Valentine’s Day can be stressful, am I right? Probably not for the reasons I’m about to share with you, but for people who think it should be some utterly romantic day full of balloons and flowers and heart shaped candy and/or chocolates and an overpriced (exorbitant, even) dinner and/or hotel room, shared with their significant other (really, every day with your partner should have some kind of delight to it; to save it up and spew it all out one or two days (anniversaries probably fall into this category as well?) a year is pretty ridiculous) it could set you up for a major letdown. Anyway, I’ve never cared about this particular day, regardless of whether I’ve been single or in a relationship, and this year was no different, it just makes the circumstances I found myself in a little extra.
Jack and I had decided to go to the Eben Ice Caves, which is a hike in the woods out to these stalactites and ice curtains, if you will, that are formed by melty water and snow freezing and building up as it flows over the edge of an overhang. I’d seen pictures of it and it looked pretty neat. Being a new arrival to the area and all, I’d not been there before, so didn’t really know what to expect, and I dressed in jeans and my winter boots. We talked about stopping to grab some ice cleats, but promptly managed to forget that as we headed out of town. Jack had told me a story at one point about taking his son there when he was little, and Jack was in dress shoes, so I really didn’t think anything of it.
After slightly more than an hour, we took a right onto the world’s slipperiest dirt road (it really was slick, since for several days earlier in the week the weather had been warm enough during the days to melt quite a bit of the snow, and then cold enough at night to re-freeze it…..if it’s gotten lost, this is foreshadowing for the climax of the today’s story), and after a few miles of that, ended up in what I would describe as a random parking lot in the middle of a field.
According to the sign posted, we were headed for 1.25 miles of wintery trail loveliness on our way to the caves. The first .75 miles was a charming stroll through the woods. It was the last half mile where things got….erm….interesting. Remember the little story I told of trying to go to Dead River Falls in Marquette last autumn? (If you need refreshing, it’s here: Blog Archives - How the Fork Did I Get Here?) Well this is similar, but more perilous in situation, albeit with a happier ending. At some point trail stopped being mostly flat-ish, and started becoming more, well, craggy-ish.
Let’s pop back to the word morsels earlier about the melt/refreeze situation that had happened on the dirt road. It also was happening on the trail, so the trail was straight ice. Even some of the people in their ice cleats were on the struggle bus of ascents and descents. And we were the only morons out that day without them. Now not only were there numerous ups and downs (and a couple of stream crossings that I managed to negotiate on my hands and knees - this time I could give a fuck if Jack was standing there laughing at me or not) to be traversed, there were also plenty of portions that had drops on one side or the other. I was happy to either slide down the trail on my ass (snow pants would be my recommendation vs. jeans for anyone interested) for the ones more resembling a luge, but when it came to areas where it looked like I was about to plummet to my death via gorge because there were no trees to break my fall and absofuckinglutely nothing to grab onto, I started getting shaky. Extra so when it came to scrambles (because there were many areas that I decided blazing my own trail seemed like the better option) that seemed more forgiving than the ice slide where I could get some traction in the snow for a portion, but at some points, the snow was so packed down again that I might as well have stayed on trail because there was no way to stomp anything down to get a fresh foot (or hand) grip.
This went on and on for far longer than it should take anyone to navigate half a mile, but the coup de grâce came about 30 yards from the finish line. I could SEE the freaking ice caves up the hill and ever so slightly around the corner as I was laying down on the side of the hill trying not to fall off. The trail was down and to the left of me, and there was nothing but icy packed snow all around me, and the only way to the caves was down the side of the cliff I was on and back onto the trail. While the Dead River Falls expedition included the precursor to a panic attack, the Ice Caves version was comprised of the full-blown variety. I could feel it coming, so I laid down, because at this point, my legs weren’t functioning properly. Jack could see what was happening, and that it was no longer a laughing matter, so he started climbing up the hill to try and accompany me down (his boots were at least a little better tractioned for the adventure, so I was truly the only one resembling a baby deer learning to walk).
Panic attacks, if you’ve never had one, can be quite scary. They can be quite scary even if you’ve had hundreds of them, but I remember my first panic attack quite clearly, which landed me in the emergency room. I was on my first tour stationed in Korea and it was the middle of the night, and I thought I might be dying since it felt like an elephant or seventeen was perched on my chest and I couldn’t breathe. Or stop crying for no reason. Or see. So to have this sensation creep up while on the side of an icy hill took it from comical to actual problem, since if I can’t see, or breathe, or move my legs, the frostbite was surely about to take over. If I didn’t fall to my certain death first. Luckily, or not depending on how you’re looking at your glass of water, I’ve had enough to know the precursors, and how to breathe w̶e̶l̶l̶ enough to get through it, so after a few minutes of breath regulation, I stopped snotting all over myself and semi pulled it together. At least enough so, that with Jack’s (that wonderful, patient human being) help, I was able to get off the hillside and up to the caves.
They were really cool, and we spent some time wandering around pretending we were on the set of Frozen, like Anna and Kristoff. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I remember which sister ended up with Kristoff. Or if either of them did? Maybe it was Elsa? But I feel like it was Anna, since she was the one who paid him to take her up the mountain to find her sister? It’s been a while. At any rate, that’s what I was doing; Jack was more likely just waiting for me to finish taking pictures and devising a plan of how to get me the hell back to the car in one piece and without any further mental breakdowns.
Luckily, the way back was less hazardous, and we managed to do it in half the time (after we waited for a grandpa in his ice cleats to shuffle up the last hill about 6 inches at a time, and then shove his granddaughter up a couple inches more, and then repeat the process 3 dozen or so times more, so that I could then slide down that hill without taking them off the side), probably because I was a seasoned professional at this point at navigating the snowy obstacle course by whatever unorthodox method I saw fit, which included ample time on my ass, my hands and knees, and/or Army-crawling. It did make me feel marginally better to see some people on the way back who had just stopped to wait for the rest of their group instead of traversing the last part, some of them even with cleats on.
For an added fun bonus, after a panic attack (for me personally…. I imagine there are a bunch of side effects that go along with it for people, but I have some staples for mine) I generally feel exhausted (which trekking uphill through portions of waist-deep snow didn’t help), nauseous with pounding headache, extremely extremely thirsty, and cold. So, you know, perfect for having had one in the frozen tundra of Alger County.
By the time we’d made it back to the car, I was soaked from the waist down, so I stripped down for the drive back. We had planned on stopping somewhere for a cocktail, however given the pants, or lack thereof, situation, went straight home. The thought of putting those soggy jeans back on gave me flashbacks to being in the gym in the summer and having to go to the bathroom halfway through HIIT class. Wearing tight pants (or any pants at all, in my book) is bad enough on a good day, but add some heat and humidity to go with intense workout sweat (or in this case, snow and ice melt to go with my intense stress sweat), and it becomes nearly unbearable to fight those bitches back on. I meant to say britches, but I like the slip of hand and will leave that there.
By the time we got back home, I’d had myself a little catnap and guzzled down two liters of water, leaving me refreshed enough to make our Valentine dinner (cucumber salad, salmon, and asparagus) and energized enough for kitchen dances (Mark Knopfler). So this, my friends, is my story of the perils of Valentine’s Day, and cautionary tale of items one might need when schlepping around the frozen north.
I hope your day was filled with all of the heart-shaped chocolates and/or diamonds that your cockles desired.