My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Archive for May, 2011

First two photography pages done

Yesterday’s trip to Muskegon didn’t go as planned, I was hoping to get some pictures of the thunderstorms as they rolled in off from Lake Michigan, but the storms never really hit the Muskegon area. There was some thunder and lightning around, enough to make me use some caution as far as running around in the woods, but the main storms went well south of where I was at. Not only that, but the Muskegon area was fogged in, less than a half mile visibility most of the time, and cool. I took an extra shirt along just in case, and it turned out to be a good idea, despite the weather forecast of highs in the seventies.

That goes right along with the cool day on Saturday when Mike and I kayaked the lower Rogue River. Today, completely different weather! It’s hot and humid, around 90 degrees and like a sauna out there, not my kind of weather.

So I completed two of the pages on nature photography that I have been working on, or at least they are published and you can view them. The first is Photography basics, and the second is Taking good photos, part I. I am not 100% happy with my finished product, but I was close enough for the time being. I hope you find them useful, and I will try to do better on the upcoming pages I am working on. I am trying not to make them too technical like many books on photography are, but only include information that people can understand and actually use.

In the mean time, here’s a picture I took yesterday from the breakwater at Muskegon while I was waiting for the storms that never showed up.

Cygnet, young swan

 

I’ll keep plugging away on the other photography pages.


Screaming down Michigan’s lower Rogue

Last week after we had paddled the Little Muskegon River, every one decided that we should do something this weekend. For one reason or another, every one but Mike backed out, which worked out well for the two of us. We did Michigan’s lower Rogue River, from the dam in Rockford down.

As I was walking out to my explorer to go to breakfast, I heard a strange call from behind me, turned, and saw a small hawk perched in the top of a tree nearby. I snapped a couple of quick pictures, but I doubted if they would turn out well, as I was shooting into the early morning sun, such as it was. It was cloudy, but there was enough sun burning through the clouds so that the pictures are more like silhouettes than anything recognizable. I worked my way around where the hawk was perched trying to find an opening in the leaves to get a good view of it, until I finally got this shot.

Small hawk

Not great, but far better than the first few, and of course he flew off as I was getting ready to take more.

After breakfast, and picking up my boat, I headed to Rockford to meet Mike. We met where Powers Outdoors used to be in downtown Rockford, and talked for a few minutes to see if any one else would show up. Mike and Connie had done the lower Rogue last weekend, and Mike said the last mile was slow and filled with mosquitoes, and that the paddle up the Grand River to the DNR access site was a bit of a struggle due to the high water and fast current. I suggested we pull out at West River Drive instead of going all the way to the Grand, so we loaded my boat in his truck, and set off to drop my car at West River. There is some type of structure there, I don’t know if it is a pump station or what, but there’s a very small parking area, and a fair access to the Rogue there. It is right next to the West River Drive bridge over the Rogue, on the northwest side.

Normally, I put in at Rockford’s Richardson-Sowerby Park just south of 10 Mile Road/Division Street, but Mike suggested putting in off from River Street instead. It has been a couple of years since I used the River Street access, it is much improved! It used to be a muddy trail through the brush, now they have steps down to the river and the brush has been cleared to make it much better. Here’s a map of the parks in Rockford, and the streets, you can’t miss the parking area on River Street, even though it isn’t marked as a park on the map.

The clouds had thickened back up, and it was cool, but pleasant as we set off downstream. We hadn’t gone very far before I checked my GPS unit, and it said we were travelling at over 5 MPH, without paddling. With all the rain we’ve had the last few months, the Rogue was running high and fast, just the way I like it. The lower Rogue is much faster than the upper stretches of the river above the dam in Rockford, and has a completely different character. The lower Rogue is almost all rocks and gravel, with little sand or muck. The trouble is, it is shallow during the summer, too shallow during dry spells. The average gradient is around 13 feet per mile, making it one of the faster rivers in southern Michigan. It also has some short, but very exciting stretches of true class II whitewater, rare in lower Michigan.

We exchanged pleasantries with the few fishermen along the river we encountered, the river can be crowded with fishermen during the spring steelhead and fall salmon runs, but there were just a handful today. We were just drifting along for the most part, no need to paddle when you’re moving as fast as we were, except to steer. Even the rock garden at the powerline access was easy to navigate without hitting any of the boulders in the river there. It seemed like we had just gotten started and we were already to Childsdale, the first and most impressive of the stretches of whitewater, named for the road that crosses the river near the end of the rapids.

Even experienced Michigan kayakers usually stop the first time they get to the Childsdale rapids. The river seems to disappear, as if going over a waterfall. The river is flowing to the northwest, and is around 60 feet wide I would say. Then you get to the beginning of the rapids, and part of the river makes a sharp left turn, it is hard to see that as you approach, but that branch is very shallow and blocked by fallen trees, or at least it used to be. I haven’t been through there in quite a few years now, I should check it out when I am fishing one of these days. Anyway, what you see ahead of you is a narrow little section of the river about 20 feet wide that looks like it just ends, and trees beyond that. There is a very small part of the river that branches off to the right, only a few feet wide. You can not see down the river until you are almost in the rapids, the drop is that fast.

I was being really brave today and told Mike I wasn’t even going to stop to look it over, I have shot the rapids there dozens of times, in even higher water than today. Stopping wouldn’t have changed the outcome anyway, I wouldn’t have been able to see the changes in the river from the top of the rapids anyway.

I entered the center branch of the river just to the right of center like I always do, and the river drops about 10 feet or so in the first 40 feet of the rapids, leading straight towards a high bank right in front of you as you run the first part. It is hard to see because of the drop and the trees, but the river makes a very sharp left turn at the bank, and today, as always, there was a small tree with branches reaching out into the river, just waiting to catch people who don’t get turned quickly enough. I made that turn, then the river slows its fall slightly, makes a cut back to the right, then it falls off again. You have to make a quick zig to stay off the high bank, then an even quicker zag to avoid rocks to the left after the high bank. It was after the zag that I looked straight ahead of me and saw the top of a standing wave breaking above eye level. Actually, several large standing waves, but the one was larger than I have ever seen in the Childsdale rapids before. I hit it slightly off to one side, and water crashed into my boat, soaking me, as did a couple of the other waves as well, but not as much. Even if I had hit them dead on like I should have, I would have been swamped. Should have put the spray skirt on.

It must be that the high water this year has moved some of the rocks around, or some other debris has lodged in the river to form those very large standing waves that I have never seen there before. It may be time to walk the bank there as well as the other branch to see how much has changed, and to figure out a better line to take through there.

The river slows its descent some after that, and the part that branches off earlier to the left rejoins the main branch there, so the river widens out as well. Mike was almost as wet as I was, so I suggested that after the last part of the rapids, we stop at the sandbar that’s there and drain our boats. We ran the last 100 feet or so of the rapids and pulled out on the edge of the pool below the rapids. I had several inches of water in my boat, and I was almost as wet as if I had gone swimming.

From then on, it was a normal day on the lower Rogue, there are 3 more stretches of true whitewater, and many more very fast, very rocky stretches of the river. We saw herons and ducks, of course, turtles, somewhat surprising as chilly as it was, lots of wildflowers, and a bunny.

 I did get jammed up sideways on a some large rocks farther downstream, because I was running my mouth, not paying attention to where I was going, but nothing serious.

It seemed like a very short day, because it was. We ran almost 7 miles of the river in just over an hour of paddling time, we averaged 4 and 1/2 MPH according to my GPS unit, but by the clock and mileage, it was closer to 6 MPH, that’s fast for any stretch of Michigan river!

If the weather had been nicer, or if we hadn’t been soaked to the bone, I would have tried to talk Mike into running at least part of the river a second time, but as it was, we headed back to Rockford to pick up his truck. We also dried off and changed into dry, warm clothes, and went to the Timbers on Lake Bella Vista for lunch. Great food, and a “perfect” waitress. I say “perfect”, because she used that word more often and in less time than any one I have ever heard.

 It was over lunch that Mike asked me an interesting question, the answer to which I had been thinking about the night before. What he asked was, “What would you be doing if you could be doing what you want?” It just so happened that I had come up with a great, but unworkable idea the night before as I was driving the last leg of my run Friday night. I am not going to try to write this correctly, I am going to write this as my wandering mind went off on its own, and it will give you an idea of how convoluted my train of thought becomes at times.

