I left you last with the image of a beautiful campsite and a peaceful night. This trip to the U.P. was one that I had planned for a long time and looked forward to with much anticipation, and like so many things you dream of, the reality did not match the fantasy. It was way better!
Friday morning I had to drive 38 miles to Newberry for gas. Every place I stopped, I asked the locals about bear sightings. I told them that I planned to do quite a bit of hiking and was hoping to see a bear in its natural habitat. They all had wonderful advice for me, but always ended with "But you won't see a bear. They're here, but trust me, you won't see one". I guess bear sightings are not common, because the bear have not become habituated to humans and will hear and smell us long before we see them. Still, I remained hopeful.
Heading back up 123, I passed Tahquamenon's Rivermouth, and pulled into the rustic camping area there to check it out. I am a huge fan of rustic camping, though I rarely do it much anymore, because I'm getting older and sleeping on the cold ground with the snakes and a pesky shoulder injury is not as fun as it used to be, but the beauty of this camping area could be enough to make me give it another try. Then I drove through Paradise, headed west, and Rooney and I arrived back at camp by 2:00pm. We explored the riverbank for about three hours, made our way back to camp, ate, and I settled in with a good fire and my laptop to plan the next day.
On a side note, internet service in the U.P. is…well, honestly, it isn't. I have a mobile hotspot app on my phone, but cellular service is almost non-existant. Almost, but if you're lucky, and the clouds are hanging at the right altitude and the wind speed is between 5-7mph and there are enough breaks in the clouds and you place your phone in one spot (the trick is finding that one spot) and patiently wait, you can get a signal, only if you are a Verizon customer, for brief flashes of time.
Which is what I did. I found that in the evening, if I placed my cell phone upright in the front right window of the tin can, I could get a weak signal, but only if the light switch for the camper was turned on. Don't ask me why, but if I turned off the light, I lost the signal, and the phone wasn't even plugged into the charger. So with the light on and the phone strategically placed, I enabled the hotspot and fired up the internet on my laptop to check satellite maps for unmarked trails of interest. As I drew a crude map to use, the wind blew and the signal went out. In order to restore the signal, I found, through trial and error, that I had to shut down the computer, shut down my phone, wait five minutes, turn the phone on first, wait for the signal, activate the hotspot, then turn the laptop on, manually search for the internet signal, then I was good to go! I filled in a few more spots on my hand-written map, sneezed, and the signal went out. Going through the whole process again, fifteen minutes later I was once again online until a cloud covered the moon and I lost the signal again. I gave up, threw my map into the bonfire, and decided to wing it. Rooney and I went to bed early, because tomorrow was the day I had waited for, the day I had dreamed of for months, the day I would walk the northeastern corner of the U.P.
Saturday dawned bright and cold. The temperature was perfectly chilly, since I have heard tales of large poisonous flesh-eating snakes that attack without warning by dropping from trees (maybe I wasn't told that, it could be my imagination) and the guy I bought firewood from in Paradise assured me that it was too cold for snakes, and "snakes won't come out unless it hits 70 degrees, trust me". So I plugged in my little TV, played with my antenna, and got fuzzy reception on the only station available, in Canada. Keep in mind, Canada is on the metric system, so while I obsessively waited for a local weather report on a station with spotty reception at best, I neglected to consider that the predicted temperatures would be measured by Canadian standards.
When the weatherman predicted a high this day of 17 degrees, eh? I did not know what that meant. Would it reach 70 F or not? I could have gotten on the internet to convert the prediction, but that would have taken an hour, so I decided it felt pretty cold and I would be safe from gigantic snakes with a personal vengeance for women and Newfoundlands.
I was so excited to begin my journey! Rooney and I drove just a few miles up the road to a two-track, where the map had indicated a parking area just off the road. Michigan's DNR is usually reliable for marking trails and parking areas, so I was a little surprised when I started down the track in my Yukon and did not find a parking area. I drove a bit, wondering "Where is the damn parking area?" The surface was getting a bit dicey for driving when I came upon a small clearing to the side, big enough for about 4 vehicles. Even though there was no sign, I assumed this was the parking area and pulled in. I gathered my pack and extra water for Rooney, then set off on foot.
