Wilderness Tripping: Backpacking
Pigeon River Country
A 4-day, early-spring,
April 7-10, 2006
By Mary Powell
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I awoke early Friday morning at the trailhead where we were gathering for our first backpacking trip of the spring. Beneath a cloudy sky my tarp flapped and pulled at its anchors in a steady breeze. We were camped in a clearcut so the surrounding acres were a desolate jumble of mud and discarded branches. The air was filled with the smell of fresh woodchips. Michael, Dave, Cathy, MaryAnn and I had arrived the evening before.
We prepared breakfast and waited for the others: Kevin, Khai and Bill. As they arrived and we got acquainted, Michael gave us some options for the day's hiking. After a short discussion, we decided to divide into two groups so that everyone could participate more in the navigation. After spotting cars at several possible endpoints for the trip, we began the day's hike along Canada Creek Rd.
No Shortage of Water
Our group, consisting of Dave, Kevin, MaryAnn and myself, headed southwest and almost immediately discovered something that would hold true for the balance of the trip: in these parts, losing just a few feet of elevation is very likely to put one in a swamp. Not being eager to get wet feet, we consulted the topo again for the nearest higher ground. Dave then led us on an azimuth across the small swampy valley and on to the west, crossing several open fields and climbing steadily.
Beyond Black River Rd the trees became predominantly oak and signs of elk became common. There were numerous rubs, droppings and areas where the elk had pawed the ground in search of acorns. The overcast sky had developed patches of blue. Looking around, we chose a sunny spot for lunch.
Finding the Island
When we'd eaten and soaked up the sunshine for awhile, Kevin took the point, leading us west until we came to a power line. The ease of walking in the cleared area was attractive and the line ran north, a direction we needed to go in order to reach the agreed upon bivouac spot which was an island of high ground in a sizeable swamp along the Black River.
We hadn't gone far when we came upon a hunting blind and some rather ambiguous signs indicating we were approaching private land. We were puzzled because we'd marked all the private holdings from the plat books onto our topos and none showed here. On the off chance that there actually was some private land here though, we decided to avoid any possible problems by moving back to the south a bit before continuing west.
We walked toward the sun until the high ground we were on dropped noticeably toward a swamp. We then turned north along the edge of the plateau and when it began to angle east, we got out the GPS to confirm our location in relation to a chain of small "islands" in the swamp, the furthest of which was our objective. The plan was to work our way from one to the other in order to keep the amount of actual swamp travel to a minimum. Michael had assured us that a comfortable campsite awaited us under huge pines overlooking the river. He'd found it on a trip last fall and named it Bear Island because of the clear tracks they'd seen along the ridge on that visit.
It was definitely an island now--water glinted beneath the cedars below us. We were drawn on by the promised campsite and the desire to join the rest of the group and hear how their afternoon had gone. We figured an azimuth and Kevin led us into the swamp. We tried to keep our feet on fallen branches, hummocks of grass and tree roots, but they dipped into the water now and then. We took a short break on the second island then plunged back into the swamp. When the land began to rise again we found a clear set of bear tracks in the remnants of crusty snow. At the far end of the ridge we'd come upon, we found the campsite Michael had promised. The clear, pine-clad rise angled sharply down to the river which was well above its banks. The woods were flooded as far as we could see to the west.
Evening on the Island
We chose our spots and began to set up our shelters. As we were brewing a warm drink and relaxing, we heard voices approaching. The other half of the group soon appeared from the woods. They related the highlights of their afternoon. They'd ranged a little further south after skirting the initial swamp. They'd had lunch in a clearing by a gas well and had spotted a couple of deer in one of the open fields. The two who were new to the group, Khai and Bill, had had a chance to study the map and work on the azimuths while Cathy did the point work.
When they had set up camp we fixed dinner and watched the sunset over the river. Its light was soon replaced by the glow of a 3/4 moon. The evening's conversation touched on fire starting and Michael demonstrated his magnesium fire starter and some tinder that works really well with it. Coyotes called several times in the distance and the moon got brighter as it cleared the trees. We turned in fairly late, but I still watched the play of shadows on my tarp and listened to the night sounds for quite a while.
