Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wilderness Inquiry family adventure through Voyageurs National Park

Our guides, Virginia and Max, purposely swamp the canoe for a "tip test," a lesson in getting it upright again.

Life lessons in the wild
Finding strength despite challenges of ADHD and Crohn's

Kate leads the paddle back to Big Sky Island, Voyageurs NP.
Photos & story by Lisa Meyers McClintick
Originally published in Minneapolis Star Tribune

With bandanas on their heads à la Willie Nelson and bug bites visible across their legs, a group of six boys whoops into the piney woods at Namakan Lake in far northern Minnesota. Their mission: Find the best new spot for a dig-it-yourself latrine.

The adults grin at their unexpected enthusiasm. It's amazing what friendly competition will do for the most dreaded duties at our camp on Voyageurs National Park's Big Sky Island. Or maybe it's a healthy shift of perspective.

Ditching daily comforts, rattling routines and rising to fresh challenges were key reasons we were on this family trip through Wilderness Inquiry (WI). Founded more than 30 years ago, the St. Paul nonprofit organization welcomes participants of all abilities, ages and levels of experience. Last year more than 16,700 people took WI trips, including outings designed for city youths, many of whom received scholarships and grants to get them into the outdoors. Every trip can be modified to fit a group's abilities.

Lori heads into the woods.
Our group was all newcomers except for Laurie Davis of Minneapolis, who was on her fourth WI trip with her two sons. She first signed up when the youngest was only 4. They've since learned the wilderness ropes and tallied a wealth of inspirational experiences, such as seeing a teen trade a wheelchair for the graceful glide of a kayak and a fellow camper who had lost her eyesight get back on a bike with the help of a tandem rider.

"We like to celebrate everybody's uniqueness," says our leader, Max. And indeed we do.

Getting to know each other
 We meet as strangers on a warm June afternoon, introducing ourselves in a circle outside the Ash River Trail visitor center. It's always a grab bag seeing who comes together. Our group gets lucky with a concentration of six boys, ages 7 to 14.

The boys loved clowning around & exploring the woods.
Besides Laurie and me as Minnesota moms with boys in tow, we have Coloradoans Mary Ellen Anderson with two grandsons; plus her brother, Drex Douglas, with a reluctant grandson and 24-year-old son, Jeff. We later find out Jeff has a developmental disability known as fragile X syndrome. He shyly ducks from introductions and avoids eye contact, but warms up quickly as playful energy amps up among the six boys.

My son and I arrive with our own struggles. Jonathan, now 11, has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. A steam locomotive stops faster than his mouth near bedtime, when thoughts and emotions pop out like firecrackers. At school and at home, he's constantly being told to calm down, stop breaking things and getting into trouble. It's a tough load to shoulder.

That constant energy and impulsiveness can shred relationships like cats clawing at furniture. This trip is our chance to heal, to enjoy some rare mother-son time away from twin sisters, and to escape the usual chaos of home life.

Jonathan and I enjoy campfire brownies.
It's personal, too. I yearn for my children to see me as strong and adventurous -- not as a mom who naps and growls with middle-aged migraines. I also have pushed myself to new limits since 14 years of drugs, chemo-like infusions, where-is-the-bathroom vigilance and multiple surgeries finally cowed chronic Crohn's disease, a digestive disorder, into submission.

I'm still wary of sudden setbacks, but feel confident these guides with their calm demeanor can handle medical emergencies.

That's not to say I'm keen on dig-it-yourself latrines -- even if the boys do find a dandy location. I tell myself to suck it up. This is worth it. And, really, it is.

Settling into a camp groove
It takes a full group effort to paddle voyageur canoes across Lake Kabetogama and unload our gear up a steep embankment and into the forest. As we make meals, gather wood and wash dishes, Jeff gleefully and repeatedly asks, "Are ya workin'?" with such comical zeal and upward lilt that it's like teens asking, "Are you ready to par-TAY?!"

Jeff loved fishing from our island.
Jeff's repetitive phrases cause a few exasperated groans while others make us laugh and become part of our camp vocabulary. The patience needed to repeatedly untangle his fishing line is offset by his determination to catch a fish and his absolute joy in everything.

My son, whose emotions can flare like a rocket, marvels at Jeff's calm and smiling face after Jeff accidentally slips in the lake while getting dishwater. He returns to camp soaked and doesn't seem to mind.
The six boys glom together quickly. They dare each other to jump into the dark, tannin-dyed water and try to show off their best campfire-building skills. They tear through the woods with imaginations fully fired. It leaves the adults with a few rare pockets of quiet time.

Big Sky Island's granite dome edging the lake pulls at us like magnets. It's a theater for nature's daily show and heavenly to soak in the sun. It's here where we most often swap life stories, chapter by chapter, taking stock of where we've been and where we want to go.

