The Unsurpassed Beauty of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

You almost don’t need words with a landscape like this, but I’m going to provide some anyway so you know what you’re looking at.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is on the south shore of Lake Superior between Munising and Grand Marais. And if you ever find yourself planning a trip to the UP, a Pictured Rocks Cruise or kayaking tour should be on your MUST DO list. There are only a couple features that are visible to the drive-in tourist, more for backpackers and hikers. But the most impressive features of this 43-mile long stretch of sandstone cliffs, arches, and caves cannot be seen unless you are out on the big lake.

Battered by wind and waves, the shoreline varies between sheer cliffs, pockmarked with caves, and idyllic sandy beaches and inviting waterfalls. And every so often, a “picture” in the rocks–a structure or illusion that suggests an object, like finding shapes in the clouds. One of these is Miner’s Castle (below) which you can drive to easily but which, in my mind, is far from the most impressive or exciting.

In addition to the “pictures (which we’ll see a lot more of below) the cliffs are “painted” by minerals dissolved by underground springs and streams of water that then drip down the sides of the sandstone. The color indicates the mineral: white is calcite, orange is iron, gray is dolomite, blues and greens are copper, black is manganese.

The various points have colorful names, such as the arch below, which is called Lover’s Leap. Our guide on the cruise reminded us that it was not such a great name because if you take a flying leap into the lake from this point it is into only about four feet of water. So maybe this is for jilted and suicidal lovers only…

Things can change quickly though. Our guide pointed out a sandbar to us, saying, “If you were to stand on that sandbar where you see the water looks more brown, you would be in water up to about your waist. One step closer to the boat where we are now and you’d be in 65 feet of water.” Superior is beautiful, yes, but dangerous when you don’t know what you’re doing.

Probably not all of the caves on the lakeshore have names, but this one does — Rainbow Cave, for the streaks of minerals on the walls and the turquoise water.

When I took this cruise as a child, this point of land was called Indian Head. Our guide this time around was careful to be PC about it, but its name is certainly no insult. The Native Americans who fished these waters called this rock the Gitchee Manitou, or Great Spirit. They saw themselves in its strong jaw and nose, its sloping brow, and its steadfastness in the storm.

Someday I intend to kayak Pictured Rocks, if only so I can slip into places like this to see how far back those caves go…

Sometimes a single cliff or point is not enough to make a picture, but a series of them is. This is Battleship Row, where five or six points of land at the right angle look like a fleet lined up at port.

The winters are long in the UP and the gales off of this inland sea are powerful enough to sink freighters, as any Gordon Lightfoot fan knows. So I always like to see trees that hang on despite adversity, like this pine gripping the side of this cliff.

Can you see the goblet or vase in the rocks below?

 

How about a set of sturdy bear or elephant legs?

A pirate’s face below a gray tricorn hat? (Barring that, you might at least see a set of very round eyes and a rabbit-like nose perhaps?)

This tight cove is Chapel Cove, and the interesting thing here is better viewed in the second picture.

This is the spot with the most copper coming through, as you can see by the deep teal about halfway up the rocks.

Just beyond Chapel Cove is Chapel Beach and Chapel Falls, both accessible by car and a short walk.

And then the feature which is almost everyone’s favorite: Chapel Rock.

It may not be wholly obvious from that first picture that there is indeed a white pine tree (our state tree) atop the rock. And even if you caught that right away, it may be tough to tell just how it can live on a rock that is almost completely separated from the mainland. The photo below reveals the mystery.

A thick tangle of roots, which had developed at a time when Chapel Rock was still an arch and connected to the rest of the forest, is that tree’s main source of water and nutrients from the soil. Tenacity. You need it to live in such an unforgiving place. Incidentally, in what can be a very difficult and sometimes treacherous trail that forces the hiker to the very edge of unstable cliffs in this stretch of the North Country Trail, the only fences the National Park Service has constructed are those protecting this feature (and Miner’s Castle) from people who might otherwise trample and climb and damage it.

If you take the longer cruise option, you will get to see Spray Falls, which empties into Lake Superior and can only be seen from the water. In late summer during a dry year, this waterfall may not be flowing at all, so go in June.

 

Another waterfall you can appreciate from the lake is the lovely Bridal Veil Falls…

And just in case the scale of these features has eluded you…see those kayakers?

On the way back to port the boat swung by Grand Island and the East Channel Lighthouse, which opened for service in 1868.

