Oct 19, 2016

Alabama is hot.

Alabama. is. hot.

I work at a nature center in Alabama, and while I love being outside, working 5 days a week in weather in the high nineties with humidity that sits oppressively on you does not breed a desire for more wilderness connections. So despite moving to Birmingham in August to join Jesse, we haven't been outside much until recently. We had a couple day trips in the middle of September. And by day, I mean early morning before it got miserable out. And by trips I mean a couple miles. In fact, the first full weekend we actually explored outside was in late September - not coincidentally the first week that had a day below 90 degrees.

Our day trips were pleasant enough. We visited two local nature preserves in two consecutive weekends - Ruffner Mountain and Red Mountain Park. Ruffner Mountain has a nature center and preserve, and Red Mountain Park is a 501c3 with the goal of not taking any grant money and is therefore supported through donations, fundraisers, etc. I don't really agree with that model as a long-term success, nor think in the end it is the most self-sustaining, but they have a lovely dog park and some excellent trails. I'll be looking for ways to offer my support there in the future. We took a combination of the Quarry, Possom Loop, and the Ridge and Valley trails to make a morning hike.

My reason to enjoy the dog park at Red Mountain!

For our first weekend trip in Alabama, we traveled the scant 20 miles from our house to Oak Mountain State Park. Jesse was on call, so we couldn't travel too far. We got a campsite Friday afternoon. I set up and went back in the evening to pick Jesse up after he got out of work. A few things to note if you're thinking of playing in Alabama's State Park system. 1) The website says they don't allow check in at camp sites until 3. This is inaccurate, and can lead to you getting a less than ideal spot. We lucked out, but just barely. 2) The website also says they don't accept one night stays on the weekends. This, we observed, was also likely not correct. While I didn't personally check with the staff, we saw numerous people camping just Friday or just Saturday. 3) Hiking distances provided on the map may not correspond to actual distances. More on that in a bit.
Our campsite. All of the sites had pads like the one you see here, and they were all built into the hill, so most had a cement block support wall. Definitely new to us.
 All of the campsites that were rustic (i.e. not for RVs) were built into a hill. Usually, two or three sites had the same entry trail and shared parking. Immediately in front of us was another campsite, just down the hill, and to our left was another site. Behind the hammock about 30 feet was another campsite, but that one felt decently separated from us. We're used to the relative lack of privacy car camping provides, but this was definitely weird. We had to walk through two other campsites to get to ours. That said, Campsite #59 was the most private of the 3 in our trio so we were happy.

The park is very big. We knew there were dedicated hiking trails and mixed use trails shared with mountain bikers. I asked at the ranger station for a map, and they charged us $1. The map was alright, but the trails on the map are not precise. There is an older park map in many of the kiosks that is precise, better follows the actual trail and aligns with the topographic base map. If you can, take a picture with your phone and use that.

Here's a snap of the high quality map not for sale.
We elected to go on what the map suggested was a ~6 mile hike. It was closer to a 10 mile hike, but it was very enjoyable. We hiked from our campsite to the north trailhead parking lot. My fitbit estimated it was about a mile, but I didn't connect it to my phone so it isn't a precise measurement. The first overlook on the 'blue trail' is a dud. It is a close little walk to what would be a quiet overlook of a running brook. But Birmingham is under a drought watch, there was no water, and it was just a .3 mile out and back. There were a few other vistas another 2 or so miles out, like King's Chair, that were very beautiful and totally worth it. Our plan was to hike to the red-blue connector trail that was about 50% of the way up the 6.7 mile blue trail. The red trail is more of a 2-track and is a shared use trail with fewer twists and turns.

View from King's Throne

A cute little ring neck snake said hello!

Jun 16, 2016

More Hiking in Iowa

Checking to-dos off our Iowa bucket list was a surprising whirlwind. I know it's hard to believe that there are things to do in Iowa, but apparently there are. 

One of our favorite spots in Iowa was Maquoketa Caves State Park. It is a park full of wild caves (which, frankly, was a crazy experience in itself - I can't imagine the kind of liability insurance they must hold with all of the caves!), meaning that only a few have lights, none have guides, and you enter at your own risk. Now, I'm a pretty good map reader, but their maps weren't the best. The paper maps seemed alright, but we didn't print our own and they were out when we arrived. The maps posted throughout the park, however, were not terribly helpful. So if you're heading out, do yourself a favor and print a copy or take a screenshot with you.

