Not a Walk in the Park

Trip Start Aug 08, 2009
Trip End Aug 08, 2009

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Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Saturday, August 8, 2009

Getting lost in Banning State Park, Minnesota

Banning State Park is roughly 100 miles north of the Twin Cities, straight up I-35, and is very close to our cabin. We've never been there before, until yesterday.

Before beginning my story, I’d like to interject that the scenery in the park is beautiful, sometimes almost stunning, and is well worth a visit if you live in Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Visiting the park is Julie’s idea, as most of our adventures are. We check the website to make sure there is actually stuff to do (the disappointment of finding only three short loop trails at Hoh rainforest is still with us).  Looks like there are plenty of hiking opportunities, some of them right along the Kettle river.

Valinda drives. Since she lives up at the cabin now, we figure she should be the one to get the State Park Annual Pass sticker for her car. It costs $25.

First we stop for a picnic lunch. There’s an RV in the parking lot, and it sounds like it is running a generator. There are no people at any of the picnic tables near the RV, so they must be inside the vehicle. Why even bother going to a park for lunch if you are going to sit inside your RV anyway? We saw this in Washington, too. People who were playing loud music and watching TV in their campers. Why did they bother leaving home?

Anyway, we examine the map and decide to take the Quarry Loop Trail to the High Bluffs Trail to Wolf Creek Falls. That’s only about four miles roundtrip, so we leave our bottles of water in the car and strike out.

The Quarry trail is wide and pretty well-maintained. On the map, it looks like it is right next to the Kettle river. In horizontal distance it is, but vertically, it’s thirty or forty feet above the water. We meander over to a large rock overhanging. There are rapids below us. The website said we could "watch daring canoeists and kayakers shoot the turbulent rapids at Blueberry Slide, Mother's Delight, Dragon's Tooth and Hell's Gate," but we saw no one on the water. So much for entertainment!

There’s a smaller trail that parallels the main one a little farther down the slope. I’m sure we aren’t supposed to use it, but I want to. Valinda and Julie take the main trail and I struggle on my little deer trail, clambering over roots and negotiating narrow passages between slabs of rock. Julie and Valinda are out of sight, not to mention being far above my head, and I find myself hurrying to catch up. Periodically I stop to look down at the roiling water below, and then wish I hadn’t. Eventually the trail merges with the main one, and I catch up to my friends.

The humidity is something like 93%, and I’m overheating. I’m wishing we’d brought the water with us, and we’ve barely walked half a mile!

We come across the ruins of a large stone building. This is called the Quarry Trail because the whole area used to be a giant sandstone quarry, and there are markers along the path where interesting relics from that time can be found. The problem is that Valinda left the “self-guided tour” brochure in the car, so all we know is that this is site 13, and, more importantly, that there is a path down to the water. I dip my hat into the water and it feels so cool when I put it on my head… aaaaah.

Until now, we’ve seen no other people on the trails. But our solitude is disturbed when a group of two adults and four sullen teenagers clambers down the path towards us. We’re standing looking at these hundred year old stone walls, when a lanky teen with long greasy hair comes over, kicks a rock, and grunts. We decide we don’t need to look at the ruins anymore. There’s a path right between the walls that continues on in the same direction as the Quarry trail only closer to the edge, and we decide to take it. Valinda and Julie discuss the names of the various plants we pass, and I try to identify the bird songs I hear. We’ve climbed high above the river again, and we stop at just about every overlook and try to figure out how we would shoot the rapids if we were in our kayaks.

We arrive at another stone relic. It’s a hole in the ground, with parallel vertical stone slabs the height of the hole arranged as if they were floor joists. We later learn this is where they used to cut the sandstone. There is an enormous eye-ring embedded in a slab of concrete, something like twelve to eighteen inches in diameter. We cannot fathom what it was for. We think that perhaps they used giant oxen, like Paul Bunyon’s Babe, to cart the sandstone out of the forest, and the rings were used to tether the beasts.

We stop at another overlook. My wet hat is no longer cooling me, and Valinda suggests we dive off the rock into the water to cool off. Julie says she first needs to take out a life insurance policy, with Julie as the beneficiary. Valinda doesn’t jump.

We can return to the Quarry trail at this point, but instead we take a side trail that heads steeply downward, toward the water. This one is much more difficult than the others we were on before. Lots of ups and downs, clambering over roots and rocks. We look at our map and decide we’re on the Hell’s Gate trail (not recommended for small children). According to the map, this trail will suddenly end, and a short distance away will pick up again as the “lower Hell’s Gate trail.” It’s much closer to the water than the Quarry trail.

We come up a hill and right in front of us is a hole in the rock big enough to swallow all three of us at once. Its sides are worn smooth, and when we look down it, we see it is at least ten feet deep and opens into the air twenty feet above the water. If we’d been texting while we walked, we could have fallen right in! I’d say this path is not only unsuitable for small children, but for teenagers as well (though to be fair, the one person we saw using a cell phone in the park was an adult).

