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A Michigan Bush Rats' Photo-Journal...

Off-trail Winter Backpacking
Hiawatha National Forest & Mackinac Wilderness Tract
Mackinac County :: Eastern Upper Peninsula
Trout Lake :: Michigan
November 7-10, 2008

4 Days of backpacking
through the heart of the
Mackinac Wilderness Tract
in the Hiawatha National Forest


By Mary Powell (NatureLady)
    Flint, Michigan
    © Copyright 2008

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View Gail Staisil photo album from this trip

View Mary Powell's photo album from this trip

View trip beta page for this adventure on Backpacker Magazine's Midwest Forum

View additional, Michigan Bush Rats' photo-journals

Learn about free, Michigan Bush Rats' upcoming trips and expeditions


The crew. (Photo courtesy of Gail Staisil's photo album)



Thursday was a beautiful day for a trip north. There were scattered clouds, but the sun shone brightly between them. The temperature was a comfortable 65F. Before putting the finishing touches on packing, I took a look at the forecast for the weekend, hoping that it had improved, but that was not the case: it still said freezing rain on Saturday and snow on Sunday. I added some fleece, another pair of socks and the firepan. Also put together a salad and some fruit to eat on the way, hoping to stave off the junk food, though this strategy is not always successful. Next I took the garbage cans to the curb as Friday is pickup day and the probability that my son would remember this fact was pretty close to zero... Heading for the freeway, I was very much in a vacation mood.


Pleasant drive

The traffic was light and the late fall colors were awesome in the constantly changing light as clouds passed over. There was a full palette of browns in the oaks, ferns and grasses. An occasional maple was still red for accent and farther along there were yellow aspens and golden-orange tamaracks. I love the lacy look of the latter and the way the leaves of the former flip over and change to white in the breeze.

Needless to say, the miles slipped away quickly and soon I was approaching West Branch. There, in a low area near the road, were two bald eagles on the carcass of a deer, with a third in a bare tree nearby. My foot went to the brake and I hoped for a picture, but at 70 MPH a safe stop takes some distance and the raptors took the opportunity to move off.

A bit farther along I pulled off at a rest stop and stretched my legs by walking around a large groundwater pond nearby. The woods there were populated with black squirrels who chided me for being there and teased me by posing for pictures and then running away before I could snap them. They were much more lithe than the fat brown ones that raid my birdfeeders at home. After a cup of less-than-gourmet coffee from the vending machine, I got back on the road.

At Gaylord my car pulled off into Jay's parking lot, so I got out and went in to see if they had anything I couldn't live without. They had myriad kinds of camo in everything from heavy outer wear to lingerie, but I was not into hunting and so headed north again without buying anything.

When I reached Mackinaw it was dinner time. That salad needed something to go with it though--and the fruit I'd packed was history. The Mackinaw Pastie and Cookie Company is just off the exit… It didn't take long to obtain a cup of tea and a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie to complement the greens and cheese. I parked in a totally deserted lot by the water and sat watching the seagulls and the bridge lights coming on --the bridge remains an impressive structure even if you cross it often enough to buy tokens… When the last of the cookie was gone, I got out to walk a bit and took some touristy pictures in the fading light--the bridge…the beach…the lighthouse. Finally, I returned to the car and headed north again.


Lodging at Trout Lake

Trout Lake is not far into the UP and I was soon pulling into the McGowan Motel drive. When I picked up my key, the owner mentioned that a Mr. Hanks had asked if I was registered…..I thought that green truck looked familiar! After checking on my own room I dropped over to Jay's to see if he'd enjoyed his first week of retirement. He seemed happy with the decision, describing how great it felt not to have the time constraints that go with a full time job. He spoke of unhurriedly cutting wood, going for walks, playing with the dogs and having time to really talk to folks instead of just superficial greetings. I told him my experience was that after awhile the feeling of having plenty of time seems to evaporate as it fills with all the things you've always wanted to do. Still, after five years, I wouldn't have it any other way.

When I returned to my room, I caught up on reading the magazines I'd received in the past week or so and it was late when I turned out the light. Around 7AM I woke up and peeked out the window. It was still dark and a light rain was falling. The restaurant lights were inviting though: I could almost smell the coffee. I dressed and headed over there. The air was not as cold as I'd expected--around 50F.

I found Jay already enjoying his eggs and toast. I joined him and soon had a plate of my own, as well as a cup of the nectar of life. As we chatted the sky became light and we could see scudding gray clouds overhead, but it looked a bit better to the west--or at least we told ourselves that it did.


Getting Together and Starting Out

Michael and Gail arrived at the appointed time and when they had eaten, we signed the usual waivers.