The next morning it was mostly sunny and we took our time with breakfast and getting ready to travel. The night, like the one before, had been pretty chilly. We didn't have a thermometer, but a bucket of water that Dave had left setting out had over half an inch of ice on it. So this morning the sun felt good. When everyone was ready, Cathy and Kevin figured an azimuth and led us from the island through the edge of the flooding to the nearest area of higher open ground.
Michael had heard from a local about a bridge nearby and wanted to look for it. We scouted the periphery of the field and found a trail leading in the general direction of the river. It didn't lead us to a bridge but we did find a stretch of railroad grade, some barrel pieces and a remnants of a hunting camp. We took a short lunch break, then Cathy and Kevin led us on to Clark Bridge Road. Some of us picked up water there and we decided on a plan for the afternoon.
Mary Ann and I picked up the point position, going a little way down the road and taking the first two track to the north. It approached a plot of private land and, as planned, we began to work our way around it. Ahead of us three wild turkeys hurried away up a draw. We followed them, working along the edge of the posted area.
As we crossed a clearing there was a motion along the edge of the woods to the right: a mother bear followed closely by her yearling cub hustled away from us into the woods. A female bear normally keeps her cub from the previous summer with her until June when she becomes pregnant again. We all enjoyed the sighting! The bears had gone in the general direction that we intended to go, however, so Michael cautioned us to be alert for the cub as they will sometimes go up a tree when followed and we would not want to find ourselves between it and the mother.
Swamp and More Swamp...
We edged between the corners of two parcels of private land and squished through the mud along a tributary of McMasters Creek until we reached an old railroad grade we were aiming for. We then turned NW to the creek. The grade was raised several feet above the soggy ground around it so the going was easy.
Where a sizeable creek crossed the grade, we took off our boots and waded. It was a bit over knee deep, cold and invigorating. We continued along the grade, climbing over tag alders and cat tails in places until we came to Mc Masters Creek. This being early spring, it was more like a river: its dark water flowed deep and fast through a gap in the grade perhaps four or five meters wide. Searching up or down stream for a better spot to cross was not an option as flooded marsh stretched in all directions.
As we stood surveying the situation, a canoe floated into view carrying a small boy and his dad. They were obviously surprised by our presence-- the boy open, curious, inquisitive, the father mildly challenging. Their cabin, it turned out, could be seen in the distance on the hillside across the river. The man shared that there was a substantial old beaver dam a couple hundred meters downstream. The top was submerged now he said, but we might be able to cross there... After a few more minutes of conversation the man steered his canoe downstream toward their camp, apparently satisfied that we were no threat, though perhaps a little crazy for being out there.
To Swim or To Walk...
The beaver dam was really not an option: we'd get soaked getting to it through the marsh and it would be dangerously slippery to cross in that current. Floating our packs and swimming the short gap in the grade was very tempting. We could see the tree line where we intended to camp just a few hundred meters beyond it along the grade. The alternative was to backtrack to the higher ground near the stream we'd crossed and then work our way around the marsh. That meant about a kilometer of bushwhacking through swamp.
Because it was late in the day, there was a brisk breeze, the water was very cold and a large group would take quite a while to cross safely, we agreed that it would be better to do the bushwhack. Back at the "high" ground by the stream, we started south, stepping on alders and hummocks and plunging repeatedly in the remnants of snow. Michael, being more efficient, took over the lead. We used the GPS a number of times to check our progress so as not to waste time and effort.
With a couple of short standing breaks it took us over an hour and a half to reach the two track at the far side of the swamp. We skirted some more private land there and followed the little road down to the creek. There was no good camping spot there so we picked up water for the evening and went back about a hundred meters to a grassy field by the road. Though we'd not been excited by the prospect of staying there, it turned out to be a pleasant place to camp.
By the time we got our shelters up and started cooking it was getting dark. The moon rose behind light clouds and had a double ring around it. Traditional wisdom says this is a sign of rain. As we sat and talked a woodcock repeatedly launched himself into the spiraling flights of his mating ritual. A couple of bats combed the clearing for bugs. When everyone retired, I tried to read but only got in a couple of chapters before falling asleep.
I woke just as the sky was beginning to glow with the pastel colors of dawn. As the sun rose I brewed coffee and watched the aspens at the edge of the field turn into a jeweled forest as the sunlight struck the frost that covered them. After the meal, when all were ready to go, MaryAnn and I took the point again and led the way up a two track to where a cabin showed on the map. The terrain became hilly and the swamp was replaced by open field and light forest.
