Pre-Service Training Choose Your Own Adventure

Wondering what I’m up to? Bored and want to fight a goose? Look no further than this entirely autobiographic choose your own adventure blog post!

START HERE:

You are currently training to be a Peace Corps TEFL Volunteer in Armenia. You are living in a small village in a valley for training with a host family and several other trainees. Your language skills are bad. You walk a long way to get to class. But you absolutely love it.

1: You wake up at 7:30 to the sound of a crying cat. You get up, wash your face, and start to eat breakfast and realize you’re running late. Because you snoozed your alarm 6 times. You try to tell your host mom that you’re running late, but your language skills, as previously stated, are pretty much zero. Your host mom puts more food on your plate. You…

A: Quickly eat the food and run to language class. Everyone is always little late anyhow. (Go to 4)

B: Start putting away food and pack your breakfast to go. (Go to 2)

C:  Snooze your alarm? What? You’re already out the door and avoided the whole situation. (Go to 2)

2: Halfway to class you run into a goose standing in the middle of the of the road. You try to go left but the goose hisses at you. To the right is a large puddle. You…

A: Brave the goose. What’s the worst that could happen? (Go to 3)

B: Go the long way around through the puddle. Wet shoes are worth your life. (Go to 3.1)

C: Stand there, debating your options for about five minutes, before the goose ganders away on its own accord. (Go to 4).

3: The goose hisses at you, and a million obituary scenarios flash through your head. You pick up a rock (it worked on the dog last week) and the goose backs off. You make it to class on time, feeling like a champion. (Go to 5)
3.1: Your shoes are soaked, and now you have blisters and gross feet. You walk slower because your feet are water logged. And gross. (Go to 4)
4: You are late to class. You try to explain in Armenian that you have no excuse and are just bad at planning ahead. You mix up the verbs “to have” and “to eat” and confidently tell the class that you eat dog. Later, you will write on the board that you are late for the carrot. (Jump to 5).
5: Language class takes four hours, and after you run back home for lunch before another four hours of TEFL training. On your way, a group of Tatiks (grandmas) stop you and your friend to ask if you are amoosnatats (married) and when you say no, they ask if you want to be. You:

A: Play dumb. Say that your Armenian is bad and you don’t understand, and ohhhh geez look at the time! (Go to 7).

B: Tell them you know what, yeah! Yeah, you do want to get married. Who have they got for you? (Go to 6).

C: You don’t have to play dumb because you honestly have no idea what they asked. You’re smiling and nodding, and your friend elbows you to shut up because you don’t know what you’re agreeing to. You remember what amoosnatats means and ohhhh geez look at the time! (Go to 7).

6: That was a dumb choice go pick something better.
7: You are late to lunch. Lucky for you, you eat quickly and still catch the bus to TEFL training on time. In TEFL training, you are assigned your 999thskit. Your group tries to spice it up and make it funny. It’s not funny. You study student-centered teaching and wonder how a classroom that can’t be managed is going to make good classroom managers. Four hours later, you are released into the sweet, sweet freedom that is the hour of 6 o’clock. You go home and eat dinner. After, you:

A: Head out to the soccer field to crush some kids in soccer. (Go to 8).

B: Go for a walk to enjoy that golden hour lighting. (Go to 9).

C: Sit down at the dinner table so that your host family can see you studying Armenian. (Go to 6).

8: Soccer is a blast for about twenty minutes before the big kids show up and prove that you don’t have the classroom management skills you were supposed to be working on. You decide to go for a walk with six other Trainees who had been playing. (Go to 9)
9: You and your fellow Trainees are walking around being loud Americans in a narrow road with houses and fences on either side when, to your absolute delightyou see a herd of sheep. You make a joke about running with the bulls and the sheep hear. All 30 (okay 10) sheep charge (trot) at you. You all:

A: Break into a panicked run to the edges of the road and increase your volume by a few decibels, bringing people to the windows to see what the heck the dumb Americans have done this time. (Go to 10).

B: Let’s be real, A is the only option.

