Wilderness Tripping: Backpacking
After the snow:
An early spring
By Mary Powell
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I woke up Friday morning just as the sky began to lighten in the Pigeon River State Forest Campground. My feet were cold. I lay there wondering if I'd trimmed my pack weight a little too much by bringing my lightest sleeping bag...
Unable to fall back asleep with cold toes, I got up, gathered some kindling, started a fire in the USFS fire ring, and watched as the eastern sky brightened. Though the air was damp and frosty, it looked like a fine day. Hot coffee made it look even better.
The missing tripper
My husband, Dan Soper, and I had driven up to this rendezvous the evening before. Trip leader, Michael Neiger, had arrived about an hour after we did. This morning we awaited Mike Ugorowski to make the group complete. He arrived right on time just as the sunlight reached the forest floor.
He had bad news though, he'd decided not to do the hike, saying he was "just not up for it." His subtle humor, quiet company and ability to recall pertinent trivia on almost any topic would be sorely missed... He did stay and chat with us a while and was invited to join us next month when we'd be exploring some new ground around the NCT farther north.
A bad omen?
Mike's departure was slightly disorienting, but after a few minutes Michael pulled out the topos and we settled on a plan for the hike. Driving to the proposed trailhead, however, we managed to get our Neon firmly stuck in a muddy rut on a back road.
I began to feel this might be an ill-fated trip. Besides the aforementioned negatives, the weather report was not too encouraging as it included intermittent showers and possible wet snow...
With a tow strap and his AWD van, Michael dragged the Neon from its soggy resting place.
We spotted it near the SW corner of the High Country Pathway. We then drove to the planned starting point near the Foch Lake Flooding. There we hoisted our packs and began a leisurely exploration of the shoreline for possible future camping spots. Morning passed quickly.
While lunching on a small peninsula we saw some fishermen disembark from their van on the opposite shore. It seemed an unpromising spot to fish, the shoreline being sandy, the water shallow and almost weed free. Perhaps their fishing rods were just an excuse to enjoy the warm sunny weather and being outdoors.
Signs of spring
There was very little snow pack left in the woods--just patches on the shady sides of hills and under trees. The winter cover had not been gone long however: the layer of leaves beneath the hardwoods was still smooth and compressed against the underlying ground like a giant shrink-wrap. No new sprouts were pushing through yet. The creeks we had passed were flowing freely, but the quiet water of the Foch Lake Flooding was still mostly frozen.
A few insects were stirring from their winter dormancy. As we ate a bee landed on my pack and examined it lazily. Some spiders had been out all winter, but their numbers were increasing along with those of their prey, the springtails, gnats etc.
After lunch we continued along the shore to the outlet of the flooding where we found the rushing water sound we'd been hearing resulted from the stream falling about ten feet over a concrete opening in an earthen dam. With the snow gone there were many things to see on the barren ground.
Wintergreen was everywhere though it's leaves were a dark wine color. In particularly sunny and sheltered spots a few ferns were growing. Bearberry plants had held their green color. We saw lots of elk and deer tracks and droppings. Turkey tracks were also common and we found a few feathers. There was a bright orange fungus that seemed to be growing on many kinds of decaying vegetation.
A wildlife sighting
We worked our way across a swamp and came to an area of dead trees where a beaver pond had once been. A stream flowed unobstructed now through the remnants of several dams across a field filled with stumps, cut logs and branches aging in the sun. Michael spotted a clump of deer hair on a small hill and looked around for the rest of the carcass, but found only a few ribs. While I was away from the creek checking out this find, the guys saw a lone beaver working it's way downstream.
First night's camp
We followed the creek loosely as it turned north toward its confluence with the Black River. We found a place to camp there on a thinly forested rise the contours of which looked like an island at the tip of a peninsula on the topo map. Our chosen site had been frequented by elk: there were tracks, droppings, many saplings with their bark rubbed off and bushes trimmed to a uniform height by browsing.
A big tree west of our camp was nearly barkless too--it appeared to have been gnawed by porcupines. We had good access to water though the runoff made it a bit silty. The evening was quiet and the moon nearly full. We heard the yelping of coyotes several times not too far away. A barred owl called too, "Whoo cooks for you?"
The next morning began with ducks quacking stridently from the river. After breakfast Dan did the azimuth backtracking off the "island-peninsula" and we began working our way up the river checking out tracks, poking into scat and speculating about the possible cause and effect of many things we found.
We ate lunch by a pond that was ice free and blue-gray in the sunshine. The vegetation along its shore was showing the earliest signs of spring growth. Maple buds gave a hint of red. Dogwoods had traces of pale green. A frog peeped enthusiastically from the tangle of last summer's cattails at the water's edge. Others joined him tentatively now and then. I napped in the sunshine. Dan gazed into the woods. Michael read his novel.
Well rested, we filled our water bottles and continued. Where a back road approached the stream, we encountered a family on an afternoon outing. A small boy and two enthusiastic dogs romped along the path while the parents ambled behind. The father shared that he had been coming to that spot to fish since he was his son's age.
Camp by the river
We began to hear the diesel engine sound of one of the area's gas wells. For some time it got louder and then receded as we passed it hidden in the woods. The sun was around treetop level and we began looking for a place to camp. The river valley widened and the shore became swampy. We pushed on to get away from the pump sound and finally decided to camp on a small piece of higher ground where the river turned toward the far side of the valley.
