Promoting the bicycling lifestyle in The Buckeye State
Mountain Biking the High Country Pathway of Michigan – Day 1
My friend Brent and I are planning to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 2014. We wanted to do a short tour to test out our bikes and gear, as well as our mettle in handling a multi-day off-road adventure. We selected the High Country Pathway, located in the northern reaches of the Michigan lower peninsula, because it is within a reasonable drive, and we figured we could handle the 80-mile loop in two days.
The High Country Pathway is open to hikers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers. There are also equestrian and snowmobile trails in the region that intersect it. We referred to the trail using the abbreviation “HCP,” but locals and the trail signage refer to it as simply the “Pathway.” It spans a four-county area, mostly within the Pigeon River Country State Forest. You can order a map of the Pathway, printed on quality waterproof and tear-resistant paper, from the Pigeon River Country Association (please let me know if any links become dead).
Despite the remoteness of most of the Pathway, it’s easy to get to where you can begin your adventure. The nearest town is Vanderbilt, just off Interstate 75. Turn east on Main Street, and as you leave town, the road becomes Sturgeon Valley Road. The park headquarters is a few miles away, just up Twin Lakes Road on the left.
After a detour along the way to ride the singletrack at Fort Custer State Recreation Area, lunch and dinner stops, we arrived after dark. We set up camp at the Pigeon Bridge Campground, the camping area just before the park headquarters. There are several such campgrounds along the Pathway to provide starting and stopover points. There are no showers or electrical hookups, but there are toilets, fire rings, and wells with clean drinking water.
The Pathway runs right through this campground:
Although, it turns out we would not end up riding this particular stretch.
Checking in at the campgrounds is done on a self-registration system; only cash and checks are accepted, so remember to have some small bills on hand for correct change. As of this writing, the fee is $13 per campsite per night. In addition to camping fees, you’ll need to buy a state parks recreation pass to bring a vehicle into any Michigan state park or recreation area. You can buy one at any state park office for $8 per day or $29 per calendar year (for non-residents). Michigan residents can purchase passes when they renew their driver’s licenses. I’m guessing non-residents can order them by mail or online, but I could never locate that information on the Michigan Department of Natural Resources web site.
There was one other site occupied, by a couple in an RV. They were running a generator, which broke the silence of the otherwise isolated area, but fortunately, it didn’t run continuously, and most of the evening was spent in quiet. We hit the sack in our tents.
It had been warm most of the day, and remained relatively warm through the first part of the evening. I slept inside my sleeping bag in my shorts and t-shirt, until I woke up in the middle of the night feeling pretty cold. I got my sweatshirt out of the car, and slept comfortably again for the remainder of the evening.
In the morning, while we re-packed our tents and sleeping gear, the gentleman from the RV stopped over to say Hi and get some water from the well. He said he’d be making a pot of coffee, and apologized if his generator was disturbing. “Gotta have it for my coffee,” he said, “So I figured it was only fair if I offered some.” After I ate a bagel with Nutella for breakfast, I took my travel mug and wandered over to the RV to partake. We chatted a bit; his name was Philip, and he was from Traverse City. The women with him was actually his sister; he said he brought her out to “give her a break from her kids for a couple of days.” They planned to do some fishing later in the day.
Brent and I weren’t sure if the best course was to leave our car there at the campground, or move it somewhere else while we were out on the trail. So, we loaded our stuff back into the car, and drove up the road a bit to the park headquarters. There’s a small trail parking area right next to the headquarters building, so we decided to use that.
Brent had forgotten the car charger for his mobile phone, so it was pretty much dead at this point. He asked if he could plug in for a few minutes at the ranger station, and the ranger generously agreed. It took about 30-40 minutes for us to get our bikes set up and change into our cycling clothes, and by that time, he had a decent 40-50% charge. I had noticed the night before that my cell coverage dropped off as we left Vanderbilt, but we thought we might get occasional coverage on high ground, and he wanted to be ready to check in with his wife once in a while when possible.
In our research about the Pathway, we had read that the mosquitoes, deer ticks (carriers of Lyme disease), and other insects were particularly nasty. Brent bought some 100% Deet insect repellent; I stuck with the more innocuous Deet-free Natrapel that I already had. I applied some to the exposed area of my lower legs. Since I figured we’d be riding under tree cover for most of the day, I didn’t bother applying any sunscreen.
