Saturday, January 20, 2018

Snowshoeing and Cabin Camping at Wilderness State Park, Winter 2017

Snow and cedars on the Old South Boundary Trail
Sarah and I are university teachers, which means that the middle of December is a busy time of year: the end of fall semester. For pretty much every day between Thanksgiving and the middle of December, our waking hours are taken up by writing exams; meeting with students; grading papers and exams; calculating and recording grades; and responding to emails about those grades.

Last year, I had a great idea: Once all of the exams were marked and the final grades recorded, I headed north to hide away from the world at Wilderness State Park, at the tip of Michigan's lower peninsula. Wilderness has rustic rental cabins that require snowshoeing 2 or more miles just to reach them -- an ideal way to escape from the world for a little while, decompress, and calm down my twitching grading hand.

In 2016, I was caught by surprise at how big the park is, and I ended up spending all of my time only in the west side of the park (you can read about it in my trip report). So for 2017, my choice was the Nebo cabin on the east side of the park -- and also the only cabin in the park not on the Lake Michigan shore.

Late in November, the lovely Sarah gave me a lovely surprise: She wanted to come with me this time! While Sarah is an excellent backpacking companion, I never thought that she'd want to snowshoe miles to stay in a cabin with no running water, no electricity, and only a wood stove for heat, all in the middle of winter. Nonetheless, she too was feeling the end-of-semester stress and looked forward to a few days of quiet reading and no email.

The last two weeks of school were a blur -- we didn't have any days off, even on the weekends. But at last all of the exams were graded, the last-minute homeworks checked, final grades entered, and -- at the very last minute, on Friday night -- the bags packed. So it began.

Saturday, December 16, 2017: After a hearty breakfast, we headed north for Wilderness. As we traveled north, temperatures dropped from the mid 20's down to the low teens. Lake effect snow kicked in around Gaylord, as it always does, but the roads weren't too bad.

We exited I-75 just before the Mackinac Bridge. 10 miles west on barely plowed roads brought us to the Wilderness State Park headquarters. Nobody was there, but the rangers had kindly left an envelope labeled "Clark - Nebo" clipped to a board outside the main door. The envelope contained the cabin key as well as a park map and informational pamphlet.

We backtracked to the Nebo trailhead, near the east edge of the park, and parked in the plowed parking area. After quickly packing up the last of our items, we strapped on snowshoes, hitched up backpacks, and headed out.

Getting into and out of the car in 15 degree weather is hard on the glasses.

The Nebo trail heads directly south, away from Lake Michigan. In summer, it is wide enough to be a 2-track that allowed campers to drive right up to the cabin. In winter, it is a wide and clear trail with a handful of ski and boot prints in 6 inches of fluffy snow.

Although the trail was mostly flat, we took our time -- 30 pounds of packs plus winter gear and snowshoes does not make for a fast hike. Plus, it was a wonderful day for a wander through the woods: The air was crisp and cool (20 at the highest), but the sun peeked out through puffy clouds while birds chirped in the trees. The Nebo trail took us through cedar swamps, red pine groves, and some occasional scrub and birch.

On the Nebo trail.

There are a lot of trails on the east side of the park, with a numbered post and map at every intersection. We made out way from post to post, ranging from 1 mile (the last stretch to the cabin) down to 0.08 miles (about 400 feet) between two closely spaced trail intersections. Along the way, we noticed other wood posts marking out distances along a 10k route that we were apparently following backwards. For a short stretch, we also followed the familiar blue blazes of the North Country Trail, which runs through the park.

Closing in on 2 miles, I spotted a building around a small bend. It slowly came into view. Its homely wooden lines became clearer. It was... an outhouse!

Nebo outhouse. Cabin is uphill to the left, not shown.
Up a short but steep hill behind the outhouse was the real Nebo cabin. But yes, the cabin's outhouse was directly trailside -- perhaps for easier access by hikers, without disturbing cabin renters? Every other cabin's outhouse is private, rather than shared with hikers.

The Nebo cabin is located in a very bumpy part of the park -- some sort of glacial feature. It's located at the top of a small hill, surrounded by tall pines and many other hills. As with the other cabins, it is log construction. A picnic table sat outside, reminding us of warmer summer months, with a hand pump in front of it. Out back was a large wood bin, which we would shortly be turning into heat via the cabin's wood stove.

