Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Adventure Vacation, September 9 - 12, 2011

It was supposed to be a 2½-day trip up north to bike the Sparta-Elroy Trail for Ann and me, but she revealed she’d taken Monday off work and could leave at noon on Friday, so I hatched a last-minute plan to turn a biking weekend into a total adventure weekend.

All week we coordinated what to bring, and we both made probably the most important investments in our well-being for this trip: cycling shorts and gloves. They may have saved our butts, literally and figuratively. Of course, we were overstocked with food and supplies, but that’s the way I do things.

We left Kenosha at a little after 2:00 on Friday, September 9th, on our way to Wilton, Wisconsin. I’d looked into campgrounds in the other towns along the trail and some were too touristy and expensive as just a place to crash, while others were too minimalist and we actually wanted things like a shower, fire pit, and shade. I returned to the campgrounds I used last year at the Village of Wilton Campgrounds because it had the best of both worlds. We arrived just before dark, set up camp, got firewood, made a fire, and drank margaritas in preparation for the long day ahead of us. It was my first fire made solely by myself, and I was quite proud.

We woke up around 8 when our neighbors (who’d been great in number but not in noise) all seemed to be rising at the same time. I made some oatmeal on my propane stove, which took forever, packed our snacks for the ride, suited up, and realized it was after 10:00 by the time we were leaving for Sparta. We had a shuttle to catch at 10:30, and it would be a race to get there on time. The directions were a little unclear from Google and I didn’t know the bike shop that was shuttling us was actually before town, so we went into town and had to turn back around, killing crucial time, and as we pulled into the parking lot, the shuttle was leaving. Sadness.

I cannot say enough nice things about Speed’s Bike Shop, in Sparta, Wisconsin. Let me tell you why. When we arrived 10 minutes late, we signed up immediately for the next shuttle at 12:30, but I was concerned we’d have trouble getting back to the shop before they closed at 6. I went over my time calculations with the kid who was running the counter. 32-mile trail, riding about 8 - 10 mph on average, that’s 4 hours to do the distance, plus an hour of walking through the tunnels, maybe some time to stop for a meal, and 6 hours sounded about right for time to go from one end to the other. He agreed. The 12:30 shuttle sounded okay if we parked our car out of the locked area of their parking lot and we wouldn’t have to be back before they closed. We, clearly, underestimated the time it would take to shuttle us to Elroy, though, but wouldn’t discover this until later. As we were making our way slowly out of the store, a man I thought of as Mr. Speed came out and asked if we wanted to leave right then. His wife (?) had returned with the other shuttle truck and could take us right away. He didn’t want to hold the 10:30 shuttle for us, but they’d take us on our own immediately instead of making us wait until 12:30. We didn’t hesitate, ran to the car, got our gear, loaded up onto the shuttle, and by 11 we were on our way to Elroy on our personal shuttle. Speed’s rocks! I love those people.

But, what we forgot to calculate was the time it would take to get to Elroy on the shuttle. At noon we arrived and my 6-hour estimate was going to be tight for us because we hadn’t moved the car, and when Speed’s closed at 6, they’d lock my car in their gated lot, so we were going to HAVE to make it in 6 hours. We got our trail passes and a flashlight in Elroy (because in the rush to load up, we left the lantern in the car), made one last potty stop, took bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pictures of our eager selves, and laughed heartily as the shuttle we missed arrived as we were about to hit the trail. We actually made it there faster, though we left a half-hour later. It all worked out in our favor after all.

And, we were off!

It’s amazing how chipper and happy we were at the beginning. We gleefully said hello to everyone we passed, stayed together on the trail all the time, chatted, enjoyed the weather (though the scenery isn’t as cool on that end), and were simple, happy cyclists on a Saturday morning ride. When I stopped to take pictures, Ann turned around and hung out while I snapped, looking pleased. Oh, look at the canopy of trees. So nice.

That didn’t last, I should warn.

It’s about 6 miles (seemingly all on a slight uphill grade) to Kendall from Elroy. We visited the train depot museum for a minute, took a potty and water break, and rode on.

Tunnel #1 was 3 miles from Kendall. The first one is always the most fun, just because it’s the first one.

At 1,694 feet, or roughly ⅓ of a mile, it’s a nice enough break from riding and a cool respite from the cloudless sunny sky, which was about 83º outside and probably 50º in the tunnel.

No bats, sadly. I did wish to see some since I had a flashlight with, but alas, a batless walk.

At the end of the tunnel, we had a brief snack. 9 miles down and 23 miles to go.  A nice couple came out and I offered to take their picture together if they took ours, and they jumped at the opportunity.  Here we are, still upbeat and happy, having survived the first tunnel.

Our next destination was Wilton, where we were camping, and we agreed we were going to skip stopping for lunch in one of the towns, but instead would stop in Wilton to use the flush toilets and break briefly at our campsite. Well...

Wilton is 6 more miles from the tunnel, and while it’s somewhat downhill, it’s not nearly enough. We rode into our camp, took a washroom break, and proceeded to collapse.

Ann lounged on top of the picnic table while I rearranged the awkward stuff I was hauling on my various carriers on the bike, filled the tires with air, and took a major risk by detatching the pump and leaving it behind at the camp. Once sitting, we had a hard time getting back up again to get going. It was 2:30 and we made good time, 2½ hours to the half-way point. We weren’t sure how long we lounged at camp, but later on we figured it was probably an hour, which cost us dearly.

I knew it was uphill to the next tunnel, but only 3 miles. Me being bigger than Ann, I flew downhill, having gravity and inertia on my side, and even in my top bike gear, I was barely pedaling and probably cruising at over 25 mph. Ann wasn’t too far behind, but she never got around me. However, size being what it is, I struggled a whole lot more going uphill, and in the beginning, Ann would slow down and ride with me. Once we took our luxurious break at Wilton, it was every man for himself.

