Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Backpacking Grand Island National Recreation Area:

Day 3: Northeast Point to Trout BayThe morning of Day 3 began a bit testily as we realized neither of us had managed to collect as much extra drinking water as we had planned at North Point Beach the evening before. We debated walking back to the beach, adding an extra 1.5 miles to our day, or just pushing through to Trout Bay. We felt we had enough drinking water between us and for lunch we would just eat something dry instead of cooking anything requiring the boiling of water. Something told us we shouldn't delay in getting to the Trout Bay campsites, so we decided to go for it and set out around 9am.

The night before, we had been so exhausted and focused on finding a campsite, going swimming, and going to bed early (I still wasn't sleeping and had stayed up most of the night reading The Summer He Didn't Die by Jim Harrison) that we failed to notice that a lookout point displaying North Point was practically right across the trail from our campsite. We began the day's hike with a wonderfully gorgeous view of the beach we had visited, rock formations, North Light just barely visible through the trees on North Point, and the point itself. It would have been a great spot to sit and watch the sun set the night before and I was really disappointed that I missed that opportunity.

Unfortunately, the breeze we had enjoyed for 2 days was gone and upon leaving the overlook, the trail immediately veered away from the cliffs and headed inland. Soon mosquitoes were attacking me with relentless ferocity and I decided it was time to get intimate with the insect repellent. The trail continued its uphill trend and the lack of air movement made it a sweaty trudge for a while.

Due to the difference in temperature, we underestimated the amount of water we would drink but we were saved by the lucky fact that Michigan had a really wet spring and early summer this year. We heard trickling water all around us and encountered a handful of streams flowing out of the woods to run down the cliffs and empty into Lake Superior. I'm certain that if we hadn't had an abundance of rain earlier in the season, these streams would have been dry. We stopped about an hour into the day's hike to filter water from a small clear stream which meandered toward us over the mossy ground but disappeared under the trail. Once finished, we followed the sound of the water on the cliff side of the trail picking our way through the trees. Down the slope a short distance from the path we found a hidden rock ledge where the little stream abruptly dropped 5 or 6 feet creating a secret mini waterfall. I named it Craig Falls.

The next few hours were a bit tedious without the cliff views and with the constant buzzing of mosquitoes. However, around 1:30 pm we found ourselves at Trout Bay Overlook, which showed a big stretch of sandy beach to the southeast and the Pictured Rocks formation Indian Head away to the distant northeast. A huge sailboat resembling a pirate ship with white sails was making its way toward Munising, and I learned later that it was called Madeline and it had made its way here from Traverse City on Lake Michigan.

After a few more hours of hiking, we made it to the Tombolo: a section of land formed from a sand bar that served to connect Grand Island to its thumb. The thumb used to be a small separate island until the sand bar grew between them and began to develop its own vegetation. Back in the day, what is now Trout Bay was a narrow channel between the two. There were a few campsites along the tombolo that we knew were full, but a few forest service volunteers had informed us that the last two sites located right on Trout Bay's beach were available. These sites were still a few miles away at the end of a wide dirt road without the advantage of a tree canopy. Cursing the clear sunny weather, we marched on. Hot, sweaty, exhausted, and very mosquito-bitten (just me), we sincerely hoped that these campsites would be worth the effort to get there, and we were not disappointed.

We chose Little Dune 2 – the very last campsite along this stretch of trail, some of which is covered with boardwalk to protect the delicate vegetation growing on top of the sand. Little Dunes 1 & 2 are wonderful campsites on the bay with a nice private stretch of sandy beach and since this area was not located in dense forest, there were no bugs to speak of. We pitched our tent at the back of the site in a shady area under a couple of pine trees, went swimming, and relaxed inside the tent with a steady breeze wafting in through the screen. We decided to leave the rainfly off no matter how cold it got later in order to see the stars above us and maybe even the Northern Lights if we got lucky.

A bit later after wolfing down a couple of huge portions of beef stew, we relaxed on the beach and watched the sun set over the expanse of land to the west that we had hiked through earlier that day. This was easily our favorite campsite of the trip, and we decided that we would definitely need to come back someday just to stay here again. The island's thumb at the eastern end of the beach is supposed to be a wonderful place for kayaking, with sea caves to explore and a couple of campsites that are accessed by water. It is possible to hike to them, but there are no designated trails so traveling around the thumb would require bushwhacking and compass skills.

