Tuesday, 10 of September of 2013

A Fishing Tale: Brown Bears & Big Sockeyes

Brown bears and big fish are the highlights to a fly fishing adventure on Alaska's famed Russian River.

Editor’s Note: Where has Jim DuFresne been? Turns out MichiganTrailMaps.com’s main blogger has been in Alaska the past couple of weeks catching sockeye salmon. Here is his  latest tale from the Final Frontier. Don’t for get to check out his books at our e-shop, including 12 Classic Trout Streams in Michigan.

By Jim DuFresne

The salmon runs in Alaska are legendary, well known by fly fishermen around the world. Alaska also has more bears than the rest of the states combined, including 100,000 black bears and more than 30,000 brown bears or 95% of the U.S. population.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

The first thing you learn when you arrive in the 49th State to fish for salmon is that where there is one there’s usually the other. Such was the case at the Russian River Campground, a Chugach National Forest facility in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula.

I arrived at this 80-site campground with Ed Fogels, a good friend from Anchorage, on June 10 to a surreal scene. Every site was filled, most having been reserved six months in advance, ours included, because the opener for sockeye salmon was that night at 12:01 a.m.

The Russian River with its fly-fishing-only regulation is one of the most popular sockeye salmon streams in Alaska, the reason strolling through the campground were men, women and entire families outfitted in waders and vests, carrying a rod or two.

Bear Spray

An angler with his canister of pepper spray.

But this was also bear country, the signs of that were everywhere. Literally. Every site had a large, metal bear box for food storage with a sign WARNING Bears In The Area! Every picnic table had a yellow sign stapled to it that said WARNING Food & Odors Attract Bears! The campground dumpster had a sign asking you to be responsible with your garbage and Help Keep Alaska’s Bears Wild.

The most obvious sign you were in bear country was hanging on the wading belt of almost every angler; a can of pepper spray.

Brown bears, big fish –  sockeyes run between six and 12 pounds –  and a campground full of anglers with a serious case of salmon fever. The level of anticipated excitement for this opener was amazing.

We passed up the 12:01 start. Ed’s theory is that the best time to be on the water was during a lull between the midnight anglers and those who rather wait until a more civilized time to fish like after their first cup of coffee in the morning. We arrived at the river at 4 a.m.

It had been light for almost an hour when I stepped into the Russian River for the first time, clutching an eight-weight rod. Two things immediately challenged me; casting a fly line rigged with 16-pound tippet and eight 3/0 split shots on it and spotting the salmon, the blue ghosts, as Ed called them, among the boulders and rocks in the Russian.

I struggled all morning with both. By early afternoon I was alone at a hole, still looking for my first hook-up when my fly snagged a boulder in the middle of the river and I lost my hook, split shots and tippet. I re-rigged, lost that one a few minutes later and re-rigged again.

When my line stopped in the swift current yet again I gave my rod a hard yank in frustration, thinking I was on the verge of losing my third fly in less than 30 minutes. That’s when a 10-pound-plus sockeye leaped clear out of the river, a starling acrobatic display that was so close I could see my purple streamer hooked in the corner of its mouth.

I almost wet my waders.

“I call them sticks of dynamite,” the angler camping next to us said that evening. “They’re that explosive.”

Angler with a sockeye

An angler fights a sockeye salmon in Alaska’s Russian River.

The fish leaped again and again as I fanatically reeled in my excess line. Then it took off downstream and there was little I could do to stop my reel from spinning wildly.

At this point I experienced something I never have on the Au Sable catching my usual 10 or 12-inch trout; I was down to my backing. There, stretched out a 100 feet downriver from me, was my $80 fly line with one end tethered to a rampaging sockeye and the other to my backing by a knot that I may or may not have taken the time to tie properly.

I pumped my rod wildly as if I was deep sea fishing to work in my line and then fought that fish for at least 10 minutes before it broke off, almost effortlessly it seemed.

I lost that sockeye but I was hooked.

On Wednesday I hooked and landed – netting the fish was often the most challenging aspect – my limit of three sockeyes. On Thursday I hooked into 16 sockeyes before I was able to land the first one. I caught my limit that day as well.

I’m basically a catch-and-release angler, either it’s the law like the Au Sable Holy Waters or I’m just too lazy to deal with the bluegills and crappies I land belly boating. I’ll never keep a bass only because I can’t fathom killing something that just gave me so much pleasure on a fly rod.

But somehow on the Russian it seemed like the right thing to do. If you don’t catch and eat that salmon a bear will or bald eagles, seagulls, foxes and mergansers will after it spawns. One thing for sure, that fish is not returning to the ocean from which it came.

Anglers with sockeye salmon.

Anglers hold a stringer of sockeye salmon from Alaska’s Russian River.

You can “Disney-ify” this and call it the circle of life. Or you can simple acknowledge that salmon is the protein that sustains all of Alaska, residents and wildlife alike.

On Friday when I reached the river at 5 a.m. I was the only one around. The anglers from opening day had to rush back to Anchorage for at least a morning at the office. The weekend crowd hadn’t shown up yet.

I was casting into my hole when I saw something move in the corner of my eye. It was my first bear, standing on the opposite bank a 150 yards up stream. It was staring into the water, doing basically what I was trying to do, spot a sockeye.

Signs around the campground and the river say that if a bear approaches, give up your hole. If you have a fish on, cut your line. If the bruin is still staring at you, toss that stringer of salmon into the river.

I just watched him. You never want to have an encounter with a 500-pound brown bear but you sure hate to leave Alaska without seeing one. I watched that bear for 10 minutes until it left the river and disappeared into the woods.

