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Pigeon River Country State Forest, MI – January 2015 (Trip Report)

Overview

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  • Location – Pigeon River Country State Forest, MI
  • Park Type – State Forest
  • Miles Driven To Destination – 500 miles Round trip
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 4 days, 3 nights
  • Miles Hiked – 11
  • Trail Type – Basecamp, off trail
  • Trail Difficulty – 5/10
  • Fires Allowed – Yes
  • Solitude – 7.5
Total distance: 11.62 mi
Max elevation: 1211 ft
Min elevation: 489 ft
Total climbing: 3888 ft
Total descent: -3927 ft
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Notes

If you plan on camping in the backcountry (on State Forest land, but outside of a state forest campground), the Michigan DNR (Department of Natural Resources) requires you to fill out a camp registration card. You need to fill it out in PENCIL and leave this card where you camped, tied to a tree or secured in some other way. This system is pretty dumb if you ask me. You need to carry a card for each camp you stay at, and a pencil… who brings a pencil backpacking? And why on Earth do they want you to leave it in the woods where it will likely be destroyed by the weather long before any DNR officer ever finds it? Regardless, you can print out your camp registration card (they are free) by opening the link below:

http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-30301_30505_30731-31303–,00.html

 

Getting There

Many of the “roads” on the map in the Pigeon River Country State Forest aren’t really roads that you can drive on. These roads may have been old logging roads, but now are only passable by 4×4 vehicles with a high clearance. Many of these roads have downed trees blocking the path, or even new trees growing in the road. Some of the roads on the map simply weren’t there as well. Google earth showed roads on the map that were not there when reached that area.

From I-75, Sturgeon Valley Rd. coming from Vanderbilt is the main access road for the southern portion of the state forest, and Webb Rd through Wolverine is the main access road for the northern section.

Day 1 – January 2nd, 2015

Miles Hiked – 1.5
Route – Parking spot at Chaffe Rd & Osmun Rd to camp near Little McMasters Creek

pigeon river country state forest osmun rd & chaffe rd parking

Parking at Osmun Rd & Chaffe Rd

We arrived at our parking spot at the intersection of Osmun Rd and Chaffe Rd later than anticipated due to my car GPS taking us down some ridiculous route down non-existent roads. There was no parking area, but the intersection was very large and provided enough room to park two vehicles without being in the way of anyone driving down the road. Since we saw no tire tracks in the snow on any roads for the last 30+ minutes, we figured this spot would be acceptable. Actually, we tried driving east on Chaffe a ways first to see if we could park farther down, but quickly found that this would not be possible with one of the vehicles in our convoy due to huge ruts, downed trees and steep hills.

We loaded up our gear and started walking around 2:30, much later than I hoped. Fortunately, this trip is not about hiking a ton of miles and moving from camp to camp, but instead we planned on setting up a basecamp and just exploring the area. Before leaving home, I used Garmin Basecamp and Google Earth to pick an area that would be suitable for camp. From our parking spot, camp was mostly a straight shot down Chaffe Rd, and then off trail a short ways.

We saw elk tracks almost immediately after leaving the car behind. In addition, we also saw coyote and rabbit prints in the snow along Chaffe Rd. This section was hilly, and would be very hard to drive up in all but the beefiest 4x4s. Right now there was about 2 inches of snow on the ground, but we were expecting a few more inches this weekend. The walk was pretty quick and eventually the road ended. From here, we cut a path through the forest towards the area I had picked for camp. After a short distance, we reached a large clearing. The area had clearly been logged, but also seemed to have a lot of downed trees. Little McMasters Creek flowed through here, originating from this marshy area according to the map. We saw cattails and other signs that told us the ground we were walking on wasn’t completely solid. We headed towards the treeline once we had the chance.

