usa

The End of America

Dramatic title, huh? Well don't worry, it's simply a case of all good things coming to an end; in this case (a large over-stuffed suitcase) my three years in America are drawing rapidly to a close. The countdown to MSP > HEL is down into single digits, the apartment is almost empty, goodbyes are being said, and the time for reminiscence is upon us. And so I offer a trip report of another kind – a look back over three years in America.

It ain't so different (except when it is).

Coming from Lapland, where -30ºC is not uncommon in winter, our arrival in the midst of a cold Minnesota winter wasn't so much of a shock, and yet somehow it felt colder. Maybe it was because we didn't have a car and had to walk everywhere. Once, Minneapolis enjoyed a vast tram network that rattled around the city, but the automobile industry had different ideas about that. Today it's almost impossible to get by without a car. The layout of Minneapolis (as with many American cities, a few obvious coastal cities excepted) is so dissipated and anti-center you often have to drive from one side of the city to another just to complete a simple errand – and in Minneapolis, that distance can be well over 10 miles.

A typical road in Minneapolis.

Fortunately, we have a local coop within walking distance, so we've mostly been able to avoid regular journeys to the strip malls and corporate behemoths. Healthy organic food comes at a price, but in a country where corn syrup seems to mysteriously find its way into almost every edible product, I think it's been worth it.  The coop has been an oasis of culinary delights: Organic pop tarts? Check! Elk and wild mushroom sausages? Check! I don't think I've ever eaten so well.

Of course, that means I didn't get to enjoy delights such as this...

WTF moment #1. Why? Because we can! Sadly, these were not available in the organic coop.

But back to the issue of the cold. As I said, Lapland prepares you for the cold, but Lapland is also

prepared

for

 the cold. The apartments in Finland have triple-glazed windows, central heating, and are heated well  enough to be able to comfortably hang out in t-shirts in mid-winter. Minnesotan winters are not so dissimilar to Finnish winters, so why isn't triple glazing standard? The first house we stayed in house didn't even have

double

 glazing! It was like living in England, but with the added excitement of truly arctic conditions. The landlord (whom incidentally,

was

 English, so maybe that explains it) told us she regularly turned the thermostat down to 52F (11ºC!!!!) at night to save on heating costs, and many people we visited wore their hats indoors.

Fortunately, however, there are highly efficient insulation systems which easily can be added to your house so solve all these problems:

WTF moment #2: The insulating properties of cling film are well known in America.

Yes, by simply attaching cling film to your windows, your house will be transformed into a paradise of warmth.

While Minnesotans have yet to discover the joys of triple glazing, they have managed to improve significantly on one cold weather sport: endurance fishing.  In Finland, ice-fishing is a frigid and lonely activity. Wrapped in as many insulating layers as you can reasonably pile on without compromising your ability to move limbs, you sit out on the ice, shivering, watching the hole you made slowly freeze over, in the vain hope that you might catch something still alive and actually worth eating before you die of hypothermia.

It's surprising, then, that the resourceful Finns haven't yet come up with a solution to ease their suffering (on the other hand...) but fear not: Minnesota has the answer! It is simple and quite brilliant: huts on ice.

Lake Minnetonka Art Shanties, based on fishermen's huts.

The fishers of Minnesota drag out small wooden huts onto the ice and fish

inside

 them. They put a little heater in there, bring along a tv or radio, maybe even a cooker for the deep fried ravioli, and they sit comfortably in the warm, while they fish

inside

 the hut. Come on Finland! Pull your socks up! This is serious innovation! Why has nobody thought of this?

A little history

Ah, the Mississippi! I live barely a hundred meters from its banks, and my daily walk with Rufus (my English Springer Spaniel) along the bluffs and shore has kept me sane on many an occasion.

The state purchased much of the Mississippi shoreline so it's possible to enjoy peace and seclusion in the middle of the city, watch bald eagles swoop over the treetops, and even spot coyotes, beavers and other, ahem, "wildlife"...

Wondering what those "certain offenses" are? This is a family blog.

Let's just say that ships aren't the only things cruising the Mississippi.

While walking along the riverbanks I often like to imagine what America would have been like without, well,

America

. All the roads as we know them today have been built in the last 150 years or so. The concrete jungle stretches as far as the eye can see and much, much further. All of that has been written upon the landscape, but occasionally, along the bluffs, you get a brief glimpse of what it might have all been like when Native Americans still roamed the land. In rare pockets of oak savannah, it's still possible to get a sense of what has been lost; to imagine gently rolling plains instead of block after block of poorly-insulated housing.

In general, all that business with the Native Americans isn't really talked about. As they say, it is what it is. Better to brush it under the table. Take a look at this historical marker from Fort Snelling:

Aside from the utterly awesome name of Zebulon Pike, this sign is an interesting example historical revisionism. "Grey Cloud Island," we're told, "was known for its supernatural woods." Well, that's not entirely true – for the Dakota is was the location of their foundation myth: the place where the world began. The marker seems to suggest it was more like Sleepy Hollow. But never mind, Colonel Henry Leavenworth found it a good campsite, so that's all right then.

Also, you just have to love the matter-of-fact description of Prairie Island:

"The home of the Prairie Island Dakota Indian Community, who share it with a nuclear power plant." 

Lucky them. "We'll happily let you live on this small patch of land, but please don't touch the isotopes."

In all fairness, the Finns did a pretty good job of oppressing Europe's last indigenous people, the Sàmi, through programs of re-location and language eradication.

But enough about all this depressing stuff. Let's go west!

A Road Trip

Definitely one of the highlights of our stay was a two week road trip through the Dakotas to Montana and Wyoming. It's impossible to really understand the scale of America until you try to traverse it. Distances on unfamiliar maps appear much shorter (miles always sound a lot less than kilometers) but as the landscape opens up in front of you, the true breadth of this country reveals itself.

After finally getting to Bozeman (notable for the location of first contact with Vulcans, and Backpacking Light HQ) we made the obligatory trip to Yellowstone.

The National Parks have been referred to as America's Best Idea. I don't disagree, although I would say that designing America's Best Idea around the car was maybe not the smartest move. I know many freedom-loving Americans disagree with me on this on the grounds that the parks' directive is to make nature accessible, but there are other ways to make wild areas accessible without subjecting them to millions of cars every year.

All of Yellowstone's most famous sights are accessed via a vast figure 8 road loop which gets congested with the millions of annual visitors stopping to catch a glimpse of wildlife.

Although visitors are repeatedly warned not to leave their vehicles and approach animals, the merest whiff of a Grizzly Bear results in a comical roadside frenzy:

Contrary to the advice given by rangers, the best method for getting that photograph of a Grizzly and her cub is to encourage small children to run toward them with gay abandon.

WTF moment #3: Children approach Grizzly mother and cub

The strategy never fails.

