The Incomplete Planning
In July of 2018, after spending 3 months in an RV, I was itching to strap my gear to my back and head deeper into wilderness. Fortunately for me, I had a family event to attend in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Eagle River is only a hop, skip, and a jump to Michigan’s Upper Pennisula. Even though none of my usual backpacking buddies were available, Glia and I were ready to go. So I planned our first solo (with dog) backpacking trip.
Even though one of the best tools to a successful backpacking trip is proper preparation, I have to admit, my preparation was lacking for this trip. I had spent the entire previous week house hunting. Driving back and forth between my parents house and my new neighborhood. When I made an offer on a house and scheduled a home inspection for the next Tuesday, I was suddenly left with 3 days to fit this trip into. So the Friday before we left, I researched the trip in about 4 hrs, packed the backpack quickly, and got a good nights sleep.
Following the family event on Saturday, the plan was to drive to Houghton, MI, overnight at a free campsite (found on freecampsites.net), and then explore the city in the morning. Following our exploration of Houghton, we would head to the Sylvania Wilderness, backpack in, and spend an overnight there before hiking out and returning home on Monday afternoon/evening.
Houghton, MI and Isle Royale National Park Visitor Center
Glia and I left for the 5 hour drive to Eagle River, bright and early, on Saturday morning. Our drive over to Eagle River and the family event went really well. But when we left around 6pm on Saturday evening, the fun began.
As I watched for road signs that evening, I wasn’t watching my speed that closely. I had just passed through a small town and was getting back up to speed as I watched for national forest signs. With no other cars in front of me, and the cruise control not set yet, my speed crept up. When the flashing lights started, I glanced down at the speedometer. I was driving 60-something miles per hour. The cop confirmed 66 mph in a 55mph speed limit. Oops. Luckily the cop was nice, just gave a verbal warning, and fed Glia a dog biscuit. She happily accepted her first treat from a police officer.
So we continued on, only to have our tire pressure warning light turn on. A visual check confirmed that all tires still looked driveable. Keeping an eye out for air pumps at the gas stations we passed, we continued on to Houghton.
We arrived in Houghton at 8pm (without finding any air pumps- where did all the Kwik Trips go?) to find that the city had recently experienced some flooding. And consequently, the road to our free campsite was closed. Luckily, I had printed off the coordinates for a back-up campsite. The only problem was that it was 20 miles back in the direction we had come from.
In order to save 40 minutes of driving, I elected to drive into Houghton that evening. We took our picture by the Isle Royale Visitor Center sign and walked along the canal. It was a nice evening and we enjoyed our stroll.
The alternate campsite was nice, although due to our change in plans we arrived in the dark. There was a group of people already using the space and we had a hard time figuring out if there were any spaces free and how close we could/should park near the other established campsites. We talked to one of the people there who said he didn’t mind if we parked near his spot. So we car camped overnight and left bright and early the next morning.
Morning Waterfall Hike
The tires still looked okay in the morning (an amazing blessing), so we kept driving, making our way to Ottowa National Forest. This national forest contains several waterfalls, and I love waterfalls! So of course we stopped at one. Bond Falls was just off of the road we took from Houghton into Ottowa National Forest. This stop may have been the best part of our extended weekend. We arrived around 7:30am and had Bond Falls to ourselves. I tend not to think of the Midwest as having impressive waterfalls, as we don’t have many in my area. However, Bond Falls was gorgeous.
We parked up in the national forest rather than the main parking lot (to avoid needing to pay for a recreation pass) and hiked down to the falls. There were a few slick spots on the hike down/up, but we made it safely. At the base of the falls was an accessible boardwalk system. With all the beauty and nice trail work, just couldn’t believe we had the place to ourselves.
After we had looked our fill at the falls, we returned to the car and made our way to Sylvania Wilderness, still in Ottowa National Forest. Sylvania Wilderness is essentially a mini boundary waters, with numerous lakes and excellent canoeing/kayaking opportunities. It also has a nice network of hiking trails and multiple backcountry campsites. The campsites are intended to also be used by the canoers and kayakers, so all of them have access to a lake.
