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Michigan Bush Rats' Wilderness Tripping: Winter Camping
   Tomahawk Creek Flooding
   Mackinac State Forest
   Montmorency County
   Onaway, Michigan
   December 7-10, 2007


A Michigan Bush Rats' Adventure:

A Snowshoe and Sledge
Exploration of the
Tomahawk Creek Flooding area
in the Mackinac State Forest

December 7-10, 2007


By Mary Powell (NatureLady)
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2007

E-mail author at powell_mm@hotmail.com



Review NCThiker's photo album from this trip

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The drive north...

When my plans to spend the weekend sledging and winter camping came up in conversation with a colleague at work, he asked what almost anyone who hasn't tried it asks: "Why would you want to do that? It's cold out there…"

There are actually lots of reasons.

First of all, the countryside is beautiful and unbelievably peaceful when covered with a deep blanket of snow. I enjoy seeing the wilderness in all its moods and seasons: the exuberant awakening and explosive growth of spring, the luxuriant foliage and intense animal activity of summer, the bountiful harvest and opulent colors of fall and, finally, the dormancy of winter when life hunkers down to await the return of the sun.

I also like the physical challenges of traveling and camping comfortably in the snow. The lack of bugs is nice too.

And lastly, I like seeing the many signs left by woodland creatures that are often overlooked in the "busier" seasons--things like nests, tracks, scat, burrows and the remnants of meals.

I had planned to carpool to this trip with another of the participants, but got detained at work and found myself driving north on I-75 in the early evening. At home, the scant snow cover was melting and the weekend forecast called for intermittent rain and sleet. Fortunately, the picture was brighter to the north: 12 inches of snow on the ground and a forecast of possible snow showers.

The location for this trip was near Clear Lake State Park in Montmorency County and there had been several changes in the pre-trip bivouac plans due to new snow.

When I reached the Tomahawk Lake State Forest Campground, I found Michael, Gail, Steve and Mike gathered around a small fire. We shoveled an additional parking spot in case Cathy arrived late and then chatted awhile, enjoying the flames and occasionally adding another branch.

When it began to look as if Cathy would either be arriving very late, or was staying somewhere else, we decided to eat our share of the planned cheesecake dessert. It might have been a bit better warm, but it went down pretty well and we headed for our sleeping bags with full stomachs.


Day 1--Friday
Turkey, squirrel, mouse, deer, coyote, and elk tracks

The next morning, after breakfast at our campsites, we drove down to Clear Lake State Park, where we would leave most of our vehicles for the duration of the trip. Cathy was there as were Josh and Mary Ann, who had driven down from the Canadian Soo. Mike's car was spotted elsewhere so he could leave on Sunday to get back to work.

Before long, we began our hike, which was to be a sizeable loop, east of the park, in the Mackinac State Forest.

After crossing M-33 we cut a rough azimuth to the east, over a ridge, before heading south a bit to pick up one of the many firebreak trails in the woods. Traveling on this firebreak would facilitate covering ground since we were getting a relatively late start.

Though the sky had been overcast at daybreak, it was now a bright blue with puffy, white, fast-moving clouds. With the temperature in the high twenties and almost no wind, it was very pleasant hiking weather.

By lunchtime we had seen an assortment of tracks--turkey, squirrel, mouse, deer, coyote and elk. We stopped to eat along one of the trails. When we got moving again, we spotted an eagle soaring high above the trees.

Steve expressed an interest in the land nav and Michael set him up to cut an azimuth on point. He did an excellent job despite having to contend with the thick brush and swamp that covered the low ground between the ridges.

The final azimuth of the afternoon took us to what was probably an elk feeding area--a clear field decorated with the dried remains of summer flowers…alien invaders actually: spotted knapweed and the tall spikes of mullein.

The field was bordered with a young mixed forest--aspens, beeches, and maples with a scattering of birch and evergreens. We found a sheltered area along the north edge and began to set up camp.

When completed, our little village had an assortment of shelters--Mike's Snow Cave, Steve's heated tent, Josh's pyramid shelter, and several, variously-erected tarps.

We settled in to enjoy our view of the field as we prepared dinner and relaxed for the evening.


Day 2--Saturday
Rice pudding

Saturday began with a beautiful pastel sunrise: pinks, mauves, and blues that gradually became peaches and golds as the sun rose.

