Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Backpacking Grand Island National Recreation Area:

Day One: Williams Landing to Mather BeachWe woke up early to white caps on Munising Bay, cold and blustery wind, and a gloomy overcast sky. Despite the unfriendly weather, we were both looking forward to getting started. The first Grand Island ferry crossing was at 9am and we arrived at the dock a bit early wearing fleece jackets and in my case a rain jacket for extra wind protection during the 3 minute excursion across the bay to Williams Landing. The ferry is actually a pontoon boat and we would be the sole occupants that morning.

As we began skipping across the waves, the captain told us that, sadly, one of the island's black bears had been killed the week before because it had become a bit too assertive. At some point, a frightened hiker dropped a backpack and fled when he or she encountered this bear, thus allowing it to help itself to whatever it found interesting in the pack. It didn't take long for the bear to establish the connection between hikers and food and it quickly became a nuisance. A bluff charge at a backpacker and a foray into an empty tent later, the unfortunate animal was put down.

This was depressing for obvious reasons, plus Craig and I already have horrible luck when it comes to wildlife viewing. It seems animals purposely avoid us and despite the trips we have taken to places where a person should be guaranteed to see bears, bald eagles, moose, etc. we typically see nothing but deer. Now there would be one less bear we were likely to spot.

Between leaving the motel and docking at Williams Landing, the sky had completely cleared up and we stepped off the boat into a sunny, 60ยบ morning where jackets were no longer necessary. One of the many things I love about this part of Michigan is that even on warm summer days, there is usually a cool wind coming off Lake Superior which keeps it from getting too hot along the lakeshore. Lucky for us, the first two days would be spent walking close to the edge of the island's cliffs and we would experience beautiful weather in the mid 70's and a constant, pleasantly chilly breeze.

Tackling the island in a clockwise direction, we headed toward the West Rim trail and began walking. The first day would be short as the campsites we aimed for were near Mather Beach, around 5 miles away. We took our time, enjoyed a snack (only eating half of the beef jerky) in a shady area above a short cliff, and kept a close eye on the woods for bears. It appeared they preferred to use the trail as a restroom based on the number of piles of bear scat we encountered; however, no bears would make themselves visible today. Mountain bikers can bring their bikes over on the ferry and make use of this trail for day trips around the island, and we guessed the sound of the occasional bike may have kept any bears from approaching the trail on this particular day.

Once we reached the Mather Beach area, we inspected the 3 designated campsites. One of our concerns was the possibility of enough hikers visiting the island to make campsite availability an issue. Campers are permitted to set up camp anywhere (subject to a few specific rules) if the designated sites are occupied. However, the forest is so dense this appeared to be impossible. Luckily none of the sites were occupied and we realized that we hadn't seen a single hiker all day with the exception of a family who was leaving the island as we arrived.
We chose the third site; it was a bit closer to the trail than the other two, which meant it was also closer to the water and accompanying breeze, and we hoped this would keep the mosquitoes at bay. I don't typically have much trouble with mosquitoes in the Pictured Rocks area and I am one of those people who is always crazily swarmed upon. So far that day I had encountered more mosquitoes than I had expected, and considering the campsites were a decent distance inland, I was afraid of what would happen when the sun went down.

After quickly setting up our tent and securing our Ursack full of food on the provided bear pole, we walked back across the trail and down a set of wooden steps to the beach where we enjoyed our lunch of peanut butter & jelly on wheat tortillas. It might have been the best lunch we have ever had! Mather Beach is a beautiful stretch of sand capped on each end by large boulders. It is known as a great place for swimming but neither of us was in the mood so we climbed around on the boulders for a while and enjoyed the combination of warm sun and cold wind while waves crashed into the rock below.

Dinner was a grumpy ordeal. Attempting to prepare a ramen noodle feast with our Jetboil stove far enough away from the campsite to prevent food odors from lingering near our tent meant going further into the woods where the mosquitoes plagued us throughout the process. We ate as quickly as we could, performed an extremely quick wash-up of the dishes and ourselves, and escaped to the tent. The sun was just beginning to set and created a beautiful colorful glow as it streamed through the trees. Craig retired early but I did some exploring, photographing the campsite and returning to the beach to watch the sun set over another small island to our west.

Once the orange sun disappeared behind the distant trees, I returned to the tent which was now surrounded by a gathering cloud of mosquitoes. Six or seven bites later I was inside my sleeping bag reviewing our map by the light of my headlamp and listening to the menacing buzz of the blood-sucking stalkers outside under the vestibule of my tent door. “Just don't think about having to go to the bathroom,” I ordered myself as I laid awake listening for potential bear sounds and feeling the pillow I had made by shoving clothing inside my sleeping bag's stuff sack gradually harden into a cinderblock.To be continued in Grand Island: Day Two


Rick Dashkovitz said...

I am interested in our Boy Scout troop backpacking Grand Island next July - What reservation did you have to make?

Nina said...

We didn't have to make any reservations; however, since you would be traveling in a group, you probably will. The following website should tell you everything you need to know, including how to contact the ferry service:

I know there are group sites on the island at Murray Bay and Juniper flats, which can be reserved.

I think this will be a great trip for a Boy Scout troop. Have fun!

Nina said...

Update: Reservations are now required for most campsites on Grand Island through Labor Day. Additionally, there are now 2 cabins that can be reserved, both on the west side of the island. -Nina