It was one of those "just enough space" camps where you don't have to gather for conversation at mealtimes because you are already together. Michael's tarp pitch gave him a nice view of the river in both directions and when I climbed down in front of it to get water, I found an animal den in the bank. About nine inches in diameter at the opening it appeared to tunnel way in to the bank and to be well maintained. We didn't find any tracks or see the owner though.
A walk before dinner
It was early for dinner so I decided to go for a walk. Michael said there was an old road that paralleled the river a few hundred meters back in the woods and that the topo showed it had some open areas along it that might be good places to look for the elusive elk.
I set my wrist compass to take me west and started off. After detouring around some swampy spots and just before I decided that the road didn't really exist, I found it. I decided to go north as we would most likely be going south on it in the morning. The open areas on the map appeared to have grown a fine crop of young aspens.
Visibility was still pretty good though so I walked along, sitting down at intervals to scan for elk and to rest my back which was bothering me. A line of dark clouds passed over and it occurred to me that it would have been a good idea to bring my raingear.
The sky lightened again, however and I decided to go a little further. Winding paths in the woods are almost an irresistible temptation for me ... I keep thinking "just one more corner". So sunset was approaching when I turned back toward camp. I walked as rapidly as my back would permit and found the log that marked where I had come out of the woods.
I looked down at my wrist compass planning to set it to 90 degrees and go due east back to the river, but it was set at 240, not 270...had I not come due west from the river? Or had I come due west and bumped the bezel along the road somewhere?
I decided to go due east and to bear to the left around any obstacles as that should take me toward camp rather than away from it. The 90 degree bearing soon took me into swampier ground than I remembered in getting out to the road. I started edging north.
Daylight was definitely fading.
When I came to the tag alders that marked the river valley, they stretched away into the distance whereas near camp there was just a band of them along the edge of the stream.... I wanted to get back to camp on my own, but thought about how difficult the pools and mossy logs of the swamp would be to deal with in the dark and decided that "discretion is the better part of valor."
I shouted to see if camp was within hearing distance. After a couple of calls there was a faint reply from the south and I turned in that direction. A couple more auditory position checks and I caught sight of a headlamp in the distance. It was great to be back!
As we lit our stoves to fix dinner, the wind picked up. Now and then during the warm meal and later as I snuggled into my sleeping bag, I thought about what spending the night in the swamp would have been like.
Snow and bones
The next morning we woke to find the forest looking like it had been sprinkled with powdered sugar. The light rain of the early evening had turned to intermittent snow. After breakfast we hiked to the road I'd been on the night before and headed south.
When the road diverged from our intended direction, we chose a rough azimuth and headed into a planting of mature red pines. Almost immediately we came upon the carcass of an elk, probably one killed the previous fall by a hunter as the head and hind quarters were missing. It nevertheless merited a couple of Kodak moments.
A first rate campsite
From there we continued, sometimes on a road, sometimes off, until we came upon the edge of some private property which we then worked our way around. On its north side was a small lake that drained into a swampy valley.
Near the outlet of the lake, between a clear, sandy-bottomed stream and a plateau covered with hardwoods, was a stand of cedars and huge red pines: a wonderful camping spot! We set up our shelters, gathered some hardwood for a small fire on a elevated firepan, napped, snacked, explored and read. We had dinner around the fire and watched the moon come up to be reflected on the ponds and scattered snow pack beneath the trees. Very relaxing for a final evening in the bush.
On our way home
The next morning it was sunny and cool. We enjoyed the fire again during breakfast and packed in a leisurely fashion. We calculated a rough azimuth to intersect the SW corner of the HCP and spent the morning hiking over the forested rolling hills and intervening plains left by the glaciers. We found another of the area's myriad gas wells apparently connected to civilization by the sandy road that ran alongside it. We stopped for a closer look. When operational, it was driven by a propane fueled Ford engine. Michael pointed out that the key was still in it. Dan noted that the battery was missing... The huge flywheel and drive mechanism were rusty. A porcupine that had been dead long enough for freeze drying to occur lay nearby. Although it was some distance from the machine, its tail was streaked with rust and we considered the possibility that it hadn't died of natural causes. I gathered a few quills: I wanted to get a closer look at their barbs and to show them to my grandkids.
(After the trip I learned the quills do indeed have a tiny barb that makes them extremely difficult to extract. "The barbed tips are almost impossible to remove, especially by a four-legged animal," writes Allen Kurta in Mammals of the Great Lakes Region, "and the quills are pulled gradually inward by incidental muscular movements of the victim." Kurta notes death may result if the quills "penetrate an artery or vital organ." Ouch!)
A stealthy approach
Farther along, as we came out of some woods, we spotted some animals in a distant field. Hoping they were elk, we decided to sneak up close enough to get some pictures. Keeping trees and bushes between ourselves and the animals, we advanced to an adjacent field. There we dropped our packs and edged, one at a time, over to a berm behind which we could creep reasonably close without being seen. The glimpses we'd gotten thus far suggested they were deer, not elk, but still it was fun to see how close we could get. When we finally peeked over the berm, it was obvious that our presence hadn't gone unnoticed: three pairs of eyes gazed back alertly, three pairs of ears were trained in our direction. I took a couple of pictures as the deer bounded off, not appearing unduly alarmed.
A few more kilometers ...
The HCP was right where the map and compass indicated it should be. We followed it to where the Neon was parked and then drove up to retrieve Michael's van. After changing into more socially acceptable clothes, we drove into town and had a post trip lunch together before getting on the expressway. The main topic of conversation, of course, was the next trip...
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