I wrote this article for Woods-N-Water News shortly after my great-uncle Walt died in 2017. My great-aunt Elaine, who I wrote about in this article, joined him last week. I'll miss her greatly. I've updated the article for this blog post with additional historical context, and it's certainly worth noting that I wouldn't have any of the family history and Finnish customs passed down to me if my Aunt Elaine hadn't preserved them for all of our family. This article was awarded an Award in Craft, 3rd Place in the Magazine/Open category in 2018 by the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers.
For the first time in 16 years, I dipped my paddle in the still waters of Chaney Lake in Gogebic County. I was returning from the week-long Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) annual conference at Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, and had stayed the night before at my family’s cottage on Chaney Lake on my drive back home to Ann Arbor. A black protuberance on the flat water caused me to set down my kayak paddle on my lap and raise my binoculars, finding a loon through the glass.
I came up here every summer of my youth with my parents and brother to spend time with the Finnish side of my mom’s family, but somehow I haven’t found – or made – the time to visit since I was 21. In the middle of the last century, my great-grandpa William “Bill” Lantta bought an old deer camp on this small inland lake just above the Wisconsin border to convert to a summer cottage (“mӧkki” in Finnish) for his family. The first journal entry in the camp log from 1961 concludes with a postscript noting that “Grandpa Bill caught a beautiful 24 ½” northern.”
My great-uncles Bill and Walt used to take me fishing in the aluminum boat, though I don’t remember reeling in many fish myself; some things never change. What I do remember is hearing the loon’s call, a haunting wail providing the soundscape of the Northwoods. Cedars swoop before the enclosed cottage porch, and a few sentinel white pines rim the lake amidst oaks, maples, cedars, and birch. Before I knew their name, I thought of white pines as “eagle trees” due to the nest in one on the lake years ago.
Little has changed physically since I was last here: the same red log cabin and the sauna any self-respecting Finnish cottage must have. My dad and brother put in a new dock last summer, someone – likely my great-Uncle Bill – built a vestibule over the picnic table. It has indoor plumbing now, though I still insist on using the “huusika,” what you might call a “two-holer.” So much else has changed, though; Uncle Bill and his wife, my Aunt June, passed on a few years ago. Just over a month ago, my Uncle Walt passed away just before his 97th birthday, leaving my Aunt Elaine as the last of the greatest generation which filled this cottage with laughter, intellect, and love for over a half century.
The night before, I flipped through the photo albums and scrapbooks that didn’t interest me as much as a kid. There are pictures of my great-uncles teaching my younger cousins to clean fish in the years that I was somehow too busy to come up here. Then there’s my little brother and me in that boat, and my mom as a teenager with a string of walleye – I never knew she fished! Uncle Bill with a buck hanging from a pole in front of the cabin, which he sometimes used as a deer camp, too.
But then, there are older photos, much older. My grandma Ruth – who passed when my mom was a teenager – as a baby in 1924. My great-Grandpa Bill as a young man paddling a canoe, another of him holding a rabbit he’d hunted with a Michigan-made Marble Arms Game Getter out in Red Lodge, Montana. One was of the whole family after a day of fishing in the nineteen-teens with my great-great-grandpa John, who emigrated from Finland in 1887 to work as a teamster in Minnesota lumber camps and a miner in Ironwood before buying a farm in Iron Belt, Wisconsin.
In 1946, another Finnish immigrant to the Upper Peninsula – Frank Valin - told folk researcher Richard Dorson why many small farmers and sharecroppers emigrated during that time: “The food was always miserable; sour milk thinned with water, potatoes and herring, day in and day out while the tables of the landowners groaned with stews of beef, lamb and pork, and carrots and onions. The lakes were full of fish but we could not fish in them, neither could we hunt game, except by stealth, for the land was owned by our ‘betters.’ Is it a wonder that we left Finland to come here?”
Finns have long found both freedom and a living in the wilderness. My own great-great-grandfather John Lantta cut hemlock bark from the woods near his father Abraham's farm in western Finland, making it into tar and hauling it to Kokkola with a team of horses. And when he immigrated to America in 1887 to work as a teamster in Minnesota lumber camps it was to pay off the family's farm back in Finland. Still, he made time to take his family on the fishing expeditions in the photo album.
