Wilderness Tripping: Intermediate-level
Winter Backpacking Trip
An Early Winter Exploration
December 3-6, 2004
By Gail Staisil
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Friday, December 3
A Cold Start
I left Midland early this morning, to meet my trail friends at the Pigeon River State Forest near Vanderbilt. It was normally a bit over a two hour drive for me, but today it would take additional time, as a winter storm moved through the upper half of the Lower Peninsula. The roads were slick and the traffic light; everyone was driving cautiously slow.
I still arrived in plenty of time to join the others. They included Michael from Marquette, Mary Ann from Sault St. Marie, Ontario, Mary and Mike from Flint, and Cathy and Phoebe both from Ann Arbor.
It would be the first trip for Phoebe with our group, so Michael helped her with her equipment to insure that she had the proper gear to stay warm. When I arrived to meet everyone, it was 9 AM and only 3 degrees Fahrenheit.
This trip would involve no shuttling of vehicles which was kind of nice for a change. We all left our vehicles at the parking lot across from the Pigeon River Bridge State Forest Campground. We decided to move through the swamp area on the west side of the Pigeon River, by utilizing a short section of the trail there, which is called the Shingle Mill Pathway.
Once we hit the power line, we would head north and utilize that right of way, plus a series of old roads. I led an azimuth which was close to being perfectly west. It "T-boned" several old roads.
We came across a huge brush hut along the way. It had several small openings that were most certainly used for rifle sightings by hunters. Shortly after as we "T-boned" another old road, Michael noticed the carcass of a deer. It was relatively fresh and evidently had been worked on by coyotes, as there were fresh tracks all over the place in the freshly fallen snow. Apparently hunters had de-boned the carcass, and left the rest for the coyotes. We wondered if we had just scared the coyotes away or maybe the tracks were from an earlier morning feed.
We entered into Green Timbers property, from the rest of the Pigeon River State Forest we had been traveling. Green Timbers is managed as a special use area within the state forest. It is closed to all motor vehicles including snowmobiles. It was once a fishing and hunting resort, plus logging interests controlled the northern portion of it, so evidence of past logging remains.
As it was getting near dusk, we found a spot along Pickerel Creek and set up camp in a cedar flood plain. It was located just west of the section line that we were following.
Saturday, December 4
Wet Snow, Cabins and Mud Lake
I had a restful night. Good thing I can sleep on most anything, as I was literally nestled among big tree roots. They were apparently just in the right place as I didn't budge during the whole night. The night as a whole was rather warm...it probably didn't get much below 20 Fahrenheit...or at least it felt like that.
There wasn't any visible precipitation when I woke up, but it soon started to snow big, heavy, wet flakes. It was going to be quite a mess, but we had to pack up anyway. I put my rain gear on quickly, as did the others. We headed out onto a ridge overlooking a damned up area, that was heavily flooded by beaver activity. It was a tributary of Pickerel Creek that flowed south, of where we had camped. Mary and Michael found a small natural land bridge that we used to cross the waterway in the swamp.
Phoebe had pulled a muscle in camp last evening as she was obtaining water, so she was going to walk out today. Since Mike was leaving too, they would walk out to the Sturgeon Valley Road and Mike would retrieve his vehicle after a significant road walk. Phoebe would wait with the packs and rest her injury. Our group of seven was suddenly a group of five.
The morning continued to be very wet. We now headed off towards the Sturgeon River. Along the way we would cross the Pickerel Creek Bridge and then stop shortly after at the Green Timbers Cabin, one of two cabins left in the tract. We checked out the cabin again, as some of the group hadn't seen it before and then headed out into the hills to the other cabin...the Honeymoon Cabin.
The first part of our morning was sort of a roundabout walk, which we are sometimes famous for. :) If an outsider would look at our chosen route, they would certainly wonder why we didn't go from point "A" to "B" in a more direct manner, instead of circumnavigating like we often do. There were of course logical reasons for it. :)
We climbed the steep hillside to the other cabin. When we arrived, there was a large group of "twenty-somethings" who were working on fixing a few things in this Honeymoon cabin. They had humongous piles of gear, lots of dogs and cold adult refreshments with them. They thought we wanted to stay there too, but we assured them that it wasn't our intention, as we were heading elsewhere...to Mud Lake!
One of the young men commented on my pace beads as being such, and asked what we had paced today. He had spent time in the military and said they often just tied knots in a string to represent the units.
We still had several klicks to get in before dark. Our destination was Mud Lake, a place none of us had ever been to before. All vehicle access has been cut off from this area, so we knew it would be quiet. We were pleasantly surprised to find a nice piney open area along the lake. There was a nice fireplace left from a demolished building; at one time there were two other buildings as well.
The lake already had a good two inch layer of ice on it...Michael chopped a hole so that we could obtain water. We spent the evening enjoying the peacefulness and talked quietly among ourselves.
Sunday, December 5
The "Burl" Bowl
I slept well again last night. I love my new bivy which I made last week. It is wider on the top half and so easy to get in and out of if needed...funny thing is that I didn't need to get out. :)
As we looked around the area this morning, we saw the cement platforms of probably two other dwellings that existed here at one time. The quad map indicated that there had been a swimming pool, but we found a tennis court instead...it probably had been mapped by a winter aerial survey and only appeared to be a pool.
Shortly after we left camp, someone found a large burl that had separated from a tree. It was a neat, hollow, hemisphere that looked like a bowl. It also was the size of a hat, so Mary Ann fashionably adorned her head with it, for a few photos.
Cathy hand-railed us along the lake, and then she headed us off in a straight-forward easterly direction towards Grass Lake, where we would pick up the Shingle Mill Pathway. We were avoiding the swamps that lay just north of our position, so we predominately ridge walked, making it easy going. We had a late lunch at Grass Lake; we sat on the shoreline taking in some of the sun rays to take off the chill.
Grass Lake was only partially frozen. We continued on the pathway in a northeast direction and then headed south. I led the others off the path to my favorite cedar forest, along the Pigeon River. This island spot lies perhaps a quarter mile from the trail but is virtually unknown, except perhaps by fishermen. I have now camped there in every season as it is a quiet, majestic place along the river.
Mary was happy to be near water again, so that she could have a small, Indian-style fire on her elevated fire pan. Michael helped her gather and prepare wood.
I wandered further downstream a bit, to freshen up and have some quiet time. I went back to my tarp and made dinner. The subtle roar of the river was a nice accompaniment to the evening. Later I visited the others who were sitting by Mary's fire. I sat a ways from it on a handy log where I could see everyone, but keep my distance from the fire.
I went back to my tarp and readied for bed. I lay awake for quite awhile but once I dozed off, morning wasn't far away.
Monday, December 6
A Snowy Morning At The "Island"
The ground was covered with snow, which had fallen softly through the night--it was quite picturesque once again. I walked upstream to an area, that had been built up by beaver activity. The water was cascading over the logs. Upon my return, I finished packing and we all headed back to the trail.
I led the others back to the trail from the "island." Once we were on the trail, Mary Ann led us south on the Shingle Mill Pathway. We stopped along the river to take some pictures and later stopped for a break before we returned to our cars.
We decided to gather for lunch in Vanderbilt. Michael found the White Wolf Inn which had an excellent menu. We talked of future trips and past trips, but mostly the air was mixed with quietness. Another good trip was ending and we were not particularly anxious to leave the area.
Tomorrow, elk hunters would descend into the woods here, so it was time to go. We had only seen elk tracks on this trip but I'm sure the hunters would be luckier. We hadn't covered as much ground as we thought we would, but we knew we would be back, to enjoy surveying more ground in the future.
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