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Wilderness Tripping: Off-trail Backpacking
    Pigeon River Country State Forest, Green Timbers Tract, & High Country Pathway
   Otsego & Cheboygan Counties
   Vanderbilt, Michigan
   April 1-4, 2005


Back To Backpacking:

An Early Spring Crosscountry Hike
Through the
Pigeon River Country State Forest

April 1-4, 2005

By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2005

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View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.


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Thursday, March 31

A Gray Beginning

It was a dreary, gray afternoon and I drove the last few miles to the trailhead at Green Timbers in an intermittent drizzle. Except for the south facing hills the ground was still snow covered. I was wondering if I had signed up for five days of being damp and chilly.

At the entrance of the Green Timbers tract I found a snow free place to park beyond the stone walls flanking the drive. Patches of bare ground peeked through the snow in the woods beyond. At least I wouldn't get stuck parking and setting up a tarp would not be difficult. Things were looking up.


A Pleasant Evening

I found a relatively level spot with no puddle in it near the parking area and got set up. Despite the intermittent rain I decided to go for a walk and ambled down the road, along the river a bit and on into the woods. The deepest snow was about a foot and it was very crusty: it looked like we would not be needing snowshoes.

Arriving back at camp I decided it was time for coffee and started a small fire on my elevated firepan. About the time the water came to a boil a truck pulled into the parking lot. When the occupant didn't get out, I went over to investigate. The driver's name was Robert Parker of Ann Arbor. He was a Boy Scout adventure leader and had come to talk with Michael, our trip leader, about camping in the Agawa Canyon area.

We sat and chatted until Michael arrived and they got out their topo maps to discuss possible trips. While we talked, another of the participants, Mary Ann Hayman, a teacher from the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, drove in. I went to chat with her.

The evening passed with our catching up on events since the last trip. As I unrolled my sleeping bag a few large soggy snowflakes were falling and I wondered again about a weekend of being damp and chilly....



Friday, April 1

The Group Gathers

The next morning the sky had cleared. The air was brisk and as the sun came up a few wisps of fog rose from the snow. I gathered spruce branches (an activity almost guaranteed to awaken others) and soon had a pot of water boiling over the fire.

The next participant to arrive was Mark Finitzer, a firefighter from Royal Oak. By 9 AM the others had also checked in: Mike Ugorowski, a college reference librarian from Flint, Gail Staisil, a teacher from Midland, Brian Bury, a DNR natural rivers specialist from Wolverine, and Cathy Susan, a physical therapist and trainer from Ann Arbor.

Three more people were also signed up but planned to meet us at our campsite that evening as they had not taken Friday off from work.


The Hike

I stayed at the trailhead while the rest of the group spotted cars at several possible endpoints for the hike. The plan for the day was to split into two groups as that would give us more land nav practice and reduce our environmental impact.

When the others returned we discussed the split and ended up dividing into men's and women's groups as there were four of each. The men would recon the west side of the Sturgeon River and the women would go up the east side and cross the bridge to get to the appointed bivouac spot on a hill overlooking a wetland.

The day went well. We women handrailed along the ridge east of the river and had lunch near an old road leading down to it. We saw lot of elk sign--droppings and rubs--but no elk. Next we followed the river to a trail that led to the Green Timbers cabin where we checked out a cement bunker and surveyed what winter had done to the cabin.

We then followed a road west across the Sturgeon hoping to find a way to cross Club Creek without having to go north to the bridge. We found the road washed out there though and the creek was too deep and fast to do a crossing when there was a safer alternative. We looked a little way downstream for a shallower spot, but found the woods flooded, apparently by a new beaver dam. So we went back and hiked the east side of the Sturgeon to the bridge, crossed and walked south along a two-track.

From a curve in the road, the position of which we confirmed with GPS, we calculated an azimuth to the evening's campsite. We climbed the west side of the valley and hiked across the grassy plateau dotted with widely spaced pines and oaks. We saw many signs of a recent fire and, finding a newly constructed firebreak at the south edge of the charred area, concluded that it may have been a planned burn.