The beauty of camping isn't just the setting. It's the ability to declutter and distill life to the basics: Stay warm. Sleep. Eat. Look, listen.

Lady's slippers.
'The beauty of camping isn't just the setting. It's the ability to declutter and distill life to the basics: Stay warm. Sleep. Eat. Look, listen.'
I don't realize how mentally ragged I've been until escaping daily demands feels like dropping a heavy backpack from achy shoulders.

Excursions and stargazing
Mornings start with cowboy coffee. Our guides whirl the pot of boiling water and loose grounds like all-star pitchers doing a wind-up. Centrifuge acts as the filter.

Sipping that first brew, Mary Ellen places a hand on her hip, takes in the boreal forest and says, "God, this is so cool!"

She came to share her childhood passion for paddling with her grandchildren. She's an adventurer, too, who has taken them to Turkey and volunteered with them in Senegal. She offers impromptu tai chi lessons on the granite dome, reaching for the stars or out toward the loons.

"I love the enchantment and innocence of childhood, and it's here," she says. "The kids just go with the flow. This is a whole six-week summer camp in five days."

While Big Sky was our base, each day includes paddling excursions where we perfect our strokes, learn to rudder voyageur canoes and mentally muscle our way through brainteasers our guides offer for entertainment.

We wander an abandoned logging camp, collect wild blueberries and strawberries, set up a pasta salad picnic and enjoy a whitewashed outhouse with toilet paper on a roll. It feels like the Ritz.

Later, shrieks echo across Hoist Bay as our guide Max grinningly rocks and flips the huge canoe, dumping the boys with a splash and coaching them through the "tip test." They scramble to hang on, dog-paddle when needed, and get the canoe back afloat. Jonathan, who thrives on amped-up fun, asks to tip again and again.
Jack shows off karate moves at sunset.

Seven-year-old Jack has been our most reluctant camper. He loves his couch and video games at home in Colorado and wasn't thrilled about the itchy, unpredictable, wet outdoors. But even he warms up to life in the woods.

As group members fish, read or tidy the campsite, I spy Jack along the shore reveling in the one-on-one attention of our guide, Virginia, a sweet and cheerful college student. They playfully challenge each other to new karate poses, balancing and laughing on the ancient rocks.

Later that afternoon, as adults relax by the campfire and older boys chase through the pines, Jack stares up at a massive upturned pine root stretching at least 10 feet high. He scales it like a muddy climbing wall.

We smile across our coffee mugs, silently applauding Jack's can-do transformation. It's a thumbs-up moment.

Freedom and joy
Better than a campfire: gathering on our island's granite dome.
At bedtime, families regroup in their own tents. We whisper about the day, play cards by flashlight, trade a few giggles. In the morning, the sun fights through clouds and out of the blue, Jonathan pipes up, "Thanks for bringing me, Mom."

I know the other boys feel the same.

For parents and grandparents in a digital age, it's grounding to see how little -- and yet so much -- can grab kids' attention and keep them happy.

I feel a rush of gratitude, too, for my son's joy and the freedom to go, go, go. He releases explosive energy across this rocky, ancient island with few corrections or commands to stop, slow down or act like someone else. Yet there's gentle guidance and life lessons for all of us sneaked into daily camp life, tucked between chores.

As Mary Ellen says, "You give kids an 'aha moment,' and the 'aha' stays with them."

We leave our island with admiration for one another, gratitude for life's luxuries and a fresh appreciation for its simplicities.

Our Big Sky Island crew in 2010.

One of the easiest and most economical Wilderness Inquiry trips is the three-night Itasca State Park Family Adventure. It's a bargain at $190 for adults and $95 for kids who want to explore the Mississippi and old-growth pine forest. Two-night St. Croix River trips also run six times through the summer ($135 kids, $265 adults) and offer wilderness camping closer to the Twin Cities.

Don't want to rough it too much? Try this: a base camp with running water, platform tents and showers at Little Sand Bay among Wisconsin's Apostle Islands ($195 kids, $395 adults).

Trips for adults run year-round. While many are based in Minnesota, others are elsewhere in the United States, and in Central America, Africa and Australia.

More information: 1-800-728-0719, www.wilderness

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bargain family travel: Free National Parks Day

Geysers and waterfalls often nab the attention at Yellowstone National Park, but quieter Lamar Valley has its own beauty.
See more than presidents at Mt. Rushmore.
Celebrate the start of summer
In honor of the longest day of the year, the National Parks Service is offering free admission on Tuesday, June 21. It not only kicks off the summer peak travel season, but gives you the longest annual stretch of sunlight to explore America's best trails, scenic drives and historic sites across the country.