The starting point was that I am thinking of doing another blog about how silly some of the so-called green or alternative energies are, both on a financial, and an environmental standpoint. This is where it went from there.  The triple tragedy in Japan, of the earthquake, tsunami, and disaster at the nuclear plant have probably set nuclear energy back another 30 years here in this country. Building a nuclear plant in Japan or southern California is like playing Russian Roulette and unloading only one chamber of the gun instead of all but one, you’re going to die. Michigan is a safe place to build a nuclear plant. The geology around Lake Michigan makes a tsunami almost impossible. We don’t have earthquakes in the region. But, there has to be a very old, very deep fault in the Great Lakes region somewhere, and if we did have an earthquake, it would be a big one, like the ones near New Madrid back in the 1800’s. I was taught the geology of Michigan and the region is boring, but it’s not. There has to be a fault around here somewhere, running down the Saint Lawrence River. We’re just south of the edge of the Canadian Shield, some of the oldest rock on Earth. When the tectonic plate that includes Michigan rammed into the Canadian Shield it pushed up the highest mountains that have ever existed on the planet. Remember that TV show on the Discovery Channel about Georgian Bay, and how I’d like to go there and see the old roots of the mountains that are all eroded away? And those old fossils found in Nova Scotia, it takes very old rock to trap very old fossils. Was that the same show as the one that showed the Torngat Mountains? They were beautiful, I’d like to go there too, and to Nova Scotia to see the fossils. I’d love to go on those kinds of expeditions, I should have become a scientist like I planned on way back when. But what field? That’s what stopped me. I couldn’t decide what interested me the most, biology, botany, geology, archeology, or any of the other “ologies”, and they all required some degree of mindless memorization that does nothing to advance science, it’s all a made up language just so those in the field are the only ones who know what they are talking about. Then there is all the boring parts of being a scientist as well, it isn’t all field work, the part I would like the most. It’s too bad I couldn’t do just the field work, being outdoors, exploring, it’s what I love and what I do best. What a minute here, they always have a guide with them that shows them where to go and helps them find what they are looking for! That’s the job! I know enough about all the “ologies” that I know I could be helpful to scientists, and I know how to run an expedition into the wilderness, I should start a company and call it…..that’s it, Scientific Expedition Outfitters, and cater to scientists who are going out in the field. I could be their expert in getting around in the wilderness, and helping them find what they’re looking for. Wait, you don’t have any experience outside North America…..hmmm….no problem! I could be a source of information and the person who puts the expeditions together using local guides.

 OK, so if I were in my twenties, and knew what I know now, that’s what I would shoot for. I would start an oufitting business that caters to scientific expeditions, set up a network of reliable local outfitters, and be doing what I love, being outdoors, exploring, and learning. I would be taking part in the field work, assisting in research, and leaving the boring part of being a scientist to the scientists. But at my age, starting it now isn’t realistic. By the time I got it going, I would be too old to do it.

I guess I will have to fall back on my other dream. Win the lottery, build a small house in the woods, and build a pole barn to do woodworking in, and split my time between building furniture to give away to the poor, and doing my own amateur exploring.

Oh, and the river was a blast! It was nice with it being just Mike and I, great times, great company, great food, sounds like a beer commercial.

Mike in his new boat, wearing his way cool hat

And here’s a map of out trip, you can click on it for a larger version to print if you like.

Lower Rogue River Map


A nice day for a change

Our cool, wet, cloudy, windy, almost spring continues. I like rain as much as anyone, but this is getting ridiculous. We’ve had a few more days of off and on rain, mostly on, over an inch in one day again on at least one day, I’ve stopped keeping track. Yesterday, it never made it out of the 50’s, with rain and wind. It wasn’t bad out, but a nice day now and then would be even better.

I know that in the long run all this rain is a good thing. Lake Michigan is rising several inches a month, and since it was very low, that’s a good thing. But, as soon as the rivers get close to being fishable, we get several more days of rain, several more inches of it, and the rivers get too high and muddy to make it worthwhile trying to fish. I still have all my gear in the explorer, ready to go, just in case the pattern breaks.

The weather is also interfering with my photography. Cloudy, rainy days usually aren’t the best for taking pictures, and some wildflowers have bloomed and the flowers have been blown apart in the wind before I get a chance to take a good picture of them. It is very hard to get good close-ups of flowers when they are being blown all around by the wind, it is close to impossible. There have been a few exceptions, such as this one.

Iris

 

By using the flash on a rainy day, it turned out well. There was also a breif period of sun on another day when I walked, and was able to capture this picture of a great blue heron as he was fishing.

Great Blue Heron

 

Yes, that’s a minnow in its beak.

I am supposed to go kayaking this weekend, the lower Rogue! The lower Rogue has some of the best whitewater in lower Michigan, just not a lot of it. The chute at Childsdale is always fun, and with all the rain we’ve had, it will be screaming on Saturday! That is, if any one else decides to go, it may be just me and Mike, and I am OK with that.

I have been working on the pages about how to take better nature photos, but getting it all arranged into some type of meaningful, readable form is turning out to be more of a chore than I thought. I should start at the beginning and go step by step, but I keep going off on tangents, as I am known to do. But trust me, I will finish it, someday.

I have been working on a couple of pages on the Hiking Places page since my vacation in the Pigeon River Country a couple of weeks ago. I am about finished with Green Timbers, I may add more to that one later, I’m not sure yet. I have added some details on the High Country Pathway and the Mason Tract, there will be more to both of them when I get a chance to return to the area. I’m not sure when that will be.

I would normally be going up north for Memorial Day weekend, but frankly, I can’t afford to this year. Between $4 a gallon gas and working for a couple of cheap-ass bastards, I have to watch what I spend for a while. I do know that after the holiday weekend that I am going to get serious in a search for a new job. I took the one I have now for one reason, it worked out very well as far as having time off to take care of business for my elderly mother who is now in a nursing home as she is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Now that she is taken care of, I can widen my job search.

 A new job may slow down my blogging, I hope not, because the more I do this, the more I like it. I am closing in on having had 2,000 people visit my blog, which is no big deal to the big time bloggers out there, but then I’m not doing this in an attempt to make money, except for my photo gallery. It would be nice to sell a few pictures to make a few bucks, but I knew that it was never going to be a real money-maker when I launched it. As far as this one, I am getting more hits through the search engines all the time, and even a few new subscribers, at big thank you to those who have signed up! I hope you find my blog informative, and maybe a little amusing at times. You can always send me questions if you have any, I will try to answer them if I can.

Getting back to photography, I have been checking out a few nature photo contests to see if maybe I would have a chance of winning, and I am coming to the conclusion that most of them are little more than a money-making scam for the promoters looking to cash in on all of us Ansel Adams wannabes out here. I may be missing something, but between the cost of prepping a print to their specifications as far as size, matting, and framing in order to qualify, and the entry fees, submitting a photo would cost more than you can win, if you do win. Then, if your picture does sell during the exhibition, they charge an outragous commission to boot.

I looked at one last night, entry fee, $50. Not bad, but the print had to be in a certain size frame, with a certain color matt, and then there is the cost of shipping it to where the contest will be held, and the cost of having it shipped back if it doesn’t sell. The top prize was $250, no one is going to get rich winning those contests. To top it off, the one last night charged a 50% commission if your photo sells! The only ones making any money are the promoters! I will admit, most of the contests don’t charge a 50% commission, but most do charge between 20%and 30%.

Looking at the past winners of these contests, I wouldn’t even call them nature photography. Most of the time the judges pick what started as a photo of a subject in nature, but then the image has been photo-shopped or altered in some other way on a computer, then printed on a non-traditional media of some sort. The winners seldom look like anything you see in nature. I’d be willing to bet that you could take an Ansel Adams photo, submit it to one of these contests, and it would be considered far to blasé for the judges nowadays. I am not going to spend three or four hundred dollars to enter a contest that only pays $250, and have the promoters take 50% if the picture were to sell.

That reminds me, still haven’t heard anything from Trout Unlimited as far as their photo contest, so there is still hope there. That one would be a good one to win, even though it pays nothing. Having one of my pictures used for the TU calendar would be reward enough, and a great way to introduce the world to my photos.

That’s about all the time I have right now, I have to do the work thing again for one more night, then a 3 day weekend! Yeah!


Kayaking the Little Muskegon above Morley

Yesterday, six of us kayaked the Little Muskegon River from the dam at the Altona Riverside Park down to the city park in Morley, Michigan. I guess you would say it was an up and down day, but overall, a great day! The weather started out very nice as we met in Morley and spotted a couple of vehicles in the city park there on the pond. You can continue across the pond to the dam in Morley, where there is another park right at the dam, but taking out there isn’t as good as the city park.

Then we drove up to Altona to put in. The Little Muskegon in this area is between 30 and 40 feet wide most of the time, and a typical Michigan stream with some riffle areas mixed with deeper holes on the bends and near where logs and trees have fallen into the water. The current is moderate, not anywhere near as fast as the Pine or Sturgeon Rivers, but faster than rivers like the Flat or Looking Glass. The gradient is around 5 feet per mile.

We got every one in their boats and on our way without incident, including Mike and Connie’s new boats, which perform very well it turns out. It was a beautiful afternoon as we wound our way downstream through the mixed forests and occasional tag alder swamps along the upper river. We went past the access site at the end of Three Mile Road, which is a DNR site and offers good access to the river if you want to shorten up the trip by about an hour or so. I did notice a few dark clouds, which were a portent of things to come.

We made it to the dam at Rustford, which we portaged on the right, and had a light lunch there at the dam. I don’t know who actually owns the property, but they keep it mowed and maintained, and it makes for a great spot for a break. Last year when we ran the Pine, we took two breaks, which worked out great, so I wanted to try that again yesterday, but things didn’t work out that way due to the weather later in the day.

It was after our break at the dam that things went downhill some what. I was helping people get back in the water, when one of our group flipped as she launched. I watched it happen as I was pushing her off, and I don’t know why she went over, she must have leaned the wrong way or something. We pulled her boat back out and drained it, this time I let Mike help her launch.

