In February of 2020, I had been sick with a respiratory illness for more than a week, but at the doctor’s office, when I complained that my lungs hurt and felt gurgly, I was not given a Covid test because I hadn’t been to China or exposed to anyone who had. I recovered in a couple of weeks, without experiencing the tell-tale loss of taste, so it may have just been a bad cold. When a friend invited me to go backpacking in mid-March, I felt reasonably up to it. It was the last trip I took before everything changed.
I carpooled with another friend, feeling a little guilty, as I still had a bit of a cough, which I had warned him about. We arrived at the North Country Trail trailhead, staged a car, then began our three-day weekend hike: a point-to-point covering about 30 miles of Northern Michigan, near Kalkaska. There were three of us, myself the least experienced and least fit of the bunch.
Our first day of hiking revealed that the snow report, which had indicated “trace” amounts of snow, was a big, fat lie. In some areas the snow had crusted over enough that we could walk on top, but often, we were post-holing through, after crunching down through the crust, and there were drifts in open areas. The extra time it took to cover distance began to worry me, and we ended up making camp a few miles sooner than I had expected, as it began to turn towards twilight.
Our early stop, at Scheck’s State Forest Campground, was a good choice for camping, though. It was utterly deserted, but the privies were still open and stocked with toilet paper, the stream had not frozen and was an easy water source, and the picnic tables made for easy meal prep. We built a fire, but as darkness fell, it was just too cold to stay out in the open, so we all went to bed early.
It was not a restful night. In spite of a 20-degree underquilt and 0-degree topquilt, I was cold. I also thought, at some point, that I could hear something messing with my food bag, hanging in a tree about 20 yards away, so I got up to check it out, but saw nothing. (Squirrel prints in the snow the following morning explained what I might have been hearing.) I also had to get up to pee seven times in the night–seven times!!! Since I had not consumed copious amounts of liquid before bed, I thought this was pretty strange, but later research revealed that this can be the body’s response to being cold (cold diuresis). Because I normally wake up around 5:00 a.m., that is what happened, in spite of my lack of sleep. I stayed inside my hammock until daylight dawned, and it warmed up a bit.
Eventually, I got out of bed to realize that the large Nalgene bottle of water I had filtered the night before had frozen solid, and my top quilt had a layer of frost on it from my breath. I hung the quilt on a tree branch in the hopes it would dry while I had breakfast, and filtered more water from the stream to use for coffee and oatmeal. (I had kept my Sawyer filter with me in my hammock, so it had not frozen.) My hiking buddy said that he had recorded a low of nine degrees overnight, which made this my coldest trip, to date.
We were hoping to accomplish bigger miles on our second day, to make up for a shorter first day, but again, the deeper-than-predicted snow and early sunset made that a challenge. However, the day was filled with scenic views, my favorite being the cedar groves along the streams, filtering the light as it reflected down onto the crystalline ice formations along the river banks.
We began to search for a place to camp, which is such a challenge when you’re dispersed camping–I always have that feeling that there’s a better site just a little further ahead, and it’s hard to make a decision to stop. However, the waning daylight made the decision for us, and we camped in a serviceable but unremarkable location. After setting up camp and making dinner, we opted to skip the fire, and headed to bed to read or go straight to sleep.
I awoke the next morning feeling much more well rested–it had been a warmer night, and I had slept without the endless interruptions of the previous night. However, I was surprised to find coyote tracks all over our camping area–they hadn’t been there the day before, but I hadn’t heard a thing in the night, not even a distant yip. I must have slept more soundly than I had realized.
Because I was ready to go earlier, but the slower hiker in general, I took off on the trail before the rest of the group left camp. There was fresh snow on the trail, and although this section of trail (in the Sand Lakes Quiet Area) had seen plenty of traffic and the older snow was well-tamped down, there were animal tracks everywhere, and mine were the first human tracks in the fresh fluff. Giant hemlocks overhung the trail, and chickadees flitted in and out of the brush.
This would be our last day on the trail, and while I had initially hoped for a short day, after two longer days, I knew we had ended up in a situation where this day would likely be just as long as the other two–we had about 10 miles to cover, and there was no reason to expect that we would move any faster than the previous two days. I was just hoping to make it to the car before dark.
However, after more slogging through deep snow, we arrived at several miles of road walk, and while I am normally not a fan of road walks along the NCT, I was thrilled to reach this section. Even though the road was a slick of ice, with microspikes and trekking poles, we moved faster, and there was almost no traffic, so it still felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. When the trail eventually meandered back into the woods, the snow didn’t seem quite as daunting, and we arrived back at the car with plenty of daylight to spare.
The drive home was really the eerie part. I have a love/hate relationship with backpacking movies, and one that I love/hate the most is “Man Vs.,” in which the main character is out in the woods for a few days for his survival show, and when he comes back out of the woods, after a series of ominous events, (spoiler alert) aliens have landed and the world will never be the same. Oftentimes when a trip ends, I have deja vu from this movie, wondering what madness has transpired while I was blissfully unaware in the woods. When we stopped for dinner, the Arby’s had posted a sign that they were open for take-out only, so we ate in the car. I came home to numerous messages and emails regarding our school being shut down. (I teach English and history at the high school level.) Having been through the swine flu in 2009, when my school shut down for a few days because so many students and teachers were sick, I figured this would be the same. Little did I know… little did any of us know.
A year later, I am fortunate enough to have been vaccinated, and am looking forward to life returning to some semblance of normalcy. I just planned a backpacking trip for a week from now, and am looking forward to seeing friends again, after making it through the Michigan winter largely with the company of only my husband and the colleague with whom I share an office for our online teaching. I’ve had day hikes here and there with friends, but I am so excited for this camping trip to celebrate what I hope is the end of a very strange year.