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Sierra Club Wilderness trips and expeditions
   Club: Sierra Club
   Chapter: Michigan (Mackinac)
   Group: Central Upper Peninsula (CUPG)
   Leader: Michael Neiger, Marquette, Michigan (Web site; e-mail; bio)

Review trip journal and photo album from this completed trip

Sierra Club
4-Day Wilderness
Backpacking Trip in the
Pigeon River Country State Forest
April 7-10, 2006

Type: Early-season backpacking & elk tracking trip

Destination: Dog Lake area and McMasters Creek watershed
   Pigeon River Country State Forest
   Otsego and Cheboygan Counties
   Vanderbilt, Michigan

When: 8 a.m. Friday, April 7 to late afternoon Monday, April 10

Level: Intermediate-level, 20-degree backpacking

Difficulty: Strenuous, off-trail, recon by map & compass

Fees: $10 club fee, payable at trailhead

Sign-up deadline: March 29 appreciated

Sign-up process: After thoroughly reviewing the material presented below, contact trip leader to sign up. If this is your first trip with the leader, you should submit a completed Participant Questionnaire, which is available by e-mail from the leader.

Trailhead assembly & bivouac location: To be announced by e-mail about a week prior to trip

Leader: Michael Neiger, Marquette, Michigan (Web site; e-mail; bio)

Club: Sierra Club; Chapter: Michigan; Group: Central Upper Peninsula


Page contents index


Trip itinerary

This early-spring backpacking trip will involve a cross-country exploration of a portion of wilderness situated deep in the heart of the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

After spotting our vehicles, we will explore the Oxbow Creek watershed, which is a tributary of Canada Creek, before heading westward, over the height of land, to the Black River, just north of the Clark Bridge Road. After doing a bit of technical land nav, we'll establish a riverside bivouac on the swamp-locked Bear Mountains Friday night. On Saturday, we'll make a bridge crossing of the Black River and begin working our way up (northwest) the McMasters Creek watershed. After bivouacking along McMasters Creek, which is a tributary of the Black River, Saturday night, we will continue working our way up the watershed up to Dog Lake on Sunday. We will recon this watershed for signs of two old railroad grades. We will also recon the dam at the outlet of Dog Lake as well as circumnavigate the lake if time permits.

Since this area is home to the majestic Elk, we'll be keeping an eye out for this elusive animal. In lieu of the real thing, we'll be watching closely for signs of its passing: ground spoor (tracks, scrapes, sheds, and bones) and aerial spoor (rubs, hair).


Destination information

The 93,000-acre Pigeon River Country State Forest consists of seven campgrounds, over 90 miles of hiking trails, 27 miles of horse-riding trails, numerous limestone sinkhole lakes, and several rivers.


After heavy logging between 1860 and 1910, the area suffered disastrous, uncontrolled fires for years. Fires burned significant acreage as late as the 1930's. Unsuccessful attempts to convert the land to farms resulted in large parts of the area reverting to State of Michigan ownership through either tax reversion or purchase. In 1919, the area was designated a state forest and tree planting began soon thereafter. Planting and forest recreation development expanded with the establishment of a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp in the region. The headquarters buildings along the Pigeon River were built between 1934 and 1935.

Elk & wildlife

Seven elk released in 1918 increased to as many as 500 by 1927. Illegal shooting of elk in 1974 resulted in a record-high loss of 45 animals. By 1975, the herd was estimated to number only 200 animals. The herd eventually recovered and now exceeds 1,100 animals, making it the largest wild elk herd east of the Mississippi River. To control crop damage and allow forest regeneration, limited harvests of the elk are scheduled from time to time. In addition to elk, the region is inhabited by deer, bear, bobcat, coyote, grouse, woodcock, snowshoe hare, squirrels (gray, black, and fox), pine martin, beaver, otter, muskrat, waterfowl, and numerous songbirds.

Gas & oil exploration

After the discovery of gas and oil deposits under the south-central portion of the region in the 1970's, commercial exploration and development began. By 1984, nearly 857,000 barrels of oil and 9,200,000 million cubic feet of gas were being removed from the area annually.