That’s when the first sockeye of the day hit my purple streamer.

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Sally Jewell: She’s No James Watt

Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI, has been nominated to be the next Secretary of the Interior and that's great because she's one of us, somebody who maintains their sanity by escaping outdoors.

Editor’s Note: It’s been a busy speaking season this winter for Jim DuFresne but his last gig is this Saturday when he will appear at the author’s table at 11:45 a.m. at the Midwest Fly Fishing Expo at Macomb Community College Sports & Expo Center, 14500 E.12 Mile Road, in Warren. After that you’ll find Jim out on the trail. For more on the expo see the show’s web site.

By Jim DuFresne

I’ve spent a lot of time in National Parks, national forests and other parcels of federally-owned land and twice I’ve met the person responsible for their upkeep and protection; the Secretary of the Interior.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

The first time was in 1981. I was living in Juneau, Alaska and a friend who was newscaster invited me to join him at the state capitol where James Watt was going to to address the Alaska legislature.

President Ronald Reagan’s choice for Secretary of the Interior was a controversial and polarizing figure. He endorsed the rampant development of federal lands by foresters and ranchers, sought to eliminate regulations for oil and mining companies, and once directed the National Park Service to draft legislation that would have de-authorized a number of National Parks. He accepted the position saying “we will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.”

A 1981 demonstration against James Watt in Juneau, Alaska

A 1981 demonstration against James Watt in Juneau, Alaska, complete with chainsaws.

The day he arrived in Juneau hundreds gathered outside the capitol with their chainsaws and just when Watt stepped up to the podium inside they revved them up and held them high in the air. You couldn’t hear yourself think much less Watt speak.

The second time was in 2008 when I was invited to a reception celebrating the opening of a new REI store in Ann Arbor. Addressing a crowd of local environmental groups, outdoor clubs and conservation organizations that evening was Sally Jewell, president and CEO of REI.

Later, when Jewell was inspecting the displays of outdoor equipment while sipping a glass of wine, two of us walked up and struck a conversation with her.

She had never been in Michigan before other than to change planes in Detroit and immediately engaged us in where we go to hike, kayak and mountain bike, activities she said she thoroughly enjoys. She was impressed with our descriptions of wild places like Sleeping Bear Dunes and Isle Royale National Park and laughed when we told her that the Upper Peninsula was such a wonderful outdoor playground we call it “God’s Country.”

We chatted for more than 15 minutes, she was that approachable.

Sally Jewell, President Barack Obama’s nomination to be the next Secretary of the Interior, is not James Watt. For that we should all be thankful.

While Jewell’s background includes stints as an oil company engineer and a commercial banker, since 2005 she has served as chief executive of REI and has earned national recognition for her support of outdoor recreation and habitat conservation. Supporters say she is an ideal candidate to balance the agency’s sometimes conflicting mandates between promoting resource development and preserving the nation’s natural heritage.

If nominated, she has her work cut out for her. She will take over a department that has been embroiled in controversy over the regulation of oil and gas on public lands and in the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic Ocean. She also will be the steward of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, from the Everglades of Florida to the Cascades of Washington State.

I hope she is nominated for the simple reason she’s one of us, somebody who heads outdoors to unwind from urban stresses or challenges herself to new heights. Literally, because Jewell is also a mountain climber.

Sally Jewell,

Sally Jewell, President Barack Obama’s nomination to be Secretary of the Interior.

A native of the Seattle area and a graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in mechanical engineering, Jewell has been a lifelong outdoors enthusiast. As a child she sailed with her family in the Puget Sound and camped throughout the Pacific Northwest, as an adult said she has climbed Mount Rainier in the state of Washington and Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica. She bikes to work.

But what impressed me the most that evening in Ann Arbor was Jewell’s passion for getting children outdoors as a way to save the environment. The younger, the better. Wait too long and they rarely develop that enthusiasm for the outdoors when they are adults.

Thus she doesn’t see other outdoor shops scattered across Michigan as competitors, rather cohorts in an effort to promote trail development and outdoor recreation and to encourage support of public lands and parks. We’re all in this together.

“Our competitors are TV, video games and kids who are over scheduled,” Jewell said.

That’s something I never heard James Watt say.

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A Trusted Friend: My Dana Backpack

For 25 years and around the world Jim DuFresne used his Dana Design backpack to carry what he needed to survive in the wilderness.

North Manitou Island Map

Editor’s Note: In the latest Trail Talk, Jim DuFresne writes about the Dana Design backpack he used for 25 years. The final adventure with it was while researching our new map of North Manitou Island last summer. The map is now out and available from our e-shop. The large format map measures 11 by 17 inches, is printed on durable card stock and coated to be water resistant. Includes all distance markers, contour lines, historic buildings and ruins. Best of all, when folded it fits in your back pocket or the side pouch of your pack.

Next appearance for Jim will be at the Cottage & Lakefront Living Show and Outdoorama on Feb. 21-24 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. His presentation will be Michigan’s National Parks: Jewels of the Great Lakes.

By Jim DuFresne

My first backpack was an official Boy Scout, canvas rut sack that my father purchased just before sending me off to summer camp. I used it for five years. My second pack was an external frame Kelty that my oldest sister passed on to me. I had the Kelty for nine years. My third was a Dana Design that I purchased on my own in 1987.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

I still have my first two packs. I don’t have the Dana.

Last year my good friend, Sandy Graham, asked me if I would be interested in donating the pack as part of a small collection of historical backpacking gear being displayed in Backcountry North, his new outdoor store in Traverse City.

Even though I was still using the Dana, I couldn’t say no. Sandy sold me the pack 25 years ago.