The Every-Man-For-Himself philosophy was introduced to me by the person who named it, my friend Susy.  She'd described this phenominon when talking about the hike she took with her friend and husband many years ago, descending into the Grand Canyon, and then ascending back out.  They all started off together, keeping pace with one another, talking, having a good time.  But at some point the physical challenge took over.  Exhaustion gave way to isolation.  Survival took priority over helping.  They each found their own tolerable gait, could not go any faster or slower, and pretty much separated and were on their own for the entire remainder of the hike.  From this I knew that each person had to carry their own supplies.  One could not carry the water, while another carried the snacks and another carried whatever else you needed.  If it's physically challenging, people will separate and it's every man for himself.  (This, of course, is barring any real injury or problem.)

There were a lot of people on the trail that weekend, but we passed a whole lot more cows than cyclists.

Going uphill to Tunnel #2, Ann was way ahead of me. I stopped a few times for pictures, too, so that did not help reduce the distance between us.

We caught up at the tunnel and walked through. This tunnel is about the same length as the first, but it is bricked in and not as cave-like. Still no bats. Again, she was walking at a brisker pace than I was and she passed me and came out ahead at the end. We had a very quick snack, rejected the dry fig cookies and the dry cheese crackers, opting instead for peanut M&Ms and apples, which should have alerted us to the dehydration we were both facing, but we shrugged and went on.

Tunnel #2 to Norwalk is only 3 miles, and these are downhill, so it’s a breeze. I passed her with ease and she caught up when we were finally on level ground. There was a small underpass tunnel to ride through when I was in the front, and I yelled back to her that we had a small tunnel, and then that there was a big puddle. I slowed approaching the puddle and tried to swerve more to the right to avoid the deepest part, but Ann didn’t realize I was slowing for the puddle, so I ended up running her into the tunnel wall. She managed to get road rash (or is this tunnel rash?) on her right arm, and though at the time she claimed to be okay, she spent the rest of the trip pouting and whining about it to make me feel guiltier.

Despite her wound, we realized we began to live for downhill. I can’t speak for her, but for me it was because the uphill was getting to be so horrible that I could hardly convince my legs to continue.

Norwalk is the black squirrel capital of the world. Did we care? No. We rode straight through without even glancing around because it was getting later and we were pressed for time. Also, we were heading uphill again for another 3 miles to the next tunnel. Neither of us cared so much about saying hello to other cyclists anymore. They were lucky to get a grunt or a nod. In fact our attitude was very much screw them. Those cyclists were all happy riding downhill, waving madly, all teethy with grins, and we were going uphill, fighting our own bodies just to continue on, and if we had any spare energy, we’d have whacked those jerks with something heavy. We rode together for a ways because she slowed down dramatically as she was texting friends, and this distraction had her going at my pace, which was disheartening. But when the texting stopped, she left me in the dust.

I caught up to her at Tunnel #3, the longest, darkest, wettest tunnel of them all. At 3,810 feet, which is just under ¾ of a mile, this tunnel was the only one I hadn’t done before, and since it was the last one, we were happy to get it over with. Plus, it was 5:00, and knowing we had to be back to the store by 6, we weren’t in a position to dawdle too long.

Inside it was as if we’d stepped into a raining cave. Water dripped down from the arch almost the entire time, and with the colder temperatures, it left us freezing. The dripping is from a spring that was tapped while building the tunnel, and this provides constant rainfall as you walk in the pitch blackness. Toward the end, Ann said she heard bats, but I could not find them with my flashlight.

About the last 20% of the tunnel the conditions changed and a dense fog added to the blackness. The greenery from the trees outside the tunnel and the moss growing on the walls inside added a green-ish hue to the fog, and it was such an eerie scene, I had to take this picture of Ann walking into it.

At the end of the tunnel, we were cold, wet, hungry, thirsty and so exhausted we just had to stop. The information we had was that the last three miles were downhill, which meant the five before it were a mystery. We were dreading it. More peanut M&Ms, more tries with the fig cookies but rejected due to dryness, an apple, trail mix and water were consumed. I kept staring at the crystal-clear water draining from the tunnel. It was so beautifully clear, so clean, so inviting -- I was so dehydrated.

As we munched, an older man and his wife emerged from the tunnel, eyed our snacks and said something jokingly about coming upon us at the right time to steal our food. I laughed and offered up some of whatever we had, listing our bounty, but he just laughed and said no thanks, that we passed the test and answered correctly. Then he imparted the best wisdom to us: the last 8 miles of the trail were downhill.

I thought I’d cry. Downhill? The whole way? He nodded, almost entirely downhill.

I shouted, “I LOVE THE END OF THIS TRAIL!” He laughed and said I gave the right answer again, and he and his wife rode off ahead of us.

And for a moment, I loved them too.

With hope in our hearts, we got on our bikes and rode. Downhill. And for once, we were the ridiculously happy downhill cyclists waving madly, all teeth, giggling and enjoying ourselves. It was bliss. And though it wasn’t 8 miles of downhill entirely, it was probably at least 6, with the last two being either even or only a slight uphill grade. It felt like we were flying! And it wasn’t just that our spirits soared with this downhill ending, it was truly the most beautiful part of the trail, forested and raised high above the surrounding area, cool and stunning.

The mile markers counted down for us. I remember being ahead of Ann and seeing the 5-mile marker, throwing my hand out to the side and yelling, “FIVE MILES!” which seemed to be nothing in the scheme of things. The next marker said four, three seemed to be missing, then two, then one. We knew we had to cross the interstate and that marked the end of our ride, but we also had to climb the steepest hill yet to get to the top of the overpass, and it seemed a cruel joke to place this at the end of a 32-mile trail. Ann rode ahead and waited for me at the top. I remembered yelling that my legs just didn’t want to do it, but I forced them. At the top we didn’t even pause but kept going, and on the other side was John Street, and I could see Speed’s Bike Shop.

We’d done it! We made it! I screamed in triumph, threw my hands in the air, and coasted into the parking lot right up to my car.

It was 5:56. We made it just in time!

