Incredible Journeys

Options for adventure abound throughout the state. But only a few choose to embark on extreme endeavors of mind, body and soul.
Getting out by Ryan Spencer-Reed
Photography by Ryan Spencer Reed

“Adventure is worthwhile in itself,” Amelia Earhart once said.

“The big question,” reflected author and American
mythologist Joseph Campbell, “is whether you are going
to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”

Through the Blue

When Sara and Jeff Tow set off on a 50-mile swim across the frigid waters of Lake Michigan in August of 2012, planning to become the first married couple to make the mid-lake crossing, each knew they faced a daunting task. But neither expected their bodies would give out just 11 miles short of Ludington with the Michigan shoreline in sight. 

The Tows, both collegiate swimmers, had trained for the journey. Their resolve was bolstered by their mutual commitment to raise public awareness about postpartum depression. Both had suffered from PPD after the birth of each of their two children. 

Photography by Ryan Spencer Reed
Photography by Ryan Spencer Reed

“I don’t think we had any doubts going in,” shared Sara, 41, co-founder of MomsBloom (, which provides in-home support after a baby is born to families in need. “We would picture in our minds the whole experience and what it would be like to walk up on the beach. I was confident that we were going to be a success.”

But the Big Lake can be fickle. Wind and weather patterns can shift suddenly. The couple set off from Two Rivers, Wis., in 71-degree waters. Thirty hours later it dropped into the low 50s with an unexpected upwelling from the bottom of Lake Michigan as the lake turned over, pushed by northeast winds. 

Spencer Reed
Photography by Ryan Spencer Reed

“It was ridiculously cold,” said Sara. “I stayed pretty positive for most of the swim until we hit the current and realized we weren’t going further; we were stuck on a treadmill.” 

Jeff, a 40-year-old self-employed graphic designer, knew his biggest challenge would be staying focused — keeping his body and brain on task all night, maintaining a steady pace over so many miles. But then the unbearable cold took over and the hallucinations began. 

“With a nine-mile per hour current in our faces, three-foot waves and dropping temperatures, it was the perfect storm coming right at us,” he reflected. 

While the Tows called the decision to stop short of their goal “heartbreaking,” Sara said their mission was accomplished: The swim raised $15,000 for PPD organizations and drew global attention to the cause.

“We learned a lot about ourselves as individuals and as a married couple,” Jeff added. “It was very tough at times, but we made it through.”

J mountain Lake
Photography by Mary Altenau
Along the Trail

Joan Young was sitting in a North Dakota ditch when she decided she would walk the entire North Country National Scenic Trail, a footpath stretching 4,600 miles from North Dakota to New York through seven states including Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. 

It was 1996. 

The Scottville, Mich. resident and a friend were being interviewed by a local reporter, having just completed 134 miles on the trail’s west end. Up until that moment this had been just another long backpacking trip for Young, who had hiked two other North Country segments over past summers.

“Then the interviewer asked what my interest was. And I said: ‘Hike the whole thing.’ That’s when it happened,” said Young, who chronicles the first 2,300 miles of her quest in “North Country Cache: Adventures on a National Scenic Trail,” from crossing North Dakota’s 106-degree prairies to streams requiring neck-deep swims and friends met along the way.

white deer lake trail mccormick
White Deer Lake & North Country Trail – Photography by Mary Altenau

It would take 20 years and seven pairs of hiking boots for Young to complete her journey, but in 2010, at age 63, she became the first woman (and only ninth person) to walk America’s longest footpath. 

“My goal never was to do it fast,” Young said good-naturedly. “But I never had doubts. The trail consumed me; it was my obsession.” — Joan Young

While her love for the outdoors developed early on through the Girl Scouts and an adventurous dad, a couple miles ventured as teen on the Appalachian Trail ignited Young’s desire for long-distance hiking. Years later, after moving to Michigan, stumbling across a North Country Trail sign near Manistee was all the push she needed — along with support from Omer, her husband of 46 years, and childhood friend Mary Altenau, who hiked more than half the path with her.

Picking a favorite portion of it isn’t easy, Young said. But she calls herself “a child of the eastern forests.”

“The smell of balsam is like catnip to me,” she shared. “Balsam and wood smoke — oh my gosh — I go out of my mind.”