At the time I was producing a newsletter for Sandy so I’m sure I received a hefty discount at the store he was managing. Still the pack, with its optional rain cover, side pockets and duffel bag designed to ship it on airlines, set me back more than $300. Maybe $400. Either was a small fortune for a struggling writer who only had three books under his belt.

But I was attracted to how well the internal frame pack fit – it featured lightweight metal stays that could be bent to the curvature of your back – and by its bright red color. While living in Alaska someone once told me that if a bear charged, toss your backpack in front of you. The theory was the pack, especially a brightly colored one, would distract the bruin long enough for you to back away to safety.

Dana on the Chilkoot

Jim DuFresne climbing the Chilkoot Trail with his Dana Design backpack.

I don’t know if that’s true. In all my years trekking in Alaska I’ve never been charged by a bear. What I did know is that when you’re outdoors in a world of greens and grays, browns and blues, a little bit of bit of red really made your photos pop.

Pretty soon it seemed like every other photo I took had the red Dana somewhere in it.

The other thing about the Dana; it carried a ton of gear. Like a small, rubber raft and 400-feet of rope when we knew in advance an Alaskan river would be too deep to ford … or bottles of fine wine and frozen tenderloin wrapped in newspaper when I was trying to show my wife how much fun backpacking could be. There were times, in the peak of my youth no doubt, when I had 80 or 90 pounds of gear stuffed in it.

Most of all, the red Dana was a trusted companion, there with me on almost every wilderness adventure I embarked on. It had been from one end of New Zealand to the other and all over Alaska. I have lugged it up and down the Greenstone Ridge Trail on Isle Royale National Park and across the heart of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

In the 25 years I had that pack I researched and wrote 62 editions of 22 different guidebooks, including Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes (MichiganTrailMaps.com), Tramping in New Zealand (Lonely Planet), Backpacking in Michigan (University of Michigan Press) and 50 Hikes in Michigan (Backcountry Publications).

Photos with the distinctive red pack in it has appeared in 10 of those books, including on the back cover of Lonely Planet’s 1993’s Backpacking in Alaska.

When I handed the backpack to Sandy just before one of my presentations at his store last November still attached to it were two backcountry permits. One was for the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska that I hiked in 2011 with my son, who, now at the age of 27, carries far more gear and climbs faster than me.

The other was for North Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore that was issued last August, the final adventure for this Dana Design pack.

I told the crowd that evening that somewhere in this beloved pack there was a lesson, that when you invest in quality gear, even when the price seems outrageous at the time, it always ends up being a much better value in the long run.

Either that or  Sandy is a darn good salesman.

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A Holiday Sale And A Journey To Death Valley

MichiganTrailMaps.com is having its first holiday sale and Jim DuFresne hikes Death Valley National Park

South Manitou Island Map

Editor’s Note: Tis the season … to scramble around for last minute stocking stuffers. We’re here to help. MichiganTrailMaps.com is having its first holiday sale. Order a book and we’ll throw in one of our new trail maps, a $4.95 value!

Order any book from our e-shop and fill in the “Name of Free Trail Map” box to let us know which map to send you. It could be Jordan River Pathway, Manistee River Trail or our newest that just arrived from the printer, South Manitou Island. Also don’t forget to fill in the “Autograph Book For” box so author Jim DuFresne can dedicate it to whoever you want. You’ll receive a personalized Christmas gift for somebody and a detailed map for next summer’s adventure.

Journey To A Deadly Valley

By Jim DuFresne

I’m hiking along an open ridge at 5,475 feet with 360-degree views all around me; peaks and entire mountain ranges, valleys and a road that looks like a ribbon. I stop at an outcropping to briefly get out of the wind and, as amazing as the scenery has been so far, I’m stunned at what I see now.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

Straight below me is a whitish plain, Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. On the horizon to the west, poking its icy crown above a mountain range, is Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest point in the contiguous United States. I’m looking at the floor and the ceiling of our country from one of the most amazing parks within it.

Death Valley National Park, a land of great extremes.

When my brother had an extra week off he called the one person he knew is always up for a hiking adventure. He baited me into flying out to California by saying we could spend a few days at this 3.4-million acre park that is only two hours from Las Vegas.

“It’s always been on my bucket list,” he said. It should be on everybody’s bucket list.

Death Valley is a blend of craggy mountain peaks, sand dunes, low valleys and rocky gullies that has been sculptured into every possible shape and color, a surreal landscape that is jagged, rugged, severe, beautiful and sublime all at once. Much of the area is barren – the reason you have places named Devil’s Golf Course, Dante’s View, Deadman Pass and Coffin Peak. But it also supports nearly 1,000 native plant species and harbors fish, snails and other aquatic animals found nowhere else.

The land of great extremes.

Badwater Basin In Death Valley National Park

Hiking across salt in Badwater Basin In Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in the country.

For most people Death Valley is synonymous with the Borax 20-mule teams from the 1960s TV show, Death Valley Days, and scorching temperatures. Three moisture-trapping ranges to the west cast Death Valley in a deep rain shadow, making it a very dry and hot place. The average high in July is 118 degrees, the lows at night only 88 degrees.

Last July the temperature rose to 128 degrees at one point and on July 10, 1913 it hit 134 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in the world. “It was so hot that swallows in full flight fell to the earth dead,” said a Death Valley ranch hand at the time.

But when we arrived in mid-November the daytime temperature, even on the valley floor, was a comfortable mid-70s and it was sunny every day, great weather for hiking. At night it would drop to the upper 40s, chilly enough to justify fleece, and in the winter the mountains that enclose Badwater Basin, the heart of Death Valley, are covered with snow.

