My first solo backpacking trip to Pictured Rocks - not as picture perfect as you'd think.
| Picture Perfect
Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1994
I left home, home being Farmington Hills, Michigan, at about four p.m. for my first solo backpacking excursion of my life. I've never camped in the woods alone before, but I knew I needed the solitude and escape from the everyday problems on this pale blue dot in the universe we call Earth. So, with the vehicle packed and ready to go, I headed north with plans to stop first at Traverse City in northern Michigan to visit my three sons (hey, wouldn't that be a great name for a T.V. show? My Three Sons?). I was on my way.
Traverse City was a four hour ride north from home, but it was on the way to get to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, my destination. I chose this location because of seeing pictures and articles in magazines, and completely falling in love with what I saw.
My visit with the boys was short, about two and a half hours. I tried to get them to come along for some real fun, but they expressed their thoughts on how idiotic and nuts I must be to want to go spend a few days in the woods, eating freeze dried food and shitting in a hole you have to dig with a collapsible army type shovel. So, needless to say, after my visit, I continued on alone.
It was ten-thirty p.m. when I left the boys with a look on their faces like they were never going to see me again, because they were sure I would be eaten by bears or something. My target for the night was the Mackinac Bridge, which joins Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas across the Straits of Mackinac, where I would stay for the night. Not actually on the bridge, you see, but somewhere nearby.
The absence of city lights along these northern country roads brings out more stars than you can imagine if you're used to looking at a night sky with street lights, parking lots, and building lights all shining upwards, washing out much of what is really visible to the naked eye. At eleven-fifteen p.m., I stopped the truck in the middle of the two lane road, no traffic in either direction for as far as I could see, and got out to look at the crystal clear sky. Wow! I've never seen so many stars! Twinkling, sparkling, silently with a black velvet backdrop. So beautiful. So serene. So...uh-oh. Where the hell'd that car come from? Jeez...he's coming fast! Quick! Back in the truck! My boys don't have to worry about me being eaten by a bear, I'm about to be splattered all over the highway like road kill! Okay, back on the road. I'm on a mission. Get to the bridge!
The "Mighty Mac", as the bridge is sometimes called, came into view at twelve-thirty-two a.m., it's illuminated towers of concrete and steel cables standing tall above the cold waters where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. Being the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time it was built, spanning a total of five miles, it was completed in 1957. I pulled into a waterfront park at the base of the bridge, with nothing less than a spectacular view. A sign in front of me read, "No overnight parking." Since the night was already half over, I parked. I mean, it didn't say, "No half-overnight parking," right? I reclined my seat, laid back, and hoped a cop didn't cruise by.
I awoke at five-thirty a.m., raised my seat back to the upright position, because it's too hard to drive lying down, and saw the Mackinac Bridge disappear from the shoreline into a dense fog out in the Straits. Knowing I had to drive across this bridge, a hundred and fifty feet above the water for five miles in dense fog, made me a little uneasy, to say the least. Who came up with that saying, anyway? "To say the least?" Why isn't it "To say the most?" or "To say a little bit about it?" or something. To say the least. I dunno. Anyway, the drive wasn't really bad at all. I got nervous for nothing, to say the least.
When you backpack at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, you are required to check in at the Ranger Station in Munising, the nearest local town, where at that time you reserve a backcountry campsite and pay your fee of a few bucks a night. The station didn't open until eight a.m., so when I arrived at seven I had time to grab a hearty breakfast at a local restaurant in town. Sort of a "last meal" before having to dive into that freeze dried stuff on the trail.
Munising is not a real big town, but it sure is beautiful nestled on the southern shore of Lake Superior. The sky was blue, bluer than I think I've ever seen, when the line of a dozen or so packers (not Green Bay) were let into the Ranger Station at eight a.m. to register for their trek in the woods. With trail map in hand, I was ready to venture on a journey into serenity that I would never have known existed, except in books.
Pictured Rocks is a stretch of shoreline forty five miles long on Lake Superior with sandstone cliffs two hundred feet high, rugged trails, dunes, waterfalls and lakes. It's part of the North Country Trail that runs along the northern United States from coast to coast.
