Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Year's Weekend in Northern Michigan, 2012 – 2013

Upper Peninsula snow snake and me

Our hike along 3 or so miles of the North Country Trail in the upper Peninsula not far from Trout Lake featured quite a bit of deep-ish snow. It also provided us with snow snakes like the one above me and later on soaked feet for several of us who slipped into streams crusted over with ice.

For the last several years I have joined several friends to spend the New Years holiday at a rustic cabin either in the Waterloo-Pinckney Recreation Area or, when the holiday was longer, at Wilderness State Park. Andy Mytys is the organizing force behind these events and this past New Years (2012-2013) had about ten of us settling down for the 4-night stay at a rustic cabin in Wilderness State Park. It had been a few years since our last visit up to the tip of the Lower Peninsula just west of Mackinaw City and thus just a quick hop over the Mackinaw Bridge to the Upper Peninsula itself. We would spend the time day hiking and relaxing in the cabin eating stupendous amounts of varied food and drink. It would be, as expected, an excellent weekend.

To understand how our weekends at Wildreness State Park differ from those at Waterloo-Pinckney it is best to have an idea of the area we stay in. Wildernes State Park is about 22 miles west of the Mackinaw Bridge which crosses the Straits of Mackinaw connecting the Lower and Upper Peninsulas. The state park covers a bit more than 10,500 acres of land which includes much mixed forests, small lakes, streams, many hills including Mount Nebo, and shoreline of Lake Michigan. Hiking trails abound in the park and include the North Country Trail. The Upper Peninsula is reached via the Mighty Mac and it takes a good hour to really get into the UP from the rustic cabins. Last time we visted this area we drove to Tahquaminon Falls (sp) this time we would be far less ambitious at least as far as driving distances go. To reach the cabin from our respective down-state homes requires a drive approaching 4.5 hours for pretty much everyone who attended. The Haans were lucky that they could make a nice day of the drive stopping at some special places along the way. For the Mytys' and myself it would be a far later start with corresponding late arrival. We didn't leave Livonia until a bit after 20:30 and so did not arrive until about 01:20 Saturday morning. But that is the way things sometimes work; work gets in the way.

The rustic cabins are just that: rustic. Really they're little more than buildings with a few windows, probably minimal insulation though breezes are well sealed out, 20 beds in the form of ten bunkbeds, a long picnic-style table that I don't think would comfortably sit 20 people if they all tried to use it but was more than adequate for our needs, a good wood-burning stove, and room enough for people to mill about even with the addition of a nice sized folding table and floor space consumed by a myriad of other things like wet boots, 7-gallon water jugs, and stoves for cooking (using the flat top of the wood stove as a frypan surface worked well too). With proper care and feeding of the wood stove it isn't hard to keep the cabin at a very pleasant temperature though it can get a bit dry. The cabin does have a few electric lights and outlets which is a godsend since that type of lighting is preferable to lanterns which though maybe more homey do reek at times. Also you can charge devices which some might think is a heresey but I don't (if you're really irked just turn it off). Privvies are located outside in either directions beyond the flanking cabins (we were in cabin 2). Toss on your boots and a coat to make the scamper the few dozen yards to either set of privvies (though we only put candles in one set). If your bowels are in an uproar I suppose the distance could be a real pain to travel but really the privvies aren't bad. One of the other cabins was occupied but we barely saw the people there. A far cry from our experiences with the folks next door at the Waterloo cabins (they're not bad exactly but they are noticeable). We felt as though it was just our group enjoying the whole area.

There is never a rush to get up in the morning. In part that is because the day doesn't really start to ligten up until 08:00 (sunrise is around 08:20) but if you don't arrive until the small hours of the morning why rush anyway. I was really moving around 09:00 and Andy and Elwira, the last to wake, weren't that far behind. Jim was going to arrive in short order and in ample time to join us for the first hike of the weekend. Joni, Matt, and Jen would show up during the afternoon while we were all out. Those of us already present settled down for our first big potluck breakfast. Even without Jim, Joni, and the Hahnfelds present we had plenty of food to pick from. We slowly gathered ourselves together sometimes stepping out into the crisp clear cold air to paly with Capone, as we got sorted out for the day hike Andy had planned.

