There are plenty of campportunities in Michigan for alone-time in the woods. There’s a gem in the heart of the lower-peninsula, called Pigeon River Country, just east of Gaylord. The area is home to an expansive State Forest of 105,000 acres and the Midwest’s only free-ranging elk herd. It was only a 3 ½ hour drive, to get intimate with nature and hopefully see a large-horned animal loping through the forest. Driving north, the literature emphasized elk viewing and an under-utilized, poorly maintained trail system. The HCP (High Country Pathway) and the SMP (Shingle Mill Pathway) wound through 100,000+ acres of streams, lakes and hardwood forests. The brochure suggested the best times to catch the herd were at dawn and at dusk, in open fields and in spring or fall. So, if we were lucky and early risers, we might see one.
The usual suspects car-pooled our way north, plotting a path of hiking and camping. I packed a poncho, it turned out to be my most valuable item. We drove in to the park on a Friday morning and had plenty of time to hike in to set up camp for the night. We did not overdo it based on our heavy packs, completing a short walk (under 3 miles). Howling coyotes provided the music at dusk, so we put our food bag up a tree, then drifted off to tents with a only a few stars twinkling above.
The morning dawned gray and our slow-moving breakfast quickened when the first raindrops smacked off the tent tarps. The raindrops built momentum while I pulled on pants and my raincoat. We broke camp in a rush and started into the woods on the High Country Pathway. The intermittent drops turned to full rain. A drizzle began to run down my neck as we walked briskly toward a rustic campground on the route, thinking we could wait out the rain under a picnic shelter. The campground had four inhabitants, but no covered shelters. Two truck-top campers, a large tent and small RV were parked in campsites. To my dismay, no one cheerfully emerged to invite us in out of the rain. Instead, the rain increased in fervor. I leaned against a large pine tree, hugging it to protect myself from the deluge.
The four of us stood miserably in the rain, unsure of what to do. Sighing, we pulled out our ponchos and secured another layer of rain protection over our backpacks. With no shelter and no friendly campers, Kim suggested we keep walking. With head down, small rivers ran off my poncho. We sloshed forward on a trail that was more puddle than dirt. A mile went by and no words were exchanged until Kim, Steve and Theresa abruptly stopped, discussing how odd it was, we had not connected with the SMP trail. I watched my friends pull out a soggy map to confirm we had walked the wrong way. Crap! We had to turn around and head back to the campground completing a 3-mile detour.
On the right trail, we trudged northward and after three-full hours of downpour, the facet finally closed. My damp areas had turned wet… a bonus chill setting in. Simultaneous hunger pangs called for a lunch stop deep into the woods. We stopped smack in the middle of the trail on the verge of hangry (hungry + angry). One of our ponchos served as a tarp, where we laid out our grub and made JetBoil hot tea. In an attempt to improve my soggy mood, I opened up my Kim-packed snack bag and treated myself to a fun-sized Snicker bar. Wet but full, our troop moved on with many miles to cover, walking ten instead of seven because of our wrong-turn blunder. In early afternoon the sun peeked out warming our shoulders, on the way to Section Four Lake.
The next day dawned with renewed hope to see the herd or even a lone elk. Over camp flapjacks we discussed our route along the Pigeon River, back to the car. We had plotted a loop to complete by afternoon to leave time to explore viewing areas by car later. After two miles, we passed a fork in the trail then passed another rustic campground. The neighboring DNR office was put to use for water bottle filling and peeing in a real toilet. Our van was safely stowed so we set off on a barrage of dirt roads noted for optimal elk viewing. We drove and drove, generating a plume of dust. More dust, no elk.
On night three, I was rudely interrupted by scratching at the base of the tent, two inches from my head. I woke up with a start, whispering, “Theresa, our tent is under attack.” She murmured, annoyed I would wake her up for something so unimportant. I persisted, far too afraid based on the low-muffled scratching. It was clearly not a large animal like a bear. Theresa rolled over, “Go outside and pee, it’s fine.” The scratches were magnified inside the tent so I nervously unzipped the flap, expecting a large-toothed rodent to take a bite out of my arm. Nothing appeared as I stood up and surveyed the campsite. To my dismay I looked up noticing the food bag was gone from its perch. What climbing animal had hijacked our food bag?
Once I heard stirring the next morning, I headed out to help with breakfast. Sure enough, Kim had the food bag, rummaging for coffee grounds. “I’m so glad you have the food bag.” I explained how I found it missing. Kim launched into her own animal story from the wee hours. They had been startled awake by a stomp and loud guttural grunt. They listened on high-alert wondering if they should peek or stay in the tent very still. Shortly after they heard the noises, the food bag fell out of the tree with a thump. She wasn’t sure if it was related to the grunt and stomp or the result of a poorly tied knot. Our campsite had been perched at a critter cross-roads.
We planned for one more last ditch effort to catch the elk herd near the overlook, Inspiration Point. Not out of bed at dawn, rather 9, we rolled down more rutted roads. We pulled off from Osmun Road and surveyed a wide-open field to discover the grass matted down from the elk that had slept and eaten apples from neighboring trees. They were gone… the path of their hooves easy to decipher, out of sight toward the river.
We paced around, crossed the road and walked to Inspiration point. We went gradually up, through tall grasses, past canopied woods to an opening on a ridge overlooking a lush green field. It looked like perfect spot to see elk grazing. The four of us sat on the bench at Inspiration Point gazing out at the empty valley. Nobody made-out at Inspiration Point, instead we soaked up the building noontime sun. It was beautiful country, we concluded with or without elk.