Cathy spotted the guys in the distance on a hillside to the right of our azimuth and we turned to meet them. They had arrived a short time before and were just beginning to set up camp. We chose our real estate and settled in. We put our bear ropes up and fetched water from the wetland.

Over dinner the men told us they had practiced calculating and cutting azimuths to various objectives, ending with a long one to the campsite. They also told of the "fortifications" put around Club Creek on Fontinalis Road by the Fontinalis Club to keep anyone from dropping a line (or dipping a water bottle) into their stream.


Finding Friends

After dinner Michael put a strobe light high in a tree on one of the bear ropes to make it easier for the incoming group to find us. Toward the end of dusk, just before complete darkness fell, we saw a group of red--orange lights bobbing across the hills below. The "night nav" folks had found us with no problem. The new arrivals were Dave Mansfield of Davison, Chris Ozminski of Attica, and Debbie Watson of Ann Arbor. We shared our experiences as the last light faded from the sky and the stars came out.



Saturday, April 2


Next morning we divided into two groups again with Chris and Dave taking one and Michael the other. Chris's group headed north to the bridge, planning to cross it and meet us for lunch along the gas line a few klicks east.

Michael's group and I planned to go SE first and have a look at the beaver dam the women had heard in distance the day before. It was a bright sunny day but still cool enough for comfortable hiking. Brian led us to the fence at the edge of the Fontinalis Club property and east into the lowland along the creek. We then worked our way upstream and found the dam without much trouble.

It had flooded a huge area of lowland and the stream flowed briskly over the top. It might provide a way to cross the stream in the summer, but not now. After taking in the dam and getting a few snapshots, we walked north on the frozen shelves that bordered the creek until the brush got too thick. We then cut to the west to find a two-track on which we hurried to the bridge and beyond it toward the gas line where we knew the others would be waiting.

When we found them they had eaten and rested and were eager to move on. So they were dispatched to pick out a bivouac spot while we had lunch. After eating we headed to the agreed upon locale to join "Alpha Team" as they were now calling themselves.

Traversing a couple of back roads and handrailing around a wetland we came to a number of adjoining elk feeding areas. As we walked into the second open field we could see someone waving on the far side. Alpha Team had picked an area at the edge of the field near a pond to camp. Bravo Team mingled in, picking some nearby sites.

The evening was quiet and we could enjoy the sounds made by the area's wildlife. Geese gossiped and ducks quacked on the pond behind the camp. Coyotes did a couple of choruses at sunset and barred owl also called. Faint in the distance was the sound of a woodcock's mating flights. Spring was definitely in progress. We gathered around Cathy's tent to eat and talk till well after dark.



Sunday, April 3

Parting Company

Sunday morning the sun again rose in a clear sky. Some of the group would be leaving that day and we planned to walk together on the High Country Pathway until they turned off toward their cars. We hiked through the morning over hills covered with open hardwood forest and rapidly shrinking patches of snow.

We took a break at the Grass Lake overlook and finally parted company along the Pigeon River where those who were conserving vacation days continued south to their vehicles while the rest of us worked our way north along the stream to spend one more night in the bush. We followed the river to a road which took us to the Cornwall Creek Flooding.

At the flooding, we camped in the woods near the dam. We had a nice view across the lake and Brian spotted a couple of deer coming out to browse. There was an assortment of ducks, including several colorful wood ducks in the wetland below the dam. In the morning a bald eagle glided by and perched in a tall white pine.



Monday, April 4

Hiking Out

Monday morning we got a leisurely start. We reconned the north side of the flooding for good campsites for future trips. We found several open piney ones that looked pretty comfortable. We then headed east toward Michael's van parked near one of the elk viewing areas. We saw some deer in the open field and found signs of an old railway there.

We sat on a bench soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the overview of the surrounding countryside. Michael drilled a hole in a bone he had found and made a necklace of it. Reluctantly, we finally covered the last few hundred meters and put our packs in the vehicle. The trip was over except for the traditional post trip meal which we had at the White Wolf Inn. Our conversation naturally revolved around getting together again.


View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.

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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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