Rae Lakes Loop August 2016 – Introduction and Planning

The Rae Lakes Loop is a popular loop hike in King’s Canyon National Park.  Many John Muir Trail hikers consider the Rae Lakes the most beautiful part of the trail.  The loop traverses (depending upon which signs you believe) 40 to 45 miles of incredible Sierra high country, starting and finishing at the Road’s End trailhead.  It’s a hike that takes you up to nearly 12,000 feet above sea level through forests, meandering near riverbeds, passing waterfalls, and up over the tree line.


After realizing that the JMT wasn’t going to happen for me in 2016, I was very disappointed.  I was angry with myself for not being able to get my butt in gear and get into good enough shape to spend three weeks in the wilderness, partly on my own.  I knew I wanted to do something big, so after a good bit of research, I decided on the Rae Lakes Loop.  Permits are required for all backcountry travel in King’s Canyon, and the loop is quite popular.  By the time we decided to go, we had to settle for a counterclockwise permit instead of the traditional, easier clockwise route, but we were excited to get out into the wilderness!

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Kickapoo Valley Reserve Overnight

For us, fall hiking is a tradeoff – do we really want to miss a day of football to go hang out in the woods?  We are die hard Texas A&M Aggie fans, so often the answer is no.  However, last weekend we had a bye week and the only game that we were actually interested in was the Red River Shootout, which we were very confident Texas would lose (… c’mon OU!), so we decided to take what we figured would be our last trip of the year out to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  We had planned this about a month in advance, but got really lucky with some outstanding weather.

The Kickapoo Reserve is a really beautiful protected part of the driftless area of Wisconsin.  The driftless area is a geologically unique area within the Midwest – instead of being overpowered by glaciation during the last Ice Age, this region has remained uncovered for at least the last 500,000 years.  That makes the region much hillier than the rest of the state, with interesting bluffs and ridges.  The Kickapoo Reserve itself has an interesting political history – in the 1960s, the federal government planned to dam the Kickapoo River, which caused flooding downstream.  Using eminent domain, 149 families were forced to move out of the flood zone.  However, the environmental movement of the 1970s, along with poor economic planning, caused the project to be abandoned by 1979.  After a bunch of fighting about what to do with the land (full details here), it was given to the HoChunk Nation and State of Wisconsin as a nature preserve.

We set out on Saturday morning bright and early from Madison on the two hour drive.  With the fall foliage on the bluffs and hills, it was beautiful – it felt like we weren’t in the Midwest, but instead in Vermont or upstate New York.  We stopped at the visitor center to pay for our permit and drove up to Rockton to hit the trail.  We planned to hike about 6 miles on day one and 7 on day two, taking a long scenic route to site F, one of the most remote sites in the park.  We would take the Rockton trail to the Old Highway 131 trail to the Little Canada trail and Ice Cave trail on Saturday, and the Hanson Rock Loop to Ma & Pa’s Trail to the Black Hawk Rock trail back to our car on Sunday.  We were worried that the campsite would be taken, as there are no reservations at the Kickapoo reserve, even for backcountry sites, but excitedly hit the trail around 10:30 AM.


Our Planned Route

The trailhead for the Rockton trail is kind of hard to find – you have to park at the boat landing and then walk up the road almost into “town” (aka two bars) to hit the trail.  The hike started with a level hike through a cornfield before winding into the woods at the junction to the Indian Creek Trail.


Rockton Trail

We crossed over a bridge and saw our first horses of the day!  The Kickapoo Reserve really seems to cater to equestrians – there were lots of people out riding.  This was a new experience for us, and we made sure to talk to the riders and yield to them as they passed.  The Old Highway 131 Trail is literally half of the road that used to snake around and over the Kickapoo river.  You could still see the faint outline of the old double yellow line in some places!  The weather was very pleasant in the mid sixities, and the woolybear caterpillars were out sunning themselves on the warm asphalt.  We saw a few that were all black and some that had a very narrow brown stripe – must mean we’re in for a rough winter.

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Isle Royale National Park June 2015 – Day 6 and Wrap Up

Previous: Three Mile to Rock Harbor

We woke up on our final morning on Isle Royale around 7, and I was ready to get onto the boat.  The Ranger III had left Rock Harbor in the afternoon for park headquarters at Mott Island while we were at Rock Harbor, so it wasn’t even there when we work up, but we were ready to go home!


We had a quick breakfast of Clif bars and got down to Rock Harbor by 8 AM.


