I Spent the Summer on Lake Superior and All I Got Was This Stupid Sunburn

The first thing I want to tell you about Lake Superior is that she is not a lake; Superior is a sea. She creates her own weather patterns and kicks up squalls out of nowhere. On the Bayfield Peninsula, surrounded by her on three sides, it feels a little like she completely engulfs us.

My first glimpse of her was near Whitefish Point in Michigan in the Winter. The bay was completely frozen. The first time I swam in Superior was in August, a year or two ago, in the coves of the Pictured Rocks. The water was cold and ridiculously clear. I had hiked out with my brother. We had a strange, beautiful beach completely to ourselves. That’s one way Superior is apart from other lakes and rivers—she is big enough, and cold enough, and far enough north that she can make you feel like you’re the only person left in the whole of the world.

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Lake Superior from Oak Island

I’ve spent three and a half months this year up on her South Shore and I will be very sorry to leave. I believe we can learn a lot from nature. I believe that the experiences we have are more important than the things we memorize in a classroom.

I also believe I am incredibly lucky to have lived in a world where I can see six bald eagles in any one day, where the cliffs are red and the water is green and stories of the First Peoples not only survive but are told and woven into the culture of the area.

One of my first weeks here I laid back on the dock of Oak Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and let splinters of wood poke into my back, let my hair hang off the dock and reach toward the water. The dock was the only real refuge from the mosquitos, so about a dozen coworkers-turning-friends and myself gathered on it. The sun sank lower in the horizon and warmed the skin on my face with that distinct sweet orange glow. A breeze tugged lightly on the sun-bleached ends of my hair. I thought about life, and my time in college, and all of the good things that had happened and all of the bad, and how I wouldn’t erase any of it and risk this moment.

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Some losers I don’t know on the Oak Island dock

Someone asked me how I could stand to be so far North, so far away from the city, any city. Am I not bored?

On a calm, sunny day, it’s easy to forget that Superior is dangerous. Spend enough time with her and you’ll get only just a concept of how changeable she is.

On June 30th, I woke up bleary-eyed and stumbled into work. I joked around with some coworkers in the boathouse, and then fitted the participants who would be joining on us on a lovely guided kayak tour with wetsuits.

The wind had already changed direction several times.

At Meyers Beach, the launch point for the mainland sea caves, you can sometimes see 30 miles across Superior to Minnesota’s North Shore. That day Minnesota was obscured completely by a dark cloud, contoured at the top and moving rapidly North.

The water was the stillest thing I had ever seen—gray and not even a ripple. A fog bank rolled towards us. Five miles offshore, the bank swallowed Eagle Island.

“We’re going to wait to launch,” the lead guide told me quietly. The fog bank continued to roll toward us, and now it looked like the darker storm cloud was headed toward us too.

A sheet of 25 knot wind hit us like a slap in the face. The whole lake shivered. We had to shout to be heard. In the time it took us to carry one boat up the 47 stairs at Meyers Beach, the Lake had picked up from glass to 2-4 foot waves. Just to reiterate here—the Lake in less than 10 minutes went from still to potentially dangerous.

Lake Superior is a siren; she lulls you in with her song of sea caves, crystal water and untouched cliff line, and then she reminds you who you are. You are a human, and you are infinitely small on a sea that you don’t understand and that is not yours.

So no, I wouldn’t say I am “bored”.

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Waves building as that storm blew in #thosewitecapsder’aye

It’s funny though, because I expected Lake Superior in all her storied fury to make me feel weak, but it didn’t work out that way at all. Insignificant, sure, but almost never did I feel weak.

Time on Lake Superior has made me feel strong and smart and more capable, not less. I respect the Lake and my size in comparison, but being on the Lake, feeling the waves and the water push, and pull, and stretch far below you, feeling my boat respond to the turn of my hips and covering distances by the power of my own body—that has made me feel very strong. We live in a world that judges us each by a different set of standards, where some people get head starts and have an easier time than others. That dissolves on the Lake. On the Lake the test is the same for each person, and you either sink or swim.

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Live footage of yours truly on an island that was totally named after me (sorry to everyone who is sick and tired of that joke)

In late July, voices buzzed around me, but I wasn’t really listening or trying to. I was watching the lighthouse on the southern tip of Madeline Island blink patient and steady against the dark. The water was warm for Superior. I dove in deep and the world went silent, the shouts and laughter of friends quieted by the Lake. The Milky Way reached across the sky. Night air ran down my back in a shiver. The people around me had been drinking, but I was intensely happy to be sober, because I felt everything so sharply and completely.

