Michigan Bush Rats' Wilderness
Tripping: Backpacking & Caving
A Michigan Bush Rats' Adventure:
October 5-8, 2007
By Joanne S.
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Unexpected vacation days
With unexpected vacation days available to me this fall, I was on a quest to find a backpacking trip to enjoy the fall colours. My first read of Michael Neiger's various trip descriptions had sparked my interest but had also left me a little intimidated.
After writing to Michael about the Pictured Rocks trip and asking a few questions, I was reassured that I was a good fit for this group. It turned out to be my favourite backpacking experience to date.
I quickly found out that the Bush Rats are hardy and genial people, who love to share their knowledge.
We all arrived at different times on the Thursday night and I met my trip companions over tea that evening: Mary from Flint, MaryAnn from Sault Ste-Marie (a fellow Canadian) and Michael from Marquette.
Breakfast at the Dogpatch Restaurant
We started Friday morning with a hearty breakfast at the Dogpatch Restaurant in Munising where the SOLAR fall backpacking class was also enjoying the food and entertaining waitress. After making plans to meet with them on Saturday night, we went our separate ways.
Typical of the Bush Rats approach to tripping, our plans were to set up camp on public land outside the boundaries of the park each night. Michael Neiger describes his trips as largely "unscripted." There is a general plan, but the specifics evolve throughout the day.
The weather was unseasonably warm for that time of year, and there was quite a bit of rain in the forecast when we first set out for our four-day trip. But, Friday turned out to be a pleasant day.
After parking at Chapel Lake trail head, we made our way off trail immediately. Within a few hundred feet of the parking area we came upon our first sea cave left behind in the Chapel Basin many years ago by the receding water levels of Lake Superior.
Although Michael had charted a number of caves along this escarpment in the past, this one he had not seen before. It was the half dome shape typical of sea caves, about 30ft high and 40 ft wide.
We continued exploring the caves along the escarpment throughout the day, stopping for a leisurely lunch along the way.
Although I was keeping up with the group, I wasn't used to finding my way through trees, shrubs, logs, uphill, downhill and marvelled at my fellow trippers' agility--a little like mountain goats.
After, fording a beaver dam at a small creek, Michael discovered an overturned canoe that had lain upside down in that spot for such a long time that it was covered by several inches of decayed leaves and had a small tree growing in the debris.
Of course, we had to have a closer look. So we dug out along one edge and turned it over with an improvised pulley and pry bar. This camo-painted, 18 foot aluminium Aero-Craft canoe appeared to be as ready to venture out on the lake as when it was left there.
After some speculation about what had happened to the owners, we realized that it was getting late and dusk was falling. We replaced the boat as it had been found and continued on our way to locate our camp for the night.
I was very interested in this part of the trip since we had to be outside of the park boundaries each night.
How would we know if and when we were outside of the park boundaries? A topo map, a compass, a GPS and a good knowledge of the area are all necessary tools for this type of tripping.
I came to learn that in this area there were some visual signs at ground level that were quite reliable as well (although this might not be the case in all backcountry areas). Things, like markings on trees (paint on the trunk or bright-coloured strips of cloth tied to branches), changes in vegetation (mature trees vs tree stumps).
Great care was taken to ensure that we were indeed outside of the park boundaries each night.
After setting camp, we had a leisurely dinner and I had a chance to check out the Bush Rats gear. The different configurations they created with their tarps strung between the trees quite intriguing. Much more lightweight than my solo tent, for sure. All my trip mates used Esbit stoves and iodine for water filtration. I think I will adopt many of their ways for future trips.
I was also happy to find out that we would plan a leisurely 9:30 am start the next morning. We had some rain and thunder through the night, but the rain took a break Saturday morning as we started out.
Some rain and thunder
Our plan for Saturday was to bushwack back to the main trail leading to Chapel Falls and Chapel Rock; then follow the main trail between Chapel Rock and the Mosquito group site where we planned to meet up with the SOLAR fall backpacking group.
The Bush Rats don't usually follow trails, but planned this day primarily for my benefit since I had not been to Pictured Rocks before. They felt that I couldn't come to here without seeing the sandstone cliffs that give the area its name.
Before we set out Saturday morning, Michael went to great lengths to refresh my land navigation skills which are quite weak from non-use.
To get from our camping area outside of the park boundaries to the Chapel Falls trail, he showed me how to set an azimuth and estimate the distance of travel. I then became the point person and practiced counting the paces to our destination.
I'm glad to say, I successfully led the group to the trail! I enjoyed this exercise but quickly realized that I would not venture off trail without knowledgeable people. To be good at this, you need to practice these skills regularly--as the Bush Rats do.
Shortly after exploring the bottom of Chapel Falls, there was a veritable deluge that lasted several hours. Buffeted by rain, we only paused a moment or two at Chapel Rock before continuing down to the beach area.
Even with all the rain, I really enjoyed the sights afforded by the sandstone cliffs along the shoreline.
As we ate lunch under an overhang at the far end of the beach, lightening flashed repeatedly close by, thunder crashed and rain poured: a rather spectacular storm. We started back on the trail and by mid-afternoon, the rain stopped, clouds cleared and the sun came out.
When we arrived at the SOLAR camp at Mosquito, it was bustling with activity. It was a village of tents separated by clotheslines full of gear drying in the sun.
After setting camp about 600 meters away, outside of the park boundaries, we came back to the SOLAR camp and shared a pleasant evening meal and varied conversation.
For dessert, Mary had made brownies to share with the group, which Michael had been carrying in his pack for the last two days. By the time we went back to our camp not a single brownie was left.
Little Miners River Falls and the Amphitheatre Cave
Sunday morning, we followed the trail to Potato Patch and from there bushwacked to an area where Michael had discovered a large cave on his past trips, (I was actually happy to leave the trail and start bushwacking again) which he named the Amphitheatre.
Shedding our packs, we set up a rope to help the climb down the steep slope (and back up later on). This cave was special since a small creek that feeds Miner's River further down Miner's Basin created a wonderful waterfall and pool of water perfect for a refreshing soak. Did I mention that Sunday was quite hot with temperatures in the high 80s!
Although certainly not as striking in terms of water volume as Chapel Falls and Miners Falls, the cave was large enough to fit a large group, yet had an intimate feel--a place where one could meditate. We had lunch and dried off in the last rays of the sun.
We found a wonderful campsite further upstream of the creek that feeds the waterfall in the Amphitheatre and spent a quiet evening on our last night out; except for the little Blue Spotted Salamander that came to visit Mary Ann's sleeping area! It placidly allowed itself to be picked up to be looked at and photographed.
Another hot, sunny day
It was cloudy overnight and we felt a few drops, but on Sunday we woke up to dry conditions and by mid-morning any remaining clouds had cleared up and we had another hot, sunny day more typical of July or August.
The females on the trip resorted to backpacking in their sport bras!
We were travelling towards Miners Falls where we had spotted a vehicle at the beginning of the trip. We made our way through a swampy area rich in mosses and ferns, which provided some of the most difficult off-trail hiking other than the first day.
After a rest stop at the foot of Miners Falls, we followed Michael's azimuth to the road leading to the parking area; which also led us through an old apple orchard where everyone enjoyed fresh fruit for the first time in four days!
Unfortunately, the trip had to end but I was rejuvenated from the experience and ready to tackle the busy work days ahead.
Thank you to Michael for organizing and leading this trip. What a great way to spend my extra vacation days and Canadian Thanksgiving weekend! Now I can call myself a Bush Rat.
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