A Happy Unbirthday on Southwest

On a recent flight home from a flyfishing trip in the Rocky Mountains, Jim DuFresne fell in love with Southwest Airlines and in this Trail Talk blog our main blogger tells us why.

EshopPhoto2Fall is almost here, a time when hiking and backpacking is at its best; no bugs, no crowds, nobody else on that stretch of beach but you. If you need some sugguests on where to go check out the selection of books and maps MichiganTrailMaps.com offers in its e-shop like 50 Hikes in Michigan, that covers the best 60 treks in the Lower Peninsula.

By Jim DuFresne

I flew out to Denver last week and then spent my birthday with my son and daughter-in-law before heading into the Rockies for outdoor adventure and fly fishing. They gave me some wonderful gifts; a t-shirt from their backpacking trip this year to New Zealand, a collection of flies designed to fool those finicky Colorado trout and a “Complimentary Drink” coupon for Southwest Airlines for my flight home. My son travels a lot for his job so I suspect, living in Denver, he has a shoebox full of those coupons.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

I flew home on Sunday and made Michael drop me off at the airport more than two hours in advance. The last time I departed from the Denver Airport it was a horrible experience. I arrived almost an hour and half before the departure time but security was such a nightmare I almost missed my flight.

Not having flown Southwest all that much, I paid an extra $12 this time for “Early Bird Check-in.” When I arrived at the airport Sunday morning lines were non-existent. I printed out my boarding pass and checked in my luggage in less than 10 minutes. When I arrived at security a TSA agent told me I had “TSA Pre-Approved” check-in. I was through it in five minutes or less.

I headed towards my gate but – with over an hour to kill – stopped at the food court in the terminal to enjoy a breakfast burrito (a staple in Denver) and a large coffee while reading the Sunday newspaper on the airport’s free Wi-Fi. I was so unrushed and relaxed that suddenly I realized my flight was about to board. I hustled to Gate C-26 where to my horror the A group had already boarded. I was positioned at A 40. I jumped in right before the B group and managed to grab that aisle seat on the emergency exit row where there are only two seats.

Then I sat and watched passengers walk past me, wondering who my seat buddy was going to be for the next three hours. I spotted him was as soon as he entered the plane. He was 300-plus pounds but only 5-foot-8 and looked like a human bowling ball with a fuzzy tennis ball for a head. He was so large he walked down the aisle at an angle. Meanwhile I kept up this mantra because let’s face it, I’m not so petite myself: Please Don’t Sit HerePlease Don’t Sit HerePlease Don’t Sit Here

The moment of truth came when he stopped, eyed that seat and then said, while tossing his carry-on into the luggage rack overhead, “excuse me.” We never battled over the arm rest because after he sat down, I never saw it again.

Southwest3That’s when I decided I was going to cash-in that coupon. By the time the stewardess arrived for our refreshment order it was after 11 a.m. in Denver, past noon in Chicago and 1:10 p.m. in Detroit. Or as Jimmy Buffet once sang in a song: go ahead and have a drink, it’s five o’clock somewhere.

Still, I felt sheepish and a little self-conscious so I held up the coupon and said “my son gave this to me for my birthday and said I had to use it today.” Which was all true, I just neglected to tell her my actual birthday was a week ago.

The stewardess suddenly smiled and told me to put that coupon back in my wallet, this birthday drink was on Southwest. I should have been tip off when she asked me my name and wrote it down but when she returned with my coffee, bloody Mary, a tiny bag of peanuts and a small bag of cheese nips, well, it was the closest I’ll ever come to having a free Sunday brunch on an airline.

The rest of the flight was uneventful which meant there was no turbulence, my row buddy turned out to be a really nice guy (though I’ve had less physical contact with some of my ex-girlfriends than I did in a three-hour flight with him) and the babies around us were either happy or sleeping.

When the plane touched down in Detroit Metro, the stewardess welcomed us to Detroit, gave us the local time, the gate we were arriving at and then said “today is the birthday of Jim in 11C, let’s all sing him Happy Birthday!”

To my shock, everybody in front of me and around me turned around, looked at me and began singing. I could have died.  Even when we were disembarking, people were wishing me a happy birthday and the guy across the aisle gave me his unopened bag of peanuts.

