The Day Before We Started Hiking the NCT (North Country Trail)

This hiking trip is going to be fun!  Well… fun might not be the best way to describe it.  My vocabulary has suffered significantly as of late, monosyllabic words are all I’ve got left.  The truth is that our trip will be fun, but it’s also complicated.

On the surface, a 10 day hiking trip with two amazing people, celebrating your 10 year wedding anniversary, is nothing short of epic.  If you know us, our dreams and aspirations, you don’t have to dig down too many layers to see that this isn’t just a “fun” trip, this is a test.  Everything we have done over the past three years has been preparing for the ultimate goal of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Appalachian Trail, and all the trails we haven’t even considered yet.  Selling the house, buying the gear, working the horse, it’s all been for a reason.

Underneath the tectonic plates of fun is an enormous amount of pressure.  A pressure to do well and enjoy the time.  It might sound silly but this kind of pressure can influence decisions and put you into difficult situations that would not otherwise be possible.  Quitting the trail for any reason could be foreboding, foreshadowing… even when it’s nothing.

So it’s fun and it’s a test and it’s sorta scary.  Luckily, I like tests. Everything is going to be fine.

Day 0 has us up near Cadillac in an AirBnB that Shauna booked.  Rick is going to drop the three of us off at the Hodenpyl Trail head in the morning!  

In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m planning to try and write every day of the hiking trip.  It should be… fun 🙂

NCT Mile 781 – 792

We hiked about 11 trail miles today, probably more like 13 total.  The parking area that the AllTrails app started us at was not the optimal location.  It did take us to the Hodenpyl Dam parking lot, which was cool to see, but the NCT does not actually go through Hodenpyl Dam parking lot.  We hiked a half mile here, over a suspension bridge there, wandered the Manistee trail for a spell, and then finally made it to the NCT.  

Brianna likes to joke about how we are directionally challenged.  The truth is, I’m pretty good with a compass and a map, just not so good in a car. Back in my Air Force Firefighter days, we used to attend ‘Silver Flag’ training exercises, a full week of building a base from scratch, chemical attack drills, and… search and rescue games.  Long story short, they would leave us in the woods with only a compass and coordinates.  I’m not going to say I was the best, but I do have the experience.  Today is my 20 year enlistment date anniversary, had to throw some tie in there.

Back to the hiking… the first 11 miles of the trail were very up and down.  We are hoping at all the early inclines will help strengthen the legs and allow us to push longer days later in the week.  As of right now, Walkup Lake is 77 miles from where we stopped tonight.  That means we need to average about 13 trail miles a day if we are to meet everyone on our Friday anniversary deadline.  Funny thing is, we have already decided that tomorrow will not be 13 trail miles.  It’s a weird spot on the trail, there are better camp grounds and water options if we just do another 11 and make up the time somewhere else.

Everything on the trail revolves around food and water.  Food, because Shauna and Brianna like to eat, and water because you never know when the next good source will be.  Today, for example, we ended up at a cherry campground, not because it’s cherry, but because the water we needed to get at was on the other side of a towering ledge.  We had the option to climb down and muscle our water back up or hike an extra mile down to the water’s edge.  Winner winner chicken dinner.

I’d like to call today a success but we haven’t done the sleeping part yet.  Who knows what monsters lurk in the night… so I’ll stop here for day 1.

NCT Mile 792 to 803

We all woke up this morning around 0600 without the need for an alarm clock.  It was a slow kind of morning as our bodies adjusted to the pains of a first day on trail.  As far as federal campsites go, “Government Lansing” (awkward name), was a great place to end a 13 total mile day.  The night was filled with party music, boats floating around out there until 0200 or 0300.  I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a free getaway, $0 camping fee, though I suspect it fills up quickly in the non-COVID world.

The plan for the day was to do another relatively short one, about another 10 miles from Government Landing over to the Blacksmith Bayou campgrounds.  Planning where to go has been challenging.  Federal websites are not updated regularly and the Rangers are only available M-F 0800 – 4pm.  These kind of business hours are not super helpful when stay-at-home orders have recently been updated.  The best we have really been able to do is plan the hike, checkout the posted signs, camp if possible.

10-13 mile days is lower than we are capable of, but the first couple days of this NCT section are the steepest and 10 miles can feel like 15.  I took the hiking lead shortly after our 1030 lunch break just outside of Sawdust Hole campground, pushing a fast pace for no other reason than it’s what my body felt like doing.  About 20 minutes passed before I thought to myself, “slow down, enjoy nature”.  I slowed down and looked around, what was the first thing I saw?  A large beautiful black bear!  Excitement gripped me as I slowly walked backwards, motioning to her in what I thought a cheerleading squad might call a “b”.  Confused, she shrugged and kept walking.  I tried again, whispering, “a bear!”.  

