For quick overnight trips, I often go to Afton State Park. It's near the Twin Cities, and is a pleasant enough escape. But I've been there I think three times in the last year now. It was getting a little too familiar, so I started looking for somewhere new nearby.
There are several State Parks, State Forests, and other managed lands scattered around Minneapolis and St. Paul. What I wanted was to camp near water, and scout out a few areas for some packrafting later on. Jeremy at Trek Lightly mentioned the Governor Knowles State Forest in Wisconsin, but when I checked it out the website informed me that I'd have to book a campsite 7 days in advance. I can't stand booking campsites in advance. To me it's anathema to the whole point of being outside. It's too planned, and makes me feel too much like I'm part of an administrative system, rather than a free spirit. I want to camp when and where I feel like camping.
I was looking at St. Croix State Park, the largest state park in Minnesota, but it only offered two backpacking sites - a bit of a disappointment. Thankfully Jeremy came to the rescue again and recommended Wild River SP. Seven sites, 37 miles of trails, the St. Croix river, and no need to book anything in advance.
After a late start, I made the hour drive north, and arrived after the office closed. It's necessary to pre-pay for a backpacking site, and to declare which site you will stay at. The park seemed empty to me, and as nobody was there to tell me any different, I just scribbled something random on the form and let it be.
Eager to set off, I found a parking site, shouldered my huckePACK, and set off - only for disaster to strike moments later. I'd left something in the car; something vital, and slightly illegal as it is not permitted within the state parks. For this reason I will not divulge what said item was, except that it rhymes with Durban.
So, fully packed, with LT4 poles extended, I set off again, heading toward the section of the park where several backpacking sites were located, making a brief stop to fill up with water (the park guide states that water is not available at backpacking sites, which is not strictly true. What it means is that backpacking sites have not been fitted with taps/faucets - there is plenty of water around to collect and filter.)
As the trail led steadily uphill through some pleasant woodland I heard a strange sound. A distinct growl. The kind of irritated, guttural growl that could only be one thing: a bear. I cursed my apparent animal magnetism. Still, I knew I'd be heading away from that sound, and as I could also hear a chicken somewhere in the distance I decided to concentrate on that instead.
Before long I reached the summit, if we can call the top of a small hill a summit. An unusually English-looking scene spread out before me; rolling hills, clumps of trees and bushes, even a oak tree. I felt oddly nostalgic.
I passed a couple of the backpacking sites - Aspen Knob and Breezy Valley. Both seemed pleasant enough, but I didn't want to camp in a forest of leafless trees. I wanted a view, and headed onwards.
A small stream soon blocked my path, and offered me a chance to put my Terroc 330s to the test. I happily sloshed across, shoes and socks getting soaked, and was pleased to find my merino socks kept my feet warm as the shoes slowly dried out along the trail. It's a most liberating feeling, and it put a big smile on my face.
Not long after this, the landscape opened out again onto a large meadow. Frogs warbled from a pond as I passed by, heading to a potential campsite overlooking the field.
When I found the site, I mulled over the possibility of staying there. Sadly, some previous visitors had left a bunch of beer cans lying around. After collecting them up, I assessed the lay of the land. If I stayed here, I'd have a nice morning view. I might even see some coyote (or that bear) crossing the meadow. But something felt wrong. Maybe it was that large mound and the suspicious holes indicating some kind of burrow nearby.
I checked the map. It wasn't far to the river, and a canoe campsite which looked promising. On my downloaded map it was marked as a canoe/backpacking site, but on the park map it was just for canoeists. Sod it. I'd take a look anyway. I was pretty sure nobody else would be there - I hadn't seen a single soul so far. The only risk would be if it was under the flood water.
I raised my hand up to the setting sun. Three fingers between it and the horizon. About three hours. More than enough time to get to the river and back if necessary, and still have time to spare to set up camp. I set off again.
It was really no distance at all, just a mile or so. But when I arrived I found perfection - exactly the kind of site I was looking for.
A perfectly manicured, riverside campsite, complete with picnic table and fire grate. Luxury. Hardly a backcountry feeling, but I wasn't complaining. I took a little time to look around before setting up the SpinnTwin and bivy.