Remains of a Cabin
When we reached the cabin site we found the building gone, but there were remnants of logs held together by huge nails. We also found some cement supports, a spark arrester, barrel staves and other small artifacts.
The surrounding vegetation was wild though--no sign of a garden. After a short break in the sunny clearing and poking around the site a little more, we set off to the NW, more or less parallel to McMasters Creek.
We were planning to intersect a bush road Michael had seen on a previous trip and to follow that to a more substantial east-west road with a bridge that would allow us to cross Mc Masters Creek. Though the terrain looked pretty low on the map, it remained dry for the most part and we made good progress.
A Wilderness Jewel
We took a lunch break upon reaching the east-west road, then continued across the creek. Our next objective was and old railroad grade that curved NE toward the south end of Dog Lake. Near the top of a hill we left the road on a short bushwhack to reach this grade. The brush was thick and as we went downhill, it began to get swampy again. It was Michael who found the grade, ranging out ahead of the group on a recon. It was intact and wide open at first, but closer to the lake it became more overgrown and fragmented.
Intermittently we found ourselves balancing on hummocks and fallen branches again. When the earthen dam, forested at the ends with evergreens, came into view it was a welcome sight. We climbed to the top and found a broad grassy expanse with unobstructed views of both the lake and the wetland from which we'd just emerged. What a remote jewel this place was! We walked along the dam enjoying the vistas and checked the far end for camping possibilities. There were some sheltered areas among the pines. Despite a brisk breeze, however, we decided to camp on the open dam, soaking up the view and watching for wildlife.
Khai and Bill stayed near the north end, MaryAnn and I camped near a beaver lodge in the middle of the dam while Cathy, Dave and Michael built a "row house" at the south end and Kevin set up his tent near them.
As it was early, Michael and Dave started off on a recon to see if the RR grade we'd been on continued as shown on the map. I ambled around noting the numerous beaver drags and finding a set of tracks along the lake that may have been coyote but were definitely on the large side and may have been wolf. Wolves have been increasingly reported in the northern lower peninsula in recent years. Last fall one was accidentally killed in Presque Isle county nearby, confirming their presence below the Straits. There were bear tracks too and I was glad we'd found a good spot to hang the food.
Returning to camp I saw Kevin had out his binoculars. He and Cathy were passing them back and forth to study the waterfowl, mostly buffleheads and mallards at this point. Soon Cathy's sharp eyes spotted a large bird in a tree on the far side of the lake. The binoculars made it possible to ID it as a bald eagle and there were several more soaring in the sky beyond. Over the course of the evening we also saw blue herons, kingfishers, geese and muskrats. Spring peepers sang loudly in the wetland below the dam. Canada geese landed there at sunset and "gossiped" steadily as darkness fell. Beyond the point we could hear sandhills calling too.
Over coffee Michael and Dave reported on their recon. It would be possible to link this site with a RR grade and some back roads on the far side of the creek on a future trip--good news since we all felt it was worth a return visit. The sky remained clear. The moon rose over the lake and the stars came out. We sat and talked listening to the night sounds in the background.
The sun warmed us quickly when it came up in the morning. We sat sipping our coffee and watching the wild residents begin their day. Geese and ducks argued over lake space. Redwing blackbirds trilled among the stalks of last years cattails. Suddenly the trippers at the south end of the dam were gesturing wildly at the wetland behind us. Kevin had his binoculars pointed in that direction. Turning that way we saw a pale tan shape against the red-brown foliage: a mature elk stood chewing a mouthfull of weeds and contemplating the strange creatures on the dam. It posed there for several minutes before moving into the woods.
Native elk disappeared from Michigan around 1875, due primarily to habitat destruction from logging and farming. In 1918 seven animals from a western herd were released near Wolverine. There are now 800-900 elk in the Pigeon River area and limited hunting is allowed to control herd size. The DNR maintains open areas in the forest for viewing and forage.
Heading for Home
After breakfast we started in the general direction of our cars, planning to stick to the higher ground and to search the open areas for more elk. It was a pleasant morning of hiking but despite diligent scanning of the fields, we didn't see any more elk. Gathering the cars everyone seemed a bit subdued. Conversation centered around how we were sorry the trip was ending--the weather was beautiful and there were many more trails we could follow....
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