Friday, March 9, 2007

Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park

It is a magical place and in many hiker’s opinions, the best backpacking in the Midwest. I have always enjoyed not only my time on the island but the adventure of getting there and back. One fall I spent a good deal of the six hour boat ride back to the mainland listening to Rolf Peterson and his wife talk about their ongoing wolf study on the island. The Isle Royale wolf-moose survey is the longest running predator-prey study in the world, now in its 45th year. Peterson has conducted the study for the last 33 years.
I found not only the wolf study interesting but also their personal life, raising a family on the island during the summers.
Hikers are lucky to see a wolf, or hear them for that matter. They blend extremely efficiently into the island’s surroundings. At night it is more common to hear the haunting sound of the loon and the waves lapping on shore seeping through the tent walls.
The Greenstone Ridge Trail is heavily used by the 20,000 plus annual visitors. It offers the most impressive views. Overlooks such as Mt. Ojibway and Mt. Franklin position hikers to see the northern end of the island and the rest of the archipelago as well as the Minnesota and Canadian shore.
Backpackers do not have to worry about bear on the island but hanging food is still a necessity if you want to hang on to gear. Squirrels will chew through your pack and eat with you but the fox prefer to steal your food and gear and eat alone. You can go home one booted if you are not careful.
It is tempting to feed camp beggars. They come in close and bold and look cute and needy. The problem is they are habituated to camps because many prior visitors have already broken the no feed rule. There is a saying on the island, "a fed fox is a dead fox." This goes for all wildlife in all wilderness areas. It is not a diet that will keep them alive during the winter months and their boldness will eventually turn to conflict—with conflict wildlife always loses.
This isolated island will only continue to be a unique ecosystem if campers are responsible in their actions. Here, as everywhere, you must remember, "Leave No Trace."
My first visit to Isle Royale was in late season, 1972. It is the time of the year that brings the least visitation to the least visited National Park in the lower 48. Even today the number of fall visitors rarely approaches 200. Yellowstone National Park has more visitors in one day than Isle Royale has in a year, and Isle Royale is the only national park to completely close down for the winter. My other backpacking trips to Isle Royale have been late summer. The end of August could be considered late season for the park. Like the western mountain parks, visitation is waning, seasonal rangers are shipping out, park concessions are shutting down, students are heading back to the classrooms and the park pace ebbs.
Another plus for late August is the fact that the weather can still be incredibly hospitable and the bugs, for the most part, have all frozen to death. You see more wildlife, you hear less noise, the campgrounds are not full and often empty.
In the crisp morning air you can expect to round a bend in the trail and find a moose belly deep in still water that is reflecting a mirror image of the shoreline bordered by white birch, decomposing aspen and cattails withering away along a rocky shoreline. This is a land of rock and wetland bog. In a healthy year there will be a couple thousand moose sharing the island with a small pack of wolves. For this reason it is wise to purify drinking water. I do not normally purify my water but on Isle Royale there seems to be a lot more wildlife using the accessible water sources. I think the chance is remote but I have heard the tapeworm stories and figure that treating water is a safe bet in this environment. That said, on my recent pack trip there I did not treat water.
The vegetation is often encroaching on the trail system. On a cold drizzly day you can expect your clothing to brush against the waterlogged vegetation and soak your gear.
The island offers a variety of trails from the well used system just outside the Rock Harbor city limits, to the rugged Minong Trail, originally constructed for fire fighting access.
By any measure, the Isle Royale wilderness is in the fullest Midwest sense—remote. Trails weaving through the park’s forested ridges can offer you a backpacking experience not found anywhere else. Paths entwine to create plenty of loop trip options. It is a safe place to wander if you don’t mess with the moose, and the terrain is gentle and friendly to those in decent physical shape.
The islands woods here harbor a lot of history for those who take the time to discover it. Late summer berries are ripe for the taking, and you do not have to worry about Yogi competition.
The experience could be your first glimpse, or sound bite (no pun intended) of a wolf—but don’t plan on it. You will find many other treasured wilderness moments along the Superior shoreline of this National Park System jewel. —Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Backpacking For Health

About one and a half million years ago, mankind learned how to stand upright and walk. So in some way, you could say that hiking was developed during the Stone Age. Nowadays, when we talk about hiking and trekking, we mean it in the pastime sense of the word. It is hard to say when walking as a means of hunting and surviving became walking for fun and recreation. Throughout the years, man has always used walking as a means of relaxation. Going for a stroll is a great way to meditate on possible dilemmas or to get away from things and clear your mind.
Walking is often a recreational activity and sport. Especially among those with sedentary occupations, hiking is a natural exercise that promotes physical fitness, is economical and convenient, and requires no special equipment.
In its most basic definition, hiking is simply walking for recreational purposes. A good summary is: "In Hiking, the Journey is more important than the Destination". Hiking could be your average Sunday walk through the park, or it could be a three-week expedition through the Andes mountain range. There are many words often used for hiking depending on the hiking conditions, hike length and terrain. Trekking, backpacking, bushwalking, trailing and mountaineering are just a few of the terms that could be seen as hiking disciplines or variations. In their most basic forms, these activities all boil down to walking. If you are able to put one foot in front of the other then you can hike.
When people think about Hiking, they mostly think of nature, the great outdoors, a backpack, and a tent. Hiking is an escape back to nature and a great way to get a good workout while forgetting all about the day to day hassles of city life.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Great Just What I Wanted To Hear!

