We have arrived in Negaunee, Michigan! A six hour drive isn’t too bad when everyone has a chance to get out of work early, which we all did, and can arrive to the AirBnB by 7pm the night before a hiking trip begins. There is plenty of time left in the day to pop a couple of beers and pull everything out of our bags for final-final inspection.
Irons street in Negaunee is a very beautiful… ghost town. Our apartment sits above a closed bar, next to a closed night club, across the street from another closed bar. It feels like this town should be inviting and homie. I want to love it and tell everyone to come here because it’s a hidden gem of the north. All I can really do is hope these businesses survive through the next year or so, “Yooper Strong”. Most people won’t get this reference but this town reminds me of Stargate Universe season 2, episode 19, where the team arrived on a planned that was ravaged by deadly drone programmed to destroy all technology. We live in weird times.
Tomorrow finds three more hours of driving ahead of us. First, we have to “check-in” at the Porcupine mountain visitor center and pick up our camping permits for the two nights we are staying in the state park. The Porcupine Mountain State Park, also know as the “Porkies”, now requires all campers to reserve and use ONLY designated campsites. No dispersed camping, no first come, first serve. The cost is only $15 a night and the purpose is to prevent overcrowding and forest destruction. I don’t like having to make a stop at the visitor center to pick up our permits, but I get it, except for the part where we have to go to the visitor center instead of just printing them off ourselves.
After picking up the permits, we drop a car off to the first resupply spot and shoot over to the starting Trailhead. Day 1 is a 9 mile hiking day, max. Hiking over 9 miles would put us in the State park and that requires a permit, so we can’t push that far. Our permits are for specific locations on Sunday night and Monday night. If everything goes according to plan, tomorrow should be a smooth day. Hiking trips rarely go according to plan.
Day 1 was a flawless victory! Almost. Everything with picking up permits and dropping off vehicles went super smooth until a cop passed us coming the opposite direction and immediately flipped a bitch to get behind us. Rick didn’t even pretend that he hadn’t done anything wrong, had the truck pulled over with the window down before the State Trooper had his lights on. What could have been a ticket for 15 over turned into a warning when the trooper noticed a Marine issued rucksack in the back. Rick is an Army guy, not a Marine, but it didn’t matter, military connections run deep. I’m glad he didn’t ask if anyone else was in the service. Knowing there was an Air Force guy in the backseat might have gotten him back into a ticket.
We arrived to the Trailhead around 11am central time, because we did cross out of Eastern for the first few days. It wasn’t until 3/4 of a mile in that Rick looked back at me and said, “I know what I forgot, the paper map book.”
I stopped walking. “That’s where our camping permits are.”
Rick dropped his pack. “Oh, I’ll run back and get it then.”
Running back to get permits seems like such a simple thing, but it wasn’t. Rick disappeared down the trail while Brianna, Shauna, and I plopped on the ground and took some weight off while we waited. It had been about 20 or 30 minutes of waiting before a large family passed by us on the trail. I asked if they had seen our hiking partner on their way up the trail and they said no, they had not seen anyone. How could they have not seen anyone? This made me worry enough to start a hike back search for him.
Rick wouldn’t intentionally go off trail. He has more backcountry experience than the rest of us combined. Is he lost? Did he fall into the river? I ran all the way back to the truck with no sign of him. My brain was processing all the possible scenarios as I ran back to where the girls awaited my return. Guess who was there waiting for me? Rick. He did go off trail. To top it off, it sounds like he took some spills on his “shortcut”. I’m not mad, just not something anyone should ever do. One of us should have gone with him, that’s true too. I promise no one else would have tried an off trail “shortcut” either.
The day was pretty smooth after that initial hiccup. Rick is rather sore now, which doesn’t make me feel great about how the next few days might play out. His pack is a heavy sack of rocks and that’s a challenge for a person without silly injuries.
Tonight’s camp is next to the Black River, we are surrounded by the sounds of a wild river running. Is it a good thing that we can’t hear any of the weird nighttime sounds of the forest? Seems like all the noise makers are still out there…
Here is something I haven’t done often on the trail, write in the morning! Every night of a hiking trip is special in some way, the first couple nights are especially special. Day 1 is kind of like a one night stand, you’re just excited to be somewhere, blinded by instinctual enthusiasm to the point where you don’t care what happens as long as it’s happening to you.
Morning after is the real barometer. If the first thought you have is, “what the hell did I just do?” Then you need to go home, take a shower, and try to find a new passion. If you wake up and feel like you’re ready for many days in a row of the same thing, then hiking might just be for you. I was talking about hiking, not one nights stands. Get your head out of the gutter.
