Wilderness Tripping: Backpacking
Grand Sable State Forest:
A 4-day, early-spring,
May 5-8, 2006
By Mary Powell
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Friday: Birthday party
We were to meet at 8:00AM Friday morning at Seney Crossing, a small restaurant sandwiched between a bank and a grocery store in the little collection of buildings that comprises the town of Seney. On my way to the restaurant, driving in a light rain and seeing occasional snowflakes, I wondered vaguely why I was planning to spend the next four days walking and sleeping outside in this weather.... True, the forecast looked somewhat better after today, but it remained "iffy": nowhere did it say, unequivocally, "warm and sunny".
The members of our little group all arrived within a few minutes of the appointed time: trip leader Mike Neiger, Cathy, MaryAnn and her husband Dave and myself. As we enjoyed breakfast and signed the necessary waivers, Dave asked if the Fox River Crossing planned for this morning would be a wade or a swim. One of the locals seated nearby, an older man, chimed in with a smile, "Well, you could wade, but you'd prob'ly get your ears wet..." "Hmmm" said Dave...
As we left the restaurant a steady drizzle was falling and some of the drops still looked more like flakes. The appeal of a river crossing was diminishing rapidly. Nevertheless, we set out to spot our cars since this was to be a linear hike. By the time we reached our first drop off point, Michael had come up with an new proposal: why not use the canoe I'd brought along for another trip as a ferry? It would have to be retrieved at the end of the hike, but that was days hence, only one of us would need to get wet then and the packs would not be at risk....
It didn't take long to get consensus on that plan. So while MaryAnn waited with the packs at the starting point, we put Michael's van as far north as we thought we might want to walk and the other cars in between as alternative endpoints so we could go as fast or as slow as we wanted and not have a "forced march" at the end.
When we'd rejoined MaryAnn, we unloaded the canoe and Michael made several trips across the river ferrying people and packs to the far side. We stashed the canoe and paddle and then drew straws for the point position. I got the short one and so led the group east out of the swampy lowland along the river to higher ground nearby. A wide expanse had been clearcut maybe 15 or so years ago and in this area we located a somewhat overgrown two track that showed on the topo. We followed it north checking our progress now and then with the GPS. By doing so we could chat and enjoy the scenery rather than counting pace and still find points of interest we wanted to see.
There were an assortment of warblers in the scattered bushes along the old road. We saw a sizeable woodpecker that didn't have the red head of a pileated-- possibly a yellow-bellied sapsucker. There were also a variety of tracks in the sandy soil of the road. A large coyote or a small wolf had followed it a while. There were many deer tracks and those of racoons and other small creatures. Beside the road patches of leatherleaf were in bloom and in the woods were the flowers of trailing arbutus.
Crossing a small creek, we turned east past the lake that it drained and then north along a ridge that rose above the swampy ground surrounding the lake. Finding a comfortable place on a grassy hillside we decided to camp. After getting my shelter set up, I was about to fix a hot drink when Michael suggested a further recon of the ridge to see if we could pick up any sign of a road coming in from the far side of the swamp. No one else, it seemed, was interested in recon so I got up and went along. It turned out to be pretty interesting. We did find traces of a road in the expected place and we also found some clear bear tracks.
About an hour had passed when we returned to camp and I found out the whole recon had been a ruse: while we were gone the rest of the group had prepared a surprise birthday party for my 60th!
A HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner hung by my shelter which was decorated with confetti, and on a party tablecloth were laid out an assortment of hors d'oeurves as well as a real cheesecake and home made brownies. There were even party hats! This, of course, called for some Kodak moments, after which we dug into the food. To top it all off they'd brought presents: sesame candy (a favorite), a subscription to Runner's magazine (because I'd resolved to learn to run to escape from cardio sessions at the gym) and a Barnes & Noble gift card (to indulge in one of my addictions: books).
It was a wonderful celebration and I was deeply touched that these friends had not only taken the time to plan the party and purchase the gifts, but had then carried it all miles into the woods! Cheesecake, brownies and magazines will never make the ultralight backpackers list.... I said "Thanks" many times but it didn't seem like enough to convey what I felt. It was great.