I could be wrong as to when we saw what, but for much of the trip we had both an eagle and at least one great blue heron taking off from in front of us time after time as we floated along. I don’t remember if we saw them first above or below the Rustford dam, I think it was before. At regular intervals we would see either the eagle take flight from the top of a tree with its white tail fanned out, or see a great blue heron take off from the river as it was hunting. Somewhere around there, we also saw a deer running through the woods after we had spooked it. We also saw a number of pileated woodpeckers, and there were birds singing in the trees and bushes all along the way. We also saw what I think was a little blue heron and a number of ducks that we never got close enough to for me to identify.

Then things went downhill a bit again, we came to a fallen tree that blocked the river completely, and required that we portage around it, sort of. I don’t remember it very well today, it wasn’t burned into my mind the way the other trouble spots later on were. I think it was pretty straight forward, I pulled out, set my boat off to the side, then helped Mike pull out, and we set his boat off to the side as well. Then, one by one, I helped the women out of their boats, passed the boats over the log jam to Mike, he helped them back in, and we were off again, no big deal. If I am wrong about that, please correct me.

 The next trouble spot is burned into my mind much more than the first. I don’t remember why I was lagging behind the group as much as I was, it may have been to change the batteries in my GPS unit, but I do remember coming around a bend in the river and seeing the silver and black of some one’s paddle jammed nearly vertically against the face of another log jam, and that the owner of the paddle was struggling trying to pull a water-logged boat up a steep bank. It was the same person that went over at the launch from the Rustford dam, and other members of the group were going through a small opening on the left side of the logjam to help her out. I knew her paddle had to be retrieved, but it wasn’t going to be easy where it was jammed in the logs. Right next to where her paddle was in the logjam, there was a spot where some one who was good in a kayak could have limbo-ed under the log, which is what she tried, but wasn’t able to pull off. I thought about trying it, I am not sure that I would have made it either as big as I am, but I know for sure I wouldn’t have been able to snatch her paddle off the logjam and gotten down in my kayak in time to make that very small opening.

 That left me with the alternative of paddling down to her paddle, grabbing it, then paddling back upstream against the fast current before the hydraulic formed by the logjam could roll me. I carefully positioned my boat so I was drifting downstream sideways and as soon as I could reach the other paddle, I snatched it, shoved off the logjam with my paddle, then paddled for all I was worth to keep from getting slammed into the logjam sideways, which probably would have rolled me. It worked even better than I expected, except that now, I had two paddles and one pair of hands. Every couple of paddle strokes I would have to grab the extra paddle and reposition it to keep it from slipping off to one side of my boat, digging in the water, and trying to spin me sideways in the current. I finally got far enough from the logjam where I had time to stow the extra paddle behind me, which turned out not to be such a good idea. I should have taken it apart and stowed it in a better position. I still had to shoot through the small opening in the logjam on the left bank.  I was all lined up to power through that opening, when at the last second, the extra paddle shifted, dug into the water and spun me somewhat sideways as I was going through the logjam. It spun me enough so I slammed into one of the logs, but I was in far enough that I could put both paddles away, and pull myself through the rest of the way by grabbing the branches.

 Through the logjam, I paddled over to return the extra paddle to the person who had lost it, and who was struggling mightily trying to hold her water filled boat out of the water on a steep bank. I was just able to shove her boat up far enough so she could hold it fairly easily, when Connie mis-judged the current as she tried to go through the opening in the logjam, crashed into the logjam, and was stuck there sideways to the current. Luckily, the current on the edge of the river wasn’t nearly as strong as it was mid-river, so the hydraulic wasn’t as bad, and Connie didn’t panic and roll like so many people do in that situation. But this left me with a dilemma, stay and help the swimmer, or help Connie so that she didn’t become the second swimmer of the day, I opted for the later. Mike was trying to help, and to be honest, one of us should have just bitten the bullet and gone swimming ourselves at that point, it would have been a lot easier out of a kayak. That would have been too easy.

I paddled over to below the logjam where Connie was hopelessly stuck, got up a head of steam going upstream, and crashed as far of the way through the branches making up the logjam as I could. At that point I was able to reach forward and up to grab a good-sized branch and pull myself up and into the heart of the logjam, to the point where the bow of my boat hit Connie’s boat, and knocked her free of the branch that was holding her stuck in place. My boat and I were solidly planted in the branches, it was like doing a chin-up with a kayak attached. Mike did about the same thing towards the bow of Connie’s boat, and then we used our paddles as pry bars to move branches and Connie’s boat around until she was finally free of the branches, and able to paddle back upstream.

At some point in this timeframe, I think I remember looking over to see the person who had already been swimming twice go over a third time as she tried to re-enter her boat with out some one to help her. I know this sounds cold-hearted, but I didn’t really care by then. She has been with us for a few trips, and nearly every time, she has rolled at least once. After a while, people should realize on their own that maybe kayaking isn’t the sport for them, or that they should limit themselves as far as the types of water they paddle. I like her, I feel bad that she went over, and if I hadn’t been tied up already helping some one else, I would have been there to help her. I don’t even mind the inconvenience to the group as far as the time and trouble her lack of skills cost us, but she is also putting people at risk because of her lack of ability.

I took a long break and debated with myself over whether I should leave the last paragraph in and continue to explain it, or delete it, and I am leaving it. This blog is named Quiet Solo Pursuits, mostly because I am good at offending people. Human nature is a funny thing, if the person who rolled her kayak multiple times yesterday reads this, she will probably be hurt and offended, and never join us again. When the other members of the group find out she’s never coming with us again, or maybe even from reading this, they will be hurt and offended, and mad at me for hurting and offending her to the point where she doesn’t come with us anymore. I would rather the person be hurt and offended, and alive, rather than drowning on a river somewhere because she isn’t very good at kayaking.

I was able to retrieve her lost paddle with not much trouble, but what if one of the less experienced members of the group had tried it, rolled, and gotten caught in the branches of the logjam? It happens, people drown while canoeing and kayaking, and I would rather it not happen to some one I like. But, it makes me the meannie if I tell some one they are very good at the sport, and maybe they should give it up, or not join us on certain rivers.

 Something else happened yesterday that fits in with this all too well. A group of teens were jumping into the Kalamazoo River, even though there are signs warning against it. Of of the guys was told by his friends that he shouldn’t try it because he wasn’t a very good swimmer, but he did anyway, and now he is lost and presumed drown. He got caught in the currents and even though his friends tried to rescue him, they weren’t able to pull him out. The power of moving water is nothing to fool around with, people die.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t fear water, or currents, but I do have a healthy respect for them. As Clint Eastwood said in one of the Dirty Harry movies, “A man’s got to know his limitations”. The same applies to kayakers, male or female.

Where was I? Oh yeah, we had just gotten Connie out of the logjam the first time. I say first time, because the second time she tried to make it through the small opening in the logjam, she got stuck again. Not as bad as the first, I was able to reach through the branches and get enough of a bite on the bow handle of her kayak with my paddle to pull the bow of her boat into the opening, where she was able to pull herself through. It sounds so simple here as I type it, but I know I was working as hard as I could to get her through, and I am sure she and Mike were as well.

After that, we had one other portage, the last logjam looked worse than it was. I beached my boat a few yards upstream, then had Mike come down through some small branches right along the bank until he got to the large logs that couldn’t be moved. I helped him out of his boat, then one by one, he helped the women out of their boats, started the boats over the logs to me, and I helped the women get back in and under way. The only bad parts were that we had to portage at all, and some burning nettles on the bank. If you don’t know what burning nettles are, they are the plant equivalent of jellyfish in a way. They have little bristles that stick into your skin and shoot a chemical into you that causes a burning, itching sensation and a rash. I was wearing long pants so I didn’t get stung, Mike was wearing shorts and got it pretty bad, as he had never run into them before.

 It wasn’t long after the last portage that the coolest thing of the day happened. Mike and I were just catching up to the women, and they were all grouped together along the shore. It looked like Connie was taking pictures of the wildflowers along the bank, of which there had been many all day. I saw the flash of her camera go off, then she reached down next to her boat and lifted a very young fawn out of the water. The fawn couldn’t have been more than a few days old. They had seen it swimming, trying to get out of the water, but it wasn’t big enough to make it up the bank right there. Connie tried to get it on shore, but the fawn squirmed loose from her, knocking her camera in the water I guess. She said later that her camera had been in the river, so I am assuming it happened when she picked the fawn up.

The fawn half swam, half jumped its way up the river until it found a place to exit the river, and it was off. I did try to get a picture, but it turned out blurry and the only thing you could see was that something had splashed the water, darn.

I had wanted to take a second break, but between the time we lost on the portages and logjam and the fact that the clouds were getting darker, it is a good thing we didn’t. We felt a few sprinkles once in a while as we crossed the short stretch of the Morley pond we had to paddle. It was raining very lightly by the time we retrieved the vehicles from the put in site in Altona, just hard enough to say it was raining. Great timing.

After that, all of us but one went over to the Moe Z Inn for dinner. The service isn’t the greatest there, but the food is very good, and they even have Blue Moon on tap, just about a perfect day.

Little Muskegon River, click for a larger view

 

Here’s a map that includes the GPS track of our paddle. It took us 5 1/2 hours with the three portages and the logjam.


