Back in late summer, I had reason to spend a great deal of time in Red Wing, Minnesota.
Tired of daily drives back and forth from St. Paul, on one particularly warm evening I decided to stealth camp up on Barn Bluff.
I timed it nearly perfectly – I marched up the bluff just as the sun was going down, and had a good twenty minutes of twilight to find a pair of trees off the beaten track between which to string up my hammock.
The spot I decided on was right at the edge of the north face of the bluff; in fact, the north tree was actually rooted a few feet down off the plain of the bluff. From that vantage, there is a marvelous view of the river and surrounding bluffs.
I strung up the hammock in record time, with no botches. Ie., the trees weren’t too far apart, or too close together, or too big, and the first lashing was high enough and tight enough.
I took some time before it got totally dark to walk back over to the western end of the bluff, take in the view of Red Wing, and answer a few last emails.
The river looked like a sheet of glass; it was a completely windless night.
As I got up to leave, I noticed a lone figure coming up the trail from the top of the old Kiwanis stairs, so I dashed back toward the prairie trail, and off into the weeds back toward my hammock. I don’t know if he saw me; in all reality, he probably took the fork that heads down off the bluff, but for a good half an hour, I was wondering if he was still around.
I suppose that that kind of paranoia is endemic in a situation where I’m doing something I technically shouldn’t be doing.
I settled in and listened to the night. I began to be able to distinguish the sounds of traffic on Highway 61 vs the traffic going over the bridge toward Wisconsin. Through the leaves of the trees, I watched a star make its way to the west. Cassiopeia was rising on the northeastern horizon.
I could hear trains on both sides of the valley. On the Minnesota side, I could hear west-bounds from as far away as Frontenac, and maybe even the western end of Lake City.
I kept my ears peeled for Amtrak #7, whose arrival should have been imminent. Instead, a westbound freight came through, at track speed, indicating that Amtrak was running late.
It did finally show up, about an hour late, easily distinguishable by the horns that Amtrak’s engines have, by the train’s short length, and also the squeal of brakes as it rounded the curve into town.
After a two minute stop, I heard it accelerate away toward Prairie Island.
Then I started drifting in and out of sleep. The temperature was perfect; it seemed possible that I’d actually get a good rest for a change.
A couple of hours later, around 1am, I started noticing brief flashes of light. I frequently see such flashes back at home coming from the spotlights of towboats going up and down the river, so in my half awake state, I assumed it was one of those, perhaps on its way to the barge terminal on the west end of town.
However, as time went on, I also noticed that the stars had disappeared, and that the wind was picking up. A thunderstorm was approaching, and there I was, smack dab on the point of highest elevation in quite a wide radius!
I had to decide, and quickly, whether to ride it out, or to “fold the con”, so to speak. Since by now the only light was courtesy of sporadic lightning flashes, I thought it would be more difficult to tear everything down and traverse the steep downward slope in the dark than to simply ride it out.
I had about twenty minutes to batten down the hatches, and get my gear under plastic, and my bike underneath the hammock. Satisfied I did all I could do, I went back inside and watched the storm come in. It was actually a good hour before the rain started falling, and another hour before the brunt of the storm hit the bluff. At its peak, I could hear tree branches snapping, and water running off the side of the bluff.
The hammock and rain fly were secured as tightly as they could be, but would only be as motionless as the trees they were tied to.
At the tail end of the storm, the wind was fierce – the best test yet of my abilities to lash down the rain fly. A few good gusts really seemed to threaten my knots, and then I’d be in a world of hurt, but luckily, everything held, and the wind calmed down, eventually becoming non-existent.
And not a drop of rain had gotten on me!
Would I now get some sleep?
As it turned out, the answer was no. It was over 90 degrees when I went up there; now it was in the low 60s and the air was damp. Even though I had thought ahead and was wearing several layers by that time, I didn’t have a blanket, and I started shivering.
Two more hours of that, and I decided to give up and tear everything down.
That took about ten minutes, and by then, the moon had come out, so there was plenty of light to help me navigate my way down the trail.
