances. How could Luck, Wisconsin mock me with the potential for a diner and then take away my grilled cheese? I was parked directly in front of the Autism Association Store, Donations Welcome, and all the junk left over from the garage sale was weighing down my car. I gathered my remaining strenght and shoved most of everything into a bag. The old lady at the counter was flabbergasted by such a quanitiy of Things, but she had lived through the Depression. I handed her the bag and the weight of it nearly pulled her down. I browsed for a few minutes but they had nothing. One rack of clothes, some kitchen implements, fifty copies of Goosebumps #38, and a bin of pens personalized for people named Bryan, Harold, Katelyn, and Suzie. They did not have any grilled cheese. I left Luck and its shameful lack of Wisconsin diners behind me and headed to the next town, which only had one street. Good. I drove down it. No diners. One establishment said, "Breakfast menu! Breakfast menu! Try our breakfast menu!" but it looked like a bar. I parked my car and got out to check. It was a bar. There was another bar across the street. Where did the citizens of this town get their coffee and pancakes? Plenty of businesses ran along the highway but they were all selling siding and tires and not grilled cheese. I was confused and hungry. Then I saw it. The Gandy Diner! It's name was a pun on the Gandy Dancer Trail and logging legacy and it was a diner. I whipped my car into the parking lot. Grilled cheese! I went in and it was perfect. They had dead fish nailed to the wall and baked goods and it was basically empty except for two hard-working men talking quietly in a booth. I ordered a grilled cheese and a malt and I even got coleslaw. Everything was perfect and happy and my grilled cheese was delicious and my malt was full of fat and protein. I ate and drove home and my trip was over.