I was so embarrassed I ran off that flight, ducked into the first restroom I came to and hid in stall number eight until I was pretty sure everybody else was already at the luggage carousal.

But by the time I drove home I had come to two conclusions. I chalked up the free coupon and the singing as one of the best Unbirthdays (remember Alice in Wonderland?) I ever had. Why feel guilty about it?

That and Southwest is the only way to fly.

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Shaving a Mile Off a Day’s Hike

The new Manistee River Trail and Hoist Lake Foot Travel Area maps from MichiganTrailMaps.com

The new Manistee River Trail and Hoist Lake Foot Travel Area maps from MichiganTrailMaps.com

In our latest Trail Mix e-Newsletter, Jim DuFresne pondered how far he’s willing to go to shave a mile from a day’s hike (with a backpack on no less). It drew considerable response so we’re reprinting that portion of the newsletter as a Trail Talk blog. It’s for those of you who haven’t gotten around to subscribing to our wonderful e-newsletter.

Don’t forget MichiganTrailMaps.com just released another new map, the second edition of the Manistee River Trail, a 23-mile loop that includes a portion of the North Country Trail. The new map is totally updated and more detailed than ever and comes a month after the release of our Hoist Lakes & Reid Lakes Foot Travel Areas map. You can order either or both through our eshop.

By Jim DuFresne

Judging from the boot prints in the mud, I wasn’t the only one who debated and then decided to take a chance on the Jordan River Pathway.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

The dilemma was whether to take the new reroute around the wetlands – an uphill climb that added 0.8 miles to first-day trek to Pinney Bridge Campground – or stick with the original trail and see if I could make it without sinking up to my knees in marsh mud.

Clip a mile from the hike? I’ll take my chances on the old boardwalk in the wetlands.

This backpacker’s paradox is the result of over-active beavers and a damaged foot bridge. When the bridge went out in 2014 the DNR quickly posted a detour around the area. After descending almost 400 feet from Deadman’s Hill Trailhead, hikers had to re-climb the ridge via the 3-mile loop spur and then descend it again.

That was a lot of elevation just to keep your boots dry.

A hiker crossing the old boardwalk along the Jordan River Pathway.

A hiker crossing the old boardwalk along the Jordan River Pathway.

So last year the Jordan Valley 45° Chapter of the North Country Trail Association explored, marked and cut a new segment of trail to serve as a reroute around the hazardous wetlands. It’s a huge improvement over the detour. But you still have to climb a bit, about 100 feet, and it’s just enough to make some of us – especially those hauling frozen steaks and a box of wine in our pack – to pause and ponder the alternative.

The first time I took the reroute. The second time I chanced it.

Just a 100 yards past the 3-mile loop junction, the new trail splits off to the left. I picked up the original trail and entered the wetlands area. Nervously I might add.

You begin with two stretches of boardwalk and they seemed in relatively good shape. But along the second one you hike along the base of a huge beaver dam that towers four feet above the planking. Mother Nature’s little engineer been busy I thought. If that dam ever collapsed, the boardwalk would be impassible.

But it was holding up nicely. Thank you very much.

Fall colors along the Jordan River Pathway.

Fall colors along the Jordan River Pathway.

I pushed ahead and within a half mile from the junction I had arrived at the bridge. It was clearly damaged, complete with some yellow caution tape as if it was a crime scene for a doomed backpacker. The first two spans partially collapsed into a V, just inches above the sluggish stream the bridge crosses. But they seemed stabled as I tiptoed my way across.

It was the third one that was wobbly. It wiggled so much that halfway across I had one of those moments where I froze, not knowing whether to continue or retreat. I slowly crossed but was ready with my walking staff extended in case I suddenly found myself in the stream.

I made it to the other side with clean boots and socks but am not sure if I would do it again. I suppose you could ford the stream but it looks like a boot-sucking quagmire where you’d be up to your knees before you knew it.

Someday the bridge will simply collapse or be removed due to liability concerns. In that case the reroute is a fine replacement.

But until then, as the boot prints clearly indicate, there will be backpackers asking themselves that eternal Clint Eastwood line from his Dirty Harry movie.

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky today?”

For a map of the new Jordan River Reroute go to our web page on the Jordan River Pathway.

