I created a blog literally so that I could tell this story. Not even kidding. This happened and I thought to myself, Wow you idiot, this is really a teachable moment. So here I am, basking in my own idiocracy.
On Saturday, March 4th, 2017, my long time friend Estee and I executed a day long road trip that we had been planning for two months. From our base camp in Antrim, MI, we would drive three hours up to the Tahquamenon Falls, hike around, and then drive south back over the bridge and hit the Headlands Dark Sky Park for sunset. And when I say we had planned, I mean down to the second. I had looked up gas stations, drive times, restaurants, and potential side trips in advance. I had packed 3 pairs of extra socks, and extra jacket, a raincoat, food, coffee, water, and extra water. I printed out maps, and memorized road names. I had even been to the Dark Sky Park before. All of that preparation did not make a difference, because I chose to wear hiking boots instead of snow boots.
The Headlands Dark Sky Park is in up in Mackinaw, and is a pretty good place for viewing the stars. It’s right on the beach, and has a path lined with small glow lights and cutouts of astronomers. Those cutouts can be pretty creepy in the dark.
We got to the dark sky park at 6:00 pm, a half hour before sunset. If you park where you’re supposed to park in the summer, it’s probably about 3/4 a mile walk to the beach; if you park at the water’s edge, you watch the stars right by your car.
We parked where we remembered parking in the summer, walked in from there, and set up camp on the frozen bay in Lake Michigan— another mistake. Camp consisted of a blanket to sit on, a tripod, and a backpack with a flashlight, bandaids, fresh socks, clothes, and rope inside.
It was after the sun set and I started messing with my camera that things started to go a little wrong.
First, ice started to form on my camera lens. We had been at a waterfall earlier that day, there had been spray and I hadn’t been careful. Then, the zipper on my coat broke. I struggled with it for a few minutes, and eventually gave up because I wasn’t that cold anyway— it was only 20 degrees, 11 at the coldest with windchill. So I tore through my bag trying to find an extra layer to make up for an un-zippable coat, wading though calf-deep snow.
Recall the hiking boots? Hiking boots do not cover your calves; hiking boots stop at your ankles. So while I was doing this, snow was balling up around said ankles. By the time I sat back down, the snow began to melt into my boots. We had been sitting on the lake now for an hour and a half, and were only now beginning to see stars.
I remembered reading in a Michelle Paver book as a kid that it’s not really the cold you have to worry about, it’s the wet. This crossed my mind several times as I was wiggling my toes and playing with my shutter speed.
It was around this time that Estee leaned in closer to me. “Do you see that?” she asked.
“See what?” I scanned the ice out in front of us. It was dimly lit by the sun’s afterglow, but I made out two dog like figures moving across the ice about 200 yards from us.
“It’s probably just deer,” I told Estee. “We don’t have wolves this far south.”
She nodded. “They don’t look like deer.”
We sat and watched the two animals walk across the ice and I forgot about the cold for a little while. One of the things that always strikes me about being in nature is how outside of time you can feel. Several thousand years ago, those two animals could have walked on the ice in that bay just past sunset and looked much the same as they did in March 2017. I didn’t take a picture of this. It would have ruin how still and surreal the moment felt.
The animals left, and it got darker, and my feet started to hurt. But it was only 8:30, and I wasn’t really satisfied with any of the pictures I took yet. I changed into a dry pair of socks, which helped for a little, then I dropped a hint.
“I’m pretty cold.”
“Oh, thank God, me too,” Estee said. We both laughed a little about how stubborn we were, and I jammed a bunch of frozen gloves and scarves into my backpack and snapped one more picture of the stars— the header image— and we started our walk back to the car. By now, there were other people at the park.
I didn’t even make it a quarter mile back before I realized how cold I was. I was feeling a little lightheaded, and my feet had moved on from hurting to being clumsy and numb. That would have been one thing— I could push through numb feet, but it was getting to the point were I couldn’t walk.
I didn’t want to, but I swallowed my pride and said something to Estee. The rest is a little blurry, because I started shivering and panicking, but she found a nice couple—Michelle and John bless their hearts—to drive us back to the parking lot. I owe John and Michelle, and Estee my toes— which I am happy to say I have all of.
I suppose the moral of the story is that you can prepare as much as you want, but however smart you think you’re being, you’re not immune to mistakes. That and don’t walk out anywhere you’re not 100% sure you can walk back. Or maybe pack appropriate footwear.