It was a somewhat cool 70 degree but humid morning, the temps had been hot and humid the last few days and today looked like another one. I was on the road by 2 AM on July 4th as planned after spending the last few weeks planning and prepping every last detail of my pack out. Many friends thought I was nuts heading out to the woods for 3 hot days over the 4th. For me, it was getting my coonhound, Bessie, and myself away from it all.
I went to sleep right after work to get up early and make the 4 hour drive up to Manistee County Michigan for my first backpacking adventure in a long time. This was a return to the woods after injuring myself at Turkey Run and dealing with ankle issues leading to a surgery and then recovery. I wanted to hit the Marilla Trailhead early after reading about the Northern Country Trail (NCT) side of this loop trail didn’t have a lot of campsites and was the portion you would want out of the way first due to the terrain.
We made it to the Marilla Trailhead and were ready to hike by 9 AM Eastern time (my leave time was Central). As I pulled in I realized I forgot to grab my Smart Water I had bought just for this trip for making water later. I had a couple of water bottles left from the ride up and grabbed those. We started off with a 40+ pound pack and 5L of water between Bessie and I. I was carrying the gear for this hike, since this was her first time overnight hiking.
It was still a little cool but starting to warm up hitting the trail. 9 AM was a good start, thinking we can make the whole NCT side of the loop by evening. We walked down into the valley from the trailhead. At the top of the valley is a bench and an overlook. We walked on only a mile into the day.
Past the bench the trail starts to follow down a hill about 350′ in elevation before meeting up with the NCT trail itself.
For those unfamiliar, the NCT is part of national scenic trail system. The NCT is 4600 miles across eight states from North Dakota, through Wisconsin and Michigan, to Vermont. I was hiking about 12 miles of the NCT in Michigan to get to a loop point and meet with another trail called the Manistee River Trail (MRT) that follows up the other side of the river. This loop is located in the northern end of the Manistee National Forrest. It costs $5 a day to park – to the US Forrest service (who can complain about that?) and you can camp for free in the dispersed camping areas along the way. More can be read about the NCT here: https://northcountrytrail.org/.
After meeting the intersection with the NCT we headed south (downstream). The NCT side of this loop trail doesn’t have a lot of river views, but a lot of ravines and Michigan woods foliage. It was quite calm and beautiful. We crossed one stream about 3 miles in and kept going, good on water. After about 6 miles I started realizing they weren’t kidding about getting the NCT side out of the way first. We met Sweets Ravine. Bessie and I had been out hiking 5-10 mile training hikes to get ready for this, but I don’t think anything could have gotten us ready for day one.
Everything was either up or down along steep hillsides with a foot and a half wide path. I started doubting if I should have brought Bessie with her nose that will shut off the ears in a split second. She had already tugged a few times along the edges giving me a few butt clenching moments. I had adjusted from keeping her connected to my waist belt to just 2 finger holding her lead. If she was going to go run down that hill, I wasn’t going with.
About 10 miles in my water reservoir ran dry (one disadvantage of these reservoirs is that you do not know how much is left). By the time we made it to the bridge we had gone through all 5 liters of water and were walking dry for about a mile. It was 90 degrees and 70 percent humidity, every drink, every step produced more sweat. We took a half hour break at Red Bridge in the shade where I could stretch, take my shoes and socks off for a bit, and refill the water.
Refreshed a bit and glad we had the first leg of the hike out of the way, I was ready to see how far up the MRT side we could get the first day. Unfortunately Mother Nature had other plans and around 5:30 decided to start a sun shower. I couldn’t see any clouds because we were under the trees, but we were getting wet and weren’t sure how long it was going to last. Bessie looked at me with this worried look in her eye of “Uh, hey dude, we are no where near home and you know I hate the rain…” We pushed for the next spot to camp. Trudging down into a valley (not the best place to camp in rain but I didn’t think it was going to be a problem) we found a spot near Arquilla Creek.
I tied Bessie off to a tree and quickly setup the tent, threw the gear in, laid it out with her mat and brought her in where she quickly took her place. Prior to going out on this trip we had practiced going in the tent and she learned it is a safe “kennel” for her.
Thank you Dixie from Homemade Wanderlust on Youtube. Her videos helped me introduce Bessie to tent sleeping.
About 45 minutes passed and the rain let up. I had decided that the rest was nice, 13.3 miles on my first day was a pretty good run, and we should probably have dinner and settle in before it gets dark, we’d hit the trail somewhat early.
I started a fire after a little fuss with the wet wood (why a few dry container matchsticks are always handy even if you carry a Bic for your stove). I wasn’t sure why I set the fire, the ring was there, I was out camping and I guess it felt right, even though it was 90 degrees and I think 90 percent humidity down in the valley after the rain. My hiking shorts were soaked, and by now that stream was looking like a good place to cool off and wash off after all day. It felt so cold, but so reinvigorating. I couldn’t quite sit down in it, but I did rinse everything off and let my ankles soak for about a half hour before deciding to make dinner. I put on my “sleeping shorts” and hung everything up to dry.
While at the subject of soaking my ankles, a side note for the “Geezer’s Guide to Hiking”; Never forget to bring Ibuprofen. I’m not sure when you should start taking them, but I advise by lunch the first day even if you don’t feel like you need it. You know everything is going to swell. Take 600 mg then and about every 4 hours until you’re done with your trip. Be sure to pack more than you think you’ll need.
I decided on the Spicy Noodles freeze dried meal and made that up and I fed Bessie her dinner. She had made herself a nest near a stump. I felt like my rescue was finally being a little more like a dog and coming out of her shell. She never wanted to lay on the ground. Did I mention spoiled earlier?
We finished up dinner, I tied up the food, and hung around the fire until I could tell the sun was starting to set. Hikers midnight. We crawled in the tent, Bessie rolled up into her “coonieball” and I put on a few Wood Brothers songs while listening to the water run by the tent as the sky went dark.
All of a sudden I heard what I thought could be a bear snort/grunt. I really have no clue what a black bear sounds like because I have never encountered one yet. My heart took a quick jump as my mind went over inventory in the pack. Wait…I forgot the dog treats in the front pouch. My heart was racing a bit. I found the phone and paused the music. Silence for about 15 seconds. Next thing I hear is Bessie’s snore. My dog snores like a bear after hiking 13.3 miles.
After that, we slept all night on the 4th of July and Bessie never heard a single firework.