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Wilderness Tripping: Backpacking
   Hiawatha Naitonal Forest
   Rice Lakes Area
   Chippewa County
   Strongs, Michigan
   November 4-7, 2005


A 4-day, late-fall,
wilderness backpacking trip
through the Rice Lakes area
in the Hiawatha National Forest

November 4-7, 2005


By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2005

E-mail author at powell_mm@hotmail.com


View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip

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An Unusual Twist

The logistics of this trip were a little more complicated than most because several of the participants had serious time constraints. Michael had worked with them so that they could join the trip late and/or leave early. This was possible because the area we were hiking was not extremely remote and the people who would be coming and going were experienced off trail backpackers who could find their way into and out of the woods. There would be eight of us for a couple of days when we all were together.


Getting Together...

Milton, a computer programmer and sleep lab tech from Dearborn Heights, came to my place in Flint around noon on Thursday so that we could carpool to the U.P. He found me putting the finishing touches on loading gear into my car. He added his gear to mine and we headed up I-75. It was a great day for traveling--70 degrees and sunny with a gusty breeze. We chatted about previous trips and caught up on events since we'd last seen each other.

Somewhere around Pellston we encountered a dark bank of clouds and the breeze grew to a wind. When we stopped for gas in St Ignace it was definitely chilly. When we arrived in Soo, Ontario, where we were to pick up another participant, the temp was in the mid thirties and there was a biting wind. I began to wonder if bringing my summer bag to save weight had been a good idea... Mary Ann, a physical education teacher, had invited us to stay the night at her home as the group was meeting for breakfast the next morning.

Meanwhile, Cathy, a physical therapist from the Ann Arbor area was driving up, planning to stay in a motel near the restaurant. She had to work into the afternoon. Jay, a GM plant supervisor from Perry, also had to work late and was planning to do the drive up in the morning. Michael, a writer, and Gail, also a teacher, had only a short drive from Marquette. They would also come in the morning. The remaining participant was Chris, whose quality control job at a Saginaw plant had a hold on him through Friday afternoon. He was planning to drive up and hike in to meet us at camp in the evening.


Day 1


Milton, MaryAnn and I arose early and drove across the International Bridge just as the sky was beginning to show some light. The day was overcast and very cool--at least by Troll standards. Customs asked a long string of questions before deciding that backpacking was a plausible reason to be entering the country...

We drove west on M-28 to Eckerman Corners and were the first to arrive at the Maple Ridge restaurant. Michael and Gail showed up as we were looking over the menu and by the time our coffee arrived, Cathy was there too. We had food before us when Jay arrived, but the waitress had his ready minutes later. Everyone seemed in good spirits. We chatted and filled out the necessary paperwork.

After the meal some of us waited while Michael's van and Jay's truck were spotted at possible end points for the trip. Then Cathy and I shuttled everyone to where the trek would begin. Parking our cars on a gravel road a couple of klicks south of the highway, we unloaded our gear and made a few last minute decisions about what to take.


Destination: Williams Lake

We began by searching for markings indicating a section line that formed the southern boundary of some private land we wished to skirt. Finding no definite line, we moved south a bit to give ourselves some leeway. We started off on an easterly azimuth, counting pace to keep track of the distance and looking for an old RR grade and a road that showed on the map. We found scant sign of the former, but the remains of the road were pretty clear and we followed it south and then east again.

An intermediate objective for the afternoon was an area where the map indicated we should find a cluster of depressions, some clearings and an old RR grade. Leaving the remnant of road we soon found the RR grade as it climbed a slight rise. On the far side of the rise was one of the clear areas amidst some huge evergreens. Jay spotted the first of numerous artifacts there. Perhaps the clearing had been a temporary camp or decking area in the lumbering era.

We didn't find any buildings or furniture, but there were metal bands and cables, cans, wire and boiler parts. In such places it's fun to poke around, hypothesize and imagine things as they once were. A common question becomes, "What do you suppose this was?" Eventually though, we had to reign in our inquisitiveness and cover some more ground as we still had about three more klicks to go to reach Williams Lake where we were supposed to meet Chris.

We covered that distance via a combination of compass work and following old logging roads. We emerged from the woods near the west end of Williams Lake--or what had once been the lake... There was no water in sight--only a broad expanse of brushy wetland... We continued east across it and eventually spotted some water in the distance. This was a very good thing as we were not carrying enough water to cook dinner and breakfast and we couldn't go anywhere else as Chris was expecting to meet us at this lake.

As we neared the water we headed for a forested rise on the north side and found an acceptable site almost immediately. Michael decided to do a bit of scouting and see if there was something better farther along. It was fortunate that he did because we found a really nice site near the far end of the lake. Some use by ATVs was apparent, but there was more open space, a nice view of the lake and easy access to the water.

The lake was pretty in the fading light. Inside the surrounding line of trees, silhouetted against the sky, was a ring of brush in rich shades of brown and wine color. Between that and the dark water was a pale outline of grass.


A Pleasant Evening

We set about putting up our shelters. I placed mine on the sandy soil near the lake's edge so that it would be safe to have a small fire on the fire pan.

Milton seems to be into numbers and measurement. He almost always brings a thermometer on trips and gives us regular reports. He informed us that this evening's air temperature was 36 degrees.

Michael looked for a good location for the strobe light that would make it easier for Chris to find us. He selected a small pine that stood above the brush about thirty feet from shore. Chris would be able to see it from anywhere on the periphery of the lake. He hung the light and we began to fix our dinners. It wasn't long though before someone said, "Hey, the strobe's out!"