Our bikes were loaded on my car and we slipped inside to crank the air conditioning. We’d discussed the idea of splurging on a big, meaty, celebratory meal when we finished, and a local steakhouse was just what we were in the mood for, despite being sweaty, filthy, and dressed like people who’d been out riding all day. Sparta, Wisconsin doesn’t have much in the way of celebratory fare, I’m afraid. And I wanted red meat!

Much driving around, circling, scoffing and irritation left us pretty much with pizza in a bar, or a creature unknown to us called Ginny’s Cupboard. Well, we didn’t have much else to choose from, so we went inside.

The young man at the counter asked if we were there for ice cream and we both said in unison, “No, we need food!” He nodded and handed us menus as we wandered and looked for a table. I excused myself to the washroom while Ann rested at the table, then we traded.

The young man from the counter asked how far we’d ridden.

I said, “Is it that obvious we’ve been biking?”

He said we looked exhausted and apparently Ann already told him we did the trail. With that, he sat down in the empty chair at our table and said he felt exhausted too.

I said, “Oh, then join us!”

He shook his head sadly and said he wished he could, but no. We sighed and gave our order. It wasn’t steak and potatoes and vegetables like we wanted. It was a mozzarella, pesto, roast beef panini and soup, but he highly recommended the vegetable bread, and we both were too tired to think much, so we ordered his recommendation. It was good, too. And we ate every last crumb of food that was handed to us, and talked about margaritas and banana boats back at camp. I’m not sure how much water we drank at the table, but it must have been a good amount.

He engaged us in a little more conversation, and when I told him we did the entire 32-mile trail from Elroy to Sparta, he was amazed. This kid was impressed with us, which almost made me laugh. He mentioned the girls at the next table had said they did 17 miles on the trail and they were exhausted too, eating ice cream. I wanted to pshaw their accomplishment, but I decided they’d done an amazing distance too, and good for them. I know how tired we were at half-way and if we had stopped for ice cream at Ginny’s, we would’ve told everyone how exhausted and we were as well, and that we earned that ice cream. And they surely had. Just as we’d earned those sandwiches, chips and soup. It might not have been a steak, but we promised ourselves a steak Sunday night instead.

Back at camp I made another fire and attempted banana boats after we took long showers. It was a cool night, but not as cold as the night before, and we were too tired to stay up late talking again. Banana boats weren’t quite done, but we ate them anyway, and margaritas we just skipped altogether.

Ann said she was setting her alarm for 9:30 am, assuming that was enough time to get up, eat, and put a small dent in packing before she was going to be at church at 11, and I agreed. However, it was 10:30, which gave us 11 hours to sleep, and we both laughed and said we’d be up sooner.

Her alarm went off at 9:30 and it woke us both up. We slept 11 hours. Granted, we both woke up throughout the night, and she even went to the washroom and snacked at around 7:30, but it didn’t last and she was back asleep within a few minutes. 11 hours of sleep. Amazing. We earned that, too.

The odor of cow poop spurred us awake more than anything, as they were grazing in the pasture just behind our tent. Cows were losing their appeal quickly, and I was eyeing them with hungry stares as well. I wanted that steak.

I packed up the car while she was at church and we broke out of camp a bit after noon.

The next destination was Mirror Lake State Park. Ann had a brilliant idea to stop in town before canoeing and get that steak we promised ourselves the day before, have it for a late lunch, go canoeing, and then do margaritas and banana boats back at camp at the end of the night. This was, as I said, brilliant, and I drove down Main Street looking for somewhere good to eat. When I was at Mirror Lake earlier in the year, my friend David recommended The Cheese Factory for a meal, and I couldn’t remember why, but the recommendation stayed in my head, so as we drove down Main Street, Ann and I decided to give it a shot. Cheese is dairy, this was Wisconsin, it had to have some steak or similar fare on the menu, right? Wrong.

We sat at our tables and looked over the menu. Vegetable quesadillas. Hawaiian pizza with ham tofu. Pasta in meatless sauce. It took a few minutes but we both came to the realization that in our quest for steak, we’d picked probably the only strictly vegetarian restaurant in town, possibly in all of Wisconsin. Great! I’ve never walked out of a restaurant before, but I very nearly did here. We wanted steak, and instead we sat at the table laughing at all the soy and tofu and the very obvious lack of steak. Plans changed again, and we decided to stay. I had a veggie burger and Ann had the grilled vegetables. Dessert was fantastic, though, I have to say. Key lime pie for me and Ann had something called a princess cake, which looked exactly as it sounded like it should. We decided to postpone again and look for red meat for dinner.

I had some cell phone drama and spent a while on hold with my provider as we drove to the campground. She checked us in, and after a little teasing by the attendant, we got the campsite I wanted, picked up some firewood, and drove to our home for the night.

It was getting late, so we dropped the new bundle of firewood off at the fire pit, put up our ticket on the post showing that it was occupied, and drove straight to the lake to do our canoeing.

Ah, canoeing. A new joy in my life!

We got our canoe, our paddles, our PFDs, and despite a slow and awkward start, we were launched on the lake. I guided us down The Narrows, which is a super-scenic area leading to Mirror Lake.

It’s amazing, this area of the dells.

Our canoe wanted to bank right, and despite all the effort made to steer it left, it continued going right almost the entire time. My arms were so exhausted from going right while trying to paddle left that my fingers started to blister up right away. Not to mention that my paddle was way too long for me and that made rowing tough. The wind and current on Mirror Lake sent us back down The Narrows rather quickly, and instead of fighting it, we coasted.

Back out on the main part of the lake, we headed off in another direction for a while. We passed ducks, people fishing, and a cormorant sunning himself.

We continued until we reached the high-up overpass where 94 looms across the span of the dells and it was so sad that we decided to turn back.  Such an ugly monstrosity.