As soon as we exited the logging area, we found ourselves in a thin stretch of cedar swamp lining the edges of the marsh. In the summer this probably wouldn’t have been a great place to camp, but right now it looked pretty decent as soggy areas were mostly frozen and there were obviously no bugs that typically plague these areas. There was a flat spot with good cover from the trees for Bryan’s tent, good space between the trees to hang my hammock (first time using one!), and an uprooted tree that would provide a good wind block for our fire. Most importantly, the close proximity to water. The creek was about 100 yards from camp which was very convenient. Yup, this is it, home for the next 3 nights.

little mcmasters creek marsh in pigeon river country state forest

Marshy area with Little McMasters Creek flowing through it

Now about 3:30, it was time to start setting up camp. Daylight is scare this time of year, and we had about 2 hours of light left to work with. Marc didn’t have to worry about setting up a tent, since he planned to hike back to the parking spot each night and sleep in the back of his minivan. Instead, he went to town on gathering firewood. He brought a hand saw and loppers which proved invaluable throughout the trip.

I mentioned that I would be sleeping in a hammock. I have been dying to try one for the last 2 years and finally have the chance to after receiving one for Christmas. The Grand Trunk brand hammock has no mesh bug liner or anything fancy about it, but for this trip it should suffice. I had ordered the Grand Trunk Funky Forest tarp to use with this hammock a few days earlier, but apparently UPS doesn’t deliver on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, only air mail. Needless to say, I didn’t receive it in time. I had to use some lightweight blue tarps I bought at REI. The largest tarp I had was a little too short for the hammock but I had multiple tarps with me. For the first night, I just used one tarp overhead and one below me to set my gear on.

Bryan and I decided to go out for a short walk after setting up camp. We headed through the cedar swamp towards the east end of the marsh. Not far from camp, we picked up some coyote tracks that led right where we were already going, so we followed them. At the end of the marshy area the tracks ran along the top of a small burm or levee, separating this area from another large open marshy area to the east, which had a very thin line of trees blocking the view. The creek flowed from one open area to the other through a gap in the burm.

Once the sun went down it was time to get a fire going. I tried lighting the fire with some cattails and a spark from my firesteel, but that was a no go. Most of the wood was a little wet and snow covered, so the fire took some effort to get going. Finally, I was successful using a lighter and the stalks of the cattails, constantly feeding the fire with stalks since they go out fairly quickly. Now it was time to cook some italian sausages for dinner. How could they possibly be any better? Try eating them on cheesebread with shredded cheddar cheese sprinkled on top. No noodles in a bag for me!

After eating dinner and hanging out for a while, Marc headed back to his van. He was hesitant about sleeping in a tent this weekend since the temps were forecast to be in the low single digits on night 3. To each his own I guess.

The moon was nearly full and illuminated the marsh by our camp. The crisp air, dead silence and stillness of the night was very peaceful. I actually had the feeling of being in a remote location despite this being the lower peninsula of Michigan. There was a good chance we were the only ones sleeping out here tonight, as this place isn’t all that crowded with hikers and backpackers in the summer either. In May of 2013, I hiked the High Country Pathway, an 80 mile loop trail that runs through this area, and I didn’t see a single hiker. I highly doubt there will be anyone out here now.

When I went to brush my teeth tonight, my toothpaste was almost frozen. I had been trying to keep my water and any food that I planned on eating soon warm by putting it in my pockets, but I guess I’ll have to do the same for toothpaste and contact lens solution.

Tonight was going to be interesting. First night in a hammock, and I have never slept in temps this low (around 13 tonight). I gave my 0 degree bag to Bryan, and I took the 20 degree bag. I planned on sleeping in my clothes for extra warmth. I don’t have an underquilt to use under the hammock, so I used two inflatable sleeping pads (Thermarest ProLite and Klymit Inertia X-Frame) instead to block heat loss from below. We’ll see how the night turns out.

Day 2 – January 3rd, 2015

Miles Hiked – 4.1
Route – Logging roads, off trail

My first night in the hammock wasn’t the greatest. I had to get up once to put some more slack in the straps for the hammock so it wasn’t so tipsy. The extra slack helped a lot. My feet were cold but I was only wearing 1 pair of sock liners and one pair of smartwool socks. Tonight I will add another pair of smartwool socks, that ought to help. Also, as I had anticipated, not being able to turn over and lay on my stomach or sides was annoying.

freshly fallen snow near camp

Freshly fallen sow

There was a dusting of snow overnight, which was on my gear below me. Not too much so no big deal, but I’ll have to address that later. Right now I had to concentrate on warming up my feet, they were very cold! I ran up the hill behind camp and did a bunch of jumping jacks at the top and ran back down. That wasn’t enough so I used my hands to massage the feeling back to my toes. Definitely going to need to have wood ready for a fire tomorrow morning.