My survival kit and why I carry one

As some one who was more or less raised in the great outdoors, I have always felt at ease there, even when things weren’t going well. It has only been the last few years that I have put together a survival kit of any kind and carry it with me. That’s mostly because of what I have seen and heard has happened to others who weren’t prepared, and from watching the Survivorman show on TV. If you’re not familiar with the show, it is about one man surviving in the wilderness for a week at a time. Survivorman is Les Stroud, some one who taught survival and outdoorsmanship for a living before he began his television career. He would set up a very typical scenario about how some one could be stranded in a wilderness area, and then he would spend the next week there showing the rest of the world how to survive if something like that were to happen to us.

What brought his point home to me was that many times the scenario he used to set up how he could become stranded were similar to things that had almost happened to me. I began to realize that I have been darned lucky my entire life, and that there was the possibility my luck could run out one of these days.

We’ve all read stories of fishermen who have drowned while fishing, or a hunter dying in the woods when they became lost, and like most people I thought it only happened to others. I even pulled a friend out of the water once when he was overcome by the current of the Rogue River and was real close to being swept off his feet and downstream where he could have drowned. But, we were young then and just laughed it off. Maybe age plays a part of my new concern for safety, I would rather think that it is that I have made to the point were wisdom over-rides the bravado of youth. In the last few years a number of things have happened that made me decide to put a survival kit together. One was kayaking with Larri and some of her friends who have a tendency to tip their kayaks over in the winter. Since we were prepared, those times became something to laugh about rather than a tragedy. I was already putting my kit together when I had a close call of my own, stepping in quicksand while fishing on the Boardman River a few years ago. Quicksand isn’t like you see in the movies, not at all, but it can still kill you if you panic. I was wading along and my left leg sunk into the quicksand where a spring apparently fed into the river. My right foot was still on somewhat solid bottom, but my leg was twisted in an awkward position while I was holding myself up with it. This all happened after I had been fishing for several hours in the very cold early spring water, and my right leg started to cramp up.

For a split second there I thought I was going to be one of those news headlines about a decomposed body being found floating in a river, then I used my head. I threw my fly rod up towards shore to free my hands and using all the strength remaining in my right leg, lunged forward as if I were swimming. I reached down to the bottom with my hands to help pull my left leg out of the quicksand. It helped that I lunged across the current, as the water pushing against me helped pull my leg out of the quicksand. I was wet and chilled, but alive. I retrieve my rod, wrung as much water out of my clothes as I could, then took the long walk back to my vehicle. Fortunately it was a nice day, and I was wearing clothes that not only dried quickly, but also kept me fairly warm while they were drying.

This hit close to home, but then to drive that point home, a guy who used to be my boss and was friend of mine, died while kayaking in Canada just a year or two later. If there was any one who went by the book and would have had all the right gear and taken all the right precautions, it was him.

 I don’t intend this to be a full lesson in survival, so I’ll just hit a few of the major points, and list what I now carry with me whenever I am outdoors. I am writing this from the perspective of some one who lives in Michigan, where you are never more than a few miles from a road, or other means of reaching safety. If you are venturing into more remote areas, you should take even more precautions than I am going to list here.

The first one is to let some one know where you are going and when you’ll be back, so if you don’t check in with them, they can alert the authorities that you are missing and may need help. If you don’t know of any one who you trust to do that for you, there is a new online service you can use for free called Trailnote.com. Their system isn’t perfect, but it is rather new, and a lot better than being stranded in the wilderness for days with no one knowing that you are. I use it, as do some of my online friends.

Point two, take some time to look over a map of the area you are venturing into so that you will have an idea of the shortest route out when and where trouble may occur. Let’s say you are kayaking a river and your boat gets damaged on a rock, and you have to walk out. You could follow the river, but that’s usually pretty rough going through wetlands and tangled brush. You’d be much better off if you knew where the closest road was to your location and walked out that way, most of the time. You should know if there is a large swamp or high cliff between you and safety and have a plan in your mind of what you would do if your boat were to be damaged at some point on the river. And, if you are part of a group, don’t leave that all to one person. What if they are the one that is injured and no one else in the group knows where they are? At least a few members of the group, if not every one, should know where they are going, and the quickest routes to safety.

Here’s what I carry with me and why. Remember, I live in Michigan where you are never more than a few miles from a road, so my kit is put together to keep me alive for one night, two at the most. If I get lost, I know I’m not going to starve to death before I make it out or I am rescued, and I know I won’t die of thirst. Michigan’s official nickname used to be water wonderland, one is never more than 6 miles from a lake here in Michigan, so water isn’t a problem. What does kill people in Michigan, and all places for that matter is panic, panic and hypothermia.

 If you are prepared, there should be no reason for you to suffer from hypothermia, and if you are prepared, there is a lot less chance that you will panic and do something foolish. As soon as most people realize they missed a turn on a trail or in some other way are lost, they go crashing through the brush because they just know the trail is just “over there”, and end up getting themselves even more lost. Stop and think, and if you are off the trail, backtrack to where you pick it up again unless you are very good with a map and compass.

 If you are kayaking and a thunderstorm delays you long enough so you may not make it to your take out site before dark, or your boat is damaged, don’t paddle on into the darkness in a blind panic unless you know you are very close to the take out.

The first thing to do if something happens and you may think you’ll be stuck out overnight is to sit down, try to relax, and consider your situation. Can you make it to the end before dark? Is there a chance that some one else may come along shortly? If you do have to walk out, do you know which direction to go, and can you make to a road or other place of safety before dark?

If you do have to spend the night, find a sheltered area up from the river so you will be dry. Don’t waste all your time looking for a perfect spot, find a good spot and gather firewood with the remaining sunlight. A fire will keep you warm, and increase the chance of rescuers seeing you, and make you feel a lot better about your situation.

Here is what I always bring with me and why….

•A compass..Every one has a tendency to walk in circles in the woods, even I do, and I am different from most experienced outdoorsmen, I’ll admit it. You don’t have to be an expert with a compass, but know how to use it well enough to travel in a straight line. You may think you can follow the river, but that is tough hiking through swamps, thickets, and more twists and turns than you knew there were. Don’t rely on one of those pin on your clothes types of compasses, or the cheap ones that come in the prepackaged survival kits. Buy one that works and it could save your life! A GPS unit is a great thing to have, but batteries go dead or the unit could fail at the time you need it most.

•Salt..I carry a 35mm film container with plain old table salt in it in case of leeches. Yes, there are leeches in some of the rivers we kayak, and salt is the best way to remove them.

•A first aid kit… it doesn’t have to be fancy, but being able to clean and dress a wound can be a life saver, get one! Since I have been carrying a first aid kit I have used it several times, but never for myself. I have cleaned and dressed a wounded dog that got tangled up in barbed wire, and did the same for a kid that had fallen and scraped his knee up badly.

•A throw rope…one long enough to be able to pull a person to safety or retrieve a boat stuck in a logjam. I have a commercially made one, but a good rope of 25 to 50 feet long will work. Rope is too handy not to carry. You can unravel some of the rope to make string if you need it. I won’t hike or kayak without a good rope with me anymore.

•A multitool…a multitool is like a Swiss Army knife on steroids, buy a quality one that will hold up to use. Mine has a knife, saw, screwdrivers, file, etc. They can be used to make repairs to your equipment or in survival mode.

•A bailing sponge..used to soak up the water in your boat. I have never tried it, but I’ll bet I could use it and other things I carry to make repairs to my kayak to the point I could float my way out by jamming it into a hole or gash. This is for kayakers only.

•Two heavy duty trash bags..in survival mode, there are tons of uses for these. Use them as a ground cover to sleep on, or as covering if it rains, just make sure you don’t suffocate yourself! You may also be able to use these with the bailing sponge to make a temporary patch to your boat if you are kayaking and your boat is damaged.

•An extra water bottle..a lot of my kit is stored in my extra water bottle as added protection to keep it dry. In Michigan, you are never far from water, but an extra bottle to carry it in is a good idea

•Water purification pills…yes, there are filters, but they take up more room, drop a couple of the pills into your bottle of water, and you know you will have safe drinking water.

•An emergency whistle…mine doubles as a holder for waterproof matches, more on those later, but the whistle can be heard at a longer distance than your voice. Remember that three blasts on a whistle is an internationally recognized distress signal. So if you hear some one using a whistle and giving three short blasts at a time, you should investigate why. It will probably turn out to be a kid, but you never know unless you check.

•Waterproof matches..I carry them, not sure if I trust them, but hypothermia is the most important thing to worry about, so I carry these and several other ways to start a fire to stay warm. Make sure you carry the strikers too, since you can no longer purchase strike anywhere matches. You can make your own by dipping the heavy kitchen type matches in wax to within a quarter of an inch or so from the head, leaving the head unwaxed.

•Magnesium flint stick..another way to start a fire, shave some of the magnesium off the stick with your multi-tool, and strike the flint into the pile of shavings with the knife blade and you’ll get a good fire going in no time. Magnesium burns easily and with a very hot flame and will dry out damp tinder.

•A Bic lighter.. another way to start a fire.

•A rain poncho.. I always carry rain gear when I kayak or hike, but the more waterproof gear you have, the better, and it can be used in ways other than a poncho, such as a tarp over your head by tying it to some bushes, or to catch rain water to refill your water bottle.

•A Space blanket..Note, these are intended to be used next to your skin, I am not sure if they work, I hope to never find out, but better safe than sorry. I am sure I’ll find a use for them if the need ever arises.

•Insect repellent…nuff said, unless you like spending a night in the woods as food for mosquitoes.