The main centers of activity in Death Valley are Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells which include park resorts, limited supplies, campgrounds and visitor centers. Both are located on paved State Highway 190.

There are four other major paved roads in this massive park and then it’s dirt roads and two-tracks, most recommended only for high clearance vehicles or four-wheel-drive jeeps and SUVs. Even then you must be careful when you leave the pavement for the backcountry. This is how the National Park Service makes that point in its official visitors guide:

You’ve got two flat tires. Your cell phone doesn’t work. Nobody knows where you are. You’re not sure where you are. You haven’t seen another car since you turned off the highway 12 hours ago. The only thing you can hear is the ringing in your ears. Is this how you thought it would end?

Ridge walking in the mountains above Death Valley.

Ridge walking in the mountains above Death Valley.

Wow, and we were driving a plug-in Prius.

We stuck to the pavement or close to it but had no problem filling three days with things to see. We checked out the Harmony Borax Works mining ruins, followed Artist’s Drive through multi-hued volcanic hills with a late afternoon sun setting behind us, rose early the next morning and watched it rise over the perfectly smooth curvatures of the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes.

The highlight of the trip, however, was the hiking.

We drove up to Dante’s View, a 5000-foot overlook, and from there ridge walked for miles. We snaked our way through Golden Canyon to a high pinkish bluff known as Red Cathedral. We explored the narrow passages, old borax mines, dry waterfalls and colorful Badland-like setting in Gower Gulch.

In the end the most amazing hike was the shortest. From the road, it’s less than a mile before you’re standing in Badwater Basin, a salt flat that is almost pure white. Here in the lowest place in the country you’re surrounded by mountains and on one ridge a sign has been placed so high above the valley floor you have to squint to read it:  Sea Level.

Indeed, a strange land of great extremes.

For more on Death Valley National Park go to www.nps.gov/deva or call the Furnace Creek Visitor Center at 760-786-3200.

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Thoughts on a Wilderness Island

You figure out what's important in life while watching whitecaps and waves on the backside of a wilderness island.

Editor’s Note: Jim DuFresne has long since departed the Manitou Islands of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore  but he filed one more blog entry for MichiganTrailMaps.com since his return to the mainland.

Mark your calendar for a pair of Jim DuFresne presentations in November. DuFresne will be in Traverse City to give his new presentation Alaska Marine Highway: High Adventure and Easy Travel on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Backcountry North store, 2820 N. US-31. See the Backcountry North web site for more information. On Nov. 20 DuFresne will be at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor to present Wondrous Wilderness: Tramping in New Zealand at 7:30 pm. For more information see the Huron Valley Chapter of the Sierra Club web site.

By Jim DuFresne

Thoughts from the trail at the end of the hiking season:

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

On my fifth day on North Manitou Island I departed the meadow they called Crescent City on the west side of the island and headed south. My eventual destination was the sweeping beaches in the southeast corner of this wilderness island where I plan to camp for the night.

But at lunch time I decided to take an extended break at Fredrickson Place. The old farm is now a grassy clearing where from the edge of the shoreline bluff you can view South Manitou Island and Manitou Passage that separates the two islands.

On this particular day, Manitou Passage was wicked. I didn’t need the Weather Station to know that there were small craft warnings. I could look down and see four- and five-foot waves sweeping across the passage and crashing into the beach just below me. At times you could hear the wind roar between the two islands.

Powerful stuff.

If I was in a kayak or even in the Manitou Island Transit ferry I probably would have been clinging to the gunwales. But I was on solid ground, high above the stormy sea, practically alone on a 15,000-acre island, out of reach of cell phones and the Internet and editors and those endless campaign messages from robocallers. I was as content as I had been all summer.

I unfolded my small camp chair and plopped down to see what was left in my food bag. I found a can of sardines in mustard sauce, a piece of pita bread, a good chocolate bar that my German friend gave me just before I departed on this trip, enough water so I didn’t have to trudge down the bluff to filter another quart in four-foot waves.

Life was good.

A backpacker pauses along a beach on North Manitou Island.

A backpacker pauses along a beach on North Manitou Island.

I ate the sardines, nibbled on some of the chocolate and read a few pages from a novel, my sole entertainment. But mostly I just sat there and took in the scene that surrounded me. I was in the lull just before Labor Day when the ferry will deliver boat loads of backpackers to the island for the extended weekend.

Right now, however, I was alone and had been since breaking camp two days ago. But I hardy felt isolated in the middle of Lake Michigan, rather invigorated by the seclusion.

Backpacking is a tonic for me. It allows me to get-away and slow-down … uninterrupted. It provides me opportunities to think and ponder. To sort out my life and get back on track with what’s important to me.

Even a couple of days in the woods is beneficial but spend an extended amount of time on the trail, like eight days on North Manitou Island, and soon you fall into that rhythm where the watch becomes irreverent because the only deadline you have is to pitch your tent before dark.

It’s the simplified life on the trail that I find so appealing. Everything I need is strapped to my back. This is when you discover what’s really important in life; clean water, food, a dry fleece pullover for when the temperature plunges at night.

And you discover what is a true luxury; a seat with a back on it, a warm shower, a flush toilet.

Eventually I return to what they call The Village on the island where the ferry dock, ranger station and the only spigot for drinking water is located. The next day I was on that dock waiting for the ferry to take me back to the mainland.

At first I’m like everybody else. I’m looking forward to a cold beer, a soft bed, even some sinful junk food like a Taco Bell burrito.