Back at the pier we tried to cooly get out of the canoe, but that didn’t work. Fortunately the water wasn’t even a foot deep, because when I tipped us over, there was no chance of drowning. We laughed, but it was pretty embarrassing. On the brighter side, we were out of the canoe safely, if not wetly, and we were only charged another $6 by the attendant, who had to bail the water out.  (Her bailing and charging us extra seems fishy to me, for I know how to dump the water on land and it would've been quite easy, so I'm not sure if she was jerking me around.)

When we got back to our campsite, we discovered our brand new bundle of firewood was missing. Someone took it. So, back I went to the boat rental lady, who now hated me, to buy more firewood. She was so offended that someone would steal our firewood she said we should go straight to the ranger and report it. I tried to do what she said but their building was closed. Oh well.

We managed to get our camp set up quickly, but I also noticed the rear tire on my bike was flat. It hadn’t been flat when I was riding the trail, so at some point while on the back of my car it went flat. Another sigh.

Despite the distractions, I was acutely aware of how remote we were all of a sudden. There were other campers at a site about 100 yards away, some on the other side of the shower building, up over the hill and beyond, and no one on the other side of us for a long, long way. And someone came along and took our wood?

We showered because we were stinky from the lake water and again decided to give going to town for a meal a try, hoping to find red meat. After much driving and searching, I leaned toward Cracker Barrel, knowing they at least had a country fried steak or pot roast, and Ann’s GPS lied to us about its location. Twice. But we found it anyway.

At the restaurant we ordered and then tried to laugh off all the mishaps of the day. Plus Ann made me feel extra guilty about the boo-boo on her arm. It worked.

Stuffed and ready for bed, we drove back to the campsite in the dark, started our fire, and Ann made us some banana boats as I tried to keep some flames going. The new bundle of firewood had only huge wedges of oak, which didn’t want to catch or stay lit, so I spent about an hour fanning the heck out of it just to get some small flames. When the banana boats were done, we scarfed them down and let the fire die out, then headed off to bed.

What I didn’t tell Ann was my growing unease about the situation. Firewood stolen; extreme seclusion; two women camping alone... it just suddenly made me feel really vulnerable. At our last campsite in Wilton, we were surrounded by other campers, and while it didn’t lend to much privacy, we were never really in any danger unless they all ganged up against us. Here: different story. Additionally, I kept smelling cigarette smoke, but there was no one around and it made me think someone was in the woods watching us and smoking. Waiting. Ugh. It scared the daylights out of me. I started carrying my Swiss Army knife with me, with the screwdriver pulled out so that I could grip the handle in my fist and the screwdriver protruded from between my fingers. It doubled as both a fist-strengthener, and a weapon to stab when I punched. I knew telling Ann would freak her out more than me, so I kept it to myself. We got into the tent, set up our sleeping bags, and said good night, but I was awake for a long time, knife at my side, listening to every noise in the woods. Much as I tried to not show it, I was afraid that she saw how tense I was. Acorns would drop and I’d hastily tell her it’s just an acorn, that we were surrounded by oaks and not to be afraid. She nonchalantly said okay and drifted off to sleep while I was startled by every acorn, every leaf, and every rustling sound I heard.

About a half-hour later, I heard the distinct sound of movement around the campsite, grabbed my glasses and the knife, and saw a dark shadow moving around my car. The noise was familiar, though. It was a raccoon.

I said softly, “Are you still awake?”

She lied and said yes.

I asked if she had the flashlight, and she reached around for it without opening her eyes and handed it over. I shined it outside the tent and saw the tail of a raccoon scurry under my car.

She seemed to awaken with the noise and me shining the light outside. I told her it was just raccoons, and she got up on her elbows to look out the tent door with me. As we did, a really little raccoon started walking across the tarp I had at the door of the tent. I held my breath so as not to scare him, but he looked into the tent, saw us, and kept walking by but much faster. It had to have been a family because they made the most adorable noises, and this little one was too small to be out on his own. The one I saw by the car was much bigger, so clearly it was at least two, communicating with little noises, and probably related. Aw.

Ann promptly went back to sleep, and I relaxed a little thinking that if there were multiple raccoons investigating our campsite, the likelihood of a serial killer stalking us as well were pretty slim. I mean, wouldn’t the serial killer spook the raccoons? As long as we had raccoons, the serial killer was probably not out there.

Except that I was still smelling cigarette smoke on and off. In fact, I smelled it on and off until about 4 am, which is when I finally took some Benadryl and fell asleep. 8:00 came way too fast, then.

In the light of the morning I felt a little silly laying there with an open knife next to me. I may be projecting this onto her, but when I told Ann about the serial killer and standing vigil all night with my Swiss Army knife, she seemed a bit relieved I didn’t tell her the night before. Perhaps it would’ve been two of us up all night with knives. That would not have been fun.

We ate a quick breakfast, tore down the camp, packed up the car, and were out of Mirror Lake before noon, adieu to their firewood-stealing serial killers, tippy canoes, and friendly raccoons.

More phone drama had me on the line with my provider all the way to Mt. Horeb. In Mt. Horeb we went straight to the Cave of the Mounds for some afternoon spelunking. The problem was we were both completely worn out. 11 hours of sleep after a 32-mile bike ride wasn’t enough. A full night of sleep the following day, with much food eaten and an afternoon canoeing did little to replenish our energy. We were like the walking dead.

Cave of the Mounds is beautiful. The property above ground and the cave below are truly spectacular. I’ve been in other caves and it’s a lot of shapeless rock with some cave formations, but this cave seemed to have cavern after cavern of formations, more than you could take in all at once. It was fantastic.

When we were done with the tour, we both smiled that we were satisfied and quietly made our way back to the car. We were too tired for enthusiasm.

The drive back to town was quiet. We stopped at the chocolate shop in Mt. Horeb and I picked up a couple items, but there wasn’t much to choose from so we left rather quickly. From there we made our way past Madison and stopped for lunch in a Culver’s in Fort Atkinson. Again, we were pretty quiet.

