Forecasts for the weekend varied from 40-60 percent chance of scattered showers, with a chance of isolated thunderstorms. Week three of my new school year was wrapping up, and a getaway seemed like the best thing ever, in spite of the dismal forecast. The hiking route that I had planned was not a great distance, nor particularly tough terrain, and I was anxious to see my hiking friends, so I decided to just go for it. “There is no bad weather, only bad gear,” right?
After picking up hiking friend #1 in Muskegon after school on Friday, we arrived at the Pigeon Bridge State Forest Campground (SFCG) in Vanderbilt around 6:00 p.m. While I prefer the river-front sites and further distance from the road of the Pigeon River State Forest Campground nearby, the Pigeon Bridge campground is a little easier to find, and since I was expecting at least one after-dark arrival, it seemed like the best choice.
As I set up my hammock, I was tempted to leave the tarp in its snakeskin so that I could see the stars later, but as the evening progressed and clouds moved in, it became obvious that there was a good chance of rain, and the stars wouldn’t be visible anyway. After collecting firewood, we took a short in-and-out hike on the Shingle Mill Pathway that left from the campground, and enjoyed the views of meadows full of goldenrod, and the Pigeon River. Elk tracks in the hiking path kept our hopes high that we might see one of these grand creatures over the course of the weekend. We also noticed some strange paths between dense brush and the river, where the grass had been matted down about a foot or more in width, almost like a grassy luge run. We were not sure what kind of animal might have created them–there were several in a short distance, but no sign of beaver or otter. As the sun began to set, we were treated to dramatic lighting of the clouds, in part due to the forest fires out West. As we transitioned from riverfront meadows back into the forest, it became dramatically darker and we kept a quick pace to get back to the campsite before the sun set completely.
After returning to camp, we started a fire, made dinner, and hiking buddy #2 arrived around 9:30 p.m. There were a few other people camping near us, but they were pleasantly quiet, and although the occasional road noise reminded us that we weren’t that far from civilization, it was a very peaceful night. We enjoyed a few beers around the campfire, and a little after midnight, we all retired.
During the night, the rain began, and by morning was a steady drizzle. After a leisurely breakfast and coffee, we packed up our gear, waiting until the last minute to take down my hammock tarp that had provided our shelter for the morning.
We headed back out along the way we’d walked the night before, turning east onto the High Country Pathway, taking an extra loop to explore the Towerman’s Watch Pathway, and planning to head northeast to have lunch on a picnic table at the Pigeon River SFCG, where I had camped on a previous trip and knew to have good river views. After seeing a sign about an interpretive trail leading to the fire tower, we joked about interpretive dances, and made our way up and down many hills, soaked from rain or sweat, depending on whether the rain gear was on or off. After huffing up yet another hill, I commented that we would probably arrive at the top to find a sign in front of nothing that said, “Here is the sight of the former fire tower.” This turned out to be prophetic.
My stomach growled as we slogged up another hill– my plans for lunch at the riverside campground falling by the wayside, as the hike to the fire tower dragged on. We noticed a wooden post and some plastic tape on the ground, and stopped to check it out and have a snack. Here, it turned out, was our glorious destination: the site of the old fire tower, marked by a wooden post with a message in Sharpie, and a few metal stakes sticking out of the ground, marked with plastic tape. Green tunnel, zero view. It made for a good laugh, though. We set up chairs, and had a little snack before getting on with it.
For the next mile or two, wet ferns dampened our legs as we trod along a gently downward slope, eventually joining the main trail heading toward the riverfront campground. The trail provided sporadic views of the river below, and the rain stopped long enough for us to begin to dry out a bit. Arriving at the campground around 2:00 p.m., we decided to have a second lunch, as though we were hobbits, and temporarily snagged a campsite with a river view and a picnic table. As we finished up another round of munchies, the rain began again, and we headed across the stream, planning to hike another three or four miles before finding a dispersed campsite.
