Saturday, April 5, 2008

Sleeping Bear Dunes Pt. 3: Snowshoeing and Chocolate

Wishful thinking inspired Andrea and I to bring our snowshoes with us to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the last weekend in March. It was technically spring, but the weather was ignoring the calendar. With statewide highs still only in the 30’s, even Metro Detroit had received several inches of snow the week before to the dismay of most. I, however, was excited about this as my snowshoes looked sad and bored gathering dust on the basement shelving unit with the rest of my hiking stuff. This could be my last chance to escape the self-induced house arrest I had been wallowing in all winter.

By a stroke of luck, we arrived at the Sleeping Bear Dunes visitor center just as a park ranger was about to begin a group hike. Although we did not join with them (we had to visit the chocolate shop down the street first – more on that later), she informed us that the trails that lead out to the tops of dunes and were exposed to the sun were mostly snow-free but those that stayed in the shelter of trees still had up to 18 inches in some spots. She recommended the scenic drive, which is unplowed in the winter and closed to cars but converts to a ski trail. The Scenic Drive Ski Trail follows the road and includes lookout points and extra loops that veer off into the woods to create 8 miles of excellent skiing/snowshoeing/hiking opportunity.

Starting from the trailhead parking lot, we ignored the superfluous 1.5 mile loop to our left and headed up the trail marked “advanced” which would hook up with the scenic drive in about a mile. This would mean that by following the main trail we would walk about 6 miles and pass a handful of lookouts over dunes, Lake Michigan, and North Bar Lake.

It was 1 pm and we didn’t have anything else planned so this was the perfect means to justify the huge breakfast I shouldn’t have eaten right before at Art’s Tavern in Glen Haven. By the time we reached the end of the “advanced” section of trail I had removed a few layers and was a quivering sweaty disaster (Andrea has horrific photographic evidence of this). Luckily I encountered a perfect sitting log thankfully fallen at the top of the hill and collapsed pathetically onto it. This is what happens when you haven’t gone outside in 4 months, I guess.

Once the wheezing stopped we continued on through the completely silent woods. The rest of the trail is a mixture of uphill and downhill and even though the majority of the trail is marked “easy”, this is really only meant to be a guide for skiing. The snow, unstable from partially thawing then refreezing several times, was challenging to get through in a few areas so the greasy sausage patties were more than worked off and the chocolate truffles we would reward ourselves with later in the car were well-deserved.

We had stopped at Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate on M-22 in Empire earlier in the day and loaded up on their wonderful dark chocolate truffles. These chocolate goddesses make magnificent delicacies from locally-grown natural ingredients. On our way out of town we would again stop there to pick up a few more things for the drive home. Visit their yummy and friendly store if you are in town. If you appreciate good dark chocolate you will be very happy. I recommend the Espresso Truffles although I sampled a bit of everything and it was all worth purchasing - so we did!

One of the most exciting things about snowshoeing the Scenic Drive Ski Trail was the variety of animal tracks that crossed our path and were clearly visible in the snow. Highlights were coyote and what could only have been sasquatch-bird hybrid tracks. Seriously! These things were HUGE! Of course, like the famous blurry video footage of the elusive sasquatch, my photos of these tracks did not turn out. I’m hoping Andrea fared better and am awaiting copies provided the government doesn’t shut us down. It seemed odd that a bird would walk through the woods for a distance great enough to leave the amount of tracks that were there, but I suppose it is not unheard of for them to chase prey along the ground (although it is kind of creepy).

Consulting Scat and Tracks of the Great Lakes, a book that I would buy on our way out of the park (a bit late but I’m prepared for next time), we later determined from our clear and rational memories that the tracks were bigger than those of the largest birds in the book - Sandhill Crane, Great Blue Heron, and Eagle. Either the snow had seriously distorted things or we were onto something BIG.

Shaking off the uneasy feeling haunting us after seeing the giant mutant bird tracks, we found ourselves heading out of the thicker trees and onto the stretch of road where the covered bridge stands. As we approached the bridge we were startled by the sound of running from behind us. I turned around as quickly as possible without getting tangled in my own snowshoes and saw a 60ish year old man jogging toward us. Jogging! Wearing running shoes. Holding a water bottle and barely breathing hard. In 6-18 inches of snow depending on the section of trail. I thought we were about to be ambushed but this was far worse. He shouted a cheerful greeting, warned us about the 4 inches of ice that lurked under the bridge, and continued trotting happily up the approaching hill.

By the time we reached the top of the slope he was long gone and we would continue to follow his tracks for the rest of the hike. They would disappear at a point about 2 miles from the end (where we turned away from a section that was closed and marked “danger”), then reappear later making it clear that he had not only taken the dangerous section, but that he had also managed to leave us in his snowy dust even with adding an extra loop to his route without the aid of snowshoes or trek poles or a proper hands-free hydration system. Ignoring the comical humiliation, I focused on the truffles waiting for us in the car and trudged the last mile and a half to the place where we began 5 short hours ago.

The following evening at home I would tell Craig all about the fun we had over the last couple of days. I would show him the photos I took and tell him about the scenery, the animal tracks, the hikes, the herds of deer all over the roads, and the paraglider we saw take off into the wind above Lake Michigan on a sunny, 35-degree day.

His only response would be: “You spent ten dollars on a book about poop?”


Anonymous said...

Hi Nina,

My name is Sylvia and I am a big hiker in Colorado. You can see this is true on my blog

I am contemplating a hiking/outdoor vacation to Michigan in Autumn.

Would you mind telling me the range of time for Fall colors and when your first snow usually hits. I know that can be highly variable.



Nina said...

Cool! Both the snow and the fall color can vary. I attempted a short fall color vacation last year thinking that my timing was perfect but I ended up being too early for where I was going so I missed it.
Have you decided on a region? Upper Peninsula / Lower Peninsula? I'll try to get some good info depending on the area you want to visit.
Thanks for visiting!

Anonymous said...


I have to confess my ignorance here. Which would be better for hiking and canoing the UP or LP? I may be going to Seattle for a conference in mid-sept so the timing could be right for either location.

Ideally, we would like to stay in one spot and be able to do many things from there.

It can be tricky. I went to New England a couple of seasons ago and missed their color all together.

Thanks for playing tour guide :)