Today was beautifully bitchtastic. We worked for every inch of the 12 miles we hiked today. Sections of the trail were straight vertical, others had foot deep mud, and a few of the middle miles weren’t really a trail at all. If it wasn’t for the blue blazed trees to mark the trail, we would have had no clue where to go or where we were. On one hand, it slows the pace down to a mile an hour. On the other hand, it’s good experience to what we will experience in many sections of other long trails.
My favorite parts of today were the waterfalls, there were about six of them? We ate lunch at a waterfall and took two of our frequent breaks at waterfalls. If other trails are famous for mountains, NCT in northern Michigan should be famous for waterfalls. There were so many waterfalls on the map that I made the comment, “trails should be easy today, probably have pristine trail maintenance for all the people to see the waterfalls.” Except for a mile towards the end, at Manobenzo falls, I could not have been more wrong.
Tonight we camp on the Lake Superior shore. The end of the hike wore on forever and we were more than ready to setup camp and get dinner into our mouths. Honestly, I don’t even think we are camped at the correct camp site. Hopefully no one wakes us up and tells us to move in the middle of the night. It’s a dark quarter moon with an overcast. Fingers crossed.
Can you reverse the curse? Every person Brianna and I have taken out on a long distance hike has tapped out early. Our latest victim is Ricardo, tapped after two night. With Ric out that brings our victim total up to three. That’s three out of three, 100% for those keeping track from home.
All three of our hiking companions went home early for varying degrees of the same reason. It would be easy to say that Brianna and I hike people beyond their limits, but I don’t think that’s true. Over packing and underestimating the difficulties to be encountered. Logic would make you think that packing more things would make you BETTER prepared for bumps on the trail when the opposite is actually true. When a 15 mile hike turns into a 20 mile hike or a 12 mile into a 15, pack weight is what prevents you from carrying on. A roll of duct tape and an extra pair of clothes cannot save you.
Ric took some hard falls. The fall that did him in was on a steep decent down a wet clay hill. Sliding your ass down wet clay doesn’t feel good. Hitting the ground with 60 pounds of gear on your back, well, he is lucky to have gotten up. The fall was so hard that the bottom of his pole bent 90 degrees from the weight he put on it to try and stop. We had fun while they were here and we miss them now that they are gone.
After Ric and Shauna headed towards the early jump off Trailhead, Brianna and I continued on through 3 miles of rough bog jumping and tree blow downs before the trail smoothed out again. The last 6 miles were actually quite nice, with three more waterfalls… well, they were labeled waterfalls. These waterfalls were no where near as grand as yesterday’s, these waterfalls were just areas where water happened to fall down some rocks.
Finding our campsite was a little tricky, as per usual. The DNR doesn’t have signs for where campsites are and how far you might be from them like they do the rentable cabins. It might be that these campsites rotate and it’s too much to manage, it’s tricky for those of us not familiar with the area. The only sign you get is a small three inch placard on a single tree. If you miss the placard, you just keep hiking. We were lucky enough to guess our campsite and then confirm it was correct after 15-20 minutes of wandering around. We are definitely in the right spot tonight! We were definitely in the wrong spot yesterday.
One of the new challenges this trip has brought us is that cell coverage is basically zero. On our Manistee hiking trip, we would text people at night, check the weather, I’d post blog updates. On this trip, we are relying on Mel to be our eyes in the sky and send us weather updates to our Garmin In-Reach, which uses GPS. We did stumble across a little cell coverage around lunch today where we were able to make a call out, send some texts and post to the blog. We would like to call Ric and Shauna to see what their plans are tonight but it’s just not possible. We did get a Garmin message that they made it to a hotel and showers safely.
Wait there is more… another variable on this adventure worth tracking is that Brianna seems to have tweaked her knee somewhere in the past couple of days. I’m not sure what impact this will have on the next few days but the implications are quite obvious. For now, we sleep to the sounds to another river in a secluded section of the Porcupine mountains. Mountains to the left of me, river to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you!
Today started out ultra confusing. We received a message from Shauna on our Garmin while in the middle of enjoying our coffee and strop waffles. The message read, “waited for you by the cabin for a couple hours, heading home now.” Which made no sense to us as we thought the plan was for them to meet us at the campsite, we even managed to get a single text out with the LC-5 site number.
We eventually got a call out to Shauna about a mile into our day’s hiking. Turns out they were less than a quarter mile from our campsite and neither of us had any idea. Needless to say, Brianna and I feel like real A-holes about the mixup. It’s not entirely our fault but the thought of Ric injured hiking out that far and just coming up short is pretty shitty. He even had beer!
On a happier note, Brianna and I did something today that we could not have done if other people were on the trail with us… We hike an 18 mile day! It was only supposed to be a 12 miler but we saw storms rolling in and were only 5.5 miles away from the car, so why not push it?
