Michigan Bush Rats' Wilderness
Tripping: Winter Camping
A Michigan Bush Rats' Adventure:
5 Days of
January 18-22, 2008
By Mary Powell (NatureLady)
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From my perspective at least, the January trips have always seemed disproportionately difficult. Perhaps it is because it's normally the first winter trip of the season, necessitating a change in equipment and organization.
Perhaps we've drawn harsh weather cards .or maybe the body just wants to hibernate .
History notwithstanding though, this trip was looking pretty appealing. We'd already done a sledge trip in December, so the equipment was ready.
The forecast was for intermittent snow, with highs in the twenties and lows around -15F. The itinerary called for cruising through frozen wetlands and low hills.
We met at Roxane's diner in Strongs, Michigan for a pre trip breakfast and the ritual signing of waivers, which relieve the leader of any responsibility for damage to one's person that might result from participating in such an adventure.
Cathy and I had carpooled from troll land and spent the night in a local motel. Michael had slept in his van nearby. MaryAnn and Josh had been driven from the Canadian Soo that morning by her husband, Dave, who joined us for breakfast before heading back home.
The diner is decorated with wasp-waisted Coke bottles and chrome in a style reminiscent of the middle of the last century. The coffee was strong, the food good and the waitress cheerful.
When MaryAnn inquired whether hot chocolate would be refilled like coffee, she said, "No," but proceeded to bring her a gigantic cup which achieved the same purpose, providing all the cocoa one could reasonably drink.
After a pleasant meal, we headed to Raco where the trip was to start. Michael had gotten permission to leave a car at the Raco Lodge and as we were unloading equipment in the parking lot, the owner, Kim, came over to chat, prefacing his remarks with, "Well, this must be the Delirium Expedition ."
He was very friendly, giving us permission to cross his land in our travels. Cathy and Michael went to spot his van at the planned trip end, the Sullivan Fish Hatchery.
The rest of us waited in the crisp sunny air. Josh did some last minute modification of his sled, adding lacing to the front to keep it from catching in the brush. Snowmobilers came and went along the trail back of the lodge.
When the two returned, we carried our sleds across the highway, donned our snowshoes and followed an unplowed road into the backcountry.
Once past the private property we cut an azimuth to the south across what the topo showed as low hills. The forest on the hills, however, was brushy and each little valley seemed to contain a stream so travel was rather slow--but definitely more interesting than on the road.
When we came across the road again, we had lunch in an open area alongside it.
In the afternoon Cathy took the point and we started out along a ridge in hardwood forest. It wasn't long however, till the forest became a swamp and the travel became more difficult. The point person could usually get across a wet area without encountering slush, but those who followed had to fill in the wicking areas with fresh snow before proceeding.
We stopped repeatedly to break ice off our shoes and scrape our sleds which, as Michael says, feel like a friend has jumped on when they become coated with ice.
On this particular evening we had an objective to reach, a snowmobile trail where a couple of friends had said they might join our encampment.
One of them, Chris, had not been able to get time off from work to start the day with us. The other, Dennis, was spending the weekend in the area, dogsledding and winter camping and thought he might be able to visit us.
We were strung out quite aways from the repeated stopping to scrape sleds and darkness had fallen by the time we got to the appointed area and found some ground high enough to camp on. We set up our shelters and collected firewood to cook the evening meal.
A nearly full moon illuminated these activities and the sky was very full of stars. Soon the hobos glowed with warm light too and our little village looked cozy. The temperature dropped steadily into the single digits and we definitely savored our layers of insulation.
We stayed up fairly late, but neither Dennis nor Chris (ed.--An illness in the family kept him near home) made it into camp.
As we were settling into our bags a snowmobiler passed on the trail, then turned abruptly and came back, apparently curious as to who would be spending the night out there. I fell asleep contemplating the beauty of trees silhouetted in the moonlight and the soft silvery sparkle of the snow.
When I opened my eyes to the morning twilight, the tarp was only a couple inches from my face--bowed down a bit by the weight of new snow. It was colder too, Michael reported it had gotten down at least to 2F during the night.
I brushed the snow from my tarp and gathered some dead evergreen boughs to start a fire: coffee and food were definitely the first order of business. By the time we'd had our meal, packed, made some last minute equipment adjustments and put together a plan of travel for the day, it was 10AM, rather a late start.
We cruised down the snowmobile trail to a road that runs along the north edge of the wilderness tract, then along that road to a gated trail running into the tract itself. We stopped there for a snack and Michael announced now that we'd reached the end of the road, the trip would be starting .
Once on the trail it was very clear that it was an old RR grade, raised and straight as an arrow. It was beautiful too--like a tunnel with walls of dark green cedar trees decorated with snow.
