Bonnie’s Bramblers Celebrate Birthdays

Our good friend Bonnie, of Corn Desert fame, was having a birthday and decided that camping was the absolute best way to celebrate another year around the sun. A group of us went to the Jim Edgar campground to help make the event a party.

We got a much later start than we wanted, but magically seemed to show up just about the same time everyone else did. Still, with the late arrival, we only had about an hour of workable daylight, so set out to find suitable hanging trees. The group camp we had reserved was terrific, but was largely a mown grassy area with some trees and brush on the perimeter, close to the lake. I started to get nervous, but after some scrambling, found trees that would do the job.

The area was a beaver buffet through, Chewed and downed trees were everywhere! One year we camped right next to a beaver lodge in the Boundary Waters and I heard crashing trees all around me all night long. I hoped I wouldn’t experience the same this time around.

We got camp set up and joined the others in the nifty shelter, complete with fireplace. It was entirely cozy with all the Friday arrivals. Dan and Penny treated us to salmon and a potato medley that was out of this world, and we brought champagne to toast the birthday girl. It was a lovely first night.

The sky was clear and all the stars were out. It was also 20 degrees! This was supposed to be a spring trip, but it was just as cold as FYBO. When we left our house, it was even snowing a little! Still, not to be dissuaded, we had all our winter gear and were prepared for a cold night in our hammocks.

The next morning was bright and chilly, and I was well rested as it appeared the beavers had abandoned our area, at least for the time being. With the day starting so well, a small band of us went seeking a nearby trail that purported to be 7 miles long. (It turned out to be closer to 4)

The trail wound around a small lake, and we saw plenty of water fowl.

It was too early for any of the green to have grown up, so the hike wasn’t particularly pretty, but I’m sure it’s a lot nicer during the summer.

We did find a geocache entirely on accident, which was pretty cool.

We also hiked through a large area that had recently been burned. That would have been cool to see and I bet it grows back magnificently later in the season.

We returned to camp and the rest of the group had arrived. We settled in around the fire for food, drink and hi-jinx.

I know I say this a lot, but this is a group of incredibly fun people and I always look forward to time spent with them.

We ate gorgeous cake.

While it may have been Bonnie’s birthday trip, this particular weekend actually fell on Arbor’s birthday! It was like two celebrations in one, and there was a terrific ‘underwater’ birthday song for him.

We even had a celebratory pyramid! How many people can say they’ve done birthday pyramids? 😉


Freeze Your Butt Off 2015

I always look forward to the annual Freeze Your Butt Off meetup with our Corn Desert group. It is a terrific time to unwind, laugh a lot and brave the cold together. On warmer outings, I tend to try and do too many things. One of the perks of FYBO is that a lot of the time is spent hunkering down and staying warm around the fire. It’s often the most relaxing vacation I ever get.

The fun times began right away this year. The park service had cut down a lot of troublesome trees and left them for us to use as firewood. The guys got out their burly man axes and made short work of the wood we were given, but not before getting in a few jokes.

Kings of the woodpile! Everyone is supposed to bring firewood with them, because we go through a lot of it with the temps being what they are. This year, however, we were resplendent with resources.

We set up our hammocks and prepared for the night ahead. I had really been hoping we would get down into the teens at night because we’ve never tested our gear that low. I would love to be able to incrementally see how low we can get while still being comfortable with our underquilts. The great thing about car camping is that you can bring backup options because weight and space are non-issues. Unfortunately, we only got down to 20 degrees at night, which is the same temp we’d slept in before.

After setup, it was time to socialize around the fire. There was plenty of time to catch up with people we hadn’t seen in a while, tell stories and share future plans. There is nothing better than a campfire at night with great friends.

The next morning we were treated to an amazing breakfast in the food tent. (which is kept slightly warmer with the aid of a propane heater) We camp at electric sites, so everyone can bring crock pots to keep food warm. Scott even brought his smoker this time around! There are so many delectable options to choose from throughout the weekend.

After stuffing our bellies, we settle around the fire to talk and make plans for the day. Have I mentioned how relaxing this all is?

Of course, even a winter meetup will involve hiking when you’re with a hiking group – and Kickapoo State Recreation Area doesn’t suffer from a lack of wonderful trails.

Always a good time with this crew. We got to joking this time around that Kris needed his own hashtag – and from that point on, he was #HashtagKris.

The trail we chose to hike had a series of carved faces hidden in the trees. It elevated the hike to a bit of a treasure hunt.

I think they’ve even added new carvings since the last time I had been out there.

We met up with Amy partway into the hike. She wanted to keep going after the group was returning to camp, so we took her to our favorite Out-n-Back trail. All year long it remains a beautiful hike with varied landscape and points of interest.

She always brings her backpack along for trips like this. She says she tries to hike at least once a month with a pack on, so that her muscles don’t forget how to wear one. It’s really good advice that I ought to start heeding myself – but I just can’t quite convince myself to do it just yet. Obviously, I am not as hardcore as she.