The island is used largely by sportsmen, tourists, and hikers, but there are a few houses on it. The summer residents of these houses have no plumbing and no electricity, and they are the keepers and restorers of the lighthouse, which hasn’t been in service since 1913.

For days when I asked my son what his favorite part of the trip so far had been, he’d say it was the Pictured Rocks Cruise. His answer would change later, but that is another post for another day…

Just trust me and put this on your bucket list.

Friends Old and New, Human and Bear

Having been a docent for six years at the well-run Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, I’m always a little leery of what I perceive to be “low rent” zoos that are not accredited. Always a little worried that I’ll encounter animals that may not have the best living conditions or diet. And I was a little afraid of this being the case when I put a bear ranch on our itinerary. On first glance when we arrived at Oswald’s Bear Ranch just outside of Newberry, I was not put at ease. The odd collection of buildings and the dirt parking lot and the pit toilets didn’t scream “professional” to me.

Then we walked into the gift shop, which you go through to get to the area where the cubs are, and I heard a vaguely familiar male voice say, “Hello, Erin.” I looked around and saw a pair of very blue eyes I recognized but was having trouble placing. Then it suddenly hit me.

The kid on the left with the sprayed-on gray hair and the prop wheelchair was the person talking to me in the gift shop of Oswald’s Bear Ranch. And he wasn’t just there, he was working there. Of course he was. Oswald is his last name. (BTW, yes, that’s me in the black leather miniskirt, red shoes, and long black wig. This was Witness for the Prosecution, the fall play my senior year of high school, where I was the double-crossing leading lady. If you’ve seen the movie version, my part was played by Marlene Dietrich. I was also in Arsenic and Old Lace, The Bald Soprano, Mr. Winkler’s Birthday Party, and Hello, Dolly! with this young man.)

But back to the bears…

The ranch was started by his grandfather, Dean Oswald, in 1997, a couple years before my friend and fellow actor Dustin graduated from high school. Apparently he moved up to the UP almost immediately and has been working in the family business for nearly twenty years. Oswald’s Bear Ranch, it turns out, is accredited by the Zoological Association of America and the bears there seem happy, well fed, and well adjusted. They have huge enclosures in natural surroundings. They are beloved by the staff. And they are there because they have been injured, abandoned, or abused. Apparently the Department of Natural Resources calls on Dean fairly regularly to take in young bears who were purchased (by idiots) as cubs but have (obviously) grown into animals that are difficult to handle and very definitely not pets.

The website states their mission is to “strive to advance the care of abused or abandoned bears through rescue efforts” adding that the bears at Oswald’s Bear Ranch are cared for through private funds and donations. With nearly 30 bears living there, including cubs, they can always use help. You can find a donation button on this page of their website.

Each enclosure is double fenced to keep bears and visitors at a safe distance from one another, which makes good photos hard to get. (There are lots on the ranch’s website.) But for an extra fee (we dropped more money here than most other UP attractions we visited) you can get photos taken with one of the cubs and even pet them while you’re at it. Which, of course, we had to do.

We also bought a bag of quartered apples from the cafe to toss over the fences and feed the adolescents and adults.

I would have liked to have a formal tour where we were told the personal stories behind some of the bears living there, but it was all basically self-serve. After chatting a bit more with my old school chum in the gift shop, my son and I had more UP delights to see and a ticking clock to catch a boat. We drove toward Grand Marais (Pro Tip: the road between Newberry and Grand Marais is “seasonal” — read: dirt — and very winding for about 12 long miles, so if you’re in a hurry, take another route) so Calvin could get a glimpse of the Grand Sable Dunes from Log Slide.

And then it was on to Munising to take our long-anticipated Pictured Rocks cruise…

 

Tahquamenon Falls: Take 4 (for me, anyway…)

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been to Tahquamenon Falls a few times. As a child, as a new mom, as a backpacker. And now as part of our grand UP road trip.

The boy had been here with me eight years ago…

But memories are fleeting when we are very young as everything is a new experience. So this was effectively his first time.

We discovered that he LOVES waterfalls. Tahquamenon Falls are really a series of falls. Several smaller falls make up the Lower Falls, and then there’s the big drop at the Upper Falls.

The trail to the Lower Falls was unfortunately being repaired, so we couldn’t go right up (which disappointed me quite a bit, as I like them more than the more “impressive” Upper Falls). But we spent quite a long time admiring the Upper Falls, which were running high with recent rains.

The brown “root beer” color is caused by tannins leeched from the cedar swamps that surround the area (if you recall, my hiking trip through this area a few years back was very sloppy).

