On to Plan C

Sometimes life intervenes.  Our revised plans to camp in our tent on our trip out west started out well enough.  We scored a nice campsite on the river in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, and managed to squeeze in a short bike ride on the wilderness loop after arriving.  A bison spent the night on the banks of the river just below our spot, and in the morning he took a stroll right through our campsite!  We decided to let him have it.

Rich in Teddy Roosevelt Park Molly cycling Teddy Roosevelt Park

On good advice, we drove the Beartooth Highway to enter Yellowstone.  Getting an early start, we were well down the road and into the mountains just as the sun began hitting the peaks.  It only got better from there.  The 68 miles took us a full three hours to cover, slowly winding our way around hairpin curves, ogling the views over the edge and stopping frequently to take in the scenery.  We hadn’t even gotten to the park yet and we were already enamored with the locale.

Rich Beartooth highway Beartooth Highway 1 Beartooth Highway 2

Traveling at the end of the season, we assumed that the crowds in Yellowstone had thinned.  But that wasn’t the case.  Even the campsites were still in high demand, so rather than moving around the park we snapped up four nights in the Canyon Valley campground, hastily making reservations en route.  Tall pine trees towered over our humble tent, needles carpeted the ground and plenty of space insulated us from other campers.  All seemed well.  But we only lasted two nights.

It wasn’t the thunder-snow that we heard rumbling and falling icily on our tent the first morning that drove us out.  In fact, we luxuriated in the excuse to hunker down reading in our cozy sleeping bags until it ceased.  It wasn’t the 25 degree temps the following morning.  It wasn’t even the meager camp meals that we concocted over our ancient sputtering cook-stove.

Yellowstone snowy campsiteYellowstone reading in tentYellowstone Molly in mummy bagYellowstone Molly cooking dinner

It was the bugs.  No, not the buzzing, biting, flying irritants that usually annoy campers.  Pink-eye and flu bugs.  Lingering gifts from a recent visit with our grandchildren took Rich down hard.  And each successive day he worsened.  No matter how cushy the air mattresses (and ours aren’t), there’s no pretending that we get a good night’s sleep on the ground.

Just as in bicycle touring, we instituted our trusty rule.  When someone gets sick, no more camping.  It’s the only way to get better.  But scuttling Plan B was not that easy.  Those late season crowds?  They filled the lodgings too.  After many phone calls, we scored a room in Grant Village that had just been released.  Wincing at the cost but celebrating our luck, we repeated the search in the Grand Tetons.

So much for our free-wheeling campervan plan.  Goodbye outdoorsy tent camping.  Hello Plan C – warm, inviting park lodgings with electricity and soft beds, secured with advance reservations.  I’m entirely certain that the park sights will still be stunning.

Molly Yellowstone sign

False Start

It seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, it was.

We were off on an adventure. With a family wedding in Colorado at the end of September, we decided to use the preceding two weeks to drive out west and explore. Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons were on our list, but beyond that we had no real plan.

The unique element was traveling by campervan. We found a small start-up company in the Twin Cities that rents mini-van sized vehicles that seat two in the front and sleep two in the back. It would keep us out of the elements and provide a soft mattress for these aging bodies. It has a slide-out with one burner for cooking, spots for a water jug and a cooler, plus storage. Perfectly bare bones. It would give us the freedom to wander at will.

Rich and Molly w Campervan

It seemed the perfect solution. We talked it up to all our friends. They too were intrigued. I rather liked the thought of sleeping in a tin can in bear country. An added layer of protection. Rich fancied the idea of sidling up to the fancy RVs in a Walmart parking lot one night, just for kicks.

All went smoothly as we transferred bags and gear from our car to the campervan. We found space for everything – just barely – and hung our bikes on the rack in back. Giddily climbing into the front seat we set off.

Rich loading campervan Molly showing campervan storage

We were only three miles away, on the highway entrance ramp when it happened. The warning light went on and the engine heat soared into the red zone. Unwilling to drive it in that condition, we contacted the owner who arranged for his auto shop to take it right away. The 90-degree heat not only exacerbated the problem but singed our sagging spirits. Hot air blew through the open windows, cars sped by and the sun beat down relentlessly as we waited for the engine to cool. Only when it was well out of the danger zone would we putter down the road. Until it overheated again. This scenario repeated itself over and over again in the next two hours, just to get 12 miles.

The auto shop discovered an improperly connected coolant hose, and no coolant remaining in the system. No wonder it overheated. The van owner was there with fervent apologies and offers to help us pass the time during the repairs. Even in our misery, we felt for him.  It wasn’t his fault, he’d had the van serviced and inspected before he rented it to us.

