Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Outdoors Club

“The Outdoors Club”
By Annemarie Ahearn
February 11th,2010

Looking out the window of Midwest Airlines flight 1403, snowy plots of farmland carpet the expanse, confirmation that I’m back home in the great state of Wisconsin. My best friend, Jou-Yie Chou, cultural engineer of Ace Hotel, has somehow convinced me to go on an ice fishing trip, despite the fact that I swore my camping days were over. We touch down in Madison and are met by a large fuel truck with capital red letters across the flank, reading “WISCONSIN AVIATION.” My dad’s 30-year-old Lowe backpack is the first bag out on the carousel, stuffed like a well-fed pig with outdoor camping gear.

Ryan Huber, owner of Context Clothing, meets us at his store to ensure that we are properly outfitted for the trip. It’s then that I realize we aren’t just going for practicality; we are sure to be the best-dressed campers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Collin Hugh’s, an urban planner from San Francisco accompanies Ryan and both are extraordinarily well dressed, from their woolen hats to their vintage boots. Context specializes in heritage brands and carefully selected durable fabrics. Ryan is a walking advertisement for the store and let’s just say, it’s very effective.

That evening we stopped into The Old Fashion for a few baskets of cheese curds and pints of Riverwest Stein from Lakefront Brewery. Afterwards, the group stumbled over to Magnus, to taste an ox heart and lamb tongue sandwich on pumpernickel and a platter of pickled herring, gravlox and pickled shrimp. Not a bad start in good old Wisconsin.

The following morning, we picked up Andrea Westerlind, owner of Fjall Raven in the United States, a Swedish company that produces utilitarian outdoor gear for trekking. When we pull up to baggage claim, Andrea is packing two hockey sized bags, filled with down jackets, down pillows, suspended winter pants, warm flannel shirts and backcountry bags, all with the tags still on. Collin, the most resourceful of us, hits up airport security for some twine and we strap the bags to the top of the jeep. It’s clear we’ve over packed.

Ryan sets the GPS for Rheinlander, Wisconsin and we head North. A quick stop for a beer and more curds. Fuel. Then we head up further until we pass the state line into Michigan. Collin tells us that people who live in the Upper Peninsula are called “Yuppers.” Jou-Yie googles “Hotels, Ontanogon” and calls the first number that appears. A man answers and Jou-Yie asks if they have availability. At the other end of the line is Pastor Paul. Jou-Yie has called a church. “Well, yes,” say Pastor Paul, “I suppose we do.” Eventually they get to the bottom of it and Pastor Paul recommends Peterson’s Cottages, as Wendy Peterson is a member of the congregation and will take good care of us. We call Wendy to reserve a cottage and sure enough, she’s a “yupper,” born and bred. Her accent is so thick and her voice so piercing that we can all hear it through the I Phone speaker. Just the thought of sleeping inside for one more night is comforting as I’ve been dreading sleeping in a tent, in the snow, for several weeks.

We continue driving. Jou-Yie and Andrea are absorbed I their I Phones . . . it’s a working vacation . . . Jou-Yie is planning a party at Ace Hotel the following Saturday with the Dirty Projectors and Beyonce’s sister as featured musicians. Collin is telling us about growing up in small town Wisconsin, where snow mobilers ruled the student body and snow boarders were considered social misfits. Collin says, “I can see snow mobiles used as a form of transportation but at a recreational activity, I just don’t get it.” We all agree, casting judgment on a sporting culture that seems moronic. Little do we know that we’d be indebted to these people by the trip’s end.

Finally, we approach Ontonogan as the sun is setting over the ice masses of Lake Superior. Collin opens the car to walk out onto the jagged, ledge of ice that extends about 100 yards into the lake. It looks apocalyptic and even in my goose down, I can feel the cold taking its grip. Everyone but myself walks all the way to the edge of the ice where there is a steep drop off into the gray water that sloshes between ice rafts. I stay back, quietly praying for each of them. After the seascape had been sufficiently captured on their cameras, they head back to shore. We get back in the car and head to Petterson’s Cottages where a nativity scene stands proudly out in front of a neon pink sign blanketed with snow.

