This weekend I got my butt kicked by the hills on the Waterloo-Pinckney trail near Ann Arbor, Michigan. Who knew there was terrain this punishing in the lower peninsula, much less close to a major city?
I met my friends at the rustic cabin at the Waterloo State Recreation Area Portage Lake campground on Friday. These rustic cabins make such a great base camp in the winter, when it’s dark by 6:00 p.m. and the sun rises late in the morning, not to mention the benefit of a propane heater or wood stove.
We spent Friday evening around a bonfire, enjoying each other’s tomfoolery and the beautiful crescent moon. After spending a comfortable night in the cabin’s bunks, Jeff and Tammy made breakfast burritos and we headed out to explore. After a quick detour on the Marsh trail, we walked to the western terminus of the Waterloo-Pinckney trail, near the boat launch at the Portage Lake Campground. (The Waterloo-Pinckney trail runs 36 miles, with the eastern terminus at Green Lake.) We didn’t have a solid plan–possibly hike until noon, have lunch on the trail, and then head back to the cabin to arrive home before dark, or take a shorter morning hike, lunch at the cabin, and then an afternoon hike.
A few hundred feet into the snowy, icy trail I decided that I would not wait until I had fallen at least once to put on my Yaktrax, so we found a big log and sat down to have an easier time of wrestling them onto our boots. In the freshly fallen snow, we saw tracks of numerous deer, turkey, raccoon and squirrel. We passed marshy areas and forests with ropy vines in the trees, and giant indentations in the earth that I believe are glacial kettles. Although the birds were not active, there was plenty of evidence of a healthy woodpecker population. It was gray and snowing little ice pellets. Each time we stopped for a break, the snow piled up on our clothing, and we decided that having lunch back at the cabin would be a better move than stopping to eat in the woods. What we originally thought would just be an out-and-back turned into a loop by way of Joe’s navigation skills, with just a short road walk, along which Tammy and I noticed a Hansel and Gretel-like trail of candy and a packet of cheese, which we picked up to add to lunch. (Just kidding! It went into the trash! Leave No Trace!)
After some snacks, and a little nap, we headed back to the Willis Road trailhead, where we had earlier abandoned the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, and began what on the Appalachian Trail is known as PUDs–pointless ups and downs. They weren’t really pointless, but they were hard for me, huffing and puffing away. (Clearly, I’m not getting in enough cardio on the treadmill, or enough time on trail!) The trail was beautiful, with its stark snow on the ground, views through the leafless forest, and burls and other interesting configurations in the trees. While my Gaia app said our highest ascent was only 300 feet, I think we must have climbed and descended 300 feet about a million times. (Maybe not a million, but a lot.) After reaching the Mt. Hope Road trailhead, we turned around and retraced our steps, as the sleet and snow fell gently off and on. Ever in search of a loop, Joe found an alternate route that took us back with only a partial retrace of our earlier path.
We stopped at the Portage Lake Parlor for dinner, where we feasted on burgers and beer. The waitress told us that hikers come to the Waterloo-Pinckney trail to train for mountain hikes, and I could see why. After heading back to the cabin, we cranked up the heaters, changed into dry clothes, and enjoyed another bonfire before heading to bed.
The following morning, Joe made French toast using a recipe that we got from some fishermen on Isle Royale who had generously fed Tammy, Joe, and me when we were there this summer, waiting to catch our plane–a good way to begin the morning. Our friend Jeff had to take off early, so we were a man down as we headed back to the Mt. Hope Road trailhead to begin the day’s hike.
It was much warmer, and I opted for hiking pants with no base layer, and a base layer long-sleeve shirt on top–choices that I did not regret. After a mile or so, I had even shed my light gloves. The sunshine was out, there were animal tracks everywhere, and even though the hills were numerous and my calves were a little frustrated after yesterday’s trials, it felt so good to be out in the woods for another day with my friends. As the day warmed to about 40-degrees, the snow got slushier and slushier, and the horse trail sections of path were muddy and torn up. Between the hills and the trail condition, it was a more challenging hiking, but as I whined a bit in my head, I also recognized what good training it was for future adventures.
*For anyone interested in renting the cabin we stayed at on Portage Lake, it’s available through the Michigan DNR campsite reservation system. It had a nice view of Portage Lake, with a deck and outdoor furniture. It would comfortably sleep four, as long as two of those people don’t mind sharing a double bed. It had a small fridge, a coffee pot, microwave, and electric lights.
*Also, the Portage Lake Parlor was a great find–so close to the park, with great food and service. This is the first winter that they have been open–in the past, they were only open seasonally, so if you’re hiking in the area, you may want to check them out. They even give free pickle spears to hikers to help with recovery!