Friday, June 21, 2013

St. Louis Work Trip

For the last several years I went with our church's youth group down to St. Louis where we would hang out and serve in the inner city. It's a pretty amazing deal, and I've loved doing it - but this year there was a dilemma. Patrick had tickets to Telluride - a 4-day music festival in Colorado - during the same week. I told Mike I would't be able to help him, and he was troubled because he needed the help and the driver. Patrick also had some question as to whether work would be sending him off to China for a bit during that time, so in the end he sold his tickets and I went to St. Louis. It was a long time to go without seeing him, but it was great to be back in the City, with the kids and the leaders, and help out in various ways. I did some work for my job back in Appleton, and I watched a LOT of sick kids - a crazy 24-hour flu took out most of the kids and leaders.  Here are the blog posts I wrote during our time there: It turns out it was the last trip MIke would lead before leaving his role as Youth Pastor at Appleton Free Church, so I was doubly glad I got to be a part of that last trip.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Backpacking the Ice Age Trail

I used to think that if feelings were ambivalent, it meant they were neutral and could go either way on something. I then learned that ambivalent means "the simultaneous existence of two opposed and conflicting attitudes, emotions, etc" and I love that definition. There are so many experiences and situations where no single, overriding feeling emerges. There is the good, there is the bad, and they simply don't average to "lukewarm". So here are both accounts of the trip I took this past weekend with my college-age friends Ryan and Sara.

The fabulous The "challenging"

Originally, 6 of us were going to go to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for Memorial Day weekend, but schedules and plans changed for a bunch of us and in the end, Sara, Ryan and I took off Friday night for the Blue Hills segment of the Ice Age Trail for roughly a 2-day hike. Getting out of town was somewhat of a challenge as all of us had been running like crazy so we still had quite a bit of stuff to pull together.

We found a camp site near the end of our intended trail and stayed there - which gave us a great chance to do a final check on all our gear, and for Ryan to try sleeping in a hammock before committing to using that instead of a tent for the rest of the trip. He loved it.

Saturday early afternoon found us in the other car, back at the trail head and on our journey. We had been slowed by the fact that the Ice Age Trail is maintained by volunteers, and the series of maps and directions to access the trail from different points are by no means the clearest. (We had pieced together screen shots of zoomed in maps because no other detailed maps were readily available online).
There were trillium flowers EVERYWHERE. I'm pretty sure they're taking over the world after seeing the vast, beautiful quantities we saw throughout our trip. We also saw yellow, purple and white violets, Forget-Me-Nots, Jack in the Pulpit, Marsh Marigolds, Blue Bead Lilies, Solomon's Seal and Star-flowered Solomon's Seal, and Bellflowers in beautiful spreads throughout the weekend. Oh, and ramps (leeks, wild onions). We found lots and lots of ramps. Too bad none of us are fans or we could have eaten them alone all weekend and survived quite nicely!

Right away on our journey we started to realize that ticks - wood ticks, and even a few deer ticks  - were going to be a problem. In order to keep ourselves from going crazy with the huge numbers that kept collecting on our shoes, socks, legs, pants... and on up, we started having a contest. A counting contest that NONE of us wanted to win. All of us had at least 100 by end of day Sat, and our total Sunday night was at 880. For real. And that's not counting many we found on our tents, packs, and gear. As I sit in the hospital writing this Monday morning, we keep finding more. I'm at 15 or so just with the ones that made it with me out of the woods. Eee-YUCK!
Yes, there are no words for the creepiness of it, and it is only with the greatest of effort that we have been able to maintain humor rather than uber freak-out-ness with the entire situation. None of us can wait for a shower.
It turned out to be a great trip in so many respects. Bugs (other than ticks) were annoying but not terrible. And the weather couldn't have been more perfect. No rain, cool temps, nice breeze throughout.
One of the neat things about the start of the trail was that it led over several different stiles. They're basically stairs that go over a fence, so cows can't get out, but humans can easily enter and exit at will.

At one point Saturday we had navigated a stile and walked quite a way along before seeing a bunch of cows across the creek from us. It took some casting about before we realized that our trail led right through the middle of the herd - up an open hill and then who-knew-where. Only - they weren't cows. They weren't even steers. For some reason, a local farmer was keeping 20-30 bulls together in that pasture. Assuming the farmer wouldn't do so if they were in any way dangerous I ran at them yelling and waving my hiking poles. They scattered off and we started through the pasture. One of them thought Ryan was really, really interesting (and let's face it, he is!) so kept coming up behind him. We yelled and chased him back enough so that we could get through the rest of the pasture in peace. Uff da!
Toward the end of the day Saturday we found a likely spot for a camp site. Ryan took off his pack, but went ahead to see if there might be a better spot further down the trail. After some thought, Sara and I decided to push on after him, figuring we would just be that much further along when he got to a better site.