Satisfied Grizzlies, having just eaten fresh child flesh

Around and around they go, driving that figure eight loop in huge Winnebagos. The campsites are the location of a daily scramble as people shuttle from one site to another early in the morning. We learned the hard way that all the sites fill up by 10am. And yet less than one percent of visitors venture beyond the campsites and car parks into the wild.

I'm not saying that I'm any better – but we had a dog with us, and the rules prohibit venturing with pets beyond the roadside. Rufus had to stay in the car when we wanted to go anywhere else.

The park is spectacular. The volcanic caldera spews up delights and contrasts all over the park. A sudden hot spring here, a bulbous mineral deposit there. These are sights unseen in Europe, and rarely seen on such a grand scale elsewhere.

There's loads to see in Yellowstone, but the West is a big place, so we headed down to Jackson to explore Wyoming a little.

While Jackson itself is a little over the top (befitting the winter ski & tourist industry), the area around it is beautiful. Some of you might be aware that in one of my other lives I'm a scriptwriter, and the image below is almost exactly how I imagined the location for a Western I wrote (which will likely never get made).

I can almost see my characters riding through the hills, exacting their revenge and avoiding encounters with mountain lions.

It was great to finally give Rufus a chance to run around also. After three days in Yellowstone cooped up in the car, he had a wild time running up and down the hills.

This is another reason I'm looking forward to returning to Lapland – the ability to let my dog get some decent exercise off leash. While there are places in Minneapolis where I let him run (illegally), the options to let dogs be dogs are limited. The dog parks are not particularly pleasant, and tend to encourage abnormal, aggressive behavior in dogs (and some owners) – creating a vicious cyclic argument that feeds back into limiting off-leash areas. It's a shame. I feel that when dogs are allowed to be dogs, they tend to be better behaved. Is it any surprise that dogs become unpredictable when we limit their freedom to a tiny dog park?

Oh, well. Guess I won't be going for hike after all.

Over the snow-capped mountains we go on our way through Wyoming, driving past dude ranches and cowboy country, the Teton National Forest and the Gros Ventre wilderness. This is the big country of Annie Proulx's short stories: bold, empty, beautiful. Of all the places I've been in the US, this was the place I most wanted to return. I imagined an odd alternative life here, as I suppose many have in the past.

Epic landscapes to be explored north of Dubois

I felt an odd affinity with Dubois, Wyoiming, an odd little town pitched between the Wind River Range and a the Shostone National Forest. Maybe it was because I bumped into the Chief of Police in the local store with his kids. He seemed like a nice chap. Or maybe it was the magic of the Jackalope. Who knows...

WTF moment #4: The Jackalope

It's unrealistic to think I could ever eke out a living there, but it's nice to dream.

Sadly, Dubois was only a pit stop. The road and America's wide open spaces beckoned. Who wouldn't want to stop in Thermopolis, location of the world's largest mineral hot spring? (I don't know how true that claim is – what about Iceland or Turkey?) We took to the waters, their sulphuric aroma becoming quite pleasant after a while. I forgot to take off my wedding ring, and found it had corroded from cheapskate silver into a rather attractive matt gold.

But while exploring the hills around Thermopolis I became frustrated again. I could see a vast countryside around me, all inaccessible. The ranch owners had put up fences marking their land, a common sight on the entire journey, in fact. It's a far cry from the Nordic countries "everyman's rights" which allow you to walk and camp wherever you want as long as you don't disturb private property. Imagine seeing such vast country calling to you, and then to find it fenced off, tantalisingly out of reach. It's heartbreaking.

I needed a lift, so we headed to one of my film-geek cultural highlights.

Devil's Tower, location of a close encounter of the third kind. To my joy there was a campsite in the grounds of the monument, so we were able to lie back in our tent and watch the sun cast alpenglow-stlye rays over the sculpted mashed-potato. Rufus had a well-earned opportunity to run amok too.

Best of all, the campsite screens the movie every night. It was every bit as I remembered – excellent first half, boring second half. What can you do? It was the 70s.

Like many places, Devil's Tower is a sacred place for Native Americans. And this was a sacred day on which, "it is hoped that climbers will respect traditions and refrain from climbing".

Here's an interesting fact: did you know that the prairie dogs running around the grounds of Devil's Tower (and the Badlands) have the plague? Yep,

that

 plague!

Bring out your dead!

We continued the cultural stage of the tour by briefly visiting Mount Rushmore (I don't think we really need any photos) before moving on to Deadwood. Wonderful TV series. Godawful town. Apparently Kevin Costner owns half the casinos that have transformed a place of historical interest into a seedy cheesefest, in which case he has a lot to answer for. The dead forest around the town was interesting, but the graveyard was where I was heading. The final resting place for Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and, for the dedicated fan of the show (dedicated enough to climb to the top of the hill), Seth Bullock.

Having had our fill of disappointing Deadwood, we headed off again to find desolation in Badlands. I suppose this was another destination for the film geek in me (if you haven't seen Terrence Malick's

Badlands

, you have missed a masterpiece), but the contrast of this landscape to everything that came before or afterwards is stunning.

 This is simply an otherworldly place – the closest you are likely to come to walking on another planet.

Swelteringly hot, dry as a bone, and yet still habited by resilient life – hares, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, bison.

Looks cute, but it probably caught bubonic plague from a prairie dog.

I vowed to

return with my backpack

.

Eventually though, all road trips lead to one place: home.

Seward, Minneapolis. It's a lot bigger in real life.

Of course, there's a whole lot of MInnesota to explore beyond the confines of the Twin Cities.

Duluth has always held a vague interest for me, although I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just because when you say it and impersonate Hannibal Lecter, it just sounds cool – "Duh-looth" – or maybe it's because my favourite band is from there – Low (if you're interested, check out

The Curtain Hits the Cast

for starters).

Beyond Duluth lie the great backwoods of the Boundary Waters and forests "Up North".

That be Canada

Lake Superior is a vast body of water. Cold year round, but crystal clear. Before visiting the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan we spent a great few days in a beach cabin with views like this:

I got to spend time filming one of

our art installations

near Ely (voted best small town in America!).

We had a few exhibitions in the US while we've been here. The end result of that shoot was presented in Minneapolis.

Installing

Some we kept, some we threw back

, our installation about immigration and refugees, drawing

parallels between the migration of Finns to America and international immigration today. 

We were also lucky to show another installation as part of an exhibition organized by the Finnish Embassy and Cultural Center in New York. It even got

pretty awesome reviews

.

I'd long wanted to go to New York, and it was everything I expected, with a little extra on the side.

Gotham City afforded me plenty of opportunities to indulge my inner film geek too (water treatment scene from Marathon Man, anyone? Cloverfield sets?), and an urban hike along the length of Broadway (with a few excursions into Chinatown, Central Park etc) was fascinating. It's definitely the most European-feeling places that I visited. It felt familiar somehow – from movies but also because of it's European-ness. But recently I've grown tired of big cities. They swallow you whole, and regurgitate you a thousand times a day. In the process you lose sense of who you are. You become the synechdoche of the city.