I reserved three nights at the Coves backcountry campsite, but to get there I had to drive about twenty miles to the trailhead at Little Beaver Lake. Continuing on my journey, I finally arrived at the Little Beaver Lake trailhead at about ten a.m., parked my truck, and proceded to assume the position of getting this overpacked, overweight, over-everything backpack on my back to start the long hike in to the Coves camp area, the spot I previously picked from the trail map for my first night. After nearly throwing my back out, I managed to wrestle this thing up and strap it on, although I felt like I was strapping me to it instead of it to me. I approached the trailhead just as another man arrived. We both stopped and greeted each other. He said, "Hi, my name's Eric."
I responded by saying, "Hi. My name's...uh..." (trying to think of some clever, woodsy, outdoorsy name besides Jim) "...my name's J.T. North."
"Oh, J.T. North. Okay. You hikin' in?"
"No thanks, I'd thought I'd wait for the monorail to come by so I had a chance to read the newspaper while I rode in." I didn't really say that, but I sure wanted to. I mean, a guy is standing at the beginning of a trail, all loaded up with gear, a tent, hiking boots, and water up the wazoo, and this clown says, "You hikin' in?"
Duh! My quick wit hit him with this snappy comeback: "Yeah."
So we proceeded to walk, Eric leading the way down the well groomed trail, me following behind, bursting with energy and excitement.
Eric was probably in his mid-forties, slim and fit and looking like he had done this a thousand times. He kept a good, steady pace going for us and liked to talk a lot. The more he talked, the harder it was for me to hear him, because I was slowly getting farther and farther behind and my labored breathing was preventing me from hearing anything. When I was expected to respond to one of his questions, I took a deep breath and tried to get the whole sentence out at one time. It was easier than stopping after every few words, pausing for oxygen, and then trying to continue without letting him know that I was dying back here.
The trail wound it's way uphill, downhill, around and across streams, along rocky overhangs, and through hardwoods and pines. Finally, we came to another trail that intersected perpindicular to ours. This was the Lakeshore Trail, although I didn't see the lakeshore yet.
"Which way you headed?", asked Eric.
"Well, according to the map I'm headed north."
"Well I'm going south to Mosquito Falls. Good luck to you, J.T.", he said.
"Thanks.", I said. "Hope you have a nice trip."
Eric turned and proceeded south, limber and energetic as when we first started. When he disappeared over the hill, I threw off my pack, stripped off my shirts that were soaking wet from sweating my ass off, guzzled a quart of water in three seconds and fell to the ground exhausted. I sat there for half an hour wondering what the hell did I get myself into here? After feeling somewhat rested, I left my pack against a tree and walked northwest a couple of hundred feet to look over the hill. And there it was. Lake Superior! A hundred feet in front of me. Sandy beach, deep blue water and calm enough to ski on. And not a soul in sight. Now I was excited again, ready to tackle the trail. Let's see, the map shows the Coves camp to be just north of here, looks like less than a quarter of a mile. I put on one of my soggy shirts, hoisted the backpack on board (damn, this things' heavy), and set out north on the trail.
Sweating, tired and sore, after walking nearly an hour and two miles, I finally came to the realization that the Coves camp wasn't in this direction. The map was a little off. Or I was. Just to pacify me, let's say it was the map. So, I turned around and headed back south, rediscovering land I just previously discovered only minutes before. Another hour passed before I arrived at the intersection where I had stopped to rest with Eric two hours prior. Hot and pissed, I pushed on, only to discover the Coves camp less than a hundred yards away from where Eric and I parted. Cheering wildly and thanking God for not letting me die of exhaustion, and especially not letting Eric find me dead on the trail where he left me, I chose the campsite I wanted and started to establish my little fortress in the protection of tall pines.
Backcountry campsite areas at Pictured Rocks are quite unique. There are only four or five sites per area, and they're spread so far apart that you can't see your neighbor. A common fire ring is used by all because you're not allowed to have a campfire at your tent site. I was the only person here, so I knew there would be peace and quiet. It was about three p.m. when I entered my tent for a restful nap before rising to make dinner.