Wendy is everything we had imagined and keen on making money off us city kids. She charges us $180 for a small cottage with no fireplace. We roll our eyes back in our heads communicating without words that it’s not worth trying to upgrade. Andrea begins distributing the contents of her massive black bags, down jackets in all colors and sizes, waterproof trekking pants for the boys, a backpack for Ryan, down pillows for each of us . . . it feels like an extravagant Christmas. She rips off the tags as if inconvenienced by their still being attached. The luxury of it all doesn’t phase her. Jou-Yie distributes Ace hotel shirts for us all to wear and we chuckle at the convenient product placement. That night, I make chili with chorizo and we put back a few dozen Coors Light. We have a big day ahead of us. Sleep is essential.

The Upper Peninsula is on Eastern time, as is the entire state of Michigan. In the winter, the sun doesn’t come up until well past eight. Colin had us all up at six and I wait and wait for the tinniest bit of light before I can get out from under the covers. A Boy Scout champion, Collin begins singing jubilantly as a gentle way of rousing us. A little leftover chili, scrambled eggs cooked in about 4 tablespoons of Neuskee’s bacon fat and strong coffee is all it takes for the sun to come up. We geared up and Wendy outfitted us in snowshoes for an outrageous $25 a day per pair. “I could buy them for that.” I said and Jou-Yie replied, “They are cheaper in Tahoe.” Wendy was officially on my shit list.

We leave Peterson’s Cottages and drive towards the Porcupine Mountains in good spirits, well feed and well dressed. A snow lodge marks the foot of the trails and we study a flat map of the area. Seven miles out and tucked into a canyon is Lake of the Clouds. It has a nice ring to it and I see that there is a symbol for a cottage on the far side of the lake. I’m holding out hope that we don’t have to tent it in the snow.

As we gear up, the distribution of communal heavier items occurs. Collin volunteers to take the ice auger, a manual Sweedish auger that weighs about 15 pounds. The other boys take the tents, Andrea takes the food and I carry the lighter, fluffier items. So far, so good. We walk about 2 miles in on a snowmobile access trail and the brightly colored snow machines whiz by at terrifying speeds. The trail head lists many destinations, the furthest of which is Lake of the Clouds. I take a deep breath and mentally prepare myself for the five remaining miles. The forest is calm, snow laced and sunny, the only footprints in sight are those of fox and deer. We all take in the candescence of the winter woods quietly, humbled by the beauty of such a place.

The trail gets steeper and we all begin to sweat through our long underwear. Eventually we crest the first peak and off in the distance is Lake of the Clouds, which is every bit as spectacular as we had hoped. We break for lunch quickly because the air is too cold to leave your hands exposed for more than 30 seconds without loosing feeling in your fingers. We cut into a venison summer sausage, made from the meat of an animal killed in Wisconsin’s North woods by Dario, a friend of Ryan’s. It’s excellent and coupled with Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an artisan cows milk cheese made by Mike and Carol Gingrich of Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

The distance between our footprints and Lake of the Clouds is deceiving. What the flat map did not indicate is the repeated loss and gain in altitude before reaching our camp sight for the night. Each time we ascended, we shed layers and each time we descended we promptly put them back on to ward off the cold air. I suppose you could call it an exercise, the most challenging I’ve experienced since my pre-pubescent camping years. The sun had passed over our heads and was edging its way down into the valley’s distant horizon. We put a move on and come to sharp, snowy incline. A guardrail stands high above us and people wearing florescent gear and helmets lean over the rail to see what’s happening below. It’s as if we are some exotic breed of bird, traipsing trough the snow; they all seem stunned by our sheer existence. I’ve just about spent every once of energy when a men reaches down and lift me up over the rail and onto the pavement. I use all my strength to lift my head and say “thank you.”

“Where are you guys coming from? Are you camping in the snow?”

I nod and smile sarcastically, implying that I had no idea what I was getting into. I ask a sympathetic looking woman if they’ll be back in the morning to pick us up and she chuckles and says, “Sure thing.” She’s clearly kidding. I’m not. My heels are both blistered and I’ve already acquired a pretty substantial limp as a result. Despite my exhaustion, I look out over the landscape and draw quiet inspiration from what lies in front of me. The late afternoon sun electrifies the tangle of rivers that run through the valleys tight chasm, all emptying into a frozen solid, Lake of the Clouds. Not one print on the entire lake. It’s ours to imperfect as we please.