As we continued south, the conversations were few, the yawns were many, and we slightly cheered on arrivals at locations that marked our nearness to home. Mentally, we’d already gone through the entire car and could unload her stuff in seconds flat, so when I pulled into her parking lot, we lept from the car, doors ajar, organized and methodical. She brought a load upstairs as I unloaded the bike. Then I helped her with the items for her storage. We were done in minutes flat.

We both wished the other a nice nap and a relaxing evening, and I headed home. I was in my driveway by 6, unloaded by 6:15, laying in my bed by 6:30.

It was marvelous.

Adventure vacations are fantastic, but coming home and laying in my comfy bed is the best part.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Bayfield Dogsledding, February 25 - 27, 2011

What do you do in the winter when you’re tired of shoveling snow, braving the cold, and being cooped up in the house for weeks on end, spending even more time in slower traffic and warming up your car for the dreaded commute?

You harness up some gorgeous dogs and go for a dogsled ride!

Ann and I started talking about going to Ely, MN to do an all-day dogsled trip, got curtailed by practicality and canceled the plans, then Ann sent me a text one night asking what weekend I was thinking of going again. And so began the search for a dogsled adventure for the two of us for the last weekend in February.

Ann found Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing in Bayfield, Wisconsin, and as soon as I realized it was Bayfield, I was sold. Having been to Bayfield twice, it’s a place I won’t hesitate to go if given an opportunity, and I already knew where we should stay, what restaurants to eat at, and what great side trips we could take. Kismet!

Two weeks before the trip, we went shopping for warm gear, having appropriate snowpants and down coats already. Someone incredibly sweet had given me an cute, warm, wool hat for the trip, and we went looking for wool socks and various other necessities. We were partly successful, coming back with wool socks, fleece facemasks, I got snow goggles and Ann got a knit Kermit the Frog hat with earflaps. The excitement was building as well as our wardrobes.

By 8:30 on Friday the 25th, we were headed for I-94 and north to Bayfield!

The drive was long, longer than Google Maps said, and the 7½ hour ride turned into 11, with a half-hour break for lunch and an hour break for dinner.

Somewhere outside of Stevens Point Ann said, “That rock looks just like a bear.”

I turned to look and much to my astonishment, it WAS a bear. On a hill on the other side of the highway was a young black bear walking in the snow. As I turned to look at him, he turned his head toward us and we both knew for certain at that point that it wasn’t a rock, or a sign, or any kind of lure or decoy -- we saw a young black bear! Having seen one up close in Canada a few years ago, I knew how big a bear around a year and a half old would be, and since black bears have their cubs in January or sometimes early February, I figured this little one was about a year old. It was an incredible way to start the trip!

We drove through towns like Fond Du Lac, Oshkoshs, Wausau, and Hurley, and once at the WI/MI border, I jotted over into Ironwood, MI to see Hiawatha, the giant Indian. He must not get a lot of visitors because they didn’t plow the snow on the path leading to his moccasins.

Since our library started having an annual Pow Wow, emceed by Jim DeNomie, who comes from the Bad River Chippewas, I’ve learned a lot about the culture and my fascination only grows more and more. I recognized the floral bands on Hiawatha’s wrists are a Chippewa tradition, and whenever I’m in reservation country, I must make a stop and pick up wild rice from a store, harvested by the Indians on that reservation. Legend says that the Anishanaabe were instructed by The Great Spirit to go west from the East Coast until the found the food that grows on water, and when they reached the Great Lakes and found wild rice, they settled in the area and it became both a staple food and a symbol of their destiny.

Somehow I got turned around in Hurley or Ironwood and didn’t end up back on Hwy. 2, though I swear I followed the signs. I blame this on confusing Wisconsin signage, which is devised in such a way as to get you to waste gas and visit more places than you intended to. Sneaky state.

So, we took 77 instead and found ourselves in Ashland anyway. This was the next planned stop so we could dine at the Deep Water Grille for dinner. After a bit of driving through town, I finally located the place, being farther north than I remembered it, and once inside, the familiar warmth and fuzziness it gives me took away all my concerns.

Soup, salad, and crabcakes, as well as some of their homemade root beer (best I've ever had!) for me and a rose petal martini for Ann. It was cozy and delicious, just the way I remembered it.

As we were leaving and heading north into the peninsula, merely 30 or so minutes from Bayfield, we both noticed something: there wasn’t much snow. Sure, there were piles on the sides of the roads from the plowing, but beyond those piles, there wasn’t much to be seen. Patchy spots were here and there, but mostly it was dead grass and brush. This concerned us a lot! How does one dogsled without snow?!

In Bayfield, we unloaded into room 24 at the Seagull Bay Motel, one of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed because the rooms have enormous picture windows that overlook Lake Superior and Madeline Island (the largest of the Apostle Islands), and they have back doors that lead to shared balconies which lead to a beautiful yard area and a trail into town.

Ann was excited, despite the fact that it was after 7 pm, and we’d been on the road for most of the last 11 hours. Here she is jumping on the bed.

And here she is showing off her forgetfulness at bringing only one of her slippers, which is just as well because her socks didn’t match either. Oh, shhh, I wasn’t supposed to tell.

We were freezing and set the heat at 75º, then fell fast asleep by 11. In the middle of the night it was so hot in the room that it woke us both up at the same time, and I had to turn the heat way down and open a window. It was -6º outside and snowing, and despite the open window, it remained warm in our room until we got up the next morning.

No grudges, though. LOOK at that sunrise view from inside the room!

And you can see down the beach to the marina from the balcony.

Still concerned about the lack of snow and the meager ¼-inch dusting we’d received overnight, we wondered if the dogsledders would call us to cancel due to poor conditions. It worried us both.

We were up, dressed, and out the door by 8, headed to the Egg Toss Cafe for breakfast where we loaded up on sustenance for the day and figured that the shops in town would be open by 9. Nope. Thus, we headed to the Red Cliff Indian Reservation to do some hunting for some wild rice and perhaps visit the gallery and gift shop. Nope. Don’t open until May. While driving, though, Ann spotted more interesting wildlife. A red fox!

