Monday, June 30, 2014

Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore, Michigan

Munising, Upper Peninsula, Michigan
Lake Superior Shore

June 19-22, 2014

Helpful web sites

Helpful Book – Backpacking in Michigan, DuFresne Pages 242-257. Narrative as well as excellent maps.  Trip described going in the Grand Sable to Munising direction.

Basic notion of our trip
  • ·        Make Reservation for Pictured Rocks Campsites with NPS
  • ·        Make Reservation for Shuttle
  • ·        Arrive day before the hike to pick up actual permit from NPS
  • ·        Take Shuttle to east end of trail at Grand Sable near Grand Marais, MI
  • ·        Hike back to car in 4 ½ days
  • ·        Take ferry to Grand Island which is only a few miles from Munising Falls
  • ·        Hike around island in 2 ½ days
  • ·        Drive home to Detroit area same day

June 18, Wednesday – We drove from Clarkston, MI to Munising in approximately 6 hours, picked up our permit at the mulit-agency welcome center, which is in downtown Munising and not in the National Park or the National Forest. We then found the shuttle pickup point, found the ferry dock, and took the scenic tour boat to see the Pictured Rocks from Lake Superior.  Had great pasta at the Navigator Restaurant.  Stayed at the quiet Terrace Motel off the highway.  Unit 10 had two rooms so Norm could escape Jerry’s snoring.

June 19, Thursday – Picked up the Trail Spotter Shuttle, right on time, at 9:00 am in the Munising Falls parking lot which seemed like a safe place to leave Jerry’s truck.  Two younger men from Kalamazoo rode the shuttle with us.  We started hiking from the Grand Sable visitor center at 10:20.  The trail follows the north shore of Grand Sable Lake, then goes north east to the back of Grand Sable Dunes.  The trail was very well shaded, but there was quite a bit of poison ivy. We had hours to imagine how careful we would be with our trousers and our boots. We climbed a trail to the top of the dunes at the Masse Homestead camping area.   The nice panorama from that point made the short, steep climb worthwhile.  

 We took a long break at Log Slide, where the loggers slid their timber down to Lake Superior for transport.  We had a very pleasant breeze.   It was the last breeze off the lake that we had for the whole trip. Jerry found several ticks on his light trousers.  There were a dozen day hikers at the Log Slide.  There are wonderful views of Grand Sable Dunes and a first look at the light house. 

We put our packs on a site at Au Sable East camping area, and walked on to tour the light house.  We read many of the signs and listened to a very talkative ranger.  Jerry had the required $3.00 but a fear of heights, so Norm climbed up the light house. 
Back at the camp site we encountered our first mosquito swarms.  They surrounded us as we erected our tents and cooked dinner.  We hoped to escape them by going down to the beach area to actually eat.  There was no off shore breeze.  There were fewer mosquitoes but by no means were we mosquito free.  The real treat was to see a doe, briefly, and then a fawn who didn’t seem to know it should be afraid of us.  It stayed within about 25 feet of us for several minutes.

Upon returning to our tents the Kalamazoo men invited us to share their campfire which was smoky enough to keep the mosquitoes away.  We learned they were both with the Kalamazoo police department.  They were hoping to do some fishing along with their hike. 

After enjoying the fire and fellowship, we put our food in the critter box and we each retired to our own tent.  With all the mosquitoes we had no interest in washing up or playing trivia by flashlight.  In the scramble to escape the mosquitoes, all care to isolate potential poison ivy oil was scuttled.  Fortunately, it seems the oil had been rubbed off by other underbrush.

7.1 miles today.  5 hours.

June 20, Friday – We rose, packed quickly, and walked up to the lighthouse.  It was a good thing that we had toured the light house the day before, since we were much too early to tour today.  We hoped a breeze off the lake would keep the mosquitoes away.  There was little breeze, so we ate breakfast with mosquitoes for company.  After leaving the light house, the trail followed a dirt road and then went right through a vehicular camp ground with water and rest rooms.  After a couple miles, the trail went back into the woods.  We went down on the beach at two points to see ship wreck remains but we couldn’t find them.  Perhaps they were covered by sand?

We had an 11 mile day planned and so we kept a good pace and rested only for short periods.  The mosquitoes thickened as we walked.  We had DEET.  Norm even had 100% undiluted DEET.  Maybe it kept them from lighting and biting but it certainly didn’t keep them more than a few inches away at best.  For 6 hours we heard uninterrupted mosquito buzzing in our ears.  Norm pretty quickly wanted to stop wondering if the DEET was working, so he donned his mosquito net, which covered his head and face and put on his leather gloves.  The only skin that was exposed at all was between his long sleeves and his gloves.  Yes, he got bites there.