I think Andy said the options were about 4.5 and 6.5 miles long. This would turn out to be a bit off. Perhaps the re-route of North Country Trail by West Camp Lake had something to do with this. The group would split up. The Haans would start at Sturgeon Bay Road and hike southward towards West Levering Road where we would leave a car. My group which included Andy, Elwira, and Jim would start at the southern terminus and hike to West Lakeview Road where we would re-unite with both cars since Paul would have retrieved the southern car and driven it back. We figured to pass each other at some point and do a key exchange to make this all work. The early afternoon was sunny, clear, probably mid-upper 20s degrees (-4C) and the wind was practically non-existent at least when in the woods. A fine day for a winter hike.

Our trail lead us into the forests of various trees including beach, red pine, hemlock, and birch. Even without leaves the trees seem to block the wind which became a bit more noticeable when we took a brief trip down to West Camp Lake. Our trail was obviously used somewhat as the snow was packed down a bit and not at all deep. You still work up a sweat more quickly than you would if the trail were devoid of snow. I am sure I was not the only one overdressed. Fortunately it was just a day hike with a toasty cabin at the end so damp clothing really wasn't a big concern though it is a cationary note: walking even on not-to-deep snow is harder than it seems.

We wound our way through the mostly level trail. Some small hills now and then but nothing daunting impeded our progress as we hiked around West Camp Lake. Stopping a couple hours in for lunch at a stream we encountered a couple out for a romp in the hills just like we were. I think they must have been doing an in-and-out hike likely starting where the Haans had. Not long after leaving this lunch spot we crossed path with the Haan family: at about the 3 mile mark. They had been moving far more slowly than we had but then Abbey is only 8, though a stout hiker for all that, and Ben is just 2 and was being pulled in a sled. The section the Haans had traversed also sported many hills of some stature; daunting compared to what we had hiked across so far. Everyone was in pretty good spirits as we passed and we parted company confident everything would work as planned. As we moved apart the clouds continued to conquer the sky blotting out the sunshine. But that was all they did.

The section we were now walking through provided us with ample proof of why the Haans had been moving at a slower pace. The hills were tal enough with enough snow to really cause a rise in heart-rates. You just cannot go quickly up snow covered slopes. I think we passed the Haans car just before 16:30 and it would be either 2.3 or 2.8 miles (differnce in signage and map) to the final endpoint of the hike. From what Andy recalled, he had hiked this stretch of trail before but in the autumn, the toughest hills were still ahead. He got that right. Some definite leg-busters were to come and if we had been fortunate enough to have clear skies I think the views would have been quite good. By this time it was beginning to get dark which was slowing our slow progress more. I seemed to have an ability to find snowy branches to brush against and dump snow upon me. By the time we encountered Paul coming in to meet us (instead of waiting at the car; the Haans had reached the southern end of the hike at about 17:20) it was truly dark. He said it was about a 10 minute hike out but I'm sure it took longer than that. If you aren't hiking through hemlocks, under an overcast sky, you actually can have a fair bit of light reflecting off snow to see by. A headlamp is helpful but can also be a hinderance depending on where the light is shining. But we pushed on and by 18:20 were at the cars having hiked 13.50 kilometers (8.43 miles; Paul's car had been at the 9.1km mark which is 5.7 miles in). The hike had definitely been longer than I think anyone had anticipated. Longer by a fair bit but beyond really feeling it I think everyone had a good time. We piled into cars to drive back to the cabin where we would find the remaining Haans, Joni, Matt, and Jen waiting.