“Agriculture required labor only during the summer, while, during the spring and fall, the men went off on long expeditions into the wilderness to hunt and fish,” described Eino Jutikkala in A History of Finland about the country's pagan iron age. “The lake system of the Finnish interior made the going easy for such expeditions, since it was possible to row up the lakes for scores of miles, after which other waterways could be reached by dragging the boats across narrow necks of lands."
The Finns valued their eramaat, the "vast wilderness reserves which were exploited for fur trapping, hunting, and fishing, and which the yeomen claimed as their domain on the strength of immemorial prerogative," as described Jutikkala in reference to the later middle ages when they repelled attempts by the ruling Swedish king to settle them.
I thought of the concerted effort by some of today’s politicians to sell our public lands and I wondered if someday we would find ourselves unable to hunt and fish because all the land was owned by our “betters.” I wondered if that Finnish concept of wilderness was part of why my great-grandpa bought the cottage and continued ancient Finnish hunting and fishing traditions in America, if it was part of what drove me to pursue it as a career as a conservationist and outdoor writer.
That thought was interrupted by the wail of the loon, calling to locate its partner. Loons live for decades – up to thirty years – and some mate for life. They’re also territorial, and a lake the size of Chaney likely supports only one pair – they would defend their territory from other loons. When the pair becomes separated, they call to each other as this one was doing now, trying to locate its lost mate. I thought of my Aunt Elaine.
Cedars and birches rimmed the shore with the morning sun casting a glow over the trees on the opposite shore as I paddled down the lake, not wishing to disturb the loon. In the shadows of the faint ripples on the water, I almost missed seeing the other loon ahead of me, the lost mate. It called out, and its partner flew to it, spreading its wings out as it landed. Reunited, they floated and fished, one keeping a lookout while the other dove, then switching, making their way down the lake.
I turned the kayak around and paddled back to the cottage; I’d been away from for almost a week and I missed my wife. I packed my gear, made a cup of coffee and heated one of my mom’s homemade pasties for breakfast, then got back on the long road home to Ann Arbor. With the windows down and the moon roof back, a bald eagle flew overhead as Eddie Vedder and Beyonce sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” on satellite radio.
The choppy waters of Lake Michigan didn’t seem to want to let my kayak off the beach at Michigan Beach Park in Charlevoix, and it would have been tempting just to spread a towel down on the sand and soak up the sun with all the beachcombers. I pushed out into the waves, though, and was soon battling them on a 20-mile paddle to my campsite at Young State Park near Boyne City on Lake Charlevoix. For the opportunity, I had a 54-year-old federal law to thank: the since-expired Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Since 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has invested more than $329 million in Michigan, including public access recreation sites like Michigan Beach Park on the local level and Young State Park, managed by the Michigan DNR. The LWCF operates like Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund. It takes royalties from offshore energy development and invests them in communities around the country for outdoor recreation opportunities: in fact, every single county in Michigan has benefitted from the LWCF.
My adventure depended on it. I wanted to paddle inland from Lake Michigan, through the Pine River Channel and Round Lake to and around Lake Charlevoix. The Lake Charlevoix shoreline is smothered in private vacation homes, so there are few places where paddling into a campsite for the night would even be possible. Established in 1921, Young State Park received a $100,000 development grant from the LWCF in 1967. It now offers 240 campsites, two rental cabins, miles of birding and hiking trails, and beach and lake access for anglers, boaters, jet-skiers and paddlers like me.
To get there, though, I had to find a place to park overnight and launch my kayak. Michigan Beach Park lies just outside the Pine River channel and the famous Charlevoix lighthouse, making it the perfect launching point for my adventure. It received an $11,000 LWCF development grant in 1976. I skirted outside the designated swim area in Lake Michigan’s choppy surf. I had only a few hundred yards to go before I turned into the Pine River channel, which was even choppier. Yachts passed me on their way into Round Lake to dock, as well as another kayaker swifter than me. We talked a little on our way through and I learned he was a Michigan State student (my alma mater).