By mid morning it started to sprinkle.  We put plastic garbage bags over our packs and sleeping bags.  The surprise of the day was an old car, circa 1948, next to the trail.  Sometimes we can get a sense that a trail used to be a road, but in this case the trees and brush allowed only a single hiker to pass, so seeing this car was a bit of a shock.

We broke for lunch and Norm had to learn to eat with his mosquito net on.  Every bite was a two handed operation;  lift the net with the left hand and sneak a bit of tuna in with the right hand, and don’t get the two hands mixed up.  Even with this technique, a few mosquitoes got inside the net.  Jerry kept swatting and grumbling.  Norm reminded him that he had a mosquito net in his pack, and gave him little sympathy.  Jerry succumbed and put his net on.

It seems there are two kinds of people on the earth.  There are people who see a thousand mosquitoes and decide to coexist as well as possible, and there are people who believe if they can kill the hundred mosquitoes that are on or near them right now, the other 900 will leave them alone.  There are people who believe there are mosquitoes who live down by the beach and there are people who believe that a hundred mosquitoes just followed them, personally down to the beach.  If you kill those hundred…  You may be able to guess to which groups Norm and Jerry belong.

The intensity of the rain increased, and Jerry put on his rain jacket.  It was raining quite steadily when we reached Pine Bluff camp.  In the 25 years we have backpacked, we have never had to set up camp in the rain.  Norm waited only 10 minutes and put up his tent with Jerry’s assistance.  Jerry waited about 45 minutes but the rain did not stop, so he put his tent up too.  The rain eventually stopped, Norm hung his wet clothes in a tree, where at least his only long trousers dried.  Jerry used about 15 waterproof matches but couldn’t get a fire going since all the wood and kindling was wet.  We ate dinner with our mosquito nets over our heads.  This was getting old quickly. 

We were basically prisoners in our own tents just to get away from the mosquito swarms.  About a dozen mosquitoes would get into the tent each time we entered.  We give mosquitoes too much credit.  We think they have some super intelligence or heat seeking capabilities, but having been caged up with a hundred individuals over three nights, I can report they just flit around until they stumble on you and then bite.  They’re not that smart.  We devised various ways to kill the ones that got inside our tents.  Norm found the best method to be slamming his paperback book closed on them.  Yes, it leaves the carcass (sometimes bloody carcass) in the book, but it really works.  You can’t do that with a Kindle.  Even if we killed all the individuals inside our tents, we could still hear the incessant buzz of the individuals between our screen tents and the waterproof outer covers.

One can only enjoy laying on his back continually in a cramped tent for so long.  The plan for the next day was to hike only 7 miles.  This would get us to our next camp early in the afternoon.  We would be just lying around in the tents for approximately 18 hours.  This seemed like a pretty bad plan.  We had 23 miles left to get back to the car and we had just done 11.8 miles in one day.  If we could hike another 11 and then a 12 mile day, we could finish in two days instead of three.  Only one more night in the tents.  Jerry readily agreed to the new plan.

June 21, Saturday – Mosquito-wise this day was just like Friday; constant swarms of mosquitoes from the minute we awoke until we crawled into the tents that night.  Norm stopped walking once to be sure that he and Jerry were in agreement on a point they had not even discussed.  We were not going to spend 2 ½ days on Grand Island getting to know the mosquitoes out there.  Agreed.

We hiked only an hour until we stopped to filter water from Lake Superior just at the end of 12 mile beach, which we had been near since leaving the light house.  Although they did not bite, we were bugged by black flies while on the beach.  Biting fly season comes later in the summer.  Could it be worse than the mosquitoes?

At this point, the Pictured Rocks sandstone formations emerge from the beach and begin to dominate the scenery.  
We enjoyed climbing around on the sandstone ledges near the Coves camp site and took dozens of pictures over the remainder of the day.
  At two points there are what seem to be sandy beaches, but they are on top of the cliffs, not at the water’s edge.  A trick of the erosion of the sandstone.

There are dozens of creeks that drain into the lake along the Pictured Rocks hike but none is as spectacular as Spray Falls.  It had a very heavy flow and it falls from the top of the cliffs.  There were good views from the west as we approached.
  Soon after Spray Falls we arrived at Chapel Rock, one of the most interesting formations.
We arrived at our originally planned camp site, Chapel, at noon, much too early to stop for the day under the mosquito circumstances.  We filtered some more water, had lunch on the beach with a lower than average mosquito count, and had a nice chat with a young summer ranger from Newberry, MI. 