I followed him, in reverse, down this remote street, until he was obliterated by pine trees lining the road, but what a cool spotting that was!

We drove back to town by 10 and found that some shops had opened, and by 11 we were completely done shopping and having terrible bouts of fatigue and sleepiness, so we stopped at a coffee shop for fuel. A bottle of Boylan cola and a gigantic chocolate chip cookie did it for me, and Ann had a cup of chai and a gigantic peanut butter, chocolate chip cookie. Slightly rejuvenated, we headed back to the motel room to gear up for our adventure.

Toe warmers, hand warmers, wool socks, silk thermals, snow pants, snow boots, tank top, turtle neck, down coat, cotton glove liners, big ski gloves, wool hat, fleece facemask, snow goggles -- my outfit. I looked like the winter version of the Unibomber, and I could hardly move. So we stripped off some layers and headed to Wolfsong.

We arrived and were greeted by the owner, John, who welcomed us and invited us inside to prep. Here, there was snow. It was very obvious we’d have no problem with the dogsledding.

Once inside, we were introduced to our guide, Jen, and so began my first slight girl-crush. After we signed releases, they rejected our lame, urban boots and gave us each a pair of mukluks to wear, which we both immediately fell in love with. Jen helped us get them on, as mine would not go up over all my layers, and we got them folded down so that they fit under my snowpants, and Ann’s were so furry that she wasn’t sure how they worked. These things were amazing! The next time I have a few hundred dollars laying around, I’m getting a pair of these boots!

Then we were advised to make sure we had snug liner gloves, which I did, but Ann had only a pair of leather gloves, and she was given some wool liner gloves instead. On top of that, we were given a pair of musher mitts, which are like oven mitts only double the size and cushion, also made of wool and leather. They were so thick, it was hard to bend your hand, but that’s not what they are for.

There were two other women, Cathy and Julia, who were from Wisconsin and Ohio, one of which had already gone out on the sleddogs this season earlier and was back for more. Also, there was a father named Eric and his son Bobby. Together, with John and Jen, we comprised the group of mushers.

We walked over to the lines where the dogs were kept and encouraged to visit with the dogs.

My love of mukluks immediately forgotten, I went down the lines and greeted and petted each dog, and I think there were something like 25 or so of them waiting for the run, and I loved them all. They were so excited, not necessarily to see us, but knowing they were going for a run. What incredible energy they bred!

Some had these amazing eyes, one brown/one blue. Swoon!

This pair had a congenital disease, either glaucoma or something similar, that caused them to go blind. They’d previously been leaders, but being blind they could no longer lead, but were excellent followers in the team still. Blind sled dogs! And gorgeous.

Some were standoffish...

Some were curious...
Or maybe it was the odd hat
 Some were stoically dignified.

And then there was Starbuck, who stole my heart. My face was almost covered in licks, and he showed no sign of tiring of being so affectionate. When Ann found her way over, he licked her as well. In fact, anyone who paid him any attention became the victim of a slobbering of their lifetime. That dog is awesome.

This was not just a ride on a sled. This was a lesson in mushing, unlike I expected.

We were given instruction on using the sled, the parts of it, what the parts did, how to slow it down, how to stop it, how to anchor it if we had to disembark, how compliant and incompliant the dogs can be, what to do if you tip your sled...

John, instructing us
And all kinds of important things we understood and would likely forget once out there and in the moment.

Ann, practicing running and jumping back on the runners
We were also warned that the trickiest spot was right at the beginning of the trail, which had a hard turn to the right, and if we managed to stay upright and in control through that, we’d be okay. I heard “dun-dun-dun” in my head and no idea that was foreshadowing.

We harnessed the dogs...

We hooked them to their lines on the sled, and we addressed who would be driving and who would be riding while on the run.

Ann with Jen's leaders, Horton and Cindy Lou

I volunteered to do both, to switch off, because I really wanted to be able to take pictures while out there, so Ann and I were the only pair not to ride for the entire 90 or so minutes of the trip. The amateurs each got a sled, while Bobby, the little boy, rode in John’s sled in the rear, and Ann rode in Jen’s sled in the lead. I followed Jen, and Julia, Cathy and Eric followed me. Quickly we were off, and holy crap, they shot off so fast I was gripping the handle of the sled for dear life.

There is a track between the runners, the runners being part of the sled on which you stand, and the track is made of the track of a snowmobile, which flaps between your feet and you step on it to slow the dogs down. There is also a brake right in front of the track which will stop the sled cold and the snow pick that will anchor the sled if you have to get off it and you don’t want the dogs running away. We practiced using each of these while standing still, but once in motion, it was hard to remember it all.

We were warned to put a foot on the track through all the turns, when going downhill, or to slow down the dogs if they were getting too close to the team in front of you. However, what I didn’t realize when they said this was that one foot (the one on the track) would be significantly lower than the other, and one leg would be responsible for holding up all your weight while doing a tiny squat. Additionally, all your weight would be concentrated on one side. And on top of that, the dogs go WAY FASTER than you think they’re going to go, so you’re holding on for dear life to the handle, or bow. I tried to remember to not lock my knees. I tried to remember to not lock my arms and squeeze the hell out of the bow. I tried to ride the track just enough to keep the pace, balance my weight on the sled by leaning in the opposite direction of the one foot I had on the runner, and cling to the handle so I didn’t fly backward.

It didn’t work.

As we rounded the infamously hard right turn, something like 10 seconds into the run, I bit it. The sled toppled to the right at the end of the turn, though I was banking hard and falling through most of the turn, and through some miracle of gravity and luck, the snow pick fell out of the holster and into the snow, anchoring the sled so that the dogs didn’t leave me in the dust. There I was, laying on my side, disoriented, panicking, embarrassed, and I got up and remembered what to do, amazingly. Jen kept shouting questions of concern, was I okay, stuff like that, and I knew that I was fine, but just shaken. I got back on the sled, foot on the brake, picked up the snow pick in the proper manner, holstered it on the sled, and then took a deep breath and was ready to try again. I wonder if my fall slowed everyone behind me down enough that they didn’t fall too, because they all stayed upright, but they’d been WAY behind me even though we’d just gotten started, so they rode their tracks hard to keep their pace at a crawl. Lesson learned.

