North Country Trail – Pictured Rocks Section, September 21, 2015 Pre-hike Planning

The seed for this hike was planted years earlier, during a family vacation to the Upper Peninsula.  The entire family, including 5 kids, hiked the 10.4 mile Chapel Loop Trail.  In addition to the beautiful waterfalls, stunning cliffs, and mesmerizing blue-green waters of Lake Superior, I was drawn to the back country campsites.   I remember thinking at the time, I have to come back here and backpack.  Fast forward to early spring of 2015 and I was actually planning that hike.  I spent countless hours pouring over the campground descriptions and mileage chart to plot our course.  “Our” being a somewhat nebulous concept at that point as I really didn’t know who would be joining me but I opted to make the permit application for a group of 4.  No particular reason, just seemed like a good number.

The permit application allows for 3 choices in order of preference.  You can also check mark the option to allow the itinerary to be reversed if your choices weren’t available.  All of my choices were set up to hike west to east but I also set them up so they could be reversed to maximize my odds of getting permits.  As it turns out, I was able to get my first choice.  In fact, almost all of the campgrounds had openings even on the day we started our hike.  This probably was in large part because our hike was during the week, in late September.  We would start our hike in Munising Falls, stay at Mosquito Beach, Coves, 7 Mile and Au Sable, in that order.  The National Parks Service Pictured Rocks website has a great, 18 page trip planner for backpacking in the park.   http://www.nps.gov/piro/planyourvisit/upload/BackcountryPlanner2013.pdf

The day before our hike, we drove up from northern Indiana (stopping along the way to pick up our lone Michigan hiker) and looked for a campground in the area we would be catching our shuttle.  We settled on 12-Mile Beach Campground which is a fantastic primitive campground with an incredible beach.  We were very lucky to get a campsite since even during the week, it was full to capacity.  We just happened to have the dumb luck of getting there just after 6pm, the time in which you can rent the 2 handicap accessible sites.  Before 6pm, it is reserved for potential handicapped campers.  If you plan to camp at this campground, it is highly advisable to arrive very early!  We were told that there were campsites available at some of the other campgrounds at the park.

We pitched our tents and then walked to the beach for a late dinner.  There were nice wooden steps leading down to the beach.  If you look close at the picture below, you’ll see the moon rising over the trees.

Stairs leading to 12 Mile Beach

Our herd for this hike ended up being 4 people, which, oddly enough, was exactly the number that was applied for in my permit!  I was joined by my sister, Becky, a veteran Herd of Turtles member, Julianne, a former co-worker of Becky’s from her days of working at the newspaper and Gail, a new friend I recently met while diving.  Julianne was brand new to backpacking but adventurous and enthusiastic.

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For dinner I opted for left-over pizza and cold beer.  Seemed like a good choice before a week of dehydrated meals and GORP!  We found a semi-comfortable log on the beach and ate our dinner as we watched the sun setting over Lake Superior.

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We had stopped earlier in the evening to stock our cooler with beer, both for this night and for the night we hiked out.  In true adventurer fashion, we picked a variety of beers to share and trade.  What we did not do, was make sure all the beers had twist off lids.  Oops!  No problem, Gail to the rescue with her mult-tool.  Uh, oops again.  The “multi-tool” was actually a fold up garden tool that looked suspiciously like a multi-tool.  The trick now was to see if one could open a beer with a garden tool designed for digging.  I’m happy so say, YES, you definitely can!  We enjoyed our evening on the beach, eating, drinking and watching the sun sink below the horizon.  Eventually it was dark enough that we decided we needed to head back to camp.  The walk back gave some of our group a chance to try out their headlamps.

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Back at camp, no one was quite ready to settle in for the night.  Maybe it was the excitement of the upcoming hike, the beautiful location or the great companionship but something kept us up chatting and laughing until late.  We opted to not build a fire, mostly due to the fact that we did not have firewood.  We discussed it but in the end, we were quite entertained without one.  That is something I’ve discovered since starting backpacking. I was really disappointed when I first learned that open fires were prohibited in many of the best hiking and backpacking areas.  I’ve camped my whole life and fires were always an integral part of the camping experience.  Cooking hot dogs, making s’mores or just staring into the mesmerizing flames are some of my greatest camping memories.  I’ve since come to learn that backpacking is different.  Often, we’ve been too tired when getting to camp to even think about a fire.  Cooking is so much easier and cleaner on a backpack stove than over a fire.  The responsibility of having an open fire in the back country is not to be taken lightly either!  There are times I’ve had fires while backpacking.  We sat around several on this hike and they were very pleasant.  But I’ve come to learn that they are not necessary for a great camping experience.  Watching the stars away from the light saturated cities is an awe inspiring experience.  Snuggling into your sleeping bag to jot some thoughts in a journal or read a book are equally rewarding at the end of a long day of hiking.  Or, as this night ended, sitting around in the moonlight, laughing and talking with new friends.

Link to Day 1 of our hike:  NCT, Pictured Rocks, Day 1

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