Out of the classroom and into the woods

“Does anyone want to play ‘Mafia’?” 

Not something you typically hear on a backpacking trip, but this time, I was chaperoning a group of 13-15 year olds, so nothing I heard really surprised me. 

When I signed up to lead a couple of wilderness trips for a local summer camp, I felt like I was blending the best of both worlds: my experience as a high school teacher, and my love of hiking. It seemed like a perfect transition into retirement, continuing to work with youth, and a limited commitment of two weeks over the summer. Plus, our first trip was a hike through the Jordan Valley, a place that I love. 

Team-building on the high ropes course.

Our trip began with two days of team-building at camp, and learning how to use the camp’s hiking gear. From the first day they arrived, my campers slept in four-man Kelty tents, with 2-3 campers in each tent. While we ate our meals in the dining hall with the traditional campers, we hiked out to a more remote area of the property each night to sleep, so they got used to sleeping outdoors, using a privy, and many other aspects of rustic camping. We built a fire each night, tossed a football around, and played a variety of games that the kids had either invented or had previously played.

Setting off on our first day in the woods.

On our third day, we packed up our giant Kelty backpacks with our gear, and were dropped off at the Landslide Overlook in Alba, with a destination of the Pinney Bridge state forest campground, a little less than five miles away.  We had  split  the tents,  food,  and other  equipment between the campers, and had done a gear shakedown the night before. It had been funny to listen to the kids debate which things to take: how many books, football or frisbee, stuff for crocheting… the most unusual request I had was for a rubber chicken, which strangely enough I found in the gear room. “It’s for the game ‘Where’s my chicken?’” my camper explained. Completely mystified, I gave him the chicken to strap onto the outside of his pack. When the camp had purchased gear, who knows how many years ago,  they had clearly valued durability over weight of gear. As I helped kids don their packs and adjust the various straps, I was struck by how giant their packs were and how small and spindly many of them were. Nevertheless, we began our hike down into the Jordan Valley.

Some of my campers had previous backpacking and hiking experience–in fact, one had hiked sections of the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain, with a record of an 18-mile day. For others, this was their first extended hike. As we made our way up and down the hills, we discussed our itinerary and various questions, and spontaneous songs and games broke out. We were loud enough that I assumed we would scare away any wildlife, but the kids were having a great time, in spite of the big hills and heavy packs. It was so cool to see how they embraced this challenge. I didn’t hear a complaint the entire hike.

When we arrived at Pinney Bridge, we set up camp and then spent some time exploring. Before long, it was time for dinner: fajitas made from packaged chicken, fried onions and peppers, a packet of seasoning, some shredded cheese, and tortillas. Since I am normally a “just add water” type of cook on the trail, this was a new challenge for me. We were also using an MSR stove with a fuel bottle and pump, rather than my small backpacking stove, and that was a bit of a challenge, too. We talked the kids through the importance of keeping a clean camp (black bears are in the area) and consumed dinner with that in mind. Later, we collected firewood and discussed cabin vs. teepee fire-starting techniques. We played the “Mafia” game for an hour or so, and while I failed to see why it was so appealing, the kids seemed to enjoy it. As the sky began to get truly dark, we wandered down to the water pump and privy before bedtime, and one of the campers who lived in the city commented on how cool it was to see all of the stars. I forget sometimes that not everyone gets to experience the dark skies we have in Northern Michigan, where light pollution is more of a rarity than the norm.

I woke with the sun the next morning, around 6:00, and made myself a cup of coffee. Sitting in my camp chair, perusing the quiet tents, and watching birds fly over the meadow was a peaceful break before the kids awoke. We had about a six-mile hike to the fish hatchery, where we were camping the second night, and plenty of time, so my fellow guide and I opted to let the kids sleep in. This granted us both some time to ourselves in the morning, which was lovely.

We had a leisurely morning with the kids, splashing around in the river after packing up our gear, and eventually hitting the trail around noon. Our hike began with a steep hill up to a scenic outlook over the valley, and I was once again impressed by the kids’ tenacity as we climbed up and up.

