My grandparents more or less eloped in 1967, when my mom was a toddler, forming a household with a two-digit number of children between them. So you could say they had a bigger challenge than most newlyweds. But this year, they marked their 50th anniversary! My grandparents are two of the most excellent people in the history of earth, so I of course planned to attend this celebration.
And because I have to do this in order to live apparently, I also planned a backpacking trip. As you may know, my homeland is basically swamp drained for farmland and thus very flat and lacking in visual interest. I pulled up a map of our neighbor to the north and looked for the green patches that indicate potential trails and parks. The Upper Peninsula had plenty, and I settled on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I hadn’t been up there since we visited Tahquamenon Falls when I was a kid.
My dad heroically took off some weekdays and signed up to drive the 14-hour round trip, because he is up for anything. What he is not up for is having more than one day without a showering or burgering opportunity, so we kind of dared each other into tackling the entire 42.4-mile Lakeshore Trail in three days and two nights.
Some parts of the planning were … new to me.
Friday and Saturday
I landed on Friday, and after dinner with the family, getting into an art gallery after-hours, seeing a Halloween drag show, and staying out way past last call with my mom, I had almost literally 40 winks.
Saturday I met a human my friends Justin and Amanda made (AMAZING). Then Amanda and my friends Betty and Tim headed to Cedar Point, America’s Rockin’ Roller Coast. Cedar Point in October is a magical place, where you can ride tall and fast roller coasters, and the lame kiddie rides turn into cool haunted houses. I paid my respects to fallen coasters of my childhood and spent hours in line with my two best buds from high school, which was a magical way to nurse a hangover. (I mean the odds that Betty and Tim would be in Ohio just when I was there were not large! They were on their way back East after finishing the PCT, about which I will someday blog.)
Party time! My grandparents were well and truly celebrated, and after many happy-sad tears were shed, Dad and I rode off north into the sunset (idk I know the sun sets in the west).
We drove all night and just crossed the Mackinac Bridge before stopping at a hotel I’d booked on the way (for a month in advance, but they gave us a room anyway, I have done this before and am a huge dumbass). We caught not quite enough ZZZs for the day ahead.
Dad hadn’t slept well because of some issues with re-selling World Series tickets, but that got mostly ironed out at the diner the next morning. Then we drove the 2 hours we had left to Munising Falls, where I’d scheduled a shuttle pickup. This is a wonderful county-subsidized service. The driver took us the 61 road miles to our starting point. We’d have to hike 42 miles to get back to the car.
Here is a trailhead “before” picture taken by our driver, who told an EXTREMELY off-color joke and let us know which local bar we should avoid due to the post-bear-carcass-weighing flies situation.
Our first was a 7.1-mile day. With rested muscles and a belly full of home fries, that’s not so bad, and the trail was largely flat. The first few miles included some road walking and a moderately pretty lake, which is why I would recommend anyone who doesn’t need to do all of a named trail skip the first bit of this one.
Where it got real pretty was about 4 miles in, at Grand Sable Dunes. These are five square miles of dunes (in the second-cloudiest region of the US! gets 200 inches of snow a year! fun facts!) This is nearly the size of all of San Francisco (fun fact!). The trail peeks out at Log Slide, which has a lot of signage warning you how long it takes to get back up if you do choose to slide down the 300 feet to Lake Superior. It was clear that some people do this — and we considered it, before remembering the necessity to get to camp before nightfall, the rotation of the earth, and our plans for the next two days. If I went back as a day hiker I’d do it, though. It looked fun.
This park (like so many!) is on what was and in some cases still is Ojibwa land (or Chippewa, both are anglicizations). The dunes were a burial place, and are protected for that reason and because of the unique plants and animals that have made a foothold there. You can’t really clamber around on these dunes like you can in the Mojave. But they’re beautiful and kind of crazy just to gawk at, not least because they’re these symbols of utter dryness looming there next to an immense body of water.
As the earth kept rotating, we covered the last three miles to Au Sable East campground. Now we were at nearly lake level again.
The volume of Lake Superior is 3 quadrillion gallons. That’s 3,000,000,000,000,000 gallons, and it’s only the world’s third-largest lake by that measure. Later I looked it up and these aren’t “true tides,” they’re seiches. But it’s big and powerful and damn if it didn’t feel just like the sea.
We got to camp before sunset, pitched our tents, made our meals, then tried (and failed) to make a campfire. Having abandoned the effort, we stepped out to the shore and watched the sun do these incredible ’90s colors and just sighed and sighed.
Dad was a bit chilly that night, while I was more than toasty. I didn’t rub this in his face too much.
Our agenda: hike 18.9 miles. We got up before dawn to strike camp, and it took nearly every minute of daylight to get to the next one. The 26-mile mark would put us with only (lol) 16 miles to go on the last day.
After sunrise we passed a lighthouse, which park rangers were closing for the season. With VERY Upper Midwestern accents, they confirmed our suspicions that the weather was unusually good for this time of year.
Though the next portion of the trail had shipwreck icons on the map (and shipwreck interpretive panels), the water was too high for shipwreck views. Twelvemile Beach is 12 miles long and we walked all of it that day. This part reminded me a lot of the West Coast Trail, with its chilly, sandy beaches and colorful, neatly rounded stones.