Michael's plan called for traveling along Sylvester Creek and the ponds that it ran through. We soon left the grade for an overgrown two-track that headed in that direction. Travel there involved climbing over numerous windfalls and threading through brush.
By lunchtime we had made it to the first pond. Looking across it from the bank didn't tell us whether travel on the ice was feasible, so Michael decided to drop down for a closer look before eating.
He was soon closer than he wanted to be: up to his knees in the icy water. He scrambled out quickly and knocked most of the wet snow from his snowshoes, leaving only a thin coating of ice and very damp boots. We ate contemplating our options.
After lunch we got back on what was left of the two track. It was thickly overgrown in many places though, and the afternoon was rapidly waning. The road finally petered out completely and we looked for a place to camp.
Our settlement that night was somewhat dispersed, shelters tucked into little pockets of open space in the swampy brush. My home had an arched sapling that served as both a doorway and pot crane. Michael found a really nice nook that enclosed his explorer shelter while providing an awesome view of the rising moon.
With the clear skies the temp dropped as the evening progressed till the thermometer read zero by bedtime. The night's open-fire baking experiment turned out a fairly edible version of apple spice cake (ed.--It was very tasty). Of course, any dessert topped with Cool Whip and eaten around a campfire goes down pretty well.
Since our road had disappeared and there was no way we could travel through that swampy country fast enough to reach Sullivan Fish Hatchery as planned, we turned and followed the road back to the RR grade and backtracked on that to the snowmobile trail.
Josh was contemplating leaving at that point as his boots and sleeping bag were not really doing the job--he was spending a lot of time uncomfortably chilly since the temperature had dropped to -15F earlier in the day. We encouraged him to stick with it though, promising to help him stay warm with a fire and a loan of boot liners so he could get his dry.
As we stood outside the wilderness area gate, preparing to head north on the snowmo trail, a group of machines came around the curve and a young man toward the back lost control of his machine in attempting to avoid hitting the one ahead of him as it slowed for the turn.
We were very lucky that he ended up in the ditch, as opposed to plowing into our group. Fortunately, he was also lucky, narrowly missing a tree and coming to a halt in the deep snow with minimal damage to the machine and none to himself.
Michael assisted them in getting the snowmobile back on the road and asked their thoughts on the safest way for us to travel along the trail--facing the traffic or with it. The consensus was that facing traffic was safer: at least you'd have a chance to take evasive action if needed....
We went only short distance on the trail, then headed west into the woods on another old RR grade. That worked for awhile, but this one too faded to extinction in a swampy area. We continued bushwhacking till twilight, when we found an acceptable spot and set up camp.
It was a peaceful evening, but cold, with the thermometer dipping into negative numbers.
The morning brought intermittent sunshine with resultant slightly warmer temps.
By the time breakfast was over we had a plan: we would work our way northwest, cross M-28 west of Raco and range about in the hills up there--presumably for a change from the swamp.
We cut a series of azimuths and used short stretches of back roads to accomplish this and by afternoon found ourselves carrying our sleds across the highway.
Josh had had a good night and was happy about dry feet. The group as a whole was relaxed and cheerful. Not far north of the road we encountered some inquisitive chickadees flitting about in the jack pines. Always pleasant company, they were about the first wildlife we'd seen other than a few crows and a couple of hawks gliding over distant trees.
After traveling north away from the road, we headed east along a ridge. The vegetation alternated between stretches of hardwood and swaths of grass dotted with scrub oaks and jack pines.
We came upon a fenced depression and Michael moved in to investigate. It turned out to be a Forest Service waste water treatment area .what an anticlimax!
We camped fairly early, having found a depression that shielded us somewhat from the steady breeze that had come up. There was no shortage of firewood in the jack pines and I collected quite a bit as the plan was to try baking cinnamon rolls--definitely a long shot since yeast don't care to be chilly and the cinnamon-sugar mix is easy to burn.
Again it was a peaceful and pleasant evening. The moon rose creamy and very bright in a steel blue sky, fading the stars into the background.
After dinner Josh came over to share the fire and supervise the baking. We got very lucky, ending up with a near perfect pan of rolls with the sugar, as he noted, "caramelized but not burned." Either the fire or the smell of cinnamon brought the others over. We drizzled on the icing and enjoyed the sticky results before turning in for the night.
Next morning the sun shone bright. We were packed up at a decent hour (practice makes perfect) and headed in the direction of the Raco Lodge.
MaryAnn took the point and did an excellent job along with breaking trail. There were some minor evasive maneuvers necessitated by private property, but we were soon back to the parking lot and Cathy's car.
She and Michael retrieved his van and we loaded our sleds.
The customary post trip meal was back at Roxane's diner. Our timing was impeccable--they were closing early and had we been half an hour later we would have had to find another place.
Being the Bush Rats, the main topic of conversation was the upcoming Canadian Expedition and returning to the bush.
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