Five-ten p.m...Oh, man! All that food from breakfast is rapidly making it's way to the exit door. My exit door. Okay, my asshole! Don't panic. Now where's the shovel? Here it is. Good. Now where's the toilet paper? I know it's here, 'cause it's the first thing I packed. WHERE'S THE TOILET PAPER, GOD DAMN IT!!! There's NOT MUCH TIME HERE, YOU KNOW!!! Okay, got it. Quick! Sprint out of the tent and find a good place for a latrine. OH SHIT!
"Hello there. I'm Paul, and this is my wife, Debra. We just got here from Grand Rapids. Such a beautiful spot, isn't it? And the air is so fresh and clean."
I never even heard them come into the camp. Little did he know that the air was not going to stay fresh for long. And it wasn't going to be so beautiful, either.
"Hi. I'm Ji...J.T. North. Nice to meet you. Please excuse me for a minute. I saw a skunk nearby and I want to go chase him away so he won't bother us tonight." And so I ran into the woods, squeezing my butt together with muscles I didn't know I had. They probably would've believed me except for the little shovel and roll of toilet paper in my hands.
At five-forty-five p.m. I reached into my food bag and grabbed a package of freeze dried beef stew. Just add boiling water, pour into the pouch, and let stand for six or seven minutes, stirring occasionally. It had a lot of flavor, and I was surprised to see how good the beef tasted. After cleaning up, a group of older teenage kids came in, pitching camp just out of my vision. Three boys and two girls, I later found out they were from college in nearby Marquette. The evening temperature was about fifty-eight degrees and they were going down to Lake Superior for a swim. Do you have any idea what Lake Superior feels like in September, let alone in the middle of the summer? Let me tell you something. I stepped into it not far from here in hot July one time, and in less than two minutes I couldn't feel my toes anymore because they were numb. Kinda like college kids' heads.
I gathered wood and made a nice, hot campfire in the pit when I heard a lot of screaming. Startled, I stood up to see five teenagers running back to their camp, freezing their asses off from swimming. They actually went in there and took baths. When they finished putting on warm clothes, I called them over to the hot fire to take the chill out of their shivering bodies. All of them huddled close to the fire and after talking for about an hour, went back to their camp and made their dinners. Where did they get those pizzas, anyway?
Paul and Debra walked over to the fire pit to join me for awhile (I guess they figured it was safe now with no shovel or toilet paper in my hand). We exchanged some snacks while we sat and talked for half an hour, then I went and hung my food bag on top of the bear pole. Yep, that's right. Bear pole. And I don't mean Yogi or Boo Boo. The rangers told everyone to make sure you hang your food up the pole, twelve feet off the ground, because they've had problems with black bears coming into the backwoods camps searching for food. Did they say they have problems with bears, or bears with problems? I don't want a bear with problems. Any kind of problems. You understand? No problems.
About ten p.m. I walked down the path to the shore, about a hundred yards from camp. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? (No, not a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer - that's farther north.) But over the lake, in the dark, clear sky, was the famed Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. It 's a phenomenon that's got something to do with charged electrons in the atmosphere from a solar flare, or something like that, giving off eerie waves of light in the sky that looks totally spectacular. I would've researched it more, but now it gives you something to do when you get bored reading this. I leaned back against a piece of driftwood on the beach and watched the light show until it finally disappeared about eleven p.m., then walked back to my nylon shelter to bunk down for the night.
Around two a.m., the air in my tent wasn't smelling too good. I think the beef stew I had for dinner gave me some pretty raunchy gas. It would have been tough if you were a guest joining me in my tent. I had to go. I had to go now. I grabbed my toiletries and boogied out the tent for the open air.
"Hi Paul. Out for an evening stroll, are ya?", I asked.
"Yeah, just like you, if you know what I mean. Nice little spot over there," he said pointing in a direction I elected not to take. Did he really think I was going to take a shit right where he just did? Possibly digging up his excrement trying to make a hole for my own? Or even stepping in it if he didn't bury it deep enough?
"That's okay. I'll just go over here. I'm kinda familiar with the area."
As he went for his tent, I went for the ferns.