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Art Neumann: For the Love of Trout

Art Neumann, a founding father of Trout Unlimited that was established on the banks of the AuSable River in 1959, died last week at the age of 99. Even if you’re not a fly fisherman, you should give thanks to one of Michigan’s greatest environmentalists, who dedicated his life to cold, clear streams and fish that were truly wild. In this Trail Talk, Jim DuFresne writes about his most memorial evening with Art Neumann.

FinalCoverMichiganTrailMaps.com is proud to announce the release of Jim DuFresne’s newest guidebook; The Trails of M-22. The full-color, 192-page book focuses on 40 of the most beautiful paths that are accessed from what many consider Michigan’s most beautiful highway.  The 116-mile state highway, that wraps around Michigan’s little pinky like a glove, passes through the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the state’s most popular national park, and serves as the gateway to more than two-dozen preserves protected by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy in Benzie County and the Leelanau Conservancy in Leelanau County as well as state parks and rail-trails.

Featuring outstanding photography and more than 40 full-color maps, The Trails of M-22 is $19.95 and can be purchased online from the MichiganTrailMaps.com eshop.

By Jim DuFresne

Art Neumann, one of the original founders of Trout Unlimited, was rambling down the road near Selkirk when he suddenly applied the brakes and did a double take at the side of the road. “Good lord look at that,” Neumann said. I looked, but all I saw was an open gate.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

But what is simply an open gate to one person is an invitation to Neumann. “That’s my old access,” he said. “I’m going in and play ambassador.”

There are those who say nobody knows Michigan trout streams better than this Saginaw angler, and there is probably no stretch of water Neumann loved more dearly than the Rifle River. He could have caught more trout in the Holy Water of the Au Sable or bigger trout in its South Branch, but it’s the Rifle where Neumann as a youth mastered the rudiments of fly fishing and eventually came to appreciate everything that a trout symbolizes.

Of all the holes and pools within this river, this is the one stretch Neumann liked to fish most. And he did until he lost his access to the water when the cottage owners he knew either died or moved away. But that evening the gate was open.

Neumann turned down the dusty dirt road and stopped at the first cottage. “There is a good pool just downstream from here,” he said, but nobody was home. So he drove to the next one, and I watched him enter a beautiful log cabin where he played ambassador for at least ten minutes. I wasn’t inside, but I could just hear Neumann tell the owners about the days when the Rifle was a top trout stream, or how Trout Unlimited was formed, or how he served as TU’s first executive director. And when he finally stepped outside and had a little spring in his step, I knew this master fly angler had received what he so dearly possessed in the past.

Permission to fish.

“Were they fly anglers?” I asked.

“Nah, they just dangle a worm once in a while,” Neumann said. “But when I get home I’ll send them some flies and an instruction book. That’ll get ’em started.”

Art Neumann, a founding father of Trout Unlimited, fishing on the Rifle River.

Art Neumann, a founding father of Trout Unlimited, fishing on the Rifle River.

We drove down to a spot on the river, stepped out of the car, and walked past the trunk filled with our gear. Neumann, who had fished this river since the 1930s, first just wanted to see the Rifle flow through his favorite stretch.  It was a thing of beauty, then and now. “It’s pretty clear,” said Neumann as we stood on the bank watching a few trout rise upstream. “I caught a 20-inch brown in a pool around that bend once.”

When Neumann finally did open his trunk, I discovered I’d grabbed the wrong metal tube at home and now had my eight-weight rod when what I needed was a five-weight. It might have been a problem any other time, but not with Neumann.

Always somebody who was dabbling in reel repair and rod refinishing,  in 1948 Neumann converted his garage in Saginaw into the Wanigas Rod Company, where he built his fiberglass fly rods and sold only the flies and equipment you truly needed to catch a trout in Michigan. For the next 42 years that shop, which had enough room inside for only three customers, two if they walked in wearing vests and waders, was the pulpit from which Neumann preached what was then a revolutionary concept: catch and release. You catch a trout, you put it back. The trout is then there to catch again. Neumann like that concept, preserving the resource for what he really enjoyed: catching trout on a fly.

What I discovered that night on the Rifle was when your fishing partner is a rod builder; you’ll never lack a rod. Neumann unzipped a black case that held almost a dozen of them and selected one for me, a fiberglass rod he had built years ago. “I’m going to spoil you with this one,” he said.