 Except that... we couldn't catch up with him. We kept walking and walking and then worrying a bit and walking. He wouldn't have left the trail, right?
Just as we had decided to start shouting his name, we entered a huge wooded valley. As we looked ahead on the the trail, there was movement! It was him! No it wasn't. It was... a bear!.. with a cub! Wait, there were two little cubs with her. Make that 3! We maintained a loud level of talking and she headed off to our left. The cubs would startle at our noise, tree, and then when "mom" kept walking they would hop back down and follow her. We kept talking loudly and continued down the trail.

We began shouting in earnest for Ryan and finally got to the point where Sara said, "He wouldn't have come this far". So we left our packs, left an arrow with twigs pointing back the way we came (in case he had gone further), and turned around. We kept shouting his name every few seconds. After 5 minutes or so, we heard the best sound in the world: a deep-pitched "Sara!" in response to our call. Sure enough, in another 5 minutes he came panting up the hill toward us.
Back at the camp site, Ryan had gone just a little way down the trail, realized that our spot was just fine, and had gone along a creek a bit and circled back to the original site - where he had been all the time. He set up his hammock, but when we still kept not showing up, finally left a note, and took off down the trail after us, hoping he was going in the right direction. Miscommunication!! After an hour or so of being apart, we were pretty happy to be together, even though it meant carrying our packs all the way back to the original site.
Sunday was a really nice day for hiking. Other than the ticks, of course. I ended up needing to sing nearly all the silly songs in my repertoire to keep our brains from thinking too much about the ticks or about our tired bodies. Singing about having a tattoo of a daisy on your toe helps any situation, right? This is what I tell myself. The trail really was beautiful We got to see a scarlet tanager - wow! - and followed a chain of four beaver ponds - crossing dams and watching the beavers slap their tails in alarm as we got too close. Toward night, we found a beautiful, ramp-filled valley to set up camp near a wandering creek.

Which brings us to Monday morning. We were awakened at 5:30 or so by noise outside the tent. I asked if everything was ok, and Ryan said his Crohn's was acting up and we needed to get going. By 6:00 we were completely packed up and on the trail. It was a nightmare. Ryan was fighting intense pain. Every few hundred yards he would double over unable to move, and then we would take off down the trail again. Sara and I did our best to keep up with him, and then would wait while he fought the pain. We began to discuss what we would do if he couldn't go any further, so when that moment occurred I dropped my pack and took off down the trail and Sara stayed with him. There was a logging road that crossed our trail 1 1/2-2 miles down, so I ran as much as I could toward that road. About half way I tried to call 911. The connection was sketchy, but I was able to convey enough of where we were for her to say, "oh, you're in Barron county - that's a different system. Let me transfer you over". I asked if she could tell them everything I had just told her (where we were, Ryan's situation) and she said, "what?". I tried again... "what?"... Click. My phone battery was getting low (I'd been using it as a camera throughout the trip), so I turned it off and took off down the trail again. I finally reached the gravel road, turned on my phone, and... no signal. So I started running up a long hill that stretched a half mile to the west. At the top of it, I was able to get a bit of a signal, but it came and went. So I texted my friend Joce, giving her the critical information, and asking her to call 911 with it. Then I tried calling again, and finally got through. After explaining again where we were and what was going on, they assured me they had figured out where we were and were on the way. I hung up so I could run back to the trail head to wait, texted Joce back to let her know all was well, and.... my phone battery died.
I ran back to the trailhead, and waited maybe ten minutes before a caravan of vehicles arrived. Local sheriffs, local first respondents in beat-up pickup trucks, emergency rescue folks and an ambulance made up the team. They were great. They backed an ambulance-style ATV off one of their pickups and  took me back into the woods where Sara and Ryan were waiting. We loaded them and our backpacks up on the ATV and after plenty of bouncing made it back to the main road.

I forgot to mention that while Sara and I were planning what to do if Ryan couldn't make it out, we started asking him where the key to the car was. You see, we had parked one car at the end of the trail and driven the other to the trailhead where we started. Ryan had the key to the forward car. So while I took off down the trail, Sara went through Ryan's pack trying to find it. It turns out the key had been left in the car at the trailhead. While Ryan and Sara took off in the ambulance, I asked one of the sheriffs if there was any chance he could give me a ride back to the starting car, 45 minutes away. He (very kindly) agreed, and I spent the 45 minutes in small talk with him and in dropping ticks that I found on myself out the window.
By the time I arrived at the Emergency Department Ryan was stabilized and doing fine. Sara and I waited with him, tracking down ticks and flushing them down the hospital toilet, until Sara's parents arrived. At that point we could retrieve the second car, and make plans for returning home. Ryan ended up being hospitalized through Wednesday but in the end recovered completely.
I'm not sure how you might describe this experience, but in my book "ambivalence" - the true definition - does quite nicely.