We finally started pedaling, some time around 9:30am if memory serves, but we weren’t really watching the clock. We joined the Pathway immediately in front of the park office. We passed a couple of backpackers almost immediately, and then rode through the Pigeon River Campground, which is located along the Pathway just northeast of the park office.
The terrain of the Pathway was mildly rolling; the climbs were not extreme. The route of the Pathway was easy to follow, marked with blue blazes painted or nailed onto trees or sign posts. The surface was pretty solid dirt most of the time, but it seemed that it didn’t get enough traffic to pack it down smoothly. To a hiker, it would seem perfectly fine, but our rigid bikes felt every minor bump and trough. At times, the path through the woods would be fairly wide open, but much of it was very overgrown with weeds. This made riding cumbersome sometimes, as it felt like we were continually bushwacking to find and follow the path of the trail. The weeds, often thorn bushes, slapped against our legs, leaving them looking like we had been attacked by feral cats. I wore long sleeves mainly to keep the sun off of my arms, and this gave me the added benefit of keeping the weeds off of my arms. Brent, in short sleeves, was not so lucky.
It didn’t take long, however, for the weeds to deposit a plethora of burrs on my gloves and sleeves:
Our first major break came about 4-1/2 miles in, on top of a hill overlooking Grass Lake, although with the tree cover, the lake itself was not visible. We took some pictures and rested a bit, marveling at our so-far slower-than expected progress.
About 5-1/2 miles in, we came to the first of only a handful of significantly steep climbs. I’m no expert at reading maps with contour lines, but I could see ahead of time that the “Devil’s Soup Bowl” would turn out to be an apt name. There was a steep, fast downhill, then the trail immediately turned steeply upward to get out of the bowl. I was able to grind it out in the granny gear on my Salsa Fargo bike, but Brent, on his singlespeed El Mariachi, had to push it up.
The Pathway continued for several miles with more of the same as before–some wide trail, some overgrown, mild ups and downs. We came across another trail feature that would bedevil us for the rest of the trip. In some low, marshy areas, wooden bridges were built to provide solid footing over the soft, muddy ground. For a hiker, again, this would be no problem, but the bridges are usually too narrow to risk trying to ride across (unless you’ve got mad trials riding skills), and also makes it very tricky to push your bike across. A bike loaded for touring is too heavy to carry for very long. I usually put the front wheel in front of me on the bridge, and held my bike so the back wheel swung out beside me over the edge of the bridge. This was tricky as well, because often the weeds were as overgrown on the bridges as they were on the other parts of the trail. Sometimes I would tilt my bike up vertically, so that I could hold the handlebars in front of me and roll it on the rear wheel as I pushed it from behind, but it got heavy after a while in this mode.
Often, the transitions from the dirt to the bridge are abrupt and not very bike-friendly, which in many cases, was what made them less rideable than they could have been, because you couldn’t get a good start. Some of the bridges are built wider and are much more rideable, but these were the exception:
There were also a couple of larger footbridges over streams and creeks, which were just barely wide enough to be rideable:
About 9-1/2 miles in, we stopped at the Pine Grove Campground to top off our hydration packs and take another short break.
I’ll take this opportunity now to list my gear and packing setup. What I used was a more pared-down version, with some refinements to the cooking/eating gear, of the bikepacking setup I first used on a sub 24-hour overnight last month.
