Peace Corps Armenia: Pre-Departure Part 2

If you didn’t read my last post, or don’t keep up with me in person, then you might not know that in about a week I am leaving for staging with the US Peace Corps, and shortly thereafter leaving for Armenia.

I worked my last shift as a content writer a few weeks ago and in the meantime, I’ve been visiting my grandparents, getting 100% snowed in Northern Michigan, learning Armenian, and distracting myself from the abyss. Mostly that’s a joke.

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My language cheat sheet (excuse spellings)

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Packin’ Stress

I was more stressed about this before I actually started packing and realized that I probably have it under control. I was able to fit most of the clothes I want in my bags easily, and used packing cubes to smoosh them down.

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More or less what I am packing
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A more honest representation of what packing looks like

I’ve got two checked bags, and was able to jam my tent in there, and I’m not so concerned anymore that I’m missing anything important.

I’ve been told that many people in Armenia are very nice dressers, and I will be expected to scale it up a bit. I was a little stressed about this, because none of the jobs I’ve worked before or places I’ve lived have had a more formal culture, and most of my work clothes in the past have been jeans or outdoor gear.

I think I’ve probably over packed on the business casual front. Once I’ve been in country for a while I will post an actually packing list will recommendations for future PCVs.

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The clothes in the previous pile all fit into these packing cubes and stuff sacks
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As of now, these are the bags I’m planning on bringing

Tickin’ Off the To-Do List

My to-do list involves a series of very manageable tasks like “clean car”, and “put stuff in boxes”, and some last minute shopping for a few odds and ends (new pens, chapstick, extra American deodorant, I don’t remember the rest, but that’s why I made a list). Also on the list is various lunches with friends, continuing to stress study Armenian, and eating a lot of bacon.

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Language notes (staged photo)

Gettin’ Real

It’s strange to me that something I’ve spent a whole year thinking about and six months actively prepping for only started to feel real a month or so ago, when I started studying the language. Something about the curves of new letters and stumbling through the most basic of conversations makes the reality of leaving more immediate, and my own language incompetency glaringly obvious.

I almost wanted this Peace Corps position to work out too much, you know? So now that it is working out it seems surreal. It’s like there’s a line between my life, and the sort of life or person I wanted to be, and I’m crossing that line just a little, and for some reason those two lives and people are incompatible. I am so lucky, and excited, and very grateful.

Still, there’s all that I’m leaving here. In fourth grade we were introduced to the concept of opportunity cost, and I’m happy with my choice and its implications, but I’m also aware that there are implications.

I love my family so much. My dad took me to over a thousand soccer games growing up, and my mom is one of the most interesting, open-minded, and just best people I’ve ever met. I have three younger siblings, and I love them all, and we have so much fun together. I have funny and open-minded grandparents, who I am going to miss as well. I am so incredibly lucky to have such a supportive (and, like, fun) family, and I am missing out on time with them.

In the time I am gone, my sister will graduate college, and my brother high school. I am going to miss out on birthdays, and time with my family, time with the coolest friends anyone could ask for—I’m talking snowed in together for two days, drive nine hours to visit, completed two shot tours together, live together and still never sick of each other style friends.

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(I spelled tattoo wrong I see it now oops)

I’m leaving another summer kayaking, and my favorite diner, and the Great Lakes.

But I am going to gain so so much—language skills, more classroom experience, new friendships. Still, right now, from Michigan, all of that seems ambiguous and unknown, and occasionally eclipsed by the people I know I am going to miss.

I think it’s okay to acknowledge and talk about that, because it would feel dishonest if I only wrote about how stoked and #blessed I am. Kidding myself into thinking I’m only excited seems detrimental.

One of the things I’ve been doing is working really hard to put myself in a good headspace for all of this, and part of me things that means making myself so oppressively positive that nothing will phrase me once I’m in country, inevitably making a fool of myself.

I sort of ended up deciding that that’s dumb, and if I don’t address all the things I’m feeling now, I’m just going to feel them more later. And I’m publishing this on the interweb (1) because I have no shame and (2) to let you know if you’re feeling the same thing about moving or leaving home you’re very much not alone. And you’re super normal.

I feel this completely imaginary pressure to be really tough, all the time. To be only excited for this, and optimistic, and have these massive goals and sunny attitude towards my service.

And I am excited—but I am also worried, and know I will miss my family. I know I will see my friends kayaking pictures and be impossibly jealous. I know I will cry when I say goodbye to my mom and sister, and my nose will get all stuffy and my eyes all gross and red. I don’t think any amount of emotional prep will make that moment less graceless.

