Five weeks ago, the idea of an October camping trip to Minnesota’s North Shore was born in a driveway during a kid’s birthday party. This week, the idea became reality.
Our destination: Cascade River State Park, near Lutsen, MN, a mere hour-long drive from the Canadian border. I reserved a hike-in campsite for myself and three friends at this state park, and after calling the park to inquire about the available sites, I chose “BP2” (Backpack 2), which is situated on top of Moose Mountain.
There are advantages and disadvantages to any campsite. Some have better access to water, better views, more privacy, proximity to trails and amenities, and so on. We opted for the site that had privacy and a great view, but the trade-offs were… we had to climb and we had to pack in our water. It was just over one mile from the car to the campsite, but that mile was a pretty steady 45 degree incline the entire way.
Now, for a true backpacking expedition, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem; in fact, for many backpackers along the big American trails like the A.T. or the P.C.T., inclines like this would be the norm. In those cases, however, the backpackers are typically equipped with proper gear like form-fitted rucksacks, trekking poles, and freeze-dried or dehydrated food like rice or oats. Essentialism is key – bring only what you need. In all of my planning and discussions with my crew before our departure, it seemed I either did not properly communicate this tenet of backpacking, or I did and they just ignored the advice, because we packed in a LOT of stuff! Even though our bodies were at their freshest point of the weekend, that first mile hike from the car to the site was the most grueling mile of them all, with the weight of full-size camping chairs, full water jugs, and enough junk food to send an army into diabetic shock weighing us down. With enough trudging and plodding along, we did eventually make it to camp, and the view and the privacy made it all worth it.
As we unpacked, and I saw just how much food my friends brought for this two-night jaunt in the woods, I felt a sense of disappointment rise within me. I didn’t make a big deal of it at the time, I just went with the flow and embraced the notion that we each packed what we needed to pack. I had put a lot of thought into the planning of what we’d bring (on a shared Google Doc), so we could coordinate items, prevent overpacking, and do things a little more communally and a little less individually. So at first, I thought my shock at all these surprise items was due to a feeling of our plan being undermined or not followed, a disappointment that, despite my best efforts, the idea of communicating and packing our gear communally was too much for my friends, too outside their comfort zone, too far away from their conditioned tendencies to want to be in control and do things as an individual instead of as a group.
It wasn’t until later the next day, though, that I realized the bigger source of my feeling; a big part of what I enjoy about camping, hiking, backpacking, and being out in the woods is the suffering. I like the suffering. I crave it. It’s part of the allure of the outdoors for me, the opportunity to taste how challenging life in the wild really is. Life in the modern world is so incomprehensibly comfortable. I like my time on camping/backpacking trips to be in as direct contrast to that as possible. I like to wake up and get out on the trails early, eat a bit of trail mix through the day whenever my body signals it needs some fuel, and then have one warm meal with some tea in the evening as the sun is going down and I’ve made camp for the night. I like stripping things down to the essentials. I even like being a bit dehydrated. Not so dehydrated that I’m having headaches or muscle cramps, but really conserving my resources and waiting to consume anything until my body is really asking for it. When I take this minimalist approach to my time in the outdoors, I’m able to feel my body and hear my thoughts more acutely. Typical daily patterns and habits are broken; there is only this moment. This approach also makes the re-entry into modern life so much more eye-opening. I experience a deeper gratitude for the simplest of things. I come home and am extremely thankful for my faucet with running water. When was the last time you were thankful for your faucet? That’s the power that a few days away from modern conveniences can have.
It was actually very useful for me to crystallize this personal insight, and I don’t know if I would’ve arrived at that insight had my one friend decided to leave his can of Easy Cheese at home (or better yet, left it unpurchased on the store shelf). I realized just because it’s there, it doesn’t mean I have to eat it; I can make my own choices. So it turns out I’m thankful for the lesson provided by the excess junk food. (Plus, I wasn’t the one that had to carry it.)
We had a truly epic weekend. The weather was unseasonably awesome for mid-October in northern Minnesota, and we made the most of it. We hiked many miles, shared many laughs, and even shed a few tears (mostly from laughing so hard). Thank you to the women in our lives for taking care of our children and homesteads to enable this weekend of joy for us boys!
Here is a list of the memories I jotted down the day after we got back. Most of them will not make sense to you, the reader, but hey, this blog is for me just as much as it is for any of you, so these are for me!
- On Saturday we hiked north on the trail up the eastern side of the Cascade River. There is also a trail on the western side of the river, but the state park map gets cut off before it shows where the crossing is from east to west. We assumed it would be obvious. It was not. We found a dirt road and a parking lot, but no obvious spot of where to cross and pick the trail up on the other side. We walked along the road and river for a ways, looking for a spot to cross, and at one point there was some “fencing” made of black fabric attached to some posts, like you might find blocking off a construction site. My friend saw this fence, walked over to it, jumped over it, walked into the wild woods beyond, turned around and yelled back, “I think I found it.” Because, you know, typically hiking trailheads are found on the other side of a fence one has to jump.
- As we walked off trail, trying to find the trail, we enjoyed variations of the phrase, “I think this must be the path. This part of the woods looks pretty path-y over here.”
- Moss feels better when you take your shoes off.
- We all know the feeling of déjà vu, but have you ever experienced déjà new? How about déjà now? I can’t explain exactly what these mean, but I know that if you go off into the woods with your friends, you’ll find it.
- Despite our meandering about at the river crossing, we ended Saturday with utterly perfect pacing of the day, with the sun setting over the horizon just as we arrived back to camp.
- As we returned to camp from our long day hike on Saturday, one friend hauled a massive dead log on his shoulders up to our campsite. Another friend made it his mission to burn this log to bits, no matter how long it took.
- While we returned home with all of our appendages still connected, one of my friends did manage to slice his thumb with our log splitter. I learned that my backpacking first aid kit could use a little sprucing up.
- Bring tortillas on future camping trips to go with hot meals!
- I do love how the guys that came on this trip surprise me. I’ve always loved surprises, ever since I was a kid. In their own way, each one of my friends did stuff that I did not expect, and it’s fun to surround myself with people that keep me on my toes and make life interesting.
And finally, when you get right down to it, all we really need in this life are woods, friends, and snacks.
Oh, and I almost forgot, at the beginning of the week I did some warmup hikes with my trusty hiking companion.