But if you're on 6th Avenue, go to the

Astro

restaurant and treat yourself to their Ultimate Greek Yogurt Experience. You won't regret it.

Back to Minnesota we go for a real taste of America: the State Fair.

In Minnesota, you'll find a literal corn-ucopia, mostly involving things on sticks – corndogs, walleye, meatball pasta, camel – you name it, they'll find a way of putting it on a stick and deep frying it.

The benchmark test to determine when you've really made it in Minnesota is when you get sculpted in butter.

WTF moment #5: Butter Sculptures.

Looks like some of the subjects have been tucking into their likenesses...

Saving the best 'till last

Living in the 'States for a while has been a great opportunity – one that I would never have imagined I would lucky enough to experience. It's a fascinating country, full of contradictions. One of the great things I'll take back is a better understanding of what it means to be American – politically, socially, ethically, ethnically, historically. It is very common for Europeans and other nationalities to have an incredibly simplistic attitude toward the USA, but time spent here reveals the complexities underlying the image of America that's often perceived abroad. The fear of "big government", the healthcare debate, gun ownership, liberalism, an absurd interpretation (and fear of) socialism, the immigration paradox (a nation of immigrants being opposed to immigration), the concept of freedom of speech and the seemingly contradictory recent crackdowns on the Occupy movement protestors. All are complex subjects I could write a book about, and certainly far too off-topic to even attempt to discuss in a blog which is supposed to be about backpacking! 

Nevertheless, my lasting impression is of a country that has pursued its obsession with freedom to the point that its peculiar interpretation of the concept has become detrimental to the wellbeing of its people. Choice is a wonderful thing – providing you can afford to choose. And most of the

46 million people living below the poverty line

don't have many options. But then, with the current crisis in Europe, are things really any better? It's hard to say, the systems are so different. Personally, I'll take a welfare state and high taxes any day over uncertainty, convoluted healthcare systems, and lack of a security net in the US. As many other visiting guests have said to me, there's nothing like three years in America to make you realize you're a European.

Ah... I promised I wouldn't tuen this into a political diatribe, and it would be ungracious of me to finish without celebrating the three best things I experienced in America.

1. Utah

Without a doubt, the most spectacular landscapes I've ever walked in. My trip to Utah is something I'll never forget. Epic vistas, blistering heat, sand and sagebrush. The transformation of water into a rare and treasured resource. The humbling scale of the place can only be described as biblical.

You can read more about my experiences in Utah in my 

set of four trip reports

.

2. Beer

I came to America ignorant, assuming that the US only had bad beer. While there is a

lot

of bad beer, there is a ton of truly

great

 beer. I leave knowing that America has joined Belgium at the top of the beer league tables.

I was also fortunate to meet and become friends with Michael Agnew of

A Perfect Pint

, an avid and excellent homebrewer, and Minnesota's first cicerone. He warned me that once I started to brew my own beer it would become an all-consuming obsession. He was spot on.

Brewing Sahti, one of my beer challenges to Mr. Agnew.

Learning all about beer, and how to brew was undoubtedly something that was only possible for me to do while in the 'States. My extremely limited knowledge of Finnish, and the lack of such an extensive homebrewing/craft beer culture in Finland would have made it very difficult there. Things are changing though, and new Finnish brews are popping up frequently, which has me very excited.

Beer and food pairing session. I believe this occasion was sausagefest.

So while I arrived ignorant, I return invigorated, having found an excellent online supplier in Sweden to fuel my next brew.

Last, but definitely not least...

3. IVF

After years of trying, and the disappointment and pain that comes with every negative test or loss,  American expertise finally helped bring our daughter, Enni, into the world. So, critical as I might be about the healthcare system in general, it's hard to complain too loudly when the end result is this:

Enni Ainikki Rainio-Roberts, born 22.7.2011

I leave the final, last word, to the citizens of Seward: liberal peacenicks and hippies to the last, I thank you for having me. Finland here I come... I'll see you on the other side!

Another kind of freedom

When I asked a friend, "Hey - do you want to paddle down Minnehaha Creek next Monday?", it didn't cross my mind for a second that next Monday was July 4th, America's great celebration of independence from the tea-guzzling evil British Empire - a day Americans normally spend burning the Union Jack and stomping furiously on hot cross buns.

Okay, not really. Well, not in Minnesota.

In any case, this was a big weekend - a major holiday in the land of the free (where most people don't have a lot of free time because they're holding down four jobs so they can pay off their debt, college fees, and healthcare bills - but hey, let's not quibble semantics). A pity, then, that political duelling in the state capitol resulted in a government shutdown, resulting in all state parks closing down during the busiest weekend of the year. My friend was worried that the put-ins on the creek would also be closed, but I was more concerned about the volume of water flowing through it. This year, the tiny river running through the heart of Minneapolis has had up to seven times its normal volume. I was concerned that my newbie packrafting skills would not be up to the speed of the creek as is passed through the swanky neighborhood of Edina, making its sharp twists and turns past the grandiose homes of the plastically-enhanced Minnesotan elite.

We went on a reconnoitre expedition in the morning to check the conditions, having heard that some bridges were impassable owing to high water. Fortunately, the water volume had reduced, and, apart from a few downed trees in the middle of some exciting class II rapids, it all looked pretty good. We decided to celebrate our freedom from the tyranny of state-owned park ownership, government shutdown be damned.

We weren't the only ones.

I was a little nervous while inflating the Denali Llama. I don't know why; it's a very tame river but it's also been a while since I've been on one, and this was the first time I'd taken the raft in any kind of current. As I  filled the cheerful blue raft with air, several children drifted by on inner tubes. Ian was a little concerned for their safety with the downed strainers, but I figured if a 10 year old can do this without a paddle, I have nothing to worry about. They seemed to be having a whale of a time. Of course in a tube you don't really have to worry about getting wet, as this is your default starting position, but I expected to get a good soaking anyway. It's all par for the course.

We set off, and immediately hit a series of rapids, fast turns, and strainers spanning the entire width of the creek! The kids in the inner tubes had either got out or somehow managed to negotiate their way past. I, on the other hand, had a quick lesson in trying to get over a downed tree while sitting in a raft being pulled in two directions at once (the wrong direction, and under the tree). But with a little effort and some gentle persuasion, I found a way past the obstacle, marvelling at the sturdiness of the Alpacka raft. I would probably have not got any further in a lesser, vinyl raft.

Fortunately, after the initial twisty-turny section, the creek calmed down a little and I was able to practise actually controlling the boat a little more. I got used to back-paddling to stay in place in the stream or slow down. I figured out that the lack of tracking can be problematic in a stream, and frequent rapid paddling is necessary across the current to avoid obstacles. The kayaks that swept by us occasionally had no problem maintaining a nice line, but without thigh-straps the packraft likes to spin around and go where the river wants to take you. It's fantastically maneuverable, but with that comes the price of unpredictability - at least in my inexperienced hands.