But by the end of my first night off the island I’m thinking, even planning, my next wilderness adventure. It’s how I survive the winter, trying to figure out where I am going to pitch my tent the next summer. By the time I nod off to sleep that night I’ve already made an important decision.

The next time I hit the trail I have to pack more of that German chocolate.

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Pic Rock Yo-Yo Madness!

Approaching his 40th birthday Roy Kranz wanted to do something physically challenging to mark the mile point in his life...like hike the 42-mile Lakeshore Trail twice in under 36 hours.

Editor’s Note: This edition of MichiganTrailMaps.com Trail Talk was written by our favorite ultra-hiker, Roy Kranz of Midland. It’s titled Pic Rock Yo-Yo Madness! and in it he tried to explain why he hiked the 42-mile Lakeshore Trail at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore twice (there and back) in under 36 hours. We read it and still don’t understand.

Mark your calendar for a pair of Jim DuFresne presentations in November. DuFresne will be in Traverse City to give his new presentation Alaska Marine Highway: High Adventure and Easy Travel on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Backcountry North store, 2820 N. US-31. See the Backcountry North web site for more information. On Nov. 20 DuFresne will be at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor to present Wondrous Wilderness: Tramping in New Zealand at 7:30 pm. For more information see the Huron Valley Chapter of the Sierra Club web site.

By Roy Kranz

My buddy Morgan Anderson and I stumbled out of the woods just as the sun was setting.  We were dripping with sweat, our feet were blistered, our bodies were sore, but our pride was glowing.  We had just hiked the entire Lakeshore Trail at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in 14 hours.

At 42.4 miles it was my first really long day hike.  As we posed for our victory photos at the trailhead sign, I turned to Morgan, completely spent and joked, “how much would I have to pay you to turn around and walk back to the beginning?”   We both laughed and quickly dismissed the idea as impossible.  The year was 2003.

Waterfall

A watertfall leaping into Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Fast forward nine years to September of 2012.  Weeks away from turning 40, I decided it was time to attempt the impossible.  Now I had experience on my side.  I had completed four monster day hikes that were 22+ hours long and rated as multi-day backpacking trips.

These monster hikes always involve hours of suffering.  Your feet hurt, you feel horrible, you lose your appetite, you’re exhausted, and you have an overwhelming urge to give up and go home.  “Why do you do this?” is a question that I’m often asked.  As I approach 40, I guess I wanted to see if I still have “it,” whatever “it” is.  I enjoy pushing myself to the brink physically and mentally.  Pushing through the pain and succeeding is very rewarding.

Seven months before the “yo-yo” (a there and back hike) at Pictured Rocks, I assembled the strongest crew I had ever hiked with.  They included collegiate runners, Ironman triathletes, and several guys that had completed extremely long hikes.  My buddy Heath Kaplan, one of the best support guys in the business, also signed up.

On September 22, 2012, at 8:38 a.m., we started from Munising Falls, eight hikers strong.  Our pace was quick despite the cold temperature and rain.  High winds whipped us around as we danced over tree roots and tiptoed across exposed sections of cliff that were perched several hundred feet above an icy Lake Superior.   Loud booms startled us as the turquoise-colored waves slammed into eroded caves at the base of the cliffs below us.

Chapel Rock along the Lakeshore Trail.

Chapel Rock along the Lakeshore Trail.

Nineteen miles into the adventure, Mount Pleasant attorney, Todd Levitt, injured his foot and was out.  Next to drop was Pete Bultema Jr. at 31 miles.  Isabella County Assistant Prosecutor, Mark Kowalcyzk, and Gabe Garcia threw in the towel at mile 37.  Ryan Leetsma and Jason Schuringa both dropped at the half way point, 42.4 miles in.

My buddy, Eric Carlson and I mentally prepared for the inevitable pain and suffering and pushed on into the night.  We trudged, hour after dark hour in the small bubble of light that our headlamps cast ahead of us.  Somewhere around 3 a.m. I got nauseous, my mind started to dull, and I was unsteady on my feet.  As the minutes clicked by, I felt worse.  My hip and knee joints were killing me and I couldn’t force myself to eat.

As we approached the Au Sable lighthouse, we entered a large clearing.  Despite the incessant rain and clouds during the day, it was now completely clear.  The stars were abundant and bright.  Without a word, we both stopped walking and just gaped up at the sky.

When we reached the checkpoint at 12 Mile Beach, it was 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning.  At 54 miles in, we faced the crux of the challenge.  While most of the hiking sections between checkpoints were 3 to 6 miles long, this next one was 24.  We would be on our own, with no way to quit or get help for 9 hours.

We sat in the support vehicle eating, drinking, and repacking our backpacks.  I was wet, sore, and completely exhausted.  We didn’t talk.  All I could think about was how much I wanted to be done.  I blocked out thoughts of the comfortable bed waiting for me at the house we rented.

It’s at this point in the hike when the internal war is waged between comfort and commitment, pain and resolve, and pride and logic.  Do I want to feel good now or feel good about myself later?  The choice sounds easy until you are struggling to make it.  I’d planned, trained for, and thought about this hike for seven months.  I simply could not quit.  So I swallowed a handful of ibuprofen pills and with as much enthusiasm as I could muster said, “let’s do this!”

Around 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning, the sun came up.  Surprisingly, I felt great.  The light tricked my brain into thinking I had gotten a full night’s sleep.  Even with my renewed energy, the last 31 miles were a blur.  Eric hallucinated.  He saw buildings and bridges that weren’t there.  When we finally hit the last mile both of our minds were mush.  We had been at this same spot the day before but it seemed like a week ago.  Nothing looked familiar.  We thought we had missed our exit trail but we hadn’t.  We backtracked.  We studied maps.  We screamed in frustration.  We ached to be done.