The technical term for these holes is “pothole,” but they are often called kettles (hence the name of the Kettle river). They are often formed as glaciers retreat and the waters start eddying. Little rocks go around and around, and eventually eat holes into the bed of the waterway. Once upon a time, the spot we are standing now was the bottom of a lake or river. We see a couple more of these kettles as we go along, usually conveniently located in the center of the path.

A little further on, we pull ourselves up a narrow cleft and see a giant anvil of rock just off shore. It looks like someone used a cleaver to cut a hunk of rock away, as if it were a piece of cake, and then pulled it away from the mainland. Of course, Valinda and I have to go over there. Julie says she wants to keep on going. We’re all getting tired and thirsty and she’s thinking of how long it will take to get back. Looking at the map, we’ve probably passed the end of the Quarry Loop Trail. I look up the nearly vertical slope. ”The High Bluff Trail must be w-a-a-a-y up there,” I point. It looks a lot closer on the map.

Julie forges on while Valinda and I cross the river. There are enough rocks and fallen trees that Valinda and I can easily get to the anvil without getting our feet wet. There are mature trees growing on this huge slab of rock, along with lots of the ever-present pale-green lichen. I see the first scat of the day, small and black. We wonder if it is from a mink. We see more potholes and Valinda has a revelation: They were made by clams, just like the ones we saw at Beach 4 in Kalaloch, Washington. Except these were really, really big clams. They must have chained them to those giant eyelets we saw above, and let them drill into the sandstone. Having figured this out, we feel much better.

Valinda and I are admiring the view when Julie returns. She tells us she reached a point where the rocks went straight down and I think she’s saying she reached the end of the Hell’s Gate trail. Does that mean we should go back? No, Julie thinks we can get around it. I take one last look at the sky, which is clouding up. I remember another recent adventure where we were caught on the river in kayaks during a thunderstorm, and hope I won’t have anything so exciting to write about this time.

Julie leads the way up the path. She climbs up these rocks where it’s hard to say for sure whether there is a path or not, and I look down and see there’s a very clear trail along the river. “Are you sure this is the way you went?” I ask her. “Positive,” she says. So I follow her. She was a girl scout for many years, after all.

I thought the path we were on before was mildly rigorous. It’s nothing compared to where Julie is taking us. I spend a lot of time on my butt to get from rock to slippery rock. Even when they aren’t covered in moss and lichen, they’re as slick as snot. Valinda, who had expected a metaphorical walk in the park, had only worn thin scrubs, and they were getting pretty dirty. Her shoes also weren’t designed for much more than flat pavement as they had little in the way of tread on the soles. I keep looking wistfully down at the path by the water, as it gets farther and father away.

We reach the point that Julie had gotten to before, that I had thought was the end of the trail. It isn’t. But it isn’t going to be easy to navigate, either. Between us and the continuation of the path, there’s a slab of slimy rock at a 45 degree angle, and then a drop of six feet. Even Julie has trouble getting across it and she’s a mountain goat. I look longingly at the path below. If I follow Julie now, there’s no turning back. I don’t see how I could get across this again. Before I can decide to chicken out, Valinda starts sliding across the rock on her butt. I guess I’m in.

There is still an obvious path, but it is narrow and sometimes between a rock and, well, a long way down. Trees make good handholds in these situations, but some of them are jutting out over nothingness with only their roots counteracting gravity’s pull. They don’t need us pushing and pulling on them as we struggle up the hills. Valinda and I both apologize to and thank the trees for their assistance.

We step across crevasses, splits in the rock that go down to the water and have ferns growing in them. There are all sorts of interesting mosses and lichen. One is black and hangs like peeling skin from the rocks. A piece lying on the ground looks like a bat. There are rock overhangs so deep they are like caves, and ferns grow on the vertical surfaces.

I notice a roaring sound ahead. We look down and see what must be Hell’s Gate—a narrowing of the river between two towering stone walls. The water is frothing and wild as it runs through the channel. There’s no sign of a path below anymore, just rock going straight down. That explains why the Hell’s Gate path ends. I’m thinking that we’re high up enough that we’ll go above that obstacle and be able to work our way down again to the Lower Hell’s Gate trail. Or, barring that, we’ll connect up with the High Bluff Trail.

My mouth is getting dry. Why did we leave the water in the car? Valinda, referencing the desperate humidity, tells me to breathe through my mouth if I need some water. It is like breathing something solid, and you can feel the water collecting in the bottom of your lungs, like sludge.

Julie, as usual, is ahead of Valinda and I who have been stopping to admire the moss that grows in little rounded mounds that look like tennis balls, and the bright yellow mushrooms with white spots (“don’t eat those,” Valinda warns me). She comes back toward us with some bad news. “The trail ends up ahead. You can either go straight up or straight down.”

So, we’re halfway up a cliff on an unsanctioned path, with what looks like a rainstorm brewing on the horizon, all of us tired and thirsty, and the path back is tricky enough that we don’t really want to attempt it (not to mention that this would be an admission of defeat of some sort). Straight up or straight down? Well, straight down puts you in the rapids, so we pretty much have to go straight up. Luckily, it isn’t really straight up. More like a sixty degree angle, and there are lots of handholds. We figure that we’ll climb the rocks and at the top will be the High Bluff Trail which we’ll follow back to civilization.