As we drifted downstream, I found myself enjoying the rapids, and looking forward to them. We're not talking major rapids here, but some nice 30cm waves that give enough of a thrill - enough to provide a brief moment of bander-snatchage as the stern was sucked back into a wave trough, and water spilled down behind my back and into the raft. Some rapid, determined paddling averted anything beyond a minor soaking, but the experience reiterated my belief that the new Alpacka stern designs would limit this a little more, and that, if I ever buy one of these, I will definitely get a fitted spray skirt! Going down anything even slightly more exciting than a basic class II without one would not be wise.

We stopped for a moment for a bite to eat, watching a couple of children drifting downstream using just their PFDs. They jumped out by us, ran up the river bank, and did it again, over and over, delighted. It was great to watch them enjoying themselves so much. When I was a boy, I was always a little afraid of water. I didn't learn to swim until I was 32, and always envied other children splashing around or playing  in the water. I'm no olympic medallist now, but I'm making up for lost time and opportunities.

One thing is certain though - paddling and photography do not mix. I took my iPhone in my

Haglöfs Watatait case

(thankfully, as otherwise I would now be without a phone), but a better option would be a GoPro Hero, helmet- or otherwise-mounted, and set to record either video or time-lapse images. Every time I got ready to take a photo the creek would turn and I'd have to quickly shove the camera somewhere safe. I tried shooting some video, but it looks more like the Blair Witch Project in a boat.

We stopped for a late lunch, which turned into a lengthy discussion of politics and whitewater rafting in Washington, before putting-in once again for the final stretch to Nokomis, where we had left the other car. I forgot to temper the raft at this point, so for the last couple of miles I endured a rather floppy and not very streamlined float along some flat water that took a lot of effort to paddle. My mistake. I wasn't supple enough to bend and use the inflation tube.

It was a beautiful afternoon, something I'd love to do again. There are so many rivers and creeks in Minnesota to explore, most of them gentle little things that drift along through bluffs and cottonwood-lined valleys. To have something like Minnehaha in the center of Minneapolis is something quite special though - a relaxing ride with a couple of fun runs, all for free.

That's my kind of freedom. Government shutdown be damned.

Wild River State Park, MN

After what seemed like an eternity, a window of opportunity opened. I'd been getting crabby and a little depressed at home, sure signs that I needed a little outdoor alone-time, so I was eager to seize a chance to stretch my legs. But where to go?

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.

Mist rose from the river, shrouding everything.

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.

To Afton, and beyond...

Another last minute decision. The temperature is cold enough – it'll be at least -10C tonight. I know I've been putting it off – finding excuses not to go because this or that needs to be done. It's only one night and now I've run out of excuses. If I don't go tonight, I don't know when I'll get a chance again to test out the gear. The plan is to go for a longer trip in February, but February is a cruelly short month, over before you know it. Winter slips by like sand in an hourglass. I want to head out for longe, but with our first baby on the way hiking plans have to take second place. This one night might be the only opportunity for a while, and I should make the most of it. After all, one night is better than no night.

Over the winter, I've built up a collection of gear to supplement and enhance my rather limited set of cold-weather kit. Most of it has remained untested in snow and cold. I really wanted to make sure my new winter clothing and sleeping system could handle the varying weather conditions we get in Minnesota. Unlike Lapland, where the sun hangs so low it offers little or no heat until March or April, Minnesota is at the same latitude as Southern France and the sun rises high enough to warm the ground even in deepest winter. It's not uncommon to have a -15C air temperature and melting snow on the ground. Night and day temperatures veer wildly between extreme cold and not-unpleasant, spring-like warmth. This makes selecting gear that much harder. You're not simply going to be cold; you're going to sweat, then get cold, which is never fun.

Last Autumn, you may recall, I didn't get a chance to test out my Laufbursche huckePACK. So today, it was the first thing out of the gear closet. I grabbed my Multimat Adventure CCF pad to give it some structure, and crammed my WM Antelope into a stuff sack. Opening the pad wide enough inside the pack to accommodate the bulky winter bag was a chore. It barely fit. I made a mental note to try stuffing the bag in first next morning, and then slip the mat on top. That worked much better.

The huckePACK is a surprisingly large pack. I wasn't packing particularly sensibly, but there was still plenty of room for more gear once I'd squeezed everything in. It carries extremely well. My pack weight was around 7kg, and I didn't notice the pack's presence at all while hiking. The presence of load lifters makes a big difference - especially when a pack is loaded high. The larger main outer pocket takes a snow-claw and DuoMid as it it were made for them. As for the other two pockets, they are roomy, but I found I would prefer the angled side pocket to just be a simple rectangular style; my water bottle fell out while I was bending to fiddle with snow shoe buckles. The other side pocket, while rectangular, has a cut in the side to allow access. It's handy, but I was worried about losing my kuksa and tent stakes. It's a matter of personal choice – some people like to access the side pockets while wearing the pack, but I'm not dextrous enough. I'll fix a couple of shock cord cinches to them to keep things nice and secure.

I used a four-section piece of Z-lite on the back of the pack for added padding. I originally thought that the shock cord holding it in place would not be sufficient, but it did a great job. The pad never moved, and was very comfortable. It was also a great thing to take with me – serving as a kneel pad, sit pad, and added insulation for my back at night. don't leave home without one!

I'm driving to Afton. A bald eagle swoops down out of nowhere. It always amazes me to see them. Even in central Minneapolis, by the Mississippi, I often see them scoping out the river banks for mice. It is a good sign. I stop by the park office. No trouble getting a campsite today. Down to the end of the road. I take out the pack, and buckle up the snow shoes. Off we go.

Joe tipped me off on some good and reasonably priced ski-poles – the

Black Diamond Traverse

. A two-section pole, with a simple flick lock tightener. Light enough, sturdy, simple, and strong enough for the DuoMid. Their cheerful orange colour doesn't hurt in the snow either. They even match my Lightning Ascents. It's important to be fashion conscious while hiking. You never know who you'll meet.

I trek down the hill, taking a winding, narrow, steep path through some aspen. My snow shoes crunch, gripping tight. There is a trail, but I decide to head off track through deeper snow.

And now another hill – up this time. Time to raise the heel lifters. I'm glad I have them. It's not a big hill, but it's enough to point out my state of unfitness. I wonder how the guys in Bozeman and Colorado do this all the time. I seriously need to exercise more!

I chose not to wear my

Aclima WarmWool

top. The temperatures were not cold enough, and I was worried I'd be sweating buckets in it. Instead I went with my good old Haglöfs synthetic baselayer. It dries incredibly quickly after a workout, and my only complaint is that the torso length is a little short. I often find this though. My shirts ride up too easily. I wish more manufacturers would offer a long body option.

