Pure Michigan ~ North Country Trail

To say that I was stoked was an understatement and wasn’t the only emotion I experienced when planning this trip. I was honestly scared, not only that the physical demands would overwhelm me but that I would be a burden to the rest of our group and ruin their experience.

Our party of 7 currently live in different areas of Michigan and our ages ranged from 21 to 59. We started our adventure by meeting up at one of the girls cabin in Clare, MI. which is located 2 hours south of Mackinac Bridge.

The quaint cabin was surrounded by Aspen, Oak and Pine trees and has been passed down through generations. One can only imagine the great times family and friends have had hunting, fishing and relaxing on the property. The rustic cabin was adorned with taxidermy and trophies of past adventures. This was the perfect start for our hike and has convinced me to add a family cabin to my wish list.

Our first day of hiking started with a 3 am wake up call. We needed to make it across the Mackinac Bridge before 6 am due to the annual Mackinac Bridge Walk on Labor Day,  We then had to drive up to Grand Marais, park our cars and catch a shuttle that would take us over to Munising Falls where we would start our trek for the day.

Everything went as planned and we made it to Munising Falls at 11 am. Munising Falls are quite beautiful and are the first water falls I have visited here in Michigan. I was surprised at the amount of tourist and after a few pictures we were ready to hit the trail head. I soon realized 99% of the people here weren’t going to be heading our way and within 5 minutes we were on our own.

The previous night brought some rain to this area and the trail was pretty damp but what really stuck in my head was the smell. This was God’s creation, unmolested by industry, pollution and careless humans. I have never in my life been in this environment. I honestly was in awe and for a few moments even forgot about the challenge ahead.

Originally this trip was planned in reverse but due to availability of the campgrounds our organizer had to schedule the trip backwards. Fortunately that would translate to a 6 mile hike our first day. Taking in to consideration our 3 am wakeup call and drive I was still full of anxiety.

At the time I was unaware but the group was planning on 2 miles an hour. I was winded within a mile so my main concern at the time was just to keep moving. When I look back, physically I wasn’t tired and know it was more of a mental issue. By the way, if you haven’t figured it out I am the 59 year old stud in the group.

As we made our way down the trail we came to my first major challenge. A downhill section that looked pretty gnarly and I quickly did an inventory of my gear to make sure everything was secure. I remember a couple of things that my Drill Instructors taught me while I was climbing the mountains on Camp Pendleton. I position myself at the end of the line and after watching the rest of our group, lean back, slowly making my way down the ravine, internally thanking that salesperson for selling these trekking pole’s. I know that it sounds dramatic but honestly I was not confident or more colorfully was “shi***** my pants”. I soon realized going downhill was different but as hard as uphill for this hombre.

I hear a cheer from the group as I make it to the bottom and after slyly wiping a tear can only think of how lucky I am and what a great bunch of young adults I am with. I know at that moment that they have my back and I can do this.

We head through the forest, across streams, up and down ravines and then we get our first glimpse of Lake Superior shining through the trees. Amazing is all I can say and acknowledge my senses are overwhelmed with aromas from the vegetation and the visual beauty of our surroundings. We hike through water and mud and as someone loses a shoe I enjoy a little break. I ask “are we there yet?” Oh no, I have turned into my kids! We are getting close and running late but still should have time to set up and watch the sunset on Lake Superior. As we roll into our campsite I am completely exhausted. I find some energy to pitch my tent and after eating a cold dinner have time to watch the sun disappear on the horizon. The night was cool and perfect as I fell into a deep sleep.

  1. Before
  2. After

Sunset on Lake Superior and in the morning we have a storm coming

After taking a quick hike to watch the sunrise and getting the surprise of storm clouds on the horizon, I headed back to camp to use my Minimo and coffee press. I suggest if you are a novice like me it is a good idea to try all your new gear at home. I found out after making my first pot of coffee and using the coffee press backwards that cleaning up your mistakes becomes harder when following “leave no trace”. After enjoying my coffee and packing up we figured with the storm coming in we need to make good time. I wasted valuable time in the morning and found out that it is better to pack fast and take a break rather than pack and move. I found myself leaving tired and having to catch my wind on the trail. We were fortunate to have basically flat trails for the first few miles. With the storm approaching we stopped for a quick lunch, collected and filtered water and covered our objective quickly.

We made it to camp before the rain came and set up our tents, hammocks and in anticipation for the rain two tarps. The plan was to use the tarps to give us cover we could use when packing up in the morning. Great idea, poor execution and a non stop rain (4 inches) turned the morning into a nightmare.

I started with a 47 pound pack and ate extra food to lighten my pack. I knew day three and four were our longest hikes so less weight made sense. I managed to keep the items stored in my tent; Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothes, chair, stove and personal items dry. What I couldn’t keep dry, tent, rain fly, clothes on my body and shoes erased any gains I had made with the food and added another 5 or 6 pounds. Everyone was soaked and we were relieved it stopped raining about 3 miles in our hike.

I was told even though this was our longest day as my body became use to the load I would find it easier and they were correct. The extra weight didn’t cause me any discomfort and I actually enjoyed the day. I felt bad for everyone else that had collected more weight and was hurting. The streams were flowing fast and created a couple of waterfalls that were breathtaking. With all the rain the previous night and the foliage run off coloring the streams my water was limited and I would wait until we made camp to replenish it. After a wrong turn we ended up having to hike a few more miles but the campsite made everything seem worth it.