Into the Wilderness
We were ahead of schedule when we got to Sylvania Wilderness. However, we still requested a camp location that was less than 8 miles from a trailhead. This was our first backpacking trip of the summer after all. And I figured 8 miles with a full pack would be far enough. The very helpful front desk lady helped us pick out the Mallard 2 site on Loon Lake. This was a little under a 5 mile trek if we took the shorter trail route.
So Glia and I suited up and headed out. I very quickly regretted that I hadn’t spent some time hiking with Glia with her loaded pack (it was light – just a blanket, the tent footprint, and her bowl) prior to putting on my own pack. I had recently purchased a GroundBird Gear backpack for Glia. She had worn it in on several day hikes, but we hadn’t hiked with it full yet. As a result, with the gear inside, I had to spend the first 30 minutes of our hike readjusting Glia’s pack. The harness was on too loose to start with and it kept sliding down her side. With a little maneuvering of contents and tightening of straps, we finally got it to balance well.
The main problem with adjusting Glia’s pack, was that every time I adjusted something, I had to bend over with my own backpack on. And my pack was much heavier than hers. I had also splurged on myself and purchased a new women’s Gregory pack to replace the men’s Osprey pack my parents bought for both my brother and I to use back in 2009. What this meant is that my fully loaded pack needed some adjustment of its own. I highly recommend not adjusting your own pack in between adjusting your dog’s pack. Be more prepared than I was. (I admit to often not training well enough for my backpacking trips, but this was extra unprepared.)
I was also carrying a little more weight than I was used to. It was my first solo trip, so I was carrying the tent AND the food. I had purchased a Bear Vault, as I am horrible about hanging things from trees. And Bear Vaults weigh a couple pounds all by themselves. Add in my food and Glia’s food and I was pushing my max 20% body weight rule.
We finally got everything adjusted and then went to work battling the mosquitoes. Swat, swat, spray some more bug spray, swat, swat. We picked up our speed towards camp. I was itching to get the tent set up so I could sit inside the mosquito netting and escape the bugs for a few minutes. Despite my increasing urgency, we still really enjoyed the scenery we passed. Clark Lake is beautiful and only had a few people on them. We even passed some pretty beaches on the lake. If the bugs hadn’t been around, we probably would have stopped for a swim. We did stop long enough for Glia to wade and cool off when the opportunities arose.
When Trails Aren’t Labeled
We had started at the trailhead on Clark Lake and walked along the eastern shore (which provided better views of the lake than the western shore). So as we wanted to head to the Mallard II campsite, we had a couple of trail intersections to navigate. And in case you were wondering, the trails in the Sylvania Wilderness are not labeled.
In hindsight, we discovered that one of the trails headed down the southern beach of Clark Lake. However, when navigating our way out, I thought the trail was supposed to head along behind this beach, so I didn’t count the beach as a trail. This threw off my navigation. We started on the correct trail beyond Clark Lake, but thought it was curving around Clark Lake two much. From my original assessment, without knowing about the beach trail, I thought this was the trail that curved around the south side of Clark Lake. So we back tracked and took what I now know is a portage trail towards Crooked Lake. When we arrived on the shore of Crooked Lake, we knew we had taken a wrong turn. We backtracked and tried again.
Still not knowing that the beach was the trail, we ended up on the actual trail to the Crooked Lake campsites. We backtracked again and finally found the correct trail to Loon Lake. We made it to our campsite, which was lovely, and set up camp. After arriving, we took a few minutes to re-apply bug spray and spend a couple minutes in the tent. Then we checked out our “beach”. Our sites area for watercraft to pull up was really muddy, but the site next to ours was empty, so I let Glia wade around at that site.
We had arrived at our site around 2:30pm. The intention had been to hike a little without the packs, but it was buggy and we hadn’t slept much in the car the night before. So we took a nap. Afterwards we explored around the site a little. And I have to admit, I was really thrilled that all the sites in Sylvania Wilderness have a latrine already provided! After we ate dinner, I wrote a bit in the notebook I had brought with, but ended up twiddling my thumbs and getting bored enough to head to bed early (despite the nap we had taken).