We then set out for the camping area that would leave 12 miles for the final day.  Ironically, this camping area was called Mosquito.  We had only 4 miles to go.  Norm knew he had done 5 miles in two hours in town, so he thought we should be able to complete 4 miles in two hours in the woods.  If he had simply done the math based on the morning’s hike of 7 miles in 5 hours, he would have known it would take almost three hours.  That last hour seemed very, very long.
We arrived at Mosquito camping area at about 5pm.  We did not have a site reserved here and had no way to know if all the sites would be occupied.  We scouted the sites.  Numbers 5 and 6 were vacant and number 4 was nowhere to be found.  We did not want to set up on someone else’s site, so we went down to the beach, planning to check back periodically.  If either site was empty at 7:30, we would set up.  If both were taken, we would have to hike another 3 miles to an area called Potato Patch.  We ate supper and chatted with kayakers on the beach. 

At 6:30 we took our gear back up to the open sites.  We sat down on site 5 and began to read with the mosquitoes swarming around us.  It was a little bizarre.   Factors working against us:  People could drive to a trailhead only a couple of miles from Mosquito, and it was Saturday night, the night most likely for any camping area to fill.  Factor in our favor:  It was the longest day of the year, so we’d have plenty of light if we had to hike those extra three miles.

About 7:00pm a young ranger stopped by to check on our well being and, more importantly, to check our permit.  Norm readily admitted that we did not belong at Mosquito, describing the nightmare of the mosquito problems we had suffered.  The ranger was completely mosquito free.  It was amazing.  They were completely surrounding each of us and he was mosquito free.  We asked about his secret.  He said, “A little DEET and almost no sweat.”  Well, we had plenty of DEET but because of the mosquitoes we had not bathed in three days.  Catch 22.  The ranger told us that all 5 sites at Mosquito were reserved, but there should be two sites at Potato Patch still available.

We walked on.  After the disappointingly long afternoon, Norm ran the pacing calculations for this three mile hike over and over in his head.  This was going to take just about two hours.  We walked quickly and did not rest until we had walked for an hour and twenty minutes.  As we rested, Jerry noticed a sign just up the trail.  There were almost no wasted or unnecessary signs on this trail.  Norm couldn’t imagine the purpose of this sign.  Amazingly, we were already at Potato Patch.  A long break and a little urgency can significantly improve your pace.

The Kalamazoo men were on one site, and a tent we didn’t recognize was on another, but the third was open.  We had to walk through a field of shoulder-high plants to get to the site.

Total miles today, 14, a new record for Jerry and Norm. 11.3 total hiking hours.

June 22, Sunday – Again, we packed quickly and left the campsite hoping to have breakfast where there were fewer mosquitoes.  The trail leaves the top of the bluff right at Potato Patch and heads down to the beach level.  We were pleasantly surprised to arrive at Miner’s beach within 20 minutes.  Jerry filtered water and we ate breakfast.  This is a wonderful spot with a comfortable driftwood log to sit on, a small creek cascading into the lake, and at this time of day only one other person, a fellow carrying his kayak to the beach wearing a mosquito net over his head and leather gloves.  The Kalamazoo men gave their last greeting as they passed our breakfast spot.  The mosquitoes had kept them from even trying to fish.

We lost the trail and had to back track to get to the bridge over Miner’s Creek.  There are a couple of memorable climbs and descents between the Creek and the Miner’s Castle overlooks.  

We turned into typical tourists and visited all the viewing platforms.  

There is a paved road to Miner’s Castle, so there were a dozen or more tourists all clean and unencumbered. 

The final leg of the trail leaves right from the Miner’s Castle lawn.  There were many fewer mosquitoes for some unknown reason and we eventually took off our mosquito nets.  Much of this leg is basically level but there are many places where the trail is quite wet and muddy.  A few are covered by board walks but most just have to be dealt with.  The trail is wide at these spots as hikers have attempted to find some solid if not dry ground.  Keeping a pair of sneakers white would be impossible.  The last two miles of this leg are shared with cross country ski trails.  Some hills are included.  We completed the hike by mid afternoon.

Miles today, 9.

The Terrace Motel was full, but we found a clean and quiet room at the Munising Motel only a half mile away.   We had wonderful fish dinners at the Navigator again.

Summary – The entire trail is marked with North Country Trail signs.  They are all well placed and quite adequate to avoid any uncertainty or backtracking.  There are no blue blazes on the trees or posts between signs.  Many signs disclose distances to significant land marks.  There are dozens of creeks, and every one has a bridge.  There was little mud until the final day.  The National Park Service maps had good information about availability of water and rest rooms.  The camp sites were all large enough for at least two tents.  All designated camping areas had critter boxes and bear poles.  Although the trail can be reached by day hikers, at most points the hike from the parking lot is a few miles, so the number of day hikers does not encroach or “spoil” the wilderness mood.  In June, 90+% of the trail was shaded. 

This is a beautiful place.  We can only advise that you avoid mosquito season and biting fly season.  Everyone we met agreed that the mosquitoes were much worse this year than most years.  Maybe you’ll be luckier than we were.