I read adventure stories. Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” the story of the ill-fated amateur climbing expedition up Everest in 1996; and “Into the Wild,” about a young man’s passion to march unaided into the Alaskan wilderness and leave civilization behind.
One of my favorites, “A Walk in the Woods,” by Bill Bryson, inspired me to suggest to my friend Bill Hafs that we try wilderness backpacking. I will leave it to your imagination who resembles what actor in the movie version, although no one has mistaken me of late for Robert Redford.
Mind you, walking 25 miles “into the wild” of Porcupine Mountains State Park in the Upper Peninsula does not match verve with Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 720-mile open-boat odyssey, chronicled in “Endurance” by F. A. Worsley. Yet it marked the first time I have set foot in the wilderness with the necessities for survival heaped upon my back.
I have day-hiked the Rockies and rustic-camped the lakes of the UP, yet always within a few paddle strokes of a food-laden cooler or a few steps of my get-away car. I enter this adventure relying wholly upon the good graces of nature.
Out here, the connection with our environment is not theoretical or hypothetical. The bond emerges not from the vicarious pleasures of a novel, not the abstractions of environmental science, nor the controversy of the environmental debate. I feel its tangible presence through the soles of my feet.
We begin our hike at “Lake of the Clouds,” an appropriately named backwater of the Big Carp River that pools like an emerald in the dense forest. Seemingly suspended from the sky, the Big Carp River Trail catwalks 400 feet above the valley, offering a walk risen more by inspiration than elevation. Every view uplifts the spirit. The valley spreads before us like an untamed garden; so filled with dense foliage that the river’s course can only be inferred by the shadowy crease in the canopy.
Big Carp River Trail leads us to an eventual rendezvous with the river itself, requiring two crossings; one by shoeless wading, another by witless balancing upon a fallen-tree bridge. We come to appreciate the trail blazer’s perverse sense of humor as the path degenerates many times into an obstacle course. And yet, the path leads us to profound beauty.
Encountering only the occasional hiker, we welcome nature as our constant companion. Giant hemlocks shelter us from the sun. Hemlock varnish shelf mushrooms march up their trunks like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Waterfalls break an otherwise hypnotic silence. The earth greets our every step.
We camp the first night near the mouth of Big Carp on the shores of Lake Superior, an inland ocean of such size it both exalts and humbles the spirit. Lake Superior is the largest lake by surface area in the world. Distant shores disappear into its waters like continents into the Atlantic. Waves lapping at the shore, mere fingertips of its enormous power, keep us awake long into the night.
The lake offers more than sublime sunsets. It provides water to quench our thirst and the critical ingredient for our evening meal. It offers us a connection to nature that we can only dimly appreciate though a kitchen faucet.
We camp the second night again on the edge of Lake Superior, this time serenaded to sleep by a less-than-sublime wind and rain storm that swirls in the trees above us. The storm forces us into our puppy-sized tent at 9 p.m. to contemplate our options if the storm gets worse. It does not, but rain-soaked gear motivates us to break camp early morning and head for the car, still six miles away.
The sound of other human voices and the sight of the aforementioned car is welcome. And my first shower in days borders on ecstasy. The first connection to the outside world comes in the form of a cell-phone solicitation, the sort of irony that only modern commercialism can muster, juxtaposing the “things I want” against the things I need for survival.
Having returned to civilization, our adventure gives new meaning to that fanciful phrase “closer to nature,” explored one step rather than one page at a time.