Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers describe their “trail family” with such love, it makes people want to thru-hike. They settle in with a group of people, and sometimes hike together for 5-6 months, forming intense bonds. Finding a “trail family” was an experience I thought I’d miss on the North Country Trail.
Walking up Dove and John Day’s driveway and seeing their big red barn with the NCT emblem, I felt like I’d reached the hiker promise land! An effect compounded by their incredibly warm greeting, an immediate offer of a shower (what every hiker really wants). Dove showed me their beautiful hiker guest room, one wall of which is painted to look like a birch forest. My eyes leapt to a jar of snacks for those midnight “hiker hunger” pains we get, and then WiFi password right next to them. To be shown so much love by complete strangers has been the norm on this trail. I was dead wrong about not having a “trail family.” My trail family just happens to be off the trail.
A few miles into my day, I took a break to call Marcus Quintiliano, a local hiker who’d agreed to review my plan for this final section of Lower Peninsula Michigan. After having gaps in my research the previous section, I was trying to learn from my mistakes.
The big challenge on this section is a lack of water for 17 miles starting at Stutsmanville Road and ending at Wycamp Lake. The Harbor Springs Chapter maintains a water cache about halfway through that stretch (thank you, Tim!). Marcus let me know that one potential campsite I’d picked out did not have water nearby. He also let me know what to expect over the next 63 miles as far as terrain. “You’ll have three big climbs,” he said, “and then it’s flat all the way to the bridge.” He also assured me that the ticks were less abundant on this section. Later that night, Marcus checked to make sure a water spigot was running at the Pleasantview Township Hall, and dropped more water at the cache further up the trail. Thank you so much, Marcus! Another complete stranger going out of his way to help.
Feeling more confident, I hiked on along the Bear River, a beautiful river with class 4 rapids, which the trail follows all the way to Petoskey. I’d finally reached the shore of Lake Michigan. One of the main reasons I decided to hike the western half of the NCT is its proximity to the Great Lakes.
This stretch involved a lot of walking on pavement, which can be much harder on feet than walking on the soft tread of a trail. At mile 12, I took a break at an artesian well along a bike path east of town with water so delicious, I think it may have conferred immortality. I had about 7 miles to go to reach my goal for the day.
One of my favorite parts of doing bigger miles is how the quality of the light changes toward the end of the day. As the sun sinks toward the horizon, the light turns golden. Angled shafts of light cut through the trees, creating a bewitching, etherial atmosphere that makes me fall profoundly in love with the woods again every day.
After a last night in Dove and John’s comfortable house, and one more shower, I set out with my full pack and a plan to hike my first 20-mile day. I’d been rushing to finish a blog post and didn’t get on trail until 10 a.m. I was stressed about making it to Wycamp Lake before dark. Based on my pace recently, I figured it could take me 11-12 hours to hike 20 miles. Confession? I’m afraid of the dark in the woods. I prefer to sleep through it. The thought of hiking and setting up camp in the dark was really intimidating me. Toward the end of my hike when we start losing daylight again, I will be forced to confront this fear.
I set out at a strong pace, the weather perfect for a day of long water carries. The sun was bright, the temperature in the 50s, and a cool wind was blowing. After filling up my water at the township hall, I braced for another onslaught of bugs as a huge marsh stretched miles north of the trail, but no swarm ever materialized. I reveled in the fresh, verdant green taking over the forest now that it’s June. The woods in this section are very quiet, no ORVs, ATVs or gunshots.
At about mile 13, I hit what I’m starting to call “exhaustion hour,” a point that comes almost every day when I’m so exhausted that the idea of taking another step much less hiking more miles starts to feel impossible. I was halfway done with a 6-mile road walk to Wycamp Lake. I sat down on the side of a road for a break, then watched as a female turkey slowly inched her way out of the brush about 20 feet away from me. Suddenly, she turned around and ran back into the safety of the brush. “I guess she spotted me,” I thought, just as I heard the roar of an SUV coming down the gravel road. She’d heard the vehicle well before me. As soon as it passed, she inched out of the woods again, then trotted to the green field across the road, never aware of my presence. I pulled up the maps on my phone. My favorite thing to do during “exhaustion hour” is to consult my maps over and over to try and figure out a new plan that involves less pain. Usually, as soon as I start hiking again, I feel fine.
I covered the next 3-miles of road walking in about an hour. My feet and legs felt strong after my short break. I reached public land again, and knew I could pitch my tent at any point. I was aiming for the north shore of Wycamp Lake, which would get me access to water, and my first 20-mile day. This 20-mile day had become an important benchmark for me as the first section of the Upper Peninsula will be more difficult for resupplying. There is a 120-mile stretch without stores or a post office before Tahquamenon State Park, where I am able to send a resupply box. If I don’t want to carry 12-15 pounds of food so I can hike the section in 7 days, I need to be able to do 20-mile days to do it in 6 days.
I made it to camp by 8 p.m. with plenty of daylight left. I ate a quick, cold dinner after setting up my tent, hung my food and went to bed.
The next day, I set out with another 20-mile day as my goal, and a plan to meet Patty and Dave Warner of the Grand Traverse Chapter at the campground at Wilderness State Park where they were camping for a couple days. The trail ran along Wycamp Lake for a short stretch, then turned north toward the state park. I reached a section of flooded trail. A small wooden stake pointed out a bypass trail that the Harbor Springs Chapter had created. The bypass was flooded too, so I just went down the main trail, the water reaching my knees.