The trail wandered a bit inland, crossing several gorgeous rivers and streams with thoughtful footbridges. The water here is reddish brown from decaying vegetation in cedar swamps upstream (humic acid — you know the look if you’ve visited Tahquamenon Falls). (I’ve since noticed California sidewalks with leaf-prints caused by the same stuff.)
While we’d had no rain, it was clearly a moist place. Lakes, bogs, marshes, vernal pools, and cedar swamps meant hiking on decaying boardwalks, or squelching through inches-deep mud where there weren’t logs. Apparently the water table is about a foot deep. (Another reminder of the West Coast Trail.)
Because I am dumb, I believed that hiking next to Twelvemile Beach would allow us to step out onto the sand at any point. I was wrong! By lunchtime, we in fact were in a green tunnel clearly separated from the beach by a 100-yard band of thick underbrush, and 30 or so vertical feet. I figured the trail would cut over soon enough (it looked like it on the map), but as it got well past 1 p.m., we got quieter, hungrier, and more dismayed. After staring uselessly at the map for a few minutes, we figured we had one more chance to cut over before the trail climbed even higher cliffs and the beach disappeared.
We bushwhacked like the monsters we are toward the sound of the waves. In this picture, taken by my father (clearly confident for some reason in my ability to do this without his help, or else looking for a pratfall photo-op), I am falling down all 30 vertical feet all at once. I took a big chunk of tenacious sphagnum moss down with me. I have spent long minutes considering the butterfly-effect implications of this.
By the end, we were dragging. Flat as it was, mostly, 18.9 miles is very far to walk. Put another 23% of your body weight on your back and you will feel it. Where I felt it most was my right knee. It had started feeling vulnerable and twinging ominously along Twelvemile. As we descended the cliffs to Chapel Beach, I was wincing with every step.
Our reward was the last campsite near the weird and wonderful Chapel Rock. This is the best single rock in the park, I strongly believe, and lucky for us much more difficult for day visitors to get to than the other famous rock. Sandstone is vulnerable, and different dated photographs on the interpretive panels documented this. That log coming from the right side is a root of that tree!
We pitched our tents in the failing light, ate dinner by headlamp, and were soundly and blessedly asleep by 9 p.m.
Our final day on the trail would be the prettiest. The morning’s climb put us back on cliffs, now 200 feet above the waves. Minerals from the groundwater stain the rocks unbelievable red, orange, blue, green, brown and black, following the contours of the sandstone. The stone itself has passageways seemingly punched right through it. We waved to the boats passing by (who likely had a better view of all this, I’ll admit). Later, when I was really hurting, I gave the passing boaters the finger.
All around us on the clifftops, the leaves were turning yellow and orange and red. This area got logged, so the biggest trees are only about 100 years old. The birch were my favorites. I loved the intense yellow canopy, and the soft quality of the fall afternoon light through it. Also, my knee hurt.
At a few points, we would cross a stream that fell into the lake as a waterfall we could only see when we’d turn the corner. We nearly missed Spray Fall because of the angle of the afternoon light (and then I stood in front of it for the picture, oops).
The vulnerable feeling in my knee turned into straightforward pain after just a few miles. By the time we stopped for lunch at a mile-long, sandy beach with a waterfall view, I was hobbling painfully. I ate a protein bar, polished off my Fritos, drank cold water from the Great Lakes, and then laid in the sun as long as Dad would let me.
The sense of peace I felt there and then is something I’ve lately reached for. In moments my body and mind go spinning out with rootless fear, I can sometimes recall the sun and the breeze and the waves — and more crucially, the simple fact of being off my knee and my feet. If I do this just right, I can reflect on the scale of the world and of me in it, and find comfort in the fact that it is possible to be comforted. Even though I had somewhere to be. Even though I had more than 10 miles to go that day.
We walked on, and the knee got worse. At Miner’s Castle (the other famous rock, the one you can drive and park your car right next to), I briefly considered hitching with the tourists. But I couldn’t imagine sitting around for the hours and hours waiting for him, or of missing out when I’d come so far, and I knew that I could make it. By then we had “just” seven miles to go, largely flat or downhill. (Downhill sounds nice, but it is Hell).
Several trees had fallen across the trail, and getting over them with my pack on meant sitting on the sturdiest trunk or branch, lifting my leg by hand, setting it back down, and launching my body forward and up on my stronger leg to get through. This got old fast.
The last few miles were broad snowmobile trails, sculpted up and down hills to make the ride fun. This hurt me. A final indignity was slipping in the mud and falling down. I cried. I’d earned it.
The last few hundred feet were road-walking, and my dad and I both hollered with joy and relief, and a little bit of rage at our own dumb selves.
I was proud to sport the spatter as I hobbled into Munising’s local eatery for a very, very well-earned cheeseburger.
Just seven hours’ drive to go.
Lessons learned: Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you need to.
Bonus lessons from Dad: “Well first, I’d get a proper sleeping bag for October. Should be willing to get feet muddy. Don’t bother bringing bug spray.”