Tuesday, August 30, 2011

South Manitou Island | Day 3

(Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore)

Weather Station to Boathouse

The beach near Weather Station

I spent the morning of my final day on South Manitou Island near my campsite deviating from my normal reclusive nature and socializing with several fellow campers that I had met the day before. Everyone I had met so far on this trip was extremely friendly, and I enjoyed getting to know a few of the people who were camping near me at Weather Station. At the campsite next to mine and directly overlooking the lakeshore bluff was a father/daughter pair of campers who had travelled to the island without the mother and sister who would normally complete their family. I didn't ask why this was (I was trying to be social, not nosy), but the dad eventually told me that the daughter (who looked to be around 10) was extraordinarily shy, and this trip was an attempt to draw her out of her shell a bit and get her to do a few new things on her own. It seemed to be working, as she eventually came over to my campsite to share an interesting bug with me that she had found burrowing in the sand. This also helped me out, as I am stupidly awkward with children and tried my best not to be an idiot. 

Descending the bluff from Weather Station Campground

A couple who looked to be in their 50s was also camping near me, and this was their first experience carrying their gear in to a campsite (Weather Station campground is about 1 ½ miles from the boathouse and ranger station where the ferry drops visitors off). They were sleeping in a 4-person dome tent and had also lugged in a big air mattress. Luckily, they had to carry that stuff only for a short distance. They were very friendly and asked me for advice for future trips. A young, college-aged couple was camping next to them and had spent the day before climbing dunes. Everyone was happy and having a great time. It would be impossible not to.

Unless you got poison ivy. This is the path to the beach near my campsite.

Probably the most interesting person I met was a guy from Chicago, who was here with his three kids – two daughters and a son. His wife had become ill right before the trip, so he was going it alone. He looked like an old-school hiker – tall, skinny, bearded, said things like “far out” and “groovy”, and was really interested in talking about camping gear. He was also convinced that he had seen a rattle snake, and was telling the story with such lively detail and excitement that I didn't have the heart to tell him that was extremely unlikely. He found out later from a ranger that it was an eastern hog-nosed, which has a fake rattle for defense.

Approaching South Manitou Lighthouse

After oatmeal and coffee, I packed up for the short hike back to the boathouse. Again, I followed the beach to South Manitou Lighthouse, which was bathed in rays of sunlight breaking through the overcast sky. Behind the lighthouse, near its outbuildings, there is a boardwalk that leads to the visitor center. From there it is a short walk on a sandy path to the boathouse, where hikers can drop their packs and leave them until the ferry departs. The sky had cleared, and I was in for another beautiful day on the island. I leaned my pack against the wall inside the boathouse and left to find a shady spot to make lunch. I ended up sitting on a bench under a tree, enjoying the lake breeze and deciding what to do next. I had arrived at the boathouse at 11:00 am and the ferry was not due to leave until 4:00 pm. Although the hike to Valley of the Giants is only six miles round-trip, there were other things to do nearby and I did not want to feel rushed. I am fascinated by trees, and I knew that if I hiked out there, I would end up spending who knows how many hours taking photos and might end up missing the ferry. This would not be the worst thing that could happen, and the island is prepared for such occurrences with a “Stranded Camper Donation Box” - a metal chest located inside the boathouse where campers can discard any unopened, non-perishable food items that they did not use on their trip. If the weather turns bad and the ferry cannot make the trip to the island, or if someone doesn't make it back to the boathouse by departure time, he or she will not go hungry while stranded.

After lunch, I checked out historical information and artifacts in the visitor center, which is located in the island's former general store, then found a grassy spot in the shade near the ranger station to read until the tour of the lighthouse was scheduled to start. While bumming around the boathouse and ranger station, people who had been giving me furtive glances finally began asking me the questions that had obviously been on their minds. I had heard a few whispers here and there as people walked past my campsite at Weather Station, stuff to the effect of, “There's that girl who is hiking by herself!” I do not take offense to this, but I do find it funny that some people think this is the craziest thing in the world. It's not that I don't understand what they might be nervous about, but some people truly do not understand why a female would even want to do something like this on her own. Many women enjoy the outdoors, and if a friend or significant other isn't available or doesn't share the same interest, the choice must be made to either go solo or not go at all, which might mean missing out on a lot of things. This idea goes both ways, of course.