I have often wondered what I would do if attacked by killer bees while hiking in the desert southwest. I know there have been deaths in Arizona from killer bees. So now I know. Cover my head and run for a couple miles swatting at 50,000 angry bee behinds. Most people worry about running into a rattlesnake. I know I can outrun a rattlesnake!
I have been attacked by bees and it can throw anyone into a panic. I once slapped myself so much I knocked the lens right out of my glasses. These we not even the crazed killers. These were just regular ordinary ornery buzzy bodies I disturbed.
But let’s try to keep this in perspective. As an official in New Mexico said, "There is no need to panic. Even though there are some significant AHB colonies, you still have a much greater chance of being killed by a drunk driver than being killed by Africanized Honey Bees."
That’s probably true. If I am hiking in the middle of the desert I’m never looking over my shoulder for that drunk driver. While I’m concentrating on killer bees—WHAM—I get broad-sided by some drunk who’s driving around on the trail.
"Africanized honey bees communicate to one another using scents, and tend to be quite sensitive to odors." Wonderful. I hope they are talking about perfume, because when I am hiking you can smell me coming from miles away. It has always been my bear protection.
More than 100 counties in Texas, 6 in New Mexico, 14 in Arizona, 1 in Nevada, and 3 counties in California have reported Africanized honey bees. AHB continue the northward expansion of their territories by swarming, the process by which bee colonies replicate.
"Wear light-colored clothing. Bees tend to attack dark things. Dark clothing, dark hair, any thing dark in color could set them off."
Okay, I’m good there. I usually wear light clothing while hiking in the desert and I have gray hair. You would almost have to describe me as "bee friendly" if I smelled better!

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Jeans Are Back

Backpackers are sometimes identified as a subculture of generally youthful travellers dedicated to budget travel. I think that identify comes from the fact that there were millions of us traveling on a shoestring in the 60s.
Those of us who started backpacking in the 50s and 60s more fully appreciate the major innovations in outdoor gear in the past three decades. Materials and technology continue to make gear much lighter, more weather resistant and even fashionable.
My personal gear 40 years ago was mostly canvas, wood and leather. I felt more like a pack mule than a backpacker.
They say there were some 14 million of us backpacking in the 60s. Most, if you remember, were wearing Levis. It may not have been the smartest choice for hiking but we could all afford jeans. They were as trail tough as when Levi Strauss first started sewing them for the California Gold Rush miners in 1850. They were so popular in the 1960s that Levi salespeople spent their time visiting retailers and apologizing for not being able to fill all their orders. One of the biggest drawbacks was the fact that denim took so long to dry. Wet and heavy, the pants would become uncomfortable and actually dangerous. Jeans were soon replaced in the hiking community by lighter, faster drying materials. I have been hiking for years in jungle style pants that wick moisture and dry quickly, but I have always missed the look and feel of hiking in jeans. I have searched outdoor catalogs for years thinking that surely some innovative company would sooner or later figure out how to build a blue jean pant that could wick moisture and dry as quickly as the paper thin hiking pants that are currently on the market.
From the ad above you can see that has happened. Royal Robbins® has put jeans back on the trail. The company sent me a pair and before the UPS man was out of the driveway I was testing them in the creek. Within an hour they were completely dry. Several field tests between the new jeans and my current Supplex hiking pants proved that the jeans dry as fast and wick moisture as efficiently. The bonus the jeans offer is the same toughness that denim originally guaranteed wearers.
In her book Where the Waters Divide, Karen Berger tells a story about crossing paths with a know-it-all backpacker that was wearing jeans. Her opinion was that if he knew it all he wouldn’t be in jeans. That train of thought will not hold water any longer (pun intended).
You’re going to like hiking in these pants and it won’t be just nostalgia. Nox Jeans have a vintage-wash look of broken-in jeans with the added performance benefits of wicking moisture, Coolmax®, and the shape retention and stretch of Lycra®. This is definitely NOT boring old denim.
You won’t find me on the trail any longer in paper-thin jungle-style pants that make me look like Safari Sam. I’m stylin’ in my new Nox Jeans!