Eric Carlson (left) and Roy Kranz at the end of their 35-hour, 84-mile trek.

Eric Carlson (left) and Roy Kranz at the end of their 35-hour, 84-mile trek.

As darkness closed in, we stumbled out of the woods completely shot, physically and mentally.  It was 8:00 pm Sunday night.  We had hiked over 85 miles [189,470 steps according to our pedometer] in under 36 hours without sleep.

We accomplished what I once thought was impossible. Many people still wonder why we do this.  The challenge and pride definitely play a part. Society has become conditioned to think that the easiest and most comfortable way is the best way. I disagree.

It isn’t always understanding why we voluntarily put ourselves through such suffering, but Ultra-marathon runner Dean Karnazes offered some insight when he explained “there’s magic in the misery.”

Roy Kranz is the former Chief Assistant Prosecutor in Isabella County.  To see a video of this adventure and some of his others, go to www.roykranz.com.

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Chipmunks & Ticks on North Manitou Island

Keep an eye out for deer ticks, even check your belly button, but don't let the fear of Lyme disease stop you from heading outdoors.

Editor’s Note: This is Jim DuFresne’s third Trail Talk blog in a series from the Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan, where he was working recently on a mapping project for MichiganTrailMaps.com.

By Jim DuFresne

Chipmunks I have no fear of. These small, striped rodents are so numerous on South and Manitou Islands that they have become an overly aggressive pest to anybody setting up camp. Turn your back on them and they have been known to chew through duffel bags and packs when they get a whiff of anything that might be edible.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

We were told to hang our food as if we were in bear country.

What had me truly scared heading over to North Manitou was much smaller; deer ticks. Officially known as the Black-Legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), this is the species that spreads Lyme disease. I have a friend who has suffered from Lyme disease for years and it is something I absolutely want to avoid.

I was told by a maintenance worker on South Manitou to be careful, North Manitou was having a bad tick summer. Researchers were finding large numbers of deer ticks on birds with a high percentage of them carrying the disease. On the National Park Service web site for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was a red flagged “Park Alert” that stated “ticks are common throughout the Lakeshore with a high population located on North Manitou Island.”

All this had me in a panic mode when I stepped off the ferry for a week of backpacking on the 15,000-acre island. This tiny insect had managed to instill more fear in me than the 900-pound brown bears I have encountered in the Alaska wilderness.

Deer Tick

An adult deer tick is the size of an apple seed.

Despite being sunny every day and in the low 80s I wore a long-sleeve shirt and pants that were tucked into wool socks. As instructed I chose light colors for my clothing, stayed in the center of the trail while hiking and even packed along a small collapsible chair so I could avoid sitting on the ground or logs.

I began each morning spraying my pants and shirt with insect repellent that contained concentrations of DEET ranging from 25% to almost 100%. That was part I hated the most, dousing myself with chemicals to ward off a tiny insect.

In the evening I’d climb into my solo tent and attempted to search my body for a tick climbing up my leg or trying to burrow into my skin. I am anything but petite and in the small tent I struggled with my head lamp to search my “underarms, belly button, and back of knees” as the NPS web site advised.

It wasn’t easy and more times than not I just gave up and crawled into my sleeping bag.

Worse of all I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for. Ticks are blood-feeding parasites that are often found in tall grass and shrubs where they will wait to attach to a passing host. Physical contact is the only method of transportation for ticks as they do not jump or fly but often simply drop from their perch onto a host.

The nymph form of the deer tick is most often responsible for transmitting Lyme disease and at this stage the insect is the size of a poppy seed. Good luck finding that at night while sitting in a cramped tent with dying batteries in your flashlight.

Backpackers on North Manitou Island.

Backpackers on North Manitou Island.

It was a researcher that I met on the trail one day that finally eased some my fears. True, the nymph is often responsible for the disease but exposure to them usually occurs in the summer. I was there in early September. The adult form also transmits the disease but they don’t appear until October and are the size of an apple seed.

“You can clearly see them on your skin,” he said.

In the end, I realized I needed to be vigilant about deer ticks but not so overwhelmed by the fear of Lyme disease that I stop hiking and backpacking.

I needed to be outdoors, as often I can, and I realized if it meant hanging my food up at night and then checking my belly button … that’s a small price to pay to spend a night on a wilderness island.

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The Cosmopolitan World of South Manitou Island

From backpackers and researchers to volunteers and kayakers, South Manitou Island can be a busy place in the middle of Lake Michigan.

Editor’s Note: Here is the second blog in a series based  on Jim DuFresne’s recent research trip on South and North Manitou Islands, part of  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

By Jim DuFresne

There are two former U.S. Lifesaving Service boathouses on South Manitou Island. The largest is at the head of the wharf and is where newly arrived campers gather with the park ranger for backcountry orientation.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

Next to it is a smaller boathouse.

“Welcome to the South Manitou Island Fitness Club,” said ranger Sean Campillo as he lead me inside. I was still trying to adjust to the darkness when Campillo flung open the surfboat doors at the end of it.

In the flood of sudden sunlight I realized he was right, this was a fitness club hiding in a historic boathouse. There were weight racks and benches and jump ropes and mats and a bicycle machine.

All of it, but particularly the speed bag and bench press rack, were strategically positioned in front of the large doors at the end. When opened, the gray, weathered doors framed an incredible scene; Crescent Bay harboring a few anchored boats, the golden dunes and beaches that surround it, North Manitou Island just three miles to the north and all around a blue sky that on the horizon is absorbed by an even bluer Lake Michigan.