I’ve lived away from home plenty of times, but 27 months isn’t the same as a semester, and a different state isn’t the same thing as a different continent.

So I guess here’s what I need to put to paper:

  • I am going to miss things. That’s okay.
  • I am going to airport cry. Then I am going to be embarrassed that I am airport crying and cry harder.
  • Soon, I will be able to make a really funny map of places I have public cried, including a train in Wales, the floor of Bessey Hall, and in-flight while watching The Good Dinosaur. Whoo! (Maybe this makes me sound like a disaster, but crying is healthy. And be honest, we’ve all sat on the floor and cried on the floor outside our Academic Advisors office.)
  • Despite all of this, I am still excited, and grateful, and going to have a really great time most of the time.

Thanks for reading; gold star if you made it this far! I am flying out Sunday the 17th(St. Patrick’s Day). In the meantime, I’ll be packing for real, hanging out with my super cool family, and eating so much that the jeans I bought a size too big will fit.

Some of my favorite Michigan (home) pictures:

Peace Corps Armenia: Pre-departure Updates and Overview

Writing in with a minor life update (a minor one, really): in two weeks I am leaving the country to embark on 27 months of Peace Corps service in Armenia as a TEFL volunteer. Cool!

Why am I doing this?

While I was in school, I worked as a writing consultant and science ethics learning assistant. I absolutely loved both jobs. These were the sort of jobs that I would look forward to working, and would hang around long after class was over to help out.

Working as a writing consultant tutoring ELL (English language learning) was one of the best jobs I have ever had. I met so many interesting and brave people who had left their home country to come and learn in mine.

Last March, I started looking into possible other opportunities to continue ELL/EFL work, preferably while also putting myself in another culture with a foreign language like the students I admired had.

I decided that the US Peace Corps fit best with what I was looking for. They provide language training, offer a longer period of service than just a few months, and work to emphasize cultural exchange and respect for host countries. I submitted my application in March, with no country/region specified.

I graduated Michigan State University Spring 2018 with a degree in Neuroscience and additional major in Digital and Technical Writing, then headed up to Northern Wisconsin to sea kayak guide for the summer.

 

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I’m in the yellow boat 🙂

In late August, I interviewed for a TEFL Armenia position, and shortly thereafter was invited to join and accepted. I worked on medical clearance for ten thousand years, and am now in the process of learning Armenian and getting stoked!

What am I going to be doing? 

I will be in Armenia for the first three months participating in language and cultural competency training as well as skill building. After these three months, I will be assigned to a site where I will co-teach English with an Armenian counterpart for two years as well as work with my community on projects to meet community needs. I don’t know where in Armenia my site will be, but I pinky swear I’ll update you (*cough* dad) as soon as I know.

Background on the Peace Corps:

The US Peace Corps was founded after the Cold War, by President John F. Kennedy.

The Peace Corps itself states it’s mission as threefold:

  1.  “To help people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.”
  2. “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.”
  3. “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

I could write a whole separate piece (totaling about 4000 words which I know because I actually did, then trashed because it’s annoying) on Peace Corps geopolitical context. But honestly, that would be super boring, I am nowhere near an expert on that sort of thing, and a lot of other people have already written about this, so instead I will direct you to some other sources:

  • Here you can read what the Peace Corps has to say about their mission.
  • Read this (brilliant, cannot overemphasize, should be required reading) article by Teju Cole to consider the implications of the narratives we subscribe to.
  • Through the Global Ethics Network you can check out an in-depth examination into the Peace Corps’ role in our world today.
  • This Instagram account offers really great insight into foreign aid work.

Snapshot of Armenia

Armenia is located in the South Caucuses, bordered by Georgia to the North, Azerbaijan to the East, Iran to the South, and Turkey to the West. It has one of the oldest spoken languages in the world, and beautiful mountain monasteries. In 1991, Armenia gained independence from the Soviet Union. The apricot is the national fruit. The area is largely mountainous, and they have one large lake, Lake Sevan.

Check out the PC Armenia page here, or the Armenia Wikipedia page here.

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Map of Armenia (eurasiangeopolitics.com)

Armenia gets four seasons, and I think I remember hearing somewhere that the temperature is similar to Chicago year round.

I hope to learn lots more about Armenia and share here as appropriate, as part of the Peace Corps Third goal.

Application/ Preservice Process:

There have been three primary parts of the preservice process. The first was the actual application, which I filled out in March 2018. When I didn’t hear back within three months, I started applying for other jobs.