After digging my hole and straddling over it like riding a horse, it occurred to me that the preservatives in the freeze dried meat can react rather violently with the digestive system, making your bowels looser than the women at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Believe me, the backwoods is not the place to have diarrhea, and since all of my lunch and dinner meals contained meat products, I knew I was in for a real outdoors experience. There was no danger of any wild animals attacking me. For God's sake, they wouldn't want to come anywhere near me, no matter how hungry they were.
The next morning I rose about seven-thirty a.m. and had a nice, quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. The sun was rising rapidly and I was anxious to get on the trail. After lugging that painstakingly heavy backpack around yesterday, I knew I wasn't prepared to do that all over again, so I decided to make the Coves my base camp and day hike to other areas, returning to the Coves at the end of the day. Checking the trail map (which we both know is wrong), my objective was to hike to Grand Portal Point and back again, a sixteen mile round tripper taking me atop the two hundred foot high bluffs along the Lake Superior shoreline, passing rivers, sandy beaches and waterfalls. Needing only the bare essentials for a short trip, I loaded my pack with water, lunch and snacks, the camping stove (a lightweight collapsible single burner) and fuel, camera, compass and binoculars, and set out south on the lakeshore trail at eight-thirty a.m. for the most beautiful walk I'd ever take in my life.
Twenty minutes or so into the trip, I saw something move out of the corner of my eye, to my left, about ten or fifteen yards away. Suddenly it ran in front of me across the trail to the safety of a nearby tree. I got a pretty good look at it, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what the heck it was. Then it peeked around the side of the tree to look me over, making weird noises as if to give me hell for being there. It had the face similar to a small fox, but a body like a squirrel, and about the same size. Did I discover a new animal of some kind? I've never seen anything like it. It wasn't until my last day when I stopped in the local museum in Munising that I found out what is was. The Pine Marten, an animal that thrived in this area in the early 1900's during the logging and mining era, nearly became extinct by the 1950's, but miraculously made a slow comeback after the surrounding areas became protected by the government. They aren't prevalent here, but they exist, and this one was existing very well. I felt quite honored to be bitched at by a creature that was almost completely removed from this planet, and had enough guts to let me know this was his home, not mine.
The path broke frequently out from the canopy of trees and the sky was clear and blue. Lake Superior was again calm, barely a breeze, and the waves were reduced to ripples. My walk was consistently climbing, going over rocks and tree roots of all kinds. An hour went by before the trail finally broke into a large, sandy clearing, which opened up to a spectacular view of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. I walked about fifty yards across the sand to the other side, dropping my pack, looking intently at what I thought was the water's edge thirty or forty yards away. Walking closer I realized the water was farther away than I thought, like seventy-five feet straight down! It was a strange illusion. As I looked across the sand to the water, it appeared the water was touching the sand right in front of me, but when I approached the edge I realized the edge was really "the edge" of a high sandstone cliff, and I was standing on the loose, crumbly brim about to become the main topic of a tragic story people will tell for years to come after the edge breaks loose and I fall to my death on the rocky beach far below. Slowly I inched my way back to safety. I thought this was a good place to take a break and make a cup of coffee, which I enjoyed drinking in the brisk, morning air.
Views along the way were fabulous, with the trail taking you close to the edges of the cliffs countless times. A small footbridge took me across a narrow river flowing to Lake Superior, but I knew I was still a hundred feet or so above the lake. Taking a slight detour along the rivers edge, I followed the rushing water until the view disappeared into thick brush, making it difficult to walk. But I was determined to find the terminating point of this river. Pushing limbs and branches out of my way as I walked, I finally broke through the thick cover, only to find myself suddenly and dangerously standing at the top edge of a waterfall, seventy-five feet tall, dumping over the edge to Lake Superior. This took my breath away, actually it scared the hell out of me because I didn't expect to be standing on the edge of a waterfall!
Hours passed and so did the miles, the bottom of my feet starting to feel every pebble on the trail. Often I would get close to the edge of the cliffs and see Grand Portal Point in the distance, my halfway point before I would turn around and head back to camp. It was about twelve-thirty p.m. when I stopped for lunch (spaghetti and meat sauce) on the edge of a bluff, a hundred and fifty feet straight up above the lake's rocky shore, with Grand Portal Point a mile distant across the water, about three miles by shoreline trail. Walking another mile after lunch, feet and calves aching, I decided I better start heading back as to the day was drawing short. Grand Portal Point would still be there for another journey someday.