Up in the camping area. Not many people have been here – no tracks, and deep snow. I'm not sure where I'm going to stay, but I find one site that people have been in recently. It's a good spot – under a stand of birch, shielded from the wind but with a view over the prairie. They obviously dug into the snow, and I decide to take advantage of their work. I lay out the DuoMid and stake down the corners, leaving the snow to sinter while I head off to explore the park some more.

It probably would have been easier to just set up on fresh snow. I don't know why the people before me felt the need to dig down to the cold ground, but I thought the walls around the shelter might save me building a wind break. As it was, I had to dig into them and construct slots for my

REI Parachute Stakes

.  I was a little concerned that they wouldn't be strong enough to hold the DuoMid in place. It requires a fair amount of tension to maintain a taut pitch, but I shouldn't have worried. It is amazing how strong a snow-anchor can be once it's set. In one corner I had to use a

MSR Blizzard

stake. I'd not used one before, but after scratching a line in ice, it slipped in nicely, horizontally, and after I buried it in snow, it held fast. I find the snow parachutes to be better – more flexible, easier to set in snow, sand or with rocks. Plus, they weigh next to nothing.

For working around camp, I used a

Snow Claw

- a cheap, plastic, emergency snow shovel. It did the job, but next time I'll take a decent shovel (maybe a Black Diamond Deploy 3) as shuffling around on my knees with the snow claw killed my back.

As for gloves, I had four pairs with me. Well, three technically, as the

Montane Resolutes

are a layered set. The pile and pertex inners are prefect for snow work; they don't get wetted out in the snow, which is more than I can say for the air of thicker PowerDry liner gloves I was wearing at first. Stupid of me I kno, but the cold does that to you. Anyway, in this case, PowerDry didn't dry very well. The good thing about the resolutes is that if it does get wet and windy you can slip the eVent mitts over the top. My final pair of gloves were a cheap pair of thin liners, which are great for doing odd jobs around camp that you might need your fingers for. Next time, I'll skip the PowerDry pair.

I stomp through the snow, making a path through the trees, across the whitened prairie, going nowhere in particular. That's the beauty of snow shoeing, I think to myself. Go anywhere in perfect silence.

I skirt around an island of trees. As I pass, the wind starts biting into my face. I slip on the wind shirt, glad I decided to bring it at the last minute. Which way? Which way now?

Into the open white expanse. Deep, untouched snow. Even my snow shoes can't float above this soft powder. I struggle on, knees lifted high, toppling now and then into a drift. I smile as I push myself up and on, the wind still at my heels. I'm hungry.

The Tanka Bar, is, in my humble opinion, the best snack ever. Pounded buffalo (well, technically bison) meat with cranberries, produced by a start-up company on Pine Ridge reservation, 150 calories, and weighing in at only 1oz. Also available in a spicy hot version! (Commercial over.)

Restored, I plough on, heading back towards the campsite, excited to finish setting up the shelter and getting some food on the go. It's hard work though – sometimes the shortest route is the hardest. When I see the bright yellow of my shelter I am relieved. The snow has set hard. Everything is going to be okay. I just need to get some water. I take off my shoes and head along a packed path, and immediately discover why snow shoes are necessary. With every other step I posthole into the snow. The return journey, as I stumble back with a pot of water is frustrating, to say the least. I make a mental note not to try that again. 

Food. Yummy, delicious, dehydrated food. Or not. I decided to try a different brand of organic dried ginger and sesame pasta. I don't really know why I did this as the idea of ginger and sesame pasta sounds awful to me now. I think I didn't want to eat a huge pack of Backcountry Pantry, and this brand made smaller, 1.5 serving packages. My mistake. It was awful.

But let's look on the bright side... my

Primus Express Spider

was wonderful.

Fast and efficient, not too noisy, lightweight and simple to use. My boil time was a little slow as I didn't bother to take a wind break, but nothing to worry about. My GSI Haluite pot was large enough to boil enough water for the meal a nice cup of Russian Caravan tea which I drank from a

Kupilka Kuksa

for the first time – about which more will follow in another post.

As I sit eating in silence, I notice my legs and feet getting colder. The temperature is falling with the sun. Somewhere, not too far away, a pack of coyotes start howling.

It's time to enter Ice Station Zebra.

I don't usually suffer from cold feet – cold hands, yes, but my feet usually run hot. But hanging around in camp in slightly damp boots is when hot feet turn cold.

I was a little worried about this, so did a lot of research into keeping my feet warm and dry in camp and while on the move. I know a lot of people swear by vapour barrier liners, but I feel they are really not for me. Layering systems are vital for winter, but I'd just get annoyed with a complex layering system on my

feet. It's enough hassle putting snow shoes on and adjusting buckles without fiddling with waterproof socks, plastic bags, and overboots.

I bought a pair of

Integral Designs Hot Socks

to slip on in camp, and a pair of Tyvek booties to pull over them so I could walk around in camp (or, as was the case, slide around in camp – they are quite slippery on snow). These were just about adequate. At first I tried squeezing my Hot Sock enclosed feet back into  my Vasque GoreTex boots. It was a tight fit, but helped to dry them out a bit more. In colder weather, a pair of down booties would be better.

In the leg department, my

BPL Cocoon Pants

were excellent. Super lightweight (213g), really warm, and water resistant. Just perfect. I'm very happy with them. They are very flexible as part of a layering system.

Time for bed. I pack used things away loosely and pile everything inside the DuoMid. Out with the CCF pad and air mattress. Puff up the sleeping bag. Do I need the bivy bag? Probably not, but it won't hurt. Air pillow – check. With a luxury lantern all is good. I curl up inside the bag, the air cold on my face.

Foolishly, I forgot to make a shock cord system to attach the Exped pillow to my Ether Elite, so once again I was in for a nocturnal wrestling match as I tried to reposition the pillow from within the cocoon of my sleeping bag. Every time I got it in position, it moved when I got back inside the bag. Over and over again,

ad nauseum

.

And I'm really torn about the sleeping bag. The WM Antelope is well made, warm, and fairly light. The hood cinches down tight and at night, in winter, when all you want is to be cosily tucked up and protected from the cold and the wind, a mummy bag is perfect. But when it comes down to it, I'm a side sleeper, and mummy bags are made for back sleepers. I would be far better served by a quilt and a separate down hood – much like the set up that

Katabatic

offer

. The only problem is that I'm not convinced a quilt is the best solution (for me) in true cold.

Sure, in a mummy bag, the down beneath you is compressed and inefficient. And that night, I did start to feel the cold radiating up from the ground. This was mainly because the Multimat Adventure and Ether Elite 6 were not enough even together for anything below -10C. After I slipped the 4-section Z-lite under my hips (this is where I felt the cold from, mainly) it was a little better, but still not perfect.

