9:00PM, embers are glowing, the stream is gurgling, people are settling down for bed as the sky edges into complete darkness - or as complete as it can get in southern Michigan near Waldron. We are encamped near Lake Number 8 (I kid you not that is the name of the lake) after having completed about 16.5 miles of hiking along the North Country Trail and surrounds starting out at the Ohio-Michigan border and fetching up here. It has been a long tiring rewarding day.
The North Country Trail (NCT) winds its way from New York to North Dakota spanning over 4,000 miles. It hasn't achieved the cachet of the other long distances trails like the Appalachian , Pacific Crest, or Continental Divide Trails. Perhaps it will someday but I would not be surprised if that day never really arrives. The NCT spends hundreds of miles traveling through wilderness areas and between sparsely populated places especially in places like Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But it also travels through rural countryside using paved paths, dirt roads, two lane paved roads, and hiking paths. The trail does't have the grandeur, at least not the obvious grandeur, that is afforded a hiker traveling through mountains blessed with big vistas. But that does not mean the NCT lacks for things to see you just have to look in a different way and at different things. We would get a good chance to do this today as we walked the small roads near the border of Ohio. Once you leave the paved road and start your walk along the dirt lanes vehicle traffic almost disappears. It becomes much easier to look at the farms you are walking by. Who has left last year's corn in, who is letting fields go fallow, who is raising cows or chicken or pigs? Who really cares about how their classic rich ruby red barn looks good and who is willing to let that lovely deep red fade to rust? Which of these buildings has been here for hundreds of years and which are new? You can soak all that in as you stroll on past through the heartland of farm country. At the same time you might ponder if any off-their-rocker types of people are around. We are, after all, hiking in Hillsdale county which was the home of the Hutaree militia. But those thoughts never really gain much purchase.
As the sun rose and the day warmed we walked by all manner of small farms. We also walked by other things. For example, the Milk Run. A long segment of trail between two paved roads that sported at fairly regular intervals discarded small containers of chocolate milk (vitamin D enriched). Perhaps some kid was given a milk each morning on his or her way to school and got on the bus they would toss the empty carton away. Or perhaps they walk to school and toss the carton as they finish it. We counted 17 cartons on one side of the road and just 2 on the other. Once we crossed a paved road the cartons went away; clearly the child lived on that paved road or just off it in a direction we were not going. If an NCT hiker comes through here in a few weeks will he or she find more cartons dotting the trail?
The road rolls on as we pass more farms some with small stands of trees but most sporting only fields and a tree or two the add zest to the outbuildings. Take a break along the East Branch of St. Josephs River, a mean name for something so small at this point, and continue on. YOur feet grow tired as you pound along the hard packed dirt or pavement. But the gloriously clear blue fine spring day buoys your spirits as you march on past more horses, cows, cats, chickens, turkey vultures (why did they seem so interested in us?), and more. Then almost without warning the trail veers off the road into the Lost Nation State Game Area and you are hiking a traditional hiking path through forests with stands of pine, maple, and oak (I think). The wildflowers, mostly invisible to me, our bursting forth: wood lily, marsh marigold, hepatica, and more are spreading themselves to the sun. t is a fine way to walk the last few miles in mid-afternoon feeling tired and looking forward to setting
up camp. Which, of course, is exactly what we have done.
For some reason my first night's sleep on most any camping trip, perhaps any trip, never feels all that restful. I know I get enough sleep but it just does not usually feel that way. This last night was no exception. It was a warm night. I didn't need my fleece cap and I could have ditched my t-shirt if I had wanted to expend the effort instead of just laying under my quilt trying to sleep. I know that I slept, that I did not pay attention to the outside world as fully as I would normally even before I fell asleep. For example, I suppose I heard the owls screech during the early portion of the night but it did not register. However, it would seem like little time would pass before someone fired up a stove, probably Tim igniting his Whisperlite (has their ever been a stove so misnamed?) sometime around dawn. I just could not bring myself to get moving quite that early though sleep really would not be an option anymore. I seriously began stirring sometime around 07:00 I think. The drizzle that had disturbed our camp a few hours before had left no real noticeable impact. My tent was dry by the time I packed it away around 08:00. The campsite was cleaned up and people began heading out to the cars to handle the shuttle around 08:00. Many had gotten up and really moving before me. In an exceedingly rare moment Andy was well and truly done with everything before John. Andy is notorious for being slow in breaking camp, far slower than John. There was no reason to rush. We broke camp under overcast skies. You could tell that the rain might not be quite done with us. Ewa was the most certain of this and it would turn out that she would be right - we got a tiny bit of drizzle as she, John, and I waited at the road where we had parked for the others to return from the car shuttle. It was then that I realized I had lost my Powermonkey charger. I could have, maybe, gone back to the campsite to look for it but that would have required at least half an hour of walking plus the time spent searching
for the charger. It wasn't going to happen.