AuSable Marathon Day 2
AuSable Marathon Day 2
To the Limit

Mark VanTongeren was optimistic at the start of last fall’s 2012 Adventure Rage, a 28-hour extreme adventure race near Cadillac. He and three teammates would paddle 25 miles on rivers, trek 20 miles through forests and ride 50 to 60 miles on mountain bikes, navigating by compass over a wild and unruly course against competing teams to specific locales marked with flags.

Adventure races are not for wimps. VanTongeren, 41, was primed and ready. 

The Rage is geared for long-distance enthusiasts who enjoy pushing themselves to the limits. As team or solo events, the popularity of adventure racing has grown dramatically over the past 10 years, though most are shorter events, running far fewer hours. 

cyclist Mark Vantongergen running through river with bike
Mark Vantongergen running through the river with his bike

VanTongeren’s first race in 2004 was a six-hour quest run by Grand Rapids Area Adventure Racing. Coming to love the personal challenge and seeing rising demand for such races as a business opportunity, he left his communications job and became the owner of Michigan Adventure Racing LLC, which hosts the Grand Rapids Urban Adventure Race, Zombie Dash and other events.

But in the woods outside of Cadillac last fall at 2 a.m., many hours into the Rage, VanTongeren realized something was amiss. He and his teammates had just shouldered their bikes and climbed 45 minutes up a steep hill. At the top, things didn’t look right.

As team navigator, VanTongeren studied the map, illuminating it with a headlamp. A decision to backtrack and circle the hill in pursuit of the unfound flag followed. Forty-five minutes later it was clear: VanTongeren and his teammates had taken the wrong two-track.

“That’s the most challenging part of adventure racing,” he said. “You have figure out some pretty complicated navigation — a lot of two-tracks are not on the map.”

This mistake and an earlier brake failure cost the team three hours, resulting in an eighth-place finish rather than the expected third.  But that’s part of the game.

“Adventure races are like adult Easter egg hunts with a lot of fatigue,” VanTongeren said. “That’s what I like about them, along with the social part. When you are lost at 2 a.m., frustrated and cold, it’s nice having others around to bounce around ideas.”

“That’s the most challenging part of adventure racing. You have figure out
some pretty complicated navigation — a lot of two-tracks are not on the map.”

— Mark Van Tongeren

AuSable Marathon Day 1
Pictured with teammate Tom Trudgeon and Mark Bialek (in yellow cap) first became immersed in the event as a photographer; his imagery is above.
Into The Current

Mark Bialek, 42, enjoys paddling fast — not just floating down a scenic river watching birds. The Whitmore Lake photographer is a four-time competitor in the AuSable River International Canoe Marathon, which runs non-stop almost the entire length of the AuSable River from Grayling to Oscoda.

This year’s event (July 28 and 29, 2013) marks the 66th anniversary of the renowned 120-mile journey.

Racing canoes is both art and science, Bialek shared. More than brute strength is needed to win. He relishes the rigorous training demanded, the need to push and the stamina involved: The marathon requires paddling 60 to 65 strokes per minute for hours. 

In 2002, Bialek and Lansing-based Tom Trudgeon emerged ninth in a field of 60 teams including North America’s top paddlers. With the exception of portaging over six dams along the race route, the pair paddled like mad for 15 hours and 36 minutes straight, navigating the long, twisting river through the night.

“It grinds on you and you wonder ‘why I am doing this?’” Bialek said. “But training is the hard part; the race is fun. What gets in your blood is the beauty of the river.” — Mark Bialek

Teammates Tom Trudgeon and Mark Bialek
Pictured with teammate Tom Trudgeon and Mark Bialek (in yellow cap) first became immersed in the event as a photographer; his imagery is above.

Growing up in Oscoda, Bialek was exposed at an early age to the marathon, which draws participants from as far away as England and more than 15,000 spectators to the Lake Huron community. He often photographed the race for Alcona County Review, the newspaper owned by his family. Those images made a lasting impression. 

Bialek was 28 years old when he decided to enter his first marathon in 2000. He was unhappy with his bank job and seeking something more in his life.

“I realized I needed it for my health,” said Bialek of his participation. “It’s important to have focus beyond work that you are passionate about. What really matters is family, friends and self-discipline. Being out there is good for mind, body and soul.”

Learn more about these adventurers and events by visiting;; and Award-winning writer Howard Meyerson resides in Grand Rapids.


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