BACKpacking = Strap 30 pounds to your back and go hike/camp in the woods.
BIKEpacking = Strap equal amount of poundage to either you and your bike and pedal into the woods.
Sounds like an easy transition right? Except for the gear that needs to fit in exceptionally compact bags for handlebars, middle post and the seat pack extension. And, once packed, will you be able to propel a bike forward….and not tip over? Preplanning is key and having NASA-certified light-weight items. We discovered that a backpacking tent is essential, specially compact and light at 2.5 lbs. Thankfully, we already had a full arsenal of compact gear like sleeping bags/pads, pillow, a JetBoil, water filter, headlamps and more. We made piles, along with clothes, rain poncho and food on our dining table. Josh and I stared at the piles, mystified at how to make it all fit. As we started stuffing and compressing, the solution was revealed as we added a small backpack to complete the preparation. Bikepacking requires strapping items to you and the bike!
The Labor Day weekend forecast was ominous, rain and thunderstorms (severe at times). With an extra day off, we let Mother Nature guide our choice. Saturday was ruled out as it torrentially poured and rumbled into the evening. Sunday would be our day to head to the North Country Trail near Baldwin and Bowman Lake. The plan was to bike 17 miles north and camp at McCarthy Lake.
Besides the possible t-storm forecast the 80% humidity ramped up the level another notch. In previous weeks, several straight-line winds and tornados had touched down in Baldwin and just north in Branch (the irony), all near the trailhead. The tree carnage was devastating as we made our way west to Bowman Lake. We can’t say we weren’t warned. A sign at the trail spur pronounced: Due to the recent storm event, there is a large number of trees over and on the trail. Some areas may be impassable.
Bikepack bushwhacking ensued. Initially we pedaled for short distances on the single track then dismounted to get around uprooted trees. About 10 times we rolled bikes through brush or lifted our heavy steeds over a limb. Things improved about two miles in and we kept a steady pace as we headed north. The pace is much slower, compared to typical rides where you would rip by hardwoods. The only ripping I did was to get into my snack bag. The sweat rolled off my face and my clothes clung to me like I had entered in a wet-jersey contest.
We stopped often and after crossing the Pere Marquette River to a short dirt road section, we arrived at an impasse a mile south of HWY 10. The trail that paralleled a private hunt club was a maze of horizontal trees the length of a football field. Walking ahead to see if we could get around, we determined a road detour was our only option. One mile turned to four on blacktop roads, making a U-shaped detour that included pedaling on a busy shoulder of HWY 10. We finally arrived at Timber Creek for a water and snack break, realizing we still had seven more miles to our campsite.
Josh seemed energetic and I kept popping handfuls of trail mix in my mouth hoping that raisins, chocolate and peanuts would carry me forward. Hardwoods turned to stately red pines and leaves transitioned to pine needles. I smiled at the upright pines as we pedaled uninterrupted for many miles. I tried not to look at my Garmin that beeped at me every five miles. At the 15-mile chime, I was thoroughly exhausted. We kept going knowing that our detour had added to our mile total. Just under 20 miles, we cruised around a bend and the small lake appeared. We both grinned and pedaled around to the other side where we saw other campers perched on a small sandy beach. We found a flat ridge to pitch our tent and promptly set about jumping in the lake.
While changing Josh produced two Pick Axe Blond Ales from his bag and handed me one with a wide grin. I nearly wept with joy at this sudsy surprise. There is nothing like a shaken, warm beer to top off a sweaty and lengthy ride. I gulped it down announcing that it was the best birthday gift ever!
After a brief dunking, spurred by hunger, the rumbling began in the distance as we staked the tent and boiled water for some mac-n-cheese with turkey sausage. We watched the sky darken so we worked quickly to erect a tarp over our tent for extra rain protection, lashing it with rope to nearby trees. I stirred the pasta and Josh stashed our gear in dry bags readying for a wet evening. At our first bites of dinner, the sprinkles began. Thunder rolled closer and bursts of lightning flashed over the lake. There would be no relaxing by a fire after dinner, rather scrambling in a compact tent.
By nine the rain forced us inside as Mother Nature brewed up a whopper of a storm. We flinched in our sleeping bags as huge cracks boomed above and rain hammered our tent and tarp. Sleep was difficult with the racket. Many hours passed before the storm moved north. Finally, almost fading into an exhausted sleep there came a distinct message from my bladder. Crap. At least the rain had lessened as we zippered our way outside to pee. Back in the tent, my eyes finally closed, sleep came as I thought about the next day and returning on the same trail and detour for many miles.