Some of my favorite hiking in the entire Lower Peninsula came after crossing into the state park when the trail started “rollercoastering,” as I call it, along old sand dune ridges now covered in forest. A vista of Lake Michigan appeared through the trees. I took a long break on its shore when the trail dropped down out of the ridges. I had the beach all to myself. The water in the bay was teal, like the Caribbean.
After my break, the trail started weaving its way through lakes, ponds, and marshes. Dwarf iris smaller than my finger lined the trail. The flowers in the forest are changing every day now.
Another tradition on the AT and PCT is to give thru-hikers a “trail name,” a nickname sometimes earned through a funny story or unique characteristic. I don’t have a trail name, and don’t want to give one to myself. But as I hiked toward the campground, I was teasing myself that my trail name should be “Bumble” because I seem to be just bumbling my way through this hike, with trail angels helping me out at all the right moments to prevent my mistakes from being more costly.
I’d fixated on my goal of hiking 20-mile days, hoping to make up a day. After finishing my hike in Lower Peninsula Michigan, I planned to get off trail for a week to attend a cousin’s wedding. Getting behind a day meant I was facing a 13-hour drive home to Minnesota, followed by a 6-hour drive the next day to the wedding. Dove gently tried to point out that 20-mile days were unnecessary with my timeline before I left her house, but my fixation on that number made me not hear her. I didn’t figure it out myself until I was hiking to meet Patty and Dave my third day into the section.
Every section of trail is a math problem. Always a weak mathematician, the farther I hike, the worse I seem to get. I had about 63 miles to hike from Dove’s house to the bridge. I started on June 1, and wanted to get to Mackinaw City by June 4. That’s four days. I never needed to do 20-mile days if I wanted to get to the bridge on June 4. If I’d wanted to get there June 3, then I needed to do two 20-mile days and a 23-mile day my final day, but I’d been planning to camp at Wilderness State Park’s campground on June 3. There are only 13 miles between the campground and Mackinaw City.
My math errors piled up. I’d miscounted the miles between the lake and the state park, between the park and Mackinaw City. My sheer ineptitude was sinking in as I saw Patty and Dave hiked out to meet me. “You’re early!” they said. Yep, because I thought the campground was three miles further thanks to my terrible math.
I wish I felt like Xena the Warrior Princess out here, but I feel more like Gabrielle, her naive, bumbling sidekick. By the end of the show, Gabrielle turns into a pretty fierce warrior herself, so maybe there’s hope for me yet.
Patty, Dave and I walked into camp where they had a beautiful site right on the shore of Lake Michigan. I almost decided to end my day then so I could lounge on the beach. Instead, I set up camp to lighten my pack and headed out to do another 5 miles, getting to hike with Patty and Dave for a mile before they headed a different direction to loop back to their campsite.
The mosquito swarms I’d been expecting finally arrived as the trail left the lake and became a narrow ribbon of dry ground running between a marsh to the north and south. I emerged from the woods 4 miles later with a cloud of them biting me. Dave picked me up, and we returned to camp for a dinner of “Pizza Pockets,” delicious pizza sandwiches grilled over a fire.
After dinner, Patty and Dave offered to shuttle me all the way back to my car in Howard City, saving me the $50 bus fare, and a six-hour ride, meaning I would make it home in time for a rest day before leaving for the wedding. Bumble had been saved again. I gave them both huge hugs and insisted on paying for gas. They are part of my trail family.
The predicted midnight rains never arrived, and I was awoken at dawn by a pair of seagulls bickering right outside my tent. Patty shuttled me to my starting point back in the buggy marshes, and I headed out toward French Farm Lake with only 8.6 miles left to go to complete my hike in Lower Peninsula Michigan. All morning, I contemplated how to manage the bugs of the Upper Peninsula. I usually avoid pesticides because, in my experience, they don’t work when the bugs reach truly epic proportions, so why spread toxins all over my skin and introduce them into the environment if they don’t help? But I’d stayed up until midnight on my rest day in Petoskey researching tick-borne diseases to refresh my memory about what ticks carried what diseases. Words like Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis, Powassan and, of course, Lyme disease were bouncing around in my head.
I saw my first yellow lady slipper, and took a break on a sandy beach on the lake to watch a pair of serene trumpeter swans glide by.
The miles passed quickly, and before I knew it I’d crossed into Mackinaw City limits and the iconic bridge was in sight. I played some music on my iPhone and more danced than hiked my way to the park beneath the bridge. It’d taken me a month to hike what takes 3 hours to drive.
We celebrated with a meal of fish sandwiches. When the waitress caught sight of my destroyed shoes, she asked me where I’d been. I told her I’d walked 300 miles to get to her restaurant. “Like, camping?” She asked. “What about bears? And foxes?” She was very concerned about the foxes, a first for me with this classic in-town exchange.
I picked up my car and headed home, opting to drive through the Upper Peninsula instead of Chicago. Summer had fully blossomed in the Lower Peninsula, but as soon as I drove across the bridge, the temperature dropped from 64 to 49 degrees. Huge clouds of bugs appeared whenever marshes bordered the road. I suspect the Upper Peninsula will test my sanity and my skills in a whole new way, and reward me with endless, rugged beauty. Hopefully, I don’t bumble my way through the entire 547 miles.
Section: Petoskey to Mackinaw Bridge
Total miles: 361.5