10: You survive the sheep charging but barely. You all leave laughing about it. When you get home, you have dinner with your host family and they help you with a few new Armenian words because they’re super cool. It comes time to shower, and after you’ve already gotten completely naked you realize that you don’t have hot water and don’t know how to do it. The only towel you have is a microfiber backpacking towel, because you’re stubborn. You:

A: Throw your clothes back on and ask for help, explaining the problem with your limited vocabulary and miming. (Go to 13).

B: Tough it out. It isn’t worth the pride hit of getting dressed and admitting you don’t know how to work the water heater. (Go to 11).

C: Tough it out, but not completely. The shower room itself is still hot, so you stand really really close to the heater and try to wash your hair with as little water as possible. Showering is overrated, anyway. (Go to 12)

11: You are cold, but clean. Fair enough, I guess. (Go to 14).
12: You are cold, and not that clean. Better luck tomorrow, maybe. (Go to 14).
13: Your host family is super cool, and always helps you out, even when you say things like “I’m going to be late for the carrot” and “one day I’d like to eat a dog”.  You are warm and clean. (Go to 14).
14: It’s the end of the day, you’re showered and more or less clean. You have a cup of tea with your host sister and study a little Armenian while she studies English. You go to bed and read for about an hour. You wake up at 7:30, but snooze your alarm. Go to 1.

(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)

Peace Corps Armenia: Raw Garlic is Spicy

I was planning on seeing my bad day all the way through, while I kicked a stone down the road in a pair of shoes not meant for distances measured in kilometers.

These shoes are my only pair that have seen three continents. I got them in Norwich after I soaked my old favorites beyond repair in a London puddle. Now, my three continent shoes trek down a dusty road in the Caucuses, soles thin enough that my toes can curl around rocks.

I think the thing about “bad days” is what lies in the definition. One whole day can’t possibly be all bad. There are 24 hours in every day. We don’t really have 24 consecutive bad hours. We have one or two frustrating, or embarrassing hours, which go on the color the rest of the day.

Kicking that stone down the road as I walked, I was okay with letting those hours dictate the whole day. That was my plan right up until I pushed through the gate and looked out into the garden and caught my host sister’s eye.

She grinned and waved me over. I set down my backpack, following the maze between plants to where she stood.

“Maddy, ary!” She told me. Come.

I followed. I had never been in the garden before. She led me out past the apricot trees all lit up orange in the late light and out to a field where you can see three mountains at once.

“What town is that?” I tried to ask.

“Yerevan.” She answered, rattling off the Armenian names of the mountains too, having me repeat. Then we moved on to the trees, tsirani tsarr (apricot tree) and popok (walnut), and she taught me the names for plants that I can’t remember, chem hishoom. Armenian sounds prettier than English, with sweet “ah”s, long “oo”s and “zh”s, or the throaty “kh” and “gh”—sounds my own metallic American accent can’t quite replicate. In the garden though, my nasally accent didn’t matter so much. Bees hummed around us, and the sun sunk low, so we were in the shadow of the mountains, and I forgot all about the bad day I had decided to have.

 

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I’ve grown to really like that long walk, the one that’s a little too long for the shoes from Norwich. I especially like it in the morning, because rounding the corner I can see Ararat. If it’s light out, and the clouds are right, the snow on the peak looks orange or pink.

I was distracted, watching the mountain when the dog jumped at me. I cursed in English, and shoved a knee at her.

Voch,” I told the dog, walking a little faster.

I’ve always liked dogs. They don’t really scare me. Which, it turns out, is probably dumb.

She growled at me. Another dog joined. Fantastic, I thought. The first dog, the white one, bit at me, her teeth snagging the back of my shoe.

“No!” I turned around, snarling at her. You know, how you snarl at dogs? Like somehow if you convince the dog you are also a dog, it’ll leave you alone? This wasn’t my thought process. I didn’t have one. Hence, snarling at the dog.

Either way, the dog backed off.

The next time I passed the house with those two dogs was in the afternoon, and I was prepared. I picked up a large stone and held it in my hand.

The dog lounged in its yard, belly up, eyeing me and the rock.

“Don’t think I won’t,” I told the dog in English, both of us knowing full well that I probably wouldn’t. “I’m not afraid of you.”