I heard back about an interview in August 2018, and after that interview had about a week to decide whether or not to accept my invitation.

Interview:

Honestly, I felt like my interview went poorly, especially compared to some of the other jobs I had interviewed for the same month, and I was a little surprised (but grateful) to get an invitation. If you’re prepping to interview, I would recommend writing out very specific responses to any questions they tell you to prepare for.

For example, I was told to be ready to answer questions about my experience with other cultures. I wrote down in my notes “EFL teaching”. What they are looking for is specific cultural aspects—food differences, language barriers, misunderstandings you have had. I would recommend writing out very systematic answers to the questions they give you to prep with.

Clearances:

In order to serve with the Peace Corps, you need both legal and medical clearance. Legal clearance was smooth experience for me; medical clearance was hectic.

It involved more appointments than I thought possible, especially since I have always had the luxury of good health. I did learn that I am not allergic to penicillin like I thought I was through penicillin testing.

Medical clearance took about three months for me, and even included follow up in February on the poison ivy I had in September. Very thorough, though I can assure you that if my poison ivy hadn’t resolved over the course of several months, my doctor and Pre-service nurse would’ve heard a lot more about it. None of this is relevant to PC service, but I just felt like sharing on the internet.

Online Language Course/ TEFL Pre-service Modules:

I’ve been working on the TEFL Pre-service modules for about three months now. These modules are designed to make sure everyone is appropriately trained and understands the expectations of the job they will be doing at the end of Pre-Service Training (PST).

I’ve found the modules very helpful, especially in evaluating my own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, though each module has taken me at least double the amount of time projected.

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My tiny book of Armenian notes

For the past six weeks I’ve been taking the online pre-departure language course which has been incredibly helpful. My language skills are still practically nonexistent, but I know all 39 letters in the alphabet, can say some food words, and can introduce myself. I also know some super helpful phrases like Im siroom knel (I like sleep), chem siroom lolik (I don’t like tomato), and doo oones orakh vochkar (you have a happy sheep). All equally useful phrases. Also, still maybe not correct.

 

I am super grateful for this opportunity, and very excited for new challenges, learning the Armenian language (which is COOL google it), and the chance to grow as a TEFL teacher. It sounds corny when I write it, but it’s true.

Any questions for me? Drop me a comment, find me on Instagram, or shoot me an email!

And of course, all views expressed in this post are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or Armenia.

(Cover photo of my favorite hiking shoes and the Apostle Islands from the Bayfield docks; Basswood Island in the distance.)

 

Next Peace Corps Post linked here

Winter Stories: Polar Vortex, Snowshoeing Michigan, and Ramming the Car Directly into the Snowbank

If I’m being totally honest, I don’t like the winter. I pretend to. I drag myself out in snowshoes and watch the sun sparkle when it rises in the snow. I enjoy the look of snow thick on conifers and ice on the water.

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One of those rare, beautiful Winter mornings that make it worth dragging myself out of bed.

But I don’t like the winter. I’m never like “yay, it’s gonna be 10 below today! Let’s go outside and play!” That doesn’t happen.

There is a pile of winter gear standing between me and leaving the house, and I just can’t find the motivation to leave my hot coffee. When I do get out, my snot freezes in my nose and my cheeks are wind burned. Gross!

Last weekend, my friend Paulina and I went out snowshoeing along the North Country Trail near the Manistee River. (Shameless plug– Paulina is a phenomenal editor, and specializes in YA fiction, but she’s done a really great job with some of my creative nonfiction as well. Hit her up!)

Lucky for us, the trek began with me getting my car stuck in a surprise snow drift. Whooo! Happens to the best of us. We were un-stuck within the hour and off along the river. Did! I! Mention! I! Don’t! Love! Winter!???

My first post on this blog (2017!) was even about being outside in the Winter (and like, being ill-prepared and almost getting frostbite), and I’d like to think I learned more since then, but I still ended up in a snow bank, so who can really say?

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Footage of me, who forgot a shovel, putting all that snow fort building practice to good use.

Basically, from the driving angle this still looked like part of the road to me, and then we sunk in. A group of snowmobilers (or six) had a good laugh at my expense.

After freeing Betty (yes, the car has a name), we strapped on our snowshoes and headed out.