Collin explains that the campsite is down below in the valley and we better get going before the sun sets. We slide down the mountain on our packs, as it is too steep to walk and the end-of-the-day-desperation has reduced us to using all fours. The camp sight is covered in 3 feet of snow and now I know why we brought a shovel. Each of the gang works quickly to set up camp, knowing that once the sun sets, everything will be harder. Collin and Jou-Yie collect wood and hack it up, Andrea and Ryan set up the tents, I shovel out the snow from the fire pit and use birch to get a fire going. Luckily, the wood is dry enough.

In Andrea’s pack are carefully marked and organized canvas sacks, one prominently displaying the word, “DINNER.” In it is a large plastic bag packed tightly with an assortment of fat, smoked salmon steaks, some peppered, some not. There is also a loaf of thinly sliced rye, cornishons and pickled onions and five bulging bratwursts. Nothing short of heaven. The guys have gone down tot he lake with the auger to measure their wholes in the ice, so to speak. It’s too cold to tie fishing knots with bare hands and we’re all too tired for any activity, even if it’s the reason that we came in the first place. Andrea and I take pulls from the 141.5 proof George T. Stagg bourbon that the guys have conveniently left behind.

We eat fish and meat and drink bourbon until we’re ready to hibernate in out tents. Before bed, Collin and I take turns reading Jack London around the fire, a story about a man who freezes to death in the woods. How appropriate. Before tucking into my sleeping bag, I unwrap several disposable hand warmers and stick them to my appendages. The directions say “do not apply directly to skin” and I disregard them entirely. I have six hours until they go cold. We lie beside each other like sardines, careful not to trap any cold air between us. It’s going to be a long night and 1 flask of bourbon was not enough to knock us out. We all toss and turn, in and out of sleep until the late sun rises.

Our boots are frozen from the night’s sub zero temperatures. No one thought to tuck them into the tents and so we need to get a fire going before we can work our shoes onto our feet. I make some steel cut oats and tea. The decision to walk back on the snow mobile highway was nearly unanimous. Collin would have preferred the more scenic route but my heels were in strong protest, as were Jou-Yie’s. Not even a mile down the road and I throw in the towel. Collin comes back to boost my moral, but it is non-negotiable. I am not taking another step.

The sound of engines in the distance sounds like angel wings fluttering. I drop my pack and stick out my thumb as they fly by. I’ve never hitch hiked before. Is there a trick to it? Here come some more snow mobiles. I stand in the center of the road with my arms out stretched. The leader of the pack puts his arm up with a flat hand and they all slowed to a stop. I explain that I can’t walk and need a ride. A rider of indeterminate sex motions for me to “get on.” Their helmets are virtually sound proof making verbal communication an impossibility. I mount the strange vehicle, which seems like a death sentence and a blessing combined. Jou-Yie is also offered a ride and a pair of gloves, both of which he accepts. We left the others behind. As we get up to speed, I resist images of tumbling off the back and getting mangled by a line of snow mobiles.

Ten minutes and seven miles later, we are back at the lodge. I feel safe and warm even though my face is bright red from the frigged wind slapping against in on our ten minute ride. We drink hot cocoa for hours and wait for the others. They arrive looking physically exhausted. Andrea’s heels have suffered the same misfortune as ours in he final miles. We name her the “Arctic Fox” for her persistence in the snow and because it’s the translation of “Fjall Raven.” We load up the car and stop for gas and tall boys of Miller High Life. Ryan asks Andrea a question about clothing sales and there is no response. The Artic Fox sleeps. Soundly.

On the radio is the 44th Super Bowl, which we listen to on several barely audible stations as we drive through farmlands in the dark. It’s late when we get to Madison and it’s Sunday. The only place open is Tornado, rumored to have a damn good burger. We sink into a both and order burgers and stiff drinks to remedy our aching bodies. There’s banter about Wendy, the augur, “Yupper” country and the angels on mechanical horseback. A conclusion is reached that this is to be the first of many adventures. We are the original five members of “The Outdoors Club.”


  1. amazing. i feel like i was there.

  2. this looks like a blast. wish i knew. i'm based in michigan and would have loved to join up. let me know if you need another member of the outdoor club. --

  3. if you ever do a club outing in massachusetts, let me know. i cook well in cast iron skillets.

  4. Great story, but girl- you need a copy editor! I kept getting sucked in to the story, then whipped right back out every few sentences by the rules of English spelling and grammar! You're such a great writer otherwise!