I need to talk about our food. Everyone brings something. Everyone brings several somethings. We could easily feed many more poeple than ever attend. I can't now tell you what dishes we had what nights but the variety was large and the amounts considerable. Everyone would go home with leftovers. We did not stint on drinks of both non-alcoholic and alcoholic types. We aren't lushes but if you wanted a beer or wine or even a nip of something stronger their was no shortage of options. Eat, drink and be merry for it is the holiday season and we just spent the afternoon hiking many miles through snow and modest hills. We set upon our repast with gusto and between the food, drink, and good company most of us stayed up until a bit past midnight. This would be the routine.

Rising again an hour after sunrise to dig into the biggest breakfast I think we would have since it was the one to include bacon and eggs (I'm pretty sure that was Sunday not Saturday) we endeavored to be on the road somewhat earlier than the day before as we were going to head into the UP for a hike by Trout Brrok Pond (or is it Trout Brook Lake). As soon as we saw the depth of the snow we all should have known Andy's idea for the long hike was doomed. Most of us did know that, but I am not sure Andy was as convinced right away. But he changed his mind pretty soon after we started our hike (at 13:23). This stretch of North Country Trail had not been walked upon. The snow was deep and soft. Probably a foot deep in many places if not a bit more. Now and then a tree was bent down by snow blocking the path. The Haans decided that an out-and-back hike was going to be prudent. The rest of us pushed on, some far quicker than others, towards the big beaver dam area that I understand can be a real nightmare to cross when the weather is warm. Matt lead the way on his new cross-country skis with the rest of us trailing behind. Jen decided to turn back a little more than a mile in as her leg was bothering her and that left Matt, Andy, Elwira, Joni, Jim, and me. While the hike had started in sunshine it had long desserted us leaving a white overcast much like the afternoon before. When we arrived at the beaver dam it was time for another decision. It was about a mile to East Lake Road versus the return hike of about 2 miles to the starting point. We could have the folks at the starting point pick us up at East Lake Road (it was abundantly clear we would not reach the car at the south endpoint) or turn back. It was just after 15:00 when I reached the beaver dam where Matt and Andy were. We figured Elwira and Joni would have turned back by this point. Jim showed as we nibbled our snacks and pondered. A plan was hatched. Matt would ski back to the starting point and Andy would lead Jim and myself on to East Lake Road. It was edging past 15:20 as Matt took off. A minute or two passed and we heard voices. Joni and Elwira were approaching. They had been thinking of turning back but heard us yelling to each other as we scouted for safe ways across the beaver dam area and pushed on to find us. They found Matt and we were all together again. The plan would remain the same but Elwira and Joni would join my hiking group. Matt would ski back making the return trip in not much more than 20 minutes which means he was really zipping along: it had taken the better part of 100 minutes to hike in (OK, we had some breaks along the way). For our group the adventure was just beginning.

Scouting for the trail Andy would slip and fall into a stream dousing his legs and butt. The water would invade his NEOS overboots and soak his feet. Not long after while crossing a ice crusted stream I would mis-step and flood my right NEOS covered foot with water. Joni would do th same thing to her left foot. The only saving grace in all that was Elwira now had ample evidence where not to step as she crossed. That water was cold but as long as we kept moving body heat would keep it warm. I would have been concerned if we were staying out overnight as I'm sure the shoe would have frozen. I did have a spare set of socks in my pack but it was silly to put them on when I'd just be slipping a soaked shoe and overoot back on. But getting ourselves wet while potentially worrisome was the least of the evils that mile-long stretch of trail had to offer us. A lengthy portion of trail, no doubt less lengthy than it felt, was made of puncheon. This is narrow boardwalk deisgned to keep the trail off swampy ground. When snow free it is easy enough to walk on but when mounded high with sloping hills of snow it is a chore of surpassing annoyance. Perhaps those with good balance and normal sight can scamper across with nary an issue though I think it was bothering Elwira and Joni too (or maybe watching me struggle was bothering them more) but I know it was a source of massive frustration for me. I did slip off a couple or 6 times but fortunately never into any open water. God it was slow going. Even had I not snapped off the lower segment of a my trekking pole (really of little value anyway) at the stream crossing where I got soaked I would have found this tough going. It took us a good hour and a half to walk to East Lake Road. About as long as it had taken to walk to the beaver dam area in the first place. Ugh. I think this was my least favorite hike of the weekend. At least the evening festivities were as good as they always are.

