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Backpacker|November - December 2020
Play List
THIS SEASON’S TOP TRIPS & PICKS

1.FROSTED WORLD

ROAN MOUNTAIN, NC

Once winter settles over the Appalachians, the higher you go, the fewer people you see. This spot at the top of Roan Mountain is no exception. Where summer finds it brimming with hikers, winter brings stillness. The 5-mile round trip can be a bit slippery after a snowstorm, but traction devices and hiking poles will give you the stability to climb beyond the trees to the 6,189-foot summit. There, frost often rimes the grass and rhododendrons and the views stretch for miles over the snowy Blue Ridge Mountains. Roan Mountain is actually a series of five distinct summits—Round Bald, Jane Bald, Grassy Ridge Bald, Roan High Knob, and Roan High Bluff. You can walk the Appalachian Trail along almost the entire ridgetop, which is accessed from the trailhead at Carver’s Gap. PERMIT None CONTACT bit.do/roan mountain

2.MEET THE NEIGHBORS

A weeklong paddle through Florida’s Everglades National Park is chock-full of wildlife encounters. Brianna Randall

I STARTLE AWAKE AT DAWN

to the sound of heavy breathing an arms-length from our tent. Heart pounding, I bolt upright, ready to fend off sharp-toothed swamp monsters lurking under our chickee—a 10-by-12-foot wooden platform on stilts that serves as a personal island in Everglades National Park. But once I unzip the door, instead of an invading alligator, I spy two bottlenose dolphins circling, probably in search of snapper for breakfast. I breathe a sigh of relief, wonder replacing my worries, as I take in the 360-degree view of water reflecting the calm golden light of dawn.

This chickee in Oyster Bay is our first overnight stop on a 50-mile circumnavigation of Whitewater Bay in the southern half of the Everglades. It’s my husband Rob’s dream trip: a week of canoeing through a wilderness of tidal flats while casting his fly rod for redfish and snook hiding under mangrove roots. I, on the other hand, prefer boating in reptile free mountain lakes. But locked in yet another eternal Montana winter, I had found myself intrigued by the idea of exploring somewhere warm. Then I read Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, an epic historical novel about outlaws who escaped the authorities by hiding in the Everglades. After that, I was hooked on the idea of seeing Florida’s most famous park for myself—its beautiful birds, abundant marine life, and rich cultural heritage.

Yesterday, just after Rob and I pushed off from the Flamingo Visitor Center in a beat-up aluminum canoe loaded down with a week’s worth of water and food our 3-year-old son, Talon, safely ensconced between us on a nest of dry bags—a crocodile as long as our boat had surfaced 6 feet away. I gasped, instinctively reaching back to grab hold of Talon as the croc sank back beneath the water. It wasn’t an ideal way to begin our trip, but we paddled on, determined that the year we spent planning this remote family adventure wouldn’t go to waste after just one startling wildlife encounter.

Back in Oyster Bay, Rob and Talon are still asleep beside me in the tent, both of them sprawled atop their sleeping bags in the humid December heat. Mosquitos coat the mesh overhead, making me wish I didn’t have to answer the call of nature—or face the 3-inchlong banana spiders that live in the chickee’s porta-potty.

I quietly make coffee and oatmeal, gazing toward an endless horizon broken only by flat-topped mangrove islands scattered over still, gray water. A morning chorus of birds tunes up within the mangroves. As I listen to the trills and rustles of invisible wildlife, I start to understand why the Everglades have a history of sheltering bandits and desperados. These swamps could swallow secrets whole.

Later that morning, we’re back in the canoe, watching the water become clearer as we wind our way inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Our son giggles each time he spots a new bird; great egrets, tricolored herons, and roseate spoonbills swoop by, their plumage vivid against the dark mangroves. I learn how to judge the depth of the water by its color: amber in the shallows, greener as the bottom drops away, then finally a deep gray. After an easy 5-mile paddle, we set up camp on the Shark River chickee, where I do yoga while the boys swing in our hammock.

As the week goes on, I relax into the rhythm of our days and my once looming fears are now diminished by the simplicity of the landscape and the way we travel through it. The world has shrunk to the size of my family, our canoe, and endless vistas of water and sky. We go days without seeing other paddlers and spot only one alligator after our initial crocodilian sighting. I fall asleep easily each night under the sweep of the Milky Way.

The last morning we opt to take a shortcut back to the Flamingo Visitors Center via the Hells Bay Canoe Trail. As we turn out of a wide bay into the narrow waterway, we find it overgrown with spider-webladen thickets of red mangroves. I pull our bow forward by grabbing branches while Rob pivots the stern around what feels like hundreds of hairpin turns.