South Manitou Island Visitor Center

A couple in their early 50's approached me and asked if I was a park ranger. They had seen me on the ferry alone and were trying to figure out why I would be traveling by myself. Being a ranger on duty was their best theory. Another woman who had been kayaking with her husband asked me if I was here alone because she had seen me with a huge backpack, walking by myself. I explained that, yes, I was here alone on my first solo trip. I further explained that I am married and usually go backpacking with my husband, but we do things on our own from time to time. She looked surprised, but also kind of interested and asked, “But, how do you keep him from, you know,...freaking out?”

At 2:00 pm I joined the small crowd waiting to begin the lighthouse tour. The ranger-guided tour reveals the history of the lighthouse, with details of its architecture and a trip up its spiral iron staircase. There are 117 steps, with platforms at various levels where the light keeper could look out windows to view the lake. At the very top, we were allowed outside onto the circular deck, despite the fact that the wind must have been blowing at around 1000 miles per hour. Everyone had to remove their hats and sunglasses if they did not want them blown right off. The view was outstanding, but I managed to grab only a few photos since it was difficult to maneuver my camera while holding on to my hat and sunglasses, while also hugging the exterior wall of the tower so as not to be flung over the iron railing by the wind. The day before (Saturday, July 16), the annual Chicago to Mackinac sailboat race had started, and by this time sailboats had reached Manitou Passage and could be seen passing through from the excellent vantage point of the observation deck.

I should have thought a bit more about the strength of that wind when I made the decision to not take my motion sickness medicine prior to boarding the ferry at 4pm. I remembered the calm ride a few days earlier and believed I would be fine. Just before we left the dock, the captain informed everyone that we would be heading into some fairly heavy seas, making for a pretty rough trip back to the mainland. At about the ½ way point, we would be able to turn so that the wind would be at our back, but until then, things were going to be exciting. This was not good news. I thought about the research paper I wrote a few year ago about the history of Great Lakes shipwrecks and what makes these lakes so dangerous. They are so massive that they create their own weather system, which, at the moment, was not ideal for sailing. I immediately took two motion sickness pills, but knew that I might be in trouble, since it takes about ½ hour for the medicine to take effect. I was going to have to get through this voyage on an steadfast, iron-fisted refusal to get sick.

Boarding the ferry for the trip back to the mainland

As soon as the trip got underway, the show began. The small passenger ferry rocked back and forth and over swells, its bow climbing up waves, then crashing back down. I left my seat on the lower deck every once in a while to stumble around and distract myself when the nausea kicked in. Access to the open deck at the front of the ferry was allowed at first, and people cheered and screamed in fun while getting drenched by waves breaking over the sides. Gradually, some of the children's screams of fun escalated to screams of fright as the situation became less amusing, and the crew eventually made everyone return to their seats and closed off the deck. The ferry came very close to quite a few of the sailboats involved in the race, and as relieved as I was that this trip back to the mainland would be short, I was even more thankful that I was not on one of those boats. Later that night, the weather over the lake intensified to a severe thunderstorm, and two sailors from Michigan were killed when their sailboat capsized near South Fox Island to the north. Although conditions on Lake Michigan can turn dangerous quickly, theirs were the first accident-related deaths in the Chicago to Mackinac race's history. People come from all over the United States, and even other countries, to compete in this annual race, an event which started back in 1898.

Once safely back on land, I hopped on the first shuttle to the Manitou Transit parking lot to retrieve my car. I was on the road and heading home in no time, with a 5 ½ – hour drive to think over the last few days. I felt very lucky to have experienced such an awesome trip; the weather was gorgeous, the scenery was spectacular, and I finally have a solo backpacking trip under my belt. I would gladly do the whole thing again sometime without hesitation. A few weeks after returning from South Manitou Island, I was contacted by someone at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitor's Bureau, who informed me that Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had been nominated for Good Morning America's “Most Beautiful Place in America” contest. Viewers could cast their votes once the show narrowed all of the entries down to the top 10 contenders. Our little lakeshore made it into the top 10, and GMA aired a really nice spot featuring the area, their anchors clearly impressed and surprised by the little-known national lakeshore. Word spread quickly about the top 10 standing, and Michiganders showed their support, casting votes furiously. Amazingly, Sleeping Bear Dunes won, beating out places like Sedona, AZ; Aspen, CO; and Cape Cod, MA. There was some skepticism expressed in the print and online media about this; however, having just come from spending a perfect weekend on a quiet island within this beautiful lakeshore, I believe it is well-deserved.