What a glorious day it was! Cool, but with clear skies, the sunshine bouncing off dew-laden leaves and sending out pinpoints of jeweled light. It was so quiet, too, with only the sounds of birds I had never heard before calling, and the occasional quail skittering about in the brush. Rooney and I walked at a relaxed pace, and we had not gone far when I noticed a track in my path. Bear! How exciting! The bear tracks went on for quite some time, sometimes veering off to the left or right, then showing up again 10 -15 feet further down the path. Rooney stopped to sniff, discovering a fairly recent pile of droppings. My excitement growing, I thought we were about 30-60 minutes behind the bear, and I had high hopes of seeing one and crossing another item off my bucket list.
We had been walking for about 45 minutes, following the bear tracks, when suddenly Rooney froze! The hair on his back stood straight up, he lowered his head, and from his throat came a low, quiet growl. At this very same instant, I was filled with a scent, not a particularly pleasant scent, that was unfamiliar to me. It was a heavy, musky odor, kind of dirty but with a sweet smell behind it. I knew, I just knew, it was a bear. The tracks at my feet veered off into a low field, and Rooney was pointed that way. I hooked his leash up, stood very still, and listened. The scent was still very strong. My eyes scanned the field with tall wildflowers and a few shrubs, looking for anything that seemed out of place. Was that movement? I couldn't be sure. Where is the damn bear? To be safe, I scanned the trees behind me, seeing nothing, and turned my attention back to the field. Rooney whined and strained against the leash, but I held him tight and close to my side. After a time, he relaxed, and we moved on.
A while after that, having seen no more bear tracks and wondering if I had been close, we came upon the parking area that the map had shown as being just off the road. I had just walked an hour's worth of two-track that I could have driven, but I never would have seen those bear tracks from the vehicle so I didn't mind. A large sign announced the beginning of the single-track trail to Clark Lake.
My quest to Clark Lake has a story behind it that is deeply personal. For years, I was part of a community at a different Clark Lake, downstate, but recently experienced a world of hurt there. I was seeking, more philosophically than literally, a new Clark Lake, a place that could heal me and restore my faith in people.
On the path, I had to pay attention to my footing, because it was a steep and sandy trail punctuated with gnarly tree roots and stones. I reached the top of a steep hill, coming upon a man-made shelter that beckoned me to come inside and rest. I caught a glimpse of the lake from this natural campsite, so after giving myself just a few minutes to explore the shelter, I forged on. When I finally got my first clear view of Clark Lake, I was awed! It's much bigger, and far more beautiful, than the other Clark Lake. Finding a spot to sit, Rooney and I took in the stillness, the peace, the beauty, the quiet, and I was able to open my heart to God and have a good long talk with Him about my path to forgiveness. This is the Clark Lake I want to live on! But God, and the DNR, have different plans, so I stayed as long as I could, listening to the wind and hearing God's healing words, feeling His loving hand on my shoulder, crying a little bit, and asking Him for a sign to guide me. As I was standing up to leave, I practically stumbled into another hiker, who was as shocked to see me as I was him. He came from the direction I was headed, and explained to me that he and some friends were backcountry camping on the bluff overlooking Clark Lake, and he asked me what I was doing there. As I tried to explain, he said to me, "Wait, are you talking about the Clark Lake near Brooklyn?" It turns out that not only was he from my hometown, his job as a local official led him to inspect and give the license to our family business on the other Clark Lake, the one I was running away from. Are you kidding me, God? I ask You for a sign, and the only person I see in two days of hiking would have ties to Clark Lake? What does that mean?
But he was a nice enough guy, and we talked for a long time about the serenity of this Clark Lake, and his experience camping in a tent that hangs from a tree overlooking the lake in a place where few people ever venture. As I continued on, I saw his campsite, it was heavenly. I have yet to figure out why I ran into that guy, at that time, in that place, but eventually I suppose it will all come to light.
