Settling in to life on the road.
“We messed up today,” Cristi said as she zipped shut the door on the screen house. She had just finished cleaning up a pile of rice and beans that I dumped on the ground next to the picnic table. Dinner.
We were both hot, tired, bug bitten and a little dehydrated. I dropped the pan trying to hold the pot lifter just right so I could pass the pan to Cristi through the zipper of the screen house. I choked up on the holder and shifted my grip slightly and the whole thing dropped from waist high into the dirt. We were lucky that it didn’t all end up on the ground.
Cristi volunteered to clean up the mess. She found a couple plastic grocery bags and put them over her hands so she could scoop up handfuls of rice, beans, pepperoni and leaves. Then she sat down and we talked through our day.
It was a good one, but it got away from us a little bit. We started out at our friends Joe and Linda’s place near Hazelhurst. They had been kind enough to put us up for the night and send us off with a good breakfast and lots of coffee.
Joe and Linda were our first stop “Up North” in Wisconsin. For our first real week on the road we wanted to spend some time in the North Woods. We planned to hit a few rivers that I hadn’t paddled before and maybe catch a few fish. Our first stop would be the Manitowish River, about a forty minute drive up Highway 51.
On the drive back to 51 we crossed the Bearskin Trail. This 21-mile long rails-to-trails path starts near Harshaw, Wisconsin. The path follows an old logging railroad grade along Bearskin Creek before swinging north through Hazelhurst and up to Minocqua. We hadn’t moved around much over the past few days so we decided to go for a quick hike. An hour later we were back in the truck and rolling north toward Minocqua. It was still morning and we had plenty of time to get in our day trip on the Manitowish.
Up in Minocqua, we pulled into the IGA for some groceries. Maybe a half-hour stop. Then back on the road up to the town of Manitowish where US 51 crosses 47. The put-in for the lower section of the Manitowish is on the downstream side of the Highway 47 bridge.
It had somehow gotten to be noon, so we decided to unload our paddling gear and eat a quick lunch before I ran the shuttle on our bike. I grabbed a frozen water bottle out of our fridge so we would have three liters for the float. It was about ten river miles, so that should do the trick.
I left Cristi and Pedro at the put-in and drove our rig to the takeout. The shuttle route was mostly on Murray’s Landing Road, a mixed gravel and asphalt road the winds its way to a boat landing in a back bay of the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. I parked the truck and trailer and saddled up the Breezer to make the 6 mile return trip. Half an hour later we were pushing off into the current.
It was hot. Eighty-five at least. Cristi and Pedro had been cooking at the put-in, trying to escape the bugs and stay cool. I rode the shuttle route as fast as I could and was pretty heated up myself. The light breeze blowing upstream was a welcome relief. Hopefully we would find a spot or two to swim along the way.
The Manitowish is a beautiful northwoods river. It winds back and forth through marshland that alternates with high, wooded bluffs. At times, the islands of pines reminded us of the hammocks and salt marshes of coastal Georgia. Red pines grew straight and tall in the sandy soil left when the glaciers ground the mountains flat 10,000 years ago. Bulrushes swayed in the breeze. Arrowroot and pickerelweed grew out of the sandy bottom of the river. Hundreds of damselflies filled the air.
We did get in a swim. Pedro, ever the reluctant canoeist, stayed in the boat. The sun was scorching and it felt good to sink down under the cool water and feel the current moving past our skin.
Back in the canoe, I asked Cristi to pass me that third water bottle full of ice water. “Um,” she said, “you mean the one I left back in the sink for after the trip?” Uh, oh. We were about an hour-and-a-half into the paddle and down to a liter of water between the two of us. We had a water filter. Back at the truck.
I figured we would be fine. We should be about halfway through the 10 miles of the float. And there was cold beer waiting for us at the takeout.
What I didn’t realize is we weren’t halfway done with the trip. The Manitowish winds back and forth and back and forth. I thought we would have no trouble holding three miles-an-hour for the float, but when the three hour mark came around we were out of water and still winding our way slowly downstream.
