Becoming a Backpacker, Chapter 5: Pictured Rocks

I was feeling practically like an expert as I prepared for a long weekend hike of Pictured Rocks in May. I expected that it could be at least as cold in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as it had been on my two previous backpacking trips in lower Michigan, even though it was later on in the spring, but I felt like I had my cold weather sleeping system dialed in a bit better. Four days of rain in the forecast had me a bit worried, so I added a blue tarp from Home Depot to my kit, which put me up to about 44 pounds including food and water. Looking back, the blue tarp cracks me up… I had no idea that such things as light weight tarps even existed. So much to learn…

I arrived at a municipal park in Seney the night before I was to meet my group, and discovered how intimidating it can be to camp alone in a somewhat public place. I didn’t want to sit out and have a fire, advertising to anyone who drove by that I was a woman alone, but going to bed at 7 p.m. seemed like it could end with being wide awake at 3 a.m., so I read in my tent for a while, and eventually heard a car pull up and a woman say, “Hello?”

This was Mikayla, who had gamely signed up for this trip when she heard a fellow classmate talking about it. Her tent was still in its box, fresh from REI, and her backseat an explosion of things she thought she might need. She figured out the tent, and then we went to bed, with plans to get up early, make breakfast, then meet the rest of our group at the Grand Sable Visitor’s Center at the eastern end of the Pictured Rocks National Scenic Lakeshore.

The plan for our first day hiking Pictured Rocks got a later start than we expected because the other two people we were meeting up with had been camping in the Porkies for the previous few days, which had been wet and miserable. They were at a laundromat trying to get their gear dry before this new adventure began. After staging a car at the eastern point of the trail, we got dropped off in Munising and were ready to get started, but couldn’t find the trail–there was a sign that it had been closed and rerouted, and it took us a few minutes to figure out where the reroute began. I felt a little silly–all this planning and I couldn’t even find the trail?

One of the smaller mud holes we encountered.

The mud was a defining characteristic of our first day’s hike (and most days that followed, as well). There were puddles so big they looked like ponds, and I was most grateful for my waterproof Keens. None of that winter’s blowdowns had been cleaned up yet, so there was a lot of climbing over prickly, sap-covered pines and other obstacles. The first steep climb required some scrabbling in the mud, and I wondered if I could actually do this. The only out was the car parked 40-some miles down the trail, though, so I decided to get into that “Embrace the Suck” mentality. At one particularly daunting mud hole, I saw a porcupine picking his way across, and figured if he could manage, so could I.

It was a 16-mile hike to our first night’s camp site, and because of our late start, I was torn between stopping to enjoy the amazing views that began to occur as we neared Chapel Beach, or to just keep hiking in the hopes of having some daylight for putting up my tent. We arrived around twilight, got our camp set up, and enjoyed the sunset. We discovered that some jerk had left the remains of their hotdog picnic in the bearbox in our campsite, which smelled like something that would definitely attract a bear. We stored our food in the neighboring site’s bearbox, and hoped for the best. We made it through the night without incident, and the rain that was predicted never appeared, which was a lovely surprise. 

The next morning, I discovered that my oatmeal had a funky, metallic taste. I could barely choke it down. That evening, I had the same complaint with my couscous–I couldn’t quite figure it out. I switched to eating my snacks as meals, and since I had brought way too much food, I had plenty. I eventually discovered that my stainless steel pot was the culprit–a good excuse to upgrade! 

My overloaded pack, including a heavy blue tarp in case of rain. SMH

The following day we headed toward Sevenmile Creek, just shy of 12 miles away. With both an earlier start and shorter distance than our first day, we had time to bask in the amazing views, stopping at the Coves beach for our lunch break and chatting with a park ranger.

One of our group members got an extra bit of hiking in when she came back from a bathroom break and took off on the trail in the wrong direction. Thank goodness for that old car in the middle of nowhere–it makes a good landmark. When she reached it, she realized she had headed the wrong way and was able to find her way back to the group. We had chalked her absence up to “She stops to take pictures of everything–it will probably take her forever to catch up,” but that was a lesson learned–wait for your group members, even when they tell you, “Go on ahead–I’ll catch up.”

How did this car end up in the woods?

We saw very few hikers on the trail–maybe a dozen in total. The scenic areas that had parking lots nearby often had a few people, but for the most part, we were alone.

Hurricane River entering Lake Superior

The following day we headed toward Masse Homestead, about 10 miles away. The trail had been rerouted because the dunes had collapsed at the Log Slide scenic overlook; the viewing platform had broken away and slid 100 feet down the dune. The reroute looked dangerously close, anyway, and I was happy to get through that section of the hike.

Masse Homestead was an interesting spot, on the backside of Grand Sable Dunes. We were close enough to Lake Superior to hear the waves, but the climb up the dune to get there was more energy than I could muster. Instead, we enjoyed the green carpet of plant life that was beginning to sprout, and had a fire in the first designated fire pit we had encountered at any of our sites. I can only assume that this site is named for someone who homesteaded there. In my various travels through the U.P. it has always amazed me that people have decided to call its more remote areas home. This backside of a sand dune didn’t seem like a great place to try to farm, and I wondered how the Masse folks had made out. What an incredibly hard life it must have been to try to live off of the land when the growing season is so short and the winter is so harsh. 

The joys of having a campfire!

It drizzled in the night, for the first time on our trip, and I felt lucky to have only had one morning of packing up a wet tent. We hiked off toward the Grand Sable Visitor’s Center, four miles away. We got a little confused on the road walk, and walked some trail that was not part of our plan, so our trip was a little longer than expected, but I wasn’t completely ready for the trip to be over, anyway. 

After arriving at our cars and taking off toward home, we stopped at a convenience store in Seney, using their bathroom to change into fresh clothes and clean up a bit, and bought enough junk food for the drive, and ice cream cones to celebrate our accomplishment. 

In addition to the beautiful scenery, and the feelings of accomplishment, one of the highlights of this trip was having planned it with another hiker (whom I hadn’t even met in person before this trip) and feeling like part of a team. It also gave me more of an appreciation for those who had planned the two previous backpacking trips I’d been on earlier that spring. This is a trip I would love to do again, now that I’ve lightened my pack a bit, but I would probably spread it out over a longer period of time so that I could spend more time soaking in the views. I loved being there in May–no bugs, hardly any other people–it more than made up for the mud!

Published by lovesmichiganoutdoors

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, stand-up-paddle boarding, sailing... exploring Michigan is my passion! Instagram: @jenren_hikes

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