I am sure that no one has ever left Superior’s waters not feeling clean and whole.

The primary place we lead kayak tours is the Mainland Sea Caves. Sometimes it feels a little hollow—we take people to what was once Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) land so that they can take a selfie and check it off their bucket list. Other times it doesn’t feel so hollow. Other times it feels like you are facilitating a genuine connection to nature and respect for the Lake, as well as it’s people and stories.

The first cave is called “the crack”. I have heard that it is the remains of an ancient fault line. You can paddle on a thin vein of Superior deep into the Earth, where turquoise water meets layered red cliffs, laced with streaks of purple and gold. You can ease far back in to where the air smells like Earth and has it’s chill. Tendrils of fog linger at the water’s surface. If you paddle far enough back it feels like the rock might not give you up. I think this one is my favorite cave.

I was told that we’re all looking for some specific feeling; something that makes us really feel alive and inspired, but we all find this feeling in different ways. A few people snickered during this telling, but I was on the edge of my seat. It makes some sort of simple sense. Different things and different paths can bring us to the same feelings. It’s much easier to understand other people’s choices and differences when you understand the feeling, even if you don’t recognize the path.

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A sunrise I only caught cause I had been up puking up brie cheese in a pit toilet, an objectively low place to be.

Sometimes, when the wind is just right, the lake turns a blue green and churns, speckled with whitecaps. She’ll look like a sea monster might come up, or like a Viking ship might have sailed her. Sea spray, bright green, and the Lake feels alive.

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Water, probably. I’m not sure.

In late July I received the best compliment of my life.

I had been talking to a woman about my various plans for life now that I was out of school and she grinned at me.

“You’re a bit of a wild thing aren’t you?’

I laughed. “I’m not sure anyone has called me that before.”

Still, I hoped I was.

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A sea of plastic kayaks, otherwise known as “divorce boats”, cause there’s no way you and your SO can agree which way you want that thing to go.

The best place to feel the full power of the Lake might be that thin trail above the Sea Caves. People travel miles to see the caves but they should really travel to hear them. There’s a deep heaving, the sound of water slamming deep into the caves, regular and cathartic. Mist on your skin, the sea is a beautiful green gray, all the leaves rain brightened. The wind howls around you. The forest dances, the sea beats, powerful and regular below you.

I want to shout into it, and celebrate the raw, real beauty of a storm on the sea, and me, just a speck on the cliff side.

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This is some live footage of the beach that has collected at the bottom of my car.

Paddling itself is both intensely physical and intimate.

You are in a boat that may as well be a bit of driftwood in the sea. You move forward by the creak of your own arms and the turn of your own hips. You feel the water stretching below you and feel every turn and twist of the current. The water can be so cold that it hurts. Light mist, low clouds. The Lake beats steady on the beach; you move steady forward. In at the toe, twist, out at the hip. Repeat. Deeply physical. The lake will rock you to sleep long after you have left.

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Look ma, it floats!

Every year, people die in this Lake that I love. That is a fact. This year, three small kids and their father died in an ill-fated crossing, probably due to hypothermia. So how do we reconcile loving this lake with the damage that it can do? It’s easy to want to blame people for the mistakes that they made and the safety gear that they didn’t have, but experience informs decision making. So can you really blame people for not having the experience to make a safe decision? It hardly seems like loosing your family is a fair price to pay for ignorance. But I suppose no one ever said life, or the Lake was fair.

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Basswood Island, around 5pm, the same day that family capsized between Michigan and Stockton.

It’s a popular opinion that nature is indifferent, and maybe it is, maybe that’s true. After hearing stories about people swept off piers and shipwrecks, who am I to say any different?

But when someone who had been guiding for years on Lake Superior told me stories of close calls, he paused to laugh and shake his head.

“The sea goddess must be a good one,” he said. “You can mess up a lot of little things and still get by, or one big thing, and still make it work. You have to really mess it all up, that’s when you’re in big trouble.”

So I suppose it’s possible that the Lake isn’t indifferent at all. I suppose it’s quite possible that she feels things deeply—approximately 1,333 feet deeply.

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What I Learned in Four Years as an Undergraduate Student

So after four years of hard (eh) work on a Bachelor’s of Science in Neuroscience, additional major in Professional Writing, I am graduating! As I have been M.I.A. from this blog, and somehow actually have a few readers to explain myself to, here is a nice wrap up post summarizing the finer points of my undergraduate education and the parts of my life that usually don’t make an appearance on this primarily hiking/travel-oriented blog. Namely, what I “learned” as an undergraduate student.