Climbing the rocks isn’t really all that difficult and dangerous, except that they are kind of slippery, and if we did fall we’d be goners. Even so, I notice how my attention focuses very tightly on the act of climbing so that all I care about is the next handhold and how I will pull myself up to the next rock.

I reach the top first, and I really expect to see a trail, but I don’t. Just woods extending as far as I can see.


Until now, I’d been only slightly concerned about our situation, but my adrenaline level jumps up a notch at this point because we really are committed now. Going up that hill is one thing, but going down it? I don’t think that would be such a good idea. Julie comes up next, and she says, “there’s a trail.” It looks like a deer trail to me, not a state-park-maintained-trail, but at least it goes in the right direction. “As long as we keep the river on the right we’ll be okay,” says Valinda.

It is even more humid up here, if such a thing is possible. I am wearing a T-shirt and a button-down Buzz-Off (insect repellent) shirt. The tee is so wet it is sticking to me, so I decide to take it off and just wear the looser button-down. I’m not someone who readily takes my shirt off outside of my house, but there is absolutely no one around to see. Even so, I feel a little bit naughty.

We start following the trail, with Julie in the lead. It is definitely like a deer trail—one minute the trail is perfectly obvious, and the next you’re looking around trying to figure out where it went.

So we’re walking through the forest. Valinda is sweating like mad, and I’m starting to stumble now and then. We’re really, really tired and hot and thirsty. Sometimes the trail disappears, but Julie always finds it again. The edge of the cliff is on our right. We can hear the water down below.

Then there’s a big chasm ahead of us. To our left there is a stone bluff about six feet high. To our right is a forty-foot drop. We backtrack to where the bluff on the left is shorter. We find another deer trail and keep on going. We keep the river on the right, but we’re farther from it than we were. Valinda and I stumble more often. We run into another chasm, and do the same thing, head away from the river until we can get over it. Then there’s another one. We can’t hear the river any more, and if we look down the cliff, we can’t see it, either. More than anything, this worries me. Plus, I think it’s getting dark. “No,” I tell myself, “that’s just because you’re wearing sunglasses in a forest.” But then Valinda calls out, “Hey, it’s a chipmunk,” and at that exact moment a barred owl starts calling from across the river. Owl = night in my mind. I start wondering just how late it actually is. And where we are, and how far we’re going to walk before we come across some sign of civilization, and will that be anywhere near where we left the car?

We trudge onward. Julie is out of sight ahead of me, and I hear a sound like someone falling. When I get to her, I notice two things. First, the path is sloping downward. This is a good thing in my opinion, since the place where we parked the car is significantly lower than the bluff we are on right now.

Second, it occurs to me that it is unusual for Julie to be sitting. “I’m just catching my breath,” she says.

“Did you fall? I thought I heard something.”

“Yeah, be careful, the rocks are slippery.” She stands with a groan. “Good thing I have strong bones.” No kidding! It’s bad enough to be injured when you are hiking and miles from help, but it’s a lot worse when you are hiking and lost and miles from help.

I’m being careful coming down the rocks and I start to slip, too, but I manage to grab a tree and keep from falling. Valinda just walks around the rocks.

The fact that we are heading downward has me in better spirits, but the owl keeps calling so I can’t help but imagine what we’d do if it got dark while we were up here. Probably just stop and get eaten by mosquitoes all night. I wonder if the rangers would come looking for us when they saw Valinda’s car still in the lot, and how on earth they’d even know where to look.

Just then, Julie yells back, “You’re really going to like what I just found.”

It is a real trail. As wide as a car, flat, clearly demarcated. We’re home free!

When we get back to the car, the first thing we do is gulp down all our water. On the drive home, we stop to watch a family of Sandhill cranes in a field, two adults and a youngster. There are deer, too. Half an hour after we get back, it starts pouring rain, and lightning shoots out of the sky into the trees by the river.

I was really glad not to be lost on the side of a bluff in Banning State Park.
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murra044 on

A Classic Blunder :)
Oh - I knew there was gonna be trouble as soon as I read that you left your water in the car. It reminds me of the lines from The Princess Bride: 'Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!' A third could be added - never leave your water in the car when you are planning on hiking in the woods. :)
-Glad you made it out of the woods safely!

beachgurl95 on

Where's Michele Game?
Ok it's now time to develop a game named after you. I'm thinking of course of the 'Where's Waldo?' idea but as an adult game. Players would read the stories on the cards and try to figure out where that park or site is in the US.
This latest segment of the Wisconsin saga is filled with pain and hilarity. Hey how's your ass doing?

beachgurl95 on

not wisconsin but minnesota
Did I say Wisconsin oh gosh! I meant Minnesota...please excuse my bi-coastal vagueness. See, another reason why we need that game.

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