With my employer announcing a plant shut down for maintenance this week at the beginning of the year, I had been making plans of a 5 day trip to the upper peninsula of Michigan for the past several months. I’m new to both backpacking and hammock camping, but after a lot of texts & e-mails to friends who answered my many questions, I had my trip planned. I was going to take my time backpacking the North Country Trail (NCT) from Trout Brook Pond to Soldier Lake Campground, and camp along the trail as I went, all while my Labrador retriever Fletcher tagged along. My wife and I own land just outside of Trout Lake, MI so the NCT is near our neck of the woods and I was anxious to explore it.
The North Country National Scenic Trail is a hiking/backpacking trail that was officially created when Congress passed legislation for its authorization in 1980. Although not as popular as the infamous Appalachian Trail (AT), the NCT is twice as long as the AT, measuring a total of 4600 miles. It stretches from eastern New York State all the way to central North Dakota, going through a total of eight states. As I mentioned above, the trail comes very close to our land in the Upper Peninsula and it was while exploring near our place that I first discovered the trail. Like many, I had never heard of it before and suddenly my curiosity was sparked. In the Upper Peninsula alone, the NCT will take someone willing to explore it to waterfalls, mountains, high bluffs overlooking Lake Superior, swamps, pine forests, over creeks and much more. It certainly is a fantastic resource for those looking to get into the outdoors whether it be for a week long backpacking trip or just a quick hike on a beautiful fall afternoon. With 40% of our country’s population living within a day’s drive of the NCT, it is there for many of us to use and I looked forward to putting some mileage on my hiking boots.
Well, the unexpected passing of my 37 year old cousin on May 19th caused plans to come to a screeching halt. I put my trip off a couple of days to help his parents deal with a few things, and headed north on Monday, May 31st. I felt I really needed the trip after losing my cousin, as we were close, and time in the UP would let me be alone with my thoughts. My brother in law and his family had been at their cabin just around the corner from our land over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, and he informed me the mosquitoes were the worst he had ever seen up there. That says a lot considering he spends a lot of his free time in the UP and even spent part of his childhood living in the area. Nonetheless, I decided to make the most of it and deal with the bugs when I arrived.
Fletcher and I arrived to my brother in law’s cabin at about 3pm after a pretty uneventful drive north. My brother in law’s little cabin is one of my favorite places on earth, and it was good to be back there. However, when I parked the truck in front of the cabin, the swarms of mosquitoes surrounding the truck had me questioning my sanity. I carried all of my gear from the truck to the cabin as fast as I could while trying to keep the cabin door closed as much as possible, but the little blood suckers still managed to get inside. After killing as many of them as I could, I sat down to reevaluate my plans of backpacking. The weather forecast was calling for rain and even some severe thunderstorms, and the skeeters would suck me dry the first night, so I opted to use the cabin for basecamp and make day hikes along the NCT. However, I was still REALLY wanting to spend my first night in my hammock and even thought about braving the mosquito hordes for a night. Fletcher didn’t have a bug net and would have had to stay outdoors if I slept on the trail, so he talked me out of it with those big brown eyes of his.
Investigation inside the cabin revealed a couple of ceiling joists that my brother in law hadn’t covered yet, and the light bulb went off in my head. Soon I had my hammock hung inside the cabin and was safe from the flying bloodsuckers just outside the cabin.
With “camp” all set up inside the cabin, Fletcher and I had time for a quick afternoon hike along the NCT. I had bought a used pack off of a friend on my way up from Indiana, and was anxious to try it out. So I loaded it up with all of my backpacking gear just like I was going to go for a few days, and headed off to hike a mile or two with it. We opted for a couple of miles in between Dick Road and Soldier Lake campground. Being by myself, I hiked a mile out and then hiked back to the truck. Nothing fancy, but it was good to stretch the legs after the 6 1/2 hour drive up and the backpack worked great after some slight adjustment. It’s a High Sierra Sentinel 65L pack, and I’ll give a better review once I put log some more miles with it on my back. After the short hike, it was time to head back to the cabin and cook some dinner. In this case, Mountain House Beef Stroganoff and Noodles was on the menu. Not too bad for freeze dried stuff.