My first instinct is to say that I’ve learned literally nothing in my four years at a university. I don’t know jack about chemical reactions, and I still can’t write, and I’ve spent four years here and completely achieved my goal of not learning a single thing. In fact, my knee jerk reaction is tongue-in-cheek to say that I am actually much less intelligent than I was four years ago.

But I realized that’s not at all true. I did learn a lot in the classroom. I know about brains, and I actually can write a little bit, and in four semesters of Latin, despite my best efforts to stay completely ignorant to the language, I did pick up a phrase or two.

Still, the most important lessons I learned in my four years working on my Bachelor’s Degree I did not learn in the classroom.

The best lessons I learned in the real life part of college, the part where you slowly start to become an adult. Or rather, you realize “adult” is just an arbitrary word.

The best lessons I learned over the last four years came hard and slow, in lows and highs. They did not involve scantrons, or textbooks, and they weren’t always crystal clear, and honestly still aren’t.

My freshman year I volunteered in a nursing home, writing the stories of people with alzheimer’s and dementia so that they could read their own memories even if they couldn’t remember. That taught me what loneliness looked like, and the importance of small gestures. Loneliness is not knowing your family, your friends, your own stories, and only really knowing you’re dying. That’s what loneliness looks like.

Shortly after, I went to work in the Emergency Room. I learned a lot of lessons in my three months there, but the most important thing I learned is death is indiscriminate. It applies to older people with heart conditions who have taken bad falls, yes, but also the six year old you made a rubber glove balloon for the hour before. Indiscriminate. Almost simultaneously to this lesson I realized that the medical field wasn’t one I wanted to work in.

Working several jobs while taking classes taught me about balance, and working as a writing tutor for freshman I learned that a lot of times writing isn’t really the thing first year students need the most help with.

I learned that sometimes you need to skip class to help people, and sometimes you lie without a second thought to protect them.

On a study abroad, I learned how to work the train system in the UK and that sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. I also learned that the same tense situations that lead to bad blood for some people can make best friends of others. We also learned unequivocally that in a heist of 11 girls, I am one of the two who breaks off to shit talk the others.

I learned that you can absolutely change who you are and that you aren’t the words anyone choses to describe you— you pick your own words.

I learned that you can do a bad thing but not be a bad person.

I got some of the best advice I’ve ever received—

“you deserve to be loved the way you want to be loved.”

I learned that not only is being kind more important than being pretty, but being kind is more important than being smart or right.

I learned to shake things off, and how to really, actually take criticism.

I learned how to take a fall, and failure, and how to turn the other cheek.

I learned that better or worse are usually an opinion; there is only different.

I learned that there are no good people or bad people, and that we are all only a sum of our actions. I learned how to apologize and be really wrong.

I learned that other people will surprise you, and never to underrate or underestimate the importance of good friends.

I learned the power of images, and words, and actions.

I learned how to write; I learned I am still learning.

I learned I know nothing at all.

And all of this is a lot more important than conjugating latin verbs and memorizing chemicals. 

I’ll leave you with this photo, and a promise to never take myself too seriously:

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Because, honestly, college is overrated.

 

2017’s Greatest Misadventures: On the Water, Trail, and Road

2017 has been an eventful year for me. I had the opportunity to experience some really amazing things, from interning at the Kellogg Biological Station to playing around in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Glacier National Park. Social media tends to give the impression that all things—travel, our personal lives, camping—are always fun and easy, not ever super embarrassing.

I assure you this is false. For every awesome experience I had, a tent leaked, or I ended up leading a group friends down the wrong trail, or I made myself look like an idiot. (Okay, the last one happens more often than not.)

So, in order to fully appreciate 2017 in all her beauty and grace, I have complied a list of my most ridiculous, humiliating, and funny travel/outdoor stories and misadventures from 2017.

The time we ran for a flight

On the way back from a family trip to Whitefish, Montana, my dad, two younger sisters, younger brother and I all found ourselves running through the Salt Lake City airport to try and catch a flight back to Detroit.

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Me, my three younger siblings, and our dad shortly before our airport run (photo by mom)

Our previous flight out of Portland had been delayed, and we had about five minutes to make it across the airport once the plane landed to catch our next flight. We looked ridiculous (but like, relatable) running through the airport, and even more ridiculous when we ended up making the flight and all high fiving each other, but I don’t think I have ever been happier to be anywhere in my life than I was to be on that plane.

