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Bush Rats' Wilderness Tripping: Winter Backpacking
   Pigeon River Country State Forest
   Dog Lake Flooding Area
   Cheboygan County
   Indian River, Michigan
   December 2-3, 2006


A 2-day, 20-klick,
wilderness backpacking trip
to the Pigeon River Country
State Forest's
Dog Lake Flooding

December 2-3, 2006


By Mary Powell (NatureLady)
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2006

E-mail author at powell_mm@hotmail.com


Review GlowingRock's photo album from this trip

Review IsleRoyaleGirl's photo album from this trip

Review NatureLady's photo album from this trip

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Unscripted wilderness tripping

Part of the fun of wilderness trips is that each one is very different even when we return to an area we've traveled in before.

Michael bills the trips he organizes as "unscripted," an aspect that I didn't fully appreciate on the first few I participated in, but I've come to understand that if I go into the woods with no particular expectation other than that I will spend a number of days exploring there and enjoying the company of others who like to play outdoors, it softens my judgments and eliminates the need to hurry.

Things that happen or appear along the way are part of the experience and not just a distraction from the objective of getting from point "A" to point "B." Much of life involves having a plan against which to measure one's progress and evaluate it as "success" or "failure" and it feels good to take a break from that mindset.

That being said, Michael had laid out a little more detailed plan for this trip than usual in order to give those who were new to the group a good picture of what we proposed to do...but we should know by now that making a plan just gives Mother Nature something to play with...


Friday Night

Osmun lake bivouac

For those who wanted to spend an extra night in the bush (and had the time to do so), a bivouac was planned for Friday night at Osmun Lake in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. Mike from Canton, MI (NCT Hiker) and I planned to meet there mid afternoon on Friday and pick a good spot for the group. I pictured a leisurely drive up I-75 with perhaps a stop at Jay's Sporting Goods to see if they had anything new that I couldn't live without....

Thursday night there was a winter storm warning put out for northern lower Michigan. Friday morning sleet was falling in Flint and my car had a quarter inch coating of ice. So much for the leisurely drive... I scraped the windows and started north. Somewhere between Frankenmuth and Pinconning the sleet turned to icy snow. By West Branch it was definitely accumulating, and by Gaylord I was thinking that the snowshoes might be a necessity instead of just a precaution.

At Indian River I left the expressway and started east on M-68 which was plowed but slippery. When I came to Osmun Road it hadn't been plowed, but there were several vehicle tracks in the fresh snow so I turned onto it. The bottom of the Neon dragged the snow a bit in the valleys but it kept going and after a couple of miles the state forest sign appeared on the right and Osmun Lake was visible through the trees to the left. A small side road went toward the lake and I pulled onto it, stopping there to look around a bit on foot before venturing farther in with the car.

The fresh snow was about five inches deep and falling steadily with a brisk north wind driving it in swirls across the lake. There were still stretches of dark open water but the haze of snow painted the rest of the scene in shades of gray. It looked desolate and rather inhospitable. I walked through the woods along the shore noting possible camping places and returned to my car along the two track wondering where Mike was since it was well past our appointed time to meet. Hoping that he was just delayed by the weather as I had been (and not in a ditch somewhere), I decided my best course of action, for the time being, was to pick a spot and set up camp.

There was a small open area off the two track beyond which a road led down to the water--probably a public access for fishing. The Neon slipped a bit but made it up the small hill to the parking area. I chose a spot in the woods between there and the lake and began setting up an explorer shelter. As I was tying the ropes, a Ford Explorer pulled up near my car: Mike had made it safely.


Stuck vehicle

After some brief introductions he asked me why I hadn't come to help him. It seems he had seen my car on coming to the lake and had gone down the road a little farther to look for a spot to turn around, but had gotten stuck in the attempt. As it was not far away, he thought I must have heard the spinning wheels, but with the wind and the muffling effect of the snow I'd heard nothing. I assured him that I usually respond to distress signals when I hear them!

Mike picked an open flat spot near the shore for his Hilleberg shelter--a somewhat tubular, single wall structure supported by a couple of hoop-shaped poles. I'd not run into one before but it looked lightweight and practical. Mike seemed friendly, knowledgeable and comfortable in the woods--things were looking up.

The snowfall gradually slowed and finally stopped. I snapped a picture of the lake in the twilight. Mike and I gathered firewood for the evening from the bountiful supply in the surrounding woods--it was obvious that not many people had camped in the area. We built a small fire on my fire pan and each fixed an evening meal.