•Toilet paper…nuff said there too, well, maybe not, I carry the end of a roll so it doesn’t take up much space, can also be used as tinder for a fire.

•A survival Candle..can be used for light, but also puts off more heat than you would think. If you have a pop or beer can, a little work on it with your multi-tool and add in the candle, and it will turn it into a nice lantern/handwarmer.

•Chemical handwarmers..I have a couple of these, I have never used them, but they don’t take up much space and if they put out any heat at all, they are worth it to carry.

One more thing, for trips to more remote ares, like the UP or Canada, add an axe. I know people who never leave home without them, and if you are in a true wilderness area, neither should you..

So that’s it, a few notes, you can add and subtract from this list, but I think it is a good one, based on my experience and also too much time spent watching Les Stroud, Survivorman, on TV. Stay away from the cheap survival stuff most places sell, except as the base for your kit. Remember that fire is probably the most important thing you will need if stranded. Make use of anything you have and can find, and don’t be afraid to make use of things in ways they were never intended to be used for.

I carry almost the exact same things in my daypack, and in my fishing vest, that way I always have it with me. None of these things are going to help you if you forget them at home.

One last thing, none of this is any good unless you check your kit at least once a year, especially if you include battery-powered devices in your kit. I have a tradition, the first weekend after New Years Day, I go through all my outdoor stuff, fishing gear, backpacks, kayaking gear, etc. I clean and inspect everything, lubricate what needs it, check any expiration dates, like on the water purification pills, and REPLACE any batteries! You should too, maybe not the same day, but pick a day and do it!


A wild, wooly, wonderful week (almost) in the Pigeon River Country

I’m back, a couple of days early due to the weather, but it has still been a great vacation. I could have titled this post The week of Lost Opportunities, but that would imply that I didn’t have a great time, when I did. But, there were some opportunities I missed which I will point out as I go. I am going to break the week down by days, so that I can remember everything that I did this week.

Day one, the arrival

For some one that works second shift, I got a fairly early start last Saturday, and the trip up there was the typical almost 4 hour drive, with a stop for lunch in Cadillac. I arrived at Round Lake State Forest Campground, which may or may not close. It was scheduled to be closed on the 23rd of May, but that has now been delayed as the state looks for ways to keep all 23 campgrounds they were going to close open. This morning I read that Lime Island is being shifted to a state park rather than a state forest campground, and that the legislature is working on an emergency funding source to keep the other 22 open.

It didn’t take long to set up camp, as for the first time in several camping trips, there wasn’t a gale blowing as I put the tent up. I guess I’ve had enough practice at that for the time being. Round Lake was the same as it has always been, the prettiest little campground in Michigan. With lots of light left, I went looking for new access sites to use for fishing on the Black and Pigeon Rivers, which both flow very close to Round Lake. I drove over to some possible sites I had marked on my GPS unit on the Black River, I swear, the Black flows through the worlds largest tag alder swamp! I keep telling myself to fish the Black more often, but every place I find access to the upper sections, it looks the same. The river is 20 to 25 feet wide, with tag alders overhanging the banks so far as to leave only a few feet of the river open enough to even walk in right down the middle. I would love it if I still fished with bait, but I’m not sure how any one can successfully fly fish that stretch of the Black. Farther downstream, near Clark’s Bridge, it looks wide, deep, and slow, with many fallen trees in the water. I think that I am prejudiced since the Black lives up to its name, the river runs almost black due to the tannins in the water, and I’m spoiled by the clearer water I normally fish. Farther yet downstream, near Crockett’s Rapids, the Black looks to be more inviting, next trip!

I cut back over to the Pigeon, above the Song of the Morning yoga club, the group that has been responsible for several fish kills on the Pigeon. I found 2 good spots, both involved fairly long hikes back in to the river, and they are close enough together that I could fish from one to the other, and walk back to my vehicle. But, I wasn’t wearing waders for my exploration trip, I did take my rod and make a few casts at each site just to try them, no hits, no fish, but that wasn’t surprising. The river was still quite high and stained from earlier rain, and I thought that with the weather forecast, that the river would be just right by the middle of the week. I thought it best to not wear waders for exploring, I didn’t know what I was going to run into, and waders aren’t the easiest footwear for hiking if you have to climb through fallen trees or things like that. I marked the spots on my GPS and headed back to camp for the night. As the sun was setting over the lake, I took this picture.

Willow blossoms

Since I had been up early, I was dead tired by sunset, and while I didn’t hear any coyotes, the spring peepers and owls were in full song as I drifted off to sleep.

Day two, the nature preserves

One of my goals for the week was to visit some of the nature preserves that the Little Traverse Conservancy holds and maintains along the Pigeon River, just north of the PRC. I learned of this group last year, and over the winter, I became a member. While I am most interested in the lands they hold along the Pigeon, many of their other preserves are on my list of places to go. If you’re looking for wild places in northern Michigan to explore, I suggest you start with some of their preserves.

First up for the day was the Agnes S. Andreae Nature Preserve only because like an idiot, I forgot my brochure that has the list of major preserves and maps, so I had to find them from memory. That brings up another point, I had marked the preserves with waypoints in the software that works with my DeLorme GPS unit, but since the upgrade to the software and the unit firmware, waypoints don’t always transfer like they should.

I am going to go off on a little rant here about my DeLorme GPS unit. While I love the capabilities it has, the functionality sucks. I had looked up the locations of the preserves I planned to visit in the software that goes with the unit, and saved that with other information I wanted to take with me on this trip, but very little of it transferred to the unit itself when I synched it with the handheld unit. It ticks me off, because the same thing happened in reverse when I got home yesterday, things I had marked while I was up there didn’t transfer to the software when I synched everything last night. I may have won the DeLorme Challenge back in November, but if I had to do it all over again, I think I would go with a Garmin unit instead. I get more frustrated with the unit and the software every time I use it, and the rechargeable battery pack I picked as part of my winning the challenge is about useless. On the day I hiked Green Timbers, which I will get to later, the rechargeable battery went dead in less than three miles, you can not depend on it at all. Battery life with any type of batteries is poor at best, and the rechargeable lithium that I won is the worst. I even had problems keeping it charged with it plugged into the charger all the time I was driving to and from these places, I had to play with the unit and the charger by turning the unit off, unplugging the charger, then plugging it back in, and turning the unit back on, or it wouldn’t charge. It took me a couple of attempts to figure out the correct procedure to get it all to work. That wouldn’t be so bad, but when you are recording a track and have to do that, then the track gets broken up every time, and also when you stop to change batteries.

Other pet peeves about the unit is that I can’t hear the  audio signals it sends when it errors for some reason unless the unit is right next to my ear, and it errors often, either due to low batteries or that it has lost its fix, which also ruins the track I am recording. I was in an Email conversation with DeLorme’s technical help, but after I sent them detailed information about all my complaints, they stopped responding, not a good thing. I guess it is all part of the learning curve, I wouldn’t be without a GPS unit now that I have used one, but from everything I have learned, and heard from others, is that the manufacturers still have a lot of work to do to perfect everything. As it is, I have several hours of work ahead of me getting all the information that I want into both the handheld unit and the software that goes with it.

Now, back to the good stuff. I set off from camp taking the back roads towards the preserves, stopping first at a huge bog and lake along Osmun Road. I could hear dozens of Sandhill Cranes all over in the bog, but couldn’t see them. A portion of the High Country Pathway runs along the bog, so off I went looking for the cranes. The bog is at least ten acres, I would say it is closer to twenty acres, not counting the lake in the middle. I hiked the path all the way across the north end of the bog and back, and never saw a crane, but I could hear them the entire time. The cranes and dozens of other birds who were all in full song, just like in the campground that morning as I was drinking my coffee. The problem is, that when the males are singing, they tend to perch in the tops of trees, making it difficult to take pictures of them.

I stopped again at Osmun Lake, there was a pair of loons there, too far away for a good picture, so I crashed through the brush on the shore to try to get closer, but they are too shy to let any one get close. I thought about launching my kayak, which I had with me, and chasing them around the lake, but I knew they wouldn’t sit still for that. I did see schools of bass, good-sized ones a that, swimming in the shallows along the shoreline, that was cool. I thought about breaking out a rod and catching a few, but I wasn’t sure about the fishing regulations, and I had preserves to explore.

The Andreae preserve was all it was cracked up to be and more! I parked at the gate, put my backpack on, and spent several hours exploring the preserve. You start down a two-track that goes to the area near the cabin that is there. The cabin is available for free to non-profit groups like the scouts to use for camping. There’s a very nice picnic area near the cabin, which I made use of after my hike. You cross a footbridge over the river, then there is a one mile marked trail that loops to the north, which I did. Then I went exploring on my own, using a picture I took of the map they have posted on site as a guide. That’s another little pointer for hikers, if you don’t have a map but there is one at the place you are hiking, take a close up picture of the map, then you can view it on your camera for reference. The Pigeon is always a beautiful river, but especially so in the preserve. I am so glad it has been protected forever! The forest is typical of the region, a little of everything, from some magnificent old growth pines to mixed hardwoods, all growing along the high banks of the Pigeon as if flows north to Mullett Lake.

The Pigeon River in the Andreae Preserve

After a light lunch at the picnic area, I hiked back up the two-track to my vehicle and headed to the Helmer’s Dam/Robert D. VanCampen Preserve a few miles upstream. There is just a two-track back to the river at this preserve, and hundreds of wildflowers along the way. I found some of these near where I live, but the woods here had thousands of them, yellow Trout Lilys.

