Timber Wolf, Lake Superior, Ontario

A lone timber wolf greets
paddlers along the north shore
of Lake Superior, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)

The Rucksack Masthead
By Michael A. Neiger, Marquette, Michigan
Wilderness tripper: backpacking, winter camping, swift-water canoeing
Web site URL: http://therucksack.tripod.com • E-mail: mneiger@hotmail.com
Contents copyright © 1984-2007 by Michael A. Neiger • All rights reserved.


John Herrgott's snowshelter

John Herrgott of Linden
readies his snowshelter
for a long winter night
in the backcountry of the
Pictured Rocks
National Lakeshore
(Photo by Mary Powell)


Trip journals and photos

4 days
of fun
in the snow

Sledging and
winter camping
in the backcountry
of the Pictured
Rocks National

Alger County
March 8-11, 2002

By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2002

E-mail author at


At my home in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, early March means rain, robins, and rivulets of water everywhere. As I assembled my equipment for this trip--billed as "winter camping"--I wondered if I would even need my snowshoes.

It was hard to keep adding heavy insulating layers and extra fuel to my five-foot-long sledge, but by the time I arrived at the trailhead, I was glad I had done so.

3 feet of snowpack

Driving north, light snow-cover appeared around West Branch. By the time John Herrgott, my carpooling partner from Linden, and I reached the Mackinaw Bridge, there was 5 to 6 inches of crusty snow on the ground.

Our destination was the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore backcountry and as we turned off M-28 near Singleton, the snow depth increased markedly. Soon, there was at least three feet lining the road.

As the sun set, we proceeded eastward to a small parking area Mary Powell and Ed Pavwoskiwhere the snowplows turn around. Snow berms around the lot were 6 to 8 feet high. There we met our trip leader, Michael Neiger of Marquette, and another hardy soul, Ed Pavwoski of Lansing.

Mary Powell of Flint
and Ed Pavwoski of Lansing
enjoy a break after sledging
through mixed hardwoods.
(Photo by Mary Powell)



Leaving civilization

After unloading our gear into sledges late Thursday night, we donned snowshoes and pulled the sledges up over the berm. Out of sight of the parking area, it was as if civilization had disappeared. We were in a forest softly lit by light reflected from the snow.

It was cold and absolutely quiet. The sounds we made were muffled by the layer of white. We each chose a spot, packed down the snow, set up our tarps, and settled in for the night. I fell asleep watching snowflakes drift lazily down at the edge of my tarp.

I awoke Friday morning to find my tarp "roof" bulging inward from the weight of the snow that had fallen through the night. The sky was overcast and temperatures were somewhere in the upper 20's.

After a hearty breakfast and a hot drink, we packed our gear to travel.

Sledging thru Kingston Plains

Conditions were ideal for sledging--several inches of new snow on a hard crust over three or four feet of snowpack. Still, I found walking on snowshoes pulling a sledge loaded with sixty pounds of gear to be fairly strenuous.

As we left the parking area, we were greeted by a group of passing snowmobilers. The expressions of those who flipped up their facemasks clearly said they thought we were nuts.

We headed off cross-country in a southeasterly direction, Michael leading us with map and compass in-hand.

Ed, it turned out , is a GPS aficionado. He provided high tech John Herrgott and Ed Pavwoskiconfirmation off and on throughout the trip that we were, in fact, where Michael said we were--not that there was ever much doubt!

John Herrgott of Linden
and Ed Pavwoski of Lansing
pause to check the map
while sledging through
the Kingston Plains.
(Photo by Mary Powell)



Winter wonderland in the Woods

We traveled through varied countryside--mixed evergreen/hardwood forest with some areas being a little more open. The silence was intense for a person accustomed to the constant noise of the city. The scenery was beautiful.

All the contours of the land were rounded by the snow cover. Every stump looked like it was capped with a marshmallow. Looking at the trees bending beneath the snow, particularly the evergreens, you could almost feel the weight they had been holding all winter.

John builds a cozy snow shelter

Our travel was leisurely with frequent breaks. Late in the afternoon, we sought out an area of hardwoods to camp where there would be a good supply of firewood. Finding a suitable spot, we set up an assortment of shelters.

Michael and I put up tarps--his being considerably more secure than mine. Ed excavated a pit in the snow and suspended his tarp over it, giving himself a good deal of space and headroom.

In less than an hour, John and Michael had dug a coffin-type snow shelter. While not spacious, such a shelter definitely protects one from the elements--it's windproof and the interior temperature remains well above zero even in extreme cold.

A candle inside yields sufficient light to read by. John looked like a kid crawling out of it and he said it made him feel that way too. Once "dug in," he was one of the first to boil up and enjoy a hot drink after a hard days sledge.

Learning to stay warm

Accustomed to being indoors most of the winter, it is uncomfortable, at first, to have the cold literally in your face all the time--to realize there is no warm place anywhere nearby to go to.