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The first cold water I learned to love was this river, when I was 12 or 14, tubing down in the early summer, and playing in the shallows. Painted turtles would lounge on rocks, little silver fish flickering in the eddies. 🌲 Later I would hike it in the spring, with the wildflowers poking through, and then again and again though the summer and fall, with the beautiful birch trees and red-tailed hawks. 🌲 There are windy bluffs, springs, and small waterfalls if you know where to look, bright reds in the fall. 🌲 My first time out in the winter was this weekend, on a balmy 3 degree snowshoe. I have such a hard time finding time to go outside in the winter, or the motivation, but I’m really glad I did. 🌲 It was in places like this that I learned about respecting water, and geologic science, and bird ID. 🌲 I hope I always remember to come back here. 📍Odawa land

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This particular stretch of trail (Manistee River, pictured above) is the South end of the Fife Lake Loop, and it’s about a mile out to the overlook from the State Forest Campground of Old US 131 between Manton and Fife Lake, Michigan. It is a beginner snowshoe.

We were warm in the woods, but once we got up to the overlook the wind was aggressive, especially since it was already 7 Fahrenheit (-14 Celsius) degree day. The white blur in the pictures is the snow being blown off trees and spat back in our faces. Nice.

Naturally, next up on the docket for the Midwest was a Polar Vortex, which basically meant that my younger siblings had a whole week off of school. Temperatures dropped to -15 F (-26 C) with a windchill of -37 F (-38 C) or something ungodly like that.

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I feel like it’s hard to articulate what that kind of cold feels like. It feels like the car not starting the first time. It feels like digging said car out of a snow bank, like your contacts are stiff in your eyes. The little bit of exposed skin where your mitten meets your coat burns. You’re cold, and you know you’re cold, but the shivering doesn’t start until you’re back inside.

There’s an eerie white haze over the highway, and the roads are mostly empty, save a few empty cars in ditches. Intersections are slick with black ice. We fling hot water in the air to watch it turn to steam, then run back inside, so thankful that we have a home, and one with heat.

Temperatures are supposed to climb to above freezing by Monday. It is sort of hard to conceptualize that level of temperature change, especially when you’re just trying to get the car to start so you can make it to work on time.

When I left home Friday (2/1) it was -10 F (-23.3 C), and by the time I was back home later in the day it was 20 F (-6.6 C), a swing of 30 degrees. If you’re having trouble understanding how the Polar Vortex (i.e., bitter freaking cold) relates to Climate Change, this article might be helpful!

Due to the road conditions, I did get a chance to spend a good portion of the week working on my next sweater. Knitting is one thing I do look forward to in winter. 

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Photo by @PaulinaMinnebo

This sweater (brown, with cables) took me a month to finish, and has around 150,000 stitches in it, but it’s something that I made, with my own two hands. There’s something really gratifying about being able to make something that becomes a part of your life, that will keep you warm and dry, especially when it can take the place of a coat on a 7 F ( -14 C) day.

Knitting is one of those hobbies that can sound super lame on paper, but think about the 150,000 stitches, the sketches of different pattern ideas, the actual hours that went into making a piece of clothing. What we wear is such a part of who we are, both in  protection and warmth, and in self-expression. Making something so personal doesn’t at all seem lame to me.

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Above is my next knitting project. I don’t have the patience for patterns, so I write down the geometry of what I want the sweater to look like, and then guess from there— hence not attempting any real fair isle pattern and instead going for dissolving (uneven) strikes. There’s just less math involved.

I hope everyone stayed safe and warm during the Polar Vortex, and I hope you have a good rest of your winter—even if you spend more time inside knitting than pretending you like being outside when it’s cold!

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Michigan’s Ten Best Hiking Trails for Views, Wildlife, and Variety

I’ve hiked a lot of trails in Michigan, and here is my totally accurate, not up for debate and perfect (yes, PERFECT) list, cataloguing the ten VERY BEST hiking trails in Michigan.

10) Ludington State Park

Intermediate. Head first back toward Lost Lake, then follow the Island Trail to the Ridge Trial, connect out to the Lighthouse Trail, then take the Coast Guard Trail back to the parking lot for 10-12 miles, depending on your route. This will take you through inland dunes and lakes, islands, ridges, forests, and eventually out to Lake Michigan and the Lighthouse. This trek has definitely earned it’s place among the best Michigan hiking spots.

(Map an info linked in heading)

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9) Antrim Creek Natural Area

Beginner. A sheltered Grand Traverse Bay beach, pristine forest, boardwalks, and information on the natural and human history of the area—what more could you ask for? My favorite part about this hike is the information provided about the Anishinabee, specifically the Odawa, the Indigenous people of the region. Also provided are the Indigenous names for the lakes and rivers of the area. It’s important to know that Lake Michigan to some people is and has been “Mishii Gum”. Antrim Creek offers some of the best Michigan hiking for an educational experience.