After the party we thought about fixing dinner, but it no longer seemed necessary. We put on more warm layers as the night was bringing back the chill we'd felt in the morning. We fixed hot drinks and soup and relaxed. Spring peepers sang loudly from the trees. A half moon lit the cloudless sky and the temperature dropped steadily. We retired kind of early to our bags--to warm our toes and to read.
Saturday: Reconning the east bank
The clouds stayed away so Saturday morning was sunny and the temperature climbed quickly from chilly to comfortable. We took our time having breakfast, then studied the maps awhile. When we were finally ready to hit the trail it was almost 10AM. It was Cathy's turn to take the point and she led us back along the ridge to the road. We began working our way north again. The terrain was open grassland with scattered groves of trees and patches of reindeer moss that crunched underfoot. Every so often we would veer west to the river to check out potential campsites for an upcoming canoe trip. We had lunch at one of these spots.
Late afternoon found us about three leisurely kilometers farther north and we decided to camp above the river on a high ridge that intersected it creating a deep "S" curve. We set our shelters up in a row under some pines overlooking the river and the forest beyond it. We dug out the hors d'oeuvres from the night before and relaxed. Clouds were moving in again and after dinner a light rain began. It was beginning to look like I might finish this paperback in just one trip....
Sunday: Wagoner Dam
Quite a bit of rain fell through the night, but Sunday morning the sky was clear and the sunshine felt good. Dave and MaryAnn led us north along the river over a series of ridges clothed in scrubby hardwood forest.
We checked out a couple more potential campsites then moved on to a place called Spring Pond. This small lake just east of the river looked interesting on the maps, but turned out to be brush choked, swampy and recently clearcut area along one edge.... definitely not attractive! It was past time for lunch though, so we ate near the clearcut before continuing.
Our next objective was the old Wagoner Dam site. We soon found remnants of a road leading in that direction and following it, we came upon a pleasant backwater pond. Downstream just a bit were the remains of an earthen dam. We poked around there awhile, finding a few saw logs and talking about how such dams were used to run logs in the spring. By then it was time to look for a place to camp. There was a fairly nice grassy area back by the pond, but Michael was drawn to some big pines that were visible perhaps 500 meters upstream. The map indicated there would be a confluence of the Fox with it's west branch around there and the potential for a stellar campsite was too great to ignore.
So we waded the stream and hiked across the hummocky field on the far side. Near the large pines the river dropped several feet across some rocks creating a small rapid. The shore on the far side under the pines was steep and brushy though, not the hoped for five star site.... There were some acceptable camping spots on our side of the stream, however--just flatten a few raspberry brambles and move in!
Soon we were settled with the falling water sound of the rapids in the background. Having been warm and dusty all day, I got into the stream to wash up and it felt wonderful. When I came ashore Cathy was moving her shelter to the other side of mine: it seems the biting ants were pretty thick in her original location. MaryAnn had a bug complaint too: she and Dave had found a number of ticks in the process of setting up.
Those being the worst of our problems, however, it was looking like a pleasant evening. Marsh marigolds decorated the edge of the stream and waterfowl flew overhead to land in the pond on the far side of the field. As dusk approached we could hear the geese "gossiping" as they settled down for the night. We had dinner, kept an eye on the sunset and read a few more chapters.
Monday: Heading home
Monday morning brought another beautiful day--sunny with temperatures in the seventies. An eagle soared over and landed beyond the pond as we ate breakfast. We didn't have far to go to the cars so we took our time. Leaving camp we crossed the stream and as I approached the bank a good sized trout leaped out of the water away from my feet. We checked out the confluence with the west branch, finding little of note there. We then went downstream to look over the west end of the Wagner Dam. There we found some cribbing, bolts, cable and kitchen refuse from the logging era--always interesting.
Continuing southwest, we skirted some private property and came out on a road that we walked back to where some of our cars were parked. We picked up the other vehicle then drove back to where we started the trip to retrieve my canoe. Swimming the river at this temperature was much more pleasant than it would have been in the chilly drizzle four days before!
Another trip in the bag, we headed back to Seney Crossing for lunch and the inevitable discussion of where we'd be going next...
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