At five-thirty p.m. I finally got back to my camp, pain radiating throughout my body, telling my brain how stupid it was for coming up with such a ridiculous idea of hiking sixteen miles with no previous exercise or training. I fell onto my sleeping bag and was out within ten minutes.
Now let me ask you a question. You'll see where I'm going with this. Have you ever had diarrhea in the backcountry for three days? Now I don't know if it was just me and my reaction to the dried meat in the meals I brought, which I really know it was, because every shit I took smelled like the food I just ate, or does this stuff have the same reaction on everyone? Which brings me to another stupid question. When someone announces they have to go to the bathroom, why do they say "I have to go take a shit"? Who came up with this saying, anyway? Do we really "take" a shit? Hell no! Wouldn't you really rather "leave" a shit? Or "give" a shit? I mean, c'mon here. Doesn't "taking a shit" sound a little sick? If you're camping with someone and they're hell bent on "taking a shit", I'd think twice about doing any more of anything with them, know what I mean? Just a thought.
Sorry. I get off on a tangent sometimes. Anyway, we were having a pleasant conversation about diarrhea, weren't we? So, have you? You know, diarrhea in the woods for days on end? It's probably the only time in your life you wish you were constipated, so you wouldn't have to dig a hole and take a shit. I mean leave one. It's one thing to have to go once or twice on a normal basis, and being able to postpone it until you can find the right area to do it in. But it's another thing to have to go six or eight times a day, consistency being poor, and having to go RIGHT NOW!, no matter where you are. It's not a good thing. Not at all. Aren't we having fun here?
The whole point of this is when I woke up from my nap, I had to go RIGHT NOW! And after going again and again until I was sure there was nothing left inside of me, I went again. It was then that I vowed to never eat any freeze dried backpacking food with meat ever again, even knowing that most of what I had left contained meat. Well, they say when you backpack you're supposed to be a little sore, a little cold, and a little hungry. Now I've experienced the soreness, my muscles from hiking and my ass from shitting, hungry will soon follow because I won't eat any more of that crap that makes me liquified, and the cold, well, so far so good.
It was about ten p.m. when I realized I hadn't eaten dinner yet, although my churning stomach said "be careful what you eat". So a nice hot cup of instant soup did the trick before I finally turned in for the night. The sky was crystal clear, and the air was getting pretty chilly when I crawled into my sleeping bag. Comfy and warm, I fell asleep.
At two-fifty-five a.m. I woke up shivering. Checking my thermometer, it read thirty-eight degrees. Boy, are we having fun or what? Well, now I've experienced the cold part. I put on my long sleeved cotton shirt, flannel shirt, and sweatshirt and climbed back in with my movement inside the bag now being very constricted. I laid there on my back with my arms folded across my chest, like in a coffin, and the sleeping bag zipped tight and pulled over top of me to my chin. I felt like a mummy. Now I know how they got the name "mummy bag". Feeling warm again, I fell back asleep.
During the next two hours I would become uncomfortable a number of times and try to turn inside the sleeping bag, only to feel myself becoming twisted and tangled. Now, I don't consider myself to be a claustrophobic person, but I felt trapped in my own bag. What happened next is sort of unclear, but I know I panicked. Trying to get my arms free out of the bag in a frenzy, my heart racing and breathing heavy, I can remember grabbing the zipper and it was jammed. Being tortured enough and at the point of losing my mind, I kicked and clawed until the zipper literally ripped open, destroying the sleeping bag and exposing me to the frigid frozen air which I welcomed wildly. I then unzipped the tent door and dove out onto the ground, therefore releasing me from my bondage of the small cell I was confined to. When my heart rate and breathing relaxed to a more acceptable level, I sat back and thought about what just happened. I panicked. I really panicked. It never happened before. And it was real scary. It was then that I realized if I kept my cool, I could have easily slipped out of the sleeping bag like an inchworm, and still have a perfectly good bag for years to come. Now, however, it was ripped wide open and looked more like a comforter than a sleeping bag. It's one of those memories I don't like, and I know it can be controlled by your mind and way of thinking. So, do you think I would be a good person to go backpacking with? It was only a ZIPPER, for God's sakes. What if it was a REAL crisis? I'm glad I don't work for the postal service.