We also found a couple tourist traps that were totally worth the trip. En route to some tasty (albeit very sweet) wineries in Dubuque, we stopped at the location where one of my favorite films was shot. "If you build it, they will come." You guessed it, the Field of Dreams ballfield. Since it was early spring, there wasn't an eerie cornfield to hide the baseball players of old, but we saw it shooting forth from the earth in left field. 
And though they do not allow any formal baseball games, there was a little league team setting up to play an informal practice when we were leaving. I ran the bases, took a few pictures, and generally enjoyed myself. The field has a bit of a sordid history, having been divided between two owners for much of its past, but now it is all owned by the same family and they do a pretty nice job keeping it true to the film.

We wrapped up our weekend with some day hiking at Mines of Spain State Park and a visit to the highest point in Illinois, Charles Mound. As you'll note on this wikipedia link, they only allow visitors in the summer on the weekend. Unfortunately, we missed that detail, and while they didn't kick us out, I felt pretty badly about intruding. They are quite lucky and have a lovely lovely space.

We also found ourselves at the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk, and a bar that celebrates their proximity to the location!

May 17, 2016

A Taste of Iowa Hiking

Being on an academic schedule in a long-distance relationship means that I spend a lot of time not at my house. It also means creative date nights. 
But spending my free week(ends) dragging grading to and from Iowa has its consequences. Negative consequences include appearing the flaky friend, occasional mold-encrusted experiments in the fridge, and a yard that doubles as an urban meadow. But there are positives, too. And the one at the forefront (IMO) is getting to see cool hiking areas I never would have ventured to intentionally.

I spent all of spring break and am now spending a portion of my summer in Iowa City. So I've done some solo urban hiking adventures and some fun trips with Jesse across eastern Iowa. And here's my take on them.

Best Hiking Near Iowa City
Lake MacBride State Park
Lake MacBride has a wide variety of activities, including boating, fishing, camping, and lots of miles of hiking trails. This trail map (pictured below) shows over 15 miles of shoreline trail along the northern portion of the lake. I've hiked a lot of the pictured trails, and they are all nice. The trail leading to the dam is one of the prettiest (and puts you near where you can rent boats if you're so inclined) but is always busy. I like to let my dog play around a bit, so I opt for less populated places in the area.

If you look at the screenshot below, I prefer to enter from the town of North Liberty and hit up the old entrance near the southern portion of the map. There are sometimes class field trips to the pine forest and raptor area if you go on school days, but the trails are usually quiet and scenic.

After you've got your fill of hiking, I recommend swinging out to Solon, IA. Big Grove Brewery doesn't have a ton of their own craft beer, but what they have is good. The place is pretty, the food is great, and they showcase craft brews from other breweries if they don't have what you prefer on tap.

Terry Trueblood Recreation Area -
If I don't have time to drive out to Lake MacBride, Damane and I head over to Terry Trueblood Recreation Area. They have a paved loop trail that is great for roller skating, running, etc. It isn't much in the way of nature or hiking, but it is a pretty place to be outside. You can rent boats here, too, but only the human-propelled variety. There's also a lovely playground for the kids. I've seen people on those weird elliptical bikes there, too!

In the next post, I'll share some experiences from Mines of Spain, Maquoketa Caves State Park, the highest point in Illinois, and the Field of Dreams (yep! the 'if you build it, they will come' baseball field from everyone's second favorite baseball movie. Full disclosure, I prefer The Sandlot).

Jan 3, 2016

2016 Hiking Goals

Welcome to 2016!

2015 was crAAAAzy. Jesse moved to Iowa for a post-doc, I got a job teaching and still had to finish my dissertation. We got married in May. We finished remodeling the house we bought. It was busy. We only got out backpacking a couple times.

This year is going to be a little less chaotic, and so we'll get out more. Probably separately, because we're separated by a number of miles and state borders, but we'll get out more.

I've committed to two hiking challenges in 2016, and I'm really excited about them. 
1) The North Country Trail Hike 100 Challenge (more here)

This challenge is sponsored by the National Park Service, three cheers to them! And those who complete it get a snazzy patch. Good reasons to join up if you're interested!

I'm going to hike 100 miles of the North Country Trail in 2016. Since my home base is Michigan, I'll probably get most of those miles there. Jesse and I have a kayaking trip planned for the summer in Pictured Rocks, so we'll probably log 10 or 15 miles in the U.P. I'll probably knock off some stretches near Grand Rapids, too. And I'm headed up to New York State's north country for my 10 year college reunion at St. Lawrence University (#StLawrenceU), so we'll hit some of the NCT in New York while bagging a few peaks. It's going to be fun!