bushcraft - firewood storage

Built this to keep the firewood from getting buried in snow

After Bryan got up and we both ate, we started gathering more firewood. Then we realized that the snow coming later today and tomorrow is just going to bury our wood, so we decided to make a bit of a shelter for the firewood to keep it dry. There was a ton of great wood around as there were many downed trees near camp, so finding all the materials needed was easy.

hammock camping with blue taprs for rainfly

Not the prettiest solution but for such short notice, it will suffice

hammock with blue tarps overhead for rainfly

After building a storage area for our firewood, I decided to beef up my tarp system to keep me and my gear protected from the snow. I repositioned the tarp over the hammock to be closer to one tree than the other, then added a second tarp on the exposed end. Also, I placed another small tarp over my gear below. This was a pretty ghetto solution but functional, and the best I could come up with on short notice. After all, I started planned this trip only 5 days earlier.

Marc finally made his way back to camp by late morning. My MSR Miniworks water filter wasn’t pumping water, so when Marc returned with his Katadyn filter we were finally able to fill our water bottles. I’m not sure what the problem was with mine, other than the fact that it was cold out, and I have never used it in temps this low yet. I have been using my SteriPen Opti for the last 2 years due to it’s smaller size and weight.

bushcraft - lean-to

view of our campsite

We were anticipating several inches of snow over the next few days and thought it would be nice to have a bit of shelter overhead while we sat in front of the fire, so we made a quick lean-to. There weren’t many downed pine or cedar trees around though so we were short on roofing materials. Still, it will act as a wind block and provide at least some protection from the snow.

Once we were done with improvements to basecamp, we headed out for a day hike. We didn’t have any set location to head to, we were just out wandering around for the most part, following anything we thought may be interesting. We headed south from camp, which took us up hill and into a large clearing with a single huge pine in the open. There were a few sets of coyote prints here, which we followed through the field. At the other end of the field was a huge pine tree, alone out in the open. We then entered the woods again, following a faint pathway between the trees.

Eventually we ran into an old logging road, which we followed until it dead ended into another logging road. This road actually showed up on my GPS and was Little McMasters Creek Trail. The road had tons of animal prints on it, including coyote, deer, and elk. We took a right and followed the road a ways until we came across a field to the west. On the other side of the field, the land looked more hilly, and we decide to head that way.

There was no trail or road to follow now, so we cut a path trough into the woods through unbroken snow. There was maybe 3 inches on the ground, so it wasn’t too difficult to walk through. It was slippery in spots, especially going up and down hills. It was nice walking through here but with three guys, I am pretty sure we scared off any animals that were around. Several times we came upon some extremely fresh tracks, deer mostly.

The temperature was warming up today and was forecast to be around 32 for the high, which would be the high for the entire trip as well. We were pretty warm from climbing up the hills with all our layers on, so we took a break to cool off before breaking too much of a sweat.

After our break, we started heading in the direction of camp. The GPS showed a nice loop forming as we cut a direct path back. There were occasionally some logging roads the we crossed but eventually stopped following them as they would often curve and lead us away from camp. The woods weren’t extremely thick but there were a lot of smaller trees that were perfect for eye poking. It was nice to finally make it out of the woods and back into the large field with the lone pine tree near camp. From here we followed our tracks back. Today’s hike was 2.5 hours and about 4.5 miles.

For dinner tonight I had some bacon, sausage and flatbread with olive oil drizzled on it, among other snacks. I cooked the bacon and sausage in aluminum foil over the fire. After losing 15+ pounds in 8 days on my hike in the Wind River Range this summer, I was determined not to lose any weight this trip. It took me 3 months to gain that weight back in the gym. This time, I brought 9 pounds of food for 2 full days and 2 half days, and was not having any problem chowing down like a madman. One of my favorite things about hiking is eating a bunch of good food (fatty animal meats for instance) I normally wouldn’t get to eat at home because I try to eat healthy. Out here, I need all the calories I can get!