The waves crashed over my overloaded stern, holding a tackle box and dry bag stuffed with overnight camping gear. What I didn’t realize was that it was also leaking into my dry hatch and filling up the cavity of my sit-on-top kayak. I paddled through the channel and out into Round Lake, marveling at the boat garages around the shore and the vintage sailboats anchored in the harbor. I continued on past the Coast Guard station into Lake Charlevoix, using my paddle to navigate the waves coming from behind me and from the side.
Out in the middle of the Lake, my kayak felt sluggish — too sluggish. I felt the cargo area behind me and it was completely filled with water, spilling over into my seat. I paddled furiously toward shore, but I only bobbed side to side as my stern sunk below the surface, finally capsizing and tipping me into the lake.
I was wearing my lifejacket and all my gear was lashed to the kayak except the fishing pole my grandpa gave me back in college, which sunk to the bottom near Horton’s Bay. My only solace was that maybe it joined one of Ernest Hemingway’s lost rods or lines or lures. He used to hang around Horton’s Bay, which provided the setting for some of his Nick Adams short stories (my favorite).
That was far from my mind at the time, though, as I tried to backstroke toward shore with one arm while the other pulled my overturned kayak. A boat slowed as it neared me and I raised my paddle in the air to call for help. A family out for a cruise — including a member of the Coast Guard taking a vacation day — towed my kayak to shore and gave me a granola bar.
I thanked them, exchanged information and then unpacked my kayak and emptied the water from it. I repacked it so that the weight was more evenly distributed, including lashing my tackle bag in the smaller bow cargo area. For the rest of the trip, I also hugged the shoreline, stopping twice to again empty water from my kayak before it capsized.
After six hours and more than 20 miles of hard paddling, I saw the sandy shore of Young State Park. I let the waves push me in, beached my kayak, shouldered my dry bag and hiked to the ranger station to check into my campsite.
My hammock and bug net was a little out of place sandwiched between two RV’s plugged in to electric hook-ups, particularly with my registration card tied to my kayak where other campsites had pickups and SUV’s. What we shared, though, was the Great American Campout. While full families around me cooked burgers on propane grills, I heated a Paleo Meals to Go packet with water boiled on an isobutene backpacking stove. I drifted to sleep in my hammock counting endless stars.
Whether by pickup and RV or kayak and hammock, we all had equal access to miles of trails and shoreline on one of Michigan’s most beautiful lakes, an opportunity which wouldn’t exist for many of us without the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In Michigan, these opportunities contribute to a $26.6 billion outdoor recreation economy, according to the Outdoor Recreation Industry Association.
The LWCF expired in September 2018, but Congress is considering a comprehensive public lands package that would renew it. Please take action and tell your member of Congress to renew the LWCF by passing the Natural Resources Management Act (S.47) with the National Wildlife Federation's action alert linked here.
My forefoot strikes dirt, my toes push off and the other foot follows suit. Prairie grasses brush my shins as I run the Bloody Knife Trail up a hill above General Custer’s old house at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Bismarck, N.D. A whitetail explodes out of a woody draw and bounds up a hill. The Missouri River flows below where Louis and Clark camped on their voyage west in 1804. The reconstructed On-a-Slant Mandan village lies at the confluence of the Heart and Missouri Rivers. Like many trails I’ve run, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has contributed to this public land opportunity for all.
Trails to run are the first feature I look for when visiting a new city. I traveled to Bismarck-Mandan, N.D., earlier this month for the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers annual conference. We enjoyed a tour of the Custer house at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park on the first night of the conference, but I focused on the hills behind it. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has invested almost $310,000 in the park’s trails and facilities, so a couple days later I drove back out to the park and ran five miles on its trail system.
Trail Running Participation is Growing
The Outdoor Foundation released its 2018 participation report in July. It showed that 55.9 million Americans participate in running, jogging and trail running, making it the most popular outdoor activity in the country. Trail runners have more than doubled as a subset of that category in the past decade, from 4.2 million in 2007 to 9.1 million in 2017. Five of the top six motivations to get outside involve some version of “exercise” or “nature”, according to the report, and trail running accomplishes both.