It was Saturday morning and anything in my backpack that had the word "meat" on it got thrown into the garbage bag. My ass was so sore that when I walked I looked like a toddler with a load in his diaper. Needless to say (there's another saying I don't get), my day was spent not hiking more miles to explore, but gently sitting on the nearby beach watching the ripples on the calm lake erode a few more grains of sand off the sandstone cliffs. Doesn't that sound exciting? Believe me, that's all the excitement I could handle at this time. Besides, I needed to let my body heal from the aches and pains, because I had to hike out of here tomorrow with ALL THAT STUFF again.
I ate lightly all day long. Coffee, power bars, trail mix, even oatmeal. That's all that was left, everything else was pitched. Was I a little sore? You bet. Especially my butt. Was I a little cold? Yeah, 'bout froze my ass off last night. Was I a little hungry? Alright now, stop this! They were right, okay? A little sore, a little cold, a little hungry. Are you happy now? Leave me alone or I might lose it again.
That night I slept like a baby, the shivering rocked me to sleep as if being in a cradle. The sleeping bag ended up being one big blanket, now ripped wide open from some disturbed maniac in the woods. When morning came, I broke down my camp and packed everything back into the backpack, ready for the lumbering hike back to the trailhead where my truck awaited my return. I talk as if my truck missed me or something. Getting back on the path, who did I run into?
"Hey, hi there, J.T.!"
"Oh, hi Eric. You hikin' back?", I asked.
"No, just waiting for the monorail, you dipshit."
No, he didn't really say that, but now I know how stupid it sounds to ask a dumb question, and I couldn't believe it came from me. But the way this trip went, I"ll believe anything.
"Yeah, wanna walk together?", he asked.
"Sure," I said. We walked and talked about our excursions along the way, and when we reached the trailhead we said goodbye and headed to our vehicles. As I dropped my pack off my back, Eric turned and said, "Hey J.T., just a quick question. Kinda personal. Have you ever had diarrhea on any of your backpacking trips?"
I looked at him with amazement on my face and a sense of relief knowing I wasn't the only one in the woods with diaper rash and said, "No, never. And my name's not really... J.T. North."
" I didn't think it was," he said. "But I didn't want to say anything. I mean, for all I know you could be some kind of lunatic or something. You might've gotten mad at me for not believing you, cut my body to pieces and scattered the bits of flesh and bone from here to the edges of Lake Superior, know what I mean? I guess I'm just being paranoid."
I could feel my eyes start to well up with tears. Realizing I should've been straight with him from the very beginning, I looked him right in the eyes and said in a soft spoken voice, "You're a sick fuck, aren't you Eric?" Now I'm thinking who REALLY might be the lunatic here.
He smiled and said, "So what's your real name?"
"They call me...uh...well, most call me Backwoods Jim."
"Did you say Backwards Jim?"
"No, BackWOODS, not BackWARDS, you stupi...uh, stupendous hiker." (Have to be careful here. Don't want my flesh and bones scattered from here to the edges of Lake Superior, now do I?). We laughed, got in our vehicles and drove off, with me constantly watching my rear view mirror making sure I wasn't being followed, then realizing after 14 miles that he was in front of me the whole time. Just a little paranoid, I guess.
I experienced a lot on this trip, including the infamous "sore, hungry, and cold" syndrome. I saw things so beautiful and serene, like I traveled back in time to a place untouched by man. I learned how to survive in the wild on only what you pack in. And I also learned to make sure you're in good physical condition, not an Olympic athlete or anything, just limbered up enough to take the aches and pains a little better. It's a great opportunity to "get in touch" with yourself, and with nature. Would I ever do this again? Yeah. But next time without meat.
Backwards (I mean Backwoods) Jim