We were getting some flurries this evening but nothing serious. I weren’t sure exactly when the bulk of the snow was coming but knew it was sometime tonight or tomorrow. Our firewood storage structure was full of wood and ready to fuel the fire tonight and tomorrow morning. After waking up with freezing feet this morning, I wanted to make sure I could get a fire going in the morning asap.

While sitting by the fire we heard several coyotes howling in the distance. Between breaks in the clouds we could see that moon was now almost full too. Now, it was time for Marc to hike back to the van for the evening. I’m sure glad I didn’t have to do that every night, especially after dinner. Speaking of after dinner, it was time for more food… chocolate to warm me up before bed!

Day 3 – January 4th, 2015

Miles Hiked – 3.7
Route – Logging roads, off trail

I slept much better last night. I was more used to the hammock and was more comfortable in it. I added an extra pair of smartwool socks to keep my feet warm, and put my feet and legs into the arms of my rain jacket. Sounds silly but this has worked for me in the past on cold nights. Actually though, last night wasn’t that cold, it was the warmest while we were out here, with lows in the mid 20s or so. This morning was much more bearable.

About 2 inches of snow fell over night. Good thing I added the extra tarps to my setup, that helped keep the snow out. I was getting some condensation buildup on the inside of the tarp though. This freezes and falls on my sleeping bag throughout the night, especially when I would shake the tarp to knock off snow that has accumulated on the outside. Even so, I was dry all night so I can’t complain.

Our 3 sided firewood storage area allowed some snow in but not nearly as much as without it. I got a fire going and started cooking some bacon bacon for breakfast. Afterwards,  Bryan and I filtered some water from the creek.

Marc showed up a little earlier this morning, and we then proceeded to gather firewood for tonight and tomorrow morning, which we anticipate to be the coldest of the trip.

marshy area by little mcmasters creek

Little McMasters Creek flowing through a large open area. Much of this was soggy and partially frozen.

We headed out for another day hike around noon. This time we thought we would follow the marsh east. We hiked through the woods along the marsh for a while before trying to venture out into the open area, which looked more like a normal field now than a marsh. However, it wasn’t long before my foot went through a soft spot on the ground and some water got into my boot. We headed back into the woods where the ground should be more solid. This was true for a short while, but eventually we reached an area where there was pools of water pretty much everywhere as we were basically still in a cedar swamp. We decided that it wasn’t worth walking through this area and headed back towards the way we came.

winter hiking in the pigeon river country state forest, michigan

pigeon river country state forest logging area in the winter

Overlooking a logging area just west of Canada Creek Ranch

 

On our way back towards camp we hit Little McMasters Creek Trail again, north of where we hiked it yesterday. We walked south on this road for a short while before heading east through a field. We saw some human footprints in this field that were probably a day or two old, as the prints were visible but had new snowfall on them. I figured they led into the Canada Creek Ranch which was not far from here. We decided to follow them and see where they went. The footprints led us down a series of logging roads, fields, and pathways in the woods before we reached an area that had been logged. Since the Canada Creek Ranch is private property, we figured this would be a good place to turn around since we were pretty close to it now.

snow covered pine treees in northern michigan

Walking among these snow covered pines was beautiful

beautiful winter scenery

The hike up to this point was very pretty with lots of huge, snow-covered pines. This was what I was envisioning for a winter hike. The snow was coming down a little bit here and there all day long, never very heavy at any time though.

We returned back to camp in mid afternoon. The temperature was really starting to drop. A few minutes of sitting and I was cold. It was hard to stay warm now since we weren’t moving. After eating some food and relaxing for a while, we headed out for another short hike. This time, we wanted to head north, which meant crossing the marsh. We didn’t want to cut through it near camp, so we headed west a ways before turning north, hoping to go around any wet areas. However, this area was looking pretty thick and we decided that it wasn’t worth the effort. Instead we just headed back to camp again, this time for the night.

We got the fire going early tonight since it was so cold now. There was intermittent wind in addition to on and off flurries. We hovered by the fire for warmth all night while we cooked dinner and waited for bedtime. This was definitely one of those times when you didn’t want to leave the fire. It’s easy to  forget how cold it is just a few feet away. My watch can read the temperature, but apparently not when it’s this cold. Everything else on the watch was functioning properly, but when I left the watch out in the cold for a few minutes the temperature wouldn’t register. After warming it up with my hands for a few seconds it read 14 degrees, so I know it was colder than that. It was only going to get colder as the night goes on.