Next he gave me a leader, a Neumann 60-20-20, after he saw the knotless leader tied to my line and lectured me on the benefits of tying your own. And then just before we split, with him heading downstream to try and find that 20-inch brown again and me upstream, he gave me a few flies. “Not much is hatching right now,” he said. “Try the pale blue dun.”

A wild brown trout.

A wild brown trout.

I did, and the first fish I caught was so small I couldn’t tell what it was. But half an hour later I floated that fly over a dissipating ring, and the fish returned to take it. It jumped three times before I gently lifted the eight-inch brown trout out of the water.

It wasn’t another 20 minutes later when the current took that fly, swept it along the bank, and gave me my hardest strike of the evening, almost catching me off guard. But not quite. I kept the tip up, working the fish away from the brush along the shore and into the middle of the river.

The trout never jumped, but there was little question it was large. When it finally tired and came to the surface I saw the largest brown I had ever caught on a fly in Michigan in the short time I had been fly fishing. It was 15 inches long with a band of reddish dots along the side. I marveled at the fact that I caught it in a river I never expected to catch such a fish.

Then again maybe I didn’t catch it. I was using an Art Neumann rod with a leader he tied and flies he selected. And I was fishing in his river. Knowing all this, I gently took the hook out and watched the trout return to the depths from which it came.

It was, after all, Art’s fish.

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When a Trail Closes We All Lose

Hiking-Trail-Closed-SignA couple of snowmobile trails were closed this winter due to misbehavior by snowmobilers using them. What do you care, you’ve never been on a snowmobile in your life. But you should as it’s another reminder that our wonderful trail systems in Michigan are often fragile networks.

To find a ski trail for a late winter escape go to MichiganTrailMaps.com or its special Nordic coverage of great groomed tracks.

By Jim DuFresne

It could have been a single snowmobiler or it could have been a caravan of a dozen or more. It could have been a single incident or something that happens repeatedly throughout the winter. We’ll probably never know.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

What we do know is that Trail No. 4 is closed for the rest of the winter and who knows when it will reopen. In one of the most popular snowmobiling region of the Lower Peninsula, Trail No. 4 was a vital link between East Jordan to Charlevoix but in early January, it was quickly shut down with no public debate or advance notice.

Trail No. 4 was a mix of seasonal county roads, road rights-of-ways and trails across private land. When somebody or some group of snowmobilers left the designated route and ran at will through woods and fields or maybe did a little hill climbing, property owners pulled the plug on their segment which in turn closed down a nearly 20-mile trail. Or as the Michigan DNR so delicately put it: “Permissions were rescinded this year by the land owners, who felt the snowmobiling public did not respect land owners’ wishes regarding land access and use.”

Snowmobilers following a trail in Benzie County.

Snowmobilers following a trail through the woods in Benzie County.

With more than 6,200 miles Michigan has one of the most extensive systems of interconnected snowmobile trails in country. But let’s not kid ourselves; it’s an extremely fragile network built on handshakes because half of it is located on private land. Leave the posted trail and race through an orchard today because the freshly fallen, unmarred snow is too inviting not to and tomorrow that trail might be closed.

This has been a longtime problem with snowmobilers because of the tradition of bar-hopping and drinking while riding. The problem has been improved over the years thanks to stiffer laws that hit snowmobilers with a DUI charge when they are caught drunk and an educational push by the Michigan Snowmobile Association to separate the two activities. Still Trail No. 4 wasn’t the only one closed this winter. Trail No. 768 that connects Mancelona to the Starvation Lake area in Antrim County was also shut down for similar reasons.

Nor are the challenges to build and maintain a network of trails unique to snowmobilers. As much as we’d like to think a trail is permanent, it often isn’t.

The most popular preserve that the Leelanau Conservancy maintains is Whaleback Natural Area, a 40-acre tract located just south of Leland. Whaleback is a 300-foot bluff that rises above Lake Michigan and offers spectacular views of the Manitou Passage, especially at sunset. But from the trailhead the access trail passes through private property for a third of a mile before officially entering the preserve.

Entering Whaleback Natural Area.

Entering Whaleback Natural Area.

