On the morning of Friday, June 21, I embarked on the risky journey of meeting a group of strangers I’ve never met before and spending the weekend with them on an island with few signs of life, including no electricity or vehicles of any sort. The supplies needed for the trip were securely stored in the backpack upon my back: a Granite Gear Lutsen 45 weighing about 30 pounds.
As mentioned in my introduction to this blog, I’ve had no experience with backpacking before. I decided to join the Fox Cities Backpackers to help prepare me for my adventures. The Fox Cities Backpackers are a group dedicated to setting up backpacking trips, sharing backpacking ideas, discussing gear, and socializing with other backpackers. They even have a ranking system acquitted to each trip to clarify the difficulty and which members can attend based on their past experiences with backpacking.
To prepare for my first trip to Rock Island, I made a post on their Facebook page asking for advice on what to bring. I was linked to a PDF created by an administrator of the group with pages of information on what to expect and what to bring. The list of things to bring was divided into categories of backpack, shelter, sleeping bag and pad, boots, clothing, hydration, kitchen, food, emergency and first-aid, and camp stuff. Within each category, the document described what to look for for each item and suggested brands and products. It even ended with two lists of products for each item with the price to fully prepare me for trips with the group.
I immediately started shopping online for backpacking gear. Newsflash: it’s expensive! Luckily, I had lots of money saved for the adventures I’ve had planned this summer and knew these products would be needed for them. I first shopped at REI for a backpack and also found a backpacking bundle including a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. About $600 later I found everything suggested for backpacking by the group being shipped to me by REI, Amazon, and Scheels. They included an MSR MiniWorks water filter, Jetboil MightyMo stove, Darn Tough hiker socks, Black Diamond Storm headlamp, a Gerber knife and multi-tool, and a first aid kit.
As the trip came closer and closer, I started feeling nervous that I didn’t have everything I needed. Luckily, someone from the comments section of my Facebook post named Dan reached out to me to see if I had everything I needed. We started talking and he offered to come by my house before the trip to go over my backpack. The week before the trip he came over and it turned out that I was missing a few things. He was super nice and helpful, being a veteran and having experienced long expeditions with the army. It was also his first time on a trip with the group and it made me feel less alone. He even offered to carpool to the event, which I took up, meeting him in Green Bay. I went to Walmart before the trip to get the last few things I needed: an eating utensil, a compass, some rope to hang my food, and some freeze-dried meals.
On the day of the trip, I woke up at 7:30 to meet Dan in Green Bay for 9 a.m. We then traveled in his car to the Northport ferry in Door County to take us to Washington Island. The drive was filled with easy conversation about backpacking and getting to know each other, breaking the ice before the long weekend we had together. The ferry ride to Washington Island provided beautiful views of the outside of the island from a high, moving vantage point. It was amazing to see a place so untouched by man. When we got to the island, we visited a lookout tower and took some pictures (seen below) and then we had lunch at a Nelson’s Hall where we also signed up for the bitters club (I wouldn’t recommend bitters). From there we took the 2 p.m. ferry to Rock Island.
When we arrived at Rock Island, we met two other members of the Fox Cities Backpackers, one of them also a newcomer to the group. We took off to the campsite and set up our tents. I felt a little embarrassed with the time and struggles it took for me to set up my tent but luckily the group wasn’t judgmental and helped me find a good place to set up fort. The rest of the first day was spent relaxing on the beach and exploring the main part of the island as tourists until more members of the group showed up. By the end of the day we had 11 members, two of which were from foreign countries: one from South Africa and another from England.
Now, it should be known that backpacking is all about survival and carrying only the essentials on your back, leaving little room for entertainment accessories. This trip was not like that at all. As a first time backpacker, it made for a great introduction to the potentials of an extreme backpacking trip. Some things that made the experience easy were: pit toilets near our campsite, a lack of wild animals on the island, and, most significantly, a geocaching group camping on the island with a cosmic amount of food and supplies and ties to the backpacking group. Let’s just say the first night didn’t end with going to bed early; instead, two other members of the backpacking group and I spent the evening partying with the geocaching group.
