My partner and I recently returned from a north woods vacation. I should know better, but I left home with very specific expectations – cool temperatures, a lot of hiking in old growth forests, plentiful wildlife, quaint little shops in friendly, small towns – my favorite almost-off-the-grid type of trip. We did find most of this – eventually, but the trip certainly was not what I planned or expected.
The trip north was relatively uneventful and I was excited when I saw a fisher (a large member of the weasel family) running across the highway as we neared our resort. I was certain this was a good omen for the trip. Twenty minutes through the National forest later and we pulled into our resort. As we drove in, a lovely sight greeted us, a cleared area that contained a very small resort on a quiet lake just as the sun was setting. We were surprised to find that our unit was an entire house facing the lake. We enjoyed the beautiful view as we unloaded the car and ate dinner.
As we settled in, the “not exactly what I expected” part began. I had been told there was wi-fi in our unit. It turns out that there was occasionally immensely slow wi-fi in our unit with the right computer when everything is working properly and nobody else is online. My partner then discovered there was no cell phone reception. Upon further inspection, we discovered that there were no phones in the unit and the only available phone was inside the main resort on the wall in a hallway. I decided that being a little further off the grid than anticipated might not be such a bad thing and let it go. I opened several of the windows and enjoyed a good night’s sleep in the cool forest air.
When I left home, I knew I was fighting some sort of virus. I woke that first morning feeling refreshed but not at my best. The plans for the day was to do some driving in the area, take in a free rock / blues concert in a local park, have dinner, and return via a scenic drive at sunset. It was a very warm day. As the temperatures rose, the virus progressed. By mid-afternoon, I was feeling nauseated and had a horrible headache. We were back at the resort before the concert ever started. We also saw no wildlife with the exception of a few songbirds and ravens. There went most of my expectations and it was only the first day of vacation.
The next day we headed into town for some Sudafed. Once my head cleared up, we enjoyed a five-mile hike in the National Forest. It was again hotter than anticipated and a storm blew up about half way through the hike. We could hear the distant thunder and talked about waiting it out in a ski shelter. We opted to continue and were grateful when the rain passed north of us. The trail was beautiful and wound around a lake, hills, ferns, and large trees. We were in the middle of a National forest and there was barely a songbird to be heard. The only wildlife found were insects, a few small birds, and a lone leopard frog that I almost stepped on. I did enjoy the hike, but the virus was taking its toll – I was exhausted. The medicine certainly helped with my sinus symptoms, but did little to help the rest of me. I napped the rest of the day, made dinner, and then went to bed. Day two widely missed the mark of my expectations.
Day three started with a dose of Sudafed, deep fog, and some hiking close to the resort. There was a beautiful 1.5 mile nature trail nearby that promised a stand of 400 year-old hemlocks. Skepticism turned to stunned awe when we reached the “Avenue of the Giants”. We live in the center of the Midwest where the old forests were logged and razed for farm fields over a century ago. We have new growth forests, but they feel so different. Standing in the presence of 400-year-old trees was amazing. There is a profound sense of peace and calm in an old growth forest that is very hard to describe. A comfortable coolness and sense of timelessness permeated the area. The smells of ancient loam, pine, and hemlock were enthralling. A very deep part of me just wanted to sit down and breathe it all in, indefinitely. It was a very damp day and more awaited us on this short trail. One of our finds was this tree covered in dew coated spider webs glittering in the sun. The trail then led through new growth forest and a pretty bog. As we left the area, we came across some wild turkeys along the road – our first “real” wildlife. A great deal of this trip was to be back woods hiking and this short hike was almost too much. We headed into town, found a local coffee house, checked in with friends and family, and headed back. By the time we reached the resort, I was very disgruntled at being ill, angry about my lack of endurance, unhappy with the lack of wildlife encountered, and frustrated at still not meeting any of my self-imposed expectations.
Day four and on Sudafed yet again, the plan was to head out through a series of small towns for some shopping. We hoped to find some birthday / holiday gifts and chat with some friendly shopkeepers. I have to admit I found the entire trip utterly depressing. As we drove through the towns that once catered to tourists, we found only a very few utilitarian businesses. The places that had obviously been art galleries, antique stores, and other tourist shops were vacant and dark. A few of them had been turned into thrift stores for the locals. As we drove through town after town, my thoughts centered on what might have happened to the artists and storekeepers who made their living this way. I had some hope that the storefronts had been replaced by the internet, but I really felt that most had likely failed in the recession. I was not certain if it was the virus or something I ate, but now my belly hurt. I was again exhausted and my headache was back worse than ever. Honestly, I had difficulty not crying all the way back. And…nothing more than a few ravens and other small birds the entire trip. I really was just about ready to pack everything up and head home.