The time we could not find the trailhead, so we got lunch instead

In early January 2017, my sister Claire and I went out to go find and snowshoe the Brown Bridge Quiet Area near Traverse City, Michigan, but for the life of us we could not find the trailhead. Both Apple and Google maps sent us in the wrong direction, and I couldn’t figure it out from the map I had saved to my phone.

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Brown Bridge Quiet Area

Eventually, we found a trailhead that we thought (incorrectly) was the trail we were looking for, and snowshoed there for about 20 minutes before deciding it was too cold and we were lost. We packed up, and rather than workout, we opted for sandwiches.

The time I forgot my stupid camera battery

I think I reached peak self-loathing when I screwed my camera into my tripod at Torch Lake for sunset, went to turn it on and nothing happened. Because I had forgot my camera battery. On the table. Three hours south. For better or worse, I went without a camera for the remainder of that trip.

I missed out on a lot of photos by not having my DSLR, tripod, and telephoto lens, but I did pick up quite a few things about how to get the most out of a phone camera, and I got to hike a lot lighter had way more room in my pack for extra food.

The time some fisherman thought I wouldn’t know the difference between a bass and bluegill  

This one is my favorite.

I was out paddle boarding alone on a small lake near Bellaire, Michigan when I stopped to make small talk with some guys who were fishing. They were probably in their late 20s, and seemed nice enough.

I told them that if you go around the next bend, and then stick to the West side of the lake until it narrows, it’ll open up into a smaller cove that has lots of fish; not many people fish there, because it’s harder to find.

One of the men narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “Were the fish long and fat or short and small?”

I frowned for a second, not really sure what he was asking, until I realized he literally was asking if I knew that they weren’t fishing for bluegill. I tried not to laugh.

 Unreal, I thought to myself.

“There are large and smallmouth bass, and there should be some trout too. The DNR stocks the lake.”

The time I ate a fistful of Lake Michigan pebbles

I knew this one was going to be embarrassing long before I got anywhere near the water. My friend Kasidy and I had decided to try out Lake Michigan surfing through Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak.

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The sort of pebbles I would be eating

I took one look at the nine foot boards, the two-foot surf, and the line of rocks just beneath where the waves were breaking, and could see exactly where this was going. We had a great day— both of us ended up getting up for more than five seconds at a time, and I took some of the least graceful falls of my life.

The best part of this was when I was sitting out in the water, straddling the board, I turned into a small—and I do mean small—wave. The wave pushed the board up under me and smacked me clean in the nose, cutting me off mid-sentence. Real cute.

Doing that stupid Dune Climb again

There is no hike in the world I have as deep a resentment for as the Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb. It’s only about four miles out to the Lake and back, and it’s a sort of inaugural, very “Michigan” hike, but four miles up and down over hot sand is kind of the worst.

This spring, early enough that we thought maybe it would still be cool out (wrong), my good friend/roommate Hannah and I went out to tackle the hike and “initiate” her to Michigan. Han is an Illinois native, but she’s spent the last four years living in the good old mitten state.

Nothing super eventful or particularly embarrassing happened, I just included this because I want you all to know how much I hate that hike.

The time we couldn’t find parking in Glacier

There’s a pretty clear lesson here, and it’s two-fold. The first part is that you’re better off visiting national parks in the off-season; the second is do your research. When visiting Glacier National Park, my family spent almost two hours aimlessly driving the crowded Going-to-the-sun Road after trailhead parking in the Avalanche Lake area was too full—we got up earlier then next day, getting into the park at 7am instead of 11am, and had no trouble at all and the park nearly to ourselves.

The times we didn’t see stars at dark sky park

This was a regularly occurrence for my friends and I in 2016 as well as 2017. There have been several occasions where we have trekked out to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park and had clouds and no sky at all.

Clearly, we haven’t really learned any lesson here, because we keep doing it, but we always have a good time up on the beach.

The time we almost literally died

(This is an overstatement.)

This August, when on an early hike through Glacier National Park, my father, sister and I spotted a grizzly across the Lake from us. There were a few other people at the lake, and the bear was probably a hundred yards away, which was really too close.

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The freaking bear through a telephoto lens, before we realized it was a grizzly

We booked it out of there pretty darn quick. The bear probably wasn’t interested in us, and bears don’t really seek out humans, but grizzlies are fast, huge, and not something to mess with.

The time I sunburned exactly one shoulder

 I love kayaking, and being on the water period, and because of that I always end up staying out longer than I really planned to. On this particular occasion, my dad and I were out on Torch Lake one morning, and decided to paddle South to the mouth of the Torch River—about a 6 mile trip.

