Michigan Bush Rats' Wilderness
Tripping: Winter Camping and Sledging
A Michigan Bush Rats' Adventure:
January 12-16, 2007
By Mary Powell (NatureLady)
E-mail author at firstname.lastname@example.org
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This trip was already on Plan B as we unloaded our gear from the cars. Originally slated to be an exploration of the Delirium Wilderness Tract, it was relocated due to unseasonably warm weather and scant snowfall over most of the UP.
Even the Kingston Plains area, which normally has major accumulation of lake effect snow, had so little a week before the trip that we were considering the possibility of having to use packs instead of sleds. Mother Nature smiled on us though, and dumped about a foot of the white stuff on the plains a few days before the trip.
After driving up separately from the Lower Peninsula, Cathy and I spent the night before the trip at the Sunset, a pleasant motel with a beachfront view of Munising Bay and Grand Island.
There was only light snow cover on the ground in town and as I checked in, the owner of the motel remarked that the last year Munising had not had snow by Christmas was 1911--clearly this was an unusual year.
The group was to assemble at 8:00AM at the Dogpatch restaurant, so as the first light of day filtered through the curtains, we were filling our thermoses with hot drinks for lunch and our bottles with warm water for the trail.
Loading our stuff into the cars it still didn't seem like midwinter: even with the NW breeze off the lake it was relatively warm. At the restaurant the main topic of conversations among the locals seemed to be the lack of snow for snowmobiling and the effect it was having on their own fun as well as the economy.
When Michael and Gail arrived, Cathy and I had had plenty of time to catch up on the details of each other's lives. It seems he had undertaken a last minute retro of his new snowshoes--says he does his best work under pressure...
At the Trailhead
After breakfast and the ritual signing of waivers, we drove out to the intersection of H-58 and the Adams Truck Trail where the trek was to begin. The woods and wetlands along the way were snowy, but it was strange to see the plowed parking area at the intersection with berms of snow only about knee high: in past winters these walls of snow have been six feet high or more.
There were only a few snowmobilers unloading their machines and revving the engines. We loaded our gear into the sleds and glanced at the topos. Michael told me to take us over to Wolf Lake, a short distance to the NW and we'd make a plan for the day's travel there.
A Brushy Bushwhack
Bumping slightly over the berm (instead of ascending the usual artificial mountain range), we headed into the woods. The effect of reduced snow cover was immediately apparent: instead of mostly gliding over brush and fallen logs we were dragging through and scraping over them.
My snowshoes caught repeatedly on protruding twigs and the sleds made worrisome scratching sounds. Before reaching the lake we came upon a north-south running two track that was not on the map and we followed it north.
When it petered out we continued in a generally northerly direction, zigzagging around the really thick stuff until we came upon the remnants of an old RR grade that was going our way. Around 1:30PM we stopped on the grade for lunch. My hot lemonade, crackers, cheese and a pear tasted really good, as meals in the bush generally do. Topped it off with chocolate of course!
Onto the Next Map
After lunch Cathy took the point and we continued north awhile to another two track where we decided to head west toward the rim of Beaver Basin and the boundary of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It was much better going on the roads and RR grades and we soon cruised off the AuSable SW topo and onto Trappers Lake. Continuing west, we found the park boundary and headed north again. Wanting to camp before dark, we chose a relatively open space in the predominantly beech-maple forest of the buffer zone.
Not the First Glitch...
As I began to set up my tarp, I covered a young maple sapling, bending it down slightly under the taut nylon. Looking for a spot to hang my glasses (because I can do close work better without them, but like to have them handy in case an interesting bird or small animal happens by) I chose a lower branch of this little tree.
As I tensioned the rope on the other side of the tarp, however, the sapling slid out from under it catapulting my glasses into the woods. I searched several times, and others helped me, but the glasses eluded us--not too surprising considering the soft snow and the fact that the frames were identical in size and color to the many twigs sticking up through it.
I was beginning to be a bit discouraged as this was not the first glitch of the day. In preparation for the trip I had cut my sled traces so that they could be taken apart for transport in the car and for storage in camp. Unable to find tubing that fit snugly into the aluminum poles, I used a couple of short lengths of dowel.
About 15 minutes from the trailhead these had proved inadequate for the task, breaking and leaving the traces hanging loosely by the straps--which means that each step is accompanied by a jerk on the waist belt and every small downhill incline causes the sled to slide onto your snowshoes.