But by then it was too late. Rich was spooked. A desperate conversation took place next to the van, in the stifling heat, sweating. Could we trust the van, after this issue? What if other trouble lurked? We were heading out to remote areas, thousands of miles from home. I struggled with letting go of our plans. Dropping the new experience just like that. But I have learned a thing or two in 35 years of marriage. I could tell that Rich would never relax in that van. It was time for Plan B.

Scratch the van. Retain the adventure. We would drive back to Duluth, pack up our tent, sleeping bags and camp stove and get a fresh start. Tomorrow.

It’s still a good idea.

Putting the Family back in Camping

The texts flew fast and furiously between family members. As the week wore on, the frequency intensified.

“Does someone have an extra sleeping bag we can use?”

“Anyone bringing bags?” Response: “I’m bringing trash bags.” Clarification: “Uh…the game bags?”

“Here’s a link to a spreadsheet to sign up for group meals. Each family will cook one breakfast or dinner.”  We could count on Carl to get us organized.

“S’mores! I’ll bring that stuff!”  Erik had his priorities.

“We’re running out of room. We travel with the kitchen sink these days.” That from Karen, mother of four.

“I think the whole point of car camping is to bring way too much stuff.” Little did we know just what Carl meant by that comment.

It was the first family camping trip since we took our kids to the Boundary Waters 15 years ago. That outing numbered 5 family members and required just two small tents. For this camp-out the same offspring spawned a total count of 9 adults, 7 kids and 2 dogs, including our Czech daughter, Pavla, and her two daughters.

Emanating from Ostrava, Duluth, the Twin Cities and Milwaukee we converged on Great River Bluffs State Park. Filling four campsites with six tents, we gathered to spend two days together in the great outdoors.

Camping with kids ranging from 3 months old to 11 years was pretty brave – especially when it was a first-time experience for all of those kiddos.  Even the adults faced some challenges.  Karen surprised everyone by cheerfully forgoing her careful hair styling for the weekend.  Pavla agreed to the trip thinking we meant sleeping in “campers.”  Despite the snafu in translation, she and her girls quickly adapted to the more primitive tenting conditions.

Anticipating this weekend, I’m certain we all envisioned sunny warm days and crisp cool nights. In reality, we arrived in high heat and humidity under ominous clouds, and barely got our tents up before the monsoon-like rains descended. At the same time, Rich and I discovered that a tent, two sleeping bags and sleep mats were still sitting on the floor of our garage at home. It was an easy decision to scuttle our dinner cookout and nestle into the nearest pizzeria for the duration. A quick detour via Walmart solved the missing tent problem.

Nobody slept well. Little bodies wiggled. Bugs bugged them. Night fears erupted. Young ones rose with the sun.  Even those of us without youthful charges struggled in the heat. But it’s camping. It’s all part of the experience.

Although morning brought soggy conditions and stifling humidity, the group mustered on. Wads of mud collected on our shoes as we hiked. Bug spray permeated our pours. Clothing collected grime. A legion of lawn chairs drifted between campsites for meals.  Pavla learned a new saying, “like herding cats.” And smiles persisted.Family camping breakfastA trip to the beach on the Mississippi River soothed our sweaty bodies and itchy bug bites.  Ice cream cones on the return trip sealed the pleasure.  Big kids blew bubbles for little kids.  Erik and Katie gained favored status by sharing their new puppy.  A reluctant campfire finally caught and lulled us with its mesmerizing glow.  I basked in the revelation that my only requirement for the weekend was to sit, visit, play and drink in the presence of my family.Family camping swimmingFamily camping bubblesThe fact that the World Cup finals were scheduled for 10am Sunday morning gave little pause for concern to the sports enthusiasts in the family. At the appointed hour, those lawn chairs made their final pilgrimage to Carl and Chelsea’s tent site. A flat screen TV running off the car battery grabbed the local broadcast signal and game snacks graced the picnic table. Game on!  Although I chose an alternate activity, walking the dogs with the moms and kids, I had to admire the ingenuity.Family camping World Cup gameFamily camping hikingTexts flew once again on the way home and signaling safe arrivals.  Judging by the frequency of the term “great camping weekend” I’d say it was a success.  I hope it’s not another 15 years before we do this again.Hoeg Family Camping

 

Chilling out at Crisp Point

Keepers sign

Five layers of clothing. And a buff around my neck. Wool socks, a ski hat and winter gloves. All topped with a heavy down jacket. It’s my daily attire. Just enough to keep me warm.

I stand in the Crisp Point Lighthouse Visitor Center manning the gift shop. With temperatures in the 40s the cement walls are welcome shelter, but lacking any heat source the building does nothing to aid my cause. Gentle shivers involuntarily rack my frame as I strive to maintain body heat. I fear I’m losing the battle. But I am determined to muster on.