8) Wilderness State Park Trail System

Beginner- Intermediate. Up at the tip of the mitten, Wilderness State Park has a large trail system, and camping right on the lake. It’s also a good spot to stargaze or spot wildlife. In the winter, blue ice forms up at the Straits of Mackinac and the park makes a good cross country ski/ snowshoe spot.

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7) Manistee River Trail

Intermediate. The Lower Peninsula’s classic backpacking trip over one of the most scenic sections of the Manistee River. This trail features a small seasonal waterfall, and totals a 23-mile backpacking loop. This trail might be the best Michigan hiking trail by popular vote.

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🌲National Forest 🌲

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(Featuring insta post from 2016, can you say YIKES!!!)

6) Empire Bluffs Trail

Beginner. The Empire Bluffs Trail is a more accessible option in the Lower Peninsula still providing some of the best Michigan hiking. It is of the most popular hikes in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and for good reason. It’s only about a mile out to the overlook of the bluffs and Lake Michigan blue in the distance. My favorite time to visit is in June, when the wildflowers are blooming.

5) Fife Lake Loop

Beginner- Intermediate. This loop is less trafficked than the Manistee River Trail, but just as pretty. Portions of this trail make a great day hike, particularly the section along the Manistee. The State Forest Campground of Old US 131 is a beautiful spot to basecamp. Alternately, the trail can be tackled as a 22-mile loop. This is another good hike to visit in the spring for its wildflowers. Despite being lesser known, the Fife Lake Loop is still one of the best Michigan hiking trails.

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4) Chapel-Mosquito Loop

Intermediate/Advanced. A 9 to 11-mile hike depending on the spurs you take, the Chapel-Mosquito Loop is one of the most varied hikes in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It makes a great beginner backpacking route with campsites at Mosquito Beach, and features cliffs, noted features like Grand Portal Point and Lover’s Leap, and both Chapel Falls and Mosquito Falls. This loop is one of the best Michigan hiking trails for sweeping views and photography.

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See you soon beautiful 😊

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3) Grass River Natural Area

Beginner. This trail talks you past the crystal clear Grass River, over boardwalks through sedge meadows, and past the streams that thread through the area. This is a great spot for spotting wildlife, including birds, deer, and river otter. I have never hiked here and not seen a bald eagle. The Grass River Natural Area might not usually make top ten lists, but it is one of Michigan’s best hiking trails for wildlife viewing.

2) Lower Tahquamenon Falls

Beginner- Intermediate. It can be as many as 9 miles or as few as a half mile to see the Lower Falls depending on what kind of hike you’re up for. The Upper Falls are more photographed and more popular, but the Lower Falls have more character and are a more immersive experience. Collectivity, the trail along the river offers some of the best Michigan hiking. Winter is an especially pretty time to visit, when the tress are snowy and some of the rocks form large icicles.

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1) Spray Falls Hike

Intermediate. Starting at the Little Beaver Creek Trailhead in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the hike out to Spray Falls can total between 4 and 6 miles depending on your route. The falls are beautiful, but the best part about the hike is the swimming holes along the way. The trek out to Spray Falls is one of the best Michigan hiking trails for swimming, cliffside views, and of course to see the falls themselves.

The worst hike in Michigan is the Dune Climb. It’s a trap; skip it.

I haven’t hiked every trail in Michigan (yet)– I haven’t made it up to the Porkies, and I would love to hit Isle Royale, but haven’t had the chance. I’m very biased toward the Grass River Natural Area, so while I claim this list is flawless and it is, feel free to add your own favorite trails in the comments!

 

ADVENTURE RATINGS KEY:

No Rating: Assumes no level of physical ability.

Beginner: Perfect for families with younger children, or people looking for a nice starting point before launching into more physically exerting adventures. This rating still assumes a baseline level of physical fitness such as the ability to walk at least three miles, but otherwise assumes beginner level of outdoor experience.

Intermediate: Perfect for people who like spending time outside, and are excited about the idea of immersing selves in nature. Assumes some experience hiking, paddling, camping, or a flexible and positive attitude. Assumes no shoulder injuries and ability to lift at least 50 pounds.

Advanced: Perfect for people who have experience with outdoor recreation, and are prepared to tackle more strenuous hikes and adventures.

Where to next?