(Contains material adapted from the Pigeon River Country State Forest brochure, courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

Additional destination resources

  • Pigeon River State Forest Headquarters, DNR: 1-989-983-4101, http://www.michigandnr.com
  • Indian River Chamber of Commerce (elk viewing maps and tips), 1-800-EXIT-310, http://www.irchamber.com
  • Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau: 1-800-345-8621, http://www.gaylord-mich.com
  • Field Guide to the High Country Pathway, 1997, booklet with topo maps keyed to text, by the Pigeon River Country Association, P.O. Box 122, Gaylord, Michigan 49735 ($5, 24 pages; may be available from the Indian River Chamber of Commerce).
  • High Country Pathway Map , 1990 map with text, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Information Services Center, P.O. Box 30028, Lansing, Michigan 48909.
  • Green Timbers Map, 1993 map with text, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Information Services Center, P.O. Box 30028, Lansing, Michigan 48909.
  • Hiking Michigan book, by Mike Modrzynski (Falcon Press, 1996).
  • Backpacking in Michigan book , second edition, by Pat Allen and Gerald L. DeRuiter (University of Michigan Press, 1989).
  • "Hiking with the Herd," by James Campbell, in Backpacker Magazine, Oct '00, page 97.
  • The Pigeon River Country--A Michigan Forest book, by Dale Clarke Franz, et al., by the Pigeon River Country Association, P.O. Box 122, Gaylord, Michigan 49735 (300 pages; history of gas exploration and preservation efforts).
  • Pigeon River Country State Forest Map, 1985 map with text, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Information Services Center, P.O. Box 30028, Lansing, Michigan 48909.
  • Learn more by searching destination on the Internet: http://www.google.com


Emergency contacts

  • Otsego County Sheriff: Gaylord, 1-517-732-6484
  • Montmorency County Sheriff: Atlanta, 1-517-785-4238
  • Michigan State Police: Gaylord, 1-517-732-5141
  • Michigan State Police: Alpena, 1-517-354-4101
  • Hospital: Gaylord, 1-517-731-2100
  • Hospital: Alpena, 1-517-356-7252
  • Sierra Club Outings Department 24-hour help line: 1-888-outings


Participant requirements

  • Trekker must be 18 years old or older
  • Trekker must be drug-free and a non-smoker and non-drinker
  • Trekker must practice low impact travel and bivouac skills, leaving alcohol, pets, and speaker radios at home
  • Trekker must have prior wilderness tripping experience
  • Trekker must be fully equipped with lightweight gear including rucksack, bivouac gear, survival gear, foul-weather gear, rations, stove, etc.
  • Trekker must by very physically fit (good aerobic endurance)
  • Trekker must have a strong mind and an adventurous spirit
  • Trekker must be comfortable around water and a proficient swimmer
  • Trekker must be able, willing, and equipped to travel off-trail and bushwhack through challenging, thickly-forested, mountainous terrain with a fully-loaded rucksack
  • Trekker must be able, willing, and equipped to slog through muddy, wet, tangled swamps with a fully-loaded rucksack
  • Trekker must be able, willing, and equipped to ford or swim unbridged rivers and lake narrows with fully-loaded rucksack, wrapped in a tarp, floating alongside.
  • Trekker must be able, willing, and equipped to travel and bivouac in foul weather.
  • Trekker must be able, willing, and equipped to travel and bivouac in very remote areas, far from roads, dry & level campsites, potable water, toilets, and fire rings.
  • Notice: please review the homepage on this Web site for general wilderness tripping requirements