A lot happened over our 18 miles, as you can well imagine. We ran into a group of six hiker/campers within the first couple miles and they offered us pancakes and Canadian bacon! We declined, not sure how, but we did. It had nothing to do with having a long day in front of us, we didn’t even know it would be an 18 mile day at the time. It’s just hard to stop and go and stop and go so soon after starting the day.
An amazing part of the day was when we came upon a parking lot with a trash can. We had accumulated four days worth of trash and it starts to take up a lot of volume. The parking lot was also filled with sun, giving us the opportunity to dry our wet clothes out and enjoy a long hour of lunch. We took a river bath yesterday after reaching camp and did laundry. Our campsite had no wind and no sun so nothing really dried out over night. One fun lesson I learned today is that if you have wet clothes and no sun, body heat dries the clothes you’re wearing way faster than hanging them off your pack.
Twilight had fully set in by the time we arrived to our car. The blue blazes marking the trail were increasingly difficult to find, I’m lucky to have ol’eagle eyes with me. Brianna’s knee held up really well through the long miles but my blisters started to pop at the end, crisis averted, but now I’ve got the hiker hobble and she looks normal.
The sweetheart Shauna is, she left us a hand written note letting us know they got a hotel room 6 miles north and we could drop in for a shower in the morning. Little did she know… She also left us KitKat bars! Chocolate is not a convenient long distance hiking snack, the girl knows what we like :-). It didn’t take us long to find the hotel per her instructions (no cell signal) but we did not get a chance to surprise them like we had hoped. Ric and Shauna had been tracking us via the Garmin website and were waiting outside the hotel with beer and smiles.
I felt a little bad going in to grab a room, smelling as God awful was I did, but the lady at the front desk said her mask, “makes it so I can’t smell shit.” Thanks, COVID? We were able to get a room and an evening of tomfoolery commenced. This hotel/motel thing is straight out of the 1970s, a motel/bar/restaurant/bowling alley/arcade/laundry combo. That’s right, we took showers and cleaned clothes. Not sure how much I cared for sleeping in a bed, and the room smelled like strawberry urine, but complaining at this point would just be silly.
Scenario: you’re on a long distance hiking trip, you and all of your gear is sopping wet.
What do you do?
Let me answer my question with a question – what can you do? Wake up, make coffee, put your shit away and hope this day works out better than lasterday. We started today out optimistically miserable, because again, there is no choice.
Before the severe thunderstorm, we had talked about how getting up early and starting the day off quick would be a good idea. Get some miles in fast and see where we landed. Did not happen. Folding up kind of wet shit and very wet shit is time consuming. There were also a lot of trips made to the creek for rinsing the dirty shit off. Good news is that the forecast had sun predicted for most of the afternoon. If we got lucky, maybe there would be a place to hang gear out to dry.
You will find most everything you need on the trail. It might not be what you expected or when you needed it most, but it’s there. If necessity is the mother of invention, it also gave birth to a little thing called utility. Like I’ve said in recent posts – it’s not about what you bring it’s about how many different ways a thing you bring or find can be used.
Today’s 9 mile hike was a real ASS kicker. If you think Michigan doesn’t have mountain hikes, check this place out. Start at 1200 ft elevation, peak at 1850 ft. Back down to 1050 ft elevation, peak at 1800 ft. Many of these ascents are nearly straight vertical climbs. The views were beautiful but we paid for all of them in a way that pictures just don’t capture.
We saw our first people on trail today! Passed by a couple National Forest trail maintenance folks near the middle of our day, a gent & a lady. The conversation lasted all of five minutes. They asked how the trail looked and if we saw and wildlife. We admired their chosen profession and thanked them for all the hard work maintaining the trail so beautifully. The dude was carrying a chain saw and the chick as the fuel canister. What a life they must live, checking for downed trees after storms.
About midway through the hike, we came across just what we needed, an unused railroad track. It was well past time to eat lunch so we got all of our wet gear out to dry while we fixed up chow. Brianna got her umbrella out so that we could eat in the shade while the sleeping bags, tents, shoes, etc. could dry in the 72 degree sun.
Tonight we are camping at yet another beautiful spot next to a creek.
Something I forgot to mention. There are occasionally signs on the trail that give distances to the next notable locations. The trail sign from earlier today had a dildo on it. I’m mentioning this because it’s odd. Did someone find a dildo and put it there in hopes the owner would find it? Or did someone leave it because they no longer wanted to carry the weight? Hmmmm trail thoughts to ponder…
Good times go by far too fast. We stayed up drinking and carrying on until past 0100 in the morning. Out of bed by 0800 and had to get immediately onto our hiker chores: throw laundry in, charge all the electronics, sort through resupply food, dump trash. We did make time for a huge breakfast with Shauna and Ric though. This motel is great and weird. The dining room has a viewing window for people to watch the bears eat leftover restaurant food. We didn’t see one over breakfast but Shauna saw one the night before, I’ll try share a picture at the bottom (it’s huge).