Access is allowed through the kindness of the surrounding property owners.  And so far trail users have done what trail signs ask them to; Stay On The Trail! But the situation is hardly permanent and Whaleback might be only a couple of bad incidents away from becoming an isolated preserve that nobody can reach.

Sometimes it’s not a trail that closes. In the late 1980s, I skied or hiked Merriman East Pathway every time I was in Iron Mountain. The 9-mile state forest pathway was a beautiful mix of heavily forested terrain embedded with large rock outcroppings. Then the timber rights were sold to a logging company and what replaced much of the forests was clearcuts. I was sickened when I returned unknowingly the first time and later was told “the trees will grow back.”

Sure, but not in my lifetime. The trail is still there, it was everything else that changed.

Sometimes trail conflict is the fault of misbehavior on the part of trail users. Whether it’s a snowmobiler blasting through a farm field or hikers littering the woods with water bottles and Powerbar wrappers.

And sometimes it’s not.

Michigan’s newest path is already one of our most popular trails; the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail. The 27-mile trail that extends from Empire to Glen Arbor and beyond is a massive $12 million project that has been opening in segments since 2012. But the National Park Service and trail organizers have run into a road block for a 5.2-mile stretch that would wind past Little Traverse Lake east of Glen Arbor.

Even though the trail would be on national lakeshore land north of the lake, residents with seasonal cottages and homes along the lakeshore have opposed it. Vehemently.  They are fighting any trail passing through their area, whether it’s on public land or not. It’s the classic not-in-my-backyard stance because they don’t want to share their slice of northern Michigan with cyclists, hikers or skiers in the winter. Or probably anybody else.

The issue has landed in court because these are not little log cabins along the lake, rather half-million dollar cottages, whose owners have the money, political connections or whatever to force lawyers for the National Park Service and Department of Interior to begin the long process of gathering documents and preparing for the lawsuit. Who knows when that segment of the Heritage Trail will ever get built?

Trails are not a right because you pay taxes, not like clean water, public safety or functional schools. Trails are something you nurture, build and then fight like hell to protect.

That means the future of trails falls squarely on those of us who use them. Trail users need to know that you have to behave responsibly when using trails. That you have to support the groups responsible for building them; whether it’s TART, Inc., North Country Trail Association, Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance or whoever,  by becoming a member or sending them an end-of-the-year donation or joining their volunteer work parties.

And even then you should still be ready to give again when you use a trail in the form of a park pass or a donation at the trailhead.

Trails are not free even when you don’t have to pay. But the alternative could be that the trail you love today is gone tomorrow.

What’s that trail worth then?

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A First Timer’s Guide To Snowshoeing

When it snows – and it will snow sometime this winter – maybe this is the year you give snowshoes a try. If so, here’s our primer for anybody stepping into a pair of rug beaters for the first time.

For suggestions as to where to go snowshoeing, check out MichiganTrailMaps.com where more than 200 trails have been covered and mapped.

By Jim DuFresne

I took Patty Zwers snowshoeing for the first time because I was the one who took her cross country skiing for the first time. She thought Nordic skiing was interesting but I could see from the beginning it wasn’t her sport.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

Too much slipping and sliding.

But Zwers loves winter, loves a fresh snowfall, loves being in the woods so I borrowed a pair of rug beaters and introduced her to a new sport. She fell in love with snowshoeing immediately.

Within minutes of arriving at Saugatuck State Park, she had her snowshoes on and was strolling through the woods. “Who would have ever thought walking on tennis rackets could be so easy?” Zwers said.

Then she fell.

She crossed her tails and entangled the crampons of one shoe into the decking of the other, effectively tying her feet together, and it sent her face first into the deep power. “Whoa! Spoke too soon!” she said laughing.

But then Zwers discovered another nice aspect of the sport; a spill while snowshoeing is not half the disaster it is when skiing because getting up is twice as easy.

She’s not the only one to stumble on that.

According to Outdoor Industry of America, the number of people who snowshoe has almost doubled since 2008, making it the country’s fastest-growing winter sport. In 2012, almost 4.1 million people snowshoed, 44 percent of them women.

Is it time for you to don a pair of snowshoes for the first time. Once you tried the sport, it’s easy to understand its growing popularity:

Patty Zwers snowshoes in Saugatuck State Park.

Patty Zwers hits the trail with snowshoes in Saugatuck State Park.