From then, nothing of much excitement occurred until much later that night. We were sleeping relatively well. I had left the rainfly open on my side of the tent in order to enjoy the night views as the sun set. Glia had moved off of the pad I had hauled out to the wilderness for her and was sharing my pad and sleeping bag, but all was going great until around 3am.
That was when we heard a rustling outside the tent. It didn’t sound that loud, and we had been hearing a lot of small animal noises all night. This was closer though. I was half asleep, but looked over to watch Glia sit up. Then leap straight over me and into the tent wall. There was a moment when I wasn’t sure if Glia was inside or outside of the tent. But there was no dog to be seen inside. And upon further inspection, there was a nice dog-sized hole in the tent window. Yep, she was definitely outside.
That’s right, my 7-year old dog who had been camping multiple times before, had just lept out through the the side of the tent. At 3am. Into the dark night.
I sat up and peered into the darkness. I couldn’t see her and I couldn’t hear the sounds of her fighting with any animal nightlife. We were alone at our site, with no one around for about ½ mile or so. I figured, my best bet was to wait for her to return. Hopefully.
It was less than 5 minutes, before she contritely appeared near the hole she had created in the tent. I started to unzip that side, but she moved over to the other side of the tent, which we had been using as the door for the whole trip. I moved the lantern over and started unzipping. That’s when I noticed it.
Porcupine quills. At least 10 or so quills sticking out of her muzzle. My dog had chased a porcupine into the wilderness at 3am, multiple miles from our car.
I let Glia back into the tent and she started trying to rub her muzzle on the floor of the tent. I stopped her before she tore anything else with her quills.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with treatment for porcupine quills, you shouldn’t remove them at home. There are several reasons for this. One is it can be painful for your pet and sedation/anesthesia can make the removal of quills much easier for them. And safer for you, as even very friendly pets can be painful enough to bite during removal of quills. The quills can also interfere with placing a muzzle for safety. Secondly, porcupine quills can break during removal. The quills are barbed like a fish hook and if broken during removal, often continue working their way inwards, rather than falling out. Some of these quills may need to be removed surgically and it is easier for a veterinarian to find them if the whole quill is still present.
At 3am, miles from our car, and with my dog rubbing her muzzle all over the tent, I felt I had few options. So I did what I shouldn’t, and pulled the quills from her muzzle. Glia was remarkably good about it, and I was lucky. She only had around 10 or so and they were all on her muzzle, none on her legs or around her eyes. Two of them (on her chin) broke off, unfortunately, so I left the little splinters and hoped that they would be removable with a tweezers once we had good lighting and more supplies when we got out of the woods. I felt lucky the remaining quill pieces were on her chin, so if they migrated inwards, they weren’t near any vital anatomy (like eyes).
After the quill removal, Glia was quiet and slept the rest of the night without a peep. And we were insanely lucky that the mosquitoes had died down overnight and didn’t invade our tent through the wide hole in the mesh.
Thankfully, the rest of the trip passed relatively uneventful. We got up early, ate breakfast and hiked back to our car. We left the wilderness around 9am and started the drive home. Our tire pressures turned out to be fine, just a sensor reading error. And, thankfully, Glia has had no complications from her encounter with the porcupine.
We learned several things from our experience.
- Plan to adjust your dogs backpack before you put your own on..
- Start solo hikes later in the day, so you have less time sitting around a campsite full of mosquitoes by yourself.
- Don’t plan hikes in heavy mosquito areas in July.
- Even a 7 year old dog can pull a puppy stunt every once in a while.
- If camping with a high prey drive dog, consider closing the rainfly at night, so she can’t see outside and forget she is in a tent at 3am.
- Oh, and don’t forget to watch your speed when driving country roads at night.
Overall, we did enjoy our time in the wilderness. It just might be a little while before we attempt to backpack solo again. And on the positive side, we do have a fun story to tell about our mis-adventure.
What misadventures have you had camping and hiking with your pups? And anyone have a good recommendation for material to stitch a tent back together?