Nebo cabin with wood bin in the back

Inside, the cabin was quite similar to Wilderness's Station Point cabin that I stayed in last year -- so similar, in fact, that I forgot to take any interior pictures! So instead, I bring you this photo from the archives -- just pretend the uppermost window isn't there.

Station Point cabin, but basically Nebo too

Our first goal was to start a fire in the wood stove. The stove was the "long metal box" type, with a solid metal door and no glass front -- meaning that the fire wouldn't shed light into the cabin at all. The stove sat on a cement pad, with a large stone wall behind it. I would guess that the cabin was built with a fireplace, which was filled in (hence the stones) and replaced with this stove. This part of the cabin had a significant difference from Station Point: Because of the filled in fireplace, there are no windows on the stove side of the cabin. This makes the Nebo cabin even darker yet.

We were successful in lighting the stove, although we had to hunt outside for larger kindling. We brought in a large supply of down and dead branches to start thawing.

While we got the fire burning hot and fast, it took a long time for the cabin to warm up even slightly. To warm myself up, I went back outside into the freezing weather and tramped around the forest surrounding the cabin. There were volunteer trails leading every which way, and I followed as many of them as I could through the tall pines and open understory. The sheer bumpiness of the terrain amazed me -- I couldn't go 100 yards without finding a steep uphill or downhill.

Downhill from the cabin and a little farther along the main trail, I found this interesting device:

Pen for bad children? Unfinished horse corral?
Reading in the cabin's log book later, I learned the solution to the mystery: The corral provides porcupine protection for your car. Apparently porcupines will sometimes gnaw on a car's brake lines, and this pen (with its closable, weighted doors) is designed to keep them out.

Night came on quickly in the forest. We were almost at the winter solstice, leaving us with only 9 hours of light per day. The temperature plunged down to 10 degrees, but the wood stove had started to make a difference in the cabin. We assisted it with hot tea and freeze-dried chicken and dumplings, eaten by the light of our headlamps.

When the sky was thoroughly dark, I stepped outside to look for stars. I had brought a new lightweight tripod to (hopefully) take some star photos, but it was not to be. A thin layer of clouds reflected light from Mackinaw City, letting only the brightest stars show through. Nonetheless, I enjoyed standing in the dark and silent woods, staring up past the tall trees and into the sky... at least, until my hands started to freeze and I hurried back to the pleasantly warm cabin.

The sky directly overhead, minus most stars.

We curled up on bunk beds with headlamps and read for several hours. I climbed down occasionally to tend the fire. The cabin was downright hot at this point -- well on its way to becoming a backwoods sauna. I had been hanging out on a top bunk, but the heat got to be too much for me. I moved my pad and sleeping bag down to the bottom. I also turned the stove's air control down to the minimum, but we had warmed things up too well. I sweatily fell asleep with my sleeping bag open, only to wake up three or four hours later, chilled from the burned-down fire. As one of my favorite guidebooks says,

"Avoid the rookie mistake of loading the stove up with wood before going to bed, thinking that it will simmer nicely until morning. What a loaded stove will do is produce a short-lived blast of heat that will clear the top bunks and sweat everyone out of their sleeping bags."

I guess I was that rookie.

Sunday, December 17, 2017: I woke up after sunrise, after 10 hours of sleep. I was amazed, but the deep darkness in the woods made it easy to sleep for so long.

Breakfast was our usual tea and oatmeal, which was goopy and unpleasant -- more than usual, at least. My plan for the day was an epic (or at least, pretty good) snowshoe hike around the east end of the park. Sarah came with me on a provisional basis, with the understanding that she would eventually head back for a day of snuggled up reading in the warm cabin rather than sharing the full epic hike.

We headed south on the Nebo trail and quickly came across the park's lone trailside warming shelter.

The beefiest trailside shelter I've ever seen.
The shelter, like almost everything in the park (including our cabin) was CCC construction from the 1930's. With its huge wooden beams, the shelter was like a severely overbuilt version of the shelters on Isle Royale (or are they underbuilt?). The biggest difference is a massive stone fireplace in front of it.