The adrenaline from it all kept me numb from the fall, though later I would find that I had taken some damage. Unfettered, I soldiered on, and the exhilaration was so intense that I completely forgot the fall altogether.

We went over tiny wooden platforms covered in snow over creeks that looked like dangerous little pieces of ice that we traversed. We went up gigantic hills, down gigantic hills, over lakes, through the woods, across fields, and not only did I learn how to control the sled and the dogs, but I got so confident I was encouraging the dogs to go faster and keep right up with Jen, which was thrilling. Jen and I left the other teams so far behind, we could not see or hear them anymore. (Well, Jen probably could, but it felt a lot like we lost them.) Frequently we stopped and had to wait for everyone. My dogs rocked! Sam and Blackberry were in the lead, with Lightning and another dog whose name I forgot but love just as much were riding wheel. Four dogs to pull this big sled and me amazed me, and I knew we were going 15 - 20 mph in some areas, easily. Jen’s team had 7 dogs, the other amateurs had 4 dogs each, and John’s sled had 6 dogs. Jen and John had more dogs because they carried a rider and thus more weight.

At one point, Jen asked if Ann and I wanted to switch, so we did. Ann struggled getting out of the sled, but made her way over, and I gave her a quick warning to use her body weight to keep the sled balanced and use the track a lot, but not too hard because it’s really strong. Ours had screws in addition to the track, and just touching it on the ground with our toe caused the speed of the sled to drop immensely, and Sam looked back each time as if to ask what was wrong.

Riding in Jen’s sled was just as cool!

She, clearly, was a much better musher, and the ride was smoother and easier. The view from a sitting position put my head just over the dogs, and it was the perfect setup, for both pictures and enjoyment.

With Ann driving our sled, Jen and Ann again were way ahead of the rest of the pack. We stopped when we made it onto the lake, which was where Jen had to strongly instruct the dogs to follow the trail they didn’t not want to go on, and I wondered if the others would make the turn without us so close to lead them.

Julia and Cathy made the correct turn left on the trail for the shorter route (haw, not gee), but Eric’s team went right (gee, oops, not haw) and John had to help him turn his team around and get on the correct trail. And we didn’t know we’d lost anyone until we stopped on the lake and waited, but it was a while before the rest showed up, and even longer before Eric and John caught up.

Waiting, on the lake
Then Julia’s sled bit the dust as she banked and made contact with the lake. She, too, was okay, probably rattled, and didn’t react quickly. Jen kept yelling instructions to her, but she either wasn’t responding or she was taking her sweet time because Jen started getting a little impatient and telling her to hurry. Meanwhile, Eric was so enthralled with talking to his son in the sled behind him that Jen barked a few times at him to keep his hands on the handle at all times and keep his foot on the brake. He was totally flaking out and you could see she was getting a little irritated with his insolence. So, between Julia crashing and taking her sweet time fixing matters and Eric brushing off his instructions and being reckless, I think this put Ann and me in Jen’s good graces, despite my wipeout. I’m sure she wasn’t as irritated as it seemed -- just trying hard to keep everyone on track and safe -- but I felt like I was in grammar school again and the whole class was acting up while I sat in the front row smiling sympathetically at the instructor who was sighing and growling under her breath.

While riding in the sled, Jen talked to me almost the entire time, telling me about the dogs, answering my questions, and I felt so lucky to be sitting in her sled, getting all this extra information and insight.

John and Eric's teams rounding the other side of the lake.
At one point she offered to switch and let me drive her team while she rode. I was tempted, but it was intimidating enough to be driving behind her, the expert. I didn’t want her riding in my sled and feeling the amateur making mistake after mistake. AND I didn’t want to dump her out of the sled if I fell again, so I told her I was just as happy riding and taking pictures. She laughed, said they do this all the time, I shouldn’t feel like it was a risk, and they wouldn’t experiment on me if they didn’t know it was safe. Still I declined and continued riding, which was just as well because we were almost done.

Going downhill was the most fun!

As we rounded the bend and I recognized the cabin in the distance, I knew it was over and was quite sad for that. The 90 minutes flew by like it had been maybe 10 minutes. Absolutely the fastest hour and a half of my life!

Once we were anchored with our snow picks, we disembarked and they encouraged us to take pictures of each other with the sleds and the dogs, and they took pictures of us in pairs as well.

After the photo session was done, we were released, though we were also welcomed to stick around and help feed the dogs and put them back in their yards, which we all happily did.

Jen, pouring food into the bowls

We got the dogs off their lines, chained them back up, took off their harnesses, and then the food came.

This sparked excitement among the dogs like the approach of the mushers did earlier. They were baying and barking, pulling on their chains, tails high and wagging, awaiting their meal.

We all stood around chatting about the dogs as we watched them eat, marveled at the creatures and loved them just as well.

They all had distinct personalities, and in the short time we spent with them, we were starting to get to know them all, too. Horton and Cindy Lou led the team Jen drove, and they were amazing. How tiny Cindy Lou makes for a co-leader with her larger littermate, Horton, I don’t know. And we learned about the dogs from the same litter having themed names, like the Seuss group, and the teas, and the newborns from the night before, they’d discussed naming after Muppets, which was confirmed as the right choice when Ann showed up the next day with Kermit on her head.

After the meal, we took the dogs to their homes in the yard and got to socialize with them for a while again.

Green Eggs, father of the newborn pups to be named after Muppets

Even after the long afternoon, Starbuck still was the most loving and grateful dog in the bunch.

