Happy Trails

Escape with a walk in the woods

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To the unassuming eye, Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in northwest Michigan could be comprised of a series of average, possibly somewhat hilly, trails. But the first time Gordon Bogdanovic hiked its Empire Bluff trail he discovered the terrain and its tumultuous history had surprises in store. On the morning Bogdanovic started up the 1.5-mile trail, he could see the ground was sandy in spots, which is unusual for Michigan. These were no ordinary hills at all. They were glacial remains that had formed dunes. More than 11,000 years ago, the last glacier retreated, and birches and beeches put down their roots. Centuries later, settlers planted wild cherry trees that, left untended, now grow wild.

The higher you climb, Bogdanovic noticed, the trees that surround you muffle all sounds but the soft rustling of woodland creatures. Boulders, deposited ages ago by withdrawing glaciers, rest among the evergreens. Occasional blowouts—concave, sandy clearings produced by wind erosion—provide a dramatic contrast to the rich green landscape. “About two-thirds of the way up, there’s a sudden V-shaped clearing in the woods,” he says. “And through that clearing, you can catch a glimpse of an enormous, wooded dune far away, so rugged you feel like you could be in the wilds of Maine or Saskatchewan.”

Then you reach the summit. “There’s an overlook at the very top,” Bogdanovic says, “where you can see 180 degrees for miles and for 400 feet straight down to Lake Michigan. There’s a tiny ribbon of beach below, and you can see—impossible as this may sound—large schools of fish in the lake below.”

Hiking up Empire Bluff or other trails just as inviting is like that. But people hike for dual effects. You can relax and exercise at the same time, all the while experiencing the splendor of the natural environment. For some the exercise aspect takes on an almost meditative quality. “In the woods, every sense feels alive and alert. You can smell more and see more details than you do every day. The trappings of city life—work, errands, traffic—keep us so busy we focus only on the next chore. In the forest all that is secondary. You focus on hiking and the land around you. When I’m hiking, I’m practically tingling,” says Bogdanovic.

Setting out on a hike can be as low-key as walking on a flat trail or as intense as scaling rocks beside a waterfall. Michelle Czaikowski, a librarian from Raleigh, North Carolina, finds places to hike near her home. When she realized her office was a 15-minute drive from Umstead State Park, she started spending lunch hours there, regaining her equilibrium in the thick, earthy-smelling woods. “Even though you’re exerting yourself when you’re hiking, it’s still relaxing,” she says. “Taking a short hike is like taking a mini-vacation.”

The Rewards

Bogdanovic wasn’t prepared for the stunning view awaiting him at the top of the Empire Bluff trail. From there he saw the Sleeping Bear Dune as a slumbering grizzly, cradling her head on her paw—a black smudge atop a pale, yellow cliff. “The first time I hiked at the lakeshore, I was aware tens of thousands of people had been there before,” he says. “But it was new to me, and I felt a sense of discovery, of excitement and exploration that I get nowhere else.”

For hikers like Bogdanovic, having a goal such as reaching the summit of Sleeping Bear is paramount. For others, the journey itself is everything. People bring different expectations to a hike as well as take away different experiences. One of hiking’s great attractions is that almost anyone can do it. You can take short hikes or long arduous ones, and you rarely need heavy or expensive equipment. You probably already have everything you need—literally—at your feet.

Dressing the Part

“There’s way too much emphasis on specialty hiking gear,” Bogdanovic says. “Although good shoes are important, the average day-hiker doesn’t need elaborate equipment or clothing.” Plan for extremes of all forecasted weather. If there’s a slight chance of rain, prepare for a deluge. If it’s supposed to be warm, expect it to be desert hot. Take along as broad of a range of clothing as possible to keep you warm and dry.

“Wear multiple layers, which you can take off or put on as needed,” says Mary Margaret Sloan, president of the American Hiking Society. “Stay away from cotton. It’s uncomfortable when soggy and won’t keep you warm when wet.” A light windproof jacket will keep you warm without weighing you down. Fleece and wool are also windproof and retain heat when wet. Specialty fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin can also help keep you dry, but not necessarily warm.

Keep your feet comfortable with wool or fleece socks. You can add thin liner socks underneath them to trap warm air and move sweat and moisture—which cause blisters—away from your feet. If you develop blisters, cover them with moleskin—a soft, self-adhesive bandage that adheres better than Band-Aids. “Apply moleskin as soon as you feel a sore or hot spot developing,” says Susan Kramer, PhD, herbalist and author of The Healthy Traveler.

Poorly fitting shoes can also cause blisters or sore feet. Because feet swell after walking for prolonged periods of time, Sloan suggests purchasing “sturdy, well-fitted boots slightly larger than your regular size, though the heels should fit snugly.” Choose hiking boots or trail shoes that have sturdy ankle support. “If you want ankle-height shoes, get a water-resistant model,” says Sloan, “or use water-proofing spray, which you can find at any outdoor store.”

Setting Out

Now that you’re ready for a hike, you need only to choose the location. You can find refuges in the busiest cities for short hikes or drive to secluded, unspoiled trails for longer excursions. Most cities and universities have hiking clubs, which can help you meet like-minded people. Many communities even have railroad grades—sites where the tracks have been removed—where you can hike or bike.

“Whatever you get out of hiking—whether you’re communing with nature or exercising—hiking costs virtually nothing,” says Bogdanovic. Some trailheads may charge small fees for parking. Others charge for trail use in areas that are heavily used or are protected. But most places will cost you no more than your transportation to the trail.

When you next want to escape daily life, shoulder a backpack filled with your hiking essentials and set off. Engage all of your senses. Surround yourself with the heady, green smell of the forest floor and feel the sun on your face. Open yourself up to the experience.

The Chippewa Indians tell a tale of how Sleeping Bear was formed, Bogdanovic learned. Long ago, in the land that today is Wisconsin, a mother bear and her two cubs ran from a raging forest fire into Lake Michigan. After swimming for many hours, the cubs tired and lagged behind. The mother reached the shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. Too tired to continue, the cubs did not make it to shore. Yet the faithful mother bear still sleeps and waits for them.