The next morning (Tuesday) we woke up early, cooked breakfast and were on the trail a little after 8 a.m. It was a beautiful sunny morning. 51 degrees with a cool breeze kept the bugs at bay and made for comfortable hiking, but I knew the bugs would find me eventually so I had a Thermacell attached to my backpack just in case. The forecast was calling for high temps in the low to mid 70’s so I knew it would warm up soon enough as well. The hike from Dick Road to Lone Pine River Road was pretty uneventful in the terms of wildlife seen (nothing but songbirds) so I’ll let the pics tell some of the story. The scenery was great, weather awesome and the hike went by quickly.
Once at the primitive campsite just off of Lone Pine River Road, it was time for a coffee and snack break. The campsite was on a little hill overlooking the thick brush along the banks of the small Pine River, where I’ve caught trout on my fly rod in the past, and the breeze felt great.
After enjoying some java and trail mix, and giving Fletcher some more water, we packed up and turned back towards the truck. By now the temps were starting to climb a bit and I knew by the end of the hike we’d be hot and tired. The hike back to the truck was, again, uneventful for the most part. No bears, wolves, porcupines, bobcats or even sasquatches. However, Fletcher did manage to flush a pair of Sandhill Cranes that were hanging out on the edge of a small clearing. Their noisy way of taking flight startled me out of some deep thought about my cousin’s death, and the graceful flight of the birds once in the air was a pleasant distraction. Shortly after flushing the cranes, we started hiking along some swampy area and as I feared, the bugs were out in full force and they were hungry! The mosquitoes and flies found us and had a field day feasting on me despite the Thermacell being turned on. I picked up the pace and hiked as fast as I could at that point, feeling much like an insect buffet.
It wasn’t long before the truck came into site and both Fletch & I were ready for it. At 46 years old and 250 pounds, a 9.35 mile hike wasn’t something I was used to and I was worn out, not to mention bit up pretty good. Fletcher was ready for a good nap as well.
Now back in the truck, I drove to the cabin for an ice cold cola, but then it was back in the truck as I had a little surprise for Fletch. While my brother in law’s cabin is one of my favorite spots on earth, the cool waters of an old gravel pit not too far away is one of Fletcher’s. To say he was happy to get in that water after hiking all morning is a serious understatement.
On the way back to the cabin, we met a new friend who I helped cross the road safely.
Once back at the cabin I cooked up another freeze dried meal for dinner, this time Mountain House Lasagna. Again, not too bad but a pizza would have tasted better. I checked the local forecast as I picked ticks off my clothes and body. In total I removed ten ticks that night from myself and two from Fletcher. Note to self…bring Permethrin to keep the ticks away next time dummy. Thankfully, I had dosed Fletch with his tick and flea medicine a week prior to our trip.
The weather forecast was calling for rain and severe thunderstorms on Wednesday, the bugs were awful and I learned that being alone with your thoughts so soon after losing a loved one who took their own life wasn’t necessarily a good thing like I thought it would be. My mind raced when I wasn’t hiking, thinking about my cousin, and so I opted to throw in the towel. Wednesday morning I woke up, packed up the truck in the rain and pointed the truck south again.
All in all it was a pretty good trip, although so very short. I learned a LOT about backpacking and hammock sleeping in just a short time, and I can’t wait for the next trip. That being said, I think I’ll wait until after the bug season before venturing out in the UP again!
I’d like to personally thank the many volunteers and members of the North Country Trail Association for their dedication and hard work in keeping the NCT maintained. Your efforts are greatly appreciated! For more information on the North Country National Scenic Trail, check out the North Country Trail Association at www.northcountrytrail.org