Sunday, January 22, 2017

Winter cabin camping at Wilderness State Park

In fall of 2016, I found myself with a few free days just after final exams -- the perfect time to relax after the busiest time of the semester. Sarah and some of her friends had planned a girls' weekend out, and I needed my own end-of-semester getaway: Getting away from everything, including running water, electricity, and people.

Shoreline of the Straits of Mackinac
So, I fired up the trusty old internet browser, headed to, and made my reservations for 3 nights in a rustic cabin at Wilderness State Park. When Friday December 16th came around, I threw my snowshoes and backpack in the car and headed north towards Mackinac City.

Wilderness is a large state park in the far, far northern reaches of Michigan's lower peninsula, just a few miles west of the Mackinac Bridge. At over 10,000 acres, it's nothing to sneeze at. Better yet, most of that space is undeveloped. Most of the park is wild Lake Michigan shoreline and woodlands. Best of all, Wilderness has my favorite amenity: rustic cabins, without any running water or electricity. They are available in winter, but only if you're willing to snowshoe or ski several miles on ungroomed trails. Why yes, yes I am willing to do that -- and I was willing to bet that almost nobody else would want to do such a thing.

Friday, December 16: Light snow followed me north until Gaylord -- a city that every Michigan Tech student traveling north dreads, as it inevitably marks the line where lake effect snow starts reaching inland far enough to affect the expressways. Sure enough, a dense band of lake effect was turning I-75 into a sheet of solid packed snow. I ended up in a caravan of cars going 35 mph with our blinkers on, occasionally looking up to see cars on the southbound lanes spin out and go off the road (but, strangely, nobody on the northbound lanes had this trouble). An hour later, I thankfully exited the expressway at Mackinac City and headed west for the park -- and the lake effect snow immediately stopped.

10 miles to the west, I pulled in to the park headquarters. The ranger handed me my keys and said "we started a fire in the wood stove for you this morning". This was the best thing I'd heard all day -- I wouldn't have to walk into a completely cold cabin and immediately have to start a fire from scratch.

One more mile down the road, I reached the small parking area where the plowed road ended and the adventure began. I parked, put on snowshoes, and strapped on my backpack. I am new to winter camping, so I probably overpacked a little -- the pack weighed 40 pounds, at least as much weight as I brought for 6 days on Isle Royale. My pack included an (empty) day pack strapped across the top, three different pairs of gloves (I used them all!), a full-sized Nalgene bottle (to act as a hot water bottle), and ski goggles.

Station Point cabin from the rear. In summer, cars could drive right up to the cabin and park in the corral.
My cabin for tonight was a little over 2 miles down a narrow and unplowed dirt road. The road was covered with a nice thick base of snow, and was surrounded by gorgeous northern Michigan beauty -- a solid wall of cedars, along with red pine, hemlock, and birch. I stopped frequently to take photos. OK, with a bit more honesty, I was also stopping to catch my breath -- snowshoeing with a 40 pound pack was kicking my butt! Luckily, a lone snowmobile (probably a park ranger) had followed the road earlier in the day, providing a somewhat packed trail to follow.

After 2 miles, I reached the metal gate blocking the quarter-mile long driveway to Station Point cabin. The driveway wound through an even closer, denser, and hillier forest of pines. The cabin itself soon swung into view, nestled among pines growing right along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Station Point cabin was built by a CCC camp which worked in the park in the 1930's. It's a genuine log cabin, with a wood floor, a stone foundation, and no running water nor electricity. The furniture was exactly the same style of chunky rustic chairs and tables found in my favorite cabins in the Porcupine Mountains. Two double bunk beds were lined up against one wall. Strangely, the bunks together were longer than the wall of the cabin. To make room for them, the front wall of the cabin popped out slightly, making a small niche just large enough to hold the end of a bunk bed (and a lovely window above one lucky sleeper's head). The main feature of the cabin, however, was a surprisingly large wall of windows on the lake side. Those windows gave a gorgeous view of the snowy lake.