It was a struggle to get out of our room by 1100 checkout but we did it. Made a quick stop to the gas station for skittles and playing cards before landing back at the trail head to say our final goodbyes and get to walking.
With an 18 mile day behind us, we found ourselves ahead of schedule. Today we only needed a 4 mile day and that was fine with both of us. The next four days have a dozen or so peaks to climb up and today started with a doozy of an uphill from hell. And while we are on the topic, there should be a better measurement for trails than distance via miles or kilometers. How many miles you have to go doesn’t really capture the difficulty of task. It’s bullshit.
The day was really lovely. Brianna and I found a nice camping spot next to a National Park service road. We lazed around for a few hours playing rummy and talking about nothing. The tent eventually went up, but it was a pain to get the stakes in because the ground was hardened with country road gravel. It took us pounding stakes in with a stone to get them to stay.
Exactly around evening is where our story takes a turn. No sooner had I said the words, “I’m going to brush my teeth and hop in the tent to write” did it begin to rain. A little warning rain to give us time to make sure everything was properly in the tent for the night. It took us by surprise though, I had looked at the weather a couple hours ago and no rain was predicted until much later that night. Weather person was wrong, no big deal… right?
Tiny droplets of water quickly turned into a deluge. A calm paradise of relaxation turned into a windstorm of insane proportion. With a single unreliable bar of LTE service, it took me a while, but I was able to refresh the weather channel app. Newsflash: Severe thunderstorms in your area! Alert: Lightning strikes in your area! … thanks Weather Channel, fuck you very much.
We have been in a windstorm before but never a severe thunderstorm. Everything seemed fine, aside from the lightning flashes and booming thunder off the mountain sides. What can we do? Hunker inside the tent and hope for the best. Then the thing happened that you don’t want to happen during a severe storm, the stakes started to pull up from the ground. Our tent standing relies on tension between the hiking poles on each end. I had to hold the hiking pole up to keep the entire thing from collapsing in on itself. I couldn’t get the stake back in the ground without the rock, and even once I found it, I was still getting drenched the entire time.
The storm did eventually pass and we are ok, just wet. Pretty interesting 4 mile day.
If you ever have the opportunity to start a day off with Mountain House biscuits and gravy, do it. So good. The Breakfast Skillet is excellent, but the biscuits and gravy is where it’s at.
Our morning began with a text from Papa Bear warning us that “rain is headed up your ass today.” We broke camp down in record time and headed out. There’s nothing like the threat of a nature enema to get the motor up and running. The first couple hours was a good push of miles and somewhat hazy views, and then it hit… rain enema.
The miles were slower but our attitudes were positive. Fun fact, today is the first day Brianna and I have had to hike in the rain on the NCT. That’s roughly 18 days without day rain. Things got a little less positive a couple of hours in the rain. Brianna was leading through a mud bog and said, “it’s really deep over there.” That’s exactly when her weight shifted awkwardly backwards and fell onto her butt in the knee deep water. I was close enough to watch it unfold very clearly, too far away to grab her or do anything to stop the slow moving train wreck. Everything from the point on was a new kind of struggle.
Rain crashed down so heavily that my rain coat reached it’s limit and drenched me to the core. All the trails were a quick path for the water to travel and became new streams. Each step took a lot of energy, but again, we had no other options. Stop walking and you’re too cold. Put the tent up and your still cold, gear is probably wet, what’s the plan after that?
We pushed on through the rain to a parking lot at the Norwich road trail intersection where our amazing hiking partners, Ric and Shauna, had left us a resupply cache filled with clean water and Thermacell fuel. You might think fresh water isn’t a big deal in the rain, but it’s the difference between filtering water in the cold or quickly pouring it into your bottle. We love our trail angels.
Lunch was an adventure in itself. Brianna has the amazing idea to use our Tyvek ground sheet as a makeshift rain shelter. It took a couple tries but it worked, kept us and our gear mostly out of the rain. Brianna cooked a hot lunch of Mac & Cheese w/ tuna. We would have stayed longer and enjoyed not getting rained on but the wind and the cold made that unpleasant. We are our own best heaters, time to march on.
Two notable things did happen during all the rain.
Thing 1: We ran into a west bound hiker near an old mining town. He is heading towards the Wisconsin Michigan border, tries to do a new NCT section every year. We didn’t get to talk long, both shivering cold.
Thing 2: We came across a monster stream that would usually have been hopping stone easy to cross. All of the trail rain and rain from the mountain converged at this one stream and made it impassable. Our only choice was to walk up stream until we found a down tree and walked over that. All the time we spend in the woods has finally paid off! Seriously, this stream was raging. I don’t think I have a picture to post because pictures in the rain are just not easy or high priority.