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Torch Lake and the tip of my kayak

I realized about halfway back that not only did I forget sunscreen, but because we headed back around noon, the left side of my body had been facing the sun the entire trip. I’ll leave the burn lines to your imagination.

The time we got followed

This misadventure is less fun, but still important.

Last March, my friend and I were hiking at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, when some men, probably not much older than us, caught up to us at an overlook started whispering to each other and looking at us. We didn’t think much of it at first, and quickly moved onto the next overlook to give them some space, thinking that they were waiting for us to leave. Rather than stay at the overlook a normal amount of time, they immediately followed us, continuing to whisper and look our way.

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Not pictured: creeps about to follow us back up here

Maybe they weren’t talking about us, and maybe they didn’t mean to follow us, but sometimes you just get a bad vibe, and better safe than sorry.

I pointed out their behavior to Estee and we turned and went back to the previous overlook. They followed again. At this point, we turned and walked quickly back to the car, the two men following us the entire way. The parking lot itself was crowded with other hikers and tourists, and they went to their own car. We hung out there for a while, waiting for them to drive off first.

There’s a lesson here, and it isn’t about us being paranoid, or about how women shouldn’t hike because it’s too dangerous. If you are a male, and you are interested in a female in any setting, be aware that while you may think behavior you exhibit is harmless, it can still seem threatening. This is not an attack. I’m telling you this because if you are actually interested in someone, you should respect them enough to not want them to feel threatened and behave accordingly.

As a general rule, talking to someone is 100% less threatening and creepy than following them.

The time I let the 15-year-old drive

On our way up to camp at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, my brother reminded me that I promised he could practice driving once we got off the highway. He had had his learner’s permit for a while, and was objectively already a pretty good driver.

I handed him the wheel, and started going through our trail plans for later in the day.

“Hey when do I turn?” Joe asked.

“Um, it should be a right at the next intersection.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, totally,” I lied.

So while I was deep in a trail guide, Joe made a right onto some small, flooded seasonal road. We hit a pothole and I looked up.

“Are you sure this is right?” he asked.

“Let me see the map.” It sure looked like this road got us where we wanted to go, and I was fairly confident my car could handle it.

We drove down the sketchy seasonal road for about five more minutes before it narrowed and I had Joe turn around and head back to the highway. After that, we abandoned iPhone directions and stuck to the Michigan road map.

The time I almost got frostbite

 The original misadventure, and the first post I wrote,  was probably the dumbest thing I did all year.

Rather than drive to the shoreline at the Headlands Dark Sky Park, Estee and I opted to walk a mile in. We had been out in the cold hiking all day, and weren’t too worried about the temperature. Nevertheless, we piled on a few blankets and extra layers.

Lake Michigan was frozen and beautiful, and the sunset was one of the best I’ve ever seen. My mistake was forgetting that once the sun goes down, the temperature drops quite a bit. That, and letting snow melt into my boots, soaking my socks. (I had a spare pair. Soaked those too.)

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Sunset at Headlands Dark Sky park, not featuring my frozen feet

I didn’t realize I couldn’t feel my feet until I stood up and we started to pack up for the walk back. Then my feet started to burn—not just tingle, and not even feel cold. My feet felt burnt, like I had accidently stepped in the campfire. Burnt and bruised—It hurt to walk, and we had a good mile to walk back to the car.

Lucky for me and very lucky for my toes, we ran into a nice couple who offered to drive us back to my car. I was in pretty bad shape; Estee had taken both my bag and hers, and was helping me walk; we were happy for the ride.

In hindsight, it’s kind of a funny story, though at the time I was mostly just embarrassed that I hadn’t planned better.

Since then, I’ve been more careful about the cold, but even more so about the wet; it’s one thing to be cold, but being wet can lead to hypothermia and frostbite a whole lot faster.

 

Got any misadventures, or just adventures from this year? I’d love to hear them! Write in the comments below or shoot me a message. Wishing everyone a safe end to 2017, and a great start to 2018! May you avoid all frostbite.

 

 

Lakes, Mountains, and More: Five Montana Adventures Worth Repeating

This past August, I visited Western Montana with my family. We stayed in Whitefish, Montana, driving into Glacier National Park and stopping at the National Bison Range, as well as playing in Whitefish Lake. From day tours to hikes and paddling, we had a blast in Montana! 

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Canoeing Whitefish Lake

Paddle a Mountain Lake

Our very first night in Whitefish, my sister and I grabbed a canoe to watch the sunset. Usually I prefer kayaks, but we had just as good a time exploring the lake in a canoe. It ended up being pretty windy, so we counted it as our workout for the day.

