On August 17, Trisha and I set out headed east on Coastguard Rd., a mile north of Deer Park, for our 35 mile Park to Park hike. This was the one that had been in my sights for years, and I was looking forward to exploring the area. Our goal was to reach the Upper Falls by the 20th , camping the third night anywhere along the NCT between Culhane Lake and Tahquamenon Falls State Park, provided there was an established camp site with a good water source. We knew by studying the map before the hike that water may be scarce after Culhane Lake, so plans might change. We had pre-planned and were ready. Our gear list was solid. We were well equipped with 4 days’ worth of food and the essentials, food prep (pocket rocket and fuel), shelter (2-man tent, pads and bags), and water (2 Sawyer mini filters, bottles, and a 3 Liter reservoir),extra clothes, rain gear etc. We were ready to carry 3 liters of extra water if needed. With smiles on our faces from sheer excitement, we were on our way!
When reviewing the map (pre-hike), we knew 2 things that we were going to encounter on the first and second day. The first was that we would be walking on sand—it is an ancient sand dune after all—and there was a lot of that. The trail traveled from the lake shore, where it was hard packed and easy. We were able to take in beautiful views and a cool breeze, before heading back to Coastguard Rd a few times to avoid private property. Scrubby Jack Pines lined the trail, and for a stretch we crossed through a clear cut. Despite the road walk and the sand we looked forward to camping on the beach that night, and it did not disappoint. We set up camp, enjoyed the sunset and watched freighters go by.The second thing we knew during our pre-hike map review is that we were going to be hiking through the Duck Lake Fire zone. The trail became a classroom of sorts. We were learning first-hand how a forest regenerates after a fire. After all, there are 2 things that regenerate a forest: human intervention and fire. The undergrowth bounced back quickly and it was easy to make pigs of ourselves with the abundance of blueberries. The Aspens, Jack Pines and oaks were growing up nice and healthy. Some were about 6 foot tall. We stopped for lunch at the Two Hearted River mouth campground. That was halfway to Culhane Lake, our stop for the night. We replenished our water bottles from the pump and filled our stomachs, then headed out. We walked through about 7 miles of the burn zone, which continued beyond Little Lake Harbor, and we were relieved to finally get back into mature forest. Culhane Lake was a lovely place to camp, but be prepared to pay for a site and the well doesn’t have a handle. Water can be easily filtered from the lake. Day 3. The mystery day. We set out in the morning not really knowing what the day was going to bring or where we were going to spend the night. We liked the idea of true off trail backcountry camping but we were willing to hike all the way to the Upper Falls if we needed to. The defining factor was a suitable campsite close to a reliable watersource.
The trail in this portion was hard packed and the terrain was moderate. It wound around swampland and the view at Parcell Lake was beautiful. Then….. road walking. About 4 miles of it until you get past Swamp Lake Road. Our plan was to camp at Rat Lake, but there wasn’t an established campsite or a place that met our criteria mentioned earlier. We filtered much needed water from the Little Two Hearted and made a decision. We were going to hike the remaining 7 miles to the Upper Falls and get out a day early. The hiking through the northern portion of the Tahquamenon Falls State Park was much like the rest of the hiking that day, but we were getting into Hemlock stands. Huge trees! Very exciting.
We marched on knowing that our reward, a cold beer from Camp 33 and food we didn’t have to boil water for, lay ahead. We were going to finish a 16-mile day with a bang.
The trail guide was correct. It was an easy to moderate hike that can be done by experienced and novice hikers alike. It yielded breath taking views of Lake Superior and the silence of Red Pine stands, but this is not in any way your typical hike. It is an honest to goodness look at how a forest is managed by us and by nature itself, which may be a turn off to some seeking a jaunt through the woods. Trisha and I agreed that the regeneration of the forest through the Duck Lake burn zone was a must see. A beautiful sight to behold. Hikers should be warned of the lack of water stops between Culhane Lake and the Upper Falls, and they should be prepared to stop and filter any chance they get. It wasn’t easy. Also, they should be prepared to camp along the trail in that area unless they want to put in a long 16-mile day like we did. When promoting this stretch of the North Country Trail, just like any trail system, advocating safety, emphasis on planning, leave no trace principals and hanging a bear bag are an absolute must.
Trisha Winn played in woods, rivers, and fields most of her life, and started backpacking seriously in 2017. She teaches high school English and college writing courses in the western UP. Her essays, poetry, and academic work have been published by Hippocampus Magazine, Peninsula College Press, TOSKA, and others. Matthew Hall grew up in Alma, MI and is a resident of Gwinn MI. He is an avid hiker / backpacker and amateur photographer with an undying love for nature. He was the recent 2018 people’s choice award winner at the Ironwood MI Downtown Art Projects “Through the Camer’s Eye” photography exhibit.