I am a planner by nature. When I plan a trip, I research. I create an itinerary, print out a gear list, check all three of my weather apps… you get the picture. But, I have also learned that flexibility is a must. My parents’ favorite hobby is sailing, and most of the vacations we took when I was a kid involved hopping on the boat and sailing somewhere on Lake Michigan or Lake Huron. We quickly learned that if we planned to sail to Mackinac Island, no doubt the wind would be blowing unfavorably for that destination on the day of departure. Creating a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C was the norm, knowing that adjustments would likely be made along the way if we found a really cool place that we wanted to stay longer, or if the weather took a turn. This experience has served me well in my career as a high school teacher, and as I’ve developed an interest in backpacking.
When my friend Tammy and I embarked on a trip to hike from Wagner Falls in Munising, Michigan towards Marquette, Michigan, on the North Country Scenic Trail, we both had plenty of experience on the NCT in general, and using the Avenza app where you can download specific NCT maps that shows trailheads, campgrounds and mileage, and record your track on the NCT maps. We had plenty of backpacking experience together, and I was even celebrating the fact that I had gotten my total pack weight down below thirty pounds. We had made contingency plans for the fact that I had sprained my ankle three weeks earlier, and wasn’t entirely sure that it would be up for more than ten-mile days by having friends stage a car midway through our hiking distance, in case we needed to bail or have lower mileage days. We continued to check the weather, which showed lows in the 60s and a high of 80 for the days we’d be hiking. We knew the bugs would be fearsome, so long sleeves, pants, and bug nets, along with plenty of insect repellent, were packed.
We both had long drives to reach Munising, and planned to meet at Wagner Falls in early afternoon. After staging cars, we began hiking in the late afternoon sunshine, completing a mile of roadwalk before entering the woods. The trail was hilly and green, with glacial striations creating grooves through the landscape, and random boulders that had been left behind by the glaciers. The bugs and heat were not too bad, and when we encountered a picnic table at a trailhead after about four and a half miles of hiking, we decided to stop and cook dinner. Given that there was a water source nearby, and good hammock trees, we decided to camp near this spot, so we could filter more water in the morning, and make use of the picnic table again. (Finding the right camping spot when you are dispersed camping can be tricky–you’re always afraid that there is a better spot further along if you just hike a little longer.)Through the night, we heard barred owls and a strange huffing noise, which I later researched and discovered was likely a deer that was unhappy with our presence. In the morning, I woke up with a tickle of a sore throat, and a stuffy nose, which I hoped would dissipate after some hot coffee and movement. We cooked oatmeal and coffee back at the picnic table, and set off, prepared for a day of bugs and moderate heat. By midday, I was feeling the effects of the heat–hardly peeing at all, and mild nausea. We filtered water as often as possible, and I generally carried at least two liters ready to drink.
Despite frequent rests and lots of water, I was really feeling the heat. Tammy was patient and flexible, and we made a little over twelve miles before stopping for an extended rest in late afternoon in a beautiful hemlock grove on a ridge above a creek. There was a bit of breeze, shade, the bugs weren’t terrible and it was a pretty view. We decided that both Jack, Tammy’s dog, and I would benefit from calling it a day, getting a good night’s sleep, and hoping for a little cooler weather in the morning. We planned to get going as soon as one of us was awake, have a quick meal of Carnation Instant Breakfast, and take advantage of the cool morning air. That night I heard a great horned owl hooting and had a restful sleep.
The following day, we hiked an additional two miles out to our next stretch of road walk, passing a “lake” that we had debated about hiking to the previous night, as I love to swim after a long day on the trail. In this case, our decision to camp earlier along the trail turned out to be the right call, as the body of water indicated on the map was more swamp than lake. After turning onto a dirt road, a young woman passed us in a pickup truck, and stopped to see if we needed anything. We thanked her and waved her along, but as we watched her turn into a driveway up ahead at an organic flower farm, we realized that a quick water fill up might be had. She and her partner allowed us to fill up water bottles and introduced us to their giant dog, Richard. They indicated that after the trail left the road walk, it got a little marshy, but then dried out. They also gave us instructions for a stream crossing ahead.
The road walk continued on for several miles, gradual but steady uphill, with giant mud holes and swarms of mosquitoes. To stop and rest was to choose being bitten, as the mosquitoes managed to bite right through my long-sleeved shirt. (Later, I did more research and discovered that my long-sleeve tech shirt was rather worthless against the bugs because of its knit–that I should have chosen a more tightly woven fabric.) When we finally completed the road walk, it was with the anticipation of the fore-mentioned “swampy area.”
Shortly, we encountered an area of trail that was covered by two small bodies of water. We rolled up our pants, put on rubber shoes, and began to investigate. I tentatively walked across the first body of water, getting wet just to my ankles, and stood on a grass tuft, evaluating the next section. It looked much deeper. I leaned forward to test the depth with my trekking poles, and slid into the water up to my waist. While it took me by surprise, and there was probably some yelling, I was able to quickly climb back to solid ground. I was reminded of a similar incident last summer on Isle Royale–accidentally going waist deep in swamps seems to be my thing. Luckily, my sandals stayed attached to my feet instead of sucked off by muck, and we began to investigate other routes across. We eventually found a bridge that appeared to be a beaver dam (which explained the drastic depth of the water) and safely made our way across. I needed a few minutes to rinse out my mucky clothes and calm down from the adrenaline rush, so we took a break to snack.
