Sunday, June 08, 2008

Monster Gramma (or, Holy Cow, Camels!)

This is a long post that has been rattling around my hard drive and Blogger since we returned Memorial day.

Me darlin' Mrs and I left for a long weekend of hiking and camping in 5 Southwestern Minnesota State Parks: Myre/Big Island, Lake Louise, Forrestville/Mystery Cave, Beaver Creek Valley and Great River Bluffs.

We both took a half day on Friday and after the customary panicked rush to find, pack, lose, forget, find, pack and forget the necessary gear, we managed to load most/all/too much stuff, the dog and ourselves into the car for the trip to Myre for the first night and our first six miles of the planned twenty miles of hiking. Gasoline has become something that we don't buy often, so we decided to see if we could stretch our mileage in the Forester by not pushing it -- we basically kept it to around 60 mph -- on the freeway. Once you get past the idea of getting passed, you can start to calm down even in traffic. We probably had our share of curses hurled our way, but we didn't care. Overall, we managed to add 2-3 mpg by not driving fast -- saving us about two gallons per tank.


We arrived at the park and set up camp. We have done this enough that we can have a reasonable campsite up in about 30-45 minutes depending on the conditions. From there we had had a snack an decided to hit the trail -- a trail that is not that well marked, as we would regret later. We walked the island loop and admired the spring flowers; wood anemone, prairie phlox and the occasional strawberry. The trail then leads you on the road that connects the island to the rest of the park and we saw a rather large fish jump as we passed. Impressive. You then take a roundabout way to the Blazing Star State Trail. Had I the sense to listen to Mrs Yam, we would have been finished the walk in under four hours, but I didn't. I insisted that there is no connecting sign and that we should go back and walk through the campground. We did. Then we walked through the other campground, and then south to the lake, and after about a half hour, we finally found a Hiking Club sign, but we were going the opposite way. So, there isn't a right or wrong way to hike 'em, so we pushed on.

We walked through the hills and sloughs just east of I-35 and saw a whole pile of critters; turtles, a raccoon, herons, ducks and all manner of other birds. The air was filled with the songs of Wrens, Red-winged Blackbirds, Meadowlarks, Bluebirds, Orioles and Cardinals. It was gorgeous -- I'd never heard anything like that in my life. Go and experience it for yourself, it's really quite amazing. We finally reached the word sign and we found that we were closer to I-35 than we were to our camp. I was starting to bonk since in the panic of preparing to leave, we didn't eat lunch and our snack was long gone. But there was little we could do but soldier on and hike the two plus miles back to the tent as the sun was starting to fall behind the trees. A quick meal of shrimp and peppers and then bedtime.

We got up early Saturday morning and broke camp quickly since we wanted to get to Beaver Creek Valley as soon as possible in hopes that we may still get one of the non-reserved campsites. All of the state parks were full and so we hoped we could get one before the hordes from the Cities descended and took the remaining campsites. If we had any luck, we'd set up camp for the next two nights and go back and hike Lake Louise and Forestville in the afternoon. We set out on I-90 and headed east. We're really not Interstate people, I'm not in any hurry and I hate the rushing and the lack of scenery. With that in mind, I got us off as soon as it made sense and that was when we hit State Highway 16.

Highway 16 is also known as the Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway. Neat farms greet you as you leave the freeway and also the first of many surprises on this road -- camels! What appeared to be young Bactrian camels were lounging in the meadow near a farmhouse. This was just outside of the town of Grand Meadow, MN, a little town that looks like most of the other towns in this area; Scandinavian-named stores and restaurants, houses with neat yards and the implement and Co-ops you'd expect for an agricultural area. But this one has a high school you really have to see to believe. Just past town was a field of power generating windmills. Camels, Dome schools, windmills -- this road has everything and we're only about ten miles in...

As we headed east, the terrain started to become more and more hilly. A bit of geography here; this is part of the "driftless area" of Minnesota. The glaciers that carved so much of our current geography never reached this far south. That is not to say that their presence wasn't felt -- quite the contrary -- this area is filled with valleys that were carved by the massive melt water runoff from the glaciers. You look south from I90 and you see a relatively flat plain with small, gently rolling hills. If you look carefully though, you'll see the tops of trees where bushes should be. The valleys are somewhere between 200-300 deep and you'll see maples and ash trees on the Mississippi side of the area where the great Eastern Hardwood forests end or oaks in the west where the prairie and oak savannas begin.

By the time that we picket up US52 just outside of Preston, the valleys were well defined and the views were truly magnificent. Tree-covered sides and a valley that are dotted with farms and horse and cattle ranges. We followed US52 south through Harmony and the heart of Minnesota Amish country. And yes, we did see famous horse-drawn buggies. You can tell the Amish farms from the surrounding "English" ones because the lack of powerlines, trucks, combines, etc. and the tell-tale red barns. You could also see the wear and tear on the shoulder of the roads. I wonder what it would be like to bike through this country. If the wind didn't get ya, the hills would, but the traffic would be accustomed to slow moving vehicles on the side of the road. Be careful of the horse exhaust and I guess it would be fun to try.