Trail running reduces impacts to knees from striking hard surfaces, strengthens stabilizing muscles from uneven terrain, and includes the psychological benefits of spending time in nature. It has helped me lose 50 pounds in the three years since I started. Trail running is also uniquely dependent on public lands. While trail runners only need a single track dirt path to run on, those trails often need public lands and facilities like parking lots, restrooms and trailheads to support them.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund Invests in Trails
Many of the trails we run — like those in the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park — have received Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) investments for support facilities, trail development and the acquisition of the public land itself. The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1964 to invest royalties from offshore oil and gas development into public outdoor recreation land and development, making grants to local, state and federal entities at no cost to taxpayers.
In fact, all of the trail races I’ve run in the past two years have occurred on LWCF-acquired or developed land. I ran the 10K at Trail Fest last summer at Brighton State Recreation Area in Michigan, where the LWCF has invested almost $740,000. A couple weeks later I ran the Boulder Sunset 5K in Boulder, Colorado. The Boulder Reservoir has received more than $72,000 in LWCF grants. This summer, I ran the half marathon at Trail Weekend and the 50K at Run Woodstock. Both races use the Potawatomi Trail and facilities in the Pinckney State Recreation Area, which has received almost $830,000 through the LWCF. And this is just a sliver of the growing number of trail races held across the country. Chances are good that the LWCF has invested in your favorite trails, too: there isn’t a single county in America which hasn’t received an LWCF grant.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund Will Expire Without Action by Congress
The LWCF is set to expire at the end of September, 2018, though, if Congress does not reauthorize it. While I was in North Dakota, news broke that the House Committee on Natural Resources passed a permanent reauthorization of the LWCF after a compromise was reached. At the same time, the National Wildlife Federation public lands team and state affiliates were in Washington, D.C. lobbying their congressional representatives for reauthorization of the LWCF.
This is a big step forward, but the compromise must still be passed by the full House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and signed into law. And while the compromise includes permanent reauthorization, it does not include dedicated funding, so there is still much work to do with little time to do it.
Whether you run trail races or just like to kick up dirt for fun and exercise on your own — like when you’re in North Dakota for a work-related conference — it’s likely that your favorite trails have received LWCF investments to help make them what they are. The LWCF supports the trails we run, so let’s support the LWCF so it can keep making those investments for us.
Please join the National Wildlife Federation in calling upon your senators to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
I had big plans for Earth Day weekend in April. Epic plans, like fastpacking the entire 80-mile High Country Pathway through and around the Pigeon River Country north of Gaylord. Fastpacking combines ultralight backpacking with trail-running. I even had plans of setting the fastest known time (FKT) for the trail. Those plans didn’t include, though, the more than two feet of snow that dumped on the forest just a week earlier.
The snow did not abort my plans, though: it amended them. With temperatures expected into the high fifties – and sunny – during the four days I allotted myself, I thought that the snow would melt enough to run the trail after a day or two of snowshoeing, and I could still finish that trail in four days that most people take a week to complete in good weather.
As an experienced outdoorsman, though, I should have known that you can’t force your plans on nature. There are days in the fall when I want nothing more than to still-hunt deer all day, moving silently from tree to tree against the wind, crawling through tall grass, and seeing a deer at full draw before it sees me. Sometimes that’s exactly what I do, but sometimes the leaves are too dry, and the wind is too still, and so I adapt. I sit still. A few years ago changing my plans to nature’s conditions yielded a nice 3 ½ -year-old 8-point buck on the firearm opener in this same forest, which provided a year of venison lunches.
I set out from the forest headquarters, seeing a white-tailed deer where the trail crossed through the Pigeon River campground. The river sparkled in the sun. After pushing my pace for five miles, snowshoes breaking through an ice-crusted top layer of snow and post-holing every third or fourth step, I sat down on a stump near where the High Country Pathway splits off from the shorter Shingle Mill Pathway loop. I ate a few protein bars for lunch and calculated that if I kept up my pace and pushed it until dark, I could stay on pace to finish the loop in four days, the weekend plus two vacation days.
When I planned this trip nine months ago, though, this was not what I wanted. I wanted to run the trail now covered with snow beneath me. I wanted to dodge roots and leap logs fallen across the trail, sleeping under the stars without a fire and setting the fastest known time. That’s what I had taken those two vacation days for, not this. And I realized quickly that this snow wasn’t melting anytime soon – certainly not within the time I had.