The trail along the river was muddy and full of wet, tall grass that had been matted down. I was using my Sealskinz waterproof socks with my not-waterproof Altra Lone Peak trail runners, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I could squelch my way through the wet spots without having to worry about soggy feet. This was the first time I had used this combo of footwear, thinking this trip would be a good opportunity for a test run, given the low miles and the fact that it was just a two-day hike.
Eventually, we turned onto the Shingle Mill Pathway, which took us up into the woods, and we arrived at a magically green glacial kettle lake, unimaginitively called Section Four Lake. While it was beautiful enough to sit and ponder the view all day, it continued to rain and so we rambled on after a few minutes, making plans to come back and spend time at this lovely location on a future hiking trip.
As we began to near Grass Lake, our search for a suitable camping area began. While I love the freedom of dispersed camping, I hate the FOMO (fear of missing out) on a great campsite that’s just a little further down the trail. I had read a blog post that mentioned several nice sites along Grass Lake, so I was hoping for good things, but as we passed by site after site right next to a dirt road, with trash and not much for views, I began to get discouraged. As the trail took a turn away from the road, things began to improve, although our first possible consideration had several blow downs taking up a lot of space. While there was room enough for us to camp safely, it wasn’t ideal. “Let’s hike another 10 minutes,” I offered as a compromise.
Just around the next bend, a side trail headed towards the lake. “Oooohhh…” we sighed, heading down the trail to check it out. We discovered the quintessential perfect campsite–pretty view, water, fire ring, and sites suitable for both tents and hammocks. On further investigation, we also discovered a small shrine to a lost loved one, with a plaque, tea mug, bag of tea, and a cigar. I felt happy to be enjoying a site that someone else had obviously loved.
After setting up camp, we began the daunting task of collecting firewood, trying to suss out any bits that had been protected from the long day of rain. At least it had stopped raining, so we could make a pile and let it sit while we ate dinner. Later, as it began to get dark, I made a mug of hot chocolate spiked with brandy, and prepared for what I was quite sure would be a fool’s errand. Using the small DuraLog fire starter that I had brought, some additional fire starting material that Doreen contributed, and a whole lot of dry pine needles, we attempted to start a fire. Using my pocket bellows, I fanned the flames until I thought my lungs might explode, and we did get a small fire lit. It took constant attention to keep it going, and the bigger pieces of wood simply smoldered and never really caught, but we did, in fact, have a fire. Just about the time I was thinking that this was more trouble than it was worth, it began to rain, and after quickly taking care of things for the night, we headed to bed. Through the night, I slept well, but was alert to the changing rain patterns–gentle droplets shifting to more forceful showers reverberating on my tarp.
The following morning was misty and lovely, a fog rising from Grass Lake, slightly obscuring the reeds and trees that banked the opposite side. After coffee and breakfast, we packed up and headed out to finish our loop–a few more miles to go. I was thrilled to find that my waterproof socks continued to do their job–I had taken them off for bed and laid them out over my shoes, under my tarp for the night, and while my shoes were certainly soaked, and the outside of the socks felt damp, my feet were warm and snug inside when I put them on again in the morning.
The mist turned into a steady rain, and we made our way through muddy trails, eventually arriving at a stretch of seemingly never-ending boardwalk that was slick as a skating rink from the combination of moss and rain. Trekking carefully across, our pace slowed quite a bit, but we also stopped to take in the dark magic of the hemlock and cedar trees that blocked out the light, and the lush moss growing in cushions throughout the forest floor.
As we neared the end of our hike, our path once again came close to the Pigeon River, and we enjoyed the view and burble of the flowing water. Just as we neared the bridge leading back to our cars, the rain stopped, and the gray skies parted dramatically to allow a concentrated burst of sunshine down upon us. At our cars, we engaged in the age-old hiker tradition of stripping off wet clothes and putting on dry while balancing on one foot and hoping no one drives by while you’re half naked. With promises to get back together soon, we hopped into our cars and took off back toward civilization.