After a brief rest at the shelter, we came to a major intersection where most of the longer trails on the east side of the park meet. I briefly investigated the options. From my earlier research, I thought that two of these trails were open to snowmobiles, but there were no tracks visible anywhere (and no evidence of old ones). Moreover, one of the trails had an old "bridge out" sign near the intersection, making me doubt that snowmobiles use them any more. Sure enough, looking at maps now, it's clear that the Old East Boundary and O'Neal Lake trails are now hiking trails in an expanded part of the park. There's even a backcountry campsite on the O'Neal Lake trail. Perhaps I'll have to investigate those on another visit.

Sarah turned back for her day of cozy reading, and I was on my own on the "Old South Boundary Trail". It looked for all the world like an old railroad bed (which it very well might have been) -- wide, straight, gently graded, and making its way directly through every swamp and hill in its way.

The trail was often lined with cedars and other evergreens, although it also ran through a long frozen swamp. Occasionally there were clusters of fancy grasses growing along the trail -- native or not? I don't know.

In the swamps, The extremely cold temperatures overnight had formed beautiful frost patterns on the frozen water, and occasional hoar frost appeared on the low-growing grasses.

Is this a native grass we don't see much of anymore, or an escapee?

I kept meeting posts with distance markings for a 10k route, counting down towards some eventual starting point. Several kilometers (and several miles) down the Old South Boundary Trail, I came to another major intersection. I sat on a convenient bench and ate "lunch". After skimping on breakfast, I was ravenous. I scarfed down two rice cakes with peanut butter, a couple of meat sticks, and a decent amount of gorp.

For the entire trail so far, I'd been following the same boot prints (not snowshoes) that we'd seen on our way in yesterday. The previous visitors made life easier for me, but I longer for some fresh powder to break trail in. I poked my head briefly to the west on the Sturgeon Bay trail, which I had (over-ambitiously) planned to hike last year. It was completely untouched, except for a lone deer who must have wandered this way recently. I enjoyed the brief romp through the powder, but turned around to continue on my loop.

My way lay north, on the Swamp Line trail. This was also the North Country Trail, which came up from the south. Swamp Line was more of the same lovely evergreen-bordered trail, wide enough to be a 2-track. The boot prints continued this way, along with a variety of deer tracks, all winding their way around a surprisingly large number of blowdowns. The park's website claims that this route is groomed for skiers -- I highly doubt they'll be grooming it any time soon unless someone with a chainsaw and a snowmobile makes their way down the Swamp Line.

Snow on pine


True to its name, the Swamp Line trail ran along the edge of (and sometimes directly through) a large swamp. I was deep in the wilderness part of Wilderness State Park, but I soon started to see evidence of humanity again. Rotting wooden retaining walls in a swamp spoke of some former draining project, and nearby a series of posts ran into the woods, strung with fallen cable. I passed an odd opening in the trees, which turned out to be a heavily overgrown road. I tried bushwhacking my way in through the dense undergrowth to see why anyone had ever built a road here, but I couldn't make it more than a few dozen yards.

I finally passed the last (that is, first) marker in the 10k route that I'd been inadvertently following -- it was the "Wilderness 10k run". Shortly beyond that I found a sign telling me that I'd been in the "Big Stone Creek Wilderness Area". Beyond that sign, I found a North Country Trail trailhead kiosk with a log book. I was the first person to log a trip that month.

I followed the North Country Trail on a winding route though one of the more built-up areas of the park. It wound along the shore of "Canada Goose Pond". The huge swamp that supplied the pond with water was starkly beautiful under the gray sky that had been following me all day:

Swamp beyond Canada Goose Pond
The trail crossed the pond's inlets over three bridges, two of which were this funky log construction:

Funky log bridges
It looked like the log bridges could have been original CCC construction. The middle of the three bridges was brand new.

At the pond's dam, I pondered this complicated sign for a while (this was just the lower half):



I turned east (continuing to follow the North Country Trail) onto the Red Pine trail. This turned out to be the prettiest trail yet. Rather than the dense and monotonous cedars I'd seen so far, the Red Pine trail wound through a grove of... you guessed it... red pines! The pines left an open understory, showing me the surprisingly hilly and gnarly terrain in the northeast corner of the park. It looked like a glacier had gotten stuck and had trouble getting started again: razorback ridges covered in pines wove on curving paths, with random piles of sandy soil rising 20 or 30 feet out of swamps. The trail bucked up and down and around a surprising number of blowdowns.

