(Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore)
Boathouse to Popple
I boarded the small passenger ferry, Mishe-Mokwa, just before 10 a.m. and took a seat on the lower deck in the 2nd row. The seven mile trip to South Manitou Island would take an hour and a half, and the water was calm. I hate to admit it, but I am prone to sea-sickness, so the calm lake was a welcome sight. Last night while I was walking around the Leland Yacht Harbor and imagining what it would be like to be a 'Summer Boat Person', I had conveniently forgotten about this slight problem. Now, sitting in my seat on the boat (which was still docked and tied on) and already feeling dizzy despite not having moved one inch from land, I realized that type of life would never be for me. Luckily I had come prepared with some non-drowsy motion sickness medication.
The trip across Manitou Passage was slow and relaxing (unlike the trip back would be a few days later), and I spent most of the time reading the book I had chosen to bring along, AWOL on the Appalachian Trail. The seat ahead of me was occupied by a young park ranger, who was reading a hard cover copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. A covert glance over his shoulder revealed that he was near the end, somewhere in the nail-biting chapter The Cave. I successfully beat down the desire to strike up dorky conversation about the story and reveal the type of high-functioning nerd that was about to spend 3 days hiking alone on the island. I'm sure his job is difficult enough; there was no need to make him uneasy before I even got there. Instead, I enjoyed the views of Pyramid Point and North Manitou Shoal Light, and occupied myself with my own book, which told the story of a hiker named David Miller, who through-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine during a 5-month period back in 2003.
We arrived at South Manitou Island at 11:30 a.m., and those who were staying for more than the afternoon gathered for orientation at the nearby boathouse. After about 20 minutes of information and Q&A from the two national park rangers stationed on the island, our permits were officially registered and information was recorded pertaining to each hiker's destination. There are three official campgrounds on the island, and random camping is not allowed. Two of the three are located within 1 ½ miles from the boathouse and ranger station, and the majority of island visitors were heading toward one of them with the intention of staying put. My plans were different; I planned to hike to Popple campground, which was a short 3.7 miles away, but located on the island's seldom-visited north side. The following day I would follow the beach along the entire west side of the island, ending up at the south end for night #2. Only myself and a father/son pair were heading north, and the young ranger from the ferry gave me the impression that no one ever goes there. He asked me a few questions to make sure that I knew what I was doing before handing my permit back to me. It was less than four miles away, but you would have thought I was heading into the depths of the Grand Canyon to hunt for Voldemort's horcruxes–Oh...Sorry.
I began hiking at noon. There are two options for those heading north to Popple – either follow the beach along Crescent Bay for about a mile before cutting inland and heading north on an old farm road, or head inland immediately to hike past an old restored school house and a spur to Florence Lake. I took the inland route and enjoyed mostly flat and easy hiking, but it wasn't long before mosquitoes became irritating and I had to stop to apply insect repellant. After the schoolhouse, this path passes an interpretive sign and cluster of old farm equipment, and a side trail leads to the remains of the island's farms, which date back to the mid 1800s. Descendents of the island's early homesteaders are buried in the cemetery just north on the path, and a little further on, the trail swings past an old barn and a restored farmhouse before beginning to climb the low sandy bluffs that separate the interior of the island from the shore.
I arrived at Popple campground at 1:45 and was a bit uneasy at first. There are seven sites and all are located away from the beach, behind a sand dune and in the woods. As I walked the path through the campground, mosquitoes whined all around me, waiting to attack the minute I slowed down. The last mile of my hike had been extremely hot, and I was sweaty and uncomfortable as it was without the added irritation of biting insects. I worried that I was about to spend the next several hours holed up in my tent taking refuge from the nature I had planned to enjoy. Luckily, I was the only one there and had my pick of the sites. Five of the seven sites were at the base of the dune, but two were higher, located at the top of sandy bluffs. Although there was no view of the beach, the higher elevation allowed the steady breeze coming from the lake to provide a cooling effect and keep the bugs at bay.
I attached my permit to the post at site #7, leaned my pack against a fallen log, and began looking for a good spot for the single person tent I would be trying out. The Kelty Crestone 1 was a birthday gift for Craig, but I would be the first of us to sleep in it. After my initial worry about this location, I became aware of the absolute solitude of my surroundings. The seven sites were situated allowing a lot of privacy; from my spot at the top of the low bluff, I could not tell where any of the other sites were located, and I never saw nor heard the father/son hikers arrive. In the morning I would see their permit posted at the other blufftop site, but would never have known they were there had it not been for that. Although I had read and heard from others that this area is supposed to be crawling with poison ivy, I did not encounter much near my campsite, so the majority of plants must have been located elsewhere in the campground. Before and after prime bug season, this part of the island would be an ideal place to get away and experience quiet, relaxing camping with a secluded beach a few steps away. I ended up very happy with my choice of destination.
Once I had set up camp and visited the outhouse, I followed the short path to the beach to check out my little section of Lake Michigan. Backpacking to remote spots along the Great Lakes often results in having a stretch of sandy beach to oneself. Using my foldable bucket, I collected water for filtering back at the campsite. The water was absolutely clear, and I waded in to cool off, looking out to North Manitou Island approximately 4 ½ miles away. On the beach, the constant cool breeze tempered the sun's rays, and I ended up changing into long sleeves despite how hot I had been a short time earlier. I laid in the sand with my head on my nearly empty backpack and read for an hour or two. I had forgotten to bring a watch and had no idea how much time had passed since arriving at Popple. (I turned my cell phone on earlier to check the time, but immediately turned it off again once it started searching for service.) Even when on vacation with no real obligation to be anywhere by a certain time, I find that I have difficulty letting go of the need to keep track of time. Alone on a beautiful beach, with nothing to worry about except filtering water to drink and cook with later, there was no need to concern myself with the hour.
Once I began to get restless, I returned to my campsite to cook dinner. There are no bears on South Manitou Island, but food should be properly hung due to hardcore chipmunks who will investigate and chew anything that smells interesting. I dug the Jetboil out of my pack, retrieved my food bag from its spot in midair, and prepared the evening's dehydrated special: Mountain House spaghetti. It appeared that I still had a good amount of daylight left (as far as I could tell without a watch), so I decided to hang out in the tent and read for a while.
Single person tents are not meant to be places to spend time in; they are strictly shelters for sleeping and/or avoiding the elements. The Crestone 1 has a vestibule just big enough to fit a pack underneath and a decent amount of space just above the head area to stow a few items one might want inside overnight. Once I got comfortable and had been reading for a while, I found that I had trouble staying awake. I had planned to return to the beach at sunset and hopefully see the moon rise, which was supposed to be full on this night. I decided to just embrace my vacation and do what felt right at the moment – sleep. I left the tent for a final trip to the outhouse, then returned to read for a little while longer. I eventually drifted off some time before dark and never once worried about being in the woods alone.
To be continued in Day 2: Popple to Weather Station - Beach Hike