This is where you’ll find Campillo before he puts on his park ranger uniform every day. Early in the morning he squeezes in a workout, often while watching the sunrise over Crescent Bay. An hour of lifting that strengthens the muscles and sooths the soul.

Park Ranger Sean Campillo

Sean Campillo , park ranger on South Manitou Island.

Let the day begin.

“I’ve been in a lot of weight rooms,” said Campillo, who played rugby for Indiana University. “But this is the best one I’ve ever worked out in.”

The job that goes with it isn’t bad either.

From April to November, Campillo lives and works on a South Manitou, a 5,000-acre island in the middle of Lake Michigan that has no cars, no convenient stores, no cable TV and only mediocre cell phone service from the back side of the island.

He lives in the restored U.S. Lifesaving Service Station from the turn of the century and works a schedule that calls for 10 days on South Manitou and four days off on the mainland.

On the island Campillo is everything. As South Manitou’s only ranger, he is law enforcement, the emergency medical person, the search and rescue guy, and occasionally the historian who gives lighthouse tours.

“Take a good look at this face because if you have a problem out here this is who you need to find,” Campillo tells the new campers.

South Manitou may be a remote, isolated island but at times it’s surprisingly busy. On the day I arrived the ferry was full, 150 passengers including a group of 60 senior citizens on a day trip from Grayling.

Others were day hikers and families, who arrive with the ferry at 11 a.m. and leave when it returns to Leland at 4 p.m. There were also campers outfitted with everything they need to spend a few nights, kayakers arriving with their own boats and backpackers planning an extended walk around South Manitou.

The South Manitou Island Fitness Club

The South Manitou Island Fitness Club

Already on the island was a small maintenance staff  for National Park Service (NPS), researchers conducting a water quality study of Lake Michigan and my favorite group; park volunteers.

More than 20 volunteers, most of them retirees ranging in age from mid to late 60s, were there for up to two weeks, restoring the historic barns and homes leftover from South Manitou’s heyday as an agricultural center a century ago.

In return for their labor, the NPS gives them transportation to the island and room-and-board once they are there. “How long do you work?” I asked one volunteer. “Six hours,” he said without hesitation, “and they pretty much hold you to it.”

Still we were sitting on the shady front porch of the ranger station, watching the ferry depart for the day, drinking a cold beer from the private stash he brought with him. Then we headed over for the dinner volunteers stage nightly at one of the historic cottages. This was Tuesday so it was Fajitas Night and somebody was mixing Margaritas in the kitchen.

Not a bad way to spend a week or two.

This is Campillo’s world, an island with up to 300 people on it during the day, maybe less than 100 at night. A place where the most common medical mishap is a blister on the back heel and most emergencies are hikers who just missed the ferry.

For the suddenly marooned day visitor, Campillo lends them a tent and a sleeping bag – there’s no turning the ferry around – and shows them a chest in the large boathouse filled with Ramen Noodles and instant oatmeal that departing backpackers have left behind.

Then he calls it a day on a remote island in the middle of Lake Michigan.

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Racing to a Campsite on South Manitou Island

Sometimes in order to slowdown and kickback on a remote island, you first have to race to your campsite.

Backpacking in Michigan

Editor’s Note: Jim DuFresne is on the Manitou Islands of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for two weeks working on a MichiganTrailMaps.com mapping project. Here is his first Trail Talk blog entry. For more on the islands, check out Backpacking In Michigan available from our e-shop.

By Jim DuFresne

One of the most anticipated port-of-calls occurs almost daily during the summer when the Mishe-Mokwa pulls up to the wharf on South Manitou Island. The 5,000-acre island, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, lies 17 miles west of Leland on the mainland and is the site of three campgrounds, numerous shipwrecks, a restored lighthouse and a wonderful trail system.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

But no cars, motels, outlet malls or even a Starbucks.

For most visitors the only way to reach this island is onboard the Mishe-Mokwa, the Manitou Island Transit ferry that cruises across the Manitou Passage, an historic shipping lane scattered with 19th century shipwrecks. The trip takes 90 minutes and the vessel is often packed with backpackers, day hikers, families ready for an afternoon on an exotic beach. Everybody on the boat is eager to set foot on what they perceive as a paradise isolated from the madness at home.

On the island’s wharf there is another large group also anxiously waiting for the Mishe-Mokwa. These were the campers who had stayed overnight on the island, some as long as a week, and, while a get-away paradise is nice, they are now longing for a hot shower, a cold beer, food that doesn’t require two cups of boiling water and, heavens forbid, a peak at their Facebook page to see what they have been missing.

I was part of the influx of new campers. We waited for our packs and duffle bags to be unloaded and then headed up to the Boathouse at the head of the dock. This building was built to store the rescue boats as part of the U.S. Lifesaving Station stationed here in the late 1800s. Today it’s where park rangers give their camper orientation.

It’s takes about 15 minutes to go over the dos and don’ts and when it is over the ranger hands you your backcountry permit and you’re free to hike out to a campground and stake a site. You can tell who’s there for the first time. They take their time gathering up their gear, they study campgrounds maps to decide where they might want to go, they’re in no hurry.

The rest of us grab our packs and run as if this was the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Backpackers heading off to Bay Campground on South Manitou Island.

Sites are handed out on a first-one-to-reach-it-first-one-to-get-it basis. The two closest campgrounds, Weather Station and Bay, are also the most desirable because each has strip of seven or eight sites that are primo, some of the best places to pitch a tent in Michigan, possibly in the Midwest. Maybe the country. Who knows? All I know is these are sites worth hustling for.