It didn’t take eagle eyes very long to spot the bear, and then a second one.  The bears took off in the other direction just as soon as they noticed our presence, always the preferred end result.  I knew that Michigan had some bears, but I had always been under the impression that they are smaller than most.  These bears were large, as large as any I’ve seen in Tennessee.

We landed at Blacksmith Bayou campgrounds after punching in another 11 or so trail miles, around 3 or 4pm-ish.  The road was blocked off and the campsites were deserted.  A sign just past the entrance said, “No Fees, No Service.  Practice safe social distancing,” or something to that effect.  Translation: camp where you want, dig a hole if you need to poop.  Blacksmith Bayou was pretty cool as a whole.  All the campsites were on a peninsula, marsh on the East and west sides, a boatably sized river on the north.  I had to hike 1/4 mile from our campsite down to the river a couple times for our water, not bad for an enjoyable walk.

Plan is for an early day tomorrow.  We have our first long stretch of road walking and are going to try and knock it our early.

NCT Mile 803 to 823

The strangest noises of the forest happen right around dusk.  Large lumbering creatures test the boundaries of your campsite while smaller critters do a quick pass for food.  All of that stuff happened last night but the best nature show didn’t start until midnight.  A large bird that Brianna initially thought was a “confused goose”, did circles around the blacksmith bayou, calling out into the night.  The bird call sounded like, “HOOONK, hoonk”.  Obviously, my well written description of the bird call has lead you to have figured what it was on your own… a sand hill crane!

The crane seemed to annoy Shauna and Brianna, but I found it oddly relaxing with a touch of sadness.  He landed after his circles and continued calling out into the night.  No one answered.  (We did see him/her fly away in the morning, with a friend :-)).

Our plan was to leave camp by 0700 this morning, which turned out to be more like 0715.  Fifteen minutes late isn’t bad.  Shauna felt bad because she was the last one out.  I tried to explain that it makes total sense to me.  Brianna and I are two people with a simple setup.  Shauna was one person with a fairly complex hammock tent setup.  By the time Brianna has everything rolled up in the tent, I’ve got her coffee ready and the water bottles filled or situated.  By the time I take down the tent, Brianna is drinking coffee and has breakfast ready or has already eaten.  We just need to learn how to work as a three person team and get better.  This was the first time I began to doubt whether or not Shauna would make the entire trail with us.  She mentioned on several occasions how out of shape she was and how she might need Rick to pick her up on Tuesday or Wednesday.  I tried to talk her back up, she was kicking butt, but it’s hard to turn the mental train back in the right direction once it has started going backwards.

The day was long and hot, but forest cover make it enjoyable for the first 10 miles.  The road walk we had been so concerned about was really just a dirt road, not bad at all.  We had some water concerns as the heat turned up but were richly rewarded by the Nine Mile Bridge.  A beautiful spot to grab cold normal color water while we worked out a new plan.

A new plan?  Yes, we wanted to go to Bear Track Campground about 17 miles into the day.  That plan had been kiboshed when the Ranger Station finally called me back.  There are no natural sources of water at that campsite and I wanted to be absolutely sure that we would have water after a 17 mile day.  The Ranger lady told me that while the website said the water had been turned on, it was in fact not on.  She tried to explain to me that websites take time to update and that COVID had made a mess of things.  I understand that… but the water was turned off for the winter, last winter, before COVID.  If anything, the site should have still said water was not available rather than the other way around.  Anyway, I digress.  We needed a new plan.

It was about this time that Shauna informed us that she would not be continuing on the trail and that Rick would be picking her up at Nine Mile Bridge.  Brianna and I were both sad because she was doing really good, but we understood.  Sometimes knowing when you need to get off the trail and doing it is harder than starting in the first place.  And really, in hindsight, I’m so glad she did not have to endure the second part of this day with us.

The first half of the day was warm and lovely.  The second half of the day was hot and fucking terrible.  The trail will teach you humility by breaking down your soul with the sandpaper of truth.  I say that, but the trail doesn’t care, it’s just a trail.  The reality is that if you put yourself in a situation where crazy shit can happen, crazy shit will eventually go down.  That’s what long distance hiking is, putting yourself out there and figuring things out.