A little afraid of her teeth for sure, and I could’ve sworn she was bigger.

The neighbor girl who lived in the house popped her head out and waved at me, eyes flickering between me, the rock in my hand and the dog.

Vontes es?” she asked me, raising an eyebrow, probably wondering why the strange American girl with was afraid of a small dog napping in the sun.

I blushed. “Lav, uh, lav em!” I called back, quickly throwing the rock away.

Good, I’m great. Super normal. Not threating a thirty-pound dog with a rock.

She laughed at me, and walked with me ways. The dog hasn’t bothered me since, as if embarrassing me just that once was her end game, but I still grab a small rock when passing by early in the morning, just for the peace of mind.

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“Garlic not spicy!” I argued in broken Armenian.

My host sister looked at me like I had come from the moon. “Shat ktzoo.It’s very spicy. Mi rope.” She stood up and crossed the kitchen.

My host sister brought out a tiny clove of garlic and waggled it in my face. “Sktor?Garlic?”

“Ha, same, nooina!” I replied in the Armenglish I’ve been using around the house. My host sister’s English is excellent, so I can get away with a few English phrases here and there.

It should also be noted that I’m no stranger to garlic. Toasted in tin foil over a fire, I’ve eaten a whole clove. I’ve even eaten raw garlic before. So I thought I knew what I was getting into.

My host sister grinned at me. “So you like it then?”

“I like,” I insisted.

“All right, go ahead then. Eat it.”

“Okay,” I said in English, popping the raw clove into my mouth. Chewing. Ready to declare che ktzoo, no spicy, when I quickly changed my mind.

“Oh no,” I said out loud. “Shat ktzoo.” My eyes started to water and my host sister burst out laughing.

“Here, quick, eat some cheese,” she shoved some cheese my way, both of us laughing. I deserved that, I typed into Google translate.


I guess I don’t believe in bad days. You can get chased by a dog in the morning, and laugh later when you’re caught afraid of a puppy. Choking down some raw garlic that I didn’t realize would be spicy is pretty funny from all angles. You can be frustrated and embarrassed, and still, later that day sit in the grass in the shadows and learn the names of the trees and mountains.

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(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)

Finished? Read my previous post here or head over to the archive to navigate all posts.

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:

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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Adventure Guide: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

A ghost town in the off season, tropical hotspot in the summer, Sleeping Bear is mostly just home to me in all seasons. I ran down the dunes with my sister as a kid, and swam in the Platte River, and then out into the Lake. I have been there so many times I’ve lost count, and some of my favorite memories and places are in this park, and I hope I can help you find some favorite places too!

I’ve broken up this guide by length of stay as well as included an “adventure rating” so that you can accurately gauge what kind of adventure you are signing up for. The key for the “adventure rating” is at the bottom of this post.

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Sunset at Overlook Nine

Weekend at the Sleeping Bear Dunes

Adventure:

  • Empire Bluffs Trail: Around 2 miles round trip, this trail takes you to the top of Empire Bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Located near the town of Empire, MI. This is my favorite hike in the park. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**
  • Pierce Stocking Scenic DriveIn the summer and early fall you can experience the Lakeshore by car as well as foot!
  • Hit the beach: The Sleeping Bear Dunes are recognized for some of the world’s best beaches! With white sand and clear water, you couldn’t ask for more. Start at North Bar Lake, where younger kids can stay in the warmer water of North Bar, and move out to the big lake when ready. Empire Beach, Sleeping Bear Point, and the Platte River all offer great alternates. Rip currents area the real deal on the big lakes, so keep an eye out on windy days.
  • Hike the Dune Climb: The Dune Climb is a four mile round trip hike over hot dunes to Lake Michigan, where you can take a dip and hike back. Bring water, and shoes—it gets a little rocky as you get closer to the beach. You’re hiking through sand, up and down over dunes, which is very different than hiking over solid ground. It’s easy to get lost and it’s a harder workout than you might expect.
  • Sunset at Overlook Nine: Hike a short quarter mile from the overlook nine parking lot along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to a bluff 400 feet above Lake Michigan and the Manitou Passage. Learn about the Legend of Sleeping Bear and watch the sunk sink over the horizon line. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**

 Eat:

Stay:

  • Frankfort is a good place to base camp. Near both Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake, there are hotels, inns, and rental options.
  • Daisy Farm Campground is open April through November, near the Dune Climb and scenic drive.
  • Platte River Campground is open year round, with both RV and tent sites. Backpacking site also available.