As if that were not a sufficient irritation, the new leather laces I'd put in my mukluks stretched out markedly and then broke each time I tried to tighten them: clearly they were junk. My heels had hot spots from the friction in the sloppy boots. I decided I needed a hot drink to regroup.
Surprisingly, considering how things had been going, my stove worked flawlessly. Hot tea and a granola bar made the world look a lot better. I gathered wood for a fire and cut a sapling the right diameter to replace the dowels. I sipped a second cup of tea as I whittled the green wood to fit the traces and screwed the pieces into place. A couple lengths of eighth-inch rope replaced the offending laces in my muks.
The First Evening
The sun was setting--pale yellows and oranges beyond a bank of slate gray clouds. Intermittent flurries of light snow had fallen since we arrived. The forest around us was a study in gray and white with just a touch of tan in the leaves, which still clung to the young beeches.
At their respective shelters my friends were beginning preparations for dinner. Michael stopped by each place to make sure everyone was settled in.
I sawed a bit of wood, assembled the firepan and tripod and gathered a pile of snow to melt for water and began my own meal preparations.
A relaxing evening followed. On nights like this in the bush the silence is almost palpable--like a blanket of quiet rather than just an absence of sound. The stars came and went behind fleecy fast moving clouds.
Their water supply for the next day distilled from snow and stashed so it wouldn't freeze, the others came to visit around the fire. When the breeze was just right we thought we heard, way in the distance to the west, the roar of waves on the beach. We talked about the new tripping bulletin boards on the Net, what works and what doesn't about them and about upcoming trips.
Sometime around ten we called it a night and turned in.
Light snow continued to fall off and on through the night. I was up around 7:15 trying to break spruce branches softly enough not to disturb the others who had teased me the night before about the inconsiderate breaking twigs before 7:30. When I had a small blaze on the firepan, I hung a pot of snow over it to make water for coffee and hot cider for lunch.
When the coffee was ready, I grilled a bagel to go with it. Enjoying these treats, I watched the forest brighten gradually as if some invisible giant were turning up a rheostat. It was overcast and, with almost no wind, felt fairly warm. Gail, who had brought along a sophisticated handheld weather station she was testing, reported that the temp had dipped to 9 degrees during the night.
When everyone had breakfasted and packed, Gail led us out of camp and back to the north-south road we'd been on the day before. We continued generally north, sometimes bushwhacking, sometimes on the road.
Near lunch time we came upon the park boundary again. There were signs explaining that the entire Beaver Basin was to become a designated wilderness over the next five years and that motorized vehicles were now prohibited beyond the boundary.
We'd been seeing the track of snowmobiles and hearing them in the distance at times. As we stopped for lunch a number of them appeared. We wondered if they'd abide by the rules so far from any apparent enforcement. Those we saw that day did turn around and return whence they'd come.
It was my turn on point again after lunch and, not being motorized, we continued north on the trail. By late afternoon we were approaching the 5162N gridline and just outside the park boundary.
There was not enough time before dark to push on through the park to the Fox River Trail and, as we did not have backcountry camping permits, we decided to settle again in the buffer zone. Rejecting an old hunting camp which was strewn with plastic buckets, pieces of tarp etc., we found a comfortable area near the berms at the edge of the park.
The Evening at the Edge
Michael and Gail decided to erect overlapping explorer shelters, which turned out well, providing a large contiguous covered area. He pointed out how two more tarps could be added to the open sides creating a sort of giant teepee which would make socializing easy if the weather were bad.
Cathy's tarp became sort of a Whalen shelter while mine ended up as a lean-to. As it was early, there was time to rest before getting into evening chores and at various times we each stretched out for awhile. It was still light as I gathered firewood and I took some pictures of beech drops, mosses and ferns (still green!) that were sticking up through the snow near my shelter.
In a normal January these would have been brown and at least a foot under the snow. Michael came by as I was fixing the evening meal and engaged in some banter about the noise of stoves and the peacefulness of burning wood.... That generated a friendly rejoinder by the stove users about the messiness of fires and their attendant smoke.
In the distance coyotes howled briefly as the day faded into twilight. After dinner there was visiting, star watching, short walks and peace. During the night we awoke several times to the sound of icy snow on the tarps.
As daylight approached the crystalline snow was still falling intermittently, sounding a lot like rain on the tarps. Gathering firewood to make breakfast, I came upon a wood lily sticking up through the snow. It was not quite in bloom, but there was a well developed bud mostly coated with ice. Kind of sad...wonder if the fauna are as confused as the flora...maybe we should still be hanging our food!
