Monday, March 16, 2020

Reconnecting with the hemlocks: A solo backpacking trip through Newport State Park

After many months, I finally was able to schedule a solo backpacking trip! 

It felt so good, so purposeful, so fulfilling to be spending a couple days in the wilderness, especially again at my favorite state park in Wisconsin: Newport. This park is truly special to me, a place with many adventures and memories. I first came here in 2014, around the same time nearly six years ago. I was in a transitional time in my life, switching from a full-time office job and just days shy from starting a new job where I'd be teaching at YMCA Camp Minikani, my first step into pursuing a career in outdoor education and recreation. That trip, in March 2014, was my first real eye-opening exposure to this serene area on the shores of Lake Michigan in a desolate corner of Door County. I remember waking up a little after 4:30 am and cooking oatmeal to watch a spectacular frigid sunrise. That was also the first time I had ever heard the Cretaceous sounds of Sandhill Cranes. Then in 2017, four friends and I spent three days winter backpacking at Newport State Park through fluffy snow, temperatures far below zero, and the Milky Way illuminating the sky above.
Fast forward to today, I'm resting in my tent in March 2020. It's windy and the temperatures are probably in the twenties. Clouds block the stars tonight but I'm optimistic later I'll be able to get a glance at the stars. After following the Rowleys Bay trail towards Varney Point along the rocky bluffs through tunnels of cedar, I arrived at my site shortly after sunset and found a spot close to the shore of Duck Bay under a ceiling of pines to pitch my tent. The isobutane flame glowing from my tiny stove, I cooked dinner in the tent's vestibule, shielded from the wind. I dove my fork into a rehydrated meal pouch of Italian beef pepper steak complemented by a mug of hot apple cinnamon tea.
Later that night a little after midnight, I left my cozy and warm down-filled sleeping bag to hopefully see the stars. The clouds had faded away and the sight was jaw-dropping. No wonder Newport State Park is actually an International Dark Sky Park, the only patch of public lands in Wisconsin and one of the only places in the entire country to earn this accolade. Humbled yet again by Newport's offerings, I went back in the tent to grab my camera and small tripod to try and capture the scene. I've done long-exposure nighttime shots in the past, like for example shooting the northern lights when I was in Iceland, but it was trickier than expected this go-around. My Sony A6000, a mirrorless SLR camera, has an ISO that ranges from a staggering 25000 down to 100. I first tried with a combination of settings like pairing a slow 30-second shutter speed, an aperture set near F3.5, and an ISO of 5000. The results were fairly okay, but further practice and tailoring could make it the resulting image better. It was also difficult to find a fixed focal point to bring everything into a clear focus.
When I woke up on Sunday, I looked out my tent at Duck Bay in the first morning light. Most of the bay had frozen overnight. The only faint sounds were seagulls, the slapping of waves, and the hissing from my backpacking stove. I boiled water for a chicken and dumpling breakfast with a side of coffee of course. After walking around the shoreline of Duck bay, I broke down camp, loaded my pack, did a quick Leave No Trace check, and set off to continue exploring the park. I wanted to hike north along the shore and in the hardwoods, hiking the Sand Cove area and reaches of Lynd Point. Large floating chunks of what I called "pancake ice" crashed into each other, followed by the occasional low "thud."
I followed a primitive trail hugging the coastline of Sand Cove. Temperatures were bitter, as gusts of wind rolled off the surface of Lake Michigan and hit my face like a punch. A canvas of blue tried to break through the early day's clouds. I saw a mature bald eagle hover laps above the treetops then swoop into a nest on the peak of a tall bushy pine. The trails were dangerously icy and I definitely had a few "almost" moments where I immediately regretted not lugging with me a pair of snowshoes or new traction spikes I purchased the month prior up in Marquette, Michigan. Speaking of footwear, this trip reminded me that my Timberland hiking boots are getting close to retirement, after six hard years of use, and I have an REI dividend waiting.
Eventually, I reached the Newport Bay area and kept pushing north along the Fern Trail loop to put another 2.2 miles in the bag. What a surprise the trail looping around Lynd Point became. I was met with pure solitude and surrounded by dense cedars. I could peak through openings in the cedars and see the northern tip of mainland Door County and Washington Island on the distant horizon. The trail turned southwest through almost a slot canyon of steep mossy rock walls before entering a kingdom of grand, dark green hemlocks. Hemlocks are beautiful and have over the years become one of my favorite trees. I stopped to admire them, fascinated. I was hoping this entire solo backpacking trip to reunite with the hemlocks and now I had!
After pausing to journal in the tranquil company of nearby pines, plus an infinite clump of birch and beech, I continued hiking back towards the trailhead. Spending two days, alone, at Newport State Park this March brought me so many feelings of gratitude for this wilderness. I'll be back here soon.

Cheers,
Robby