Better equipment: There is no comparison between the wood-and-rawhide models I strapped on in the 1980s and the pairs I use now. Utilizing synthetic decking and aluminum tube frames, my models are lighter to walk in and provide greater floatation on the snow. Crampons on the bottom – there are two sets on each shoe – allows me to climb, descend and traverse the steepest slopes with little or no slippage.

Utilizing synthetic decking and aluminum tube frames, my models are lighter to walk in and provide greater floatation on the snow. Crampons on the bottom – there are two sets on each shoe – allows me to climb, descend and traverse the steepest slopes with little or no slippage.

Rotating bindings use metal rods under the balls of my feet to allow my boots to pivot up to 90 degrees for a more natural stride. The bindings also cause the tails of my shoes to fall away as I raise my leg, shedding snow off them and reducing leg fatigue.Even the price – most snowshoes range from $130 to $260 a pair – is less than what I paid for Nordic or downhill skis.

Even the price – most snowshoes range from $150 to $280 a pair – is less than what I paid for Nordic or downhill skis.

Easier To Use: The best improvement of snowshoes in the past few years has been the ease of putting them on. No more wrapping long laces around your boots with icy fingers. On many models, you step into the bindings and simply tighten them with ratcheting straps on top and behind the boot.

Saugatuck State Park's scenic Lake Michigan shoreline during the winter.

Saugatuck State Park’s scenic Lake Michigan shoreline during the winter.

Greater Availability: Due to their booming popularity, any place that was selling or renting skis a decade ago are probably also stocking snowshoes today.

You can now rent snowshoes from many ski resorts, outdoor shops and nature centers. Places like Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville and Nub’s Nob in Harbor Springs even maintain special snowshoe trails. So does Forbush Corner, a Nordic center south of Gaylord.

Many parks offer guided snowshoe walks on the weekends and have a limited number pairs available for rent. Parks include Ludington State Park (231-843-2423), Hoffmaster State Park (231-798-3711), Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (231-326-4700), Hemlock Crossing, an Ottawa County park (616-786-4847) and Meridian Township’s Harris Nature Center (517-349-3866).

Quicker To Master: The main attraction of snowshoeing has never changed; it’s easy to learn. Unlike like snowboarding or skate skiing, anybody can step into a pair of shoes and within minutes be confidently trekking through the winter woods.

In snowshoeing it’s important to keep a wider stance and a slightly longer stride than normal to prevent stepping on top of one snowshoe with the other. During ascents, kick your snowshoe into the slope and step down to maximize the grip of the toe crampon under your boot. When going downhill, maintain balance by leaning back on the heal section.

That’s pretty much it.

It Burns Lots Of Calories: When ski poles are added, snowshoeing becomes a great way of cross training, a low impact exercise that combines an aerobic workout with strength training.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a male would burn almost 700 calories an hour snowshoeing, women usually more than 500. In comparison, most people burn less than 300 calories an hour walking at a pace of 3 mph.

It’s Fun: For all its benefits – low cost, low impact, easy to do –  many people take up the sport because it’s simply enjoyable. Snowshoeing is an uncomplicated way to get outside and into the woods during a long, snowy winter like this one.

One trek through the woods to the frozen shoreline of Lake Michigan at Saugatuck State Park and Zwers was hooked.

“It’s so quiet,” she said as we headed back. “That’s what I really love that about snowshoeing in the winter.”

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Debt Repaid: Touring the House of Waterford Crystal

Jim DuFresne just returned from a trip to Ireland and wrote this Trail Talk blog about touring the House of Waterford Crystal. What the …!!! Has the main blogger for MichiganTrailMaps.com, an avid fly fisherman, hiker and camper, gone soft on us? You read the blog and decide.

By Jim DuFresne

During a recent trip to Ireland with my wife I had to pay for the week I spent fly fishing in Colorado this summer. I had to spend a day looking at glasses, bowls, vases and dishware.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

“Your debt is due,” she said cheerfully and off we went to Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city that celebrated its 1100th anniversary last year. But it wasn’t medieval history my wife cared about. This was a pilgrimage to the House of Waterford Crystal to pay homage to world’s best-known maker of flutes, decanters and paper weights.

For my wife, and maybe women everywhere, it’s nothing short of a religious experience.

