Sunday, November 9, 2008

Muskegon Hiker Does the Manistee NCT - A Long Walk In the Woods

Hart-Montague Rail Trail
by Bruce Sparks of Muskegon

The best way I can think to describe my week is this slight modification of the title of Bill Bryson's book on his ill-fated journey on the Appalachian Trail. His book is titled, "A Walk in the Woods". Over and over during the week I found myself talking to myself and saying that I was just enjoying a long walk in the woods. And really that is just what it was.

I noticed that my wife looked a little uncertain as I shouldered the pack and headed off down the trail away from Mesick, Michigan. Her discomfort might have grown a little as not 20 minutes after she left me we both heard the same thunder and were in the same storm. Only Susan was dry in the car and I was getting my first good dousing of the early week. It rained off and on the rest of the day, night and morning of the next day. Interspersed among the rain drops were 4 fairly substantial hail storms. I actually preferred the hail since I didn't get wet from the little icy pellets as they bounced off me.....and with 5 layers of clothes on I didn't feel them either.

This section of the North Country Trail had just been completed this summer and although officially certified and marked it was not yet on any of the trail maps I had purchased. The trail went right along the edge of the Hodenpyl Dam Pond....actually a large lake. It could have passed for one of the lakes in northern Canada that I have loved canoeing in so much.

Next I encountered the most demanding section of my hike as you go up and down following the ridges on the west side of the Manistee River Valley. Taking this long walk in November was an advantage because with 50% of the leaves already fallen you could see through the foliage and enjoy the views from the highest spots in the area. Yet there were still enough leaves and color to make it a spectacular view. It had been a long time since I had tried a long distance hike like this and I was unsure of my limitations But by the time it got pitch dark at 7:20pm (the sun had officially set around 6:40) I had covered over 18 miles comfortably that first day. That was a confidence builder.

The biggest disadvantage to hiking in November is that darkness comes early forcing you off the trail and into your tent. Then you can feel trapped waiting for the first signs of dawn that didn't come until just after 8:00am on this particular week. My pattern was to take a break on the trail and eat dinner and then not stop walking until at least 6:45 pm when I would put up my tent in twilight. The next morning I would be out of the tent by 7am and after packing up quickly (because it was cold) I would follow the trail for the first 30 minutes or so by the light of my small flashlight. I slept really well most nights.

At the end of the Day #2 I was way ahead of where I thought I would be. As I pitched my tent in a grove of big spruce trees it snowed big fluffy flakes for about 30 minutes. It was a Christmas type scene and I think I even sang a couple of Christmas carols out loud as I was settling in. Kind of magical.

One particular section on the next day had just one variety of tree that had golden yellow leaves. Most of the leaves had recently fallen and the whole area was blanketed in golden leaves that had not yet curled or dulled as they dried out. The whole area was an unbroken carpet of bright yellow and gold. Wow.

I was looking forward to a brighter warmer day for Day #4 and it was slowly warming up. At lunch I stopped to eat right on the banks of the Pere Marquette River. Not long after I began to prepare my lunch three older fishermen came floating down the river and chose to stop at this same spot for lunch. They had a big cooler full of food. They didn't offer me anything at all, but I wasn't coveting their stash because I was preparing another hot MRE for my meal.

I decided to stop at 3pm at a National Forest Campground because I wanted to build a fire that night and felt more comfortable doing so in one of the steel fire pits. I had fantasized about someone leaving a whole stack of nicely stacked unused wood at one of the campsites thus meaning I would not even have to gather wood. But that was just a fantasy and not reality. But it wasn't hard to gather my own and soon I had a blazing fire going. The sky was completely clear and I was camping in the field under a magnificent blanket of stars, that were not all dimmed by moonlight or any street lights or lights from town. It has been a long time since I sat for hours by a fire under a sky like that.

Day #5. This is an 8 mile section of trail in which you walk past six small lakes. As I walked down the trail towards the lakes the sun was coming high into the sky and warming everything up. For a while I walked with outstretched arms just trying to soak it all in. I sat down for 30 minutes or so just before noon at the first lake that I came to. I'm sure this lake wasn't even an acre big but it was beautiful with the fall colors bordering it. The light breeze was blowing across the surface and the sunlight was sparkling as if the lake was full of diamonds just below the surface. I can be mesmerized watching the patterns in the water.

On Day #7 I passed a solo hiker who was able to tell me that I was about a two hour hike from the end at Croton Dam and so I was able to call my wife who met me soon after I finished at 3:30. The maps says I walked 139 miles during the week.

The best memory was watching a bald eagle swoop over one of the small lakes. I began to think how I could not have enjoyed this glorious moment if not for some of the less pleasant moments that preceded it......the cold of the night before, the monotony of some of the miles, the chill of the rain. None of those times were so bad and I even enjoyed them in an odd way but they weren't highlight moments. They were the kind of moments that most of life is made up of. Some rough times, but mostly okay times... even good times, but not earth-shaking thrilling stop the presses times. But it seems to me that if I will be faithful and consistent in these more mundane times then the reward is the occasional incredible moment that is simply priceless. I think it applies to our marriages and a lot of other things. I want to keep on going, trying to be steady as I journey.

I have already had far more incredibly great mind blowing moments and memories then I deserve. But I believe there are more ahead if I don't stop.

See North Country Trail Association
These links are checked on the date of the article. As the article ages, some links may become invalid

Go To for all the news
See North Country Trail- Manistee County
See North Country Trail- Mason County
See North Country Trail- Lake County
See Get Off The Couch


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading about the trail. Maybe I'll get a chance to hike this in 2009. I hope so.
--tom owens,

Sharkbytes (TM) said...

Hi Tom- It's really close! At least take some day hikes. We love to hear about people who use the trail.

Anonymous said...

Hey there,

Nice description! It's fantastic to hear that there are at least 140 more miles of the trail. You can actually pick it up near White Cloud.

I hiked for 2 1/2 months and 900+ miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2007 before an injury to my hiking partner took us off of the trail ( I'm planning on heading back to it this summer and need to do a bunch of training hikes to get ready. Looks like I'll be walking in your footsteps this spring. :)

Jason Bobier
New Era

Sharkbytes (TM) said...

Jason- sounds great. The NCT miles in the Manistee are some of the first that were completed over 20 years ago. Two chapters work hard to keep them in good shape. There are lots of off road miles in Michigan. You might also want to check out

Related Posts with Thumbnails