On the Beach
By 9:30 or so Cathy and I had dispensed with the usual morning chores and Michael told us we could get started and wait for them somewhere along the coastal trail. We struck out at a leisurely pace with Cathy in the lead since it was her turn on point.
Where the side trail on which we were camped joined the main trail to the lake an old and much used snowmobile was parked--respecting the prohibition on entering the Lakeshore proper. Footprints led downhill on the trail and we followed them.
The topo map showed Seven Mile Creek about fifty meters to the west of the trail and at its closest approach the footprints turned in that direction--apparently a fisherman. We decided to have a look at the creek.
Following the prints we found a crystal clear stream flowing over a sandy bottom dotted with fist-sized well-worn rocks. A few snow covered logs added interest--a Kodak moment.
When we'd soaked up the scene and snapped a few pictures, we continued toward the lake and very shortly came upon the coastal trail. This section ran parallel to the beach behind the first row of dunes. When we'd traveled NE on it for some distance we decided to park the sleds and check out the beach.
Scrambling down the small dunes, we came to the ice-encrusted expanse of sand. It was another Kodak moment--dark turquoise waves topped by whitecaps, mosaics of beach stones, dried grasses waving in the stiff breeze, the blue sky decorated with clouds in varying shades of gray.
We took some pictures and wandered around checking out the dried weeds, the flotsam, and ice at the water's edge. Cathy did some long slides on smooth stretches of icy beach. We then returned to the sleds for a snack and a drink of water. Michael and Gail joined us there.
Fox River Pathway
When we got started again, it wasn't long until we came to the sign marking the intersection with the Fox River Pathway. There we turned inland and began climbing to the Kingston Plains. There was a single set of day-old snowshoe prints going in both directions on the trail as if a lone hiker had done an out-and-back walk from some place ahead.
As we climbed the snow got deeper and intermittent flurries were adding to the accumulation. Though the many big stumps visible in the open areas lacked their usual "mushroom caps" of snow, the ground had perhaps a foot of cover.
As the grass disappeared and the sleds began to leave a deeper track, Michael became more animated: here was some real winter! Here he could at least get an idea of whether the new Cree snowshoes were an improvement over their predecessors. And tonight we wouldn't need to gather snow from many, many square feet to get enough for water...
After lunch Gail took point and we made tracks south toward Kingston Lake. Trail markings were sparse in some of the open areas and, with the tread being snow covered, we sometimes hunted for the trail and sometimes just continued on a rough azimuth. Near the lake we swung east around some private property and as sunset approached we were crossing the Baker Grade. Just beyond it we found a good spot to camp at the base of a ridge.
Next morning, after making it to the top of the aforementioned ridge, we continued our southeasterly trek, passing some picturesque places in the pines where we'd camped on previous trips--bringing back good memories. The plains are a beautiful area, though undoubtedly desolate compared with pre lumbering days.
I enjoy the vistas of rolling hills, widely spaced clusters of huge pines and the innumerable weathered stumps of ancient trees standing like sculptures in the snow. Sadly, some areas had been clear cut again, increasing the desolation and leaving jumbles of debris.
Our objective for the day's hike was Wise Lake and as dusk approached we bushwhacked west toward it. We reconned most of the north shore looking for the ideal level sheltered area with a view, but ended up settling near where we'd first come out of the woods. Our last night in the bush was again relaxed and peaceful.
Cathy explored a bit, we got some pictures, brewed up hot drinks and dinner. There was the usual intermittent snowfall and the wind made "snow devils" on the open expanse of the lake.
The next morning was overcast and almost windless--nice weather for sledging. There were a couple of inches of fresh fluff on top of the older snow so everything looked pristine. Gail and I declined point and Cathy, who is always up for a challenge, took it on.
The plan was to bushwhack around the south of the adjoining lakes and west from there to the intersection where our vehicles were parked--about 3.5 K. We could have taken mostly roads but trudging along an established path, possibly dodging snowmobiles, was not appealing.
The brush was thick in some places but the scenery and nav work made it worthwhile. Cathy and Michael did an excellent job, bringing us out of the woods within sight of the intersection.
When we reached them, the cars held a clear indication of how much snow had fallen while we were hiking: there was almost a foot to be scraped from the roofs and windshields.
After a few minutes of scraping and loading we were headed to the Woodlands restaurant in Shingleton for a meal of REAL FOOD and the customary discussion of upcoming trips.
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