Out at our cars we made some final gear adjustments and then headed SE on M-123. Michael had decided we would follow a plan he'd devised for a trip which hadn't come together last spring. It was a linear hike so we put his van at the planned end of the trip and shuttled ourselves to where we wanted to start.


No Map?

One small glitch in the plan was that where we'd parked was about 1400 meters off the topos we'd brought. Michael figured, however, that we'd just hike north to the Carp or one of several tributaries that crossed the area and follow the watercourse over to the map. I'd never seen him go into the woods without his thumb on a map but there's a first time for everything…


An Enjoyable Morning

We started the hike on an unmarked forest road. It was easy walking and nice to be able to soak up the woodland scenery instead of having to pay attention to where you were putting your feet. Everything was green and dripping. There were puddles in the sandy soil of the road. The ground in stands of evergreens was covered with moss, while the ground cover in partly deciduous stands consisted of bunch berry, wintergreen and ferns. In some areas a collage of colorful leaves covered the trail. When the road turned east, we continued north, bushwhacking across an unnamed creek and onward to Flat Creek which was a bit larger. Michael managed to balance across some partially submerged logs while the rest of us elected to don sandals.

On the far side of the creek we found a blazed trail which we followed until it intersected a two track running east-west. We turned onto it and after going a short way stopped for lunch in an open area. It remained cool but the rapidly moving clouds were now puffs of white cumulus and the sun shone in between. There was more discussion of retirement--Michael updated us on the SAR work he'd been doing and Jay talked about an article he was working on dealing with psychology and group dynamics on wilderness paddling trips. After lunch we continued west and almost immediately came to an idyllic campsite--an open area under some large pines overlooking a large beaver pond. Deciding it was too early to camp, we continued along the side of the pond, actually a series of connected ponds, taking pictures and enjoying the vistas of still water and weather sculptured trunks of long-dead trees.


Wet Feet

When the ponds ended, we continued west and then bushwhacked north into the adjoining swamp which merged into a wetland. Michael's high pack boots and long legs carried him efficiently from one squishy hummock to the next. Jay's boots were not as tall, so he had less time to pause on the high points and in one place had to resort to a pole vault using his hiking stick. My hiking boots were doomed from the first hummock: I tried for a while to keep the tops above water level, but gave it up at the spot where Jay'd done his leap. Gail's boots were a bit taller and she patiently picked her way across.

We were on the map now and had only about two hundred meters to go to the Carp River. The sky had been darkening and a light drizzle began. Michael gave Jay an azimuth of 51 degrees and he led us toward the river. The land rose up and became forested--thickly so in some places. Jay soon called, "I've got the river." There was a decent campsite there on a point, but the water access was pretty steep, so we worked our way west till we found a relatively open area with a sandbar nearby where we could dip our water.


Evening In the Bush

We soon had our tarps up and our layers on. Coyotes yipped and howled nearby as we brewed up our chai before dinner. A beautiful mist hung over the river, but between the clouds and the twilight it was too dark for pictures. During dinner some small animal splashed in the river and a squirrel scolded us repeatedly for being in his territory. The drizzle had stopped and we could feel the air cooling down. The clouds thinned and the stars came out. I fell asleep studying the intricate moving patterns of shadow made by moonlight on my tarp.


Rain and More Rain

I awoke around 4AM to the sound of rain on my tarp--not a torrential downpour, but a steady, insistent patter. I turned over to get a few more zzzs… When I opened my eyes again at 7AM the rain had dwindled to a drizzle, accompanied by intermittent dripping from the trees. Since the forest was saturated, I donned my rain gear to retrieve my bear bag. The others were also stirring. Breakfast was simple, a warm bagel with cheese and jelly and, of course, a large cup of coffee. The thermometer said it was 38F, though I would have guessed mid forties.

Our small group was soon ready to hike. Michael's plan called for us to head south to Flat Creek and check out the ridges along its north bank. A due south azimuth soon brought us back to the wetland, but instead of crossing, we skirted it on higher ground, then worked our way south again sticking to the drier ground--"drier" being a relative term meaning "not quite as deep". When we reached the ridge that overlooked the lowland containing Flat Creek, we turned west following the waterway. When we found a good overlook, we stopped for lunch. The morning's drizzle had continued intermittently and was heavy enough to warrant putting up a tarp while we ate. The break didn't last as long as usual either, as we were chilly by the time we finished eating.

Working our way west, Gail's new boots, which were bruising her ankles, slowed here down. West of the road we found a trail along the ridge, apparently maintained by hunters as there was a well stocked blind near the end of it. Not wanting to camp by the blind ,we continued west, though the trail petered out and the trees were thick along the top of the ridge. Finally we came to an overlook where a second blind may have been at one time. There were some minimal open areas under the trees, and water access at a large pond at the bottom of the ridge. Everything was dripping from the day's drizzle and as we set up our shelters the rain picked up.