It was hot. Pedro was hot. We had forgotten the dog bowl and he is just a little too short to reach the water from the edge of the canoe. We stopped to dunk him in the water (he hated this) and make sure he got enough to drink.
It took another hour-and-a-half to finish the trip. The day had turned into what my wife affectionately calls “a death march.” She’s used to that kind of thing from me by now. I almost always pick a hike or a paddle that is just a little bit longer than necessary. I’ve gotten better about it over the past few years, but I still have a knack for pushing it.
The Manitowish flows into the Turtle-Flambeau through an expansive marsh filled with wild rice. It’s spectacular. The river meanders through the marsh, taking it’s time, slowly making its way toward the slack water of the flowage. At the end of the marsh is Murray’s Landing. We’d made it.
We were hot and tired and a little strung out. Time for a coldbeer and some ice water from that third Nalgene bottle. Then back in the truck to retrieve the shuttle bike. It was almost six. We had spent four-and-a-half hours on the river.
We still had to find a place to camp. We headed east on County Highway W and worked our way back up toward the Big Lake Campground in the American Legion Northern Highlands State Forest. We stayed there the previous summer and were sure we wouldn’t have a problem finding a spot.
Thankfully we were right. We had our pick of the sites and ended up with a nice spot all to ourselves where we could tuck in the Casita for the night.
We were hungry. Out came the two-burner Coleman stove and a pan from my old MSR Alpine Cookset. Zataran’s Red Beans and Rice fortified with slices of pepperoni. I put the pan on to boil and sipped another beer as the sun dropped behind the trees.
Then, as will happen at dusk in the north woods, the mosquitos arrived. In force.
Cristi suggested the camper.
I wasn’t having it. It was a beautiful night. It was finally cooling off. And we had a screen tent.
What followed was the sort of thing that happens when you’ve spent all day out in the sun, without enough water and you try to set up the screen tent as it’s getting dark and you’re getting hammered by bugs. Things don’t go well.
As it turns out, it takes about four people to set up the REI Screen House Shelter. We had two. The poles squirmed around and the screen house did its level best to avoid popping into some kind of tent-like shape. Somewhere between fighting with the second or third pole I decided it would be more productive to start a fight with Cristi instead. As the saying goes, mistakes were made.
We finally got the screen house up and guyed out. I apologized to my wife. We broke out our fancy camp chairs and set up a cozy dinner spot away from the bugs. I apologized again. Then I went to retrieve the rice and beans…
A long time ago, I spent some time sailing on the tall ship Lady Washington. One day we were sailing in San Diego harbor and we almost ran over a small sailboat. He had tried to jibe right in front of our headrig. I got to write the incident report. That’s when Ryan, the captain, told me about the accident chain.
Every accident is preceded by a series of events. Like links in a chain. Break any one of those links and the accident doesn’t happen. Problem is, when you’re in the middle of the steps it can be hard to see what’s happening. And that’s when things can get away from you.
Spilled dinner isn’t much of an accident, but our day was a case study in the accident chain. Got a late start. Killed some time hiking. Killed some time at the grocery store. Got on the water late. It was hot. We didn’t have enough water. We forgot the dog bowl. Forgot the water filter. I overestimated our pace. We got back to the truck dehydrated and tired. We got to camp late. Hungry. Rushing to cook some food. Had a little bug stress. Fought with a tent in the dark.
At any place along the line we could have made a different choice. One that would have prevented a whole lot of frustration.
Back in the screen tent, Cristi and I talked over the day. “We messed up today,” she said. We went through all the mistakes we’d made trying to cram everything into the day. We were both used to shorter trips, weekends or maybe a week at a time. Now that we were on the road we didn’t have to push so hard. We didn’t have to rush to get home. We were home.
“We don’t have to do everything all at once,” said Cristi, “we have all the time in the world.”
[Postscript: It turns out that our troubles with the REI Screen House Shelter were, as is often the case, due to operator error. I just set it up myself without any trouble. The trick is to stake out the four corners of the tent before you insert the poles. With the corners staked pitching the Screen House goes from a 4-person job to a solo project.]
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