The views continued to be spectacular all the way to Caledonia where the Beaver Creek Valley park is. We pulled into the park and managed to get one of the three remaining sites. Whew, Mrs Yam is nobody's dummy. Good call, hon. As you can probably gather from the name, the park lies at the bottom of a valley and this makes for a unique park in that you don't have the typical loops with campsites, but the sites run along the valley along the road. This is nice in that you don't have a lot of neighbors and if you're lucky (and we were), you'll get a spot along the creek. We had the pleasure of our own babbling brook to sing us to sleep for the next couple of nights.

The car was emptied again and the tent went up. Mrs Yam inflated the mattress (a new and very welcom addition to the gear) and promptly decided to have a nap. I fire up the stove (another new addition) and cooked a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. Trouble is -- we had no coffee cups. After pouting a moment or two, I looked in the car and decided I could fashion a mug out of some of the pop cans that were in there. I used one to make the base and handle and I cut the top off of a second and rolled the top over so as not to rip my lips on the jagged edges. That worked pretty well and would be my mug for the weekend.

Me Mrs awoke, we ate and headed out back Lake Louise. We swung way south to avoid the way we came in and saw more farms, but there was less up and down and more simple rolling hills. We made it to Le Roy, Minnesota where Lake Louise State Park is, but it took us a while to find the entrance as my GPS didn't show it accurately (it is really a collections of areas along a creek that are barely connected and not the big area that is displayed on a GPS or Google maps. After finally finding the parking lot, we started out on the Hiking Club trail and we weren't a half mile in when Sheila decided she didn't like the smell of the flea/tick collar and rolled in a pile of fresh horse shit. Great, but this would portend our entire hike here, much to our dismay. It's a small park that has a lot horse trails (we'd already noted that) and there isn't much in the line of scenery: there's no hills, no prairie, just this area that looked like reclaimed farmland with some small stands of trees and none of the birds or wildlife of Myre-Big Island. In fact, this turned out to be a park similar to Split Rock Creek in Western Minnesota: a dammed up creek with a little lake with campgrounds around it. Bleah.

After getting closer and closer to the end of the hike without finding the word sign (the only redeeming thing I could imagine from this dumpy park), I started getting really crabby. Between the stinking dog, the dull walk and the fact that I was convinced that there was no word sign, I worked myself into quite a grump. We made it back to the car and I washed off the dog in the bathroom and decided to get us the hell out. I didn't want to have to come back to this place just for the freakin' word.

I think that I'm starting to take the Hiking Club a bit too seriously.

We made it to Forestville and I talked to the Ranger there and told him that there wasn't a sign at Lake Looser. He told me that it's still getting made and they'll have it installed in a week or two. I wasn't keen on returning and showed him the tracks from the GPS. He agreed that I did walk it and told me the word. Success! He then assured me that the word sign was indeed installed and we should have no trouble getting to it along the trail. I took a map and headed out. Oh goody, another horse camp. We were beginning to tire of walking in horse shit. Fer cryin' out loud, could you get hiking trails away from the horse trails? Is that too much to ask? At least we were back in the valleys and the scenery was back. Hilly, wooded terrain and a short walk restored our spirits and we got our word and headed back east to Caledonia.

We headed back the way that we came, but with the sun running down and the differing colors and shadows showed us a completely different drive that we had eight hours earlier. Lighting really is everything in landscapes, isn't it? We made it to Spring Grove and it was close to eight PM. We decided to stop and get some cold beer since we weren't sure when the liquor stores closed. Good thing we stopped -- it is eight. We walked into the bar/liquor store and I saw the nightmare of every beer geek six coolers and nothing that is worth it. Four coolers full of Bud/Bud Light in various containers, Miller Lite, a small collection other Miller products and that's about it. EEEK! I settled on a twelve of PBR (tolerable) and Mrs picked up a small bottle of vodka. This is where it gets interesting: Spring Grove makes their own soda. We saw that there was a six pack of Lemon Sour, but the lady at the counter told us that it's really only there for bar to use as a mixer and that we could get it for half of what they charged at the local convenience store. Thanks, lady.

We got a six of the lemon sour and headed to our campsite. Started a fire and made a simple dinner of sausages and bbq beans. That lemon sour and vodka was just what we needed to rinse the Lake Looser debacle from our minds and we went to bed exhausted and content.