We left Nine Mile Bridge fully stocked with water and into the second part of our hike by around 1pm.  This was our first mistake.  We thought it would be good to make more miles sooner and get to the new targeted water source at a decent time.  Unlike the morning, the trail was a forest of baby oak trees and provided little shade.  It was too hot to keep hiking and the mosquitos would not allow us to stop for very long.  We submitted after about an hour and threw the tent under the shade of a larger oak tree and took turns napping on and off for about an hour.

As the day wore on and we approach the first possible water sources, it became clear that they were bogs.  Possible to filter, yes, but disgusting.  Mosquitoes got worse and just wore us down to each of our breaking points.  It’s weird when you get to the point of a mental and physical break down but can’t stop because you’re in the middle of nowhere.  Brianna eventually remembered that we have mosquito nets for our heads and we charged on.  Our last hope for water that day was a place called… Muckwa creek.  And yeah, it was mucky, but not a bog.  We marched past the creek for a bit and hastily threw the tent up in a less than ideal spot, slanting in a less than ideal way.

We cooked dinner and laughed about the sweaty mess we found ourselves in.  A 20 trail mile day and this is how it ends.  We are about to go to sleep to the sounds of a million mosquitoes chomping at the bit to bite us.  Brianna says it sounds like a nascar race and I have to agree.  Too bad neither of us like NASCAR.  There is also something with hoofs lumbering and snorting relatively close to the tent.  This should be an interesting night.

NCT Mile 823 to 828

No breakfast.  No coffee.  On the count of three, we break down camp and hike out of here like yesterday didn’t happen.  I did filter out a couple bottles of muck water before we left, and they tasted as bad as drinking muck water sounds.  It’s amazing how much less water you need when camp consists of setting up and passing out.  In a normal camp, we are drinking water to hydrate, using it to cook food, coffee, and using it to clean our feet etc.  It ends up being about 8 liters, and then I still have to fill them back up before we start the hiking day.

The best plan we had to start the day was little more than hope meets wish.  We could see on the map that there was a small town after only 3 or 4 miles of hiking and that town had a Campground.

Our bodies were actually feeling pretty great after the shenanigans of yesterday.  Feet were dirty but shoes were dry.  It turns out, sometimes the trail blaze markers lead you through a knee deep bog and knee deep bogs can get a little water in your shoes.  We almost put our camp shoes on before walking through but didn’t.  It’s true what they say about trail runner shoes, they dry fast.

We arrived at the campground around 0730 and began looking at options.  The Campground website said they were not taking non-seasonal reservations but their Facebook page and Facebook messager had differing messages.  Brianna successfully reserved a cabin for the evening and we waited for something to happen.  The sign on the office door said, “if you have reservations, please go to your site and wait, we will be with you during business hours.” Perfect.  We sat at the picnic table for breakfast and coffee and waited.

It wasn’t that we couldn’t continue hiking that day, it was that we wanted a win and a break.  There was also the looming wind storm coming later in the evening that seemed likely to bring another miserable night.  

We must have waited until around noon before the Campground responded to our Facebook message.  They apologized for the differing communications, but they were not accepting reservations until Friday.  I tried to explain our situation: hikers seeking shelter, website already accepted our payment.  Our message went unread and we decided that all there was left to do was move on.  Actually, Brianna and I bickered about the situation and stewed silently for a while before I decided to use the campground’s bathroom to fill up our waters and we walked on.

New plan:  find a safe place in the woods to ride out a wind storm?  We were defeated, again.

We continued our road walk for about a half mile in silence.  I noticed a camper in a driveway that said “Vista Cruiser” on it so I jokingly said, “Brianna, look, it’s a Vista Cruiser!  You can literally Cruise the Vista!”  Which is a line from one of her favorite “That 70s Show” episodes.  Then, a lady popped her head out and said, “what’s that?”.  Embarrassed, I attempted to quickly exchange pleasantries and hike on, but she pressed more.

“Are you hikers?  Do you need anything?”  Brianna explained our situation and within the hour Laurie had offered us a bed in the Vista Cruiser to sleep on, full access to their lake, fishing boat, and she was also going to cook us burgers for dinner.  In exchange, all they really wanted was to hear our stories and to tell us theirs.  Laurie and Mike (her husband) even had their grand kids over at the time, Brianna tried to teach them Rummy and I lost a few games of war.

I’m filled with gratitude.  It amazes me how quickly the pendulum of chance can swing from one extreme to another.  