Tonight we are camping off the side of a two track park trail. It’s not ideal but it’s home. We are only 14.5 miles from the car. If we can make it there tomorrow, it will be a full day ahead of schedule and we are going to take a 0 mile day to rest my feet and Brianna’s knee. Wish us luck!
The only thing preventing last night from being a great night of sleep was Advil. Both Brianna and I fell asleep quickly and were not woken up by any coyotes or wolves, as is the norm. Unfortunately, the long day of rain hiking, the slips and falls that come along with it, left our bodies bruised in a way that hurt enough to wake us up several times during the night. It’s not that we didn’t have Advil, it’s that we forgot to take it. Rookie mistake.
Our journey to the car begins today! Shauna was gracious enough to call the 1970s motel and book us their last room, so we have to make it to the car or it’ll cost us $100 anyway. 14 miles today in the 60 degree weather with no rain should be easy compared to the 15 miles we did yesterday in the cold, cold, rain.
Access to the sun was limited today but the wind was gusting hard, drying our packs out pretty quick. Unlike previous days, there were only a couple of steep climbs. The things you least expect are the ones that get you the worst. Suffice to say, steep climbs were not the day’s biggest challenge.
Ran into a couple more hikers today, this time it was two ladies heading westbound. They gave us tips on upcoming trail conditions and we did the same for them. It’s funny, running into all these people and never once asking each other for names or anything non-hiking or trail related. We are all out there doing the same thing, sharing the common bond of all the things that go along with long distance hiking… pooping in the woods for example. It’s the closest thing to instant respect without justification or qualification that I have come across, except for the family reunions. You’re here. You’re doing it. Brava.
We typically put in a high number of miles in the morning and then hobble out the rest in the evening. Watching us would be quite the site, appropriate trail names for us during this hike might be Hobble & Wobble. This morning was a mostly steady pace, mixed in with a lot of dinking around and enjoying the sites. We passed through the Victoria Historic site, an old mining town with remnant homes and rubble of the times. There is a lot of interesting mining history in the area. Mining companies would build homes, ponds, and general stores. They settled entire communities that only exists in rubble footprints today.
Lunch was a quick one, but we were able to spend it inside one of the three hiking shelters along the NCT Western UP section. These hiking shelters were built by the Peter Wolfe NCT chapter so that hikers can eat, sleep, or do whatever they need to do away from the elements. This shelter has four bunk beds with space for up to four more on the floor if necessary. It’s actually a perfect location for hikers heading Westbound NCT. The stretch right before arriving to the shelter is the Victoria Dam, a place we found to be… perilous.
Hiking down to the Victoria Dam took a huge toll on our already weary bodies. The road is washed out gravel of varying sized rocks. It’s difficult to find comfortable footing when the rocks are all different, it rolls your ankles around and forces the knees in awkward angles to prevent falling. We descended down this washed out road for about a mile before reaching the bottom. I thought we were hiking to a walkway or bridge over the water. I was wrong.
“So what do we do now?” I asked, scratching my head.
Brianna replied in a sharp tone, “We cross the river.”
It baffled me. Getting from point A to Point B meant walking through waist deep water that was flowing at a steady but not rushing pace. And let’s not forget the sign that said, “WARNING WHEN SIREN SOUNDS WATER LEVELS WILL RAISE RAPIDLY”
What if we are in the middle of the river/reservoir and the siren sounds!? Is this really about to happen?
I started into the water first, feeling the bottom for rocks and depth. Slick rocks covered the bottom, I did my best to choose the least scary rock with each side step. Brianna and I locked hands. What started out as a firm grip dwindled down to me holding her pinky, as if to say, “I pinky promise to keep you from washing downstream if you fall.” We adjusted hands and successfully completed the river crossing as we have learned to do and will have to many more times. Our adrenaline was pumping so hard that as soon as our feet touch dry land again, we both yelled “WOOOO!” and then FaceTimed a few people to share the view and experience. Life is so much better when shared with others, isn’t it!?
Without getting too much longer in the tooth, we made it to our car by 6pm and were back at the 1979s motel within the next hour. Laundry is done, burgers were delicious and we are ready for whatever tomorrow might bring.
Today was a day of rest, depending on how one might define rest.
Turns out that that 1970s motel has a pretty bomb breakfast. We got a window seat next to the bear feeding window and got quite the show this morning. We didn’t see any bears but we did see three juvenile bald eagles dropping in on the food. Crows would crowd the food and then scatter as soon as the eagles dropped in. It was crazy to see critters like red squirrels just feet away from massive bald eagles. Turkey vultures appeared in large numbers, as they do, but we didn’t get to see how that played out. I’m guessing they didn’t fuck with the eagles either.
After hotel/motel/no-tell checkout, we headed to Sunshine motel area for tonight’s stay. It was too early to check in so we parked at the closest park and hung our wet gear out to dry. Quite a few people came and went in the hours we were there, none really said anything.