As we continued on, the heat and bugs continued to plague us, and in many areas, there really was no trail–we were bushwhacking our way from one blaze to the next. Considering our altitude, it was amazing how much mud there was, and I had to laugh when we came across some rubber floor mats from a Ford Bronco that had been left in a muddy rut in the two track we were walking–clearly someone had gotten themselves unstuck but had been unwilling to stop and retrieve the mats for fear of bogging down again. Normally a two track walk is pretty easy, but for the next mile or so we had to “swim” through the brush that clogged the “road.” When we reached a clearing with a little shade and a little breeze, we threw down our packs and prepared to rest for a good bit.
We knew that a stream crossing was coming up, but weren’t sure what it would be like. We were overjoyed to see that it was shallow, fast moving, with a bottom of sand and rock. We decided not only to filter water, but to cool off, ourselves. Sitting on a rock in this creek, pouring water over myself using the cup I carry to scoop water into my Sawyer bag was the absolute best.
After this glorious break, we continued on, but most of this is a haze in my memory. Despite frequent rests, and lots of water, I just couldn’t cool off. I felt woozy and discombobulated. I began to wonder if I was getting sick. I’d hiked in the heat many times before, and while it wasn’t comfortable, I’d always been able to manage it by wearing a hat, staying out of the sun, drinking enough water, and moving at a reasonable pace.
We arrived at a beautiful little stream crossing and waterfall by dinnertime, and decided to stay there to cook dinner, and then try to make the rest of our fourteen mile day after this break. I wiped down my face with cool water from the stream, and rested. After about an hour, we were ready to hike to complete our day. We headed to Laughing Whitefish Falls State Park. From Pipe Falls, it was about two miles to get inside of the park boundary and to the edge of the gorge, where we hoped the forest would open up enough to provide a breeze and some relief from the bugs.
As we hiked the final two miles, my pace became slower and slower, my legs feeling like they were made of lead. Sweat poured off of my face, and I was afraid I might vomit the small dinner I had eaten. We finally arrived at a suitable camping area, and I sat on a rock for about a half hour, trying to cool off before setting up my hammock. I was realizing that I was probably going to have to take advantage of the car we’d staged mid-hike, not because of my ankle, but because I was sick. I had noticed throughout the day that when my ibuprofen wore off, my body temp would rise, so that indicated fever. I tried to sip more water as I set up my hammock, and get a restorative sleep.
In the morning, I told Tammy of my plans to leave the hike when we reached my car, a couple miles away. She was supportive of my decision, and helped me map out where to go from there. I wasn’t sure if I should go to a clinic and get a Covid test, get a motel room and take a shower and try to sleep off whatever was ailing me, or call my family for help getting home. We decided that after we got to the car, we’d take some time to cool off, and make further decisions then.
I waited to drink my Carnation Instant Breakfast until I was all packed up, sure I would throw it up if I had to lean forward to stuff something into my pack on a full stomach. As we began hiking, I could handle the slow but steady flat ground, but each incline required slow steps and many rests. I have never hiked so slowly in my life. When we got to a big pine blowdown on a hill, the task of making my way through the debris seemed like the biggest challenge of my life. Tammy kept track of how much more elevation we had to go, how much further to the car, and encouraged me to rest when I needed, and go at my own pace. My Gaia recording indicates that it took two hours to hike just over two miles, only ascending 267 feet.
I thought I might cry when we finally saw my car. I could not wait to be done with this. After sitting in the air conditioning and guzzling more water, I began to feel a little less foggy. The car thermometer said it was 90 degrees, much hotter than had been predicted for the days we’d been hiking. When we got a little closer to civilization, I took my phone off of airplane mode and discovered a text message from my brother. His son, whom I had tent camped with in the backyard on Saturday night, had strep throat. Now at least I knew what was wrong with me!
Looking back over this situation, I wondered what I could have done better. Tammy and I had discussed the overheating issue while hiking–we were drinking a lot of water, using electrolyte mixes, taking breaks during the hottest parts of the day–all the things you’re supposed to do to prevent heat stroke. I had plenty of ibuprofen packed, not for fever reduction, but aches and pains. Using it had helped to manage my fever, but still wasn’t enough. If we hadn’t staged a car, I still would have had about twenty miles to hike over the next two days. I think I would have been tempted to just set up my hammock by a water source and wait it out for another day until I felt better, but that could have been a bad choice, too. I have been on winter trips where we staged cars mid-hike in case of emergencies, and in other instances because people in the group were arriving late or leaving early, but it had never occurred to me that for a fifty mile hike, staging a car in the middle might be a good idea just in case some unforeseen issue (like strep throat) came up. It also made me appreciate that much more the personality of the person I was hiking with. Tammy was calm, helpful, nonjudgemental, and guided me through a tough situation. Two days after ending the hike, I am ten pounds lighter than when I began the trip, so I may still be recovering from dehydration, and am still feeling the effects of strep throat, although since my brother and dad both got over it in three or four days, I’m hoping I’m at the tail end of it, too.
One of my other hiking buddies once called me an optimistic pessimist–anticipating the bad things that might happen, but still optimistic enough about the outcome to go on the trip in the first place. This experience has made me ponder my med kit in particular, which is geared more toward physical injuries rather than illness. Some tweaking is probably in order on that front.
*Photos of me credit to Tammy Krembs.