It was extremely sunny most days of the trip, which makes for a nice vacation, but it also makes it hard to take photos of waterfalls because the bright white of rapids and foam and spray can blow out in a photo. This close-up shows the churning water a bit better.

I think the boy would have stayed there all day, but we had a lot more excitement planned for that day.

After a quick perusal of the gift shop, it was off to a place I actually had never been. Little did I know, a little slice of my past was waiting for me there…

More on that next time. 😉

Returning to Pt. Iroquois

Our first stop on Saturday was to Pt. Iroquois, the site of lighthouse, modest museum, and gift shop today, but significant long before to the Native Americans who lived there.

The following comes from the Pure Michigan pages for Sault Ste Marie area attractions.

 

The area around Sault Saint Marie (“The Soo”), including Whitefish Bay, has been called the “Heartland” of the Chippewa Indians. This tribe is also called Ojibwa, and sometimes refer to themselves as “Anishinabeg,” which is their word for “original people.” The Iroquois lived about 400 miles away, mostly in what is now western New York. In the 1600s these nations were at war, at least in part because of European influence and fur trade competition. The Iroquois often sent expeditions far from their homeland and attempted to control the trade routes leading east from the Great Lakes.
Accounts of an important battle at Point Iroquois in 1662 have been passed down for over 300 years. They tell how an Iroquois war party camped near the point where the lighthouse now stands, and how the Chippewa secretly watched their movements and mounted a surprise attack near dawn. The Iroquois were defeated decisively, and apparently never again ventured this far west.

Click here for more about the light itself.

As you can see, though it is certainly summer weather-wise in the southern Lower Peninsula where I live, it is still spring up in the UP. Many trees are still flowering or just pushing out their leaves and the weather was cool and breezy and marvelously sunny most of the time.

The boy and I climbed the 72 steps up to the top of the lighthouse.

But we spent most of our time on the beach looking at, collecting, and throwing stones.

One of the things I love about Lake Superior are the stony beaches that offer up a kaleidoscope of rocks to admire through the crisp, clear water.

My son and I had been here before, eight years ago…

…but of course he didn’t remember it. The beach was a bit stonier then. And it’s likely that the water is a bit higher now as Superior’s levels are close to the record high at the moment, courtesy of some extremely cold and snowy winters that helped reverse the effects of a few dry years over the Great Lakes Basin.

Lakes — and boys — can change a lot in eight years.

Let the Adventure Begin…

I have long wanted to see more of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula than the eastern end I have been fairly familiar with through a childhood trip, a mission trip with our church’s youth group, and three hiking trips with my sister (you can find out more about the hiking trips by poking around in the earlier years of this blog). And I have been keen on getting my son up there while he is still young so that he can fall in love with it as much as I have. So when it was decided that my husband would be going to Israel for ten days I thought that was the perfect time to plan a road trip. I didn’t want us to be stuck at home for ten days without Daddy, bored and lonesome. Much better to distract ourselves with some of God’s natural wonders — and with some of man’s innovations to navigate and utilize those natural resources.

On his last half-day of school on Friday, we headed north over the Mighty Mac to go exploring…

The first stop on our whirlwind tour of the Upper Peninsula (hereafter referred to as the UP — that’s U-P, not “up”) was Sault Ste. Marie (pronounced Soo-Saint-Marie) to visit the Soo Locks, which allow commercial shipping between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes, and, by extension through the St. Lawrence Seaway, the rest of the world. Here’s where you’ll find them:

Sault Ste. Marie is a rather industrial little town, not “pretty” by most standards, but it has a charm all its own. Growing up in the Bay City area as I did, I tend to like anything to do with boats and shipping. The Saginaw Bay and Saginaw River (which you will find between the Thumb and the rest of the Mitten in the map above) have been important shipping channels for generations. Though downtown Bay City is getting a face lift — the mountains of gravel and big cranes are giving way to new loft housing and a revamped riverfront — the sailboats and freighters and drawbridges are all still there. And now that I’m rather landlocked in the middle of the state, I get a bit of a thrill to see something like this:

That is the Lee A. Tregurtha coming in from the Huron side to pick up iron ore pellets from a Minnesota port on Superior. Huron is the lower of the two lakes, so once this beast gets into the lock, the water level will be raised (powered only by gravity and strategically opened and closed valves) to the Superior level, which takes 22 million gallons of water. Then the doors on the Superior side will be opened and the ship will go on its way.