We paddled on Whitefish Lake, but the lakes in Glacier National Park are also great to paddle on, as well as Flathead Lake to the South.

Drive the Going-to-the-Sun-Road

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Lake MacDonald along the Going-To-The-Sun Road

We did Glacier’s Going-To-the-Sun Road twice—first through the Red Bus Tour, and then a portion of it on our own the following day. The Red Bus Tour was awesome—it took nine hours, but we saw a large portion of the park. While a part of the tour was spent sitting, we stopped regularly to explore scenic pullouts and hear about the park’s history and geology.

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Birdwoman Falls from the Going-To-The-Sun Road

The Going-To-the-Sun Road takes you from West Glacier’s Pacific-Northwest-like forest, up to the alpine region near Logan Pass, then back down through the St. Mary Region. We followed the road up to the Many Glacier Region as well, where we saw three bears (one black, two grizzly, in the span of a half hour).

Swim in a Lake

 

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Swimming in Whitefish Lake

It wouldn’t be summer in the mountains if you didn’t jump into a lake so cold that you couldn’t breathe! One of the best days of this trip was taking a moment to relax and swim in Whitefish Lake.

Go for a Hike

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Tree-hugging on the trail

Glacier National Park offers some of the best hiking in the world—in Many Glacier the trails to Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier let you hike out to real glaciers, and the Hidden Lake and Highline Trail are almost always listed as some of the best hikes offered in the country.

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Avalanche Lake and the Three Sisters Falls

We opted for the Avalanche Lake Trail, which was about a 6-mile hike through the old growth forest, past Avalanche Gorge, out to Avalanche Lake. (We saw a grizzly here but it’s fine).

Visit the National Bison Range

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A Bison in the National Bison Range

Often passed over for Glacier, the National Bison Range was actually one of our favorite stops! As a wildlife refuge, it offers a 19 mile a scenic drive. We saw pronghorn antelope, coyote, mule deer, and bison!

 

A few more photos from the trip:

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Many Glacier; the bottom right of the photo before the tree line you can spot a grizzly 
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The family- minus mom, the photographer, jumping for joy in the National Bison Range
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A bison who did NOT want her photo taken
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A black bear in Many Glacier 
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St. Mary Lake, filled with smoke from recent wildfires
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Waterfall along the Going-To-The-Sun Road

What Makes You Happy

I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.

This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.

This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.

“Do what makes you happy”

People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.

I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.

My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.

A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.

A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.

“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.

Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.

I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.

Avalanche Morning

5 am wake up calls always seem to hurt—I hate leaving a warm bed, I hate the feeling of my feet hitting a cold floor. But if I have my alarm set for 5, it’s usually for a good reason.

My good reason this particular time was trailhead parking in Glacier National Park—parking you won’t find much later than 10 am. Our goal was to be inside the park by 7.

I made myself a cup of tea, and eased myself into hiking boots before waking up my dad and sister. We made it inside the park around 7:30, with another half hour drive from the West Glacier Park entrance to the Avalanche Lake trailhead.

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Old growth Cedars along the Trail of the Cedars; sibling included for scale

It was drizzling for the first time in a while, and smoke from the recent wildfires lingered in the Lake McDonald Valley while we tooled along the lowlands of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The entirety of Glacier National Park seems exceptional compared to the surrounding mountains—the creeks are bluer, the flowers bloom longer, the cliffs are more dramatic. Glacier seems a place apart. A little under 6 miles roundtrip, the Avalanche Lake out and back hike is no exception.

We started walking on the Trail of the Cedars, an old growth forest. From here, we split off alongside Avalanche Creek toward the lake.

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A waterfall in Avalanche Gorge

Walking alongside the creek gives you the first view of Avalanche Gorge—where Avalanche Creek and its electric blue water have cut through red stone. Between the soft drizzle and the bright colors, it didn’t feel like the dry and very yellow Montana we drove through to get here.

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The edge of Avalanche Gorge

After playing near the gorge for a few minutes, we moved up the trail, running into a couple. They told us that an earlier hiker had seen a black bear about a half mile up the trail.

In general, you won’t see bear on the Avalanche Lake trail if you hike in large groups around midday (11am- 3pm), when the trail is heavily trafficked. On the other hand, it’s hard to find parking at this time. Bear sightings and encounters are far more common in the mornings and evenings. Between easy parking and bear risk, we went for easy parking.