✅Jump in lake



✅Drink beer

✅Eat Home Cookeed burger & brot 

✅Charge phone and batteries

✅Socialize with and trust complete strangers

I don’t usually talk this way, but here goes.  Thank you universe. (But mostly – Thank you Laurie & Mike got being the amazing Trail Angels that you are!!)

NCT Mile 828 to 841

So thankful.  So filled with joy.  We slept through the wind storm in as safe a spot as there could be, the Vista Cruiser.  The AC in the trailer didn’t work so Brianna slept on the bed with her head near the open window and I put my sleeping mat on the floor next to the open door.  It probably won’t surprise you to hear that we woke up to home brewed coffee, scrambled eggs with sausage and buttered toast.  We swapped more stories for about an hour over a standing kitchen breakfast before packing up and hitting the road again.  I can’t say enough about the generosity of strangers, friends that we haven’t yet met.

Our plan for the day was to try and beat the weather, make it to the Sulak campground by around 6pm.  As per usual, things did not go according to plan.  Thunder started rolling over the hillsides around noon.  We stopped to rain gear up and then beat foot as fast as would could off of the ridge line we found ourselves on.  The trail met up with an old dirt road with a small clearing just before the big rain and lightning started.  We dropped packs and threw up the tent quick as we could and took shelter.  Lightning & thunder were about 12-15 seconds apart so we felt fairly safe just riding it out for a bit.  We didn’t have enough data to get weather info for ourselves but Mel was texting Brianna Radar updates, our “eyes in the sky”.  Pretty much everywhere in Michigan was getting rocked, and hard.  We were lucky, again.

The forced weather break made for an excellent excuse to eat some lunch and siesta, so we did both.

After breaking shelter and hiking for another few miles, we came across a little campground called Timber Creek Trailhead.  I hadn’t realized it before, but it was a proper campground with drinking water and vault toilets.  Sulak campgrounds, our intended destination was still about three miles away… but why leave a good thing once you’ve found it?  More rain was due in the evening and we had perfect campsites to choose from and hardened bathroom structures if shit got hairy during the storm.  If there is one thing we have learned on this trip it’s not to pass up a great thing at a great time.  So we paid the $10 fee at the little drop box and made camp.

Side note on the drinking water: I wish there was a video of me hand pumping that thing with one hand and trying to catch the water with a bottle in the other hand. I was wet and probably looked silly. The water was cold, delicious and worth it.

The rain is starting to pour, the wind beginning to whip; we are home.

NCT Mile 841 to 855.5

A night full or wind and rain, mostly restful.  Wind so strong that It seemed as though the tent would lift off from the ground at times!  Luckily, or skillfully, Brianna and I assembled it properly tight such that nothing helicoptered off into the night or collapsed in on us.  

We fell asleep to a mixture or storm and our neighbors watching what sounded like a kung fu movie.  First people we have seen on the trail in a few days and it turned out to be a sweet old couple in Motor home, Jeep in tow.  They come out to Timber Creek trailhead for about a week every year.  Not only is Timber Creek a trailhead for hiking, but it’s also a trailhead for jeeps to off-road.  It makes sense, we cross over four wheeler / Jeep trails every few miles.

It took a few turns of our internal ignition keys but we finally made it out of the tent and into our normal routines around 0630.  We needed to make good time today, every mile could get in meant one less mile to do tomorrow.  So naturally, we hiked the first seven miles of the day by 1100 and then took a three hour break.  We came across a sweet remote camping site @ Bowman Lake and were more than ready for a lunch break.  The tent was went from the storms so we needed to set it up for drying out… then, once it was dry, we napped for a couple hours.  Pretty sweet little afternoon.  

The day ended up with 13ish trail miles, even with the extended break.  And to clarify, trail miles are miles that count on the map, not the amount of walking we actually do in a day.  There is probably about 1/4 mile of non trail walking per actual trail mile.  These non-trail miles can be from getting lost, exploring side trails, wondering off to poop; use your imagination.

Our camp for the night was planned to be under the red pines next to a creek.  We did make it here, just had another hasty setup as a random thunderstorm popped up almost immediately after our arrival.  Dusk is coming soon and I’m excited to hear what sounds this part of the forest will be bringing our way this chillier than normal eve.  

Tomorrow is our 10 year anniversary and have plans to meet up with family at Walkup Lake Campgrounds!  Until then, happy trails!