This spot used to be solely rapids and had to be bypassed on land, which limited what you could ship. Native Americans and French voyageurs and fur traders had to lift their canoes and boats out of the water and carry them to the next lake. Now 7,000 boats and ships pass through the locks each year carrying an average of 80 million tons of cargo.

The long elevated bridge you can see in the next photo is the bridge to Canada, and there are also locks on the Canadian side.

Being so close to Canada, you may see signs like this on local businesses:

Growing up on the east side of the state, we regularly used Canadian coins interchangeably with American coins when they showed up in our pockets. No one ever questioned it. Then when I moved to the west side of the state in college and tried to use a Canadian quarter, the clerk treated me like I was a criminal trying to pull one over on her. She didn’t even know what she was looking at. I was quite taken aback.

But then, Michigan is a very large state, as my son and I found out! More about our adventures in the coming weeks, but in the meantime click here for more interesting facts about the Soo Locks, along with a good aerial shot.

Hiking the Manistee River, Day Three

Sometimes, pictures are all you need.

Up from Red Bridge, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Witch Hazel, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Slagle Creek, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Waterfall, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Waterfall, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

 

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Sunset on birches, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

If you ever get a chance to hike the Manistee River Trail at the height of fall color, I highly suggest you take it.

A Magic Misty Morning on the Manistee

The second morning of our trip was cold and clear and the lazy river was clothed in fine mist as the sun crept up over the treeline.

Along the misty Manistee River, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

I walked along the edge of the river and across Red Bridge in my pink polka-dotted PJ pants like a crazy person to take pictures.


Along the misty Manistee River, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

The few other people awake and moving at that moment didn’t seem to mind.

Along the misty Manistee River, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

The four of us took photos silently, with nods of recognition to each other that we were the chosen few that got to experience this magic moment because we had gotten ourselves out of bed.

Along the misty Manistee River, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

My dad told me that when Corvettes were first manufactured there were so few of them that if a Corvette driver passed another on a street, they would wave to each other. The tradition had hung around for decades, so that when our family had a red t-top 1971 Corvette Stingray for a while in the 1990s, Dad would always wave to to other Corvette drivers.

Along the misty Manistee River, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

And that’s how I think nature photographers are. We know that when it is beautiful and silent and we are witnessing a majestic scene or a special moment that might not come again, we are part of an elite group.

Along the misty Manistee River, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Those gorgeous golden moments we manage to capture so that we can share them with others? We’re there, in that place, just out of frame, enjoying it firsthand. Feeling the cold or the heat, hearing the wind or the crack of sticks beneath our feet…or the sound of birds.

Along the misty Manistee River, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

As I was ambling around taking pictures, a low honking began in the distance, lower than the ubiquitous Canada geese I was used to. I looked up and managed to just catch this flock of seven ghost-white trumpeter swans heading for the rising sun.

Trumpeter swans, Manistee River, October 2016

That was a moment I’m glad I didn’t miss. Soon the sun lit the trees on fire and warmed our weary muscles.

Manistee National Forest, October 2016

I took off my crazy PJ pants. We packed up the dewy tent, filtered water from the river, and headed out for what would be the most breathtaking day of our four-day hike…

[to be continued]

 

Hiking the North Country Trail Side of the Manistee River, Day Two

After a night of interrupted sleep, we packed up our stuff and headed back down the trail, intent on reaching the Red Bridge campground on the river below. Here’s some of the beauty we saw along the way…

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

Red Hill Overlook, North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

After a time, we left the North Country Trail and took an auxiliary trail that would bring us down to Red Bridge and connect us with the Manistee River Trail on the other side of the river.

Manistee River Trail, October 2016

We were surprised to find that the campsite was right by the road and a big parking lot, but neither of us felt compelled to go any further at the moment in hopes of finding a more remote one. You’d be surprised how compelling the idea of a picnic table is after just a couple days of hiking.

We settled in along the Manistee River among some beautiful marshy wetland areas.

Manistee River near Red Bridge, October 2016

Manistee River near Red Bridge, October 2016

Manistee River near Red Bridge, October 2016

As the sun set, we read and enjoyed the fire. Our second night would be much less eventful than the first.

That night I heard only coyotes and a great horned owl, prelude to what would be an enchanted morning…

[to be continued]

Night Screams, Gunshots, Mystery Guests, and Other Sinister Nighttime Visions

If you’ve never slept in the deep woods, perhaps you are not familiar with just how eerily quiet it can be. At home, my husband and I both have white noise to cover the silence. A fan or the air conditioning or the furnace is often running. My son has the sound of his aquarium and the soft sounds from his CD player to lull him to sleep. But on a still, windless night in the woods, you can hear the silence. And because you are straining to hear anything at all, when a sound does present itself, it can feel strange, larger than life, and sometimes a bit threatening.