Perhaps the only solution is a quilt in combination with a down/synthetic filled air mattress. I don't know, but it's an expensive thing to try and find out I'm still not warm enough.

The Antelope is rated to -15C, and I feel this is very accurate. I wouldn't want to take it below that. In colder weather, I could easily extend it's range by combining it with the Golite 3-Season quilt, but the main place I felt the cold was under my hips, and that problem is more likely related to my baselayer riding up and the pads not being warm enough. Perhaps

Kooka Bay's secret down pad

is worth a look.

I picked up a balaclava for the trip, but in the end found it wasn't warm enough. I was warmer just sleeping in my

Mountain Hardwear windproof fleece hat

. This is my go-to had for everything. Possibly the warmest hat I own.

Still, even with all these gripes, I had a relatively good night's sleep after midnight.

Dogs barking somewhere. Talking to each other it seems. At least I think they are dogs. Maybe they are rabid coyotes? And now – distant sirens. They must be in Afton. What the hell's going on? Was that gunfire? It sounded like it. Maybe a farmer is shooting coyotes? Or maybe the police are hunting an escaped convict, and he's going to run through the state park, trying to evade them. What if he finds my shelter? Maybe he'll shoot me! Calm down. There are no rabid coyotes or escaped convicts. There are no rabid coyotes or escaped convicts. There are no......Zzzzzzzz.

I wake up early, with the light. I still have both legs and no gunshot wounds. I decide to make coffee to celebrate.

Thankfully, I remembered to keep my water bottle and boots inside the bivy bag, close enough to my body to keep them warm.

The main reason for getting the Spider was the ability to use the gas in 'inverted' mode during winter, to ensure an appropriate mixture of fuels reached the stove. After warming the pre-heating tube, the stove lit immediately – which was a relief as this was the first time I'd attempted this.

While the method of ignition was fine, the stove slid around on the thin aluminium pad. I'm going to need to make something similar to the

MYOG stove pad over at Thunder in the Night

. But for this night, I would manage with some careful balancing.

The inside of the DuoMid – as expected – was covered in frost, but this shook off easily when breaking camp.

To be honest, I'm surprised there wasn't more, but the wind, which picked up in the night, probably helped disperse some condensation.

Coffee and oatmeal. Then another coffee. I'm ready to go. I crawl out into the day, and start shuffling around, packing up, excavating stakes, and – what's that? A fox dashes out of the trees. I rush for the camera, fumbling with the lens cap – too late. It's gone. It seemed happy, bounding along with the same expression my Springer has in the snow; pure glee.

Can dogs and foxes can know glee? I remember something I read about babies in the womb. Apparently at around 19 weeks, they can dream. But what do they dream of? They haven't seen anything yet; their eyes are still closed. Do they dream of sounds? Amniotic tastes? Movement? Heartbeats?

There it is again! The fox! It's taking exactly the same route as before! It's like the deja vu cat in The Matrix. This time I'm ready. I grab the camera, raise it – but the lens is too wide, and apparently covered in frost.

Can you see the fox? It's in there, somewhere!

I'm packed up and ready to go. I strap on the snow shoes. I think I'll take the long way out, and go for a walk around the park some more. It's a beautiful morning. Crisp and fresh. My show shoes crunch along. I'll be home soon enough, but not yet...

For some reason that morning, the snow shoe bindings were not quite right. With every step they would clatter and rebound with a double tap-tap. It became so irritating I had to re-adjust them twice, but to no avail. It seems that with large boots, the bindings can rub against the edge of the floatation platform, causing them to flip-flop up and down. The manual informs me that I can cut a curve out and remedy the problem. Add that to the list of little things that need fixing then!

Down the hill, stomp stomp stomp. A beautiful trail down to the St Criox River. As before, I feel refreshed; lighter somehow, as if I've shaken off some burdens.  There's a lot to look forward to this year. 

"Big changes are coming, here they come..." 

An old favourite Laurie Anderson song rolls around  my head. How did it go? Oh yes...

"What next, big sky?"

Disappointment Mountain - Snowbank Lake, MN

It was cold. Deliciously cold. After six months of humidity, the weather had finally broken and autumn was rolling in. I shook off the DuoMid and the polycryo ground sheet, repacked everything in my MLD Burn, and headed off with Len and Jan to meet Fred and Brad at the ranger station.

Fred had organised this trip through meetup.com. Last year I hiked with him on the Sioux Hustler Trail, and this year he chose a route around Snowbank Lake near Ely, MN. We planned to take in an additional loop to check out some old pines, and explore a rarely-visited trail over the charmingly-named Disappointment Mountain.

We were a mixed group. Jan, the oldest, from Poland. Len from Belarus. Brad from Bemidji, and Fred from Finland - Finland, Minnesota, that is. I don't usually like hiking in large groups; too much noise, and not enough flat tent places. But I wanted to get out, and this was a good opportunity to test out a load of new gear.

After a quick breakfast at the trailhead, we set off on the first leg, a 13 mile hike to Medas Lake along the Kekekabic Trail and Old Pines Loop. The trails in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildreness (BWCAW) are rarely hiked and often hard to find. The frequent storms in the area guarantee a lot of treefall across the trail, so I had a pretty good idea that the 32 miles we planned to walk would be long and hard. I was correct.

The early part of the trail was fairly easy going. My MLD Burn was pretty light, weighing in at 8.2kg, or around 9 with the water bottle.

I did make one adjustment early on: I'd set up my Sawyer water filter to work inline between the dromedary and the hydration tube, but it was too much effort to suck the water through the tube. I simply removed the hydration tube and filtered water into the platy-bottle. In the end this method was less hassle anyway.

Considering that the other guys were carrying packs weighing 15 to 18kg(!) it wasn't long before I started to get enquiries about lightweight backpacking. By the end of the three days, all the guys were talking about getting lighter packs, sleeping bags, tarps, and hiking poles (the Gossamer Gear LT4s really impressed them). When you see their packs, you can understand why next time they hike, they won't be bringing three spare, heavy shirts!

The trail became progressively more remote and wild, and at one point the three guys in front took a wrong turn, missing the almost invisible path through overgrown young aspen and wild raspberry.

It's a shame beavers can't be trained to clear trails.

By mile 10 we were getting pretty tired of climbing over or swinging under fallen trees. We almost decided not to take the slightly longer trail around Old Pines Loop, but in the end our decision to do so was worth it.

In Minnesota, most of the virgin forest has been logged, and only a few stands of old trees exist. When you come across them they are magnificent. Tall, giant, strong; standing tall against storms for over a hundred years.

Above us stretched a vast canopy of pine, shading out the sun.

Most of the people in the BWCAW are canoeists. If you're on the water you can expect to see plenty of other people. Very few even know there are trails through the woods, with secret campsites hidden away up from the water's edge, on remote lakes almost impossible to reach by canoe. That night, ours was on Medas Lake.