Yellow Trout Lily

Using my GPS unit, I poked around in the preserve until I thought I had covered most of it’s 200 acres, but I was wrong. I’ll have to go back again to explore the rest of it, like I needed an excuse to go back. As I was poking around the preserve, I found the remains of what used to be an old house or cabin of some type, I’m not sure what it was. I saw what turned out to be a metal fireplace insert off in the woods, and a large pile of rocks. When I got close enough to recognize what it was, I realized it used to be a large stone chimney for a dwelling, but there were no signs of the dwelling left, and the trees had grown up to be a large size where it had once stood. I run into these kinds of ruins all over up there, and I often wonder about the stories of these places and the people who used to live and work there, but more on that later.

I thought there was a third preserve in that area, which there is, the Vivian VanCampen Preserve, and I must have driven right past it, or there is no sign. But I couldn’t remember the details, and since my GPS unit had let me down, I didn’t explore that one. Yet another reason to go back! The Andreae Preserve is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and that’s saying a lot. I am sure I will go back many times in the future.

One thing I try not to do up there is travel the same road twice in one day, although that can be tough since there are so few roads. I decided to take a different route than the one I had used to get there to go back to the PRC proper, and I got lost, really lost. That’s part of what I like about the area, it is big enough and wild enough you can get lost, and you never know what you’ll find when you’re lost. On this day, I swear the roads spiraled in slowly until they finally ended at a gate to private property, that happens some times. The maps on the GPS unit are just a guideline, there are no good maps of the roads and trails, you can’t even trust the ones the DNR gives out.

I finally got on a two-track that seemed to be going somewhere, where I wasn’t sure, when I found this.

Impoundment on the Little Pigeon River

It isn’t marked, named, or anything else from what I can tell, but it is an impoundment on the Little Pigeon River, and a pretty little spot, which I ended up coming back to later in the week, and I’ll go into more detail then.

I continued down the two-track until it intersected another, and remarkably, there was a road sign there, and I knew where I was again. It was the intersection of the Grass Lake and Pickerel Lake Trails, so I took the Pickerel Lake Trail back through the campground on the lake to Sturgeon Valley Road. By now it was evening, and I was near the pipeline, so I thought it would be a good chance to try for a good picture of an elk. There are actually many pipelines that crisscross the PRC, but if some one mentions the pipeline, they mean the one that is open to vehicles between the Sturgeon and Pigeon Rivers, where many people go to see elk. The DNR plants several fields along the pipeline for “habitat improvement” but it is more like baiting the elk and deer so people can view them. I parked, and walked back along the edge of the woods until I found a spot I thought would give me the best chance of getting a good picture, and sat down against a tree to wait, and promptly dozed off in the warm evening sun. I fought to stay awake, but couldn’t, I kept dozing off, so it seemed like a good idea to go back to camp, eat supper, and turn in for the night, which is what I did.

Day three, the sinkholes and missed opportunities

As I was drinking my morning coffee and thinking about getting lost the day before, I thought it would be a good idea to stop at the PRC headquarters and pick up copies of the latest maps, which is what I did. I also went inside and talked to Scott Whitcomb, the unit manager for the PRC for a few minutes. I let him know how displeased I was about Round Lake closing, and he told me it wasn’t certain yet, but he also said that it was his favorite campground too. He filled me in to why it was selected for closure, and part of the problem is theft if you can believe it. People have been stealing the fire rings, picnic tables, even the trash cans in the park. That and so many people stay there and don’t pay. Come on people, I know the campgrounds are overpriced, something the DNR admits, but stealing the trash cans? We had a good conversation, I don’t agree with all the decisions he makes, but overall, Scott does a great job of managing the PRC, and there’s no way to please every one.

With my maps, I headed off for the sinkholes. They aren’t in the PRC proper, they are east of there just a few miles east of M 33. I took the long way around to the north to save time, at least I was driving on paved roads rather than two-tracks. On the road to the sinkholes I passed a swamp on the side of the road, and saw two beautiful male wood ducks take off from within 20 feet of the road. There was no way I could get the camera out in time, darn. I made note of where the swamp was for later in the day. I got to the sinkholes, put on my backpack, and did the long loop around them. To tell you the truth, they didn’t seem like all that big of a deal, other than there are so many so close together, and that these have remained dry. The PRC is full of little sinkhole lakes, Lost Lake, the Twin Lakes, Ford Lake, Section Four Lake, etc. All those lakes and more were formed in the same way as the sinkholes, water has dissolved the limestone rock formations deep underground, which causes the ground above to collapse down into the void left where the limestone used to be.

Sinkhole map and diagram of how they formed

It was a nice enough trail though, well worth the hike. I think another thing that I didn’t like about the sinkholes is that you never have a clear view of them, they are filled with trees that block your view for the most part. There is a set of stairs going down into one, and coming back up them is a work out, you’ll need a break when you get to the top. The stairway is about the equivalent of a 10 story building, if that gives you some idea how deep the sinkholes are.

After my hike around the sinkholes, I went across the road to check out the campground at Shoepac Lake, then drove down to the campground on Tomahawk Lake. They are both nice campgrounds, a little too built up for my taste though.

Now that a few hours had passed, I thought that maybe the wood ducks would have returned to the swamp where I had seen them earlier, so that was my next stop. I parked along the road a good distance from the swamp, and walked to where I had seen them on the north side of the road. As I was sneaking along, fixated on the north side of the road, I heard a cluck from the south side and turned to see a ruffed grouse not 20 feet from me in a grassy clearing on the edge of the swamp there. Of course it flew off before I could even get a picture. That’s when the idea of lost or missed opportunities began to really take hold. If I hadn’t been so fixed on seeing a wood duck, I probably would have noticed the grouse in time to get a picture. Sort of the same thing had already happened a couple of times this week, once when I was looking for a woodpecker I heard very near me and spooked a deer that was also close by. Part of that is due to the nature of the PRC itself, for a photographer, it is a “target-rich environment”. There is abundant wildlife to photograph, and it is easy to spook one critter when you are after another. It doesn’t help that the animals are more skittish there than they are downstate where I live. There are two reasons for that, one is poaching, there are a lot of people who live almost a subsistent life in the area since jobs are few and far between, and the other reason is the number of predators there. It is like a wilderness with a true predator-prey relationship going on there. The predators aren’t suppressed the way they are here in lower Michigan. The prey species have to be more alert or they end up as a meal for either humans or predators.

Anyway, another portion of the High Country Pathway runs right past the swamp I was at, so I thought I would follow it for a little ways to see where it led. I only went a short way until I came to a boardwalk of sorts, I took just a few steps on it and decided it was no place for some one my size to be walking, which brings me to another point, who laid out the High Country Pathway? OK, so that’s a rhetorical question, sort of. It seems like every time I run into a section of it, it is near a swamp, bog, or some other type of wetland. Just as I used part of it to search for the cranes in the bog earlier in the week, it went through wetlands here where I was looking for wood ducks. Either the people who laid it out love wetlands, or they chose to follow the wetlands to reduce the amount of up and down hiking people would have to do if the trail was laid out differently. The boardwalk I came to here was old and severely rotted, I could see boards missing or loose, and during the few steps I did take on it several of the boards that looked sound turned out not to be. I know I’m not a little guy, but there is no way any one should be using that section of trail. I am not sure, but I think there is an alternate trail now, but I would be prepared for some detours and bushwhacking if you were to decide to hike the entire trail. Here’s a blog by some one else who did hike the entire High Country Pathway.

Since I couldn’t go that way, I went the other way instead, and found a series of small swamps connected by very small streams. I would guess that in the summer the streams become seepages and bogs more than streams, but it was a nice area. I’m glad I was there before the mosquitoes were out though, I doubt if I would have found it so nice in the dead of summer. I know, I am almost as strange as who ever laid out the High Country Pathway next to and through all those wetlands in the first place. I like swamps, bogs, and wetlands, in the spring, fall, and winter when there are no bugs. I avoid them in the summer.

I decided to take the back way, albeit shorter way, back towards the campground, and I am glad I did. My first “discovery” was Canada Creek, which I have read about but never been to before. Canada Creek is one of the major tributaries of the Black River, and at least the part I checked out this day looks to be as big and more open than the Black itself. I didn’t suit up and get serious, but I did make a few casts here and there, and I will be back to get serious about it soon.

The next discovery was Bear Den Lake, a small lake out in the middle of nowhere that has a DNR access site. It looks like a good fishing lake, not that I do any lake fishing any more, but the osprey must find it to be good for fishing, for as I was looking over the lake, I saw one perched near me.

Osprey

After he flew off, I drove off, stopping on the way for a snack in a nice shaded area right next to the road. I guess I should mention the weather. In the morning it was cold, not freezing, but close enough that the propane tank on the Coleman stove became frost covered. In the afternoons, it was warming up to be shirt sleeve weather, then as the sun set, it would cool off rapidly.

My last stop of note was Inspiration Point, at the intersection of Osmun and Clark’s Bridge Roads. There is a scenic overview there that requires a short walk, less than half a mile. I have been there before, several times, and sometimes in May, the apple trees along the trail are in bloom, and gorgeous, I wasn’t so lucky this time. As cold as it has been, the buds were still closed. The view from Inspiration Point is well worth the short walk, although I was there the wrong time of the day for the best lighting for this picture.