Prior to the trip, I was also told that this backpacking group was made up of drinkers; that was an understatement. The geocaching group definitely knew how to party. Their campsite was overloaded with “supplies,” including multiple coolers, about 20 tents, lawn chairs, etc. The majority of their items were food and alcohol. The first night with the geocaching group was spent sitting around the campfire where one of the most experienced members of the group went around giving out samples of beers and liquors while explaining what each item was. Another member sampled high-end meats and cheeses. One of the first things I noticed when meeting other members of the backpacking group was that I under-packed on food, this geocaching group stuffed my stomach. By the end of the night, the other two backpackers and I shared so many goofy experiences that we had a long list of inside jokes that were brought up for the rest of the weekend.
We returned to the backpacking campsite in a drunken daze, making the sleeping pad and sleeping bag that was my bed, feel like a memory foam king size mattress. You’d think I’d sleep soundly after a night like this, but I woke up many times to the cold. I slept in only basketball shorts and a t-shirt, a mistake.
In the itinerary listed on the event page for this trip, it said that Saturday would be spent hiking up to eight miles. I got up around 9 the next morning and quickly packed my tent and supplies into my backpack to prepare for the day of hiking. After dismantling my gear the day before, re-assembling was quick and easy because I knew exactly where to pack everything in my bag. We took off on the hike after breakfast around 10 a.m.
The trails on Rock Island were pretty rough with 30 pounds on your back. Hills were hell. It took a lot of adjusting of the straps on my bag to finally feel somewhat comfortable. About halfway across the circumference of the island was a lighthouse where we stopped to take a tour. The tour was hosted by two volunteers who spent the weekend in the lighthouse. Our group was even able to go up into the lighthouse in smaller groups, see the picture below.
After the tour, we took a short break for lunch and started on the second half of our hike. After the first big hill, I was out of breath and knew I’d face extreme soreness in the upcoming days. Honestly, for a lazy youngin like me, I felt healthy(ish) and accomplished. We only hiked four of the eight miles explained in the itinerary but it was more than enough for me to realize, even with the soreness that followed, that I had the strength to hike eight miles in a day with my backpack on. When we got back to the main part of the island, half of our group went off and hiked some more and the others went back to our campsites to rest. I went back to rest.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing and socializing with the rest of the group. By this point I knew everyone’s names and it was getting to the point where we didn’t know what to talk about, so we were comfortable in silence. I spent a few hours on the beach, soaking up the sun. The weather for the weekend turned out perfect — about 75 degrees with low humidity and mostly sunny. For the evening, I played catch with a frisbee and two other backpackers. We ate dinner around a campfire once it got dark out. Before bed, I may or may not have paid a visit to the geocaching group for another wild night. Before bed, I sat on the beach and looked at the stars. With no light pollution and a pitch black night, you could see almost every star in the sky.
I slept successfully the second night, wearing a sweatshirt, and long pants to stay warm. I woke up later than the rest of the group and had to rush to pack up my things so as to not feel embarrassed (whoops). It was kind of sad knowing we would be heading our separate ways in a few hours. We took the first ferry off of Rock Island and met for lunch at a drive-in before saying our painful goodbyes.
Overall, the Fox Cities Backpackers provided a safe and social experience for my introverted self. The diverse backpacking background of the members taught me a lot about the outdoor activity and prepared me for more intense backpacking trips. Without the help of this group, I wouldn’t have a specific list of the items I needed, been given a hands-on approach to surviving in the wild, or had such an easy trip-planning experience.
Looking back, the weekend went by fast. Everyone was exceptionally nice and open to new experiences and faces, making me want to attend another event sooner rather than later. This trip offered a great introduction to backpacking. It taught me what to bring, how much I could carry, how far I can hike, and ultimately, how to survive on my own.