It was definitely bittersweet when the Ranger III came to pick us up.  On one hand, it’s nice to get back to the real world, with a real bed and pillow and shower.  On the other, it was hard to leave this amazing place feeling like we had so much left to explore.  We overheard a group saying they’d seen a moose the day before in the middle of the trail to our campsite, which was a little disheartening to have missed, but even without moose, our trip was really the best backpacking trip I’ve been on so far.


We had great weather, saw beautiful landscapes, and were deep into the wilderness of some of the most northern lands easily accessible to those of us in the lower 48.  We hopped on the boat at 9 AM, greeted by the rangers who had been on the Ranger III on the way out, and left the wilderness.


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Isle Royale National Park June 2015 – Day 5 – Three Mile to Rock Harbor

Previous: Daisy Farm to Three Mile

Trail Miles: 6.9      Total Miles: 29.2

Andrew’s alarm went off at 6 AM, and we quickly started packing up the tent and its contents.  It took us 30 minutes to go from asleep to on the trail, which seemed pretty good to me considering the fact that there was a bathroom break in there!  We had decided to skip breakfast and eat once we got to Rock Harbor, so there was very little cleanup needed.  The sun was already up and bright when we work up, and unfortunately was pretty much right in our faces as we hit the trail.  Heading east at first light is a bit difficult, but the views were amazing.


Heading out of Three Mile at first light

It took us an hour and a half to get to Rock Harbor from Three Mile backtracking over the Rock Harbor Trail.  There was no wind, so the mosquitoes were bothersome if you weren’t moving, but it was cool and crisp.


We got to Rock Harbor before 8 and had our pick of all of the shelters.  We chose the first shelter we came across which was a bit shady and set back from the trail.  As soon as we got set up, Megan, Nicole and Chelsea passed by to grab a shelter of their own.

Since we hadn’t eaten breakfast, we ate one of the treats we’d saved for a morning where we had lots of time – dehydrated hash browns.  Though I hadn’t blanched them ahead of time and they were discolored, they tasted awesome.  I would definitely do them again!  Each Andrew and I were on low battery for our Kindles, but we tried to get as much out of them as possible before they died, once and for all.  I was reading Wool, a group of scifi novels, and Andrew was reading a Master and Commander novel.

After a few hours of hanging out in our shelter, we went ahead and checked out Rock Harbor.  It’s interesting – Rock Harbor is actually a very large protected area, and Snug Harbor is where “civilization” is, but Snug Harbor gets called Rock Harbor all of the time.  We poked around a bit by the Rock Harbor Lodge, checked out the menu for the grill, and read several of the interpretative signs in the area.  There was not one but three companies of the CCC on the island, which I found pretty interesting.

We decided we wanted to check out Scoville Point via the Stoll trail, so after a lunch of remaining snacks and pita, we headed out, unencumbered by our packs.  We passed by the trio’s shelter on our way out and invited them to dinner – we’d decided that fresh food and a real, honest to goodness inside four sealed walls dinner was worth whatever premium we had to pay!


Day 1 – Red      Day 2 – Blue      Day 3 – Purple      Day 4 – Orange        Day 5 – Green

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Isle Royale National Park June 2015 – Day 4 – Daisy Farm to Three Mile

Previous: Moskey Basin to Daisy Farm

Trail Miles: 7      Total Miles: 22.3

This night was the first night that I truly didn’t sleep well.  It had been chilly when we fell asleep, so I was in my sleeping bag with my leggins, shirt, and down coat on.  One of our Platy bottles fell over around midnight and woke me up and I immediately realized that I was shivering.  I had my bag just a bit unzipped because I get claustrophobic if I’m too restricted, so I zipped it up and tried to get warm for a few minutes.  It wasn’t working.  I was going back and forth in my head deciding if I wanted to wake Andrew up when I realized (1) hypothermia can happen even in temperatures that seem “moderate” and (2) we were less than a quarter of a mile from the ranger station.  I wasn’t going to get hypothermia within easy walking distance to a ranger!

When I woke Andrew up, he immediately unzipped our bags and put them together and warmed me up with his body heat.  “Wow, you are really cold” he whispered to me.  After just about 30 seconds, I was done shivering and felt a bit calmer.  After a few minutes, we zipped into our own sleeping bags and I mummied up a bit.  I slept warm and snug through the rest of the night.

I have a few lessons learned from this night.  First of all, open shelters are significantly colder than tents because they don’t trap in heat.  It’s also important to mummy early in the night if it’s going to be cold.  I was very thankful for the body heat, but it also would have been a good idea to get up and do some jumping jacks before getting back into my bag.  Finally, we’re adding a space blanket to our first aid kit.  Most heat gets lost through your sleeping pad, so it would help to have another layer between you and the ground on cold nights.