We didn’t see the black bear hiking up the trail, but we did meet up with a larger group from Chicago, as well as the hiker who did see the black bear.

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Avalanche Lake as the sun poked through some clouds

By the time we reached Avalanche Lake it had started to rain for real, but it felt good. It was the kind of rain that feels clean, the kind of rain that you would play in as a kid. I snapped a few photos and we watched the clouds move in and out of the mountains across the lake.

It was after the rain let up that we noticed the bear. Only about 100 yards from us across the lake—too close—a large, dark bear was rustling around in the bushes.

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The grizzly we saw, before we realized it was a grizzly (*taken with telephoto lens)

At first we thought it was a black bear, and weren’t too worried. Don’t get me wrong—black bear can be dangerous too, but a black bear is a lot more afraid of you and seemingly predictable than a grizzly.

Then we noticed the hump—the difference between a black bear and a grizzly is not coloring. It’s the hump on the back.

And grizzlies are a lot scarier than black bear.

“One way to tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear is to climb a tree,” a tour guide had joked with us earlier that week. “If the bear follows you up and eats you, it’s a black bear. If it tears the tree down, then eats you, it’s a grizzly.”

I thought about that while we talked in low voices and made our way back to the trees.

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Mountains along the trail

We walked back a little nervous at first—because if that grizzly got curious it could easily follow us up the trail before we knew what happened. But it didn’t (obviously, we’re all alive and well and un-mauled).

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Mule deer along the trail

On the way back, we ran into a family of mule deer, probably looking for food from us. As cool as it was to get that close to the deer, it was kind of overshadowed by the fact that the animals were too close to us for their own safety, and that baiting wildlife with food led to these animals being too trusting.

It started to rain for real when we hopped back on the Trail of the Cedars, thick warm drops that rolled off of leaves and made everything look very green. People complain about rainy hikes, about how they are cold and muddy, but I honestly think I prefer the rain.

Trail Guide: 5 Adventures in Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is known for its waterfalls, clear water, and of course, it’s cliffs. There are many different ways to experience the rocks, ranging from boat tours to backcountry hiking.

Last week, my brother and I spent a few days kayaking, hiking, and adventuring in the area. Here’s what we did, and what we would recommend!

Kayak Lake Superior:

Kayaking Lake Superior and the Pictured Rocks has always been a bucket-lister for me, and I am glad to have had the chance to check it off. Lake Superior can be unpredictable and choppy—record wave height on Lake Superior was 51 feet recorded in Whitefish Bay.

That being said, only sea kayaks should be taken out on the Lake—not canoes or recreational kayaks. Before you kayak on Lake Superior, check out the information available on the NPS site.

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Pictured Rocks sea caves from the water

Rather than rent a kayak, we opted for a morning tour with Paddling Michigan. The waves were an average 3 feet when we went. We had a blast, paddling to Miner’s Castle from Miner’s Beach, then past that along the cliffs a ways further. Through Paddling Michigan, you can take a smaller, “soft” adventure tour—this is what I did with my younger brother, and it was plenty—or you can take longer, full trips or even overnight trips down the Lakeshore.

***EDIT: After a summer working as a kayak guide in a different region of Lake Superior I WOULD NOT recommend this company. The guide ratio was near 1 guide to 12 people which is UNSAFE in this region, especially with a 3 foot average wave height. You sit approximately three feet out of the water in a kayak. With a three foot wave average you may not be able to see the paddlers next to you. IN ADDITION we were FAR too close to the cliff line and hung out in a rebound zone for at least 30 minutes, where 3 foot waves rebound to 6. In fact, unless you have full safety equipment, can self-rescue, and are familiar with the weather and wave patterns in the region, I would recommend you just not paddle the Pictured Rocks at all. To my current knowledge, there is no outfitter there that I would recommend that follows appropriate safety practices.

(Further evidence: I asked my guide at the time what happens if someone flips in those conditions, and he replied “I have a T-rescue.” We were all in tandem kayaks, and it should be noted that you literally cannot T-rescue a tandem. T-rescues are used for single kayaks. There is a completely different rescue for a tandem kayak. So this dude had no idea what he was talking about.)

So instead of risking hypothermia and Coast Guard rescue, just hike the rocks instead, or maybe consider hiring a private guide. Either way, do your research.

Kayaking offers a different perspective on the rocks, and the chance to see sea caves and waterfalls. You can get a similar experience from a boat tour, but a kayak gets you closer to the rocks and gives you the sense that you explored the rocks, rather than took a tour.