It was getting late. We quickly set up camp, and I scavenged for fuel for my BushBuddy Ultra.

That night, the stars were spectacularly clear. Well away from any other light pollution, the Milky Way spread out above us. Even Andromeda was visible (I know this, because I used Pocket Universe to locate it!)

After hanging the bear bags, I retired into my DuoMid for the night. I slept erratically, woken by the THWACK of beaver tails on the water, warning each other of our presence.

The air chilled again overnight, falling well below the dew point. I slipped past the condensation on the DuoMid, and into the eerie morning.

Mist hung in the air, veiling the landscape.

Dew coated the morning, highlighting the nocturnal activity that had taken place as we slept.

Under one spruce, I almost expected to find presents and tree-elves.

After firing up the BushBuddy for oatmeal and coffee, I shook off the condensation, packed the Burn, and we set off again.

The mist lifted to reveal a fine blue day as we made our way towards Disappointment Mountain.

Before our "ascent" we had to cross a beaver dam. I was hoping to get my Inov-8s wet, but the dam was so sturdy that this test would have to wait until later.

Perhaps it is the name that keeps people away, but the trail over Disappointment Mountain is one of the least travelled in the BWCAW. It is also one of the most overgrown. Because it stands slightly elevated above the rest of the landscape, it picks up the wind more, and consequently had many more downed trees.

The two-mile trail took us three hours to cross. By far the slowest going I've ever experienced on any trail.

The views were... from a slightly higher vantage point!

As we sat for an hour, 7 groups of canoeists trudged grumpily over the portage. In the confusion, some of them left empty water containers, and one group forgot to take their water filter.

We packed up and left, the lake now full of people enjoying their wilderness experience.

Today's section of the hike would only be 12 miles, but the bushwhacking across Disappointment had exhausted us. Thankfully, our route would now take us on a scenic circumnavigation of Snowbank Lake.

I appreciated the more open views. I love hiking, but walking through a continuous green tunnel is not my idea of an enjoyable trail. I'm much happier when I get some open vistas, and am able to see beyond the next four meters.

After 11 miles, we were all exhausted. We'd been climbing up and down for hours, through dense thicket, over trees, along a trail paved with sharp rocks and numerous bear sign. When we arrived at a tiny campsite with poor access to water our hearts sank. We had to continue to the next site - but all would be well.

Half a mile further along the trail we arrived at a far better site with plenty of pitching sites, and some good trees for Fred's Hennessey Hammock (he swears by it, but I could never sleep in it - still, a light alternative to a heavy tent).

With tired limbs, I gathered sticks for my evening meal.

I had to pitch the DuoMid quite high because of uneven, rocky ground. This, combined with a low dew point, resulted in absolutely no condensation in the night. Fantastic! And what a joy to wake up to sunrise over Snowbank.

I rose to explore the shore. Distant pockets of mist drifted over the water near islands and inlets.

A beautiful scene to accompany breakfast.

Although we only had 8 miles to the trail head, I would have been happy to spend a day here. It was an idyllic spot to sit and watch the lake, and would have made a nice resting site for a day. But we had to continue - through more uneasy terrain.

We came across a group of six hikers from Michigan who were complaining about the quality of the trail - so many fallen trees. I was worried that we'd have another section like Disappointment Mountain, but between meeting them and the trail head I counted four trees down. They were in for a real surprise when they got further around the lake.

As we climbed a hill, we were treated to a spectacular view of Snowbank and Disappointment Mountain in the distance - can you see it towering above the landscape?

The trail in fact became much easier for the last stretch, but my shoulders were aching and my feet sore from the uneven terrain.

Thirteen mile days are not so bad when the trail is good and the path is clear. I would estimate that an equivalent distance travelled on a better path would be around 20 miles. But this is the Boundary Waters - there are no well-trodden paths. Fallen trees block your path at every turn, and the trail will often disappear into thicket.

The trail head was a welcome sight.

(More detailed gear reports to follow...)

Kekekabic - Old Pines - Disappointment Mountain - Snowbank Lake at EveryTrail

The Badlands

Last October, my homebrewing friend Michael asked me if I wanted to do a short weekend trip to the Badlands. Being a huge fan of the Terrence Malick film, and having spent one night there on a summer road trip, I happily agreed.

The Badlands are a strange world of eroded, clay-rich mud formations in South Dakota. They rise mysteriously out of the great plains, and exist in a peculiar desert microclimate. Their name is appropriate - this is an area of little or no water, with maze-like eroded washes in which one can easily get disoriented. Few people go backpacking here - in summer the heat is oppressive, and the lightning storms deadly. When it does rain, the clay soil is transformed into slick, slippery mud, clinging heavily to boots and coating every thing that touches it.

And that's just the landscape.

Fortunately, as we were hiking in early November, rattlesnakes would be the least of our worries. At this time of year they should all be curled up in their nests. Typically, they have a very narrow temperature range in which they are active. Outside that range they are far more docile. I set off, reassured that the only thing we had to deal with were the buffalo.

The scale of the formations is a little hard to represent in images. From certain angles, they appear to be distant, jagged mountain ranges. In fact, they are much like miniature mountains, eroded into intricate details, joined by ridges and saddles, with elusive trails disappearing as the soil dries and crumbles away.

We spent the first forty minutes of our hike, trying to find a short cut up onto the main range - a place known as Deer Haven, where we planned to spend the first night.

It was pointless. A waste of energy. We'd manage to carefully climb up one mound, only to be faces with an impossible path down. The area is home to a lot of Bighorn Sheep, which are famous for their ability to scamper up near-vertical rockfaces. We were more likely to slip over. We needed another plan. We checked the map and decided to hike around the southern limit, where the land rose more gently up to Deer Haven. It meant a longer hike - once again we were carrying all our water, and a few Surly Benders for the first night - and we would arrive in darkness, but realistically it was our only option. There was simply no other way we could get up there.

We followed a faint trail through some burned-out pasture. I was glad we weren't hiking in summer. This would be perfect rattlesnake territory.

As the sun set, we approached the foothills of a large, crescent-shaped formation. It was really getting dark. We could hardly see in front of us. Michael stopped me as a skunk waddled along a wash below us. We didn't want to frighten him and get squirted.

Eventually we got to a small patch of grass half way up the hill. It was getting too dangerous to continue, so we decided to pitch the tent right there, on top of what appeared to be some kind of animal trail; probably deer. We didn't have much of an option. Above us were mud mountains, below us juniper bushes, and beside us, what appeared to be the entrance to hell.

We were hungry. And thirsty. Time for Michael's terrific backcountry Chicken Curry and beer. Unfortunately, Michael forgot to bring a spoon, but I managed to improvise a solution for him - my (unused) toilet trowel.