As I marched along, this light also helped me spot a skunk that was steadily marching up the trail right toward me! I froze. He froze. Then he turned around.
I thought, “This cannot be happening!”
He apparently didn’t think I was too much of a threat; he had turned around only so that he could head back down the trail. I let him get well enough ahead, and then carried on.
I got back to the car, stowed my gear, and then walked to the local cafe for breakfast, arriving at a little after 6am, no worse for wear. And to be honest, I probably got much more sleep than it had seemed.
It all seemed like a smashing success, except for one problem. An old friend didn’t make it back with me: as I folded the newspaper to begin working on the crossword, I realized my beloved space pen was missing!
I checked all of my pockets, my jacket, my bags, and I unfurled the hammock, but only found some loose change.
Conclusion: it had fallen out of my pocket somewhere on the bluff!
To make a long story short, I climbed back up the bluff that afternoon in search of it, but I found nothing. If it had fallen out where I had camped, I could very well have stepped on it and plowed it under the soft soil. The search was fruitless.
I had been carrying that thing every day for nearly seven years, and I didn’t want to give up on it, so, two days later, I went back with a metal detector! My first sweep turned up nothing (except for the quarter I threw on the ground as a test); I was just starting a wider sweep, and bam! out of the corner of my eye I saw one end of it sticking up out of the weeds and dirt.
Triumph! I laughed wholeheartedly.
The detector hadn’t actually been needed, but, as these things go, if I hadn’t brought it, I probably wouldn’t have found my pen. On the way back down (for the fourth time that week), I came across a man and his dog on their way up. Seeing the detector, and probably the smile on my face, he said, “Hey! You find anything good?” I said, “Why yes! Indeed I did!”
A good friend of mine brought his family up from Texas this week for a visit with family, and he wanted to know if I wanted to get together sometime and hang out.
I sensed an opportunity for another stealth camping trial. My plan was to go back with him to his parents’ house down on Prior Lake, spend the afternoon with them, and then bike home the next morning after camping somewhere down by the Minnesota River.
I dug out my trusty Twin Cities bike map, and plotted a course that would take me to Shakopee and onto the bike trail that runs along the former Milwaukee Road grade that heads out of town. Several of the apparent routes to get to the trail looked to be along busy roads – the dreaded black and red dashed lines – but not for too many miles. I did a rough calculation of the number of miles to get to the river (about 8), estimated how long it would take to ride those miles (45 min.), and then, noting that sunset was going to be at 8:35, I settled on a departure time from Prior Lake of 7pm.
However, this being Minnesota, I failed to make allowances for the “Minnesota Goodbye”, whereby people typically make at least three definitive statements that they are leaving, only to have conversation spring up again.
“Okay, bye!” “Wow, that folding bike is pretty neat!” “Sure is, want to take it for a spin?”
Oops, looks like the rear tire needs air. Better oil the chain, too.
“Okay, bye!” “Which way are you going?” “Well, perhaps since you people live down here, you could weigh in on my choice of route.”
I dug out my map again. Turned out that it was somewhat out of date for the area, and in fact, most of the roads I proposed riding on now have bike paths next to them. What a wonderful area we live in!
This time it stuck, and I was on my way. I didn’t hit the road until nearly 7:30.
As it turns out, yes, there are nice trails on the sides of many of those roads, but the crosswalks are still engineered in favor of the cars. I had to hop over the concrete of several medians.
A piece of advice not taken: I gave the Mystic Lake road a wide berth. Getting run down by some old lady speeding by on her way to play the penny slots is not exactly on my bucket list, if you know what I mean.
After a couple of small hills, I was treated to downhill runs most of the way into Shakopee. I rode along the UP line that runs a couple blocks behind Main Street, and actually straddles 2nd Street.
The sun was setting fast, and oh was it ever pretty, apparently due to some Canadian wildfires that are sending smoke our way.
I cut short my tour of Shakopee, and swung over to the trail. The first section of it is just a plain old bike path through the woods; the Milwaukee line didn’t head for the river until it went past the giant Rahr Malting complex on the west end of town. The trail at one point veers up to the tracks – a stub end of the line is still used to store cars that are being processed at Rahr – and then veers away again.