- Bell Sweep helmet
- Buff bandanna
- lightweight long-sleeve jersey
- Endura Hummvee Lite 3/4 baggy shorts with snap-in liner short
- Merrell Chameleon socks
- Pearl Izumi X-Alp Seek shoes
- Giro Bravo gloves
- Road ID
Osprey Manta 25 hydration backpack:
- 3-liter water bladder
- Ibex boxer shorts
- large pack towel
- two rolls of camp towel paper
- zip-lock bag with all-purpose camp soap and small sponge
- one ActiveWipes towelette
- Princeton Tec Byte headlamp
- Seat To Summit Mosquito Head Net
- Columbia Sportswear booney hat
- Surly wool cycling cap
- small Case Logic digital camera bag for personal care items:
- camp mirror
- nail clippers with file
- travel-size deodorant
- meal-ready-to-eat (MRE) with chicken and pasta shells in tomato sauce, diced pears in heavy syrup, crackers, peanut butter, grape drink mix packet, instant coffee packet
- one packet of StarKist tuna
- two packets instant mashed potatoes
- 7-ounce packet of Sun-Maid dried fruit
- 1-pound packer of pre-sliced pepperoni
- three bagels
Revelate Designs Viscacha seat bag:
- tent poles
- Pacific Crest 40-degree synthetic down sleeping bag
- Big Agnes Insulated Air Core sleeping pad
- O2 Fluid3 hooded rain jacket stuffed into a small mesh stuff sack
- MSR MiniWorks EX water filter pump
- 2 zip-lock bags with tools and repair supplies:
- Pedro’s compact chain tool with spoke wrenches
- cable cutters
- Leatherman multi-tool
- spare brake cable
- spare derailer cable
- spare derailer hanger
- spare chain links and master links
- miscellaneous nuts, bolts, and washers, cable tips, ferrules
- Park Tool tire boots
- zip ties
- duct tape
- Tenacious repair tape
- 2-ounce bottle of Tri-Flow lube
- 2-ounce tube of Buzzy’s grease
- two shop rags
- two Gojo wipes
- spare batteries: 2032 for cyclocomputer, AA for headlight, AAA for taillight
Revelate Designs frame bag:
- two spare inner tubes
- Guyot Designs Squishy cup and bowl set
- Markill compact canister stove
- small scrubbing pad
- REI titanium cooking pot (with the above four items inside)
- small pack towel
- REI plastic mixing spoon
- Brunton titanium utensil set (knife, fork, spoon)
- small jar of Nutella
- zip-lock bag of trail mix
- basic repair kit in smaller left-side pocket:
- Slime Skabs patch kit
- IceToolz L-bend hex wrench set
- Craftsman flat/phillips convertible screwdriver
- Topeak Shuttle Lever 1.2 tire levers
- Lezyne Pressure Drive Medium mini-pump
Revelate Designs top-tube bag:
- insect repellent
- lip balm
- Clif Bar (Chocolate Brownie is my favorite flavor)
- two sample packs of Gu Chomps
- a few electrolyte drink mix tablets
- Planet Bike Blaze 2-Watt headlight
Outdoor Research 10-liter stuff sack on Salsa Anything Cage on left fork leg:
- Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent, stakes, fly, and ground cloth
Outdoor Research 10-liter stuff sack on Salsa Anything Cage on right fork leg:
- neoprene socks
- Showers Pass Storm pants
- Pearl Izumi Zephyrr shell gloves
- DeFeet DuraWool liner gloves
- SmartWool Cuffed Beanie hat
- SmartWool liner shirt
- SmartWool liner pants
Avenir Metro Mini handlebar bag:
- smartphone in waterproof case
- digital camera in zip-lock bag
- car key
- small notepad
- trail map
I didn’t get the opportunity to weigh the complete setup, but I suspect it was just a few ounces less than the full bike-packing gear setup that I broke down in an earlier post. It probably came to about 24 pounds, including the bags themselves, on a bike that comes in around 27-1/2 pounds.
The handlebar bag was a last-minute decision, because I figured I wanted to have the trail map and my digital camera close at hand at all times. I had planned to add a cable lock somewhere in the mix, but that ended up being the one item that I inevitably forgot.
I also added a bottle cage to the mount on the bottom of the down tube, just so I’d have a bottle that I could use to mix up a sports drink along the trail using one of the electrolyte tablets.
The MRE had been given to me by a friend about nine years ago; I figured this was a good opportunity to finally try it out. The tuna and potatoes were a backup in case the MRE didn’t fare so well.
I did not end up needing any of the cold- and wet-weather clothing in the one stuff sack, but it was all fairly light, and I felt better knowing that I had it in case I did need it.
I usually like to pack a pair of non-cycling shoes or sandals when I’m bike touring. No matter how comfortable my cycling shoes are, it always feels good to have something different to change into for walking around camp in the evening. To save space, however, and since it would only be for one night, I decided to let my feet rough it for this trip.
