There is something so magical about a winter hike. The dollops of snow frosting the trees, the geometric patterns formed by freezing water in a pond, and the unearthly quiet of a forest with deep snow all inspire an awe in me that is hard to capture with words.
I spent the last few days, between Christmas and New Years, in Wilderness State Park, near Mackinaw City. I rented one of the bunkhouses with a group of friends, so that we would have a place to sleep without the extra work and limited daylight of winter camping. We spent the days hiking different trails throughout the park, coming back to a hot crock pot of soup for lunch, and a fireplace that kept us warm while we slept.
The trailhead near our bunkhouse was crossed by the North Country Scenic Trail, as well as several other trails maintained by the park staff. As we began our hike near a small dam, water rushed from a small lake into a narrow stream. Deer tracks meandered across the ice some distance away. Cattails stood in contrast to the snow, their straight lines and deep brown color dramatic against the white backdrop. In the distance, a crow cawed.
As we entered the woods, the scenery changed dramatically. Boardwalks laden with snow kept us above the murky waters of a cedar swamp, and the canopy of trees drowned out most of the daylight. It was still except for the sound of our boots crunching through the snow.
The cedar swamp transitioned to a hardwood forest, with occasional hemlock groves, and cedars in the low-lying areas. Tracks from deer, coyote, turkey, and squirrels criss-crossed our path of freshly fallen snow. As our group spread out, the faster hikers moved ahead, becoming tiny figures in the distance, and the looming conifers took on a new dimension of size.
As the temperature warmed, snow began to melt, dripping from pine cones and needles, adding to the array of tracks in the snow. At a trail crossing, the tracks of a pulk packed down the snow. They were likely headed to the Nebo Cabin, a small rustic cabin for four that is accessible only by foot.
After heading in for a lunch of warm soup, the abundance of squash from this summer’s garden making a tasty treat, some of us ventured to the Lake Michigan shore. Animal tracks dotted the snow-covered sand. Ice volcanoes had begun to form, but as the waves gently lapped at the shoreline, there was no spray through the openings in the ice. These volcanoes can be quite dramatic on a windy day, but today they were just interesting architecture. A cloud bank threatened more snow to come.
A day later, we began at the same trailhead but took a different path. In the fresh snow, we could see that a deer had traveled the path before us. The wind moved the treetops, but in the forest we were protected from its chill. Sunlight filtered through the tree canopy on occasion, but the day grew darker as it progressed, and by early afternoon, freezing drizzle began to fall, and we adjusted our route back toward the cabin. Later that night, the clouds cleared, allowing the stars to shine through.
In the morning, the clear skis yielded colder temperatures, and the snow crunched as we began our hike. Cross-country ski trails were new on the path, as well as various animal tracks. Our traverse led us to a three-sided log shelter with a stone fireplace, perhaps a relic of the Civilian Conservation Corps efforts during the New Deal of the 1930s. As we sat on picnic tables to eat a snack, we noticed mice tracks in the nearby snow, likely a result of crumbs dropped by previous hikers or skiers. As temperatures warmed, our hike along the swampline trail became more treacherous, as it wasn’t always clear what was underneath the snow–boardwalk or frozen ice. This question was answered when one of our group broke through and ended up with a wet foot. This reminded me that my cold weather gear in my day pack was lacking a bit. Usually I carry a couple of plastic bread bags to use in case someone ends up with a wet boot, to protect their feet from the cold, although I haven’t actually tried this solution since I was a kid in moon boots, so am not sure how effective it would be. We routed our hike back to the cabin to prevent this wet foot from becoming something more uncomfortable, like frostbite.
Our last day, before the drive home, we took one last hike, after checking out of the bunkhouse. We traveled the Nebo trail out and back, noticing ski tracks leading up to the Nebo cabin, where someone had been staying the past couple of days, based on the pulk tracks in the snow. It was only about 18-degrees, but a brisk pace warmed us quickly. My “be bold, start cold” philosophy had been quite chilly at the beginning of the hike, but by the end, I had shed my mittens and was comfortable in my base layer. As we traveled the path back to our cars, I was again struck by the height of the hemlocks, cedars, and other trees that lined the path. I assume that this area was logged at one time, as much of Michigan was, but it’s had time to recover, and gives the impression of old growth.
Throughout the weekend, we saw a couple cars parked at trailheads, and once encountered a woman returning from a walk with her dog. Otherwise, we did not see a soul. There were more animal tracks on the trails than human tracks. This park is well used in the summer, and home to hundreds of campsites, but in winter, it feels quiet and remote, which was exactly what I sought.