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