I awoke to see a loon floating on a mirrored glass lake at dawn. It was a beautiful sight to greet my eyes as I crawled out of my one-person tent. I had spent the night camped on the shore of Grass Lake, one of many small biologically abundant lakes in the Pigeon River Country, which spans parts of Otsego and Cheboygan Counties in Northern Michigan.
The Pigeon River Country affords outdoor adventurers the opportunity to hunt, fish, hike, ride horses or spend family time camped at one of its rustic campgrounds. Its 105,000 acres range from lowland cedar swamps to hilly red, white and jack pine forests. It is a short drive from anywhere in northern Michigan and offers the best slice of semi-wilderness in the Lower Peninsula.
I had recently returned from a wedding in North Carolina, though, where I had talked with two brothers who had taken four months after college to hike the Appalachian Trail. I lamented that I may never have four months to take such a journey; lately I have rarely had more than two days at a time. There are great opportunities for adventure in Michigan, though, and I have found that the 11-mile loop of the Shingle Mill Pathway is a great hike when I am short on time.
My trek began around 6 p.m. the previous night. I wanted to begin earlier but the realities of the world kept me until 5 p.m. Despite the late start, I was confident that I could locate a site and set my camp with enough time left in the evening to photograph the wildlife that move around in the evening to feed, such as deer and elk or black bear and bobcat if I was lucky. I even had the perfect campsite picked out on the banks of the Pigeon River.
Soon after I started, though, an unwelcome beacon on my camera warned me that my batteries were fading. Luckily, I was only a few hundred yards down the trail and had extras in my car. I am sure that I spooked every animal within hearing distance as I crashed through the ferns engulfing the trail in my rush to retrieve the batteries.
The delay caused me to miss out on my intended campsite, as when I rounded the bend of the trail near it, I saw two tents already pitched. A man was picking up kindling sticks along the trail. “Hello,” I called, hoping not to startle him. He gave me a sideways glance and returned my greeting. I complimented him on his site
selection and asked if anyone had claimed another site further up the trail. He told me it was empty when he passed that afternoon and I was quickly on my way, hoping to reach the next site before someone else took that one, too. The battery on my watch has been dead for some time, so I guessed by the sun and the
time I had been on trail that I had little daylight left and a few miles yet to hike. I quickened my pace along the trail and jogged a little to shorten the gap.
I had slowed down by Ford Lake, scanning it through the trees and looking for watering wildlife when a flicker of movement caught my eye. I stepped as lightly as I could, toe down first to feel for any branches that might snap and then easing down the heel, and crept from one tree to another. My footfall rustled some dry leaves, though, and a pale young doe lifted her gaze toward me. She looked in my general direction first, and then snapped her eyes directly upon me once she located the noise she heard. I already had my camera in hand and carefully raised it to my eyes and snapped a picture through a gap in the trees. I watched her for a few more moments before her unseen companions huffed and ran away, crossing the trail fifty yards ahead of me.
Continuing up the trail, I carefully checked for deer or elk where I had seen them on previous trips, especially in the clear-cut field north of Elkhorn Road. Seeing no immediate sign, I moved as quickly as I could toward the Grass Lake campsite. When I found the faint side trail leading to it, my heart sank. A DNR registration card was hanging from a nearby tree, indicating that other campers had beaten me to this site, as well. It would be another few miles to the site at the former logging camp of Cornwall, and dusk was fast approaching.
There was a distinct absence, I noticed, of any of the other signs of a camp, though. I peered through the trees toward the lake, but I couldn’t see any tents where the site would be. I walked toward the tree and read the registration card. It was from the previous weekend! I quickly dug my bivouac card out of my pack, filled it out with a knife-sharpened pencil and posted it right next to the previous one. I had my tent pitched in minutes and began gathering firewood and kindling, breaking dead branches by stepping on them and yanking the ends toward me. A wad of tissue paper served as tinder; a knife stuck to a magnesium fire-starter provided the spark.
I sat on a log near the fire, drank the bottle of Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat that I had packed along and ate a granola bar. Light faded fast and I drew in a deep breath of pure relaxation. It seemed like a mad rush to get to this point, but I felt completely at home listening to the bullfrogs call throughout the lake and the squirrels chatter in the tree above me. I read a few chapters out of Jim Harrison’s Sundog before crawling into my sleeping bag.
A loon’s call awoke me and I vacated my tent, snuck down to water’s edge and crouched amongst the weeds to get a few pictures of the bird. The sunrise cast a perfect glow upon the water and the trees on the opposite shore admired themselves through the mist in the lake’s clear reflection. A beaver swam laps in front of me and a duck flew directly overhead. I pulled my bear bag down from the tree in which I had stashed it and ate a granola bar for breakfast before packing up camp and continuing the trail’s loop.
Though I was only in the woods for fifteen hours, it is short treks like these that keep me rejuvenated enough to face the real world for another week or two. Backpacking in Michigan does not require a four-month vacation; just a few spare hours on the weekend and an appreciation for all that our outdoors has to offer.
(by Drew YoungeDyke. Originally appeared in Woods’N’Water News, August 2007)