2) The #52HikeChallenge sponsored by REI

This challenge, sponsored by REI, doesn't come with a badge, but it does come with some street cred. I'm not much of a hashtag fan, but you can follow those who are completing the challenge by searching the #52HikeChallenge. Each hike is recorded as #hike1, #hike2, etc. Since I'm already doing all of this hiking for the first challenge, the 52 Hike Challenge is a handy way to help keep track.

And I'll do my best to record those Michigan hikes to help people find great places to hike in the lowlands!

 Here's hoping your 2016 hiking adventures are stellar!

Apr 1, 2015

Rallying for a summer of backpacking adventures in Michigan!

Jesse and I have made our first summer hiking plans!!!! After our semesters are over, we are going on a 5-day hike! We leave late May5th or early May 6th for one of a couple destinations. We are thinking either a loop near Lewiston, MI, or punching out a few more miles on the North Country Trail. If we do the NCT, we will probably hit the trail near the Grand Rapids area, since it will be warmer, and save the UP for later in the summer.

We also hope to tackle more of the Michigan Shore to Shore trail this summer. We got 8 beautiful miles out of the way along the Au Sable near the Huron Forest while prepping for our AT thru hike, but there's over 200 miles more!

There are a surprising number of trails in Michigan when you sit down and start to plan. I realize they aren't as fun as the Finger Lakes Trail or those found in the ADKs., amd I want to hike more of those regions, too, but Michigan has a lot of gems. And I hope that this summer we can share a few of them with you!

Dec 20, 2014

And so this is Christmas

With the holidays approaching, I decided to play a little hookie from my dissertation and family obligations and do some winter hiking.  Winter is a great opportunity to let my new pup run off leash, since he has well trained puppy friends and few stimulating hikers where we chose to go, plus large swatches of land without paved roads to dodge. Admittedly I had some concerns about snowmobile traffic,  which ended up being unwarranted.

We went hiking on the north country trail in Michigan around the traverse city area,  and it did not disappoint! Our section started a little south of Fife Lake and went north toward Kalkaska. The hiking club maintaining this stretch of trail has been active,  so the maps you can purchase through NCT are a bit out of date.  The interactive map, however,  is spot on.  And the sections they added are gorgeous, traversing beautiful stream banks and rolling hills. We began where the trail crosses 131 south of Fife Lake at a roadside park. The park is closed in winter but there is still room in front of the gate to park your car for a day hike. If you plan to overnight,  there is a campground about 2 miles trail south that would be more appropriate. The trail here is easy and follows a pretty river. A bench sits at a nice overlook about a mile in for those of you who are just passing thru. About five or six miles in,  you hit a lovely dam.  In the summer,  this stretch is full of swimming spots begging to be used.  A state campground about 8.5 miles in is lovely,  though primitive,  and has privies a plenty. When we went through there was a tree down in a campsite,  but there was evidence that someone was already working to remove it. 

You cross railroad tracks after the campground,  and can make your way into the town of Fife Lake both from Lakeshore Drive (which is a bit of a needless hike) and by following 4th street or a snowmobile trail away from the NCT, which the trail follows briefly before crossing west over 131.

The trail is pretty, but nondescript from this point until you travel north of Mayfield rd. About 2.5 miles north of that road crossing, you enter a portion of the trail (signed at the north end) called "valley of the giants." There is a lovely stretch of stealth camping if I ever saw it. A few miles north of that is Sheck's campground, which looked pretty nice. There were a lot of picnic tables and fire rings, anyway. This stretch is also a little more hilly, and just all around pretty.

The scene maintains its beauty for another 4.5 miles or so, which is where the holiday season got the better of us and ended our long stretch of day hiking. In sum, we walked around 27 miles of the NCT, all of them snowy and most of them quite beautiful. This was a Christmas gift I gave myself, and I loved every minute of it.

Well done, winter wonderland.

Dec 18, 2014

another country heard from

Its been a long time, internet!

Well, not really. But shortly after our last post, my magic phone stopped being magical. It took more battery to connect to the internet and type a blog post than the phone got while charging. So a two hour break was no longer conducive to blogging. Add to that the fact that my phone was already an old, crappy thing that didn't have the right (insert tech phrase) to write to the blog offline and just upload when we had a connection, and that writing in the memo app wasn't able to copy and paste to blogger (I lost a good 10 days worth of blog posts that way), and that was it. Since I had followed so many blogs in the months before my hike, I felt really badly. I remember how much fun I had virtually following people - coming home from a long day of grad school and hopping onto my favorite blogger's pages to see why I was working so hard - I wanted to pay it forward with this blog.