NCT Mile 855.5 to 868.5

Slugs were slimming around the outside of the tent in every direction our blurry eyes could see this morning.  I’m not sure if slugs and pine trees go together, or if was the colder temperatures, but this was our first time encountering an army of shelless snails.  

The mornings where we are dispersed camping are always a bit more chaotic than when we are at established campgrounds.  There are no tables or flat surfaces.  There are no clean places to set gear while you organize the pack unless you get it all done while still in the tent. Do you pack out the tent and then make coffee or make the coffee before packing out the tent?  Life decisions on the trail, let me tell ya what.

Today was pretty much a dead on sprint to the finish line of Walkup Lake Campground.  Penny and Shauna were due to meet us there with a buffet of trail magic food; they did not disappoint.  Brianna has two basic speeds of hiking.  Her normal pace, which is pretty fast, or the lunch/dinner shuffle, which is even more fast.  With today being a buffet shuffle, you can imagine at what quick pace that might have been.

The most notable part of today’s trail were the wetlands.  Trails led through at least five miles of nothing but wetlands.  A quarter of that five miles was wooden walking bridges and stepping logs joined together by planks on the top.  Not an easy area to Brianna shuffle on.  Even at the higher speed, I do feel like we took the time to appreciate the uniquely valuable area it is.  A sign on both ends of the wetlands is quick to remind you that: “Over half of Michigan’s wetlands have been filled or drained since 1850.  I’m guessing that made a few people a bunch of money.  I wish this made me feel like the other 50% are safe.

Brianna has not made a single wrong turn the entire time we’ve been on the trail… until today.  Instead of going straight down the path, where it was clearly marked, she takes a left down a rather steep hill.  The map said we still had a half mile left before hitting a road and doing a road walk to the campgrounds.  Nowhere on the map did this side trail even exist, and yet, Brianna unknowingly takes a wrong turn the led directly to Shauna and Penny.  Mother Daughter bond or fat girl intuition?  I’ll let you be the judge.

Shauna and Penny were able to snag one of the two best camping spots on the grounds.  There were about ten other camping spots up the hill, only two by the lake.  The spots on the hill were fine but that’s also where all the people were.  There were kids, dogs, yelling parents and generators; we couldn’t hear any of that down by the lake.  And these federal campgrounds are only $10 a night.  How did we not know about all these before now?

The day and night were more than perfect.  Penny cooked us homemade goulash, we got Shauna’s special pasta salad, and everything else we could’ve imagined.  More things than I can remember to list.  I’ll just say that there was beer and cheesecake. Just when we thought we were full, my buddy Curt shows up with a White Cloud pizza and cheese bread.  We drank by the fire late into the evening before eventually retiring to our tents.

This was a very happy anniversary.

NCT Mile 868.5 to 883.5

I’ve been thinking about a couple terms thrown around the hiker world, “hiker legs” & “hiker hunger”.  

Hiker hunger is the idea that once you’ve been hiking for a few day or weeks straight, you can eat like a bottomless pit.  I put this to the test last night.  One of the things I haven’t seen referenced in hiker YouTube videos or books is what happens at 0330 the morning after your gorge out.  It’s a long lonely walk to the crapper, and what happens next is not something I will detail.

Hiker legs is the idea that once you’ve been hiking for a few days or weeks, your legs adjust and you can do 20-25 miles regularly.  We have found that our legs are never the things to get tired first, it’s our feet.  Maybe hiker feet would be a more appropriate term?  It makes me think that there really might be something more to the ultralight hiking gear.  Carry less weight, feet last longer and stay healthier, hike more miles.  Learn to carry the appropriate amount of water while also never letting a known water source pass you by in search of an unknown.  More thinking to be done on this.

The trail angel crew hung out and watched us eat our breakfast and get ready for the trail.  We said our goodbyes and got back to hiking around 0830.  For the first time on the trail, we didn’t have a goal to be anywhere at any specific time.  It’s true that we want to be finished on Monday, but there are only something like 42 miles left for any way we want to slice them.  Our intention was to hike slowly but probably end up with big miles.

Taking it slow today was easy.  We stopped at almost every river crossing, even had second coffee with a stroopwaffle.  The hiking a long day was a bit harder.  We took a pre-dinner break at a creek to cook dinner, refill water, and then eat when we felt ready.  Everything was prepped for hiking into the evening… until a really sweet camping spot presented itself around mile 15.  It was across from a pond that we didn’t feel like grabbing water from so we just dry camped it and called it a night.  Probably the quickest either of us have fallen asleep on the trail, the best we’ve ever slept as well.