You’d think our work would be done, it wasn’t. Next task was to visit a local diner and grub down some dinner. Fresh greens and fruit aren’t something easily carried on trail so we both got salads with a side of mini-pasty & cheese curds. If you’ve never had a pasty, they are delicious and super filling. If I remember correctly, they started as a calorie filled meal for miners in the UP. Feel free to fact check me on that one.
Our last task for the day was to simply go through all our gear and food. Unused gear and garbage gets chucked out of the bag. Sunglasses, gloves, hats, etc; food that didn’t get eaten. We then pick what meals we want for the next 5 breakfasts, lunches and dinners, throw those in a bag. It’s easy to write about via a couple sentences, takes an hour or two in practice.
The sunshine motel we are staying at is really quite lovely. Falling asleep to a Harry Potter marathon is different than forest noises… excited to get back to it tomorrow!
Checkout time at the Sunshine Motel & Cabins was 1000am, but that doesn’t mean we had to start the trail at that time, far from it. With heavy rain in the forecast, our plan for the day was to take it slow. There’s no reason to hike in the rain if you don’t have to. Unlike a few days ago, we had options.
We started our day out with breakfast back at Styls cafe. It was delicious. Even picked up fresh baked Apple Fritters & custard filled Long Johns for the inevitable long wait we would have in the car waiting for the rain to pass.
You might think that sitting in a car for four hours waiting for the rain to stop was boring, but it really wasn’t a bad way to spend the day. We played Rummy in the backseat for a while. When the rain really got heavy, we put on a podcast about serial killers and their victims while I napped and Brianna stretched out to relax. We knew that starting the day out dry was worth lazing around together for a while.
The first part of our trail today really was pristine. A wheelchair accessible path down to O Kun De Kun Falls allowed us to make great time over the first mile and a half. Our female hiker friends from a few days ago had warned us about a trail diversion coming up that was due to a beaver dam causing a normal river crossing to become too wide and too deep. All we really wanted to get done today is to get past the beaver pond.
We were told that there would be some bushwhacking involved for finding the diverted trail and they were right. The difference between walking an established trail and making your own is a lot of extra time and calories burned.
We were geared up in emergency ponchos to keep the wet world from touching our stuff. Our stuff didn’t get dry, but you can imagine how thin plastic held up through all the bushwhacking. While we weren’t the first people on the diverted trail, it was pretty rough going. Our ponchos looked like we had gotten into a fight with the beaver and the beaver had won.
Even with the beaver pond diversion, we made a solid 8 miles in around 4 hours. We left the car around 330pm and arrived to camp by 730pm. Camp spot for tonight is a grassy NCT parking lot just off Gardner road. Pretty slick spot for being nowhere. We could have hiked a couple more miles before camping tonight but that would violate trail rule #242 – Don’t pass up a good thing in search of a better thing.
We are hoping to put a good amount of miles in tomorrow, see if we can put ourselves in range of making the next hiker shelter on Wednesday night.
This morning was a catastrophe. Our goal to put in a lot of miles stalled out before we had even made one. Shortly after crossing Gardner road, we were met with a sign telling us another trail diversion was coming, “No Ford East Ontonagon River.” Much like the beaver pond diversion, there were orange markers that we dutifully followed as long as we could see them.
After the orange markers stopped appearing is where we ran into trouble. While there were no orange markers, there were still the normal blue markers heading towards the Ontonagon river. We knew that were not supposed to cross it, but there were no other trail markers. The trail was rough, as if no one has really gone down it in a while (our first sign of shit gone sideways). We bushwhacked our way down to the river and sure enough, way too deep and fast to cross. We then headed back up to the last orange marker, looked around, saw nothing new and went back down the gnarly trail.
Going in the wrong direction once and turning around is humbling, doing it twice is an act of contrition. If the big guy up above is keeping score, I’ve got a pretty big sin coming my way for freesies.
Fuck it. The best option from this point was to head back to where we started and road walk north to a bridge that crossed the East Ontonagon. On our way down the road, we found a sign clearly pointing westbound hikers in the proper trail direction. Feels like this section of the trail tends to hate on us eastbound folk. It was after 11 and we had only gone about 1.5 trail miles.
On the bright side.. Brianna and I are gaining experience and comfort in off trail navigation. Experience builds confidence, confidence equals success (paraphrasing Andy in Life Below Zero TV show).
The rest of our day was basically a full on sprint. The trail gods provided us with well maintained paths, even some wooden boards with chain link slip guards over some swampy areas. Brianna’s pace was on fire, hit 3.2 miles in about 50 minutes at one point. Brianna and her eagle eyes generally lead. She can spot the blue blazes better than I can and not having to look for blue blazes allows me to focus on not kicking roots and rocks, as I so often do.