I wandered off the single track from time to time. For the next 5 hours, I explored, I listened, I saw beautiful things. A few times I think I was lost, but I'm pretty good with direction and eventually found my way back to the two-track I drove (walked) in on. During the day I had come upon several smaller lakes that weren't on any map, some beautiful wildflowers, and many interesting birds. I scared a few deer, which had Rooney off and running, but he couldn't catch up to play with them. Once I got back on the two track, I retraced my steps and followed the bear tracks once again, but never saw one. I know it was somewhere near, but would not allow me to see it.
By this time, Rooney was worn out. After drinking some water, we reached the Yukon to drive to the next trailhead. We only had about 3 hours of daylight left, I thought this might be a good time of day to see a moose or a bear. I really, really wanted to find a bear. Driving northwest, I parked at a snowmobile trailhead, left Rooney passed out in the car, and hit the dirt in search of wild animals. Again, I followed some bear tracks, this one smaller, and held out hope that I might see one. I walked for about two hours on parts of the Wilderness Trail, then looped back to the car, feeling dejected that no bear chose to reveal himself to me. Where was that damn bear?
I drove up to Muskellunge Lake, spent some time walking around, then took a dirt road as a shortcut back to camp. It was then, late in the afternoon, when I wasn't even looking, that I saw it. It was shockingly right in front of my Yukon, on the side of the road. With awe and reverence, I slowed down for a closer look…and saw….
Wait for it……..
YES! I saw…….
I did a quick turn onto the dirt drive to Oswald's Bear Ranch, parked, paid my $10, and spent the next half hour standing on a viewing platform just waiting for a mama bear to walk far enough away from the 20 ft. high perimeter fence that held enough voltage to kill…well, a bear. Finally, I got my photo of a bear in it's natural environment to send home and freak out my family and friends.
Oswald's Bear Ranch is a popular place to go, with good reason. The owners accept bears from the DNR and other agencies who will not survive in the wilderness without intervention. They care for them and give them a home in their natural environment (even though it's fenced in) so that the bears can live the way a bear should live. Of course, they do become accepting of humans and will beg for visitors to throw an apple over the fence, but that's unavoidable in such a setting. It was fun to watch the males defending their territory, watch the females nose around hidey-holes, and the cubs growl at each other, play-fighting. There are distinct roles each of the bear plays at Oswald's, much like they would if they were roaming free, and it didn't take long to identify their roles. The day after I was there, they closed for the season so the bears could be allowed to clear their dens, which were all part of the natural habitat, and prepare to hibernate. In the Spring, Oswald's will re-open. I think I'd like to go back then.
Rooney was not allowed out of the car at Oswald's (I think the owners were worried someone would mistake him for a bear and be frightened) but he was still pretty tired from all our hiking, so he was fine. We arrived back at camp after dark, exhausted but content.
It had been a great day. My dream was to explore the wilderness on foot (mostly) and see things I hadn't seen before, immersing myself in nature with no intrusion from people, and except for the man-sent-from-God-as-a-sign-I-don't-understand, I saw no one on my hikes. How lucky I am to have a place in my own home State that is so pure, so beautiful, and so peaceful. I am not in Kansas, I am in the "other" Michigan, where TV's and computers and cell phones don't work, convenience stores are impossible to find, the bear hides and the eagle soars and lakes are clean. It was a good day for leaving everything behind while focusing on what is around me, that which God made and man has not ruined yet. It was a day for thinking about all the things I can learn out here, lessons that will stay in my heart and help me be a better person when I return home.
I have struggled to express the magnitude of what I learn about myself in the wilderness. What I can say is that my time spent hiking alone, with my dog at my side, strengthens me and frees my mind to consider the role I play in my own life and that of my family and friends. It allows me to not just see myself more clearly, faults and all, but to see myself the way I want to be as a more generous, kind and patient woman. I am a solitary soul in the woods, but I am not alone. It is here that I can see God, and be inspired to do more and love more and be more. It is here that I find peace, and every time I go, I carry that peace with me when I return home.
I hope you are enjoying my story so far. I still have so much more to tell! For now, I will give you a little teaser…
When someone says "Trust Me", don't!