Eventually, I was clearly riding on the old right-of-way, but this didn’t last for very long. A sharp curve to the left marked the start of the approach to the river crossing that used to be there; the bridge has been gone for some time. I saw a sum total of two people out on the trail: a older gentleman walking his dogs, and a presumably pepper spray-wielding pretty girl jogging the other way, for now it was twilight.
Time to start looking for some trees.
In spite of all the rain we’ve had, this area by the river was fairly dry – very good. I was worried about it being muddy down there. It was clear that this entire area had been inundated by this Spring’s floods, though: lots of silt and debris around. At the next curve in the trail, I looked forward and backward, and then, seeing nobody, I folded my bike and headed over a small rise next to the trail, and into a dry rivulet, completely out of sight from the trail. I settled on a spot roughly here.
This time, the trees I chose were nearly too far apart! There was barely enough rope to complete the lashings.
Following Ry4an’s advice, I had, on a previous afternoon, set up the hammock and rainfly and then rolled the whole thing up, so this time, setting up was a piece of cake. Ten minutes tops.
I was ready to sleep by 9pm.
There was much less human noise – just distant cars, and the occasional boat on the river, and a couple of trains over on the UP line, which at that point is more than a half mile away. I thought, “This time I’m going to get some good sleep.”
Wrong! In my zeal to pack up and leave that morning, I had forgotten a critical piece of gear: my polar fleece jacket. By midnight, the temperature had dropped to the mid 50s, and with all of the humidity, I had a persistent chill down my spine for the rest of the night. I really need to get some kind of fleece blanket, and leave it inside the hammock.
Around 2am I got a chill of another kind: some kind of animal suddenly started killing some other kind of animal, and very close by. I’m fairly certain that the killee was a rabbit – those things can really scream! – but I had no idea what was doing the killing. At one point, the noises were coming closer, which was very frightening. Eventually the screaming stopped, I heard some twigs and branches snapping while the victim was presumably being dragged away for supper, and then all was silent again.
But I couldn’t sleep. I realized that without any sleep, the morning’s ride home would be quite brutal indeed. So, at 4am I decided I’d take the bus home. As it turns out, Southwest Transit has a park and ride about two miles out of Chaska, and the first bus to downtown Minneapolis leaves at 5:25. I waited until about a quarter of five, tore everything down in the darkness, and made my way back to the trail. By this time the moon had come up, and the pavement had a nice silvery glow, which was the only thing distinguishing it from the surrounding terrain.
Indeed. Even biking up to the park and ride was an ordeal. I pulled in there, huffing and puffing, with about a minute to spare.
Once on the bus, nestled amongst the hard working suburbanites who were frantically pounding away on their laptops lest they fall behind on their menial office work yet again, I closed my eyes, and the next thing I knew, at 6am, I was in downtown Minneapolis. I jumped off, walked down to 6th Street, and there was a 94D – a rare treat! The 94D doesn’t stop at Snelling, or mess around by the Capitol, so it’s the fastest bus to Saint Paul.
I was home by 6:30, where I promptly went to bed.
After incurring some delays related to my slacking off and agreeing to do some actual work for money, I finally made my first stealth camping attempt last night.
I figured it would be best to try it in a place that was a) close to home and b) familiar and c) relatively free of hoboes.
Answer: St. Paul’s Mounds Park.
At just about sundown, I headed out on my bike.
Typical to such endeavors, I was given some reminder that I was about to do something that probably isn’t 100% legal: on the way to the park I ran across a security guard guarding the Union Depot parking tunnel from felonious shortcut takers such as myself, and a police officer down on the path along the river.
I cruised over to Hoffman, and biked up and around to the top of the Bluff. My idea was to bike out to the edge of the park that faces the railroad yards, follow a path from there that goes on a steep decline down the bluff, and set up camp somewhere off the trail.
It’s odd. I used to run up and down that trail when I was a kid, but I don’t remember it being so utterly choked with mansized weeds. I wondered if the kids these days are just too busy twittering and such to bother traipsing around in the woods. Or, more likely, yet another invasive species had made a foothold here.