Then, I see something rocketing toward us in the narrow channel. The V of its wake is longer than our canoe. I strain to make out the shape beneath the murky water. Shark? Crocodile? Python?

“Hold on!” I call, adrenaline pumping. Rob quickly grabs the gunwale. Talon squeals.

A big dolphin races beside our boat, so close I can see its smile. I laugh aloud, half in relief, half in wonder, as it bolts away toward the open water behind us. As we pick up our paddles to head back to land, I find that my usual sense of satisfaction after a week off the grid is magnified by my pride in facing my wildlife fears with each paddle stroke. These wetlands may have a dark side, but it only serves to highlight their beauty.

DO IT TRAILHEAD This route circumnavigates Whitewater Bay from the Flamingo Visitor Center. Rent canoes from Flamingo Adventures (flamingoeverglades.com) SEASON December through March to avoid hurricane season and the worst of the heat and mosquitoes. PERMIT Camping permits for backcountry chickees ($15 plus $2/person per day) must be reserved in-person at the Flamingo Visitor Center. CONTACT nps.gov/ ever

3.PICTURED ROCKS NATIONAL LAKESHORE MUNISING, MICHIGAN

Nearly 100 miles of trail unspool through this pristine section of Lake Superior shoreline. Winter here means no bugs and lots of privacy—just be sure to strap a pair of snowshoes to your pack. By Melanie McManus

THE INSIDER

A teenage Tom Nemacheck wasn’t happy when his family relocated from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula in 1969, so after graduation he joined the Air Force to head somewhere new— only to find himself stationed back in northern Michigan. “After that, I decided I was destined to stay here,” he says, and he proceeded to embrace the wilder side of his new home. Today, Nemacheck is the executive director of the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association and has explored every inch of the U.P. Pictured Rocks is one of his favorite hiking destinations. “We don’t have more scenic, easily accessible trails in the U.P. than at Pictured Rocks,” Nemacheck says. Winter is when this lakeside wilderness turns truly incredible, with snow drooping over the leafless hardwoods and every waterfall turning to an ice castle.

HISTORIC STROLL

GRAND SABLE VISITOR CENTER TO TWELVE MILE BEACH

Trails in the easternmost portion of Pictured Rocks lead you into the coast’s nautical history, with shipwrecks tucked under the sand dunes. Start an 11.5-mile shuttle hike from the Grand Sable Visitor Center and head west on the blue-blazed North Country Trail (NCT), winding along the 300-foot Grand Sable Banks escarpment.

When you reach the log slide at mile 5.3, you may be tempted to hike down to the lake, but Nemacheck advises against it. The 500-foot slide, once used by lumberjacks to send felled trees into the lake, steepens on its way to the water. While you can descend in 5 minutes, it can take an hour to climb back up. “Or you might get stuck down there, like I did,” Nemacheck says. “When I tried to climb back up, the sand was so dry I’d take one step forward and go 2 feet back. I had to hike a long way down the shoreline to find a way out.”

Instead, continue 2.2 miles to the Au Sable Light Station. The 86-foot tower started service in 1874 and still shines today. Shipwrecks from both before and after the lighthouse’s construction are sometimes visible at low tide between the lighthouse and Hurricane River Campground, 1.2 miles away. From the campground, it’s another 2.8 miles to Twelvemile Beach, a designated stop for the Altran shuttle, which operates year round and will whisk you right back to the visitor center (reservations required, $25; 906-387-4845).

WATER GALORE

BEAVER BASIN WILDERNESS

The Beaver Basin Wilderness within Pictured Rocks includes 13 miles of shoreline and three interior lakes, which usually freeze over in December. Nemechek recommends the 10-mile trail around 762-acre Beaver Lake: “This is a great path for snowshoeing in the winter,” he says. Head west on the Beaver Lake Trail from the Little Beaver Lake parking lot (from December to melt out in spring the road to Little Beaver Lake is closed to vehicles, adding 6 miles to the round-trip distance). As you wind around both Little Beaver and Beaver Lakes, cradled inside a beech-maple forest, watch for the namesake beavers as well as river otters. “In winter, it’s really fun to watch the river otters as they swim in and out of the holes in the ice,” Nemacheck says. “They slide along the snow, leaving long skid marks, and don’t appear to care about the cold water.” Head right just after the Beaver Creek Campsites at mile 3.2 and back onto the Beaver Lake Trail, curving around the lake’s northeastern shore. Before reaching Trappers Lake (mile 5), take a right to continue around Beaver Lake instead. In another 3 miles, you’ll take a final right to reach the parking lot.

BEST OF THE LAKESHORE

MUNISING FALLS TO CHAPEL ROCK

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November - December 2020