I felt like the Salsa Fargo handled well on the off-road terrain while carrying all of this gear. I was a lot more tentative than I would be compared to riding singletrack on an unloaded bike, just for the fear that something is bound to come loose if given the opportunity. But, during the few times that I did “let it all hang out” on some fast sections, the gear was none the worse for wear.
We decided to stop for lunch around the 12-mile mark. There was no distinguishing landmark at this point, other than a fallen log beside the trail that provided a convenient place to sit. I ate a bagel with Nutella, some pepperoni slices, trail mix, and dried fruit.
Around the 15-mile mark, the trail crosses Osmun Road, and here we encountered our first navigational error. Maybe where the trail continues was not marked clearly enough, or maybe we just didn’t look carefully enough, but we thought the trail continued along the road, so that’s the way we went. The road surface became very loose sand, making pedaling tough sometimes, but not quite to the point that we had to dismount and push.
We called out “Mukluk!” on these sandy stretches, continuing the tradition that we started on the trails at Fort Custer State Recreation Area the day before. We continued for a few miles, until, after not seeing any of the blue blazes for the Pathway, and presented with an unmarked fork in the road, we realized we must not be on the right track. We consulted the map, and after discussion, determined to take the right fork. This turned out to be the correct choice. It turns out, we had been riding on Duby Lake Road, and we crossed a junction with the Pathway shortly thereafter. A short time after re-joining the Pathway, we crossed the intersection for the trail spurs to Duby Lake and McLavey Lake, confirming that were were once again on the right track.
The Pathway continued much as I’ve already described–some wide-open trail, much more overgrown trail, gently rolling terrain interspersed with some short, steep climbs, and more of the narrow wooden bridges. There were a couple of areas where the Pathway crossed an open field. One in particular looked very surreal, with tall, strange-looking weeds with groups of bulbous green seeds on top; we dubbed it the “Land That Time Forgot” because of its prehistoric-looking nature. Sorry; I didn’t think to stop for a picture here.
We planned to stop for another snack break at the Canada Creek Shelter, which would have put us at the 33-mile mark for the day, out of an expected 40 miles to the Tomahawk Creek Campground. The Pathway crossed County Road 634, where we saw a sign that there was a bridge out where the Pathway crosses over the actual Canada Creek, and it advised to follow the posted detour south on 634 (a dirt and gravel road). We were getting pretty tired and hungry again, and in hindsight, we probably should have stopped here or even sooner for another break, but we decided to press on to finish the day’s ride as soon as possible.
The detour along County Road 634 dead-ended on Canada Creek Highway, another dirt and gravel road, where we turned left (east). The Pathway markers indicated that we could have picked up the trail again somewhere just before State Route 33, but we checked out the map and decided to take the most direct route to the campground. We turned right (south) onto Route 33, and less than a half-mile down the road, turned left onto the dirt and gravel Tomahawk Lake Highway, which led to the campground. We had logged a total of 37 miles for the day, but it had felt like double that.
We did the usual self-check-in at the camp site. There were only two other sites occupied that we could see, and the sites were quite spacious, which afforded the quiet and solitude that most bike-campers would hope for. I took my socks off, and clicked the liner out of my shorts and changed into the boxers; with the outer shorts and the jersey, that’s what I ate and slept in for the night.
We ate our dinners at the campsite picnic table. My MRE turned out to be surprisingly good; an added bonus that I wasn’t aware of until I opened it up was the self-contained chemical heating unit. I saved the instant coffee for the morning. Brent had an instant backpacker’s meal of beef chili, plus some of the tortillas and sausage that he had brought.
I heard a few mosquitoes buzzing around my ears throughout the evening, but they weren’t nearly as bad as we had expected from our pre-trip research. We never felt like we needed our head nets. Horse flies were attacking my ankles, so I applied a little more Natrapel to that area (formerly protected by my socks), and that did the trick. I’m sure that the bug population varies with the time of year and the weather, and the very dry summer that we’ve been having here in the Midwest probably helped with that.
We turned into our tents while it was still light out, and had no trouble falling asleep. We heard a storm rolling through during the night, but we weren’t sure how long it lasted. Our tents held up well and we stayed dry, and I was comfortable temperature-wise the whole evening.