BY DAVE FOLEY
Picture Rocks National Lakeshore seemed the right place to give our children their first taste of camping. We wanted to keep it simple. knowing that the trail is mostly level and Lake Superior was close at hand, were compelling reasons to go there. In 1978 when our son Ben was 13 months old, we drove north to Munising.
Backpacking with a 1-year old poses challenges. Ben liked to walk, but after 50 yards on the trail, he was ready for a break. It’s hard to get too far into the wilderness on toddler’s legs. His favorite activity was ambling along the path, stopping at every blueberry patch. They were abundant that year. When you’re only 2 feet tall, the berries are at eye level – easier to see and pick without bending over. When he needed a break, we either stopped or Cyndy toted him on her back in a Snugli pack. That’s why all of our camping gear was stuffed into my pack.
Even more than berry eating, Ben loved to wade in Lake Superior. We took turns being in the water with him. He was oblivious to the icy lake … we weren’t! Ben loved camping, but there are problems traveling with one who isn’t toilet trained. A used diaper weighs significantly more than a fresh one. Usually, during a trip as you consume food, the pack weighs less. On this trip with every diaper change, the pack weight increased.
Three years later, Ben stayed home with grandparents and his sister, 14-month old Betsy, made her backpacking debut at Pictured Rocks. She, too, loved playing in Lake Superior and walking about in the woods.
Although we knew neither of our kids would remember the trips to Pictured Rocks, we hoped that somehow, that these outings would leave an impression that the outdoors was a good place to be.
It’s now 36 years later, and on this trip I know I won’t be wearing a pack loaded with pee-sodden diapers. The weight on my shoulders is considerably lighter as I pose outside the Munising National Park Office for a “before” photo. A moment later, we start down the trail on our first steps toward Grand Sable Dunes, some 42 miles away. There’s six in our group, Michele and Kevin Andrews, along with John Smith and his brother Mark, Glen Pascoe and myself. It will be my first backcountry trip without Cyndy, who is home recovering from a minor knee injury.
The path, which is a segment of the North Country Trail, will follow the shore, often within sight of Lake Superior and never veering more than a quarter mile from the water. It’s relatively easy walking – a packed dirt trail cleared of fallen trees with boardwalks to get us over creeks and swampland. Recent rains have created some muddy sections and we step gingerly trying to find firm footing on sticks and tree roots to avoid sinking into the goo. We cover 12 miles before making camp at Mosquito Creek, which fortunately is free of the winged biters this time of year.
Each day we see a few hikers, and while the campgrounds are filled with trailers and tents, the backcountry sites are mostly vacant. That’s not true in the summer season from July 4 to Labor Day. A park ranger told me that these will fill up. She advised making reservations early if you want specific sites and reminded me all scheduling must be done online.
Although I had walked parts of this trail before on those trips with our young children in the late 1970s, I’m seeing the area as if for the first time. As a parent, I was so focused on meeting our kid’s needs and making sure they didn’t trip over roots or tumble over a precipice, that I didn’t take in much of the scenery. Now as we walk along the trail, I stop for photos and marvel at those granite cliffs rising up from the lake. Of all my Michigan hiking experiences, only Isle Royale rivals this for striking vistas. The stretch between Mosquito Creek and Chapel Beach is the most popular with hikers as it offers almost a continuous view of the cliffs that have made this park famous. Day hikers can reach this area from the interior by following a two-track to its end and then hiking a 9-mile loop.
Beyond Chapel Beach, the rock palisades give way to sand and the trail follows the dunes leading to a backcountry camp area known as Pine Bluff. After another walk of nearly 12 miles, it feels good to drop the packs and let tight back muscles loosen.
By the third day, my shoulders and legs have become acclimated and the walking gets easier. For much of the day, we hike along the edge of a sandy bluff. As it has been true the whole trip, the waves roll in, often sounding like a gentle throb. When the wind picks up, the booming surf-like, soft gunshots dominate the air.
For our last night, we pitch our tents on a ridge among a stand of red pine. When the rains come in at midnight, we are glad to be on high ground. The on-and-off rain becomes non-stop the next day as we walk the final seven miles to our cars, but no one really minds the wet exit.
When I return home, I look over the photos – the new ones and those taken over 30 years ago. They were two quite different experiences, two sets of special memories.