In our absence, Kris and the gang had a little fun on their own. I had stowed my jacket in Kris’s pack during the hike as I got warm and forgot about it when we parted ways. You can see the danger of that. 😉

By the time we’d finished, we’d hiked a good 10 miles, which was a lot more than we had anticipated going in. I was rightfully tired and hungry on our return. Fortunately, Scott had fired up the smoker and prepared ribs for the entire crew. They were soooo good after a day of exertion, and I went to bed full, happy and sore.

We woke up the next morning to several inches of snow on the ground and more still falling. It was incredibly beautiful and just the landscape you want for a winter retreat.

The snow was too much for our campfire canopy however. Fortunately the fire was out before the tarp collapsed. Since it was our day of departure, we just wrapped things up and a new fire was never lit.

Even though we didn’t have a fire, we still had the refuge of the food tent. A final breakfast was a great way to finalize the trip, and before long it was the last thing to take down before departure. It looks so stark and lovely out there on its own.

Kris is a late sleeper, often waking up hours after everyone else. He gets teased about this rather regularly, and this time around a woodpile prank was set up just in front of his tent door. When he popped his head out to greet the day, he said that his groggy brain couldn’t figure out if we had moved his tent to the woodpile, or if we had moved the woodpile to his tent.

Until next year!

Millstone Bluff – Shawnee National Forest

At the end of our November Shawnee National Forest Meetup (Day1, Day2), we visited a fascinating Archeological site, Millstone Bluff. Our June River to River plans included visiting Millstone Bluff because of the petroglyphs there, but it was far off trail and we had other plans that day to see Trigg Tower and the bleeding buffalo pictograph. Archeology views human culture through the artifacts left behind, and this site includes 3 human civilizations, all within the Common Era (all within the last 1200 years) impacting the land. We were privileged to share it with our Meetup friend John, who studied and worked on Illinois Archeological digs, when he was younger.

From its recent past, this place is named after a stone quarry at the base of the bluff, used for making round millstones by European settlers back in the 1800’s.

This surface-level quarry edges the parking lot as you drive in, and was abandoned, long before archeologists found the rich history on top of the bluff, just 20 years ago.

Six centuries earlier (in the 1200’s) a Mississippian settlement sat atop the bluff. Mississippians formed a large complex hierarchical culture covering most of our lower 48; a northeastern counterpart to the Mayan culture thriving further south. 

We saw rectangular indentations where homes and larger community buildings stood, a cemetery where graves were built as stone boxes.

There was also a collection of sacred petroglyphs, including an impressive thunderbird. As we looked over this small community we imagined what a lovely place it would have been to live, with grand views looking out over the nearby landscape.

Before that, maybe the 800’s, a tribe of Late Woodland people built up stone walls along the upper edge of this bluff, fortifying this dependable location, like a natural castle, against other tribes that may have passed by. Though Mississippians may not have had use for the walls themselves, they left them in place as artifacts for us to find now, in modern day.

Shawnee National Forest – Day 2

It had been cold sleeping, hovering around freezing temps. I stayed snugly warm with my zero degree underquilt and my potpourri of top quilts, blankets and sleeping bag. I really want to get a zero degree topquilt, but that’s a purchase for another year.

Mornings are a great opportunity to kick back and chat while enjoying breakfast. I love a leisurely morning! It’s amazing how much more stuff we bring while car camping, though. It’s not like we eat more than we do on the trail, but we certainly eat differently.

On today’s agenda was a group hike out to Rim Rock. We were lucky enough to just walk out the back of our campsite, down the hill to the road.

We followed the road along Pounds Hollow lake and enjoyed the absolutely gorgeous weather and scenery.

I just can’t get over how beautiful the area was in the fall colors. Everywhere we turned was another amazing view with color and rock features.

We climbed up and down several sections and explored the area like we were the first to discover it.

We stopped for lunch and tried not to get too cold as the warmth of the trail left us. Arbor and I had the brilliant idea to pack in cheese and cider for our break! It certainly added a little special something to the day.

We cleaned up and headed back to the trails.

Ultimately deciding to bushwhack off onto an old trail that was not out of service. It was terrific fun and we had a good time talking about gear choices and future travel plans.

It was an excellent afternoon, but before we knew it we were heading back to camp to enjoy the last night of the trip.

We had the most amazing communal dinner with shared treats and hot entrees. We stayed up late into the night laughing and telling stories.

Until next year Corn Desert Hiking and Adventure Group!

Shawnee National Forest – Day 1

We went on our annual Shawnee camping trip with our amazing Meetup friends from the Corn Desert Hiking & Adventure Groupback in November. They are such a terrific bunch of people, and we always have the very best time with them. This year we stayed at Pounds Hollow Recreational Area, which is just as lovely as anyplace we’ve been in the Shawnee.

It’s a bit of a drive to get down there, but was way more fun this time because we got to pass by all the places we hiked last summer on the River to River trail. It’s so much different seeing these landmarks by car, and helped us to appreciate all that we had accomplished.

We arrived on the early side, and grabbed a site with our good friend Scott of Hiking Forward fame. This was great for us, as it was a really nice spot with good hanging trees, but I don’t know that Scott was aware of Arbor’s snoring before the first night. He was a good sport about it all.