Paddle the sea caves of the Apostle Islands

Explore the reefs and mountains of the Virgin Islands National Park

Read about sea kayaking on the Great Lakes

Forty Degrees, Fahrenheit

A wave of ice cold water hit me and I sputtered for air. The back of my yellow kayak slid in and out of focus. I grabbed the stern of the boat and hauled myself over, staying low and trying to catch my breath.

“You good?” A friend called from nearby, but I couldn’t pinpoint their location. “We can head in. You don’t have to keep trying.”

I crawled back into the cockpit of my boat, putting on half of my spray skirt and then grabbing the bilge pump to pump out water.

I shivered, and wiped some snot off my face.

“I want to try again,” I said, not really believing it.

“If you’re sure.”

I didn’t end up rolling my kayak that day. All 5’ 3” of me couldn’t quite manage to turn a 16ft kayak right side up. I left cold, wet, bruised and impossibly sore, but ultimately happy I had given it another shot. That night, I watched from inside as lightning lit up whitecaps on the world’s largest lake.

For most people, kayaking is a vacation activity, in white sand beaches of Florida, or a leisure activity on your local lake. Kayaking is relaxing.That isn’t quite the experience Superior offers.

Lake Superior is the world’s largest lake by surface area. It has a year round average water temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit, has produced waves as tall as 30 feet, and creates its own weather patterns. The word “lake” is almost entirely incorrect—Lake Superior is a sea.

The Lake Superior experience is completely different than inland lakes and tropical beaches—it’s better.

First paddled by the Anishinabek people, then serving as the highway of the fur trade, Lake Superior remains relatively unknown in the realm of tourism, despite its waterfalls, cliffs, hiking, and paddling.

I worked as a kayak guide in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for the summer, where people come to paddle the intricate halls of the mainland sea caves, visit the remote shores of the 22 islands, and have their own slice of adventure. Sometimes this involves glassy water and weaving through lacy archways—other times it involves teaching people how to surf kayaks, chasing off small island bears, or making up a quick way to fix a boat.

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Farther North lie the towering cliffs and basalt of Minnesota’s North Shore, where water rushes into the big lake over red and purple rocks. The farther North you go, the farther you can walk without seeing another soul.

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Michigan harbors the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where the cliffs are stained in reds and greens and purples. Every summer, the park gets thousands of backpackers, kayakers and tourists. I visited in Late September and the park was near empty, with water clarity around 30 feet.

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Lake Superior’s landscapes are widely varied, and the land has a rich indigenous and maritime history. The shores are littered with shipwrecks, and the waters can test any seafarer.

For me, this has always been part of the draw. The remoteness, the towering cliffs, empty beaches, and most importantly, the ice cold water.

“Does it ever get old?” A participant on a kayak tour I was guiding asked me. She had sweet brown eyes and freckles.

I looked up at the cliff wall, Devil’s Island sandstone, red and orange layers, streaks of glimmering rock. The sea caves here are stunning, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the sweet purple flowers that hang on to that wall and manage to bloom where nothing else can grow.

“No,” I answered. “No, honestly every day I am surprised by how beautiful something here is. A few days ago it rained like crazy, and we were able to paddle under some waterfalls. That doesn’t happen very often.”

She nodded, satisfied.

The beauty of Lake Superior doesn’t lie inherently in cliffs and cold water. The Lake is both a lake and a sea. The Lake has both tropical-like beaches, and ice cold water. Superior can be calm and inviting one day, and sink ships the next. The Lake can feel completely like my home, and nearly drown me in the same day. The beauty of Lake Superior lies in unpredictability and contradiction, and in being one of the last truly wild spaces.


I wrote this piece a while ago, but didn’t like it. I threw it in a folder labeled “trash” on my computer and forgot about it. I found it recently, and it turns out I don’t hate it as much as I thought I did, so here it is. 

Virgin Islands National Park: Beaches, Snorkeling, Hiking and Wildlife

The Virgin Islands National Park has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, incredible snorkeling, hiking, varied wildlife, and an important history. In 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria hit St. John island and took a toll on the infrastructure and economy. The island and park are still rebuilding, but St. John and the Virgin Islands National Park are still beautiful and absolutely worth visiting.

(Full photo slideshow at bottom of post)

Map of the Virgin Islands National Park here

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Cinnamon Bay, Virgin Islands National Park

Cinnamon Beach

One of the most stunning beaches in the Virgin Islands National Park is Cinnamon Beach, with white sand, bright water, and slopes of islands in the distance.