This is how close I stayed to the wood stove in order to stay warm.
The other main feature of the cabin was the essential wood stove, my only source of heat for the weekend. There was no fire left in the stove -- it had been burning much too long for that. But by poking around inside the firebox, I found enough embers left to start some kindling.  I quickly had a roaring fire going, thanks to instructions from the Porcupine Mountains Companion (and no thanks to the instructions left pinned to the cabin's door, which got some important details -- such as which way to adjust the oxygen control -- exactly backwards). There was a large pile of well-seasoned wood left inside the cabin and a truly enormous amount piled outside, so I felt confident of my ability to stay warm, even with single-digit lows predicted throughout the weekend.

I completed the one other important camp chore -- getting water from the nearby water pump -- just before sunset. That left me with just enough time to take some photos along the lakeshore. The wind had the lake whipped up into whitecaps which crashed against the pack ice near shore. There was a big storm moving in overnight.

Gray, stormy, and snowy Straits of Mackinac.
There was one oddity I noticed on the outside of the cabin: A bit of electrical conduit ran up a pole and directly into the cabin. I suspected that there used to be a weather station mounted on the pole, until I went back into the cabin and found this:

Yep, a hotel safe, the only electrified item for miles in every direction. I couldn't figure out any way to open it, either.

After a quick freeze-dried dinner, I pulled a bunk bed closer to the wood stove and set up a sleeping pad beneath my sleeping bag for additional insulation. I made a lovely hot-water bottle from a Nalgene filled with boiling water and wrapped in spare clothes. It was still warm the next morning.

With those chores done, I settled in for the night. I read by headlamp-light for a while until I finally rolled over and went to sleep. As I slept, the fire slowly died out, and I woke up three hours later feeling a definite chill in the air. I stoked the fire, threw on a new log, and tried to sleep again. For the rest of the night, I tossed and turned, waking up every hour or two to add another log on to the fire.

Saturday, December 17: I woke up with the sun already well above the horizon. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and hot tea, I dressed up, packed my daypack, made up a roaring good fire (in hopes that some coals would be left when I returned) and headed out for a day of adventuring in the snow.

Station Point cabin after a fresh snow. The small "pop out" for the bunk beds is on the right.
Nearly a foot of fluffy fresh snow had fallen overnight. It was a snowshoer's dream (and, I suppose, a cross-country skier's nightmare). The wind was extremely brisk and blowing from the east, but the air had warmed up into the high teens. My goal for the day was to explore the west end of the park. This consists mainly of Waugoshance Point, a long sandy point of land that sticks out into Lake Michigan. The point ends in a series of almost-connected islands. My hope was to find a short ice bridge across to those islands. Tomorrow, I would explore the east end, with more traditional trails winding through the woods.

I began my trek along the shore, admiring the puffy clouds, snow-covered pines, and giant piles of pack ice. The shore was usually a long, grassy, and somewhat sandy beach that was favored by endangered Piping Plovers. Now, it was a giant pile of fluffy snow.

I soon came to an unplowed parking area and found my way onto Waugoshance Road, the same road that I had followed in to the cabin yesterday. The road had been untouched by humans for days, and it was like walking into a true wonderland: Snow draped cedars and red pines above a sparkling and completely untouched layer of snow.

Undisturbed snow leading out to Waugoshance Point
The road quickly led out of the trees and onto Waugoshance Point proper, which was much more exposed to the cold wind. Only scattered clusters of cedars broke the vast stretches of beach grass and low scrub. I vaguely followed the ruts of a two-track trail, but, hoping to follow the shoreline, I quickly headed off-trail towards an interesting-looking cluster of trees which were growing on a slight rise in the sand.