During our three nights on the trail, I heard the echoing chorus of coyotes, the hooting of owls, the call of sandhill cranes. I heard the pattering of rain and falling leaves. I heard the crash of a waterfall and the swish-swoosh of wind in the trees.

But that first night was very, very quiet.

Until the screaming started.

My sister and I both heard it and we both had the same thought: Is someone getting murdered out here? We had heard gunshots earlier, but my perusal of Michigan hunting season information suggests that these shots were likely directed at wild turkeys, not humans.

I listened very closely each time the sound occurred and was comforted that it was exactly the same each time. So no, no one was getting murdered — screams would be varied in tone, pitch, and volume if you were under attack. This was the call of an animal.

I assumed at first it must be a screech owl, but as I listened to many recordings of screech owls (and a bunch of other owls) I realized that this wasn’t exactly what I heard. So I branched out and found this:

Yeah…that’s what I heard, all right.

Here’s another one (the scream starts just after the 0:25 mark):

We heard the jarring and disconcerting sound of what I now know to be a fox perhaps half a dozen times, then it stopped. And we went back to sleep.

Sometime later, I heard much quieter sounds…much closer. A kind of heavy ambling sound, accompanied by a looming but dim shadow over my head on the tent. A soft scuffling. Then silence, but with what dim light entered the tent from the moonlight on this cold, clear night I thought I saw the tent material getting closer and closer to my face, as though someone or something was pushing it.

I quietly extracted my arm from the straight jacket of my sleeping bag and pulled my pistol from its holster, which was resting within easy reach. Five years ago when my sister and I had hatched our yearly hiking plans, my husband had insisted I get my CPL. People got murdered on trails sometimes. A bullet wouldn’t stop an angry grizzly bear if I was out West somewhere, but a quick succession of them could certainly slow a black bear (provided you’ve got more than a .22 caliber, which I do).

My heart pounding, I waited with my hand on that gun. Waited for the terrifying sound of someone unzipping the tent or the slash of claws through the nylon near my face. But nothing happened. And nothing happened. And nothing happened. Had I dreamed it?

Eventually, I calmed down enough to go to sleep.

Now, sleeping on the ground is uncomfortable, and the first night especially I think most people tend to wake up a lot. And I did wake up a few times after the incident with the shadow and the shuffling footfalls. And every time, I heard my sister’s light snores from the other side of the tent — and the steady, low breathing of something on the outside of the tent, maybe only a foot from my head.

My nighttime visitor was still there. And I could assure myself that it was indeed an animal because a person certainly wouldn’t be sleeping out there in the 35 degree night air. It was a large animal with a deep lung capacity. Because it was just sleeping, I wasn’t worried. I went back to sleep.

At about 3:00 AM, my sister woke me up because she needed to go to the bathroom and I was blocking the door of the tent. I stopped her and told her of the sounds, the shadows, the low, deep breaths.

“Something was sleeping out there — a deer or a bear — and I don’t want you going out there and surprising it.”

She confirmed that I hadn’t been dreaming — she’d heard whatever it was arrive as well, and at different time, she had been awakened and heard it breathing. But at that point, neither of us heard anything and nothing was going to stop her from going to the bathroom. Alison checked her surroundings, used the forest facilities, and we went back to sleep.

When morning finally came, it was so cold that neither of us really had much desire to leave our sleeping bags. But then I remembered our nocturnal visitor, got my camera, and got up to search for signs of what really was on the other side of a few microns of nylon. I looked for hoof prints and fur, though I knew in my gut it wasn’t a deer — they just don’t sound like that when walking. I saw no fur, which deer tend to leave behind anywhere they’ve been, and no hoof prints, which are the easiest wildlife footprints to identify.

What I did see were some long, straight scratches — the longest probably about the length of my index finger — and a few shallow marks of foot pads. Here is just a sampling:

 

 

 

Now, except for cheetahs, felines have retractable claws, so they would not leave claw prints. Also, the only cat big enough to make that size print — a mountain lion — isn’t found in the lower peninsula. So I had two choices.

This could possibly be a canine, like a fox (too small), coyote (also probably too small), or wolf — and again, you don’t really find wolves the lower peninsula. Plus, anyone who has ever spent any time with dogs could recognize how a dog or doglike creature sniffs and moves. This creature was not doglike.