Eventually I settled on a spot about halfway down the Bluff, that, appropriately, was about 80 yards up from the site of the Burlington Hotel, wherein weary railroaders would rest before heading out on their next trip.
I suppose more practice will help this, but I always seem to settle on a pair of trees that are too close together, but I don’t notice that fact until I’ve tied up one side of the hammock, and then I end up swinging it around to some other tree which may be even less favorable.
The same thing happened this time, but even worse, once I finally had it hung, I realized that it was facing the wrong way. I wanted to be looking down the bluff, not up. So, I tore it down and did it all over again.
By 9:30pm, I was finally situated. Hot and sweaty and tired, but situated.
I sat back and listened to all of the sounds around me. Some were natural, but most were industrial: lots of train traffic on the mainlines, with wheels screeching around the banked curve at East Hoffman, plus the CP house switcher going up and back shoving cars around, with bell ringing constantly, plus the occassional distant boom of a freight car slamming into another car down in the hump yard.
A light plane kept circling above me; it was probably doing touch-and-goes at the airport. A helicopter blasted directly overhead. Cars and trucks – and the occasional pair of glasspack-bearing, riced-out street racers – flew by on Warner Road. I could also hear tow boats manuevering barges out on the river.
If you are thinking that this is hardly the environment in which to get some proper shut-eye, you are right! I was constantly being awoken by some jarring noise or other. But I have no complaints. I knew that would be the case going in.
The fact is that these noises provided me with some good fodder to practice some of the techniques that I was taught at the meditation retreat I attended last weekend.
At 1am, I woke up to a splash of water on my face. A couple of raindrops. Looking up, I could see that the clouds had rolled in, and it was getting rather windy. I got up immediately, put my shoes on, and went outside.
I thought about folding the con, but then I thought, no, I’ll stick it out, and try to get the rain fly up. The situation reminded me of a bit toward the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where, just as they are about to ambush some bandits that had ambushed them, Butch tells Sundance he’s never shot anyone before.
“One hell of a time to tell me!”
Yeah. One hell of a time to try to figure out how to tie on the rain fly, the source of many complaints of Hennessy Hammock owners, and whose installation instructions can only be described as cryptic, and for which there seem to be no good instructions available from other users, since nobody else can figure it out (or, in truth, everyone else is an experienced camper that knows what in the hell they are doing, and such instruction isn’t necessary!): under complete darkness, in thick underbrush, with a heavy wind, and impending rain.
Well, let’s just say that this endeavor was a bit frustrating. I did eventually get it on, but just as I was about to declare victory, I heard something that sounded distinctly like one of my stakes being ripped from the ground, due to there being too much tension on it from the hammock bungee stabilizer, and flying off to points unknown. (Another lesson: carry spare stakes!)
But, during my brief, fruitless hunt for my escaped stake, I saw that my hammock was swinging just above a giant vine, probably the same piece of vegetation that had been poking me in the ass all night long. I tied the hammock and rainfly to that, and all was well.
I got situated again. Hot and sweaty and tired, but situated.
Of course, it shouldn’t be too hard to predict what DIDN’T happen next: The wind kept up, but nary a drop of rain was to be had for the rest of the night.
After the adrenaline rush, I didn’t get back to sleep until at least 2:30. From then on, the trains and trucks and airplanes and boats went quiet, and I slept right up until the birds started singing.. at 4:30!
By 5:30, I decided it was time to head for home.
With the approaching dawn, I thought it best to take a photo to mark the occasion:
I tore everything down, and tried to figure out which way out was best: back up the bluff, or down to the road. Since the trail was highly soft due to all of the rain we’ve been getting, I chose the latter.
Thirty minutes later, after crashing through and snagging on and getting whipped by grove after grove of those damned invasive weeds, I popped out of the woods into the field near Fish Hatchery Lane.
Hot and sweaty and tired, and covered head to toe with cockleburs, grassburs, sandburs and otherburs, but this time I was ready to bike home.