NCT trail put us through some funny riddle challenges this afternoon that are too funny not to mention. Trees that were down in the middle of an uphill climbing trail – do you go around at your own peril or climb the tree branches as if it were still alive? My favorite was the floating bridge. Brianna and I were walking through knee deep swamp when there was suddenly a foot or two drop off. In the middle of the drop of was a single floating board, seemly useless and out of place. We stood in the knee deep water for a moment pondering the reality of getting our entire bodies wet when it hit me. Step on the board, sink it to the bottom, walk over the board. It worked! Penalty for getting that wrong is steep… get it?
The goal was to make it past mile 141 and we finally camped at 142.5. We totaled 16 trail miles, probably around 20 with the morning snafu. Our camp spot is under some pines on uneven ground. A good parallel for the day as a whole, not ideal, but it’ll do. Time for dinner and hot cocoa.
Last night was one of not much sleep. Brianna and I both fell asleep rather quickly but were woken up by midnight rains and heavily gusting winds. A tree near our tent would creek every time a gust of wind would hit, making us wonder if we had chosen the best spot for the tent.
You should always be willing to reevaluate decisions based on safety but at a certain point you also have to trust in what your eyes saw in the daylight. A lot of factors go into choosing a tent site. It could be the flattest ground on a high level, but if there is a widow maker nearby, it may as well be on the moon. Which is an odd thing to say as there is no gravity on the moon… This is how we ended up on slightly lower uneven ground, the best spots were the worst.
Make no mistake, trees are the deadliest things out there. Unlike bears and big cats, trees are everywhere and they can kill you many years after they themselves died. Choosing tree to sleep near with is kind of like picking your friends. Try to choose the ones that look lively and hope they aren’t dead on the inside.
Our morning started out better than yesterday’s. It was a dry campsite for us again (no water nearby), so we came up with a plan to have hot chocolate mixed with coffee and a stoop waffle topper for breakfast. Real breakfast would happen when we reached the first viable water source for the day. Priorities. It worked out nicely.
Making it to Mile 142.5 the night before meant that we had a 19 mile day ahead of us if we were to make it to the Oren Krumm hiker shelter at mile 161.5.
The trail was beautiful and varying with only a few spots of elevation gain and loss. Landscapes changed dramatically, everything from ridge walking, to walking along the sturgeon river and even walking through a 2007 forest fire burned section. Today made it clear that we are out of the mountains and in for a very different hike for the last few days.
Two points on the map made me worried for the day. The points show up as purple dots and mention fording a creek and fording a river. With the two mostly no rain days in a row, we got our feet wet but neither Ford was higher than ankle deep. We actually had a long hot lunch on the other side of Silver river. Just because you’re in a hurry doesn’t mean you can’t take time for the good stuff.
There was no water on the trail for the last ten miles of the day, which meant we only had the water on us until reaching the shelter. No water also means less mud, no wet feet, faster miles. Afternoon came and Brianna put the peddle down, I clocked her using GPS on the Garmin and she was averaging a 3.3 mph pace. Our cadence is to push for an hour and break. We only needed about four solid afternoon pushes. We were at the shelter before 7pm.
This shelter is the Hilton of backwoods camping. There are bunk beds, a campfire, the privy even has better toilet paper than hotels. We are so happy to be here, even happier that no one else is here with us.
Tonight is a new experience as I lay in the bunkbed writing. The mice are crawling across the screen windows like Mario in Super Mario World. It’s quite impressive. I’ve taken it upon myself to try and cover the holes with duct tape from our holes, it’s not working.
Rain ping pinging off the metal roof woke us up this morning around 0700. It was raining and we didn’t have to care about making coffee in the rain or putting a wet tent away. A super way to start any rainy trail day. We knew it was going to be a two coffee kind of day before the first coffee had even been made.
We got out the door and on the trail around 1100. Plan for the day was to wing it with a side of probably not do too many miles. From the Oren Krumm shelter, there are only 16 miles left until our finish line at Canyon Falls; Big Lake State Campground is just a 6 mile hike away. If I were a betting man, and I am, I’d say that we will be staying there if any of the twelve campsites are open.
Instead of talking about how frustrating today’s trail was in all of it’s pointless looping and how we took a couple wrong turns that added onto our day, I’m just going to skip to the part where we arrived at the campground.
The lack of people at this lovely State of Michigan Campground was quite shocking to us. Everything up north has been booked and booming. Many of the locals we have talked with mention that this time of year is usually busy but COVID has made it even more busy and it’s been this way most of the summer. It’s anecdotal, I know, but everywhere except the NCT has been booked up from we have seen as well. Getting away into th wilderness areas is one thing, long distance hiking is an entirely different level of crazy.