The only other possibility is that it was a bear.

Why not a large, sluggish raccoon or a porcupine? Well, a few reasons. The shadow was too big, the sniffing in too low a register, the claw marks too big, and also raccoons and porcupines sleep in trees, not on the ground.

So I am 99% sure my sleeping companion was a black bear. Probably a younger individual just because of the size of the prints and claw marks. And my theory as to why it decided to sleep with us? 1.) It was a very cold night and the tent had to be warmer than the air around it because our bodies were in it. 2.) Perhaps it is this youngster’s first season away from mom and it was looking for companionship.

You may come to some other conclusion, but for my money, I slept with a bear Friday night.

Hiking the North Country Trail Side of the Manistee River, Day One

I left Lansing Friday morning after breakfast with my husband at the Good Truckin’ Diner for a two and a half hour drive I intended to take three hours to make.

Driving North on I-127 in late October

I padded my drive time so I could pull over now and again and take pictures on the way up.

Driving north on I-127 in late October

Because while we’re still a week away from peak color here in mid-Michigan, I knew it wouldn’t take long before I started seeing some nice, full color as I headed north.

Driving north on I-127 in late October

It was cloudy but colorful, and the further north I got, the more the sun broke through. As it turned out, I was actually a wee bit late meeting my sister at the Marilla Trailhead of the North Country Trail (circled on the map below in red).

Our plan was to jump onto that red dotted line you see that indicates the North Country Trail and head south to the second of two creeks to set up camp for the first night. The fellow below was waiting a few steps onto the path to welcome us and bid us best wishes.

Garter snake at Marilla Trailhead, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan

The trailhead path began as a gently sloping descent toward the NCT, which would take us up and down and along narrow ridges pounded out of the painted hillsides by generations of feet.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Leaves of yellow — poplar, maple, birch — were sprinkled here and there with orange and red and rusty brown from other types of maples, beech, elm, and oak.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Most of the ferns were dried and brown, though that first hour we got fairly wet with drizzly rain which fell intermittently and not enough all at once to really feel like it was raining. Every once in a while along the first part of the path, we were treated to overlooks like this…

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The light spots in the distance are parts of the hillside on the other side of the Manistee River that have collapsed, leaving sand faces that look like dunes. In a couple days, that’s where we would be hiking.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The sun peeked out from the clouds regularly to set our surroundings glowing.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

And I was glad that circumstances and schedules had pushed our trip so late in the season.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

We got supremely lucky that Michigan’s fall colors were late in coming this year.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

It sometimes seemed as though they must have known, must have held back until Alison and I could get up to see them. And after holding back, they had to let go in the most brilliant way.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

And even on this cloudy day, we could see for miles. This would be our home for four days and three nights.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Though we marveled at the grand sweep of the forest, we were careful to notice the little things as well. Mushrooms and mosses of many kinds. Lichens and bearberry.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Eventually we turned away from the big river and spent much of our time weaving our way through ravines choked with trees.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The first creek we crossed was Eddington Creek. Alison and I are both fans of creeks.

Eddington Creek, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The sweet singing sound and the ambling way they cut through the forest are enchanting.

Eddington Creek, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

But this was too soon in the hike to stop for the night. There was another set of creeks (unnamed, but very clearly on the map as squiggly blue lines) further along the trail and it was my intention that we would camp near one of those.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

So we hiked on. We crossed paths with other hikers, with mountain bikers, and with friendly dogs wearing saddlebags and broad dog smiles.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

We saw innumerable beautiful trees. We talked about our jobs and our families and our nation. And eventually we realized that the creeks we were searching for were either left far behind or not there to be found. We ran into another couple hikers, compared notes and maps, and discovered we were at least two miles further along than we thought, and we were also at the highest point on the trail. My explanation is that the streams we never saw are likely only running in spring when the winter snows are melting.

Campfire, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Luckily, we had plenty of water for the night. We chose a spot just off the trail, made a fire, and set up camp. It got steadily colder and darker until it became clear that the best thing to do was to layer up, don our warm hats and gloves, and tuck ourselves into our sleeping bags to capture our body heat. Even so, our toes and noses would be freezing in the morning. The night would be very cold indeed — 35 degrees Fahrenheit (less than 2 degrees Celsius, for my international readers). And very quiet…for the most part.

A cold night (35 degrees) camping along the North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

But we wouldn’t spend the entire night alone. Keep your eyes on that spot to the right of the tent, between the tent and the tree. Because there, in that space, we would have a midnight visitor…

[to be continued]