Thursday, August 13, 2015

1996 Backpacking North Country Trail in Wisconsin's Chequamegon National Forest

The Chequamegon National Forest (pronounced sho-WAH-ma-gon) contains nearly 850,000 acres in northern Wisconsin, with approximately 200 miles of trails for non-motorized travel, including 40 miles of the North Country Trail, the long distance trail which extends from New York state to North Dakota. Also, a 40 mile section of the Ice Age Trail passes through the national forest. The name is an Ojibwa Indian word for "place of shallow water."

There are two small wilderness areas, the Porcupine Lake Wilderness (4446 acres) and Rainbow Lake Wilderness (6583 acres.) An additional 52,000 acres have been set aside as semi-primitive, non-motorized area. At-large camping is allowed without a permit but must be 50 feet from trails or water sources. Hunting for ruffled grouse, white-tailed deer, and black bear are allowed in season by permit, so be careful if you backpack at these times.

I began the backpack in the beautiful Porcupine Wilderness and planned to continue on the North Country Trail beyond the wilderness. This would be a good location for novice or first-time backpackers, as the terrain is level and frequent road crossings allow easy bailing out if a problem arises. Since there is no altitude change, there are no overlooks or panoramic vistas. The North Trail basically carves a 7 miles tunnel through the trees of this densely wooded wilderness.

This unnamed pond was created by a beaver dam which you must balance atop for about 40 feet in order to resume on the trail. Between the trailhead and Porcupine Lake, a distance of about 4.5 miles, this was the only break in the trees.  

Porcupine Lake is a beautiful lake, but dense foliage around the shoreline prohibits easy access except at one area. If you look closely, you will see a fisherman in the water in the lower right corner (wearing red.) Another trailhead half a mile from the lake allows day fishermen to walk a half mile to reach the lake, and some even portage canoes in.

Below was my campsite a few miles beyond the lake. After setting up camp, scouting the area, and preparing supper, I read. 

The the horror struck! After dark I went in the tent and got ready for bed. I looked for my wallet and car keys which I carry in a ziplock bag to keep them together and dry, but I couldn't find the ziplock anywhere. It was one of those frantic moments you can probably relate to -- one where the pressure is on and you're trying not to panic but you feel it coming on. I went through everything three times with no luck. I went outside with my flashlight and scoured my campsite with no luck. Then I tried to recreate my hike in my mind and figure out what might have happened.

On my solo hikes, in a addition to my backpack, I wear a fanny sack backwards so it becomes a belly sack, and I keep a snack, my ziplock of valuables, and my camera in it for easy access while backpacking so I don't have to take off the big pack to dig something out. I recalled stopping several times to take photos, the ones you've seen above. Again, the camera and the ziplock were both at the top of the fanny sack. Could the ziplock have fallen out as I removed the camera? I guess so.

Realizing I couldn't do anything until daylight, I tried to sleep but not very successfully. In the morning, I hastily packed up and headed back towards my car, carefully watching both sides and the middle of the trail looking for an all-important ziplock. And recall that first photo above? It shows a narrow trail with some tall vegetation on both verges, so I tried to look carefully. And as I reached places where I recalled taking photos, I scoured those areas.

All the while I'm trying to determine what I can do if I don't find the ziplock. How can I get in the van without the keys I carry a spare key in my wallet, but that's missing, too! I'll have to hitchhike to town and find a locksmith? But I have no cash or credit cards either. And if I get in my van, I need to buy gas to get home. What a quandary!

Finally I was within sight of the parking lot, and there in the center of the trail, right in front of the wilderness sign where I had taken the very first picture, was the ziplock, within 100 feet of my van. You see it on the trail right next to the signpost for the wilderness.

I felt a huge surge of relief and then a huge surge of dumbness. Anyone could have picked it up and had all my money and credit cards and my vehicle, but thankfully no one did. Thankfulness was all I felt besides the stupidity, but I always liked to say that I learned something on every one of my 60+ backpack trips, and the lesson this trip was to carry a spare key and cash in my backpack and put my valuables down deep in the fanny pack!

And I didn't feel like retracing the 7 miles to get back to where I had camped the last night, and then go farther, so I just drove to my next destination, heading for a backpack on Minnesota's Superior Trail.

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