Evening in Camp

I got water, gathered some firewood and settled under my tarp. I put on some layers and got out the firepan. Since the wood choices had consisted of soggy spruce and cedar with one limb of aspen thrown in, I was not overly optimistic. Even split to the dry heartwood they were reluctant to burn. Still, with a bit of coaxing, I was able to get enough fire to cook dinner and mostly dry my socks. The latter project, along with keeping the fire alive, was a significant part of the entertainment for the evening as everyone was pretty much pinned down by the rain. There were a few jokes shared across the intervening spaces and Michael talked awhile about the challenges of communication on the recent SAR operations.

After dinner we were treated to a show that we didn't expect. It began with some intermittent flashes or glowing at the horizon in the southeast. Increasingly the light became discernable colors: rose, yellow, green, white. Finally Michael caught sight of a definite burst of fireworks. The display increased from there till we were seeing the typical multiple bursts of fireworks, building over 20 minutes or so to a grand finale. We were totally stymied as to what the occasion could be for this celebration, but it provided a convenient diversion. Jay did some post trip research and found that was the fourth annual display hosted on that date by a couple of Moran families as a memorial. After the final flashes, darkness returned and the drizzle continued. As the evening progressed, the temperature dropped steadily and the dampness made it feel colder than it was. Earlier than usual we retired to our bags.



The next morning we awoke to a landscape decorated with a heavy sprinkling of snow. Not much had fallen under the trees where we were camped because of the thick canopy, but the bushes and grasses in the wetland below were lacy and sparkling. Light little flurries fell intermittently. This was definitely an oatmeal morning…with hot coffee, of course. The sky was lighter and after the rosy glow of the sunrise there were places where you could see blue between the clouds. Things were looking up!

Not wanting to contend with several klicks of swamp and a deep-water river crossing on this frosty morning, we took the trail back to East Lake Rd and walked the road north to the Carp River where we crossed on the bridge. The easier walking gave us time to enjoy the panorama of snow-coated forest. Very nice!

North of the Carp there was a trail that ran west along the river, more or less, and we followed it watching the sun melting the snow, looking for tracks and scat and generally enjoying being in the bush. Somewhere along the way we had lunch. We found a place that others had used in the past, perhaps as a fishing or hunting base camp. There was a grill and cooking gear hung on a tree, improvised racks and bottles scattered in the bushes.


Along the North Branch

About four klicks in from the road we came to the confluence of the river with its North Branch and we turned north along the latter stream. Traces of a fisherman's path followed the river making travel fairly easy. The terrain alternated between cedar swamps, seeps and wetland areas on the low ground and scrubby mixed forest on the higher ground where ridges intersected the river. There were many viewpoints to enjoy river vistas like little rapids, log jams and islands.

At one of the drier cedar swamp areas we stopped for the night. When my tarp was up, firewood collected and bear hang in place, I explored a ways downstream and into the swamp, enjoying the variety of mushrooms and mosses that were out and the soothing burble of the water. Near an open spot I disturbed an owl. It dropped from its perch and glided away in total silence disappearing into the darkening cedars.

Returning to camp, I could smell the chai and I set about fixing dinner. Though everything was still pretty wet, the fire was easier to start and maintain. We heard coyotes again and later the moon was out. A pleasant evening.


Last Day in the Bush

We'd not left ourselves a lot of ground to cover on the last day. After breakfast we continued along the river looking for evidence of an old road that showed on the map. I would have been an interesting side trip in the direction of the van, but we saw no sign of it. Where the gas pipeline intersected the creek we turned eastward onto that huge open swath. Again it was easy hiking and I occupied myself with collecting a big bouquet of dried seed heads to scatter in the "wild" area of my yard.

It wasn't long till the silver box shape of Michael's van came into view in the distance. On reaching it we stowed our gear and headed for a post trip meal in St. Ignace before parting. The timing was good: the clouds were rolling in again. We sat down to enjoy "real" food and talk about where we'd be next month.


E-mail author

View Gail Staisil photo album from this trip

View Mary Powell's photo album from this trip

View trip beta page for this adventure on Backpacker Magazine's Midwest Forum

View additional, Michigan Bush Rats' photo-journals

Learn about free, Michigan Bush Rats' upcoming trips and expeditions




In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.

 —John Muir (1838-1914), Alaska Wilderness, 1890


If you've been able to read this Web page...
thank a Teacher;
If you've been able to read this Web page in English...
thank a Veteran.
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