Since it was new this trip, Michael said, "No way!" But, sure enough, looking out toward the lake, we saw nothing but the encroaching darkness. Luckily Jay had also brought a strobe and soon its light was flashing from the pine.

About the time the strawberry shortcake was ready, someone said, "Hey, there's an orange light coming this way!" Minutes later Chris arrived in camp--just in time for dessert. It's great when a plan comes together.


The Night

At least one resident beaver was unhappy about our presence on his lake. From the time we started setting up, we had intermittently heard tail slaps on the water. These continued, though more infrequently, into the night. After we retired to our shelters and again later in the night, coyotes yipped far in the distance. When we left the heat of the fire, the air was frosty and the warmth of our sleeping bags felt really good. I slept soundly.


Day 2


It was overcast and cool when we awoke and it stayed that way most of the day. We knew from perusing the maps that we wanted to camp at the end of the day on a ridge in the swamp north of Rice Lakes. The question was how much we should try to see on the way there. A possible point of interest was the Eckerman Corner Lookout Tower located about three klicks to the NE. It was almost 5 klicks from there to Rice Lakes though...

Since terrain is a major determinant of how far you can comfortably travel and you never know for sure how much it will resemble the map, we decided to start toward the tower (or more likely the remains of the tower) and see how the day evolved.


Map and Compass Work

Chris took us north in search of yet another RR grade, always fun to find and follow if they're going the right way. We located this one without too much trouble. It was old: at one point there was a birch at least 20 inches in diameter in the middle of it. It was too overgrown to follow easily but we soon found a two-track headed in the right direction.

Lunch time found us on the remains of another RR grade just west of Hwy 123. We decided that going farther north toward the tower before heading toward Rice lakes might make an awfully long day. Mary Ann volunteered to be the afternoon's point person and we worked a series of short azimuths toward our goal.

The late fall scenery was very nice. In open areas the dry leaves swished and crunched under our feet. Vistas of wetland were painted in deep, subdued colors--maroons, browns and grays. There were occasional bright accents: a field of cotton grass with white tufts blowing in the wind, the red of bittersweet and winterberries, and the pale yellow leaves clinging to young beeches.

We walked a number of ridges that gave us a bird's eye view of the forests below. Around mid afternoon we passed through the Three Lakes State Forest campground where we paused for a snack and the luxury of filling our water bottles from a pump.

We followed an ATV trail out the ridge north of Rice Lakes to the place we wanted to camp. We selected a high open area of woods with a nice view of the lake. As we were moving branches and other debris from our sites, Cathy somehow sliced her index finger on the stuff. While not a serious injury, it bled copiously and required a pause to staunch the dripping and get a dressing on it.

As at Williams Lake, the shore here was ringed with brush as if the lake was once larger than it is now. This lower ground looked marshy from the top of the hill and I anticipated some difficulty in getting water without getting wet feet.

However when I finally ventured down, I was pleasantly surprised to find the ground firm though hummocky. It was possible to walk with dry sandals right to the water's edge and the lake bottom was sandy. Nestled in the grass and reeds were pitcher plants in striking colors: bright chartreuse "pitchers" with deep burgundy veins and edges. Many were filled to the brim with crystal clear water.



The evening was pleasant though cool. I put on insulating layers before starting dinner. We visited each other during the meal and finished it off with blueberry crepes and Cool Whip. I heard an owl in the distance once, but otherwise the night was quiet--velvety black and peaceful.

Around 2 AM I was awakened by the sound of rain on my tarp. It continued in varying intensity through the night, later accompanied by gusty winds. I wondered how Chris was doing. He had gotten up early to retrieve his truck so that he, MaryAnn and Milton could return to their obligations in civilization.


Day 3


When dawn arrived it was still overcast and light rain fell intermittently. Each gust of wind brought an intense shower down from the trees. We fixed breakfast, ate and packed under our tarps. Milton commented that he wasn't quite as sorry to be leaving early as he had been the night before. Chris returned seeming as chipper as ever despite the weather. He'd lead the others back to where he'd parked his truck. We said our good byes and they departed.



The rest of us folded our tarps and gathered under Michael's to plan our day. The Sweiger Creek area was chosen as a goal, being a bit more than half way to the nearest vehicle we had spotted. It was Jay's turn to work point and he led us as we backtracked up the ridge to avoid the swamp and then connected some two tracks to get past Arbutus Lake.

It was definitely hypothermia weather. As the day progressed the rain became sleet and finally heavy flakes of snow. By afternoon open areas had a light blanket of white. Breaks and lunch were brief as we chilled down quickly when we stopped moving.

In the afternoon Cathy took the point position and we worked azimuths and terrain to avoid some private property and reach the creek. The dampness had permeated our clothes and we were looking forward to camping. Around 3 PM, as we traversed some high ground near the creek, Jay said, "How about that area down there? It's down out of the wind, sheltered by evergreens and borders the water..." Scouting around a little we found a good spot in the area he'd indicated.

Once we had our tarps up, we set about getting warm. We gathered wood and Michael split some of the bigger pieces with his Bowie to expose the dry heartwood. We soon had a nice little blaze on the firepan and it was like a magnet through the evening. We talked and steam rose as our layers dried. We had dinner and several rounds of warm drinks. By bedtime we were cozy.


Day 4


The next morning we got a break: there were only scattered clouds and the sunrise was beautiful. After breakfast we gathered our gear, planned our route and Gail led us toward the truck. Again we had a couple plots of private ground to skirt. We did take a couple of short breaks, one to look at a survey marker denoting a section corner.

Still, by noon Jay's truck was in sight. This was good timing as clouds had moved in again and rain had started to fall. Like Milton, we were not quite as sad about leaving as we otherwise would have been.




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