Visitors regard us with a mix of incredulity and awe. “That your tent out there?” they ask as they shiver in sympathy. They too are outfitted in winter gear. I answer with a grin and a touch of macho pride, “Yes, and it’s the warmest place around.” They are mighty grateful we are here, keeping the lighthouse open for them. And honestly, we are happy to do it.

Tent at Crisp Point

We quickly learn to manage. Nothing generates heat like exercise. So I escape for an energetic run each afternoon and relish shedding hat and gloves as I go. I return with enough residual heat to handle a cold sponge bath. Rich follows suit riding the sand on a fat tire bike.

Rich and fat tire bike

A hot meal goes a long way, warming our innards. Followed by a blazing campfire, evenings are quite comfortable. Crawling into my down sleeping bag at night I feel the warmth immediately radiating around my body. My little cocoon keeps me toasty all night long, nestled into the soft sand. I wasn’t kidding about the tent.

Cooking outside
Dinner outsid
CAMPFIRE

With fresh reserves of heat I’m primed for sunrise. I feel impervious to the wind and cool air as I search out the best vantage points for the morning light show, followed by a brisk walk down the beach. This is my favorite time of day here. Even in October.

Crisp Point sunrise

By the end of our five days we are coping well. More than that, really. Continue to love it here. I miss the warm days when I could sit on the beach and write, or nestle up on the lighthouse cat walk to read. But it’s still a privilege to claim this remote beauty as home for a spell. Good thing. We’ve signed up to return next October. To chill out.

 

Why we camp

The waves are thundering against the shore. They crash on a narrow band of sandy beach, a silver of coastline. The noise is constant, ceaseless, loud. Our tent lies just feet from the edge of Lake Huron. This white noise was our lullaby when we nestled into our sleeping bags last night.

Lake Huron's waves

We are camped at Harrisville State Park. I'm sure these prime lake side sites are difficult to get in the summer. But in late September we have our pick of the lot. Our pup tent is dwarfed by the campers that surround us. A car noticeably absent. Just two bikes leaning against the picnic table. It's our own private lake place for the night.

Lake Huron campsite

In the overall scheme of things, we camp only a few nights during our bike tours. We are admittedly fair weather campers. It's far too easy to rationalize that we are hot and grubby, or cold and wet at the end of the day. And a beckoning motel room wins. The same goes for a poor weather forecast.

But it's the nights of camping that spawn lasting memories. On the top of my list are the beautiful spots we have camped, that otherwise would be inaccessible. Camping has allowed us to perch on cliff tops. To hear the ocean. To hike in the mountains. To sit by a campfire. To watch a meteor shower from our tent. On this trip it motivated us to swim in Lake Michigan, and take in both sunset and sunrise from a dock.

For all its rewards, I still wondered why we were doing this as we selected our site yesterday afternoon. The sun had disappeared under the clouds, bringing a chill to the air. I was cold and wanted only to get warm. Jumping under the shower in my unheated cubicle was a bracing experience, even though the water was warm. As I stepped outside, the wind off the lake was predictably cold.

But as my body warmed up, so did my attitude. There was only a mildly colored sunset, but I admired it from the beach. Had I been in a motel, I would have been too absorbed with my iPad to notice. Settling down in the tent, when sleep did not come immediately, I stared up into the star-filled sky. I admired the same starry wonders multiple times during the night. (Anyone who claims to sleep well on the ground is kidding themselves.)

Awake early, we both rise in time to catch the sunrise over Lake Huron. The wind still howling, the waves still battering the shore, it feels wild out there on the beach. But I'm ever so glad to be there. I feel so alive.

Lake Huron sunrise

Watching the sun make its appearance, waiting for it to pop above the clouds, I now remember why we camp.

 

Start and Stop Cycling

Progress to date: 5 days, 203 miles

For once the weather forecast was right. Just when we hoped it wouldn't be. Even through the tent we could make out the lightning blips illuminating the sky. By 5:30am they were even brighter and thunder followed. It still seemed far enough in the distance that figured we had a chance of beating the storm if we acted quickly. A shout out to Jim proved he was no longer sleeping either, and he agreed to packing up while things were still dry.

It almost worked. We had everything ready to go and were about to take the tents down when the first raindrops fell. Then a few more. Then a whole lot more in rapid succession. Back to the tents, along with our gear as the storm raged in earnest. Not much to do but read or snooze in the meantime.

Ha if out in the tent
Wet campsite

It was 9:30 by the time the rains slowed. This time we got everything stowed on our bikes before it started up again. A mad dash through the campground got us to the park ranger office. There we took refuge on the porch along with our bikes. Not a bad place to be, as it had both wifi and charging stations for our enjoyment.