Trappers Lake

  1. Before
  2. After

Trappers Lake was my favorite campsite on this trip. We had plenty of space to set up our camp and with no rain expected we set up clothes lines and everyone had a chance to dry out. With a breeze coming off the lake our gear was dry in a few hours. We had a plenty of wood for a fire and all but one of us managed to dry our shoes without cooking them. I enjoyed some beef stew along with a sandwich and some coffee for dinner. In the morning everyone was feeling happy to be dry, we ate some oatmeal and had our coffee, packed up and were on our way.

Looking back at Trappers Lake reminds me how important it is that we all need to follow “leave no trace”. This is one of those places where we need to keep development out, no matter what. I am not sure if you can make it there on a day hike but either way you should put this on your bucket list. Personally, I could spend weeks there.

As we head out it is easy to notice that everyone has a bounce in their step. Dried out and a pack weight under 40 pounds I can really enjoy the morning. Birds and chipmunks are all around us and it is a relief we haven’t had a mosquito or fly buzzing around us from the start. Don’t let me mislead you, we are covering some of the hardest topography we have encountered on this trip. I actually broke one of my trekking poles and now have a stick replacing it. Trekking poles protect your knees, give you balance and are recommended by many outfitters. I purchased  Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles by Black Diamond which were recommended and as you can see expensive. It is possible that I have a defective pair since I have not abuse them. I have a claim in and am confident they will make good. I found out today from the Outpost in Holland Michigan that they have a replacement set waiting for me.

As we make our way through the maze of trees and fast moving streams it is amazing how much work has been put into making this a safe trail. There are footings made out of local timbers, bridges above the wetlands and streams that allow you to navigate without disrupting the wildlife and at the same time protecting us. If anything, this trip has taught me to respect the men and women that safeguard this National Treasure.

We have been at it about 4 hours and we are approaching our lunch stop at the 12 mile beach campsite. This is my first time here and it looks like a great place to come up with the car, camp and watch the leaves change. I didn’t have time to check the beach access but should bring my kayak and wetsuit just in case.

We ate a quick lunch and found some clean water which is a necessary commodity. Out of our group we have 4 different water filters. I went with the Guardian by MSR which has been well worth the money. It is quick and used to support 3 of us consistently and actually could cover everyone if needed. Please keep in mind that all water up here needs to be treated, filtered or boiled regardless of source.

  • North Country Trail

  • After a short distance down a dirt road we are back on the North Country Trail heading to our next campsite east of Au Sable Light Station.

    The trail is following the coastline which is giving me a chance to enjoy Lake Superior. I can spend hours looking at the rocks and vistas here. It is still peaceful and as we get close to the Light Station start to see some day hikers.

    By the time I make it to the Au Sable it is closed to the public. It would be awesome to check it out and the caretaker is nice but firm and wont open it back up. He told me that he is from Florida and he and his wife volunteer as caretakers. It sounds like a great gig and something I would love to do. He tells me to come back in the morning since our campsite is only one and a half miles up the trail.

    I thought about it but in the morning after watching the sunrise, there is only time for breakfast, packing and we are on our way.

Lake Superior

We were warned by some day hikers that stayed in a campsite close to ours that we will have a major ravine to climb this morning. They were the same day hikers that were busted burning their trash in the campfire. Oh, where are the rangers when you need them? Normally I wouldn’t care but they were asked politely to stop by other campers and didn’t care. Their warning was vague and didn’t tell us how far up the trail it was but we figured we would know when we got there.

About a mile in we came across a steep climb and of course half way up my 2nd trekking pole snapped on me. Luckily I had someone behind me and an angel in front that promptly found a second stick I could use. I finished the climb and my only concern was we had the major ravine left and I wasn’t sure if the two sticks would hold out.

We encountered rolling hills as we made our way past Log Slide Overlook and came upon a doe and her two fawns. We stopped in our tracks since mama and one of the fawns were on the opposite side of the trail. The fawn just looked at us and after not sensing any danger crossed 15 feet in front of us to join her mama. It was so sweet how they just watched as we moved on. I was running low on water as we made our way around Grand Sable Lake. After saying hi to a couple putting their kayak in the lake I noticed an apple tree and thought how perfect. I knew we were close and saw Grand Sable Visitor Center where we had our cars parked. It turns out the hill they were talking about was the same place I snapped my trekking pole. It was steep but nothing compared to what we conquered.

We all celebrated our accomplishment and I was both happy and sad. I learned a lot about backpacking on this trip and look forward to more trips in the future. It wasn’t easy but most things we accomplished in our lives haven’t been easy. It was nice having the young folks with me. They are fun to be around and I showed them how important it is to live a healthy life. I couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t many people my age out on that trail and I understand that this was basically a baby hike. Still, I am looking forward to a hike with some peers. We just experienced a taste of the North Country Trail and what Michigan has to offer.

Our celebration took us up to Marquette MI, for the UP Fall Beer Festival. Great food and 600 locally crafted beers from more than 80 Michigan breweries. I only tried 10 but did get a list with addresses for all 80 breweries if anyone is up for it!

You earned it, enjoy it!

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