We waited for the others to return and swatted at black flies that seemed to be everywhere once we left the woods. They returned as the bit of drizzle , really spit from the sky, subsided and we all set out along the trail. We returned to the woods. The woods here were bursting with wildflowers. We walked through the woods happy with the day enjoying what was given to us. Right up until we hit our first stream by a road. The stream wasn't that wide, likely less than 20 feet but it was deep enough that rolling up your pants legs after removing shoes and socks was a good idea. The water was not too cold and the stream bed was not rocky so the crossing was easy. We spent far more time taking our shoes and socks off and putting them back on then we would crossing the stream. After all, you want to try to dry at least some of the water and dirt off your feet when you regain the land. After leaving the stream for a short walk down a tree lined road past a home with dozens of decorative and very vocal roosters in front (was he raising them for good or ill, we will never know). We spread out in the woods once again strolling past even more plots of wildflowers and along some sections of trail that really could use some serious tender loving care. Andy and I would follow a turning that was indicated by an incorrect blaze making a mini detour costing us about ten minutes. We caught back up with everyone else at the second stream crossing. This time the stream bed was not as kind to our naked feet as the first one had been but the stream wasn't too wide so it was easy to tough it out as we waded through the calf deep water. The water was cold but hardly as cold as it could have been. We continued on until we would reach a spot of confusion. A trail intersection that if you did not have up to date information from the local NCTA chapter would just mess you up. A new trail was being prepared, was in decent shape for a ways (up to another stream crossing that we achieved by either walking or shimmying across a log) then around a field to M34. The old route would pop you out on the same busy road about a quarter mile north of where we were. The re-route makes sense but a blaze, just one even at the intersection, pointing the way would have been nice to have. However, this was a nice spot for a snack break especially as it was edging past noon by now. We had probably hiked nearly a third of the distance we figured we had to travel by this time.
A bit more road walking through a small village with no services for hikers along a sidewalk on a fairly quiet street would lead us to a Rails to Trails path that was made of who knows what. John thought perhaps slag from iron mining or similar. It would turn into gravel eventually. This was a nice trail. It was easy on the feet and it took us through small woods and eventually past Second Lake and Bawbees Lake as it took us straight into Hillsdale. I enjoyed the walk on this portion of trail even though it was getting tiresome in a way as you started to think why is it taking so long to get somewhere. We knew that the start of the rail trail meant we had about ten miles to go. We would pause now and then to admire the view of the lake or peer at some of the nice homes. As we approached Hillsdale we began to encounter people. Families were out to enjoy the now very pleasant afternoon. When we left the rail trail we saw many locals out having fun. And in time, seemingly at last, we crossed Bacon Road and knew we were about six miles away from the end of our day. It was a little after 15:00 by now and some of us hit the Sitco station for things practical (water) and luxurious (ice cream and Vernors ginger ale). What a nice thing to have two thirds of the way into the hike.
Hillsdale seems like a very cute town. It's too bad we followed the NCT as laid down because I think an alternate route using minor roads could have been nicer. Sure it was nice traveling by the local college (Hillsdale College?) and I even got to answer some intelligent questions by a young pair of adults about what we were doing this weekend. The walk along the M99 bikeway was nice enough. But once that walk left the woods for the sidewalk along the major road that funnels traffic into Jonesville it becomes a slog for mile after mile. Our legs were tired and our feet were feeling the pain of pounding the pavement. TIme seemed to slow for me. I was trailing John, Andy, and Ewa who were a couple hundred yards ahead of me chatting as they plodded along too. Perhaps that was just as well as I don't think I would have been in much of a talking mood. John and Ewa are definitely strong hikers (Ewa in particular) and Andy though he claims not to be in great shape certainly was having no trouble of keeping up with them. On and on we went. I was so happy to see the sign for the Jonesville Village Limits. On and on we went. Passing a Walmart and still it seemed like we were not in the heart of the village coming to where we had left the cars by the police department. We kept plodding on. Eventually ANdy could see the sign for the US12 intersection which was near where we had left eh cars, but we still had a solid half mile to go. TIme slowed and we got closer. Just after 18:00 we joined the rest of the group at the McDonalds to figure out what would be next. OUr hiking was done but we still had things to do and our legs and feet were letting us all know they had had enough. They were sore and we were stiff. Of course stopping and sitting in cars or at a dinner table was only going to make us feel worse in some respects. We were all walking like old people. At least the dinners we had at the bustling family style restaurant near Hillsdale was nice enough especially given how inexpensive it was. We were done with our 34 to 35 miles of hiking and weeks we will get back together to hike another chunk of the trail.
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