He gave me some of the sub sandwich he'd procured earlier to go with my ramen soup. We saved the dessert for when the others had arrived. The last of the daylight was gone by seven and as the clouds thinned we began to see moon glow behind them to the southeast. When I went to the lake to dip water for a second cup of coffee, it was no longer liquid but more the consistency of a slurpee.

We shared a bit about our families and our previous camping experiences. Mike has been hiking since childhood and has made an effort to see that his kids also learn to enjoy the outdoors. He spoke also of his desire to complete additional sections of the NCT this coming summer. Hope he posts his plans: I'll be there if I'm free.

Some time later, Michael's silver van pulled into the parking area. There was the sound of opening doors and then a bit of delay for donning insulating gear before he and Gail strode into the firelight. Their trip from Marquette had been affected by the winter storm too and we recounted our mutual experiences with icy windshields, snail paced drivers and unplowed roads.

There were more introductions, of course, and the two of them began to get acquainted with Mike. We were waiting also for Chris and Deb but were unsure if they would arrive that evening or in the morning and we didn't know if they'd be driving or hiking into camp as there had been talk of a night hike in on an abandoned railway grade that passed the lake to the north of our camp.



As it got late we decided to break out the cheesecake and indulge before turning in. We could always cut more pieces if Chris and Deb appeared. As we ate the cake with its raspberry topping, the moon found a clear space between the clouds.

The snow glowed almost as if it was under a black light and the whole of the lake and surrounding woods were visible in great detail. There were sparkles in the snow and artistic curving lines on the lake outlining the frozen and unfrozen areas. The color of the light changed subtly as wisps of clouds encroached upon the moon. I wished that my camera could capture the scene, but knew there was no way. That's why we come out here....

Michael decided he was going to sleep beneath a PVC tarp spread under the stars and Gail opted for the luxury of a cot in the back of the van, and the certainty of being undisturbed by snow or wind. Mike headed for his shelter and I went for a walk down the road before heading to mine: wanted to soak up all of moonlit scenery that I could.




The night was peaceful and the moonlight lasted till the sun returned. The predawn light had a pink cast and was cause for crawling from my bag to snap another picture, but I got back in and dozed awhile before getting up to build a fire.

Everyone rose at their leisure and we were about done with breakfast when Roy arrived, which resulted in another round of introductions. That completed, Michael dug out the obligatory paperwork and we filled in the camping permit to keep any DNR visitors happy and signed our waivers.

When we were mostly packed to hike, there was still no sign of Chris and Deb, or of Mike U., who had said he would join us if the driving was not too bad (it was bad). Michael took the van and went, as he had promised he would do , to check as far as the intersection at M-68 for any stragglers.

He was soon back, followed closely by Chris and Deb whom he described as appearing on the road from the swamp to the north like a couple of deer. They had attempted the night nav of the railroad grade, camped on a bit of dry land in the swamp when it got late and finished the trek this morning. Despite the chilly temps they were damp with sweat--attesting to the effort involved. We gave them a little time to regroup, be introduced to Mike and Roy and add their names to the paperwork.


The plan for the day

Michael got out his maps and reviewed the plan which was to hike around the lake to the east, up over Osmun hill and then generally south toward the Lewis Branch of Adair Creek, which we would decide to ford, or follow upstream, crossing on a bridge. From that point we would head SW to Dog Lake flooding and around it to our planned campsite on the dam.

Some of the group had been there, approaching from the south, on the April '06 trip. The huge earthen dam was a neat place to camp with a view of the lake on one side and a valley containing a wetland on the other. Wildlife had been abundant and we were hoping for a repeat performance.

Gail took the point and led us down the road and along the shore to the small stream which was the outlet of the lake. This we were able to step across on some old timbers and we continued along a two track up the hill. The snow and the grade made the climb a fair amount of work and we paused at the top to catch our breath and explore the open area there.

We descended the hill with Gail cutting azimuths to hit some small rises to keep track of our position and to skirt some swampy ground. We gradually sank lower, coming finally to the creek which had cut a number of channels through the low ground. Rather than risk wet feet this early in the trip, we opted for the bridge.


The High Country Pathway

Following the creek west to the road we took it across the creek and south to the High Country Pathway. After hiking awhile on the latter, we decided it was time for lunch.

The day had turned out to be beautiful. The sun shone from a blue sky with only a few wisps of white cloud. The snow was fresh and bright and the trees made shadows in varying shades of blue. The temperature was thirtyish and we were quite comfortable sitting with a couple extra layers of insulation, so we took our time to brew soup and hot drinks and chat.

