Strenuous Relaxation

I’d had a somewhat grueling schedule and needed a retreat into the woods. I took a Wednesday off work and headed out that Tuesday evening to camp. Road construction detoured my drive and added some time, but after arriving at my remote parking spot I hiked about a mile into the woods. My plan was to spend the evening and most of the next day in and around my base camp- to read, to write, to fish, to relax. I should know myself better than that.

The site is in a non-motorized zone of the Chippewa National Forest, but unfortunately a corner of the lake is grazed by a rural but popular highway. Under construction for the summer, I expected there would be less traffic and more peace on that lake. I didn’t consider that dump trucks full of gravel driving on a temporarily unpaved road might be frequent and louder. I was disgusted to see how some previous tenants had trashed the site– the remains of a burned camp chair and beer cans (Busch Light) in the fire ring, a discard can Koozie along the edge of the size, and other bits of trash about. I cleaned up as well as I could, got a fire going, and set up my tent.

Ask dusk approached, the traffic ceased. My company was a group of young people fishing or swimming across the water– the span was too far to really see what they were up to. As it got darker, an angry beaver paced the water in front of my camp and made his occasional, alarming splooshes to startle me. The seasoned New York strip cooked over logs cut from the fallen maple I found nearby was mouth-watering.

I cast my fly into the water in hopes of a trout. I brought in a number of small bass, but only the first was large enough to consider releasing into the pan. I could see in the center of the lake the occasional fish breach and leap, which I assumed to be trout. The same in my usual fishing hole, as I’d fish from shore I could always see trout break the surface much farther than my cast could reach.

The night was good, though somewhat restless with roots and rocks beneath my back and temperatures that dropped lower than what I had prepared for. My thin, fleece liner as a sleeping bag did not so much suffice. Come morning, and that warm water send swirling fog into the brisk air. I heated water in my percolator and smelled the dark roast as the steam echoed the mist rising off the lake. The occasional trout again taunted me, leaping and breaking surface far in the middle of the lake. My littoral casts could once again only bring in the small bass. Nothing quite suitable for breakfast. Fortunately, I had my coffee and my chicken maple sausages.

I had intended to take it easy- to fish, to read, to relax… but in part adventure and trails called my name, and in part the invasive noise from the highway irritated me to go deeper into the woods. I packed up camp and headed into the woods. While the mosquitoes were much milder than a month ago, as I headed into the deep, I came across patches of the pests that kept me plowing forward. A pack weighing 40 pounds or so and numerous hilly climbs kept me huffing.

I vaguely knew the trails, the lakes, and the general area, and I pictured a few destinations I might stop to find my relaxation overall. One campsite I had in mind to be a nice destination on a lake, I found to be occupied as judged by the sound of voices and hatchet chopping. I thought I had the woods to myself, but as luck would have it, the one place I planned to stop is where the people were. Beyond that site, an ancient white pine had fallen right on top of the trail. It was a momentary obstacle course to find a way through and around the branches. Onward I hiked, taking short breathers and brief stops to capture pictures of the wide variety of asters blooming on trail. On one trail intersection, I made the decision to take the extra loop that swung widely north around three lakes. Onward and upward I hiked, finding few scenic or seat-worthy spots.

BB25D04C-50B3-4004-8251-00F82C857B70A highlight far into the trek when I was growing weary and nearly out of water… with weight on my back and eyes cast downward, I saw some large wet rubies on the forest floor. ‘What are these?’ I asked myself, but immediately I knew. I looked up and there was a small tree filled with ripe, wild plums. Or more specifically, Canada Plums, I imagine. So ripe, that with the slightest bump of a branch, it would rain fruit on me. I ate some, and was refreshed by the tart skin followed by sweet and juicy flesh. I slugged the last swallow in my Nalgene and filled the vessel with fruit for the hike. As I finished packing the last orb and loaded my gear onto my back, a chipmunk came onto the scene. It seemed that he looked at the pillaged plum tree, than looked up at me with eyes of betrayal. I had raided his spot and he was heart-broken. I had left at least a few on the ground for him to retrieve.

DA22ED1F-112B-41DA-A8FB-63BB79B21352Onward I trekked, hoping for a quality resting spot to finally spend the rest of a day camp. A long while later, I came to another dispersed campsite, and fortunately this one was vacant, as I expected for a deeply dispersed site on a Wednesday afternoon. I rested and cast a line again, bringing in yet another piddly small bass or two. I turned over a log and found a blue-spotted salamander. The shiny little fellow brought me back to childhood when I’d find these little pets under logs and adopt them for the day. I freed this guy after a 10-sec photo shoot.

A brief reprieve, and I was off again. My feet were getting tender and my body getting weary, but the hilly trail and occasional mosquito swarm were merely inconveniences. Alright, to be honest, there was a good stretch that I was downright miserable and desperate for the end to come. I would circle back from where I had started, passing the campsite I had spend the night. So in actuality, I really didn’t have to be toting my 40-pound pack the entire trek, but so I did. My feet ached, by back was strained, my water was gone, and I was soaked in sweat. Miserable. I swatted at the mosquitoes tormenting an already tortured hiker and yearned to see the train sloping down to the campsite. If ever there was a time to jump in a lake, I thought, this was it. Finally a smiled a weak smile of relief as I saw the long-awaited side path to the site. I stumbled down the descending path into the site, unloaded my pack, and immediately stripped down. I didn’t pack swim trunks, but I was in the middle of the woods alone. Starkers was the only way to swim. The water felt refreshing and amazing and I was no longer miserable.

Then… out of the silence on the lake, I heard the voice of someone clearing their voice. There along the shore was a kayak. They were some distance away, and I’m not sure if they had seen or what they had seen of the scene, but if they had looked hard enough, they certainly saw a jaybird. I casually got out of the water, and on shore I was immediately out of line of sight. I dried, dressed, and trekked back to the trail. I intended to get refreshed, and didn’t intend to give a show, but things don’t always go as planned. I had another mile to hike back to the car, but at least I had cooled off. I looked at the map and calculated my adventure– I estimated about 8.5 miles of hiking hills in my heavy pack that day. It’s certainly not the longest hike I’d ever had, but somehow I was left more weary than a 12 mile hike in the Rocky Mountain National Park I had a year earlier. Tired and weary, I didn’t have the day of relaxation I had intended… but I left relaxed and refreshed nonetheless. Sometimes strenuous adventure can be ultimately more relaxing than lethargic lounging in camp. It is certainly more memorable.