Plugging in at the ranger station

Our next foray was in heavy drizzle and got us almost 2 miles. Art's Tavern was our breakfast stop, and we even saw a few short bursts of almost-sunshine during our repast. By the time we emerged, we felt confident that the day was improving. At the time, it was true. And weather was not our next showstopper, but a flat tire. Still only 8 miles into our journey, we were sidelined once more as Rich changed his inner tube. Relieved to be on a bike trail not the road, we rejoiced in our good fortune along with staying dry – for the moment.

Flat tire

It's a good thing that we had already reset our sights for that day's destination. We had planned to go to the very end of the Lelenau Peninsula and stay at the State Campground there. But another night of camping no longer held the same appeal. And alternate lodgings were limited to a town just 20 miles away. As it was, it still took us the better part of the day just to get that far. Our final 12 miles were far from dry, but at least we managed the distance without further incident or delay.

Leland proved to be an interesting little town, and even more so our motel. Perched on the edge – literally – of the Leland River, we reached our room from a walkway overhanging the rushing river water. The small dam adjacent to the motel office created a man-made waterfall and a surprisingly amount of noise. Downstream, boats were moored and on the opposite bank was historic Fishtown. What used to be shanties selling everyday goods for fishermen and townspeople are now populated by boutiques, restaurants and other trendy shops. But the look and feel still harks back to the fishing days.

View from our motel
Fishtown

It was a good place to stop for the day. Our final nighttime entertainment was watching salmon try to jump up the waterfalls. Most would futilely fly through the air to flop back in the water far short of their intended target. It made for some good laughs. And yet I knew how they felt, trying so hard to get somewhere and not quite making it.

Fish jumping upstream - by Rich Hoeg

 

When Opportunity Knocks

Progress to date: 29 days, 1,280 miles

When I clip into my bicycle pedals each morning, I have no idea what is in store for me. Sometimes the days are pretty ordinary, and on others things happen that I could never have foreseen. Those are the times to seize the moment.

Having left the Ozark Mountains behind, our route took us north through the western side of Missouri to begin the Katy Trail. There were no particular sights on our itinerary at this stage. But traveling the back roads being propelled by the same south wind that plagued us early in the trip was extremely pleasant.

After a morning breakfast stop in Cassville, we expected to hit the road again. But a sign reading “Car Show” soon diverted us. There lining the streets of the town were rows of classic cars. It was a sunny warm day, and strolling along looking at the cars was extremely pleasant. I didn’t have to be a car fan to enjoy the spirit of the moment and the festive air in the small town gathering. A group of young people were playing fiddling music, which added to the ambiance. It felt great to be in the right place at the right time to partake of this show.

Cassville Car Show
Parachutist

That very same afternoon, pedaling along an undistinguished section of road, Rich suddenly began gesturing toward the sky. There we saw a parachutist just about to land. Not long after his colorful chute collapsed on the ground, I spotted a second one in the air. This time we were able to get our cameras out in time. We happily hung out on the roadside to watch the second one descend, which turned out to be a pair of jumpers. Their target was actually an airfield, and the small plane land soon after they did. It was quite the air show!

Rich at the campground restaurant

Sometimes opportunities are of a very different nature. One of Rich’s prime adages about cycle touring has to do with meals. “When food is available, EAT!” is his motto. It’s a lesson he’s learned the hard way, when we’ve come up hungry by incorrectly assuming food will be available when we want it. So when we arrived at our campground at 2:00 in the afternoon and discovered the only restaurant within miles was about to close, we quickly ordered meals. Never mind that Rich had just consumed a burger and fries an hour before, and I’d downed an ice cream cone. This was our dinner – just way early. Oddly enough, it tasted great and carried us through the entire evening.

We camped on a yurt that night by the Sac River. I wandered down to the river as I explored the area and saw a dam and a bridge just upstream. Looking more closely, I noticed some young men fishing with a net. I was memorized watching them throw the net and reel it in – an entirely different way of fishing than I was used to seeing. I’m still working on my photography skills, so I took the chance to practice and was pleased to be able to capture the whole sequence.

Fishing
Campfire

I love campfires, but there’s no chance of carrying firewood on a bicycle. So when the campground caretaker showed up at our yurt with a load of firewood, it was a gift too good to turn down. He even gave us his lighter to start the fire. Soon I was off in search of kindling and donated my old maps to the cause. The evening was mild and dark, and as we sat on the extra logs by the fire we could see the full moon rising behind the trees. The crackling of the fire was accompanied by frogs croaking by the river.

Tomorrow’s another day on the bicycle. I wonder what new opportunities might be in store for me?