I woke feeling much better on day five. Yippee – no Sudafed. The temperature had dropped, too. I had now given up on most of my expectations and was determined to just accept and appreciate whatever I found. There were several waterfalls located about an hour north of the resort and I was determined to see them. The first stop was the ranger station to check on parking requirements and obtain maps. I was never so happy to have the foresight to pick up a detailed map of a national forest. This map was huge and even included the ATV trails. We headed off to see the first falls. It was pretty, but not spectacular. The roughly drawn overview map showed the road going straight up through the forest to the next falls. Nine miles down the quickly deteriorating gravel and sand road we stopped to review the big map. We had just passed the only crossroad for miles and there was no waterfall. It turns out that we were fairly far from the waterfall and that last turn had been the best option for us to get there. We turned around and headed down the not-better-than-the-last road that has now been dubbed “the infinite back road of no bears” by my partner. I might add that there were no eagles, fishers, wolves, buzzards, or anything other than a few insects and small birds. The second waterfall (pictured to the right) was beautiful and very much worth the trip. I even found a lovely little black frog that graciously stuck around for several close-up photographs. We had three more waterfalls on the agenda. The next waterfall was spectacular. Unfortunately, there was no sensible way to get to the base for pictures. The last two waterfalls were not noted as exceptional, but they were on a circular route back. The fourth waterfall was really no more than a tiny rapids, but the area was beautiful and the water crystal clear. We continued on and made the turn onto an “unnamed road” to the last waterfall. The road turned out to be no more than two grooves in deep grass down a steep hill into the forest. While I love my car, it was not designed for off-road driving. We then headed home down beautiful a National park forest road and I was able to take this photograph. If things had turned out as expected, I would never have been able to stand in the middle of the road to get this shot.
It was now the last full day of our vacation and I had completely come to terms with the idea that I would not be seeing any wildlife other than ravens, turkeys, frogs, small birds, and insects. I even took a picture of the caution sign in our unit stating “there are bears in these woods” as a joke. I was certain that this was the closest we were going to get to a wild bear. The forecast was for rain so we headed into town to access the internet and get a better sense of the weather. As we headed towards the main road, a large hawk flew just over the roof of the car. Having just finished a delicious cup of tea and checking the radar, I thought we could get in one more hike, but was not sure about which trail to take. As we were driving along and watching the clouds build, my partner said, “Stop the car”. I pulled over and asked what was wrong. He said to turn around and slowly drive up the shoulder on the other side of the road. In the ditch was a deer that had been hit by a car. Next to the deer stood an adult bald eagle. It was only 25 feet in front of us. At that moment it began to pour and the eagle flew up into the trees. We sat there in the rain in hopes that the eagle would return. The rain stopped and the eagle remained in the treetops. I decided to walk down the road to try and get a good picture. Just before I left the car, a doe came out of the woods and quickly bolted back into the forest. I was able to take a few long-distance photographs of the eagle. Here it was our last full day and we had just sat a few feet from one of the world’s most spectacular birds of prey.
We resumed our drive and stopped at the first set of hiking trails. We had trouble deciding whether or not to take an unfamiliar trail in questionable weather. I was reminded that that we were prepared with emergency gear, waterproof boots, and heavy ponchos. We opted to take the new trail. Most of the hike was an uneventful, pretty trek on an intermediate cross country skiing trail. About three-quarters of the way into our hike, I heard a loud rustle, saw movement, and looked up. I was just in time to see the hind end of a black bear as it shouldered its way through a young pine tree and raced into the woods. We kept hiking and startled some large ground birds. From the size of the disturbance and the calls, I have to assume either pheasant or wild turkeys. Then, while laughing about finally seeing a bear much closer than anticipated, we came up over a hill and rounded a corner. Standing in the middle of the trail was a second adult bear. I am certain it must have heard us as it was already turning away to run into the woods. I did not even have time to turn the camera on. After taking a picture the bear’s paw print, we finished our hike. The day’s encounters ended as another large hawk flew over the car as we returned to the resort.
There is a romantic part of me wants to say that the appearance of such spectacular wildlife magically occurred when my attitude changed; that the forest and its animals waited until I attained the right mind set to appear. I do not really think that is the case. However, I do believe that my altered outlook had everything to do with us being in the right place at the right time. We almost went home; we almost called off the hike; and we almost took a different, easier trail.
This was certainly not the vacation I expected, though it may have been the vacation I needed. I was able (or maybe forced) into getting some much-needed rest and have hopefully learned some important lessons. I need to be more accepting and less judgmental of my own frailties. I need to remember that I am not nor do I need to be in control. I need to return to my fundamental nature more often and truly experience nature in its glory, on its schedule.
I awoke to a brilliant orange sunrise the morning we were leaving. We also saw another bald eagle next to the road as we left the park. It was almost as if nature was saying, “Goodbye, but you are always welcome”. That only happens in fairy tales, right?
predator and prey reprise their endless dance
the demise of one bequeaths life to the other
dark, ancient giants offer shelter and peace
skeletal remnants prepare the earth for regrowth
golden birch leaves dance brilliantly in the sun
promises of a spring yet to come