Sadly, we made our way back to the cabin at the end of the adventure, thanking everyone, even the others who mushed with us, for the best time of our lives. We peeled off our borrowed winter gear, bid everyone a good evening, and as Ann and I made our way back to the car, we both agreed that was the coolest thing we’d ever done, and the most fun we’d ever had in our lives. We weren’t even buckled in before we were talking about how soon we could return and for a longer ride.

Something interesting I realized also, as many commands as Jen gave the dogs, she never said "mush". I recognized early on that to get them going she always said, "Go, dogs, go!" When I lagged behind her and my dogs were lallygagging, I said, "Go, dogs, go!" too. And when they did, I said, "Good dogs!" just like her and found that they responded well to that. Eventually Sam stopped looking back so often and just kept on going. The lingo and the dynamics between the dogs, and between the dogs and the musher, are still surprising to me, even now, days later.

Thrilled and completely satisfied, the best $200 either of us had ever spent, we were grinning goofily and giggling uncontrollably all the way back.

I made a stop for gas on the Red Cliff Reservation and decided to ask inside if they knew where on the res I could get some wild rice. The woman looked around, found a Ziploc baggie they still had for sale, and I bought it immediately without even caring that I’d just spent $17 for a pound of wild rice until I got out the door and remembered I paid $4 for a baggie this size in Grand Portage, MN just 2 years earlier. Hmmpf.

Back in Bayfield, we visited the Wolfsong store to find that the gear we borrowed was so far out of our price range that we couldn’t even afford the mittens. I did get a thermal mug, though, and on it there are quite a few of the dogs we met and loved, so I was happy.

We returned to the motel to change back into normal clothes and head over to Maggie’s for dinner. Ann was daring and ordered a chimichanga. I asked her if she trusted a Mexican entree prepared by an old white woman in the middle of an area that probably no Mexican had ever settled. She said no, but ordered it anyway. I got a brisket sandwich. Mine was awesome; Ann ate about half of her plate and didn’t bring the rest home. I got blueberry pie for dessert and she got a sampling of odd flavored ice creams -- creme brulee (which had a burnt flavor, which sorta made sense), almond joy (which was coconutty, and she wasn’t fond of that), and lavender (which she described as being mostly flavorless but leaving an herbal sensation in her throat as an aftertaste, like she’d walked into an incense store). Again, she didn’t eat much. Too bad, because Maggie’s has some good stuff. Just not that, I guess.

We made a stop at the IGA, picked up raspberry Mike’s Hard Margaritas and headed back to the room to drink and color.

Though I’d been comfortable all day, the cold caught up with me and I could not get warm in the room. We cranked the heat and I kept on all my warm clothes, but still I felt slightly frozen. My face was a mess as well. My cheeks and nose were dried to a crisp and bright red, either from the cold or the wind, not unlike they do when I go cycling in the cold, so I had to get into a hot shower and lotion up. That’s when I discovered that my right knee had a number of smaller bruises and a baseball-sized lump on my shin was starting to darken up. I have a matching lumpy bruise on my left shin, and the only thing I can think of that would do that was something during my sledding fall. I don’t even remember how I fell, what parts of the sled I crashed into or landed on me, but clearly I’d taken some damage. These enormous bruises came through the mukluks, the wool socks, the snow pants and the thermals. I was lucky I didn’t break my legs!

It was a quiet evening, despite the margaritas, and we colored our little hearts out and then fell fast asleep before it was even considered late.

We both awoke an hour before the alarm and started getting ready to leave.

Luckly we both had leftovers from our meals out to heat up for breakfast and that saved us time and money. We took our time getting ready, packed up the car, and headed south on 13 toward Ashland.

I dropped Ann off at the church so she could attend mass and I went back to the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center.

We had returned to the part of the peninsula that didn’t have much snow, and I was extremely grateful that the land we sledded on had gotten more snow and managed to hang onto it despite the warm-up two weeks ago.
More snow on Lake Superior than on land, so much that it had to be plowed so people could ice fish properly

While waiting for Ann to finish, I drove around Ashland and took pictures of the murals which are always moving and impressive.

Heading out of Ashland, I said I wanted to stop on the Bad River Reservation to try to find more wild rice, hopefully less expensive, but we didn’t find a single place to stop other than the casino, so I kept on going. Once we got to the Hurley/Ironwood area, gas stations all over were boasting wild rice, so I ventured inside and found a pound for $5 from a small Minnesota company and bought two pounds. Cheaper than the grocery store and maybe not contributing to the Indian economy, but still, encouraging the care and harvesting of a vital local crop.

We didn’t make many stops, except for the biggest snowman I’d ever seen, in Minocqua.

Having been stuck in the car so long, when I spied an eagle on the ground on the side of the highway munching on a deer carcass, I asked if she minded if we went back for pictures and she said no. I think we were both looking for a distraction. By the time we were heading back on the other side of the highway, the eagle had switched sides and was now on the side we were driving on, luckily. I pulled over to the shoulder and took a series of pictures of this spectacular bird I so adore.



When we’d spent enough time enjoying his company, we turned our car around and decided on lunching in Stevens Point. Pizza Hut: such exotic cuisine!

We didn’t make any more stops on the way home except for gas, and we arrived at her place in Kenosha around 7 pm. We were both exhausted and out of conversation, so it was just about the perfect amount of time to be locked in a car together.

I drove home noticing that all the snow in Illinois seemed to have melted as well, and as I thought about that, it began raining. Though this was the snowiest winter in my area in recorded history, Bayfield was still waiting for winter. Their ice road to Madeline Island had been open only 14 days this year, and the ice caves on the shoreline were inaccessible due to open water, too. Ice fishermen didn’t even use their augers this winter, just hacked down the meager 4 inches of ice to get to the water and the fish. It was a winter unlike any other, tempered by the odd winds and lake behavior, creating a milder climate than their area has come to count on.

It’s an interesting era, weather-wise, and having found this passion for a winter-weather-related activity, I’m going to have to start hoping for more severe winters again. What an odd transformation this trip made in me!