A month after my first backpacking trip, I was signed up for another group hike–this time, a different group. We would be hiking the Manistee River Trail, and a section of the North Country Trail which covered the opposite side of the Manistee River. Right from the start, this was another good learning experience, as I arrived at what I thought was the trailhead, only to discover that no one else was there, and I had no internet service to do any research or communication to figure out where I was supposed to be. After a little frantic exploration, I found my Meet Up group a little further down the highway, and frantically threw on my pack and hoofed it from the parking lot to where they had gathered. I was only a couple of minutes late, but I felt like it had been noted. Luckily, another woman who seemed to know everyone came hurrying along a few minutes later, making me feel better about the whole situation.
We took off for a three to four mile hike to the site where we would camp for the night, beginning with a steep hill that winded me so quickly that I wondered if I should just go back to my car. The man leading the group was over 6-foot tall, with a very long stride, and it seemed that most of the rest of the group either fit into a similar description, or were just crazy fit. It was on this first climb that I was introduced to the “fuck you break,” in which the leader stops to let everyone catch up to them, taking off again when the slowest person has rejoined the group, never allowing that person an actual break. With a trekking pole in one hand and a Camelback water bottle in the other, I struggled along, relieved to see some of the others beginning to sound a little winded, too.
Eventually, the steep climb evened out into switchbacks that traversed the rest of the hill, and we stopped at a backcountry site near the top. Our leader and his crew hung their hammocks at the very top of the hill, affording them an incredible view, while the rest of us pitched tents a little lower. It was just starting to drizzle a little, but a couple of guys in the group got a huge fire going, and we sat in our rain gear and ate dinner, talking about the pros and cons of various dehydrated meals, commercial and homemade. The rain eventually stopped, and we had a peaceful evening under the stars until it was bedtime. After nearly freezing to death on my last backpacking trip, I was thrilled to find that between the warmer April temperatures and my new sleeping bag liner, I was cozy for the night.
The following morning, I made oatmeal in a Ziploc bag, brewed a cup of tea, and felt right at home sitting around the hot coals of the fire with the rest of the group. We packed up camp and set out–it was clear, and a little cold, and beautiful. Without leaves on the trees, I could see for miles, over the hills, valley, and river. The trail was narrow and rutted with roots, and more than once I thought that it would be quite a fall if you lost your footing. I felt challenged as we hiked, struggling a bit to keep up, but never falling terribly behind. More than once, I got the impression that there was no one there to help, if I did find the pace too tough–that I’d just have to figure it out myself. I may have been wrong about this, but it made an impression on me–no room for crybabies.
Later in the day, after a lunch break, we took another stop on a high bank with a wide view of the river bends. We sprawled on the dry ground and used our backpacks as pillows for a short rest. I had to laugh a few minutes later when I noticed turkey vultures circling.
The miles began to add up, and I contemplated just how long we were going to hike. The original plan had been to hike three miles the first night, and then split the remainder over Saturday and Sunday, but since rain was in the forecast for Sunday, we had agreed to make Saturday a longer day. After 13 miles, I was wondering just how much longer. My feet felt like they were getting blistery, but I was worried that if I stopped to tend to them, the group would just keep moving. Things became even more uncomfortable when some of the group began to complain about wanting to stop, to which our leader replied, “I don’t make the trail.” There were a variety of areas where dispersed camping would have been a possibility, so his unwillingness to stop or even discuss the matter seemed unreasonable. He and his sister bickered back and forth over a few more miles, and finally, another hiker, who had been pretty quiet, reminded our leader that he had said we would stop and rest for five minutes every mile or so, and that she needed a break to fuel up. I noticed her insulin pump as she adjusted her hip belt, and realized that maintaining proper blood sugar levels on this marathon was probably a challenge. We bonded over Clif bars, and got moving a few minutes later.
Finally, after 17 miles, we arrived at a campsite that our leader deemed acceptable. It was a beautiful spot near a stream with hemlocks that provided dense cover. I felt like an expert as I set up my tent, filtered drinking water, and arranged my gear. A few minutes later, I joined the group around the fire to eat dinner and chat. All of the earlier crossness was forgotten, as full bellies improved everyone’s mood. My feet were even happy–no blisters, just tired. I couldn’t believe that I had survived a 17 mile hike with a fully-loaded backpack. At that point, I had never actually weighed my backpack, but it was overloaded in the way that only a new backpacker is capable of. If I had to guess, I’d say at least 40 pounds.
The next morning, I awoke to the patter of rain on my tent fly. The sound had been in and out of my dreams for hours, and I was reluctant to leave my cozy, dry tent. It seemed that nobody else was up and around. I scavenged a peanut butter packet from my Loksak and that constituted breakfast. Finally, I heard the unmistakable sound of others cooking breakfast and packing up, so I peeked out and was greeted by the sight of my neighbor’s tent surrounded by water. She had pitched in a low spot, and later told me that she woke up floating on her Thermarest. I was amazed by how good natured she was about having to pack up from the middle of a pond, and glad that I’d paid attention to high and low spots the night before when I chose a spot for my tent. Later, I learned that I could have been even warmer if I’d chosen ground that was even a little higher.
Setting off in the rain was muddy and depressing, and I was soon stuffy and hot inside my raincoat, debating whether or not it was worth wearing. The trail was slippery and rooted, so I had to watch every step. But before I even felt like I had gotten into the groove, we were back to our cars. Our marathon hike the day before meant we’d only had two miles to cover, and we were finished in no time. While I had been cursing our group leader the day before, I did appreciate that he had saved us a long, muddy slog by covering so much ground on Saturday.
With this trip under my belt, I felt ready to tackle my next hike: Pictured Rocks.
2 thoughts on “Becoming a Backpacker, Chapter 4: A Forced March on the MRT”
Jen, you are amazing. Where did you get this stamina and desire to hike so far? I think I would have been strangling that hike leader. I will read more.
I remember being at the end of a cross country skiing group (your mom and dad were included in that) and they would be resting and since I was a slow poke, I came in close to last and wouldn’t get a rest. I identified with your description of the “Fuck You Break.” The number of miles you hike, in inclement weather, the gear you have, how you cook your food and filter water and your writing and photography… all amaze me. Trek on dear niece.
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