We weren’t at the campground for but five minutes before a gentleman from the only camper at the grounds drove up and greeted us. Terry Lee was his name, he and his wife are camping with friends tomorrow and came a day early. We told him what we were up to and before long he was offering us cooked sweet corn. We love sweet corn – yes, please! Terry also brought us home grown potatoes, tomatoes, green beans and a pot of bean soup.
Side story about the green beans. Terry also had his twelve year old Shih Tzu, Yorkie mix dog with him, Susie. She was the most adorable thing, but let me tell you, don’t take your eyes off her. I was munching on fresh green beans and she popped up and stole a bite right from my hand. Looks like an Athena, acts like a Duke! Well played, Susie, well played.
All of the fresh foods were delicious. Brianna cut and cooked the potatoes to mix with our chicken and gravy dinner. I’m actually writing by a fire that is only possible because Terry brought us some wood. Did I mention he showed us their camper and handed Brianna & I each a Busch Light? Many thanks to Terry, his wife whose name I didn’t catch, and yes, even Susie.
It’s easy to imagine all of the evil people in the world when there is so much bad being broadcast about, but sometimes it goes the other way too. If you don’t put anything out there, you’ll most certainly not get anything back. Long distance hiking has on multiple occasions shown us that people want to do good things for people they don’t know. Maybe it’s easy to do good for hikers because our story is so in your face. We are carrying everything we have, we have nothing else.
All of Brianna and I’s run-ins with people on the trail have been especially cool because we are not outgoing people, everyone has approached us. We aren’t introverts because we choose to be, but maybe the long distance hiking will help us be extroverts when we want to be. The world is a big place with plenty of room for us to become bigger people.
Tonight we sleep by the lake. A quiet little spot by the fire to spend our last night. 10 miles left tomorrow and then we get to see Shelly and Paul!
Suddenly, I was awake. Brianna had searched the Happy Trails song on YouTube from her phone and thought it might be a fun way to wake me up. She was right. The quiet campground was an easy night for a hard sleep. If she hadn’t woken me, I might have slept til noon.
Only 10 miles to reach Paul and Shelly at the finish line today. Were we eager to see them and finish? Yes. Does that mean we didn’t have second coffee and dink around for a good long while? No.
After everything was all packed up, we made a point to bring Terry the unused wood, but most importantly, to see him again and let him know how appreciative we were and are for everything he did for us. Trail rule #243 – Treat everyone with respect. Trail rule #244 – treat trail angels like angels.
The last morning chore we had for the day was to refill our water bottles from the campground’s hand pump ground well before hitting the road. Well, one full water liter bottle each plus another half liter each for mixing a flavored caffeine drink. Because that’s what we need after two cups of coffee, more caffeine. As we filled the water bottles, we were chatted up by a couple that had camped on the other side of the grounds.
The youngish couple, about my age, actually stopped by our campsite last night when we were hiding from the wind and rain, didn’t get much time to talk though. They are from Marquette and on a two week Western UP mountain biking trip, using all the dirt two track roads we hike across to get from point A to point B. Methods of transport are different, the madness is basically the same. We all love the outdoors enough to be out here pushing our limits. It was great sharing stories and the common bond with a new set of strangers. The lady biker even gave us four RX bars because she couldn’t eat them anymore, she had switched to Snickers. We tried one and it was ok, reminded us why we never pack food bars for hiking.
Departure time ended up being around 0930, the trail crosses right in front of the campground so there were no problems getting back on and churning out some miles. It was another day of little elevation gain or loss, hiking through valleys of ferns and pine forests. Blue skies lead the way as we pushed for a 1-2pm arrival at the Canyon Falls parking lot. Brianna and I basically sprinted until reaching the Canyon, which is impossible to sprint, because of broken rocks and beauty. Of the dozens of waterfalls we have seen on this trip, Canyon Falls & Manabezno Falls are the most impressive and must sees.
Canyon Falls is what you would expect it to be, Sturgeon River water cascading down through a rock layered canyon. The hike down isn’t more than half a mile with a perfect view of the raging river the entire time. The parking lot was full, but the trails are mostly wide enough and have enough splits that keeping a distance is pretty easy.
Shelly and Paul greeted us at the parking lot with cold beers and big smiles! Dirty hippie hugs were exchanged. They say we didn’t smell as bad as we said we would, which makes me feel like we’ve let them down. I did put on my cleaner shirt and wipe myself down the day before, oops.
So ends our 14 day hiking trip! We are staying at a little AirBnB right on the Keweenaw Bay for the rest of the weekend. There is a fire pit next to the water and we are surrounded by people we love in a time that we aren’t able to be with all the other people we love.
Thank you reading along with us. I’m going to post a questions and answers write-up soon. Not that anyone has asked us questions, it’ll be more of a hypothetical set of questions that I assume people might ask if given the chance to.