Sunday found us with a burning desire to not drive anywhere. Beaver Creek Valley has a six mile hike and that was enough for the day. Lounging around the site, splashing in the creek and eating breakfast was what we really wanted to do. We had eggs and leftover beans and sausages for breakfast, served up with another utensil constructed from pop cans. I've gotta work on our camping gear collection. On a return trip from the bathroom, me Mrs. ran into some of the kids in the park running around. One of them looked up and yelled, "It's Monster Gramma and she's coming to get us!" My darling has a new nickname! Monster Gramma, I like that.

We walked the trail which basically runs the length of the park. On the southern end, you go up the hill and back down, walk along the park road to the north end and then up the valley wall from the Park office. This is one of the most beautiful walks we've done in any of the parks we've walked. The slope is a gentle uphill and as you climb, you can see wildflowers, butterflies and birds everywhere. The heady mix of warm sunshine, flowers and, well, life, was overwhelming. There are times I wish I could have seen Minnesota 200 years ago, to see the prairies before farms, the forests before the loggers and rivers and lakes before cabins and lake homes. To see such unspoiled vistas makes me sad. Sad that I didn't do this before now. Sad that less and less people go to parks. Sad that a generation of kids don't have someone nagging them to go outside and play. Mom's working and they're in the basement with their screen time and virtual friends. Sad that if someone manages to drag them to this, that they are unable to appreciate it. There is something to quiet, to nature, to peace that I fear that may be completely lost soon.

Where Lake Louise is a sad and dull park, Beaver Creek Valley is quite the opposite. The walk down from the side of the valley leads you along the creek with more birds and flowers. Sheila is an older dog (about 10 years) and she had been gamely walking along with us, but she's a lot slower than she once was. She still is determined to smell everything, but it was getting humid and hot and this stretch in the woods with the creek was just what she needed; the path was entwined by the creek with many crossings and each ford was met with enthusiastic splashing and several gulps of water.

The path then hit a meadow. This sun-drenched acre was buzzing with more of everything that we had seen. It went up to eleven. We stopped and just stared -- the hazy sunshine gave this field an aura, an otherworldly shimmer. I lack the ability to describe it. I'm sorry.

We followed the trail around the edge of the meadow and back to our campsite, making sure to stop and splash in the creek as demanded by the dog. When we returned camp side, we decided that the makeshift tools were just not cutting it, so a trip into town was in order. We found a store that carried what we needed and then drove around Caledonia. On the way back to the park, we could feel the humidity rising and see the clouds in the west and guessed that a storm was brewing. For our last evening's dinner, we started pot roast. As we were preparing dinner, the Park Ranger drove by letting us know that there was a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for the area. If we're camping, we're gonna get rained on, it happens every time so we don't make a big deal about it any more.

As we cooked, the cars leaving the park went from a trickle to an almost roaring torrent. Nobody seemed to break camp, they just got in their vehicles and left. Weird. First, we felt the drops then the thunder. No lighting, so no worries. The rain started coming down a little heavier and it shows who has the sense in the family when the dog gets up and goes into the tent while we continued to prepare dinner. We just put more pans over the grate to protect the fire. An occasional person would walk by and we'd exchange greetings and an snort of disgust at the cowards. It's just rain, right?

We weren't concerned because the sky never took on the color of a Severe Thunderstorm -- this was just plain ol' rain and I guessed that we'd have sun in less than an hour. We just got rained on, and after three days of hiking in the sun and no showers, frankly it felt really, really good. The fire kept going, so we did too. Ten minutes of heavy rain and the thunder and lightning died down and the rain soon followed. The sun then chased the clouds away and those folks that left were treated to a foggy return. One returning family rolled down the window claimed that we were "really hardcore." Yeah, perhaps we are. Or dumb. My bet is on dumb.

We ate and then drank beers and vodka sours around the fire and dried out. Reeking of smoke, we headed into bed and after wrestling the dog out of here spot, we finally went to sleep.

We broke camp Monday, packed up and headed up the road to Great River Bluffs State park for the last of the hikes, which was nice as we were getting tired and the look the dog gave us as we got out for the trail said pretty much everything we were already thinking. The day was sunny and hot and Sheila wasn't happy, but she went anyway with even slower gait than the day before. This is a pleasant enough hike and the hillside prairie is pretty neat and you stay up on the top of the bluff until you get to the end of the trail. There you get a marvelous view of the river valley. After finishing, we headed to Winona and then changed our plans. We decided to go up the Wisconsin side of the river instead of US61. This was a nice drive except for the freakin' Harleys. God, I hate those motorcycles and the assholes that ride them. Hours of listening to masses of asses and their fuckin' straight pipes. I would impale the lot of 'em on their mufflers if I could. Get a real bike, dummy.

We made it to Prescott and crossed the St. Croix and avoided the bridge out in Hastings. On our travels north, the clouds moved in and the temperature dropped by like 20 degrees, but that felt good. We shattered our good feelings by traveling on high speed roads, but it was good to get out of the car and take a shower. A Thai pizza at Galactic Pizza and then back home to bed. All in all, a marvelous weekend.

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