New Years Eve Day dawned overcast which meant it was in keeping with the previous days. However, it did not have quite the same feel as the other days and I was pretty certain the clouds would not lift at all. The sun tried valiantly to break through but really it never had a chance. The group would again split up with the Haans doing a couple of different hikes to keep the kids happy; Andy staying behind to battle a case of some sort of un-wellness; Elwira would stay close to the cabin to do an errand or two and I suppose be near Andy and spend time at the beach; the rest of us would go for a hike starting at the NCT crossing of Cecil Bay Road and working our way back to our cabin. We actually were hiking before noon today. I think this might be a record for this type of trip. Matt had his skis with him but the rest of us were just in our winter footwear. The snow was on the border of being deep enough for snowshoes but it was definitely on the you-can-leave-them side of that border. While not as deep as the snows in the Upper Peninsula this section of trail more than made up for that with snowdowned trees. We were constantly detouring around these obstructions and doing our best to keep snow from invading our warm necks. You get good at remembering to put your hood on when approaching one of these beasts. The woods were quiet but far from empty. I doubt I would ever see the animal tracks without having them pointed out to me but tracks of deer, snowshoe hare (those back feet are huge), coyote, and quail were spotted by Jim. Jim is particularly knowledgable when it comes to big trees and what seems to go on around them. I wish I could remember all he has to share. Our group had spreadh out somewaht and I found myself hiking with Jim for quite a bit of time. It was a lovely afternoon to be out.

Abbey and Capone
In due time we came upon Paul, Abbey, and Capone. Jim and I had been lagging a bit behind Matt, Jen, and Joni. They decided to not wait for us and Joni and Jen I think headed back to the cabin via the shortest way possible. Matt was going to tackle a big loop on skis that would take him back to the cabin. Jim and I joined Paul's little band and would hike the Red Pines trail (I think) around the southern banks of a lake and back to the cabins. We would climb a few hills though they were all smaller than the ones we assaulted our first day. We hiked through more ice laced branches that would try and catch us unawares. The lake had some open water with small ice floes and several lovely stands of trees to walk past. It was, all in all, a nice walk through the woods especially since the number of downed tree limbs had diminished to almost zero. We found ourselves back at the cozy cabin a little before 16:00 and were surprised that Matt wasn't already back. It would turn out that the loop he had planned to ski was a real mess with even more obstecles to navigate than we had already seen. This meant he spent far more time off his skis than on them. Sometimes things just do not work out how you want them too.

Perhaps it was because we all, even Matt , got back to the cabin well before sunset but it seemed the time to reach the New Year dragged on for quite some while. Paul tried to nap but said it didn't help. Andy had slept a lot of the day away and was feeling much better. I think the rest of us were wishing midnight would arrive sooner rather than later. Sure we had another fine dinner and managed to keep each other amused throughout the evening hours but when midnight came and Andy popped the champagne open for New Years I was glad the moment had finally arrived. Considering that we all pretty much crawled into our beds not long after the opening moments of January 1, 2013 I think everyone else felt the same way.

The last day of any trip like this can be a bit strange. People are getting ready to go their own ways and that brings a different sense of things to the event. Matt and Jen must have had things to do because they were well and truly the first to depart. Maybe they had less to pack than the rest of us but they were on their way hours before everyone else. We had breakfast and slowly packed our vehicles (somehow it seemed to take just as much space) and sometime after 11:00 but before noon the cabin was emptied and cleaned and locked up. It was time to head south. One more hike for the trip in the Jordan River Valley awaited us and everyone left was going to take part in at least some of it.