I rested my (now rather tired) legs on a convenient bench at the top of one of the random mounds and snacked on gorp. Within a mile or so, the Red Pine trail ended at the Nebo trail -- at one of the intersection markers we'd followed in yesterday.

Club Moss on the Red Pine trail

By this point I was dragging. The bumpy Red Pine trail had done a number on my already tired legs. But rather than heading back to the cabin, I turned north for one last detour. On our way in, I had seen a sign for the Hemlock trail which wound up to "Mt. Nebo" and an old fire tower. You can bet I wasn't going to let that go by without checking it out!

The Hemlock trail was narrow and beautiful, surrounded by, well, pine trees (mostly not hemlocks, however). It ascended steadily until it suddenly popped me out at the top of a tall glacial hill -- Mt. Nebo. Cement footings were the only sign of the fire tower that once stood here, and the views were mostly blocked by trees. Nonetheless, it was a lovely spot, and a the foundations made for a good place to sit and rest.

Fire tower foundations
The Hemlock trail made a short loop, and rather than going back the way I'd come up, I decided to keep following the trail and see if I could find these elusive hemlocks. The far side of the trail was incredibly steep. I had trouble keeping upright! Mt. Nebo was the last outpost of the long line of hill, and its steep side rose straight up from the edge of a low swampy area. I quickly lost all of the elevation that I'd gradually gained. In the flats around the base of the hill, there were indeed scattered tall hemlocks which made me a bit wistful for the Porcupine Mountains.

I trudged through the flats and finally met up with the Nebo trail. Turning south, I slowly hauled myself down the final 1.5 miles back to the cabin, for a grand total of 8 miles of snowshoe adventure.

I took off my snowshoes and stumbled into the toasty cabin. Sarah had a great afternoon carting in firewood from the wood bin, reading, and relaxing. I took off my coat, gloves, and hat and collapsed on my bunk.

Once I had recovered, we had Fettuccine Alfredo for dinner, freeze-dried of course. It was delicious, made more so my by epic snowshoe hike. We topped it off with a luxury: A can of hard cider carted in from the outside world.

By this time it was dark again (which is to say, it was after 5 pm). The sky was thickly clouded, so there would be no night photos again. Instead, I stayed inside and read by the light of my Kindle. I also tended the stove more carefully, keeping us warm but not sweltering. I was no longer a rookie.

Old leaves

Monday, December 18, 2017:
We woke up after sunrise -- another 10 hour night of sleep! I had let the fine burn down overnight, but the temperature had also risen up to near 30. I only had to build a small fire in the stove.

Breakfast was freeze-dried granola and blueberries with milk, an oddball freeze-dried meal from our back-stock. The blueberries were like little crunchy fruit-flavored cocoa-puffs, and they turned the milk a purple-blue color. The whole thing was sickeningly sweet. Oh well, you can't win them all.

We were both ready to go. The isolation and removal from the world had done its job: We were relaxed, well-rested, and ready to head home. We packed up, swept out the cabin, sealed up the stove, and locked the door.

We strapped on our snowshoes and headed up the trail... for about 20 steps. Without any snowfall and with warmer air moving in, the snow was densely packed and sticky. It was easier to move without snowshoes than with them!

We reached the car quickly on foot and headed south through a light fog. We celebrated our return to civilization with burgers at Spike's Keg o' Nails -- yes, really -- in Grayling.

Old fence (?) in the woods
My second visit to Wilderness was a lovely break from the world, which is exactly what I wanted it to be. Nebo cabin was a very pleasant place to stay, nestled in the trees on top of a glacial hill -- but it felt odd not to be camping on the shore of a great lake (which we almost always do at other parks). My long day hike showed me that the park is nothing if not consistent -- long, wide trails lined with cedars, running through swamps. I am still impressed at how big the park is, and there are yet more trails to explore. We will definitely be back.

Total distance: 12 miles (with a lot of duplicated trails)