Friday, August 19, 2011

South Manitou Island | Day 2

(Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore)
Popple to Weather Station - via the beach

Dune view on the island's west side, heading south

Despite the tent's somewhat cramped quarters, I slept pretty well overnight. I had wanted to get an early start, but did not feel motivated to get up. My sleeping bag was comfortable, and I dozed on and off, enjoying the silence. Eventually the thought of a cup of coffee prodded me out of the tent and over to the tree where my food was hanging. Besides a spoon/fork combo utensil, the only dish I had brought was my aluminum mug. I had been using a Guyot squishy bowl and cup set, but found that they were retaining food smells during my last trip. After enduring days of a lingering garlic smell that permeated the food bag and tainted whatever I ate, I decided that I could get by with one metal cup. I ate oatmeal from it before preparing a hot cup of Starbucks Via, which helped unstick the oatmeal dregs from the cup in addition to waking me up. 


I left my campsite at Popple around 9:45 am and headed back to the lakeshore to begin my day's hike along the beach. Following the water's edge along South Manitou Island's west side, it is a seven mile walk to Weather Station Campground at the south end of the island. Hiking alone might sound lonely to some, but this is what I was here for. I had a whole day to walk a seven mile stretch of nearly deserted Lake Michigan beach. The weather was perfect; an occasional wispy cloud decorated the blue sky, and the constant wind blowing from the lake kept the relentless sun from feeling overwhelmingly hot. I could spend as much time as I wanted taking in the views without having to be concerned with another person's agenda or level of interest. I had gotten away from everything, and my time was purely my own.

Awesome and all to myself

I followed the curve of the island's northwest corner and was amazed at the beautiful stretch of lakeshore in front of me. I would think the same thought over and over during my hike that day: 'this is perfect.' I could not have imagined a more perfect way to spend a day, let alone my first solo backpacking experience. In Jim DuFresne's excellent hiker's guide, Backpacking in Michigan, he describes this stretch of shore as follows: “At one point the perched dunes rise 425 feet from Lake Michigan. These spectacular dunes make up the entire west shore of South Manitou. Only Sleeping Bear Bluffs across the Manitou Passage on the mainland are higher and more dramatic. Those perched dunes, however, are crawling with tourists most of the summer. Out here, you're by yourself, in what feels like the edge of the world. Or at least the edge of Michigan.” His sentiments are 100% accurate.

I must have stopped every 20 feet to take a photo. The colors alone were fascinating; the different shades of the blue/green water, the khaki sand, the green dune grass, the blue sky – although I have a lot of experience with the beauty of the Great Lakes, it never fails to amaze me. The feeling was slightly otherworldly, like I was visiting some dramatic and remote planet on Star Trek. Great dunes rose hundreds of feet above me on my left, an endless expanse of blue water stretched away on my right, and the shoreline ahead and behind me was made up of angles where these features met, curving in and out for miles. I could not believe that no one else was here. It is amazing what a little walking can reveal to someone who is willing to get off the beaten path.

Heading south

The hiking itself was easy, starting out with solid terrain where the sand was damp and hard-packed near the water's edge. This changed after a little while and became a bit hard on the feet, with the beach alternating between dry sand and loose rock (or sometimes a combination of both). Although these conditions can be cumbersome to walk through, the terrain was flat, with no elevation gain or loss. With so much constant, direct sun, I was sure to apply plenty of sunblock. Mosquitoes were not an issue, and the wind coming off the lake was strong enough that the biting flies that are sometimes annoying along the lakeshore were not able to linger long enough to be a problem. Zebra mussel shells were unfortunately common along the beach, and occasional huge mounds of them were shocking evidence of the prevalence of this invasive species. Occasionally, one would somehow make its way into the ankle of my boot, slicing through wool hiking socks and skin as I walked. Invasive jerks.

I watched a freighter far out on the lake disappear behind the southwest corner of the island. As I approached this corner, the beach became rockier and a bit more rugged-looking. The dunes of the mainland several miles away became visible in the distance, and those towering on my immediate left became much greener with vegetation. Dune grass blanketed the sandy slopes, and trees clung at various angles above me. Somehow, this corner of this island was even more beautiful than everything I had seen before it. Boulders littered the turquoise shallows, and the steep green slopes gave me the impression of being somewhere far more exotic than the American Midwest. Enhancing this feeling, the remains of a shipwreck jutted out of the water approximately 100 yards offshore.