As soon as I headed beyond the rise, my snowshoed foot broke through ice hiding beneath the snow, and plunged straight into icy cold water. I jumped back, thankful that the water hadn't overtopped my boot. With some careful probing, I discovered ice beneath much of the snow. It quickly became clear that the shoreline was almost fractally twisted, with ponds and pools hiding between grassy points of sand. You can see what I mean on an aerial:

My cabin was located a little to the right of this view.
I carefully picked my way back to the trail. Along the way, I found this interesting relic of the park's past: The steel skeleton of a glider, apparently left by the Army Air Corp. During World War II, the Corps used Waugoshance Point as a testing range, including aerial bombing runs. Some of the gnarly coastline was undoubtedly a result of that target practice.

Wreck of a glider.
The trail passed through more clusters of cedars before veering off towards the coast again. As I walked farther and farther, I began panting as I broke trail in the knee-deep snow. And then, suddenly, my feet broke through ice again -- the trail had water beneath it too! After a few more breaks, I finally decided to give up and turn around. There was no way to tell what was going on beneath the thick layer of snow, but the answer was clearly: ice, and none too thick. I looked wistfully towards the end of the point, which I couldn't even see: I had made it perhaps 1.5 miles out onto the point, nowhere near the end. Oh well, maybe in summer!

I was the only person to pass this way all day.
I backtracked through the beautiful tunnel of trees and paused when I reached the driveway to the Waugoshance Cabin, the westernmost of the line of rustic cabins at the state park. There were no tracks visible in the driveway, so I felt safe waltzing into the cabin's front yard to check it out. The cabin was much larger -- 8 bunks! -- but had a big sand dune blocking its view of the lake. I sat at a picnic table and ate a lunch of meat sticks, plus my favorite hiking food of all time: peanut butter on rice cakes. The rest felt good, and I was soon refreshed enough to push on to a longer hike.

My next goal was to follow the Sturgeon Bay trail south until it intersected the bay of the same name. This trail was completely undisturbed, except for the tracks of a fox and some occasional rabbits. The trail was fully surrounded by dense cedar swamps and overhung with tall trees, making for a gorgeous slog through the snow. It was my own personal fluffy trail through beautiful northern Michigan woods. This entire day had been a true snowshoer's dream.

Red Pine and Snow
After what seemed like a ridiculously long distance (but was really only a little over 1 mile), I reached the trailhead for the Sturgeon Bay Trail -- I'd only been hiking on the access road to the trail! Shortly beyond the trailhead was the Sturgeon Bay Cabin, also unoccupied. I spent nearly half an hour at this cabin, resting, exploring the area around it, and attempting to investigate the lake shore (which was just as gnarly and hard to reach as it was farther north).

My original plan for today had been to make a loop, using the Sturgeon Bay trail and continuing on the North Country Trail east into the heart of the park. Then I would turn north, find the access road past my cabin, and hike 2 miles west back to the cabin.

Sturgeon Bay Cabin wins the award for most picturesque (and coldest) walk to an outhouse.
As I sat at the Sturgeon Bay Cabin, I wasn't even sure that I would be able to drag myself directly back to my cabin. There was no way I could have continued on the 8+ remaining miles of the loop. Oh well, I could leave the east end of the park for tomorrow. I also had the idea of popping down to this area to watch the sun set over Sturgeon Bay. But with the coastline all but impossible to find, a long hike through powder to reach it, and my legs almost ready to fall off, that was another too-optimistic idea. I eventually hauled myself up, put the daypack back on, and headed back the way I'd come. At least I had my own tracks to follow this time.

After a very slow hike back, I arrived at Station Point cabin just a few minutes before sunset. I plopped down in front of the wood stove and stirred up the coals of the fire. A brisk north wind had started up, and I wanted to make sure the cabin was good and toasty before night fell.