After that adventurous evening, we woke up around 8 and hit the trail around 9:20.  Instead of returning the way we came, we went up to the Greenstone Ridge towards Mount Ojibway.


The trail was quite steep in areas, but there were only a few switchbacks.  Before getting to the Greenstone Ridge, you pass over two other ridges.  It wasn’t rocky hiking, though, which was good for me!  It was pretty neat to see Lake Superior from above.

Looking at how far we've come

Looking at how far we’ve come

We got up to Mount Ojibway at about 11.  This was definitely one of the highlights from our trip!  We’d heard the the tower might be locked, but the stairs were open and gave great views.


We took off our packs and relaxed for a while.  It was sunny, but not too hot on the ridge.  We knew there weren’t good water sources at high elevations on Isle Royale, so we had brought a good bit of water.  We wound up relaxing for about a half an hour, hydrating and eating some homemade beef jerky.



Looking west down the Greenstone Ridge

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Isle Royale National Park June 2015 – Day 3 – Moskey Basin to Daisy Farm

Previous: Three Mile to Moskey Basin

Trail Miles: 4.3     Total Miles: 15.3

We woke up on Day 3 after a night of light rain warm and dry in our tent.  The rain had stopped by the time I woke up around 8, though it was definitely wet outside of our tent.  I read for a while as Andrew continued to snooze.  While I was reading, a very aggressive squirrel walked under the vestibule of our tent and tried to get in!  I saw his tiny paws scratching at the tent!  I flicked them lightly and he immediately ran away.  Yeah, I can be brave!

We weren’t looking forward to backtracking through the hardest part of the trail yet, so we had a lazy morning.  Oatmeal and coffee was again the name of the game for breakfast.  As we were packing up our wet tent, the girls we’d had lunch with the previous day passed by.  We asked where they were headed, and one said that though they had planned to go to McCargoe Cove, based on the trail and the rain yesterday, they were headed back to Daisy Farm, which was exactly our plan!  They left about 10 minutes before 10, and we left at about 10:05.


The first part of the trail was uphill, but relatively easy.  It wasn’t muddy or rocky, just a bit wet from the rain the day before.  We passed the trio of girls on our way up as they were taking pictures of the wildflowers.

A steam we passed on the way back to Daisy Farm

A steam we passed on the way back to Daisy Farm

There are a lot of wildflowers on Isle Royale in late spring.  From orchids and lady slippers to dandelions and strawberries, it’s pretty cool to see the amount of color on the side of the trail.

Wildflowers on the trail

Wildflowers on the trail

Once we got to the rocky part, we slowed down a bit as the rocks were slippery and still damp.  Of course, even though we were going slowly, I still fell twice.  There is a reason I wear full boots above my ankles and use trekking poles.  Thankfully, I didn’t get too muddy.

Day 3 in purple

Day 3 in purple

We got back to Daisy Farm before noon, and, like the day before, it was chilly, windy, and cloudy.  We quickly grabbed shelter 13, which was a bit back from the lake but still had easy access to (and a view of!) the lake.  We hung up our damp tent and washed some of our clothes and hung them up to dry.

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Isle Royale National Park June 2015 – Day 2 – Three Mile to Moskey Basin

Previous: Rock Harbor to Three Mile

Today’s Miles: 8.3    Total Miles: 11

We woke up at 5:30 in the morning to the girls in the shelter next to us moving around and talking loudly.   Someone loudly yelling “oh look a bunny!” isn’t my favorite thing to wake up to, though I did enjoy seeing the palest of sunrises from the shelter.  I immediately then fell back asleep and slept through Andrew’s alarm.

We wound up waking up around 8 and staying in our warm sleeping bags until almost 9 AM.  It’s so difficult to get out of the snuggly down bag, especially with a great view of Lake Superior.

Checking out the morning light

We ate some oatmeal for breakfast, with instant coffee for Andrew, and started off around 9:30.

Cooking Breakfast

Cooking Breakfast

We were back on the Rock Harbor Trail, which was very similar to the section from Rock Harbor to Three Mile (rocky) for the first mile or so.  But then it turned into mud.  I hate rocks, and Andrew hates mud, so both of us were a little weary by the time we’d made it to Daisy Farm and stopped for lunch.

Muddy trail

Muddy trail

Some of the muddiest areas of the trail have plank boardwalks.  They were a welcome reprieve from muddy, squishy, mosquito filled swamp.


We did pass some pretty cool scenery on our way, though!  Isle Royale has a history of mining, and we passed by one of the mines from the late 1800s, Siskowit Mine.   Continue reading