This week, my sister, Alison, and I are preparing to walk about 26 miles of some of the most beautiful and remote wilderness Michigan has to offer. We’re buying food and stuffing packs and gassing up cars.
Our path will take us up and down gentle mountains, along and across two rivers, past seven waterfalls, along the shore of the largest freshwater lake in the world, beneath old growth forests, and past abandoned copper mines. We will sleep the shortest nights of the year (just seven hours from twilight to twilight) to the sound of running water and waves and wind. We will be off the grid the entire time.
We will pay for this privilege with sore muscles and dirty hair.
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.
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.
The few other people awake and moving at that moment didn’t seem to mind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That was a moment I’m glad I didn’t miss. Soon the sun lit the trees on fire and warmed our weary muscles.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
I padded my drive time so I could pull over now and again and take pictures on the way up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
The sun peeked out from the clouds regularly to set our surroundings glowing.
And I was glad that circumstances and schedules had pushed our trip so late in the season.
We got supremely lucky that Michigan’s fall colors were late in coming this year.
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.
And even on this cloudy day, we could see for miles. This would be our home for four days and three nights.
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.
Eventually we turned away from the big river and spent much of our time weaving our way through ravines choked with trees.
The first creek we crossed was Eddington Creek. Alison and I are both fans of creeks.
The sweet singing sound and the ambling way they cut through the forest are enchanting.
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.
So we hiked on. We crossed paths with other hikers, with mountain bikers, and with friendly dogs wearing saddlebags and broad dog smiles.
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.
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.
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…
The second day of our hike, Alison and I ran across a number of areas with young maples sprinkled between the pines and firs and showing off their fall colors.
The ferns in the open areas were browning and made an interesting color combination with large patches of fuzzy seafoam green lichens.
The woods through which the second half of the Wilderness Loop winds are alternately close and open. The open areas would be hot in sunny weather, but we had clouds and some breeze the whole way.
Here Alison takes a moment to enjoy the color in a rare ray of sunshine. I believe she is preparing mentally for the many more soggy spots we will encounter as we race the thunder on the way to Clark Lake campsite. (Little does she know at this point that her right foot is soon to be ankle-deep in cold, black swamp water.)Here is one of the very best “bridges” Tahquamenon has to offer in the backcountry.
Seriously, this was one of the most sound structures on the trail, and it looked like it had been decomposing for nigh on a decade. There was one real bridge. As we passed over it we realized we were also passing yet another beaver dam, this one far taller than the last.
So, campers, what have we learned from the above diagram? That’s right! The Department of Natural Resources can build a bridge…when it so chooses.
We passed by the wetland created by this second industrious beaver…
…and soon arrived at the Clark Lake campsite where we were again the only people. We took a two-hour nap that afternoon as rain pounded down on the tent. It was glorious.
And we happily made use of this very handmade bench.
We filtered water from Clark Lake. It’s always a little unnerving to drink brown water, even if you know the microbes and nasty little beasties have been filtered from it. Here’s some of the leftover water in a clear glass at home so you can see the tannins leeched from the cedars, which gives the falls their distinctive color.
The week after this hiking trip, my mother came to watch the boy while Zach and I traveled to St. Louis for ACFW. She was nice enough to wash all of my clothes–not just the really nasty ones from the hike, but from all of the hampers and baskets and dividers in the house.
The packs are still in my sunroom, waiting to be returned to storage, where they will wait patiently…for next year.
Remember way back when wetlands were just called swamps? Someone in the 1970s or 1980s apparently endeavored to put a more positive spin on these soggy topographical features. Wetland sounds so much more pleasant than swamp, after all.
Well, if you hike north from the Upper Falls at Tahquamenon along the Giant Pines Trail Loop and the Wilderness Trail Loop, you will find yourself in a landscape that tends strongly toward swamp. Remember the soggy areas Alison and I encountered on the trail between the Lower and Upper Falls? Multiply that by, oh, let’s say 500–or 50, I don’t know. But whatever the correct number, if you plan to hike this section prepare to get your feet wet. Also, unless the DNR or whoever gets out there with a chainsaw soon, prepare to duck under and crawl over many, many trees.
Despite some sludgy trail conditions, there were some nice surprises early on, like this enormous, 185-year-old white pine tree, which was approximately 120 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter, and has a circumference of nearly 16 feet.
My sister looked pretty small next to it.
Not far from this mammoth lifeform we found this fat little caterpillar, which I think will be a Luna Moth when it’s all grown up.
But not too far into our second hike of the first day, the surprises turned simultaneously more unpleasant and more impressive.
Alison and I first noticed a tree across our path that had obviously been cut down by a beaver–its distinctive teeth marks cluing us in. A moment later we realized that we were walking alongside a lake. And that the water level was a foot or so higher than the soggy ground upon which we were treading.
Yes, we were at the edge of a beaver’s carefully constructed dam.
And, as I said, we were alternately amazed and irritated. The amazement is obvious. Beavers are incredible creatures with incredible talents. The beaver here had created his own perfect environment. That first photo in this post was of the beautiful wetland home he had made possible by building this:
He built it not across a rushing river but along the outskirts of the slowly moving water of some sluggish swamp, and we were on the very edge of it. It’s an enchanting position to be in.
The irritation may not be so obvious from these photos. But this next one may give you a hint:
You see that slim tree with the blue painted blaze? That, my friend, is the indicator of the North Country Trail. And, as I’m sure you noticed, it’s been incorporated into this beaver’s swimming pool. In fact, the beaver had obliterated much of the trail. I don’t know if he just made this dam this summer or if it really has been a long time since anyone at Tahquamenon Falls State Park has bothered to groom their backcountry trails (I kind of suspect the latter, frankly). Either way, it was slow, wet going here. It was swamp here.
At one point we realized that the only semi-dry option to move forward was to walk along the top of the dam itself as we tried to get back on the trail. We stepped gingerly, grasping at branches the beaver had as yet left untouched, leaned away from the water, and prayed that he was a good builder who didn’t cut corners.
We did make it past the wetland eventually, but with very wet shoes and socks and more than a few near-misses. As evening approached and the gray skies above rumbled a warning of the storms we knew were supposed to come that night, we tried to make up time as we rushed toward the Wilderness Campsite. We got the tent up before dark, ate a late supper, and used the surprisingly unsmelly and amusingly exhibitionist toilet.
It made me think of this iconic moment from Scrubs:
We bedded down for some much needed sleep as the forest darkened swiftly around us and flashes of lightning occasionally lit up the tent. As we fell asleep that night, or else as we woke the next morning, it’s hard to recall, we heard the strangest bird call, like a cartoon siren that ended with a honk. Or like a loon on steroids. It sounded like it had to come from a very large bird. After listening to some calls, I think it is quite possible it was a sandhill crane. Go to about the 1:50 mark on this video and you’ll hear just about what I think we heard:
In the morning I remembered to get a photo of our campsite before we packed back up to face yet more trail challenges and more rain on the way to our next campsite.
We were surrounded by utter silence, complete solitude, and zillions of wild blueberries (the presence of which during our entire hike had me ultra aware of the possibility of encountering black bears fattening up for winter).
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