We stopped to eat lunch and cool off at a favorite place of mine along the Jordan River, where I have stopped many times with friends on previous hiking trips.  As my campers bagged water to filter, they noticed wildflowers, and animal tracks at the river’s edge. We made a few tracks of our own as we cooled our feet, and relaxed. After an hour or so, we packed back up and continued our hike, about a mile and a half of road walk from where the North Country Trail continued on, but the road led to the fish hatchery, our destination for the night. (The only legal camping in this area is at the Pinney Bridge campground, but the fish hatchery staff had granted our camp director permission for us to camp on their property.) We spent about fifteen minutes watching the frogs in a giant puddle, and enjoyed the views of the river, too.

Camping at the fish hatchery.

Upon arrival at the fish hatchery, we toured their facility, and marveled at the running water and flush toilets in their public restroom. (It’s amazing how backpacking makes you appreciate simple amenities!) We cooked macaroni and cheese for dinner, and since we were not allowed to build a campfire, spent the evening playing cards at the picnic tables, in addition to reviewing the map for the following day. The map showed a trail leading out from the hatchery toward Dead Man’s Hill that would shorten our walk the following day, so we decided to investigate it as an option, in case it was really hot, or raining hard, or there was some other factor that made a shorter hike desirable. This was a great lesson in “The map isn’t always correct.” While there may have been a path at one point in time, we could not find a discernible trail in the area the map indicated, and so stuck to our original plan of getting back on the North Country Trail to hike to Dead Man’s Hill in the morning.

Pond on the way to Dead Man’s Hill.

Beginning our hike the following morning, we discussed the two options for getting up Dead Man’s Hill at the end of our hike–the shorter, steeper path, or the more winding, gradual path. While I took part of the group up the more gradual slope, my younger and more fit co-leader led another group up the steep path. We both arrived at the top about the same time, and exhaustedly celebrated our success. Lunch followed–basically anything that was left in our packs, laid out on a sleeping mat that needed a good washing later to remove the jelly and Nutella that the kids globbed onto tortillas. A little while later, our van arrived to take us to our next site, a sugar maple farm, where we would tour the sugar shack, which was much more high-tech than I expected, and spend the night in the woods before finishing up our trip. Our last night of camping was notable because of rainstorms that went on most of the night, but the kids stayed dry, and while not everyone got a great night’s sleep, their excitement to go paddling carried them into our last day’s activity: rafting the Jordan River.

Jordan Valley Outfitters provided rafts and launched us from Chestonia Bridge on Old State Road, paddling to Rogers Bridge Road, a route that I had kayaked before, but never rafted. What a difference the variety of boat makes! While I have always enjoyed paddling this section, finding it relatively easy in a kayak, steering a raft through the fast, high waters from the previous night’s rain was a new ballgame for me. While some of my campers really took to paddling, anticipating each obstacle, others were content to sit back and sing Disney songs. We saw a pair of mergansers, an otter, a beaver, and just at the end, a bald eagle flew overhead. By the time we reached our destination, I was ready for a swim, covered in pine needles and other debris from being strafed by the trees hanging down over the river. We splashed around in the river until our ride back to camp arrived with a pizza lunch, which I heard from more than one camper was the best meal of their life, and I tended to agree.

Chestonia Bridge launch site.

As we rode in our vans back to camp, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad that this trip was coming to an end. While I was exhausted, I could not stop smiling. These kids had been joyful through every part of this trip. They had taken on challenging pack weights, hiked longer than planned some days, shared their food and water, packed up wet tents covered in slugs without complaining, and supported each other along the way. They had largely entertained themselves, although we two guides always joined in whatever games and songs they wanted to play and sing (even the mafia game that I still don’t really understand!) and I was left with a sense that I had probably learned as much from them as they might have from me over the course of our week together.

Published by lovesmichiganoutdoors

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, stand-up-paddle boarding, sailing... exploring Michigan is my passion! Instagram: @jenren_hikes

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