View from Inspiration Point

One other thing about Inspiration Point is the old building foundations there. Just like the fallen Chimney at Helmer’s Dam, there are a number of ruins of old buildings scattered about the Inspiration Point area. What they all were, I am not sure. Given the number of apple trees there I would assume it was once an apple orchard, but there seems to be a lot of foundations and other ruins for just an orchard. There is a book out about the history of the PRC, and I suppose I should break down and buy a copy, even though I doubt it tells the stories that I am wanting to hear. But I spent some time up on the ridge finding more and more old foundations and other old ruins there, and trying to figure out what they used to be. I was also hanging out there because the DNR had done a controlled burn of what I call wildflower valley just to the east. I call it wildflower valley since it is usually filled with the flowers of the open fields. I was somewhat disappointed to see it had been burned, but I know the flowers will be back better than ever later on. The other thing is that I thought maybe the deer or elk would come out of the forests to feed on the new growth taking hold there, since the new growth has a higher protein content and apparently tastes better to the critters, but it didn’t happen while I was there. So I headed back to camp for the night.

 Day four, small storms, big trees, bigger views, hiking Green Timbers

Sometime just before dawn, I was awakened by what I thought may have been thunder, but wasn’t sure. As I was lying there, the tent lit up from lightning, and then I knew it had been thunder that woke me up. I made a quick trip to the outhouse just in case I had to hunker down in the tent for an extended amount of time, then went back to sleep. I woke up hearing thunder a couple of times, never close, but all around me. When it got truly light out, I brewed coffee and listened as the storms continued to roll through the area. It was raining most of the time, it would rain hard for a minute or two, then let up to sprinkles, then pick up again. I don’t mind rain, I don’t even mind thunder showers, but I am a lot more selective about what I will do and where I will go when there is lightning in the area. Since I was still hearing thunder off in the distance, I thought it would be a good time to run into town, fill the gas tank of the explorer, pick up a bag of ice for the cooler, and check out the Elkhorn Grill for breakfast. A couple of mushroom hunters I ran into told me that the Elkhorn served good breakfasts, so it seem to be the thing to do. Sure enough, they do serve a good breakfast at the Elkhorn, and that gave me a chance to check the radar on my smart phone. I could see the thunderstorms were about over, but I had an extra cup of coffee just to be sure.

Why I didn’t decide to go fishing escapes me now, and all logic, but I didn’t, I decided to hike Green Timbers instead. I am not saying the hike was bad, far from it, but in hindsight, I should have gone fishing this day instead of hiking, another lost opportunity. I am going to write this next section somewhat differently, as I will also use it as part of my hiking places series of pages, so bear with me please, I don’t want to type the same thing twice.

Anyway, Green Timbers is a 6,388 acre tract that was adopted as part of the Pigeon River Country State Forest  in 1982, and is closed to all motor vehicles, including snowmobiles. Here’s a link to Detailed Map of Green Timbers.

Green Timbers, so named in 1942 by Don McLouth of McLouth Steel, was developed and used as a hunting and fishing resort. Prior to the McLouth ownership, the southeastern portion was used as a recreational retreat by Titus Glen Phillips, while the north portion was owned by Cornwall Lumber Company. The land was extensively logged, burned, and then grazed by both sheep and cattle prior to the 1958’s when McLouth purchased the property.

The first thing you should know about Green Timbers is nothing is marked, there are no signs, other than the ones that say no motorized vehicles along the borders. There isn’t even a sign for the parking lot at the trailhead. Fortunately I can remember back to the large arched sign that used to be there when it was still in private ownership. It is about seven miles east of Vanderbilt. If you are looking for it, it is on the west side of the Sturgeon River on the north side of Sturgeon Valley Road, right where it curves to go over the Sturgeon. The stone walls at the entrance are still there. Also still on the property are two of the cabins that were used when the it was still a hunting and fishing resort. For how long, I am not sure, for the local kids are obviously using both of the cabins as party places. The DNR is leaving them for now for use as shelters for people hiking, snow shoeing, or cross-country skiing.

The trail starts at the Sturgeon Valley Road trailhead and heads basically north for just less than 2 1/2 miles until you get to the first cabin, called the Green Timbers Cabin. The trail is an old two-track, easy to follow and easy to hike, with no hills at all to speak of. The forest is mixed second-growth pine for the most part along this section of the trail. You’ll know when you are about to get to the cabin when the trail makes a sharp turn to the right. If you go left for a few hundred feet, you’ll come to the Club Stream, so named because it flows through two of the old hunting clubs that used to be there, one of which is now Green Timbers. Club Stream is also an excellent trout stream.

When you make the turn to the right, you will see the bridge over the Sturgeon River just ahead of you.  The cabin will come into view as you cross the bridge, and it will be easy to see why they chose to build a cabin on this spot. it is surrounded by big red pines, I don’t know if they are old growth pines or second-growth that have gotten that large, but it is a very pretty setting right along the river.

Green Timbers Cabin

You are free to spend the night in the cabin, or anywhere with in Green Timbers, but you may want to obtain a free camping permit from the Pigeon River Country headquarters just in case. I can’t tell you if one is needed, but I would assume so, since they are required on all state forest lands.

After you leave the Green Timbers Cabin, the trail winds more, and climbs up and over a ridge on the east side of the Sturgeon River. After you go over the ridge, the walking is easy again, through more open scrub and Jack Pines. The trail still heads to the north, and when it “T”s, go to the left, which is west, and climb up over the ridge again, it will be well worth the climb! As you cross the top of the ridge, the Honeymoon Cabin will come into view, and the Sturgeon River Valley beyond it.

The Honeymoon Cabin

These were taken in May, before the trees had leafed out, but I’ll try to go back in the fall when the foliage should be as spectacular as the view is. The distance from the Green Timbers  cabin to the Honeymoon cabin is about 1 1/2 miles, making it 4 miles from the road, and about an 8 mile round trip. When I took the top of the ridge trail back, the distance that I came up with on my GPS unit was just over 7 miles total.

The view from the Honeymoon Cabin

For the return trip, there is a trail that runs right on top of the ridge and offers some great views on the way back. The trail isn’t marked, or shown on any maps that I have seen, but you’ll see it on the map I post at the end of this. It is easy to spot, it runs straight south along the top of the ridge. I wouldn’t suggest taking it up to the cabin, it isn’t as easy to find on the south end, and it would involve a very steep climb up the ridge.

Green Timbers Trail map

Don’t pay any attention to most of the roads on this map, as most of them aren’t there anymore. The DNR closed them long ago, and they are overgrown and impassable, and the DNR would fine you if they found you driving on them anyway. You can click on the map to get a larger, printable version.

When I started this hike it was raining steadily, but the rain ended, and the sun came out, after I had taken the pictures of course. I thought about going back, but I’ll do that in the fall when the foliage should be spectacular. It also warmed up, in a hurry. I was wearing my winter parka, a flannel shirt, and a heavy T-shirt, but I stopped and striped down to just the T-shirt on my way back and was still plenty warm!

After the hike, I went back to the campground for supper, then drove over to the Blue Lakes Road Bridge where it crosses the Black River. I had seen an elk herd there last fall, and had heard that they feed in the field there quite often. All the way over there I saw deer and elk crossing the road ahead of me, but at a good rate of speed. I lost count of how many. As I approached the bridge, sure enough, there were elk in the field where I expected them to be, but also on the south side of the road and a lot closer. I yanked the wheel to the left and hit the down button for the passenger side window to get a shot through that window, but I couldn’t get turned far enough to do that, so I shot this one of the last elk before it took off to follow the rest of the ones that had been there through the windshield.

Michigan elk

Not very good, but I tried. The herd out in the field on the north side of the road were too far away to get good pictures of them. I waited for a while to see if any came closer, but that didn’t happen. Then it was back to the campground and bed.

Day five, the Big Storms!

As I was drinking my morning coffee, I noticed the birds weren’t acting quite the same as they had been so far, and I had a funny feeling about the weather. Nothing I could put my finger on, I think it is something, an instinct, that I have developed from being outdoors so much. The forecast was for afternoon or evening storms, and no word about them being severe. I thought it best to check, I only had to drive a couple of miles to get cell phone service, so I did, and I am sure glad I did! There were two lines of storms headed right for where I was. No problem I thought, I’ll go into town for breakfast, and wait out the storms. The storms weren’t moving very fast, because I made it to town, and was just finishing my meal when some one came in and announced that it had just started to rain. I could see the storms on the radar on my phone, and as I finished my coffee, I thought that I would drive around north of Green Timbers and look for more access sites on the Sturgeon River.

That’s one thing I was a little disappointed in the day before when I hiked Green Timbers, other than at the first cabin, I didn’t find any good places to get to the river. My GPS unit and the maps I had from the DNR showed several roads north of there that either ended at the river, or came close enough to it that there could be access to it. So much for the well laid plans of mice and men, and maps as well. Almost as soon as I started into the area from the main road, I found that this was the area I had gotten lost in a couple of days before!

By now the first storm was hitting the area, making things even tougher. I found one of the places the maps showed there could have been access, but I didn’t dare venture out too far with lightning bolts filling the sky. I did go far enough on foot to see that any river access involved climbing a very steep, very high ridge, not fun in waders. At every turn, intersection, or even the appearance of an old road I would stop and consult the three maps I had and my GPS unit, none of them matched, and none were correct. None of those possible access site exist any more.