The hike would start off on a road before heading quickly off into the woods. The snow here was at least as deep as anything we had found on our UP hike and the trail was much hillier. This would cause the Haans to soon decide it was more trouble than it was worth and they turned back calling it a weekend well spent. The rest of us continued on following Andy as he followed blazes and animal tracks that helpfully followed the trail we wanted to hike. We slowly broke into two group with Andy and myself in the lead and Jim, Joni, and Elwira trailing a bit behind. Uphills are always slower going in deep snow for some more than others. No doubt we all cursed once in a while and, again, I think Andy probably thought we would move more quickly than we did. In deeper snow, and often this was more than a foot deep though it didn't over-top our overboots, you just do not move fast. The hike through the Boyne Highlands would take a little less than 4 hours and was about 4 miles long. We stopped now and then for breaks including lunch but you can see how snow slows things down. Still and all I think everyone managed to enjoy the last hike of the trip through the generally quiet and sometimes windy woods. It was a nice way to end the trip before we all split into our respective groups (OK, a group of 3 and two solo groups) to head home with another New Years weekend spent with friends who enjoy doing the same things you do.

See the entire album (Flickr album which may look better on mobile devices, Google+ album) (12 photos). This album also contains additional commentary with the photos that I hope you will find interesting.

Over the course of the weekend I made two posts on AudioBoo which is a website for sharing short audio messages. Here they are. If you find them interesting you can subscribe to the AudioBoo feed directly but they should appear as blog posts here too.

Summaries of Each Hike

Path through the woods

This would be our sunniest day of hiking. Over half the afternoon featured clear blue skies. It can be warm hiking in the winter especially when you find yourself clomping up and down hills but here the trail was blessedly level.

Name:NCT W Levering Rd to Sturgeon Bay
Date:Dec 29, 2012 12:49 pm
(valid until Jul 1, 2013)
View on Map
Distance:13.5 kilometers

Min Altitude:174 m
Max Altitude:241 m
Start Time:2012-12-29T17:49:36Z
Start Location:
Latitude:45º 38.1830' N
Longitude:84º 58.5348' W
End Location:
Latitude:45º 42.1967' N
Longitude:84º 57.1372' W


Hiking in the UP

Can you tell hikining in snow can be tough. You warm up and can easily start to sweat if not careful. We're day hiking so changing out of damp clothing is hardly a problem but it could be if you were out overnight.Shown front to back: Elwira, Jim, and Joni

Name:NCT Trout Brook Pond
Date:Dec 30, 2012 1:23 pm
(valid until Jul 1, 2013)
View on Map
Distance:4.60 kilometers

Min Altitude:226 m
Max Altitude:256 m
Start Time:2012-12-30T18:23:04Z
Start Location:
Latitude:46º 11.2118' N
Longitude:84º 46.7769' W
End Location:
Latitude:46º 09.9570' N
Longitude:84º 47.4827' W

Snow, trees and Jim

Snow and ice weigh heavily on the trees in the forests of northern Michigan. Relieve the branches of the weight and they'll spring back after dropping their loads (sometimes on you). Jim doesn't have to worry this time.

Name:NCT Cecil Bay Rd to Our Cabin
Date:Dec 31, 2012 11:38 am
(valid until Jul 1, 2013)
View on Map
Distance:8.63 kilometers

Min Altitude:177 m
Max Altitude:200 m
Start Time:2012-12-31T16:38:04Z
Start Location:
Latitude:45º 43.6481' N
Longitude:84º 49.7595' W
End Location:
Latitude:45º 44.7029' N
Longitude:84º 54.0526' W

Tired guy

Oh dear, it seems as though the hike, about a quarter done at this point, has wiped Andy out.

Name:NCT M32 to Dobleski Rd
Date:Jan 1, 2013 1:21 pm
(valid until Jul 1, 2013)
View on Map
Distance:6.32 kilometers

Min Altitude:316 m
Max Altitude:399 m
Start Time:2013-01-01T18:21:40Z
Start Location:
Latitude:45º 05.1192' N
Longitude:84º 55.5750' W
End Location:
Latitude:45º 05.5697' N
Longitude:84º 52.9963' W

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