The big, beautiful, and drafty front windows.
I soon began to feel a distinct draft. Some investigation revealed that almost none of the windows were locked, which left small cracks for cold air to enter in. Then I found the huge gaps in the frames of the big, beautiful windows on the north wall of the cabin -- and the north wind was taking advantage of every crack and crevice. One window in particular let a strong breeze in that blew directly on my chair in front of the fire. I found evidence of previous visitors' attempts to stop the breeze -- napkins stuffed into the biggest cracks, duct tape laid over them (and peeling away), and other jerry-rigged attempts at breeze-blocking. I eventually stretched my coat and a towel across the worst parts of the window, holding them up with tacks and a clothespin. I added two more logs to the roaring fire and pulled my chair closer.

Later that night, I stepped outside for a moment and looked up to see an unexpected sight: Stars peeking through the quickly moving clouds. The stars in the deep black sky were a breathtaking sight. Back inside the cabin, another beautiful and unexpected sight awaited me through the large front windows: Freighters, with lights blazing along their entire length, heading through the Straits of Mackinac. The Straits are so narrow that the freighters were at most 2 miles away from me. They looked like a parade as they slowly made their way under the Mackinaw Bridge.

I read for many hours (Naked in the Stream: Isle Royale Stories by Vic Foerster -- which I highly recommend). I finally turned over and curled up with another hot water bottle. I slept in 2 hour shifts, waking up like clockwork to put another log on the fire.

Sunday, December 18: I woke up groggy and stiff, with a huge headache threatening to split my skull open. Sleeping in 2 hour shifts hadn't helped. Snowshoeing 6 miles in powder had helped even less.

There had been a change in the weather, heralded by last night's strong winds: I could see bright blue sky out the window with puffy white clouds skittering across it. What a perfect day for a snowshoe hike!

Clearing skies heralding my departure.
My overly ambitious hiking plan for the day began with a 2 mile snowshoe back to the parking area, followed by a longer loop (6 or 8 miles, depending on what I felt like) in the east end of the park. That included investigating the Nebo cabin, the one cabin nestled deep in the woods at the east end of the park. Then, I would hike 2 more miles back. Sitting in my cabin, groaning as I bent over to put another log in the wood stove, even the 2 miles to the parking lot sounded nearly impossible. There was no way I could do a real hike today.

To avoid the reality of that situation, I laid back on the bed and pulled out my weather radio. The weather service reported good weather today, but more snow falling tomorrow. Darn. The more I thought about it, the clearer my course: I had to leave today.

The choice was made, but I could at least take my time packing up. I savored the solitude, the beautiful view, the smell of the wood fire. I wrote in the cabin's log book and read stories that others had left. I got limbered up enough to go outside and split some firewood, feeling badass and sore at the same time. I took a few photos and wandered around the lake shore, enjoying the beautiful sky.

Eventually, I couldn't put off my departure any longer. I strapped on my snowshoes, loaded the slightly-lighter-than-40-pound pack onto my back, and headed down the cabin's driveway. All trace of my tracks from the day before had been obliterated by snow and wind.

The snowshoe hike back out was long, slow, and painful. There was no way I could have hiked for more than those two miles that day. I stopped frequently to take photos of my gorgeous surroundings... and to catch my breath. The only signs I saw of fellow humans were some snowshoe tracks through the fresh snow -- both coming and going. Whoever it was must have been out for a nice hike and already returned.

When I finally made it to the end of the road, I was already bushed. Then I got to dig out the car.

As if snowshoeing wasn't enough...
The drive home was long but generally uneventful, except for a small lake-effect squall around (where else?) Gaylord. Once again, several people had managed to spin off the road heading southbound -- and the sensible people on the northbound side were having no problems at all.

Even though I cut the trip short, it was still worth every ache and pain. Just like the Porcupine Mountains, I've found another place that I want to keep coming back to over and over. Next year, I'll return -- and stay in a cabin closer to the east end of the park. Watch for it next year!

Map of Wilderness State Park: Notice all of the trails I didn't even get near.

Total miles snowshoed: 10