We began with the factory tour where I quickly learned that crystal is basically glass with lead in it.  Almost a third of every Waterford piece is lead which gives the crystal its sparkle, silvery white brilliance and hardness, leaded glass so hard that it can be cut and etched into intricate designs.

Waterford didn’t invent crystal, brothers George and William Penrose simply took it to an art form when they founded the Waterford Glass House in 1783.  But after 70 years the glass-making factory was closed due to a lack of capitalization and a new luxury tax imposed by London. In 1947, Waterford Crystal was re-established but since then its history has been riddled with bankruptcies and changes of owners, few of them Irish. Ironically, the pride of Ireland was owned by an American investment firm until last July when it was sold to Fiskars Corporation, a Finnish metalwork company.

Waterford Crystal glassware, the finest crystal in the world.

Waterford Crystal glassware, some of the finest crystal in the world.

What hasn’t changed is the way Waterford makes its crystal. The process still begins with workers carving wooden molds that are used to shape hand blown molten crystal. We saw a table full of them at the beginning of the tour; one had Justin Timberlake’s name on it and is used to mold the trophy the singer gives away every year at his charity golf tournament.

It’s the only thing Timberlake and I have in common. We’ve both been to the House of Waterford Crystal.

We then moved into the blowing room where we could see the red-hot molten crystal take shape and miraculously transformed into delicate glassware. Our tour guide said every piece is carefully examined and the imperfect ones aren’t sent to the Birch Run outlet mall, they’re destroyed. To prove her point she offered anybody an opportunity to break an imperfect piece of Waterford Crystal.

A worker blows molten crystal into a vase at House of Waterford.

A worker blows molten crystal into a vase at House of Waterford Crystal.

It was the high point of the tour for most of the husbands. We stepped up, donned a pair of safety glasses and then did something our wives would probably leave us if we ever did it at home. We picked up a piece of Waterford crystal – a large Margarita-looking glass – and threw it as hard as we could into a wooden box where it smashed into a thousand pieces.

It felt great.

The other highlight was learning about all the sport trophies Waterford Crystal is responsible for; among them Formula One’s French and German Grand Prix, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the Players Championship that offers the largest purse of any PGA tournament and the bat-and-ball trophy that was presented to Derek Jeter in his final game at Yankee Stadium last September.

Waterford also makes the trophies for the People’s Choice Awards and the 2,688 crystals that cover New Year’s Eve ball dropped every year in Times Square. But what really excited most of the husbands was the trophy for college football’s 2012 BCS National Championship. Waterford made several of them and it’s a good thing they did. Alabama won it that year and during the post-game celebration it slipped out of the hands of a player’s father. Like that large Margarita glass, it broke into a thousand pieces.

Jim DuFresne holds up the BCS College Football trophy.

Jim DuFresne holds up the BCS College Football trophy. Is he practicing for when Michigan State wins the national championship?

The company immediately sent the Crimson Tide another crystal football but still had one leftover for the tour. When this loyal Spartan held it over his head as if Michigan State had just won the gridiron championship it felt great. Take that Nick Saban.

The tour ended with us passing directly from the factory into the world’s largest shop of Waterford Crystal. There was so much sparkle and light it was like entering the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

The wives immediately scattered to every corner of the store. The men just huddled in the center, often in groups of three or four with their backs to each other as if they were part of Custer’s Last Stand, knowing they were about to get scalped.

I asked a saleswoman what they do when a clumsy husband breaks a piece of crystal in the store. “We sweep it up,” she said. Amazingly there’s no If-You-Break-It-You-Own-It policy at the House of Waterford.

After 10 minutes of looking at $400 crystal ice buckets (with tongs), martini glasses ($225 for a pair) and a Cliffs of Moher 13-inch vase (only $700), I realized I had broken into a cold sweat and was beginning to hyperventilate.

I left and went into the Crystal Café to calm my anxiety with a cup of tea. When the saleswoman appeared on her break I told her that my wife had been in the store for 45 minutes.

“Should I be worried?”

“Aww, no, not at all,” she said with a smile and that Irish twinkle in her eyes that you fall in love with the minute you land in the country. “She’s just getting warmed up.”

I may never be able to afford to go fly fishing again.