After a couple of nights of being out though, you learn to trust your insulating layers and relax. Having a fire can contribute to comfort too, as well as providing heat to cook with and melt snow for water.

Once I had my tarp up, I got out my fire pan, laid it on top of some Mary Powelllogs to keep it from sinking into the snow, gathered some wood, and built a small fire. John soon joined me.

Mary Powell of Flint
makes herself comfortable
under her tarp with a
small fire on a fire pan
that rests upon
4 feet of snow.
(Photo by Mary Powell)


I like the smell of wood smoke as well as the activity of maintaining a fire and cooking over it. It's some work, but it's also relaxing.

Is It Spring Already?

I sleep soundly in the woods. Sometime during the night, I was aroused by the sound of Michael's voice saying,"Hey, Mary! Get your snowshoes inside and make sure all your gear is covered--it's raining and freezing on everything."

After retrieving my snowshoes and checking my stuff, I fell asleep again, listening to John snoring softly in his shelter and the rain falling steadily on my tarp.

We awoke Saturday morning to a rare opportunity for R&R--it was raining too hard to travel. Had we tried, the sleds would have filled with water and we would have been wet from the effort of sledging in waterproof gear.

We spent the morning enjoying the warmth of the fire and conversation. Ed and Michael did some reading. We ate breakfast and later lunch. The winds shifted back and forth. The trees were sodden and lightly coated with ice.

The air filled intermittently with fog. We watched and waited. In the early afternoon the rain slackened to a drizzle and we decided to travel.

Sledging in the rain

We dumped the water out of everything, broke the ice off our gear, thawed the knots with our breath, took down the shelters and packed. We headed east, planning to pick up the Fox River Trail.

After a bit of scouting, the familiar blue blazes appeared and we followed them along the ridges above the river. The dark, open water of the river bordered by pines, all softened by the drifting fog, created some awesome vistas.

The drizzle quickly changed to snow as the wind shifted and the temperature dropped. Staying warm without overheating became a fulltime job.

Bivouac in 40-mph blizzard

We left the trail where it intersected an old railroad grade and began hunting for a suitable place to camp. The wind was picking up and our wet outerwear was beginning to stiffen with ice.

Michael's disclaimers for these trips always include, "bivouacs will be deep in the bush...far from dry and level campsites and fire rings." Our site for the night definitely fit that description.

We put on some layers and set up our shelters. Michael supplied us with a substantial pile of firewood and we'd soon established a modicum of comfort.

A hot meal greatly improved my outlook. Warm bottles of water melted from snow made my sleeping bag toasty. Life was good again.

More winter

There was no question Sunday morning that it was winter as temperatures had dropped to the single digit range. We packed with some difficulty--ice stiffened gear doesn't fold or compact very Michael Neigerwell--and began to travel, circling back in the general direction of our cars.

Michael Neiger of
Marquette puts down a
1,000-calorie breakfast
in preparation for another day
of sledging south of
the Kingston Plains.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

The day of sledging went fairly smoothly except that at one point I discovered my water bottle had fallen from my belt and I had to backtrack a considerable distance to retrieve it. The guys waited patiently for me to return--or if they weren't patient, at least I didn't hear about it!

Burly coyotes eye us

There had been little evidence of wildlife on this trip, probably due to the inclement weather. On this morning though, we saw a couple of coyotes down the railroad grade when a gust of wind-blown snow cleared. They paused as if they were checking us out too, then disappeared into the forest.

At one picturesque spot along our route, a small creature had left tracks circling up to the top of a conical mound of snow. It appeared the animal had gone up there to survey the surrounding territory.

Michael builds a snow-block lean-to

Sunday evening we camped in a fairly hospitable area of mixed forest. Michael built a shelter he called a blocked-in lean-to. It looked really comfortable--almost like a small house.

I layered up and found you can, indeed, remain comfortable at rest in the bush in the winter--without a fire. Next time I will bring a book to read.

Using my night vision

Before retiring, I went for a short walk to build up some heat to warm my sleeping bag. Turning off my headlamp away from camp, I was treated to the beauty of the woodland scene that appeared out of total darkness--like a fade-in in a movie--as my night vision returned.

As large snowflakes began to fall, I stood awhile, taking in the gray trees silhouetted against pale mauve/beige snow. Then, I slowly followed my snowshoe tracks back to camp to retire for the evening.

Another good trip ends

Sunday morning, we awoke to winter wonderland. During the night, falling snow had coated every tree and bush. The early morning sun shining through light cloud cover made everything seem golden at first, then dazzling white. It was beautiful!

Chickadees were chattering nearby too. Their cheerful voices made me feel that this was going to be a good day. And it was. We didn't have far to go.

After a couple hours of sledging, mostly through hardwoods alongside a snowmobile trail, we came upon a plowed road, which eventually returned us to our cars.

Another good trip. When I see a winter-camping opportunity listed in next year's trip listings, I'll be signing up.


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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

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