Then I thought about that hunt a few years ago, about how I sat down against a tree on a ridge instead of still-hunting, and was rewarded with venison and a better outdoor experience than if I had continued forcing my plans on nature. So how could I adapt this trip? The answer was on my feet. Instead of being frustrated that I couldn’t run the trails I wanted to run, I could appreciate that I was snowshoeing in my favorite forest on a sunny day in April! How often do I get to do that?
So I decided to turn this epic four-day fastpack that wasn’t into an overnight snowshoe backpacking trip, and save those two days off for another attempt at setting the fastest known time for the High Country Pathway when I could run it how I wanted.
I sat up from the stump, strapped on my pack and stepped back on the trail. I no longer resented the snow; I appreciated it. Ahead on the trail, I saw a movement and the light tan rump of an elk drinking from the headwaters of a small stream where it crossed the trail before flowing down into the Pigeon River. It was either a cow or a young bull that had shed its antlers, but it looked “bullish” to me. So I stood still and watched it until it moved uphill and off the trail. While I was waiting, a raccoon sauntered from tree to tree below me, which I appreciated since “Ranger Rick” is the mascot of my employer, the National Wildlife Federation. Further down the trail, I heard the “woosh” of wings and looked up to see a bald eagle flying overhead.
I backtracked the trail to the Cornwall Flats – an old logging site – and slung my hammock and tarp between two trees, flushing a woodcock along the way. The flats are a wetland complex cut by a meandering stream, surrounded by hills. A pair of ducks flew from the wetland. A pair of geese honked before flying overhead. I watched a Cooper’s hawk land on a snag and survey the flats before alighting to hunt whatever it was it saw from its perch. A northern flicker flew over my hammock. A bluejay landed on a branch. A squirrel scrounged for food on a sunny patch of bare ground on the hillside.
Though I didn’t complete what I had planned to do that weekend; I did something better because I listened to nature instead of my own ego. I saw an amazing diversity of the forest’s wildlife and thoroughly enjoyed our public lands for a weekend. Just like that hunt a few years ago, my change of plans paid off.
Dirt. Rock. Sand. From the forest-covered hills of northern Michigan to the Colorado mountains, my summer of 2017 was about running new trails and running old trails in new ways, renewing my love for something that changed my life two years ago.
My trail-running had waned leading into the summer, as I spent much more time after work at CrossFit than running. I love CrossFit, but part of it, too, may have been the monotony of running my home trail loop almost exclusively. My home trail is a 1.5-mile loop through the Greenview Natural Area and Pioneer Woods, property open to the public and part of the Ann Arbor Pioneer High School complex. Coursing through a small patch of southern Michigan deciduous woods on dirt singletrack, some parts covered with woodchips by volunteers, it's a fine trail on which I often see deer, squirrels, and colorful birds whose names I don't know. It's right across the street from my house, and it's what got me into trail-running (or any running) about two and a half years ago, helping me get in shape for the first time since college 15 years ago. Before that, I'd gained about 70 pounds from unhealthy eating, drinking and sitting. I started with one mile, stopping frequently, breathless, but came back the next day and the next, inspired by Cam Hanes' motto, "keep hammering." I combine the loops for 3, 4.5 or 6-mile runs, typically, and maybe it was running those same loops over and over which led me to trade my trail shoes for barbells so often.
In late June, I competed in the Train To Hunt Challenge at the Ambridge Sportsmen's Club west of Pittsburgh. Train To Hunt combines 3-D archery, CrossFit-style lifts and trail-running with a weighted pack. The trails at Ambridge Sportsmen's Club follow their 3D archery course and access two-tracks up steep hills - almost mountains to a Michigan flatlander - and on that weekend they were brutal. Recent rains left the 1.6-mile trail a sloppy mess, and since we were running it with 50-pound packs and carrying our bows (for the two 3D targets along it) immediately after a challenge course that included box stepovers, sandbag tosses, burpees, and four 300-yard runs, my quads were cashed before I even started on the trail. I ran when it was dry and when it was flat and muddy, which wasn't often. Most of it was uphill or downhill and muddy, which I mostly power-walked.