Everyone typically brings a bundle or two of firewood, but this year we had the extra bonus of several cut tree sections left by rangers in other campsites. John, a man who is always prepared, grabbed his *ax*, and made short work of the wood and must have split at least a cord. He emphasized that this is fun for him. I think John should join us on all outdoor ventures from now on.

After all that, there was little else to do but enjoy the fire and greet our friends as they arrived. I love getting the chance to share stories with old and new friends and catch up with what everyone has been up to.

A small group of us decided to head out and explore Pounds Hollow to see what we could find.

There were no direct trails from our campsite, so we bushwhacked a good portion of it until we picked up a network of hiking paths.

We found some really neat things along the way, though. Up by the cliffs, we found these tags, which indicated research areas studying the Eastern Woodrat. We were very careful not to disturb anything, but John pointed out areas that could likely be nesting spots.

We also discovered an old abandoned well. I imagine Southern Illinois must be littered with them, but this was a first for me and conjured up jokes of Lassie. It was pretty nifty to look down and imagine what life must have been like when it was dug and used.

John found a really wonderful deer skull laying in the leaf litter and upon closer inspection we could see that one side of the antlers had been getting a lot of attention from mice. I love seeing things in the process of decay. It’s such a perfect reminder that life really is cyclical and self sustaining.

It wasn’t a terribly long hike, but was decently challenging and before long we decided to head back for dinner. Of course, we didn’t really know where ‘back’ was – so there was plenty of map consulting and discussion about the best direction to head. All part of the adventure!

Just before we picked up the road again, we hiked down into a ravine and John stepped off a shallow ledge and all we could hear was his sudden hollering and cursing. Apparently, living under that same ledge was a wounded racoon who was surprised by all the movement and rushed out between John’s legs, scaring the crap out of both of them! John quickly moved out of the way and the racoon found his way back into the shadows, leaving us to our best devices. You could really smell the rancid odor from its injury, and unfortunately I don’t think the animal was long for this world. It was an amazing story recounted later around the fire and I think it will go down as a Corn Desert legend.

We ate dinner back at camp and as a group drove over to the Garden of the Gods to explore and watch the sun set. It’s a beautiful area with sandstone rock formations that are supposed to be 320 million years old.

There are so many places to climb and scramble and look out over the expansive view of the valleys below.

It’s amazing that in today’s society they even leave these areas open to the public. I feel really fortunate that they haven’t been fenced off.

We stayed to watch the sun set over the cliffs and landscape below. We had such an amazing time and it was the perfect end to a glorious day.

Interlochen Camping

Our daughter goes to art school at Interlochen Arts Academy, up near Traverse City Michigan. We traveled to move her in for the year and decided to camp at Interlochen State Park for a few days.

After we dropped her off for the first of her orientation meetings, we went and set up our hammocks. It was a beautiful day and it was nice to use all of our gear again, for the first time since the River to River trail.

Unfortunately, that night a storm rolled in and the wind off of the lake was powerful. The ground in northern Michigan is very sandy soil, and we hadn’t considered this ahead of time. We brought titanium shepherd hook stakes to tie down our tarps, because they are so light – which makes them great for backpacking. Unfortunately, they were terrible for loose ground in strong winds!

Our tarps had no chance, and at 2am we bailed and hit a hotel. The next morning we drove to the local Gander Mountain and picked up some aluminum tri-point 1 foot stakes. These would be invincible, and are a terrific addition to our camping arsenal.

We set up again the next morning, and the rest of our time there

Down the lane from us was a group of 5 campers who were having the best of times. They introduced themselves and told us to alert them if they got too loud, and invited us to join them if we felt so inclined.

Inclined we were, and each evening after the day’s events at the school, we joined the party. We had a blast and made some nice new friends. We seem to be collecting new friends everywhere we go – its pretty great.

We made time to hike and explore the Interlochen forest, and found some neat art installations along the way.

We also discovered the most amazing fungus! I totally need to figure out what it is.

We had a lovely time camping but it was time to put the finishing touches on our daughters room, give last hugs and say goodbye. Before long, we were back on the road home.

Friends Creek

We’re a week out from our departure date and we still have so much to prepare.  Arbor is finalizing our day to day itinerary, I’m wrapping up the last of our dehydrated meals and we’re trying to set up some gear and planning videos.  Even in the midst of all that frenzied work, we found it important to take the time to meet up with friends at an overnight camp event.

It was a perfect early summer night and the temperatures couldn’t have been more ideal.  It was a great test of our trail hammock gear.  All of our earlier training hikes and outings had winter/spring temps and I wasn’t able to try out my quilt setup to see if I’d be too warm or cold.  After all the tweaking we’d done earlier in the season, I now know that our trail choices were spot on.  It’s a relief to be able to out those concerns aside.

Most importantly, however, was the time to reconnect with the very people who inspired and uplifted us.  There was lots of trail talk, great food and laughter.  We have learned so much from our hiking community and we feel very blessed to have found them.  Getting some face time in before we leave was just what we needed.