Warnings and advisories

  • Hypothermia warning: I have had to intervene on several cases of hypothermia in the past, 5 times in one year alone. These incidents were largely the result of trippers who were trying to go ultra-light and were not carrying the multiple, redundant layers of clothing that I recommend. Reversing hypothermia takes hours of work on the part of others on the trip--a lot more work than is required to pack a couple extra pounds of warm clothing.
  • State Land bivouac advisory: Anyone camping on land owned by the State of Michigan is required by law (Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act, Sec. 74201 et seq., P.A. 451 of 1994) by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to post a Camp Registration Card (Form no. PR 4134) at their campsite. This permit--which is free--must be filled out in pencil (to make it legible when wet). Since the permit (view permit as PDF file) is perforated and made of heavy cardstock to withstand weathering, it can not be reproduced. These 8.5- by 11-inch permits can be picked up from any Michigan DNR office, or they can be ordered by e-mailing the DNR at DNR-FMD-TREES@michigan.gov. While these permits are usually provided by the trip leader, you should consider obtaining one when you are camping on your own, especially the night before the start of a Sierra Club trip. There is a substantial fine for not posting a Camp Registration Card.
  • Long-term parking advisory: Reduce problems by keeping your car locked, relatively empty, and uninviting. ALWAYS USE A LOCKING GAS CAP (they are very inexpensive [$10-15], especially when compared to the alternative of a vandal ruining your engine or emptying your gas tank miles from the nearest gas station).
  • Sierra Club Liability Waiver Form: National Sierra Club Policy requires that all trip participants read, understand, and sign the club's liability waiver form before they can participate in a club trip. Review and familiarize yourself with this form--Acknowledgment of Outing Member Responsibility, Express Assumption of Risk, and Release of Liability--before the trip.
  • Allergies to bee stings: If you are allergic to bee stings, you must notify the leader in advance of the trip. You must also agree to carry an injectable epinephrine unit, such as an EpiPen or Ana-Kit, as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Prohibition on cotton clothing: No high-cotton-content clothing--save a bandana or two--is allowed to be worn or carried in your rucksack for safety reasons. When wet, cotton is hard to dry and can be deadly as wearing cotton clothing often leads to hypothermia. Wool or synthetic clothing fashioned from nylon, supplex, polypro, fleece, or microfibers are much safer and easier to manage in foul weather.


Trip risks, hazards, and perils

Sierra Club wilderness tripping and expeditioning--especially remote, foul-weather travel, bushwhacking cross-country, cliff and steep slope travel, climbing, cave exploration, river fording, swimming, canoeing, portaging, skiing, snoeshoeing, winter camping, ice crossing, etc.--involves unknown and unpredictable hazards and perils.

  • A participants failure to physically train and mentally prepare oneself for a harsh Sierra Club wilderness trip; acquire the necessary skills and equipment for the trip; and recognize, take responsibility for, and avoid the unknown and unpredictable hazards and perils that often present themselves on such a trip will likely result in the serious injury, paralysis, or slow, painful death of the participant. There is no emergency medical equipment, doctor, nurse, or other trained emergency medical provider on Sierra Club wilderness trips.
  • There is no means of contacting emergency medical personnel or rescue personnel on Sierra Club wilderness trips. Emergency communications equipment, cell phones, satellite phones, GPS units, and satellite beacons (ELTs, PLDs, & EPIRBs) are not provided, and can't always be relied upon when they are carried.
  • Search and rescue services, emergency medical care, and evacuation of the non-ambulatory may be very difficult and costly to arrange; in some cases, the wait could be very long, painful, and fatal. On wilderness trips through remote areas in Michigan and Canada, it may take several days of rigorous travel by uninjured volunteers before emergency personnel can even be contacted for help.

Recommended physicals

Prior to undertaking a wilderness trip or expedition, it is highly recommended that a participant have a comprehensive health checkup, which should include a:

  • thorough physical exam
  • stress test
  • dental examination

Recommend insurance coverage

Prior to undertaking a wilderness trip or expedition, it is highly recommended that a participant obtain the proper insurance coverage, including:

  • medical insurance
  • prescription insurance
  • dental insurance
  • evacuation insurance
  • trip cancellation insurance
  • disability insurance
  • life insurance

Insurance vendors

Vendors for trip, medical, and evacuation insurance include:

