You’ve heard of skiing. You’ve heard of snowshoeing. But have you heard of…yaktracking? 

Gearing Up YaktrackingWe’re familiar with Yaktrax — those criss-crossing coils that fit over our boots and protect us from slipping on ice. But I’d like to make the case that they’re more than just a safety accessory: they’re a recreational opportunity!

Slick TerrainIce is a big issue this time of year, now that the trails have been packed down by countless hikers, snowshoers, and cross-country skiers — and now that we’re entering (false-)spring weather with a cycle of melting during the day and refreezing overnight. The trails can be treacherous.

But all you need is Yaktrax and some trekking poles, and the experience transforms from one of trepidation into one of jolly good fun.

With my new metal-coiled Yaktrax Pros, and with my beloved cork-handled TrailBuddy trekking poles, I was amazed at how effortless my hiking experience on the slick trails was today. Even on patches of bald, solid ice, I was fine. Better than fine. Worrisome ascents and descents became afterthoughts. The Yaktrax were so clutch that my biggest worry was that I would become too complacent and tread too confidently. Because it all seemed...too easy

I didn’t even break a sweat, on a trail that is typically arduous in winter. Here’s my theory about that! I think if you have the right gear in the right conditions, then it all starts to click, and you’re moving naturally and gracefully, and it becomes second-nature, and your body is happy, and you become one with the trail.

There’s that Scandinavian saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” You could also say, “There’s no such thing as bad terrain, only inadequate gear.”

Hero's JourneyAnd I was thinking…acquiring the right gear is like being a video game character and finding the golden key, or set of wings, or whatever it is that enables you to survive and win that level of the game. Sorry to get philosophical for a second…but it’s like Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “boon” in the mythological hero’s journey. The prize. The thing of value at the end of the rainbow. For me, on this sunny slippery March day, the golden wings were Yaktrax.

Mind you, I articulate the case for gear as someone who has never been a gear head! I’m not a thing person. I’d like to just waltz out of my house and onto the trail without thinking about gear. But as the years stretch on and I acquire more “boons” — gaitersOboz bootsAtlas snowshoes, etc. — I start to appreciate the practical value of gear and the joy of practicality. I keep all of my winter gear in my car, at all times, because trail conditions are constantly evolving and you never know which hike is going to cry out for which gear.

Nickolas KillianCoastalBefore I embarked on my yaktracking adventure today, I decided to swing by my go-to winter gear place, Coastal, in Glen Arbor, and chat with the gentleman who sold me those Yaktrax Pros last week: Nickolas Killian, the Recreational Operations Manager of Crystal River Outfitters Recreational District, which also owns The Cyclery

It was a sunny, blustery winter day, with wild winds swirling up sand from M-22, the famed scenic highway that runs through Glen Arbor. I found Nick at The Cyclery (a block away from Coastal) working on bikes. He was extremely gracious to grant me some of his time. He and his team offer exceptional customer service. You walk into one of their stores in Glen Arbor, and they will not only hook you up with what you need, but also happily answer any random questions you might have about where to go and what to do in the area. They’re not just there to sell you stuff. They’re guides — sherpas, if you will! Their philosophy of being ambassadors for our magical region comes across as utterly sincere. These are some cool humans.

My conversation with Nick ranged from the virtues of trekking poles to philosophical musings about how nature resets itself, and how struggle leads to growth. (We both love the Alligator Hill Trail, which was devastated by the infamous straight-line-wind storm of 2015. Life is booming at Alligator Hill in spring and summer, because fallen trees means more sunlight can reach the forest floor, which means an explosion of blackberry bushes, songbirds, and butterflies, and a rejuvenated ecosystem.)

Nick is so well-spoken that I figure I’ll just let his words speak for themselves. What follows are excerpts from my chat with him. I’ll omit my questions and just showcase his remarks…because you’ve heard enough from me already! 

A philosophy

We do our best to make sure we can be tour guides of the area. People, as they’re in here shopping, are interested in ‘Where do we go get food? Where do we go hike? Where do we go XYZ? And some of the stuff might be right here in Glen Arbor. But some of it’s as much Leelanau County, Benzie County, Grand Traverse County. We’re sending people to other parts of Northwest Michigan to really get a sense of what this area is all about.

I think it’s a philosophy that this organization has, and I’ve always had it, is that we want people to be able to have quality experiences — like, beyond exceptional experiences. We want to be able to help people get to the places that are really going to match their perceived outdoor experience.

The current season…and trekking poles!

GearWe are in that transition period where you might not be thinking about deep snowy conditions. But all of those trails where the snow has been packed down by snowshoers or cross-country skiers — that’s starting to become, in some cases, pretty bullet-proof. Pretty icy. So you do need to make sure that you’re going to have traction. Now, that can be everything from a set of Yaktrax, to the crampons on the bottom of a set of snowshoes, to a set of trekking poles that are going to give you other points of stability as you’re hiking out there. Some people nowadays are really into trekking poles just because it helps with the overall balance, overall traction. But it also does give a sense of stability, a sense of balance.