The view after rounding the southwest corner of the island

According to Manitou Islands Archives, over 130 ships have been lost in Manitou Passage since the mid-1800s. The Francisco Morazan is a fairly recent shipwreck; it ran aground during a snowstorm in November, 1960. All aboard were rescued, but the ship was not so lucky. It was at the beach directly across from this shipwreck that I finally began to see other people – five miles from the start of my hike. 

Francisco Morazan shipwreck

Since rounding the southwest corner of the island, I had lost the westerly wind, and it was much hotter without its constant cooling influence. The water near shore was fairly rough, but beachgoers were swimming as well as lying on the sand and soaking in the intense sun. I spoke with a couple of guys on the beach who had swum out close to the shipwreck. They reported that it smelled terrible near the ship's remains, and the cormorants guarding it tried to chase them off, so they returned to shore before actually reaching it.

Once I rounded another bend and was out of view of the shipwreck, I took a break and ate a snack of Wasa crackers and Babybel cheese. Just under two miles ahead, a series of five paths lead up the bluff to Weather Station campground. As I climbed up one of these short paths to reach the main trail through the campground, I was shocked at the change in temperature. Halfway up the bluff and into the woods, the temperature rose drastically and suddenly, as if I had passed through an invisible barrier. Luckily, I managed to find a campsite near the edge of the bluff overlooking the lake instead of ending up further back in the woods. Once again, a steady breeze kept my campsite comfortable and bug-free. There was, however, poison ivy everywhere. The perimeter of my site was safe, but poison ivy lined many of the paths, almost as if it had deliberately been used in landscaping. I cringed every time I saw someone walking a path barefoot, either going to or returning from the beach. Many of the people I spoke with admitted they didn't know what poison ivy looked like.

My campsite at Weather Station.

My proximity to the beach ensured I met several people, and I enjoyed sharing stories with a few interesting characters I met as they wandered the path near my campsite. I learned from nearly everyone I spoke with that the full moon I had missed the night before had been spectacular. Weather Station is more of a social campground than I would normally stay in; however, almost everyone was either at the beach or day hiking, so there wasn't much activity or noise, and I spent the whole relaxing afternoon reading.

Sunset on the beach east of Weather Station

I saved the good stuff for tonight's dinner: Mary Jane's Farm ChiliMac and a mini bottle of merlot. Around sunset, I walked east along the beach to South Manitou Lighthouse, approximately 1.5 miles away. It was the perfect time to observe the lighthouse; the waning light cast a soft purple glow on everything, and not a single person was there, which surprised me. I think everyone was exhausted from climbing dunes and being in the sun all day. The seagulls around the lighthouse were not happy with my presence and made their feelings known, flying around above me and screeching loudly. Once the sun went down completely I began to walk back, hoping I would be able to return by the light of the moon.

South Manitou Lighthouse comes into view

After a few minutes the moon began to rise from the lake, huge and glowing red, and I got my camera ready. Just as it emerged fully from the horizon, it slipped behind a cloud and that was that. I walked back in the dark, against the wind, with my headlamp on and thousands of gnats pelting me in the face. I have a belief that the good things encountered while hiking always have a price – a scenic overlook requires a steep climb, a waterfall in the woods means being eaten alive by mosquitoes, a nice downhill stretch of trail means an uphill trudge is sure to follow, etc. I think this was my belated price for having such a great day. All in all not a bad deal, although my face felt like a battered windshield by the time I returned to the path leading up to my campsite. 

I saw a couple of toads on my nighttime walk and a few garter snakes throughout the day, but this was the extent of the day's wildlife sightings. It is a testament to the good time everyone must have had on this perfect summer day that no one bothered to use the community fire ring located near my campsite. I was sure that at least a few people would gather around to toast marshmallows and talk about their day's adventures, but it seemed everyone had gone to bed early. The campsite was totally silent, and I laid in the tent reading for quite a while before falling asleep. I awoke during the night and the brightness outside indicated the moon must have found its way out of the clouds and was undoubtedly reflecting brightly over the lake, but I could not drag myself out of my sleeping bag to look. Another opportunity ignored in favor of sleep. 

To be continued in Day 3: Weather Station to Boathouse

Friday, August 5, 2011

South Manitou Island | Day 1

(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.

North Manitou Shoal Light

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.

A stretch of beach near Popple campground

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.

Hutzler Farmhouse

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.

Campsite #7 - food hung for chipmunk-proofing

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.

Crystal clear water at the beach at Popple campground

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.

The path from Popple leading to the beach. North Manitou Island is directly ahead.

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