Follow the North Shore Road past Trunk Bay and arrive at Cinnamon Bay and Beach. The Cinnamon Bay Factory Ruins can be reached by a wheelchair accessible boardwalk. Cinnamon Bay itself has clear blue waters and great snorkeling.

St. John History Note: Cinnamon Bay was once the site of a Tiano settlement*, as shown by archeological excavations. The Tiano people are indigenous to the Caribbean and St. John Island. When the Danes colonized the island, they reported it to be uninhabited. The Tiano people were established on St. John for a long period of time, but seem to have either left the island, been driven off, or wiped out. You can read more about the Tiano people and their history here.

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Maho Bay

Snorkeling at Maho Bay

Maho Bay, just a little farther up the North Shore Road than Cinnamon Beach, offers protected and beginner snorkeling. It’s also a great spot to swim with sea turtles and sting rays. Just remember not to touch or chase turtles or rays!

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Annaberg

Annaberg Sugar Plantation

When the Danes colonized the US Virgin Islands, they established sugar plantations and brought hundreds of people over from Africa to work as slaves. The Annaberg Sugar Plantation serves as a reminder of uglier history of the island. The plantation overlooks the Sir Fancis Drake Channel, dividing the US Virgin Islands from the British Virgin Islands. The British Virgin Islands abolished slavery before the then Danish Virgin Islands, so slaves would often flee to Tortola across the channel. Some would use a canoe, some brave souls would swim, and sometimes people in Tortola would coordinate and organize a boat to take people away from St. John and to the British Virgin Islands. *

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Salt Pond Bay

Snorkeling Salt Pond Bay

The Southeast point of St. John Island is more arid and desert-like than the jungle that lines the North Shore, but is every bit as interesting. Salt Pond Bay is a beautiful sheltered beach and a good snorkel spot, about a quarter mile from the parking lot. Follow any one of the small trails from the beach and you’ll reach the Salt Pond, a salt pond with thousands of tiny crabs. In dryer months, the salt crystalizes at the ponds edge.

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Salt Pond Bay side of Ram’s Head

Ram’s Head Hike

The hike out to Ram’s Head, or the southernmost point on the island, is about three miles, moderate to strenuous, and gorgeous. If you walk to the end of Salt Pond Bay Beach, you’ll find a trail that begins to lead South. Follow that trial until you get to a rocky beach, where the trail will seem to disappear. The trail resumes at the end of the beach.

The hike ends at Rams Head, where to the East you can feel the full force of the Atlantic and the Easterly Trade Winds. To the West a protected bay and calm turquoise water. It’s a strange juxtaposition, and really can help you understand the power and variety of the ocean, and how remarkable it is that an island can hold so much life in the middle of the ocean, a blue desert.

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Atlantic side of Ram’s Head, and what I mean when I say “blue desert”

Waterlemon Cay

Waterlemon Cay has beautiful hiking, great snorkeling, and is the best place to see some Virgin Islands National Park wildlife. The trailhead begins at the Annaberg Sugar Plantation parking lot, and it is about a mile to the first bay. Here, we saw nurse sharks swimming in the shallows, and sea urchins. The Johnny Horn Trail begins on this beach, so if you’d rather hike than swim you can go check out the two different ruins at the top. Farther down this beach, it will look like the beach ends and turns to large rocks. If you scramble over these rocks, you will reach a smaller, rocky beach which makes a good launch spot for Waterlemon Cay. (Yes, that’s Waterlemon, not Watermelon). It isn’t a far snorkel out to the Cay, but it’s important to note that there can be a really strong current between mainland and the Cay, so it’s definitely not a good trip for everyone. I preferred to hike rather than think about being dragged out to sea and becoming fish food.

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Hunk of rock on right is Waterlemon Cay

Trunk Bay Snorkel Trail

Trunk Bay is the most popular beach in the park, and most of the cruise ship passengers stop here. Still, popular things are popular for a reason, so I would recommend a trip out in the early morning or late afternoon, before or after the crowds. At Trunk Bay you can rent snorkel equipment if you don’t have your own, and hit the Virgin Islands National Park’s underwater snorkel trail to learn more about reef systems!

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Trunk Bay

*Historical Information from St. John Off the Beaten Track: A Photographically Illustrated Guide to St. John, US Virgin Islands, Gerald Singer (Purchase here)

Where to Next?

Sea Kayak the caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Explore Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

Visit Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes

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Year in Wrap 2018: Quicksand Edition

I wasn’t going to do a new year’s post this year, mostly because I’m very lazy, but also because I tend to find it a little cliché. It turns out I don’t have anything against being cliché, so here is my new year’s post anyhow!