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Late Fall at North Bar Lake overlook

Three to Four Days on the Lake

 Adventure:

  • Surf Lake Michigan: Visit Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak to take a surf beginner surf lessons, or rent surf boards, paddle boards, or kayaks. A friend and I took a surf lesson there last August and it was a blast. The people are friendly, patient, and great teachers.
  • Hike Alligator Hill: Intermediate. As many as nine miles of trails are available, but I like to head out to the Island and Big Glenn lookouts, about four miles round trip.
  • Hike Pyramid Point: Beginner. About a three-mile loop in total, but the overlook of Lake Michigan is only a little over a half mile from the trailhead. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**
  • Visit Fishtown: North of the Sleeping Bear Dunes region is Historic Fishtown, where you can shop in small shanties, get the best smoked fish south of the bridge, and appreciate Northern Michigan’s maritime history. The ferry to North and South Manitou Islands leaves from Leland!
  • Star Gaze at the Dunes: Attend one of the National Lakeshore’s night sky programs to learn about the stars and see the milky way in the summer!

Eat:

Stay:

  • Leelaunau State Park Campground is a bit of a drive from the Sleeping Bear Dunes Region, but is less crowded in the peak summer months. Campsites are close to Lake Michigan, and the park is near Northport.
  • Traverse City also a drive from the Sleeping Bear Dunes, but gives you access to the Grand Traverse Bay and the shopping/food scene of a bigger town.

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Empire Bluffs Trail

Week in the Lakeshore:

 Adventure:

  • Backpack the Manitous: Intermediate. North and South Manitou both offer backpacking loops, lighthouses, ghost towns, and wilderness.
  • Kayak/Tube the Platte River: Beginner. On a sunny day, rent a tube and tube down the crystal clear and sandy Platte into Lake Michigan.
  • Hike Clay Cliffs Natural Area: A lesser known loop with a Lake Michigan overlook and June wildflowers, this 1.5 mile trail is a great way to escape the crowds of the National Park.
  • Bike the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail: Intermediate. While only sections of the trail are complete currently, the Heritage Trail allows bikers to access various attractions in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area without a car.

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Snow in the Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes in the Winter:

Winter sees a drop off in visitors to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as people either flee South or hibernate. What that really means is more Lakeshore for you!

  • Snowshoe the Scenic Drive: The whole scenic drive is about 12 miles, but it’s about a four-mile snowshoe out to Overlook Nine. Dress warm, and wear wool not cotton. Cotton doesn’t stay warn when wet.
  • Sled the dunes: Permitted at the Dune Climb when snow covered. It’s a long hike up, but a super fun ride down!
  • Snowshoe Empire Bluffs Trail
  • Cross Country Ski Alligator Hill
  • Freeze to Death: The best winter activity in the National Lake shore is probably to get frostbite or hypothermia. #PureMichigan
  • Platte River Campground is open year round, with both RV and tent sites. Backpacking site also available.

Notes:

*None of these are affiliate links; all are honest opinions based on my experiences in the area.

**Dune erosion: every time a person decides to walk down the dunes they take sand down to the waterline with them. In the summer, several hundred people do this a day. The result is the dunes get worn down, dune grass can’t grow to stabilize the sand, and wildflowers won’t take hold. It hurts the ecosystem you are there to appreciate.

***I don’t recommend taking out personal kayaks or kayaking without a guide on the Great Lakes. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, then you need a guide. Experienced kayaker and sea kayaker are not the same thing. If you do not have a sea kayak, you should not be on Lake Michigan. There are absolutely some days when you can get away with it, especially in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it is safe always. People die every year doing this. I don’t want that to be you. More questions? Click here.

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?