A curtain of fast-moving clouds brought that show to an end, but it was soon followed by a shower of huge snowflakes that drifted lazily down over the field. It was beautiful and peaceful.

The pleasant smell of wood smoke drifted through our encampment as we melted snow and heated our breakfasts. I had a second cup of coffee and soaked up the winter scene before packing up my gear.

Josh took the point and we ranged farther east and then north toward Upper Tomahawk Lake. He did a nice job of combining rough azimuths and working the terrain to get the easiest route.

The weather remained nice--there was a slight breeze and big, gray snow clouds alternated with brief patches of blue sky.

We had a leisurely lunch and then Mike took point, picking up the pace and leading us farther northeast to a two track that we used to cross a swampy area. North of the swamp and west of Upper Tomahawk Lake we climbed a ridge covered with hardwoods.

It was narrow enough to see the land dropping off on both sides as we traveled farther north. The sun was dropping when we neared the end of the ridge and we decided to camp there facing down toward the lake, which was not quite visible through the trees.

As we set up camp, we were treated to a sunset of wine and gold that rivaled the beauty of the previous sunrise. We settled in for the evening with a feeling that our cup was very full.

The evening was clear and the temperature dropped into the teens. We relaxed and enjoyed dinner, which was followed by rice pudding for dessert.

We visited each other and Steve demonstrated the little titanium woodstove that warmed his tent.

When the firewood we'd gathered was burned and we'd chatted enough, we lay down in our bags to listen for coyotes and watch the sky show until sleep overtook us.


Day 3--Sunday
Crows, chickadees, juncos and a pileated woodpecker

When we'd packed up in the morning, Michael took the point and led us to a small back road where those who were leaving early could head back to the cars. Mike, Steve and Gail said their goodbyes there.

The rest of us began to bushwhack in a generally southwest direction which would bring us back to the vehicles sometime the next day. Cathy came along to take in a little more winter scenery before departing. It was a beautiful day--full sunshine and fresh snow.

There were tracks to study and an infinite array of dead winter weeds.

We saw a second eagle. Josh and Mary Ann spotted a mouse scurrying around a tree. Birds were active--crows, chickadees, juncos and a pileated woodpecker.

We skirted some private property and had lunch along Tomahawk Creek. Beavers had been active there and we worked our way along the creek hoping to cross on a dam but didn't find one substantial enough to keep us out of the water.

We ended up crossing on the small bridge, which had been Plan A anyhow. On the road we saw signs that the rest of the group had passed there and this was where Cathy also headed back toward her car.

Michael, Josh, Mary Ann and I continued southwest using a piece of the High Country Pathway as it wound along the creek.

As the sun set, we found a good spot to camp on a remnant of a very old logging road overlooking a field. The road ran along a mature pine plantation so firewood was abundant, easy to burn, and sweet smelling.

It was a very peaceful evening. Coyotes called from not too far away and Michael slipped out to return their call and see if he could spot them.

He and the coyotes exchanged greetings for awhile but they didn't come close enough for a sighting.


Day 4--Monday
Evidence of poachers

Michael took point again in the morning, a position which involves breaking trail when in fresh snow as we were. He insisted that it was good training for the February trip in Canada.

We continued southwest through previously timbered areas that were partly grown up with stands of pines separated by big open areas, a landscape that reminds me of the Kingston Plains, near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, in the Upper Peninsula.

At the edge of a wooded area we began to see unusual numbers of coyote tracks--they were everywhere. A little farther along we came upon the reason for this abundance of tracks: the remains of three deer carcasses lay in the snow.

There was pretty clear evidence of poaching. They'd been skinned, the hindquarters were missing, and the antlers had been removed from the buck.

Animals had been taking advantage of this bounty. The snow had been packed down all around by coyotes. There were some signs that crows had feasted too.

I was surprised at the current visitors though--chickadees! I thought of them as strictly seedeaters. They moved off reluctantly as we approached, hanging around in the nearby bushes while we examined the remains.

As we departed, they returned immediately to feed. I tried for a picture of them pecking at the bones and pulling on the tendons, but their small size combined with the location's shadows thwarted that effort.

We bushwhacked in a leisurely fashion toward the park, enjoying the sunshine and pausing for a snack. We arrived at the cars right at the appointed time, about two in the afternoon.

After stowing our gear in the cars and making some effort to clean up to a socially-acceptable level, we headed for Onaway and our traditional post-trip meal.



Review NCThiker'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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