Emergency communications gear vendors


Special notices and equipment

  • Survival kit: An in-pocket (on-your-person) survival kit (knife, waterproof matches, firestarters, compass, and whistle) is highly recommended. Sierra Club loaner survival kits are available from the club stores for free by prior arrangement.
  • River-fording gear: River-fording footwear, pack towel, and shorts are mandatory
  • Water containers: Containers to hump 4 quarts of water are mandatory
  • Safety glasses: It is highly recommended that some form of eye protection--safety glasses--be worn while bushwhacking.
  • Equipment waterproofing: To keep your gear dry during foul weather or when floating rucksack (wrapped in a tarp) across a river or other waterway, the main compartment should be lined with a huge heavy-duty "contractor" grade plastic bag. Critical items within the "contractor" bag, such as clothing, sleeping bag, and rations, should be further protected from moisture by lining the stuff sacks containing these items with heavy-duty "garbage compactor" bags. Avoid using regular garbage bags as they tear to easily.
  • Hydration and snack consumption on trail: It is recommended that you carry a water bottle and snacks on your waistbelt in separate pouches so you can snack and sip water while underway. Snacking and drinking water are essential for avoiding dehydration, hypothermia, and exhaustion when things get challenging, especially late in the date or during foul weather. Sierra Club loaner snack pouches and water bottle carriers are available from the club stores for free by prior arrangement.


Rations required

  • Breakfasts--4
  • Snacks--4
  • Lunches--4
  • Dinners--3
  • Backup rations--1 full day (breakfast, snack, lunch, dinner)

How to pack your rations:

Measure, weigh, and triple check your rations. You should be carrying about 1.75-2.75 pounds of dry weight food, or about 2700-4500 calories of food per day, depending on your body weight and exertion level. It is recommended that you avoid "bulk" packaging and instead pack each meal serving individually in its own, separate plastic bag. This system has the following advantages over putting all of your snacks, say nuts for the whole trip, in one bag:

    1. You'll know for sure at home (visually) that you've packed enough food;
    2. In the bush, you'll now exactly how much to eat without eating into another days rations; and
    3. You will further reduce the chances of your food getting ruined if moisture penetrates the food bag itself as the moisture will still have to work its way into each and every single, individual meal unit.

Meticulous ration planning, measuring, and packaging is tedious but essential for safe & successful long-range recon of remote wilderness. Additional menu planning information is available on the rations and stoves page.


Equipment required

Survival gear

[ ] Waterproof matches
[ ] Waterproof firestarters
[ ] Sturdy pocket knife
[ ] Compass
[ ] Whistle
[ ] Map of area

First-aid kit

[ ] Elastic ankle wrap
[ ] Moleskin
[ ] Vaseline
[ ] Band-Aids
[ ] Waterproof first-aid tape
[ ] Pain relief medication
[ ] Anti-inflammatory medication

Repair kit

[ ] 20 feet of 1/8-inch braided nylon cordage
[ ] Duct tape
[ ] Sewing kit

Head gear

[ ] 1 very thin balaclava
[ ] 2 thick hats that can be worn together
[ ] 1 pair of sun glasses
[ ] 1 pair of safety glasses (for bushwhacking)
[ ] Prescription glasses (spare if important)
[ ] Bandana
[ ] Sun hat (optional)
[ ] Rain hat (optional)

Upper-body gear

[ ] 3 or 4 thin polypro tops
[ ] 2 1/4-inch thick fleece or micro-fiber-insulated jackets.
[ ] 1 1/4-inch thick fleece or micro-fiber-insulated vest
[ ] 1 thin breathable nylon shirt
[ ] 1 nylon rain parka (no vinyl; no ponchos)
[ ] A heavily-insulated parka with hood is advisable on early spring and late fall trips

Hand gear

[ ] 1 pair of mittens

Lower-body gear

[ ] 1 or 2 pair of 1/4-inch thick fleece or micro-fiber-insulated pants (sidezips are very handy)
[ ] 1 or 2 pair of polypro long underwear
[ ] 1 pair of thin nylon hiking pants
[ ] 1 pair of nylon rain pants (no vinyl)
[ ] 1 pair of hiking/swim shorts