Then you ask, so why didn't you upload when you got back? Did you quit the trail?

Good questions.

About the time I realized there was no hope for my old phone and blogging (see lost blog posts note above), I got some amazing trail magic and some terrible news. We were in New Jersey, sitting at a bar (the name escapes me now, and my ATbook is stored with my gear), and met an amazing couple. They invited us over for dinner, showers, and a comfy couch, and we were more than happy to comply. They also taught us an amazing way to drink whiskey...with a chocolate milk chaser. Honest to goodness, don't knock it till you try it. We hadn't made our miles for the day, but their company was so pleasant, we decided to indulge in their kindness.

And thankful I am we did. The next morning my father called. My grandmother had passed away. The couple lent us their GPS unit, got us to a car rental place, and helped me get back to say goodbye to my beloved gram.

Needless to say, when we got back from the funeral, the trail had lost a lot of its carefree happiness. I sat down to blog a few times, and I just couldn't. I knew I wanted to finish the trail, knew my gram would want that for me, but I no longer had the emotional energy to write it all down for the world to read. I kept a hand-written journal the whole trail (highly recommended weight - a mini composition book goes a long way), and I continued to write in it. But down time was for me. I had to recharge my batteries. There was a lot of crying while walking, a lot of intense contemplation. When we made camp for the night, or found ourselves in a town, I got loud, friendly(ier than usual) with the locals, and drunk.

So, you ask, why are you writing now?

Firstly, I don't know who 'you' might be, or if 'you' exist. But I'm writing now because 1) NASCAR sent me an email, I responded, and never heard from him. If for no one other than Nascar, Bullwinkle, and the few people we grew to love on the trail, I wanted to let them know we finished. There is some grey area there. We skipped a section to hit the Whites when Jesse's brothers came out. They wanted to hike with us in the Whites, not in the foothills. Our plans would have put us there if not for the time off for the funeral.

And we skipped some of Maine. Jesse got hurt, quite a substantial back injury that had him on muscle relaxers for 2 weeks. Sleeping in the woods and not going anywhere was out of the question: anything but a bed hurt his back. So we spent a lot of money on a crappy hotel in the middle of nowhere. Eventually we decided we wanted family and our money more than we wanted to pass every white blaze on the trail. But we both really wanted to hike Katahdin. It had been such a goal for so long, we needed it.

We did hike Katahdin. And at the top, Jesse proposed! It was a beautiful ending to what had been the experience of a lifetime. Though bittersweet with the loss of my gram and the injury, we felt gloriously accomplished. And I hope we go back someday to hike the 100mile wilderness and catch the section we missed. Maybe we'll make up for missing the Shennys - but I doubt it. I loved aquablazing with every fiber of my being, and truly believe we saw those mountains the way they should be seen. From heron hatcheries to the friends we found in Farmer and Chovinard, it was my second favorite part of the trip. Besides, there's too much beautiful land to see in the world to travel the same patch twice. I've got my eyes on the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan, bagging all 46 peaks in the Adirondacks, and maybe the John Muir trail...and that's all in addition to the Carmino del Santiago. Yes please, wine hike! (BTWs, hope you're well, Ironman!)

In the lack of Christmas spirit brought on by the loss of the aforementioned matriarch, we haven't made holiday cards to send in thanks of those who helped us on our way. We will, we promise. But expect them later in the year. Perhaps as a SAD (seasonal affective disorder) pick-me-up in February, on the cusp of another year of promising thru hikers!

I'm also writing because I want to have a record of all of the awesome hikes Jesse and I do. We're starting an adventure together now. One even bigger than the AT. Also because lots of trails in our home state of Michigan have very little information floating around about them on the interwebs. We've been hiking the North Country Trail here in Michigan, and have hiked a section of the Michigan Shore-to-Shore trail. Someone has to encourage people around here to get out of doors!

If you (whoever you are) find yourself in Michigan and want to hike - or grab a beer and talk trail - shoot me an email. Make sure you include your email in the note (as per my sad lack of correspondence with Nascar, I think this thing might randomize your email when you send the note).

And look forward to hearing more adventures from Margarita and the now-less-aptly named TreeBeard. Happy trails!