The sun began setting as I gathered kindling and tried to find some dry wood for the BushBuddy to eat.
All around, the sounds of nature filled the air. An owl hooting a real twick-twoo. Some swans agitated at my presence. The splosh of a beaver diving.
The wood was a little wet, but with a vaseline soaked cotton ball, the BushBuddy soon had a good burn going, and my bland Beef Stroganoff was ready in no time. One day, I hope to try Fuzion's backpacking meals. Hopefully soon.
I poured a little of that which rhymes with Durban into my Kupilka kuksa, and sipped away my abstract fears. Of course there are no bears! They're not mentioned on the info leaflet, and thus they are far, far away.
This trip, I remembered to bring some additional shock cord to attach my Exped pillow to my POE Ether Elite. It was perfect. Absolutely no slippage.
I also figured out a great way to attach the bivy, mattress, and quilt together. The Katabatic Bristlecone has two sets of internal attachment points. I clipped the pad to the lower set, and my GoLite quilt to the upper, and had probably the best night's sleep I have ever had outdoors.
The stars were bright, the air increasingly cold. During the night I awoke to find myself surprisingly chilly. Fortunately I'd packed my hot socks and BPL Cocoon pants – possibly my greatest recent purchase – and after slipping into them I returned to a deep sleep.
I cannot emphasise enough how great it is to sleep in a quilt compared to a sleeping bag. I no longer have to wrestle with hoods and draw cords at night, and I sleep as well as I do at home. It's possible that the Durban helped, but the quilt has transformed my nights beyond belief.
I decided to take the SpinnTwin with me this time as the weather was getting warmer, and I hadn't used it since last summer. I have to say that waking up under an open tarp, with a view through the large bug mesh window of the Bristlecone (I had is closed as protection against the cold) is pure joy.
When I crawled out from the shelter though, I found that it was considerably colder than the forecast had predicted.
A thick layer of frost coated everything, the side effect of sleeping next to a large body of water. Much of my carefully collected stash of twigs was now damp, so I went in search of more.
I didn't have much luck finding dry wood, and had to make do with what I could scrape together. Damp kindling and moist twigs do not a good fire make, and for the first time, the BushBuddy struggled to bring my pot to a boil - taking almost 40 minutes of continuous, frustrated coaxing.
But eventually it worked. Oatmeal was consumed. The SpinnTwin was taken down. The amazing huckePACK was loaded. And I was ready for a morning stroll.
I was in no hurry to return, so decided to take the long way back to the car and explore the park a little more.
As the sun rose and the mist evaporated, I followed a trail along the banks of the St. Croix.
I followed old military trails and logging tracks dating from the early 1800s.
Suddenly, a flash of white above me. From the treetops, a bald eagle swept into the air. As usual I fumbled for my camera, too slow to capture it. It flow across to an island and landed near it's nest, watching me.
Further along the trail a came across what I assume was it's lunch (there were no nests nearby anyway).
At the site of an old logging dam I turned away from the river and headed inland, towards the prairies.
The variation of landscapes in the park was very pleasant. Form hills to river, meadows to forest, thicket to prairie, it's a nicely rounded park which I had all to myself.
As the sun rose higher, it was time to try out my new "Survivorman" outfit.
Fortunately, I only had a few more hours to spend in the park, and no reason to start eating weevils. Instead nibbled on a delicious Tanka Buffalo bar and some dried cranberries.
Refreshed from trail food, and the trail itself, I found myself once again at the parking lot. I'd walked 8 miles - which surprised me. I felt I'd walked two or three at most. Such is the light-footed feeling one gets with trail runners like the Terrocs and a lighter load. I could have happily gone on all day, taking the longer path, following whatever diversion I happened upon. I felt relaxed, renewed, happy to have been exploring somewhere new.
I thought back on my fears yesterday – about that bear I heard, and that I thought I would assuredly see at some point. I must have been mad. A bear? When I could hear chickens? And no mention of bears in the park information. No signs about bear hanging. What was I thinking?
As I drove out the park, and passed a farm on the boundary I realised...
That bear I heard was probably a cow.