Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Summer Trail maintenance along the North Country Trail

Three times a year I join Andy and John and we head over to Newago County not far from Bitely, Michigan to maintain a section of the North Country Trail. The section Andy and John adopted and let me help with is just over 6 miles long running from 13 Mile to 16 Mile Road. It runs past a handful of pretty lakes and features a few small hills as it wanders through forests of oak, poplar, red pine, and beech. It is a lovely stretch of pleasant trail. We had a great plan to do the trail maintenance and like so many plans it would not quite go as we laid out.

Those who are prone to superstition will comment that we should have known what was to come after things started to go against us. Our late start was immediately followed up by a small accident at the carpool parking lot where we all met. John slit two fingers open on his freshly sharpened ax as we learned that Andy had left his hiking clothing back home. John bandaged up his fingers and we piled into Andy's car to drive to his house to fetch his clothing. That, of course, added a couple hours to our departure time. Andy found his clothing, John dressed his fingers, we played a bit with Willow and kaila, and then it was time to pile back into the car and return to the carpool parking lot and switch cars before driving west. Our hopes of arriving before dark had been dashed but we were still in pretty high spirits. We reached the campsite after dark and quickly got our shelters set up. The mosquitos were out in force and we knew that this augured ill for what we would encounter the rest of the weekend.

We crawled out of our respective shelters not too long after sunrise. The whine of mosquitos had not prevented us from getting acceptable amounts of sleep. The humidity of the night had dissipated a little bit but it was clear it was going to be a very warm and humid day. Getting an early start was upmost in our thoughts and we drove over to Highbanks Campground and the connector trail that we had built, with many others, last spring (view video about this trail building trip last spring). Doused with bug dope we set out with tools in hand and began the search for areas that needed work. We had all thought that given the amount of heavy weather the area had experienced over the past couple of months that we would likely find a lot of blown down trees and the like. We were pleasantly surprised that this was not quite true. We marched on down the connector trail and then on to the NCT continuing to marvel that things were not that bad. Now and then we would find a downed tree that needed attention and once in a while that downed wood would turn out to be oak which is far and away the toughest wood to saw through. While we were on the move the bugs were mercifully not that awful. As we worked our way through the forest we chatted about the things you talk about when hiking: almost anything. But, given the nature of the climate we were walking through, that is the bugs that infested it, bugs came up now and then. Are we just made of weaker stuff than people of centuries past? I don't think that is necessarily true. Travel back then, and living outdoors, was slow and hard. They had no choice but to suffer the mosquitos, blackflies, and everything else that flies and bites. If you have to deal with it all the time you become used to it and just work through it. It's part of life. We are fortunate that we can get away, or at least provide ourselves with some temporary relief, from the pests. It is this difference that makes having to suffer a day of bad bugs, and this day was hardly the worst that any of us has ever seen, seem worse than it is and make you wonder if the human animal is just plain weak and squeamish. Then you remember that we have been around a lot longer than bug dope and that we have thrived in spite of everything.

We continued on and the day warmed. We found a tent city not that far down the trail and pretty much on top of the trail. Far too close for Leave No Trace camping guidelines. Big tents of car camping people. This is not the first time we have seen such things but it still annoys no end. It only gets worse when you see a fire ring with a dozens of beer cans in it. People just do not seem to care sometimes about the impact they make. Perhaps they honestly don't realize what they are doing which means education must be improved. But when you have to drive by a sign that says camping is only permitted at numbered sites and yet you pitch your huge tents in a complex right at the trail's edge anyway that points to a different human flaw.

We would continue on. I wonder if the people who use the trail appreciate what we are doing. I am sure backpackers do but what about the car campers who are breaking the rules. I would not be surprised to learn they have no clue what a group of folks like us are about. After seeing how some of them reacted to the forest service ranger when he tried to tell them they had too many tents and people at one site I feel fairly certain that they have no idea what we were about. But then you do not start doing this sort of work in the hopes of receiving open praise from those that you meet along the way. If that comes it is a bonus. All in all we zipped through the section fairly quickly reaching the end, some 4 miles and about two thirds of the whole section, in not much more than 2 and a half hours. Walking back along the back roads and two tracks was a bit of relief for us all as the open space afforded us a break from the ever pesky bugs. Even after a respite at a lake watching kids on a rope swing plunging into a lake and then a quick drive back camp we found it was only early afternoon. We had plenty of time to hike the stretch of trail from camp to Highbanks Lake and deal with any trail clean up that section required. It would turn out not to need that much and we sauntered back into our bug infested campsite by mid-afternoon.

WIth a bit of help I set up my hammock and quickly dove in for cover. John crawled into his tent and Andy under his great pyramid tarp. I suspect that I was the most comfortable. Andy's tarp is a remarkable shelter, tall and spacious but also very hot. John's small tent was also no doubt quite toasty and he had to leave his door open to improve ventilation. The air was still and thick with humidity. It was also thick with bugs that had designs on our flesh and our blood. But within the gently swinging confines of my hammock under the sheltering bug netting I did not notice. I dozed. Later on after I left the hammock unguarded Andy took over and being the soft touch that I am I let him have it for at time while I hunkered down in my tent. Definitely a poor second choice. A person in the hammock might look a little odd, rather like an upside down blister pack, but their is no denying the comfort level of a well protected hammock shelter especially when the air is still and thick with bugs and humidity.

We were, in a way, victims of our success. We were done with the trail work too soon. I don't think any of us expected it would go as quickly as it did. We had idle time on our hands and given the bug situation, the bites I received still itch today, our mood was not as joyous as it could have been. We would eat our adequate backpacker meals under Andy's pyramid, wander around a little bit, but in the end scramble for cover against the increasing hordes of flying menaces as the sun would dip below the horizon and out of sight. In the distance we could hear a yapping dog and music blaring. Perhaps both were at the same location. In some ways I think our morale was a bit down. We would swelter through our second night, warmer and more humid than the first, and at least in my case I found myself wishing it would hurry up and end. Sleeping in the hammock was quite nice but the constant drone of bugs trying to get at me was annoying and I feel certain some did bite me when I would roll up against the bug netting.

Sunday morning saw us breaking camp in a less than enthusiastic fashion. We had high hopes for some day hiking but it would turn out those would be dashed when we saw trail closed signs at Rogue River and also saw vast stretches of poison ivy and knew that the mosquitos, now larger and more aggressive than the day before, would be legion. We felt cheated but in the end we would drive back to the carpool lot and count ourselves lucky to not have been eaten alive.
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