In twenty years of on-and-off backpacking trips — some years go by and I don’t get on one, but some years go by and I’ll be able to get two or three in — this past October I went backpacking, just for a long weekend, and I took a pair of trekking poles for the first time, and really used them for backpacking. And I found it to be a lot more enjoyable. A lot less knee fatigue. 

A lot of people, when they backpack or hike, their hands start to swell up, because you’ve got blood pumping differently. When you’ve got a trekking pole in hand, you’re moving your hands and upper body a lot more. So I didn’t have that issue where you want to raise your hand above your heart to have the blood flow come out of your hands and not feel so swollen. [Nick is right about that! A strenuous hike can make my hands swollen…but not if I’m using trekking poles.]

Hot items this year

Going into this season, we were amazed at how many people would try, for the first time, snowshoeing. Would try, for the first time, cross-country skiing. Would try, for the first time, fat-tire bikes. And these were people who were often new to this area. Like, they didn’t even know this area, and they were new to these experiences.

SocksWe’ve had a lot of people stopping by here to buy some of the items that they might’ve forgotten for their ski trips. As you might’ve picked up on this year, a lot of ski resorts were selling out on these weekends. We sold out of every pair of ski goggles that we had. We sold a ton of Smartwool socks, Darn Tough socks. Some people picked up socks just because they forgot theirs at home. But again, people got into those different experiences and were finding that they might’ve needed a piece of gear here or there to make that experience even better.

Smartwool base layers were another good option. A base layer is a synthetic or Merino wool layer that goes right against your skin to help wick moisture away from you, into your mid-layers, out of your outer layers. [I desperately need some of those, by the way. I should’ve bought them at Coastal today!] I had a different company’s Merino wool base layer all last winter, and I wore it every day. This year, I’ve worn it a lot, not as much as every day, but I upgraded to this Smartwool stuff. Be it for hiking, be it for cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, this stuff has been awesome.

Life story in a nutshell

Lived up here in Northwest Michigan my whole life. Traverse City was where I grew up. Currently, live in Lake Ann. Never spent nearly as much time as I have in this last year in the greater Glen Arbor area. But recreation has been a part of my life, pretty much my whole life, one way or another. I really started working in youth outdoor adventure, summer camping operations, when I was 13, and there was really no looking back. I pursued and got a degree in recreation management, all outdoor adventure-focused. And even when I’m not doing it for the profession…personally, my friends always give me a bunch of grief that ‘hobbies are my hobby.’ So, just this last week it was downhill skiing. I was starting to get the itch to get on the mountain bike. I was starting to tie flies for fly-fishing that’s going to be coming up here in the spring. So just really being outdoors has always been a part of what I’ve been about. And I think I’ve always done my best to try to knock down the barriers, to try to have people get out in the outdoors and have quality experiences. And we’ve got a ton of stuff in this area, between the hikes, Alligator Hill, Palmer Woods, the National Lakeshore, the Manitou Islands.

Favorite trail, “reset,” and growth

Alligator HillI’m pretty keen on Alligator Hill myself! It’s nice to have the difference in terrain, the different loops, and then to be able to get some views of Big Glen, Manitou Islands, that one trailhead that looks out to the dunes…that gives you a good chance to see a lot of what this area has to offer. Not to mention you can still see some of the remnants of six years ago, the wind shear storm that came through.

All really bad things — wildfires, mudslides, wind shears, tornados, downed trees — that’s Mother Nature kinda resetting some things. It’s allowing light to get down to the ground instead of having to fight through a canopy. And now you’re getting all of those bushes, berries and otherwise…that’s bringing in songbirds, that’s bringing in smaller mammals, and so that just changes the ecosystem. It rejuvenates an ecosystem, in a lot of ways. Yeah, it takes breaking it down to build it back up. 

And I think we even find ourselves as people doing the same thing in some regards. We seek out challenging opportunities that we might fail at a little bit, and then we get better at it and become more experienced. And I think that also plays a lot into recreation. Trying something new, maybe struggling at it at first, but understanding that in that struggle, you had enjoyment, you had fulfillment. Now tackle it even more! And I think we saw a lot of that when it came to people cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fat-tire biking — they went out, and maybe it was challenging on that day based on the conditions and such, but they all came back having a pretty good time. Which could turn into even more bikers year-round. It could turn into people who spend more time on trails year-round. And all that turns into people starting to think more about stewardship and how to preserve some of those different places for those opportunities.

Parting thoughts

I, along with I think a lot of the outdoor industry this year, have been blown away by the number of people who have come to try different things. Now, we understand that it’s due to the fact that there are a lot of typical opportunities that aren’t available to people because of the pandemic, and how that’s played into how our society’s needed to operate. But I don’t think that’s a negative, to be able to get people outdoors, interacting with the outdoors in a different way. The number of bikes that we saw rejuvenated this spring that came out of people’s basements and garages…for people to get out on bikes, that shouldn’t be looked at as a bad thing. That’s great! And so, I think that’s going to continue as we go into the summer of 2021, and even 2022 and beyond — people becoming engaged again with some of the activities they might’ve done in a younger version of themself, and they realize how accessible it is, how much fun it can be.