Visit Waterfalls/ Overlooks:

A good place to start water-falling is Miner’s Castle road. Here, you can stop at Miner’s Falls, a one and a quarter mile round trip hike from the parking lot. From here, driving farther down Miner’s Castle road, you can visit the Miner’s Castle overlook. If it is a hot enough day, Miner’s Beach is just off the same road too, and is a good place to picnic and swim.

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Munising Falls in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Just outside of Munising is Munising Falls, a short hike with two different viewing platforms.

Chapel and Mosquito Falls can both be reached from the Chapel-Mosquito area trailhead, with a three mile round trip hike to Chapel Falls, and two miles round trip to Mosquito Falls. The two can be hit together in the Chapel Basin Loop hike, detailed below.

Hike the Chapel Basin Loop:

We took an afternoon to do this hike, but could have easily taken longer with all of the great places to take in the view or stop and swim! The loop is 10 miles roundtrip if you want to hit Chapel Falls, Chapel Beach, Mosquito Falls, and Mosquito Beach (NPS map linked here).

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View on the Chapel Basin Loop, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Chapel Falls is a cool stop, with an opportunity to get up close to the falls before they plunge of a rock shelf into Chapel Lake. The trail continues along to Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach. This is sometimes treated as an out and back to the Beach, where you can swim both in Lake Superior and Chapel Creek. Chapel Creek meets Lake Superior in a small waterfall that you can slide down and play in.

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Natural waterslide at Chapel Beach

From here, you continue down the beach along the North Country Trail toward Mosquito Beach. This portion of the hike is along the cliffs, and one of the coolest stretches of trail I have ever hiked. There are countless scenic overlooks, and almost all of the 4.5 miles are along the cliffs.

When you reach Mosquito Beach, the trail becomes a little more difficult to follow due to poor signage and about 800 side trails leading to the beach and to the backcountry campsites. You are going to want to cross the Mosquito River, then follow the sign posts to Mosquito Falls rather than continue hiking on the North Country Trail.

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Sea caves and Lover’s Leap Arch along the Chapel Basin Loop

Rather than hike the full loop like we did, I would recommend cutting Mosquito Beach and Falls, and hiking out to Grand Portal Point from Chapel Beach, and then returning via the Chapel Lake spur from Chapel Beach. The majority of the impressive cliffs were all before Grand Portal Point, and all worth seeing twice. After this point, the cliffs are less impressive, and the trail is muddier and less maintained. Hiking from Chapel Falls to Chapel Beach, then on to Grand Portal Point and then backtracking until the Chapel Lake Spur makes for a 9.5 miles roundtrip hike.

Hike to Spray Falls:

We hit this hike around 5 pm made it back to the car around 9, and the lighting was beautiful. Even in August, the trail was empty, and the Coves, a worth stop along the way to Spray Falls, offer some of the best swimming in Lake Superior.

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Spray Falls as viewed from the North Country Trail

Spray Falls plunge 70 feet from the cliffs into Lake Superior, and can be viewed from two different overlooks as well as from behind.

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A beach at The Coves, as viewed from the North Country Trail

We started at the trailhead at the Little Beaver Creek Campground. From here it is a 1.5 mile hike out to Lake Superior, and then 2.5 miles out to Spray Falls, making for an 8 mile out and back. Check out the NPS maps here (scroll down; it’s the second map).

Swim in Lake Superior:

Lake Superior is cold even in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t swimmable! The water feels great after a long hike.

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The south end of Chapel Beach, viewed from the North Country Trail

One popular location is Chapel Beach—a 3-mile hike in on the Chapel Basin Loop (above) offers a sandy beach, waterfall to play in, and backcountry camping sites nearby. Accessed from the same trailhead, Mosquito Beach is a rocky rather than sandy beach and can be slippery.

Miner’s Beach off Miner’s Castle Road is a popular kayak launch point as it is sheltered by cliffs, and an easily accessed swimming spot. From here, you can hike east to Miner’s Beach Falls (or Elliot’s Falls), a small waterfall on the Beach.

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Swimming in the crystal clear water of The Coves

My favorite swimming spot we visited was The Coves, along the North Country Trail on the Spray Falls out and back. The water was clear and calm, and there were even good spots to jump off rocks into the water.

 

We didn’t get a chance to backpack, do a boat tour, or surf, but all of those are other adventures to have in the Pictured Rocks area. Check out the National Parks Service’s more comprehensive list of activities here.

Like the Pictured Rocks? Interested in a similar experience? Check out the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore!

For an updated Pictured Rocks Guide click HERE!