[ ] 1 pair of sturdy boots
[ ] 3 pair of thick synthetic socks
[ ] 2 pair of liner socks (optional)
[ ] 1 pair of short gaiters (optional)
[ ] 1 pair of river fording shoes/sandals

Rucksack gear

[ ] 1 large rucksack lined with contractor-grade plastic bag
[ ] Raincover
[ ] Waist belt water bottle parka
[ ] Waist belt snack pouch (optional)

Bivouac gear

[ ] Tarp and bivy; or small tent and cook fly
[ ] Stakes and ropes to rig tent or tarp
[ ] 20 degree sleeping bag
[ ] Sleeping pad
[ ] Sleeping booties (optional)
[ ] Flashlight (LED is recommended)
[ ] Spare battery
[ ] Candle

Bug-management gear (hot weather trips)

[ ] 1 bottle of 100% DEET
[ ] 1 spare bottle of 100% DEET
[ ] 1 headnet
[ ] 1 spare headnet

Hydration gear

[ ] 2 one-quart durable water bottles
[ ] 1 two-quart water bladder
[ ] Water purification system (iodine tablets recommended)
[ ] 1 spare bottle of iodine tablets

Ration-heating gear

[ ] Lightweight backpacking stove
[ ] Fuel for stove (five to six fuel tabs per day for Esbit Nato stoves)
[ ] Lighter
[ ] Windscreen for stove
[ ] Fireproof base for stove
[ ] Pot holder
[ ] Pot
[ ] Lid for pot
[ ] Spoon
[ ] Mug
[ ] 50-foot food-hanging rope (use cheap, hard, 1/8-inch-diameter, slippery rope)

Personal items

[ ] Personal medications
[ ] Driver's license
[ ] Birth certificate and/or passport (recommended for Canadian trips)
[ ] Emergency phone numbers
[ ] Credit cards
[ ] Cash and travelers checks
[ ] Medical and dental insurance cards
[ ] Sunscreen
[ ] Lipbalm with sunblock
[ ] Wrist chronograph
[ ] Paperback book (optional)

Personal hygiene gear

[ ] Toilet paper
[ ] Synthetic pack towel
[ ] Toothbrush
[ ] Toothpaste or toothpowder
[ ] Toothpicks & dental floss
[ ] Handcleaner (optional)
[ ] Plastic spade (optional)

Vehicle gear

[ ] Extra car key on lanyard
[ ] Vehicle registration papers
[ ] Vehicle insurance papers
[ ] Locking gas cap
[ ] Battery in good condition
[ ] Road map (Michigan 1-800-292-2520; Canada 1-800-268-3736)
[ ] County map book of Michigan (1-800-777-6720)
[ ] Spare tire (check pressure!!)
[ ] Tire jack and lug nut wrench
[ ] Shovel (spade in summer)
[ ] Vehicle Safety Checks: tire pressure, wiper blades, wiper fluid, oil, radiator fluid, transmission fluid
[ ] Jumper cables (optional)
[ ] Nylon tow strap (optional)
[ ] Axe (optional)
[ ] Bow saw (optional)
[ ] Hi-lift bumper jack (optional)
[ ] Hand-operated winch (optional)
[ ] Pick axe (optional)

More equipment information


Land Nav Team info

Topographic maps

  • 1:24,000 Tower, Michigan
  • 1:24,000 Silver Lake, Michigan
  • 1:24,000 Hardwood Lake, Michigan
  • 1:24,000 Afton, Michigan