I was close to the impoundment on the Little Pigeon River I had found a couple of days before, so I went there and wandered around enough to find an old beaver pond, and some other interesting places to check out another time, but the second line of storms was approaching, and I didn’t want to be struck by lightning. When I had taken the top of the ridge trail the day before, I had noticed a number of trees that showed lightning damage, and more that had been destroyed by lightning.

Some one I talked to, either a mushroom hunter or some one in town had told me about a new road the DNR had built a few years before, so I thought I would find it and check it out as the storm passed. I found it OK, it is called Fisherman’s Road, and it used to be a dead-end road. The DNR has extended it out to Webb Road to the north. Cool, it runs along the Pigeon River, maybe I’ll find some access sites to it, rather than the Sturgeon, so I thought. I had only gone a short way when all hell broke loose! The winds picked up, the rain was coming down in buckets, and trees and limbs were falling all around me. I didn’t bother looking for any access sites, I just wanted to get out to a main road and some semblance of safety. I had to stop twice to remove small branches from my windshield wipers, and a couple of times small branches came crashing down on the explorer. As hard as it was raining I was worried that the road, really a two-track, would become impassable before I made it out to Webb Road, but eventually I did.

The strange thing about the storm is that the winds picked up even more after the lightning and thunder had passed by. It was getting worse rather than better, and even more tree limbs and trees were coming down. Now that I had made it to a real road, I was worried my tent would be blown away, but I had to go the long way around the outside of the PRC to get to the campground, or risk the two-tracks again. I opted for the main roads, even they were partially blocked in places by fallen trees. At one point I passed an opening in the trees for one of the many pipelines in the area, and the wind blew the explorer a couple of feet sideways, the wind was so strong. At another spot there was a lake with whitecaps, which wasn’t strange with that wind, but the whitecaps were being blown up in just a few feet of open water, not all the way downwind like they normally are. Then I came to a tree that did block the entire road. I had just started breaking off some of the smaller branches to make a way through, when some one drove up from the other side. We didn’t say much, just went to work clearing the road. He had a carpenter’s saw, and I got my bow saw out, and we sawed our way towards one another. We met in about the middle, but it was raining too hard to hold a conversation, we just thanked each other and headed back to the safety of our vehicles.

I came to one other small tree I had to saw through, then one old dead tree that had to be moved on the road to the campground, but the worst was over by then. I was both surprised and relieved to see my tent still standing and in one piece when I did finally make it to the campground. Columbia must make a good tent, and I know how to set it up, because that was the worst wind I have ever seen while camping, and I hope to never see it again. As I was checking everything at the campsite over, a small branch about an inch in diameter and maybe two feet long hit the ground with a loud thud not more than twenty feet from where I was standing. The last close call of the day.

What do you do after a storm like that? You go fishing, at least I did. If you catch it just right, the fishing can be great during the rising water after a rain, but I was too late. The Pigeon was already high and getting muddy from the rain. I fished hard until dusk and never had even a hit, and I never saw even a small fish rise, even though there was a hatch going on.

 Day six, decision day.

Part of my plans for this week was a kayaking trip with friends down the south branch of the Au Sable on this coming Sunday, but the weather forecast was not looking good for that trip. Added to the things I had to balance out was when I was going to pack up to come home. If we did the kayak trip, I was going to pack up on Saturday, get a motel for the night, do the kayak trip on Sunday, then drive home and unpack on Monday before work. With the weather forecast calling for rain all weekend, with falling temperatures and high winds Sunday, I decided to call off the kayak trip and come home early. I don’t mind hiking, fishing, kayaking, or even camping in the rain, but, I do mind having to pack up a tent and other camping gear in the rain, or when it is still wet from rain. No matter what you do, no matter how many towels you use, things are still damp when you pack them, and you have to then unpack and air everything out to dry as soon as you arrive home, or you will end up with mildew in your gear. I still have to unpack and air things out, but I don’t have to do it all right away, since everything was dry when I packed it this time.

Besides, most normal people don’t like paddling when it is 50 degrees, raining, and with the wind howling, my question would be which way is the wind coming from? A tailwind most of the time wouldn’t be too bad, but I wouldn’t paddle into a headwind under those conditions unless I had to. My kayaking friends aren’t so hardcore, they prefer normal weather for kayaking. And, I didn’t see a good window to pack up in unless I did it on this day.

I sent out an Email letting people know the trip was cancelled, then started getting my stuff dried and ready to be packed up. I thought that I would have time to do a short hike on the Shinglemill Pathway while things dried out, but that didn’t happen. The temperature was climbing rapidly, and there was a good breeze blowing, so everything was drying quickly. As each item dried, I packed it up, then went on to the next. Not even the tent or the tarp I put down under the tent took very long to dry, so I was done in a short time, and headed for home.

 The wrap up

While I missed a number of chances for good pictures, I took almost 300 good ones, and several really good ones. I didn’t catch any fish, but that happens. I spent too much time early in my vacation doing the side trips and taking photos rather than fishing, but the weather didn’t pan out the way I thought, or the way it was forecast to be. The fishing has been too good the last couple of years, so good that I was forgetting that I could be shut out completely, and now, that’s happened and it will make the next fish I do catch that much more special. I had a great time this week, saw many beautiful sights, saw lots of critters of all kinds, found some new spots to fish, and more new places to explore even further. I even got invited to go mushroom hunting with one of the locals up there, which doesn’t mean much to any one who doesn’t understand that most of the locals dislike and don’t trust flat-landers, which is what they call the residents of down state Michigan.

But, the best part of coming home early is that I will be able to attend a Trout Unlimited function tomorrow afternoon on the Rogue, hosted by Dick Pobst. Dick used to own the Orvis shop in Ada, and I spent a lot of time there drooling on his tackle and trying to learn all I could about fly fishing many, many years ago. It will be good to see Dick again, and learn more about the sport from a true master. Missed opportunities? When one door closes, another opens.


Roughing it?

In about 48 hours from now, I will be setting up my campsite in the Pigeon River Country for a week of fly fishing, hiking, exploring, and kayaking. As I was thinking about it, it dawned on me that most people refer to it as roughing it, not me. Sleeping in a tent in a sleeping bag is second nature to me, I grew up camping, and if anything, I sleep better while camping than at home. Going with out electricity? No big deal to me, I’ll have a lantern and flashlights along, besides, I am up at first light and normally go to bed shortly after it gets dark anyway. No TV? Ha, I don’t even turn the one I have at home on, so I sure won’t be missing that. No stove? I do bring a Coleman stove, and between that and a campfire, I can cook most anything I care to eat anyway. On top of that, food tastes better cooked outdoors, or it is that being active in fresh air makes food taste better. Maybe it’s because I do so much camping that I don’t think of it as roughing it, and I’ll tell you, after 4 years of being an over the road truck driver, camping sure beats living in a truck!

I’ll be spending 24 hours a day in the great outdoors, in one of the most beautiful locations in the state of Michigan, what could be better? Instead of seeing endless traffic, parking lots, and houses on top of houses, I’ll be seeing blue skies, wildlife going about its business, trees, and flowers. Instead of hearing TV, stereos, voices, loud cars and bikes, I’ll be hearing birds singing, and the wind whispering in the pines. I’ll hear the loons, coyotes, owls, and whippoorwills serenade me to sleep at night. Instead of smelling what other people are cooking, cheap perfume, and car exhaust, I’ll be smelling crisp clean air slightly scented with the fragrances of pine and wildflowers. Roughing it? I think not!

OK, so there is one thing I will miss, a hot shower. I’ll check into a motel next Saturday so I can take a shower, and before I meet with friends for kayaking the Au Sable on Sunday. It will make things easier as far as packing up for the trip home as well.

I was talking to a friend the other night, and she had all kinds of questions about my adventures, similar to what many people ask. Are you going alone? Yep, except for next Sunday for kayaking. Don’t you get bored or lonely up there by yourself? Never, there never seems to be enough time when I’m up there, and I am never bored, even if I am just sitting in the woods somewhere taking in all of nature. I am always too busy to be bored, and there are too many critters around for me to get lonely. But what if it rains? I’ll put on a rain coat and stay dry. Don’t you get cold? No, I have an excellent sleeping bag, and good outdoor wear that keeps me snug as a bug in a rug. Doesn’t it get wet in the tent? Not if you know where and how to set up a tent. What about the wild animals, aren’t I afraid of being attacked? Hardly, I’ll be safer in the woods than driving down the road, and safer than in some neighborhoods. What about the bugs? OK, you got me there, most of the summertime bugs can be a pest, but that’s the reason I take my vacation in early May, the bugs aren’t out yet. I can’t say that I like having to wear insect repellent all the time in the summer, but it is a small price to pay in trade-off for all the other good things there are.

Truth be told, if  I were independently wealthy, or retired, I would live about the same as I am going to be doing this coming week anyway. The difference would be that I would have a structure rather than a tent, and the structure would have a shower and water heater. Don’t get me wrong, I love the culture that is available in the cities, but on my terms. I love a night at the symphony, or a day in a museum as much or more than any one, but as a visitor. As far as life, give me the great outdoors! Now that’s really living, and living well.