I earned a third-place finish amongst the six competitors shooting traditional bows, but I knew that my endurance was lacking on the trail course. Still, I was excited to earn an invitation to Train To Hunt Nationals at the Powderhorn Ski Resort in Mesa, Colorado, just two weeks later. Our first trail there (part of the Grand Mesa National Forest) followed an even more brutal challenge course, similar to the one described above but with more reps and box stepovers. The 8,300-foot altitude certainly got to me, so in addition to starting the 1.6-mile trail up and across the mountain ski runs with cashed quads (and a 50-pound pack), I was also sucking wind. My calf cramped up halfway across the mountain and I fell down, taking what seemed like forever to rub my cramp loose and continue the course. I finished in last place.
The next morning was the "meat pack" part of the competition, carrying a 50-pound sandbag straight up a deadfall-strewn mountainside ski run 1,900 feet for a 2.2-mile loop. I ran up to the base of the ski run, but the terrain and my cramping quads required a hike with carefully placed feet. While other athletes took advantage of the downhill segment to reclaim their pace, the cramps in my quads required me to keep it slow. My only thought was not to let my legs ever straighten, worried that they'd seize up and prevent me from finishing. I did finish, though, on legs straight as stilts and in last place before collapsing. I was thoroughly humbled, but proud to finish.
Two weeks later, I was recovered enough to run an old trail in a new way. I've backpacked the 11-mile Shingle Mill Pathway in northern Michigan's Pigeon River Country State Forest often, but I've never run it. I was up north for a meeting, so I decided to stay up there and split the run in two, fast-packing it an evening and the next morning with my camp in a backpack. The trail follows the Pigeon River through wetlands, uplands, mixed forests and pine-covered ridges overlooking the river in the heart of Michigan's elk range. I ran four miles the first evening, camping at a familiar spot on Grass Lake, listening to loons call from my hammock throughout the night. I finished the remaining seven miles the next morning, and found a new favorite summer adventure: fast-packing. I may never fish again.
My wife Michele and I took a week's vacation immediately after that, camping at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, staying at a hotel in downtown Traverse City, kayaking Torch Lake, (attempting) surfing in Lake Michigan, and backpacking at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area. I had a chance to run two new trails that week which - combined with the previous weekend's run - completely re-energized my passion for trail-running.
The first was the Lasso Loop in the Sleeping Bear Wilderness Area. I started where the forest met the dunes, running in the hot sun through sand on a barely perceptible trail where the dunegrass didn't grow. I dropped off the trail and ran along the shoreline, sometimes veering into the water to go around sunbathers. I rejoined the trail where it ran up into the woods, coursing through conifer and hardwoods, past small wetland complexes, and the campground before turning back to the dunes. Through the dunes and back to the beach, I ran past endangered piping plovers hopping along the surf, covering 8.8 miles, one of my longest runs to date.
A few days later at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, I ran an out-and-back trail along the ridgeline overlooking the smaller shoreline dunes and Lake Michigan. After starting out on a mixed-forest dirt trail, it soon entered the larger dunes and was soft sand, uphill. I ran through backcountry camps pitched directly on the trail and up and around a horse-shoe shaped dune to stand on the crest an look out over Lake Michigan, the best view a trail run has ever provided me. On the run back, I almost stepped on a root until it moved, revealing itself to be an eastern hognose snake! I covered 4.5 miles and jumped in the lake.
In early August, I watched my brother-in-law compete in a triathlon, and it spurred my competitive instincts, so I signed up for 10K trail run two weeks out. At this time I also switched from thick-soled Hoka One One's to a zero-drop Altra Lone Peak 3.0. At my in-laws in Oakland County, I drove out to the Bald Mountain Recreation Area, which I've hunted before but never ran. On two successive days I ran a 4.5 mile loop and a 4.3-mile loop. The trails are single-track dirt, with a few low hills and surprisingly rocky at times, but unsurprisingly buggy.
Early on the morning of August 19, I lined up at the start line of the Running Lab TrailFest at the Brighton State Recreation Area. I stayed with the front of the pack through the first half of the course, but felt my pace slow through the single-track hills after mile four. I used two other runners to pace, keeping one behind me no matter what after I passed him on a downhill stretch of road. The next runner I kept up with until about mile five, when he left me in the dust going up a hill. I finished fourth out of five in my age group, but was proud of pushing my distance comfort level in a race, my second race ever, other than my three Train To Hunt competitions.