It's a great travel bargain if you're visiting parks that normally charge $10-$25 for a seven-day pass. Granted, you'll need more than one day to see America's most majestic national treasures, such as Yellowstone National Park, but for those you who are revisiting familiar parks or those that are smaller, such as Mount Rushmore National Monument, this is a perfect incentive to hit the road.

We're choosing Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Traverse City, Michigan, this year, but can highly recommend Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Colo.; Mount Rushmore, S.D.; Badlands National Park, S.D.; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, N.D.; and Yellowstone National Park.

Minnesota travelers take note: Admission wasn't charged at either Voyageurs National Park or Grand Portage National Monument last summer. Both are excellent for explaining the rich history of local tribes, fur traders and voyageurs.

Have a favorite national park? Leave a comment and share your tips.

--Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick

Monday, June 6, 2011

Minnesota's Cuyuna Lakes mountain bike trails open

You'd never know this ultra-clear lake near Crosby was formerly a mine pit.

Former mines transform into a premiere playground
Jenny Smith heading through Boot Camp.
One of Minnesota's best-kept secrets, the Cuyuna Lakes State Recreation Area, won't be under the radar much longer. The buzz has been building for years among mountain biking fans. License plates from across the country already have showed up in the parking lot since some of the rugged new trails opened just before Memorial Day weekend.

They're spectacular--and that's just the Boot Camp section for beginners. My son and I did about eight miles on May 27 with guidance from Jenny Smith, owner of Crosby's Cycle Path and Paddle. It's a blast.

We love the exhilaration of swooping around corners, riding into dips and rattling down hills. Terrain goes from pines to birch and hardwoods, from sand and soil to the red dirt and jagged rocks from iron mining days.

For hard-core mountain bikers, who can rumble and launch across 250-foot slag piles, it's an adventurous 22-mile, tire-shredding nirvana.

From diving and kayaking to IMBA destination
The International Mountain Biking Association has been working with the Minnesota Department of Nature Resources for years to carve trails through the former iron mine property. It sounds gritty and industrial, but it's surprisingly gorgeous. The hills created by excavating ore rise up steep and wooded, while the 500-foot pits below them form 17 emerald-green lakes. It feels like a mini Boundary Waters Canoe Area, but much closer to the Twin Cities.

How clear is it? This is one of the most popular spots for Scuba diving in the state. Really. Check out the excursions and beginner classes through the Minnesota Dive School in Brainerd, which also does dive trips to Lake Superior.

It's also amazing for kayaking. On my first paddle here about three years ago, I have to admit the thought of a 500-foot drop below me was a little creepy. But then the surrounding beauty takes over, and it's pure fun.

You'll find a few anglers here, too, as the deep, extra-cold water supports trout. And if you need an ideal way to cool off after a sweaty good ride, there's nothing like a mine lake.

Celebrate the trails' grand opening
Keep an eye out for iron ore and interesting rocks.

The trails' official grand opening and the first Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Festival is June 10-12. Hans "No Way" Rey, a California-based German mountain biker who travels the world, will be part of the fun. He's doing an extreme skill demonstration in the Yawkey Expert Skills Area and an outdoor big screen movie of his global mountain biking adventures that have taken him to pyramids, jungles and the ancient Petra ruins.

There will be a Night Ride, Grand Tour, Kids Bike Parade, Kids Bike Race, Trek Time Trial, and the Kryptonight Crusher cross-country race.  Not surprisingly, Red Bull will be there, too, along with assorted bonfires, live music and beer and wine to make it an official party.

A few Cuyuna Trail tips:
Bike with a buddy. 
The terrain is rugged and remote. Local EMT crews have gone through special training to deal with trail emergencies, but that doesn't mean it's an easy task--especially if no one knows you're there.

Wear long pants or leggings. You'll protect your legs better and shield yourself from the poison ivy. One crash off the trail, and you may be swimming in it.

Take extra tire tubes. Some of the most extreme areas have the highest potential for tire-shredding terrain.

Start with an expert.
If you've never tried mountain biking, go with someone who can coach you through it. Jenny at Cycle Path & Paddle also may be adding some family mountain bike sessions or do some women-only sessions as the summer progresses.

My first time on a mountain was on North Dakota's Maah Daah Hey Trail. It took about half an hour for me to loosen the death grip I had on the brakes. Cuyuna's boot camp session isn't quite as challenging, but if you're brand-new, you need to feel comfortable enough to trust momentum, let it carry you down the hills and back up the next one.

Trust me. You don't have to be a Red-Bull-slammin' extremist to enjoy this exhilarating sport. It's a joy ride no matter what level you're at.

If you need pavement beneath your wheels, Cuyuna has a fine paved trail system, as well, and you'll get some of the same picturesque views of the mine lakes and forest--just not the whoops of triumph when zooming up and down mountain bike trails. Consider it a mostly silent sport.

For maps, details on the celebration, and info on rustic campsites, check for updates through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.