We weren't lucky enough to see the Northern Lights later that night, but the number of stars was incredible. I was happy enough to see the Little Dipper over the bay right in front of our tent, which is something I never see in Metro Detroit. A loon called out once while we watched the moon rise through the trees to the south and just one more time as we drifted off to sleep.
To be continued in Grand Island: Day 4

Friday, September 5, 2008

Backpacking Grand Island National Recreation Area:

Day Two: Mather Beach to Northeast PointWe prepared for an early start on the second day because there were only 3 campsites at our destination on the north side of the island. We wanted to get there early in case we encountered other hikers and we now knew it wouldn't be easy to set up camp randomly if none of the designated sites were available. Beyond the last of the north sites, there wouldn't be another one for 6.5 miles, so we were counting on getting a good site on the north side. Plus, no good access to water reportedly existed along the East Rim Trail which would be our route on day 3, so we planned to stock up at North Point Beach before setting out the next morning.After oatmeal and a couple of cups of strong coffee, we headed back to Mather Beach to filter some water and refill our camelbaks and extra bottles. Not only did this provide drinking water for the day, but the ice cold water also jolted us awake. A conveniently placed boulder about 20 feet from shore served as a perfect spot to sit and dangle the filter hose into the crystal clear water.

Once packed, we decided to explore Echo Lake, an inland lake that was a half-mile east according to the trail sign. As we headed away from the main trail and into the woods, the mosquitoes gathered alarmingly fast (around me only – they weren't interested in Craig at all) and we began to question whether this side trip would be worth the suffering. One half mile later, another sign announced that Echo Lake was a half-mile ahead. We began to sense a trap and decided to retreat to the main trail asap for fear of ending up in bug cocoons like those loggers in that episode of The X-files in which Mulder and Scully end up in bug-induced intensive care.

For the most part the hike from Mather Beach to North Point followed the cliff edges and both the weather and the view were spectacular. Several overlooks along the way revealed great expanses of Lake Superior, small islands in the distance, and rock formations along the cliffs themselves. Superior's brilliant blue/green/turquoise water sparkled under the clear sky and close to shore the rocky bottom of the lake was clearly visible from 200 feet above.Much of the day's hike was a gradual uphill climb. While not over-taxing, it was just enough to wonder when it was going to stop, which it only did in brief intervals. Walking uphill for any duration of time is one thing; biking a steady incline is entirely different and we both felt much respect for the occasional mountain biker we encountered that day. I couldn't even find it in me to feel annoyed at the gentleman who decided to take a break at the exact same time and place where I was crouched behind a tree attempting to stealthily urinate. He looked nearly unconscious and Craig managed to distract him away from the woods by talking about the view from the lookout point on the other side of the trail. Once he pedaled away and I emerged from the trees we resumed the gentle uphill climb until we reached North Point.

Again, we ended up choosing the last of the 3 sites after a few miles of apprehension over the wisdom of passing up the first 2 and several moments of worry over the high cliffs and the accuracy of my notes regarding water access. At this point though, the trail began to descend and we passed North Point Beach which startled us with its unexpected expanse of sand. After setting up camp at Northeast Point, about ¾ of a mile beyond the beach, we backtracked for a much needed swim and to filter water for that evening's dinner and washing up, plus extra for the next day's drinking supply.

On the way to the beach I got distracted by the sight of a distant rock arch at the tip of North Point and stopped to take a few pictures. I told Craig to go on ahead and that I'd catch up. Naturally, the one and only bear that would present itself during the entire trip wandered out onto the trail in front of Craig during the brief moment we were separated and I wasn't there to see or photograph it. In his excitement, Craig called out to me and the bear tore off into the woods and disappeared. The only animals I managed to see that day were a mink and a garter snake.

North Point Beach was paradise. There wasn't a single other person along the entire stretch of lakeshore and although the water was shockingly cold at first, it took surprisingly little time to get accustomed to it. Altogether we ended up walking around 10 miles that day – 3 miles further than we had intended due to various detours, and certainly a workout for first time backpackers carrying relatively heavy packs. Swimming in the cold lake somehow felt invigorating and soothing at the same time and I didn't want to get out. Later, we enthusiastically enjoyed a dinner of dehydrated chicken and mashed potatoes that tasted so magnificent we declared it one of the best thing we'd ever eaten.To be continued in Grand Island: Day 3

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