 

Day 4- January 5th, 2015

Miles Hiked – 1.6
Route – Camp near Little McMasters Creek to parking spot at Osmun Rd. & Chaffe Rd.

I did everything I did the night before to stay warm, but my feet were cold again tonight. My body was mostly warm despite a few shivers throughout the night. All in all, the night was pretty tolerable though considering it was likely several degrees below 0 with the wind chill. We got a few more inches of snow overnight bringing the total up to 6-8 inches.

The worst thing about today was that my boots were frozen. I had shoved my gloves into the boots and put them under a tarp, but they were quite solid when I attempted to put my feet in them. I had to piss so bad after being in the hammock for 10 hours, so I just forced my feet in there so I could get out of bed. I immediately lit a fire and began thawing out my boots, and my feet. It’s amazing how quickly those boots sucked out any remaining heat that was left in my feet. I spent a good 15 minutes regaining feeling in my toes before moving on to other chores.

Bryan had to be back downstate by 6pm for work tonight, so we tried to pack up camp as quickly as possible this morning. He wasn’t feeling good from something he ate yesterday so he didn’t cook any breakfast. I was going to cook some sausage links but decided to save time and just eat a Metrx bar.

Packing up camp was a pain because every time the wind blew, huge clumps of snow would fall on me and my gear. Once I packed the tarps I had no protection from the falling snow, which got inside my backpack and over other things. The good news is that it was so cold that the snow wasn’t wet at all, and it was easy to shake out. The fire was essential for warming my hands every so often.

We left camp around 10:30 this morning. Marc was sleeping in his van, so there was no need for him to come to camp this morning. Instead, we would hike back to him and our vehicles. This was a lot easier a few days ago when there was less snow. Now, there was a good 8 inches in spots, and the hike back was rather hilly. Bryan was worn out from not eating any food over the past day due to his stomach, so he was having trouble with the walk back. Good thing it’s only 1.5 miles. Felt like 5 miles though.

Once we reached our vehicles, Marc was there to greet us. He had to jump start his van this morning with Bryan’s truck. It sure was nice having two vehicle here this time. Bryan’s truck read 3 degrees outside, and this was at 11:30. I wonder how cold it was at 6am?

We took a different route back to Sturgeon Valley Rd, the main road leading back to Vanderbilt and  I-75. I was concerned about Marc’s minivan making through the unplowed roads but we made it out without issues. Woohoo, first winter camping trip under my belt!

 

Final Thoughts

This trip was more of a learning experience for me than anything else. I wanted to see what it was like and what it takes to camp in cold weather. Specifically, what gear I found useful and which I could do without. The first thing I would leave behind next time is the shovel. I was envisioning more snow and the need to dig out an area for the tent, near the campfire, etc. Unless there was at least a foot of snow on the ground or the snow was hard and icy, I don’t see a need for it in this area. Maybe in the mountains but not Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. I definitely need to get a longer rain jacket too as mine is shorter than my insulation jacket below it. It’s a tight fit with all those layers on.

Sleeping in the hammock was comfortable overall, much more than sleeping on the ground. When sleeping on the ground I felt like I was waking up every 20-30 minutes when my arm or leg would go numb from laying on it. Coming up with a rainfly setup for the hammock is my next challenge.

The Pigeon River Country State Forest is, in my opinion, the most wild area in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. We didn’t see anyone else out here, not even tire tracks in the snow on any state forest road. Lots of animal tracks as expected but with three guys traveling together I didn’t expect to see much. It was kind of discouraging seeing all the “roads” that criss cross through this area on the map, but in reality, many of these roads aren’t used at all, since they are impassible by car or simply non existent. I have been through this area twice before in the summer, and never saw any hikers either time. This time was no different, didn’t see a soul. Not surprising given the weather.

As always, questions and comments are welcome!

If you found my trip report useful, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Alternatively, if you feel you have any information you’d like to share with others regarding this hike, please feel free to leave that below in a comment as well.

 

 

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