In late August, my wife and I flew back to Colorado for a five-day mini-vacation with her family. We picked that time because her brother, sister and brother-in-law were competing in the Boulder Sunset Triathlon. We arrived at the AirBNB house we were renting up the mountains in Jamestown just before midnight the night before, when I found out there was a 5K/10K as part of the event. I set my alarm early, rode in with my wife's cousin and her brother's girlfriend, who were running the 5K, and my wife, and signed up for the 5K. While it wasn't a trail course, it ran along a paved road and then a gravel road along the levee at the Boulder Reservoir. I was trailing a pack that took the left chute near the finish line, when I realized that they were continuing on in the duathlon and the finish line was for me! I doubled back to the divider, turned the corner and sprinted into the 5K finish, learning that I'd actually finished first among the males running the 5K. I felt a little redemption from finishing last in the Train To Hunt Nationals the month before, finally making a podium in Colorado.
The next day in Jamestown, I couldn't resist running some real Colorado mountain trails, though. After a quick internet search, I found out that the Ceran St. Vrain Trailhead in the Roosevelt National Forest was only about four miles up the road, so I drove to it and ran it. It was amazing, following the St. Vrain Creek along a rocky single-track hiking trail and along ridges overlooking tree-covered valleys. My feet were forced to tap-dance around jutting rocks and roots, part of what I love about trail-running. I did an out-and-back for about 4.5 miles. Two days later, my sister-in-law led us all on a seven-mile hike to a mountain lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, part of the same national forest, for the most beautiful view any hike has ever led me, though I didn't run it.
The morning we were due to fly back, I had to get in one last trail run. Both of the vehicles were in use, though, so I had to find something a little closer if I didn't want it to be solely a road run. So I ran down through the town of Jamestown, across a bridge, up a hill street, down it, and down a dirt road to the National Forest boundary, where I saw a mule deer buck before he bounded away. A closed forest road resumed in a non-motorized single-trail up where it petered out in a gulch. I followed a game trail up a foothill, cresting with a view of the mountains across Lefthand Canyon. I returned down the hill, through town and back up another one to our rental house for a total of 4.3 miles.
Back home, I took that same approach on Labor Day Weekend. It would have been easy for me to step outside and run my regular trail, but less than 20 miles away is Pickney State Recreation Area and the 17-mile Potowatomi Trail, ranked by LaSportiva recently as one of the top 10 trail runs in the Midwest, which I've hunted and hiked but never run. That's farther than I'm running yet, but I combined parts of the Crooked Lake Trail and the Potowatomi for an 8.2-mile run. Like all the new trails I ran this summer, each step held the promise of something new around every bend, the alertness needed to avoid each new root or rock outcropping that may emerge in front of you. It occupies your mind completely like fly-fishing and still-hunting, fully immersing you in the pursuit at hand.
Before trail-running, I didn't run at all. I could never get over the banality of a road or a sidewalk. I would hike and backpack, lift weights occasionally, when I could, but I ate like shit and found myself 70 pounds heavier at age 35 than when I started college. Running trails ignited something in me I never had - a willingness and a love for running, a connection to our most ancient ancestors I only get otherwise when still-hunting with a bow, and a renewed commitment to my health. Without trail-running, I would still be eating like shit and I would have never found CrossFit or Train To Hunt, I wouldn't have dropped 60 pounds and be in the best shape of my life at age 37, and, moreover, I wouldn't be as healthy and happy as I am now. But when I found that monotony creeping into the only trail I regularly ran, my desire to run tailed off.
A summer of new trails has reignited that flame, though, and now even when I run my home trail, I have that fire because I have the promise of new trails to find, of new races to run, and new ways to run old trails. Whether dirt, sand, or rock; forest, dunes, or mountain; city natural area, state recreation area, or federal wilderness area; as long as we have public land, there will always be new trails to run. And who knows where they might lead?
September is Public Lands Month. Support keeping public lands in public hands by joining Backcountry Hunters and Anglers at www.backcountryhunters.org. #keepitpublic
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning outdoor writer and a senior communications coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. He is also the host of the National Wildlife Federation Outdoors podcast, a committee member for 2% for Conservation, a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, a board member for the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, and a state-appointed member of the Pigeon River Country State Forest Advisory Council.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the PRCAC, or any other entity.