I post (both here and on Instagram) about a lot of the really cool things I have had the opportunity to do. Inevitably, it paints a picture that I am having fun and in pretty places all the time. So here is a quick list at some of the more embarrassing and downright dumb things I pulled in 2018, accompanied by some of my favorite photos from the year.

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One of my favorites: Grass River Natural Area in May

I got caught in literal Quicksand

I’ve got a long list of things that I worry about hiking alone—you know, bears, twisting an ankle, snakes, being thrown into the back of some dude’s van and ending up a cold case. The usual. I thought quicksand was a thing of complete fiction, stuck only in Indiana Jones and John Mulaney bits.

Turns out, no. There’s this pretty little spot where Otter Creek runs into Lake Michigan, and if the wind is blowing just right, and you’re too busy eating a sandwich while walking to pay attention, you too might stumble into some quicksand and sink up past your knees, frantically waving your sandwich over your head, because if you survive this you’ll still be hungry, and then inch worm out, now cold and damp. My sandwich made it out unscathed, and I had a damp picnic lunch wondering if anyone would ever believe I got caught in quicksand.

(Two of my favorite kayaking photos, August 2018, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore)

Ran for another flight

Last year my sisters and I went careening through the Salt Lake City airport, this time it was Atlanta, and I ended up with Chaco blisters. Again, we made the flight, but not gracefully.

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Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, September 2018

Got asked if we were “experienced snowshoers” and decided sure, why not

How much experience is required for one to be an experienced snowshoe-r? Isn’t it just hiking, but colder? We’ve been snoeshoewing like, in our lifetimes, so that feels experienced, right?

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The only picturesque seagull to ever exist

I got Mono and it was lame

I’m not sure what I did to have the world decide that I deserved to spend my last semester of college sick in bed, but it was lame. Shout out my mother, for putting up with me.

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US Virgin Islands, December 2018

I hiked through a hailstorm

I thought it would be fun to go for a hike on my day off. Did not check the radar. Cue quarter sized hail and standing too close to a river/ flash flood zone. Living large my friends.

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Waterfall detail, June 2018

I capsized a kayak in flat calm water by accident

Listen, everybody capsizes their kayaks, especially starting out, or just having fun. On a beautiful day this July, as a guideon a kayak trip, I flipped and took a swim in the drink. I’m not really sure howper se, but it was near the wreck of the Fedora, and while I know nobody died on that shipwreck, I’m still going to say it was a ghost. I would like to emphasize that it was flat calm, and I was in a pretty stable boat. I have no idea why I flipped.

I got to spend the rest of the trip pink faced and damp. Which, coincidently, is sort of the natural state of being for anyone who kayaks.

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Northern Wisco, August 2018

I puked in a pit toilet on Sand Island

And like, hung out there for a little while on the floor. A very dignified place to be.

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I’ve been up to shoot about two sunrises this year. Two out of 365. This is one of them. The other sunrise was on Sand Island in Wisconsin, at about 5:30 am, and the only reason I had been up at all was because I’d spent the night running the quarter mile back and forth between my tent and the pit toilet to puke because, like the badass I am, I ate three (yes three) rolls of brie cheese. Now. Sand Island is full of bugs— mosquitos, blackflies, you name it. So I’m in full bug-gear wearing a big net, running through the woods in the dark (who knows where my headlamp is) and I’m running to the pit toilet rather than puking in the woods because of the bears. You see, I was pretty sure if I puked near our campsite, I would attract some island bears and have a whole new problem. So back and forth to the pit toilet (quarter mile) all clammy and feverish and swarmed by flies and finally I feel better enough to sit. I pop a squat at a bluff at the edge of the lake, shivering and sipping at some water. Eventually the birds start to sing and the lake is completely still and a little bit of wildfire smoke from the boundary waters to the north lingers over the water and the sun rises, big and bright red. And this is one of my favorite memories from 2018. It’s no secret that Instagram is a total highlight reel, but not every highlight feels like a highlight at first. Happy new year everyone 💗 I hope your year is filled with all kinds of highlights.

A post shared by Maddy Marquardt (@maddymarq) on

Read post (above) for the dramatized version with a sparkly new year’s message at the end.

All in all, I had a nice year, and I hope you did too. Wishing you the a quicksandless 2019!

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(This is my favorite photo that I took this year. May, 2018, with the best model any big sister could ask for.)