    Topo map ordering info, waterproofing info, & GPS prep info

County maps

  • Otsego County
  • Cheybogan County

       County map ordering information

Pigeon River Country-area Trail Maps

  • Pigeon River Country State Forest, 1985 (free, 8.5 by 11), Pigeon River State Forest Headquarters, 1-989-983-4101
  • Pigeon River Country State Forest Access Map, 1994, (free, 17 by 22), Pigeon River State Forest Headquarters, 1-989-983-4101
  • Shingle Mill Pathway Map, 1992 (free, 8.5 by 11), Pigeon River State Forest Headquarters, 1-989-983-4101
  • Green Timbers Map, 1993 (free, 8.5 by 11), Pigeon River State Forest Headquarters, 1-989-983-4101
  • High Country Pathway Map (free, 8.5 by 11), Pigeon River State Forest Headquarters, 1-989-983-4101
  • Field Guide to the High Country Pathway ($5, 24 pages), Pigeon River Country Association, P.O. Box 122, Gaylord, Michigan 49735,  (May be available from the Indian River Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-EXIT-310)
  • Clear Lake--Jackson Lake Hiking Trail Map (free, 8.5 by 11), Pigeon River State Forest Headquarters, 1-989-983-4101
  • Sinkhole Area Map, 1990 (free, 8.5 by 11), Pigeon River State Forest Headquarters, 1-989-983-4101
  • Sinkhole Pathway Map, 1990 (free, 8.5 by 11), Pigeon River State Forest Headquarters, 1-989-983-4101
  • Elk Viewing Map, Indian River Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-EXIT-310

Magnetic declination specs

  • 2006 magnetic declination for meridian of longitude line at 45° 15'N, Lon 84° 22' 30"W:
             06° 53' west
  • Deviation of UTM easting grid lines from meridian of longitude lines:
             01° 49' east
  • Magnetic declination of UTM easting grid lines:
             08° 42' west (we correct for this figure, rounded to the nearest degree, in the bush)

    Magnetic declination information

GPS configuration specs

  • Grid coordinate system
             1000-meter Universal Transverse Mercator Grid (UTM)
  • UTM grid horizontal map datum:
             1927 North American Datum (NAD 27 CONUS)
  • UTM grid zone:
             Zone 16
  • UTM grid hemisphere:
             Northern hemisphere
  • Unit of measure:
  • Battery type:
             Lithium, for deep cold, or long-range use
             Alkaline, for 3-season use
  • Battery type setting:
             Select type of battery (lithium, alkaline, or Ni-Cad);
             battery discharge-rate differences affect meter accuracy

GPS configuration information

Misc land nav equip setup

  • Roamer UTM plotter scale(s):
             1:24,000 & 1:25,000
  • Ranger pacing beads:
             Metric--9 100-meter beads; 4 1-kilometer beads
  • Magnetic declination setting on compass:
             0° of offset

Land nav team information


Past trip journals and photo albums


Travel info


Wilderness skills & resources


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In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.

 — John Muir 1838-1914, Alaska Wilderness, 1890

Content Copyright © 1984 -- 2006-04-28
by Michael A. Neiger

* All rights reserved *
No part of this Web page or this Web site protected by copyright law may be reproduced, transmitted, or used in any form--including graphic, electronic, Web, mechanical or other form--or by any means--including photocopying, recording, taping, Internet distribution, information storage retrieval system, or by other means--for any purpose, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages, without the prior, express, written permission of the author.

* Disclaimer *
The information contained on this Web page and this Web site are provided solely for information, illustrative, and discussion purposes. Although the author has made a sincere effort to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information presented on this Web page and this Web site, no warranty is expressed or implied. The author assumes no responsibility or liability for any injuries, damages, losses, or other consequences that may result from the use of the information contained on this Web page and this Web site. As with any human endeavor, omissions, inaccuracies, and errors will occur on this Web page and this Web site and the author makes no representations or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented or that the information presented will produce any particular result or be suitable for any particular situation, person, organization, or other entity. While corrections and revisions may or may not be made from time to time, any changes made to this Web page and this Web site are made without obligation to notify any person, organization, or other entity of any such changes. The activities associated with the information contained on this Web page and this Web site are by their very nature inherently dangerous and the information presented can not take the place of good personal judgment, sound decision-making, professional training, proper equipage, adequate physical fitness, and expert guidance by trained and experienced professionals.

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