We awoke to the early-morning sun, creating fantastic colours on the multi-layered surfaces of the Badlands.

We scouted around, trying to find a good path up. It was very clear we were not on any kind of human trail. Could we follow it anyway? It seemed unlikely that it led anywhere we wanted to go. The top of the crescent formation was lined by a wall of rock, some five to ten meters high.

Thankfully, we were leaving the tent where we pitched it, planning to day hike around the upper plateau. As we only had a couple of days, it made far more sense to do this than to have to carry our packs around as well as our water supply.

After hunting around the rock face, we found a small crack which we were able to scramble up. It seemed to be the only viable route. What we didn't realise was that to the east, a much gentler climb would have got us exactly where we wanted to go.

Still, with a little effort, we made it, and the rest of the day's activities could begin.

The top of the plateau was riddled with tiny washes, flowing slow and impossibly winding courses which became ever wider and deeper.

I felt we were moving at a snail's pace. We might walk a kilometer, but progress about 300 meters. After a while, the washes thinned out, and it was possible to climb up out of them, to take a more or less indirect route - and get a better view.

Around this point, I started to feel water running down my back. At first I thought it was sweat, but as I got more soaked, I knew I had another problem.

Cactii are very common in the Badlands, and apparently at some point, I had laid my platypus on a few spikes. Four tiny holes were leaking my precious water supply.  I hastily put the platy in a bag to collect the drips. Every mouthful counts. We didn't expect to encounter any water supplies, and the heat, even in November, was rising.

Whichever direction we walked, we would suddenly come across a chasm blocking our path. We could see where we wanted to head - the end of one formation, which we hoped to skirt around - but the path there was impossible to determine.

Suddenly, we heard a thundering rumble. We turned in time to see a small group of bison running out of a wash. They are fearsome beasts, weighing up to 1000kg, yet moving fast. We decided to stay out of their way as much as possible. Sadly, my camera broke at this point. All I had left was the tiny camera on the iPhone, so their massive power will not really be visible in the photos above and below.

In order to keep heading for our planned destination, we had to continuously traverse washes, hoping to find a way out. We couldn't really follow a map as the Badlands change with continuous erosion. Supposedly perennial streams had long since dried up, and mini canyons had appeared in-between the marked contour lines.

As we walked, I noticed regular bison trails - heavily trodden tracks they had made on their way between who knows where and somewhere else. I started to wonder about the nature of the trail, as I have done many times while backpacking.

I often wonder when and where a trail begins. In whose footsteps are we walking?

While walking around the

Sioux Hustler Trail

, I wondered who had planned such a circuitous route. Had the Forestry Service really planned it, or were we walking on a path once traversed by hunters or fur traders. Naturally, the inclusion of the word "Sioux" in the trail name led me to believe that once, before they were all but killed off, the Sioux might have marked that path.

But then, what trail did they follow? In all likelihood, they too would have hunted, and followed the tracks of moose, bear, or beaver. Are we then often following in the footsteps of animals? Trails marked out as animals made journeys from a source of food, to a den, to water. Trials which later we would walk while hunting them, and later still while finding routes through the forest.

In a recent post on

Chris Townsend's blog

from his hike along the Pacific Northwest Trail, I noticed the following sentence, which resonates with my thoughts:

When possible I followed faint animal trails - made by bears or moose or elk - but these never went my direction for long. 

In the Badlands, I found the opposite to be true. I began to think,

surely the bison know where they are going? They have to drink, eat, get home.

But more importantly, they have to navigate through this labyrinthine terrain.

We decided to follow the bison. And to our amazement, their trails led us on intricate paths through and around every wash. Suddenly we were moving freely, with ease, out destination growing ever nearer, with bison as our co-pilots.

Before we knew it, we were there. The grasslands of Sage Creek opened out before us - but it was too late.

It had taken too long to get there for us to risk going any further. We had a long trek back, and I was dreading the twisting, winding washes we would once again have to negotiate. We'd have to start conserving our water supply anyway, so it would have been foolish to continue. We stopped for lunch, and began the journey back, following once again in the footsteps of bison.

When we arrived at the top of the rock wall, we hunted around for the crack which marked our way down. It looked a lot steeper and I decided the best way down would be to do a mud glissade. I threw my trekking pole down ahead of me, and gingerly slipped back down.

A sudden noise startled me. I looked up just in time to see a rattlesnake launch itself from a hole in the wall near my head. It flew into the air, writhing around, seeming to hover for a moment, before it fell the the ground, mouth wide open, its hooked teeth on display, eyes cold and mad, its tail shaking with that terrifying death's throat rattle. I'd never seen a rattle snake before, let alone scared one. It's a sound I'll never forget.

I had inadvertently stumbled into the rattlesnake's lair. I was an intruder, and it was letting me know. I wanted to tell it I meant it no harm, but I didn't think it wanted to listen. As much as one might want to anthropomorphize the reactions of animals, they remain coldly efficiant at getting what they need - the rest is silence, ambivalence.

When I threw my pole down, it had hit the side of the crack, which I now saw to be covered in holes, one of which the snake had propelled itself at me from.

Now it was coiled, ready for attack, blocking our way down.

I managed to get my pole back, and considered hitting it. My knees were trembling. I didn't think I had a good angle on the snake to kill it, and I was worried what would happen if I failed. I'm not really into killing animals, innocent or otherwise, so there was only one other option. Retreat.

I hauled myself back up the crack, away from the rattler. Back at the top we were stuck in a staring match. Michael tried throwing stones at it, which I thought was a bad idea - we might wake up its mates. A couple of the hit near the snake, and it began to move. It slithered up the wall, entered the same hole, and stuck its head out, slyly looking at us, daring us to try again.

Perhaps we should find another way down.

We skirted along the ridge. As we were about to give up hope, we found another slim crack, and lowered ourselves down, wary all the time. Fortunately, this time, we got down safely.

Back at the tent, the sun was once again setting, leaving us with a colourful end for our brief escapade.

The next morning it rained, making the journey out hard going as mud clodded up on our shoes.

The Badlands really are fantastic. I have never been anywhere so utterly alien and strange. I can't think of anywhere this unique in Europe. It is yet another of America's great landscapes - the kind of thing that the country does so well.

We plan to return again this November, to try and find the right trail to the top of the plateau, and to walk further into the Badlands, following the footsteps of giant beasts.

--Gear Note--

This was one of the last trips I made before starting to go ultra light. Most of the gear used was old and heavy. My shelter was the old, reliable Haglöfs Genius 21. My backpack was a large Halti from Finland. Only my sleeping bag gives some indication of the way forward: a Western Mountaineering Antelope. Too warm for the nights, but lighter than my synthetic Haglöfs bags. I also used a NeoAir (long) for the first time, and was, at that time, entirely happy with it.

The "Return to the Badlands" trip later this year will be much more interesting gear-wise, so I'll save the detailed reports for then!