After lunch Chris got a turn to take the point. We worked the HCP, assorted remnants of roads and a RR grade in the general direction of our objective. There was little in the low undulating terrain that was remarkable.


An old log cabin

Behind a bush, just south of the old grade, were the remains of an old cabin--just the shape of the foundation and a few rotting timbers. It is always fun to picture what it would have been like to be there when the cabin was: from the doorway, one would likely have "felt" the trains as they rumbled by. Since it was likely a logging-era cabin, the area around it would probably have been one of raw, stump-studded barrenness.


Two X chromosomes...

We backtracked once thinking we'd gone too far west... Some trekkers, perhaps because of having two X chromosomes, would have gotten out a GPS at this point ......but there is little challenge in that, so we continued to try and sort out the low rises and swamps. After edging around an open area with water flowing in the wrong direction for where we thought we were, we concluded we had to be quite a bit east of where we wanted to be....

And it was getting late...and we weren't out of the swamp yet. We pressed on for another half hour or so, and it was apparent that if we could make it to the dam that night at all, it would be after dark.

That led to the first utterance of the quote for this trip, "When we get out of this swamp..." In this case it was followed by, "we'll look for a spot to camp."

On Sunday it would be followed by, "we'll decide if we can make it to the dam", "we'll decide which route we want to take" and "we'll find some high ground to have lunch on", but I'm getting ahead of myself....


Bivouac on a rise in the swamp

Just off the east edge of the Afton quad we found a bit of ground high enough so it wasn't soggy and forested with a mix of spruce, cedar and a few small hardwoods. The ground beneath was clear, probably ferny in the summer. Actually it was a very pretty place.

We decided to camp there and maybe try for the dam in the morning. We set up our shelters and Michael felt this was a place we could have a ground fire without much impact as the wet, earthy ground would regenerate rather quickly.

Everyone chose some real estate and began to set up their shelters. When I had my lean-to up I gathered some firewood and others brought their contributions. We picked a spot near a large log that would make a good backrest and soon had a comfortable fire. Some chose to eat by their shelters and others by the fire, but when dinner was over everyone gathered there.

A sharing of trip stories followed. Probably my favorite was Roy's account of a hike in Hawaii that involved climbing waterfalls and negotiating narrow ledges to reach a picturesque jungle filled caldera high on a mountain.

When the firewood dwindled to just a few sticks we headed for our shelters and sleep.

One of the things I'd forgotten about winter hiking is that as the temperature drops your gear begins to behave like a small child in a dark room: it wants to sleep with you. I'd become accustomed to the company of boots, butane lighters, water bottles etc, but this trip I had another candidate: my camera was refusing to function unless kept warm so it, too, came into the bag.

If coyotes howled or deer snorted around camp that night I didn't hear them, as I slept soundly. The one time I awoke, moonlight filtering through the thick canopy of cedars made the campsite a study in black and white--like an Ansel Adams photo.



Plan B

Sunday morning the sky was clear and the temp a bit under 20 F. I gathered a few more spruce branches and started a fire to make coffee and melt snow for the day's water. Though we were surrounded by swamp there were no open ponds or streams nearby to dip from.

Michael came over and cut more hardwood and some of the group gathered around the fire to make breakfast. Despite the relatively low temp it was comfortable.

While the rest of us broke down our shelters and packed, Michael decided to do a short recon to define our location a little better. He disappeared into the woods for about an hour and returned to report that, as we'd concluded the evening before, we were 800 meters to the east of where we wanted to be.

After studying the map a bit we started off on a hunter's trail he'd found but ended up back tracking when it petered out.

Having decided that getting to the dam and going around the far side of the lake would likely put us back at the cars after dark, we worked our way north to a two track that showed some promise of getting us to higher ground. Though it was under water for long stretches, it did eventually take us to higher ground and a little later we were back on the HCP.

After hiking awhile we had lunch by the trail and then continued toward Osmun Lake. For a long stretch we road walked because it was expedient, but it also becomes somewhat tedious....so when we came around a curve and saw the cars through the trees it was a welcome sight.

After stashing our gear, we said our farewells expressing the hope to meet at some other trailhead in the months to come. A steady snow had begun to fall again and the travel outlook was not so good.

Michael and Gail planned to drive down and take another stab at hiking it to the dam after dropping Chris and Deb back at their vehicle. In post trip e-mails they reported achieving that objective. I'll have to let IsleRoyaleGirl tell that story.


Review GlowingRock's photo album from this trip

Review IsleRoyaleGirl's photo album from this trip

Review NatureLady's photo album from this trip

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