Dec. 28, 2016: “Dad is leaving on his own vacation, again. Kids, come say bye,” my wife said before I left for Montana this past summer.
My cellmate was right, even though she was joking: just because you are obsessed with something doesn’t give you a green light to neglect your primary responsibilities.
I vowed after Granite Peak that my next high-pointing trip would involve the whole family. But I had my eye on the Great White North, in winter, which is one of the last places they would choose to spend a vacation.
I’ll just compromise, I thought, and buy everyone plane tickets to Hawaii as Christmas presents. She’ll get a beach vacation in February, and I’ll get my winter/high-pointing one in January. Everyone wins. And I’ll ensure they have an amazing time, regardless of the cold/snow/wind/bleakness of it all.
Winter climbing is all about logistics, because often the hardest thing is just getting to the trailhead. Twice a day, in the two weeks leading up to us leaving, I checked the weather along our driving routes and the mountain forecasts. Everything was looking good. We had a window.
Three days before we were scheduled to depart, however, there were plenty of “winter storm warnings” and that’s the worst thing you can read while staring at your phone. We had to go a day earlier or give up on the trip.
I left at noon from my writing job, packed up the car and we were on the road in Ohio at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. About 8.5 hours later we were pulling into a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin.
The next morning, Thursday, we left the hotel and it was 2.5 hours to Tomahawk, Wisconsin. The small village with a thriving downtown welcomed us to the land of cheese and DVD rentals at gas stations and to the true North. What is the true North? I used to think it was about the Civil War.
You see, Ohio was the first Free State, the first to outlaw slavery, and growing up, I identified with the North as it related to the Civil War. But Ohio is only in the North politically. Geographically, it’s the Midwest.
The real North starts at the 45th parallel. Climbing Granite Peak with “Minnesota David,” I was insulted when he said, “We think of Ohioans as Southerners.”
But I understand it now. Above the 45th, they have real deep snow, lakes you can actually set up permanent shanties on and ice fish all winter, pee wee hockey on the FM radio stations, endless sled trails — a true outdoor winter culture.
Everyone just stays inside and complains in Ohio during winter. Like my father says, “Ohio has become slush.”
We had a nice lunch in downtown Tomahawk and then a short drive to the county park of Timm’s Hill.
The park roads were closed in the winter, as I researched, but luckily, one, the snow was packed out from snowmobiles and skis. And two, it was only 1.5 miles roundtrip from the parking area. So it was to be a family affair.
Halfway to the summit, a sled trail intersected the main road and an older man driving a 1970s Ski Doo passed us and waved, going slowly. He had a chainsaw rigged to the back of the snow machine.
The ¼-mile final push to the tower and survey marker was enough to break my 5-year-old, who threw himself down near the summit and declared, “All my energy is gone; I can’t go on.” I assisted him the final 10 feet.
It was pretty windy at the top of the wooden fire tower. The forecast said 20 mph winds and it felt extremely cold for how low the elevation was. Back to the car we then stopped just outside the park at Hill ‘O Beans, the little log-built coffee shop overlooking Alcohol Lake.
On our way out, the man we saw snowmobiling before entered with freshly cut wood and threw it on the red coals of the stone fireplace.
“Hey, we saw you on the way to Timm’s Hill,” my wife told the older man.
“Out clearing the trails,” he said, smiling at her.
“Is that you?” my wife asked, pointing to the giant picture that was hung up of the man’s younger self in full ski gear, medals around the frame and his neck.
“Yes, we used to do a lot of those races,” he told her.
From Hill ‘O Beans, it was three hours through the heart of the Wisconsin north, and we really lucked out with the weather, as the roads were plowed and no further accumulation was on the horizon that day.
Finally, we crossed the southwest corner of Lake Superior and entered Minnesota and the city limits of Duluth.
Read HP #28:
The next morning after the Minnesota climb was New Year’s Eve, and we were off after breakfast and coffee to Michigan. Across Lake Superior’s southern belly, through the lake town of Ashland, Wisconsin (and we all concluded we had been living in the wrong Ashland).
A bald eagle raced us along the two-laned Route 2 in Wisconsin — insane how fast they can fly.
“Look out for the white tail,” my brother MF once told me, and he was right, it was a dead giveaway.
Five hours later and with a grilled cheese lunch at the Korner Kitchen, the family arrived in Baraga, Michigan.
Previously, we had been pronouncing it with a hard R, like “bar” then “aga.” The locals had other ideas, and called it “bear” then “ah” then “ga.” Which sounds a lot like the Mexican word, “verga,” which means “penis.” Spanish speakers will know what I’m talking about.
My parents had been waiting days for us in that little lakeside town, having pulled up in sleds (snowmobiles) to Yooper country (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) so we could continue the expedition. Northern Michigan is where we spent ALL of our vacations as kids, so it felt a little closer to home.
My parents had a suite at the Baraga Lakeside Inn and ensured we had an adjoining room. Darkness had fallen so you couldn’t see the lake, but the blackness of the docks showed its existence.
Ohio Stare was in the college football playoff, and my grandpa, dad and both brothers were alumni, so there was a vested interest. I even did some Masters work at the Mansfield brand and at one point had a Buck ID as well.
From there was more drinking and jokes and staring out at the snowmobiles continuing to crowd the front parking lot. I staggered into the bar for a cold beer warm-up before continuing down the endless trail system of the U.P.
Surprisingly, the next morning, Sunday, I wasn’t hungover. My father, the 10-year-old and I started towards Michigan’s peak around 9 a.m. through L’Anse and then the long truck to the gravel pit parking area by Roland Lake. There were more snow-coated roads, but with the added element of a covered trailer and two sleds.
We were so close. My father pulled the first Ski Doo out of the trailer and kept it running.
I presented a thumbs up to him for permission to take her for a lap, and he nodded. I went about 100 yards, got into just a small bit of powder, let off the gas, and the sled came to an abrupt halt. I gassed it but nothing. Went to the back of the sled, moved the rear end into fresh snow, and gassed it again. I smelled burnt rubber and saw blue smoke.
What the hell had I done?
My father came racing down with the other Ski Doo and quickly realized the parking brake was locked on. A feature new to us. And he knew the belt was fried. After some light cursing, he popped the side panel off, broke out an Allen wrench, and changed the belt like a one-man pit crew. Dude was 66, but still acting like a 30-year-old.
It was only about 25 minutes to the top of Mt. Arvon via sled on a well-traveled trail. The summit wasn’t much to speak of; it looked more like a campsite at a once-overcrowded and now-abandoned park.
The picnic table, grill and signs of human beings had long since passed. It provided a sweet view through the trees if you hiked down off the summit a bit, but other than that, this was nothing special.
But the route is often better than the destination, as the cliché goes.
We turned back to Baraga, and then all across the U.P. to Hessel, where my parents’ cabin resided. Soon we were off on the 8-hour ride home on Monday. It was 2,000 miles of pure winter success.
That left only three more states east of the Mississippi to do in winter: Rhode Island, Delaware and mighty Katahdin. Eventually I will have to stop hiding from Maine and the “Beast of the East.”
Read HP #30:
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