I was slated to be on the island for a while and really wanted to stay at one of those beach-front sites at Bay Campground the entire time so I picked up my gear, a backpack and duffle bag, and the race was on.

Bay Campground is the closest campground to the Boathouse but it’s still a good  half mile trek. It was obvious there were five groups who had been here before and were intent of securing a primo site. I easily passed the first two groups on the trail without breaking a sweat and caught the third one, a husband and wife, when they stopped to fill their water bottles.

That left only the leaders, a husband, whose cap said he was a veteran of Desert Storm, and his wife who had no problem maintaining his military pace. They were shouldering monster packs and carrying two kayaks between them, the end of one in each hand.

And I still had a hard time closing the gap between us. Then I noticed their Achilles heel; two young sons, one six and the other four, and when the four-year-old announced he had to go to the bathroom I caught up and zipped around them on the outside corner of the trail.

I entered the campground ready to stake out the best site available. But when I went down the side trail to site No. 10, standing in the middle it, grinning from ear to ear and not even breathing hard, was Military Mom.

I was stunned. “How did you get here so fast?”

“We dropped the kayaks and while my husband watched the boys I took to the beach.”

I tipped my hat to her gold medal performance and headed over to site No. 12.

It wasn’t a bad consolation prize. Like site No. 10, it sits in the fringe of pines that line the Crescent Bay shoreline. I pitched my tent in the shade but from a pair of benches in my site had a view of the beach, Lake Michigan and the mainland to the east. Every morning I woke up and watched a stunning sunrise take place over the bay without ever leaving my sleeping bag.

This was my home for almost a week and when it was time to go – while I longed for that cold beer, hot shower and soft mattress – I knew I was leaving a place worth racing to.

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Elk Rapids: Michigan’s Retro Bike Paradise!

Riding retro? The best place to take that clunker is Elk Rapids where the town is overwhelmed by retro bikes during the summer.

Editor’s Note: It’s been too hot to hike so Jim DuFresne has been hanging around his cottage in Elk Rapids the past week, trying to stay cool, and filed this blog for MichiganTrailMaps.com. For more on the Ride Around Torch see the Cherry Capital Cycling club web site.

On Sunday there will be hundreds of bicycles in and around Elk Rapids along with spandex shorts, colorful riding jerseys, Camelbacks and aerodynamic helmets, not to mention a lot of serious cyclists.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

The reason for the two-wheel festival is because this small town in southwest Antrim County is the start and end of the Ride Around Torch, a 63-mile ride that encircles Torch Lake. Staged by the Cherry Capital Cycling Club, this event is often called the most scenic bike ride in the state, where more times than not you looking at water while pedaling.

On Monday Elk Rapids will be back to normal but bicycles will still be there. Only the 21-speeds and all-carbon bicycles will be gone and the fat tire, clunkers will be back.

Elk Rapids; the retro bike capital of Michigan.

In the late 1800s Elk Rapids was challenging Traverse City as the economic powerhouse of the region, today it’s a sleepy village that has become a haven for retro bicycles, cruisers, beach bikes, urban bikes or, in my case, a bicycle that was actually built in the 1960s.

I ride around town in a single-speed Schwinn that still has the registration sticker Grosse Isle Township made me purchase and display in 1965 as if kids on bicycles were part of a communist plot to take over the world.

When you want to slow or stop on my Schwinn, you pedal backwards. How cool is that? 

Retro bikes at the Elk Rapids Lower Marina.

Retro bikes at the Elk Rapids Lower Marina during a sunset on Lake Michigan.

Retro bikes dominate this town with locals and visitors a like because clunkers are much more practical. This is a place that demands you to ride slowly and stop often, making clip-in pedals a hassle to say the least.

Elk Rapids is incredibly scenic as it is literarily surrounded on three sides by water. Elk Lake nudges into it and from there Elk River splits the town in half before emptying into Lake Michigan. Oh, and on the northside of town is Bass Lake.

There is a spot downtown where you can look to your left at the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay and see the skyline of Traverse City. To the right you can see the coastline wind north to Little Traverse Bay and due west is the end of Mission Peninsula and the blue, endless horizon of Lake Michigan.

Stunning.

This is also a small town, population 3,000, so you need to stop at the bakery before they run out of hand-cut donuts or the library to pick up a novel for the beach or to catch up to Joe so you can ask him what the movie is next week at his single-screen theater.

The marinas also contribute to the town’s retro craze. Blessed with a watery location, the village has two of them; the Lower Marina overlooks Lake Michigan and its slips are filled with large sailboats and cruisers. The Upper Marina is on Elk River and the pontoons and speed boats docked there have access to the Antrim County Chain of Lakes that includes Torch Lake, Bellaire Lake and Clam Lake.

The marinas maintain an army of bikes – retro bikes of course – that any boater can borrow to ride around town. If you arrive without one, you can rent a retro bike at the new Right Tree Adventure Rentals Shop  just off Main Street.

Add it all up and this up-and-coming trendy town with great restaurants and wide beaches is like a Mackinac Island with vehicles in the summer. Cars replace the horses-and-carriages and everybody drives, pedals and walks cautiously and courteously with drivers always waving through two-wheelers and pedestrians.

Let’s face it, if you’re driving through this trendy beach community, marveling at the beautiful scenery or the historical buildings on Main Street, the last thing you want to do is cause an eco-friendly cyclist to have a header on an old clunker like mine. Would not be cool.

 So on Sunday a lot of us will enjoy the beginning and end of the Ride Around Torch and a small town overwhelmed by top-of-the-line road bikes.

On Monday we’ll be back on our clunkers.

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