One thing I particularly like about fall is the quality of the light you can often find dancing upon the forest leaves. THis is true even when, as is usually the case by this time, the leaves are completely off the trees. Add in the child-like joy everyone seems to get by shuffling through the piles of leaves on the forest floor and the magic of this season can only grow.For the past 14 years the Great Lakes Hikes email group (hosted over on Yahoo Groups here) has gotten together the weekend before firearms deer season for a couple days of autumnal fun. We settled in at the Birch Grove Schoolhouse and spend the weekend hiking eating, chatting, playing games, and generally having a grand old time. As a bonus the Gathering, as it is known, tends to fall on a couple GLH members' birthdays which always adds a tiny bit of zest to the annual event. This year just under 20 people managed to attend the event and while we may have had one of our shortest hikes ever on Sunday I think it is fair to say everyone came away from the weekend having thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The overall vibe of the event combined with exceptional weather to make this year's Gathering one to remember. People come from all over the Lower Peninsula. While GLH has members that live in the UP it's understandable why they might not want to make the long trip to attend the Gathering. After all, for those of us coming from the Detroit or Saginaw areas it is well over a 3 hour drive to reach the Schoolhouse located not far from White Cloud, Michigan in Newaygo County. but for many of us this has become a traditional annual event where we can renew friendships and enjoy the company of people who share similar interests and pleasure in spending time outdoors. People start arriving Friday evening and by the time John and I drove up to the Schoolhouse a roaring campfire was burning and people were surrounding it totally immersed in the merriment that can't ever be far away when you sit around a blazing fire with other good people. It was a love evening, unusually warm, and though the weather forecast had suggested an 80% chance of rain it sure did not seem at all likely that would materialize any time soon. Their is something special about a campfire. People gravitate towards one. It happens even when the people are strangers to some degree and the pull is considerably stronger when the group know each other. We settled in around the fair-sized blaze for several hours of chit-chat. I wish I had brought more chocolate chip cookies and maybe I should have brought out the knockwurst and buns that night for general consumption.
This was a good-sized though far from Government-issue (10 FBET points for those who understand the reference) fire. More than enough to keep us cozy, perhaps even a bit too hot, as we sat about the fire and talked into the small hours of the morning. Left to right: John, Jim, and Paul.I think this may well be the first Gathering where nobody slept inside. The majority of attendees pitch tents or tarps in the spacious backyard. Somehow we all seem to find ourselves using more or less the same locations in that general area year after year. Perhaps we sleep outside because we want to feel closer to the external world. Perhaps we do it so we can ensure we get the most sleep because people will likely be milling about the single room of the Schoolhouse until rather late and, likely worse, moving about getting breakfast ready very early. Sleeping outside is quieter. But some folks don't want to bother with the hassle of setting up a camping spot. Perhaps this year some people were influenced by their children to sleep outside. If so, way to go kids. I was not one of the earliest risers. Having gone to sleep at about 01:00 I began pulling myself together for the day about 7 hours later walking into the Schoolhouse a little after 08:00. The morning was overcast and warm. I found many, though not all, people moving about getting food. As expected we had a wide variety of food to pick from. I soon noticed that the cookies I brought were all but gone. I was lucky to snag one for myself. If only the pies I brought got consumed with equal abandon. Breakfasts at the Gathering are always a lazy affair. However, I think we actually got ourselves sorted out for the various hikes of the day a bit more quickly than usual. We settled on three distinct hikes that all used the same general area of North Country Trail. The shortest and longest hikes would both start at the Lake and Newaygo County border (96th Street) North Country Trail trailhead. The short hike, about 3.5 miles, would end at the northern end of the section of NCT that Andy, John and I maintain. The longest hike would continue on through our section and then go an additional couple of miles to South Nichols Lake just north of 11 Mile Road for a total distance of about 11.5 miles. The middle distance hike trekked through the section of NCT that we maintain (16 Mile to 13 Mile Road) covering a bit more than 6 miles of rolling hills. With one thing and another cars were dropped off at 3 locations and the bulk of the group who were doing the longest and shortest hikes were putting our feet on the ground just before 11:00. It was overcast but warm. The forest was quiet except for the inevitable crunching of leaves. No one can resist shuffling their feet through leaves when deep piles of leaves present themselves. Next to the leaf shuffling sound the loudest sound in the forest was the jingling of Capone's bell. While the humans of the group will hike a bit more than 11 miles I am confident Capone, a dog of who knows how many breeds, no doubt put on considerably more miles boundeng about having a good time.
We tend to spread out during these hikes. It caused me a bit of confusion a couple of times as I wondered when we would have our actual lunch. I think most everyone had their "official" lunch before we got to Highbanks Lake but I held off until we got to the lake.Part of the joy of these hikes can be found in the walking through the forest taking time to chat about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes though you find yourself hiking through a section of land where you can have a bit more fun exploring off-trail. This happened both days for us with chances to explore the rather drier than usual wet areas that lay alongside the NCT in several places. Some of these places sport some wonderful flora including tamerac trees, button bushes, and pitcher plants. Jim and Bethany did particularly well finding such things.It's too bad I did not get any real good pictures to share but I was concentrating a bit too hard on ensuring I didn't step into a deep wet spot. We found more such places along the NCT connector trail to Diamond Lake on Sunday.
The panorama is a moist-land area just off the NCT. A little further south between Leaf (just southwest) and Walkup Lakes just east of Alger Avenue was a fine resting spot for me, Jim, Paul, Abbey and Capone. The bottom photo shows Andy carefully walking across the log that runs above a swamp not far from Diamond Lake.Saturday was a fine hiking day. Sunday was even better. I ended up not taking many pictures which is a little bit silly given the quality of the day. Sure our hike on the connector trail was probably the shortest Sunday hike e have ever done during a Gathering but I don't think many people really minded. We relished our time sitting on the beach being buffeted by the wind alongside Diamond Lake. Nigel stole much attention with imagined games of stick ball with many of the kids-at-heart adults. Those of us who didn't get sucked in just relaxed enjoying the late Idian Summer weather. The Gathering is about the hiking to be sure but it is more about the people who gather. When we aren't hiking we are spending time with each other chatting about whatever comes to mind; chowing down on the truly staggering amounts of food that are contributed to dinner and breakfasts; enjoying the campfires; playing games either real or imagined; and so on. This year we were blessed with superb weather and were fortunate enough to also have people with varied enough tastes to make the entire weekend memorable.