Posted in Jim DuFresne's Trail Talk Blog, Personal Journey, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Way to Adventure

Sometimes how you get to the trailhead is almost as exciting as the hike itself. In this Trail Talk blog entry Jim DuFresne says that Colorado has nothing on Michigan in terms of exhilarating entries into the backcountry.

If you’re hoping to squeeze in one more hike or backpacking adventure before the end of summer, we have some suggestions for you. Actually we have more than 200 with downloadable maps at MichiganTrailMaps.com.

By Jim DuFresne

When my son announced last year that he and his wife were moving to Denver I asked what does Colorado have that Michigan doesn’t? He didn’t hesitate with the answer and he didn’t need many words.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne


“Okay, I’ll give you that,” I said. “But you’ll be back because we have something they don’t have; lots of water.”

I’m hoping Michael and Melissa might still return to Michigan someday. Meanwhile I have been to Denver three times already and discovered an intriguing and vibrant city.  With its cowboy roots and its hip reputation, this city of 650,000 seems to be constantly on the go. During the day every other car is topped with mountain bikes or skis or stuffed with backpacks. At night its legendary microbrews are bustling. The REI downtown is three sprawling floors of the latest equipment that will satisfy even the most addicted gear junky. There are always people out jogging with their dogs in this dog-loving city.

But the best thing to do in Denver is to leave it.

Mt. Princeton, one of Colorado's 58 fourteeners, peaks more than 14,000 feet high.

Mt. Princeton, one of Colorado’s 58 fourteeners, peaks more than 14,000 feet high.

Nothing inspires the desire to head outdoors like staring at those mountains to the west. And once an adventure has been organized, the drive across the Rockies sets the tone and ignites your passion for what lies ahead.

For me it was five days of fly fishing on the Arkansas River. Within 20 minutes of leaving the Mile High City I was winding through the foothills of the Rockies, passing places like Turkey Creek Canyon and Burning Bear Creek. At almost every bend there was a “Falling Rocks!” sign or others warning me of possible encounters with elk, mountain sheep or antelope.

Within an hour I could see one of Colorado’s famous fourteeners, a 14,000-foot peak rising distinctly above everything else, covered with alpine meadows and, in the second week of August, patches of snow. Less than two hours after leaving Denver I was at the apex of my drive, a pullover at Kenosha Pass, where at 10,001 feet I was standing at spot more than five times higher than any place in Michigan.

By the time I reached Buena Vista, the gateway for my fly fishing adventure, I was geeked. How could you not be?

I’ve experienced exhilarating entries into the backcountry before with one of the most unusual being in Alaska. In some small Southeast Alaskan town I’d board a floatplane stuffed with gear and Klepper kayaks that would rumble and roar across the water before finally getting airborne. Then it would take me high over mountains and glaciers where everything below was tiny and small even a humpback whale breaching. After we finally landed at some remote inlet and unloaded, I would watch that small plane disappear into the mountains, knowing then I was truly out there and on my own.

The Ranger III pulling into Rock Harbor at Isle Royale National Park.

The Ranger III from Houghton pulling into Rock Harbor at Isle Royale National Park.

But even here in Michigan, the land without mountains, you can kick off an adventure with a rush of adrenalin. To many of us the Upper Peninsula is the best destination for wilderness outings and driving across the Mackinac Bridge, seeing that remote slice of Michigan spread out below, sends a jolt of excitement through us that lasts all the way to Munising.

Even better is boarding a ferry to Isle Royale National Park from Houghton or Copper Harbor. When the boats enter the open waters of Lake Superior all you can see for the next few hours, other than seagulls or an occasional passing freighter, is the lake itself. On a cloudless day everything is blue.

Backpackers will stand next to the railing, mesmerized by the overwhelming size of the world’s largest body of fresh water, when suddenly sharp eyes will spot a thin dark line on the horizon. Soon everybody is out on the deck and excitement builds as that green line slowly becomes a rocky shoreline of towering pines.

When the boats finally pull into Rock Harbor everybody already has a keen sense of the solitude and isolation that is this roadless wilderness. It’s the only way to arrive at a trailhead and the best way to begin an adventure.

Any adventure whether there are mountains or not.

Posted in Alaska Adventure, Backpacking, Colorado adventures, Isle Royale National Park, Upper Peninsula Adventure | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments