Timeless In The Porkies & Loving It

Hey buddy do you know what time it is? Jim DuFresne didn’t. The main Trail Talk blogger for MichiganTrailMaps.com didn’t know the time for five days while backpacking in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. And it was so unusual he almost didn’t want to emerge from those rugged ridges we call the Porkies to our hour-on-the-hour world.

By Jim DuFresne

I don’t own a smart phone. I do have a cell phone; a flip up that unfolds into a phone twice its original size. How cool is that?

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

Not very by the reaction of my nieces and nephews when I showed it to them last winter. The look on their face was the same as if I was showing them a typewriter. One of them asked me where my Apps were and at first I thought she was talking about my long since diminished six pack.

When it comes to phone technology, I’m a Neanderthal. I’ve never sent a text message – I’ve never even tried to learn how to send a text message – because you can only imagine how tiny the keyboard is on my flip phone and how big my thumbs are.

The one thing I have done, along with millions of other cell phone users, is ditch the watch. When I want to know what time it is, I flip open my phone and there it is, the biggest numbers on that small screen of mine. My antiquated phone even automatically adjusts the hour when I switch time zones or when we enter daylight saving time.

But this fall I learned in the Porcupine Mountains all this convenience is dependent on one thing; staying connected. And in a wilderness as rugged as this state park is, that proved to be a daunting task.

 An unconnected cell phone in the middle of the Porkies.

Where’s the clock? An unconnected cell phone in the middle of the Porkies.

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is a 60,000-acre tract in the western Upper Peninsula, a place full of high ridges and steep canyons, towering 300-year-old pines and entire rivers. I arrived this fall to spend a couple of weeks researching a new edition of my guidebook to Michigan’s only state-designated wilderness.

On my third day there I strapped on my backpack and left my vehicle behind at a trailhead along South Boundary Road for a five-day loop into the heart of the park. That evening I realized I wasn’t getting cell service when I saw that the clock on my phone had disappeared.

I fanatically began pushing buttons with little icons on them and discovered how to change my ringtone but couldn’t find a clock anywhere on that phone. When I went to bed that night I didn’t have a clue what the hour was.

And I was hiking solo so there was nobody to ask if it was time to hit the sack. To make matters worse, I didn’t even know what time zone I was in. I was spending the first few days along the Little Carp River Trail, a beautiful path that is spilt between the Central and Eastern Time Zones.

I always knew where I was in the park. I just didn’t know when I was there.

I was a little discombobulated my first full day without hours and minutes. When I woke up in the morning I didn’t know whether to get up and get going or roll over and go back to sleep. I rolled over and didn’t disembark my small tent until it was bright and sunny outside.

Did I feel guilty? How could I? I didn’t know if it was 7 a.m. or 10 a.m.

A waterfall along the Little Carp River in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

A waterfall along the Little Carp River in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

I ate lunch when I arrived at a scenic little waterfall along the Little Carp River that was perfect for an extended break. Was it noon? Who knew? I didn’t. I started fixing dinner because I was hungry, I went to bed because the sun had set. I realized without a watch the only real deadline I had was to pitch my tent before dark.

And by the second day I was okay with that. By the third day I found it surprisingly relaxing.

Without a watch your timepiece becomes your instincts and the rhythms of nature. You eat because your stomach is growling, you take a nap because you’re tired, you start gathering firewood because it’s already dusk and you know it’s going to be a lot harder to find when it’s dark.

Without a watch, I discovered, you’re never rushed. You’re never behind schedule because schedules are irrelevant when there is no way to check the time. I simply floated through each day at an unhurried and very pleasant pace.

Just had to pitch my tent before dark. That was it.

On the fourth day I had arrived at the mouth of the Big Carp River, one of the most scenic and popular spots in the park for backpackers to spend a night. I set up camp and then in the evening went to the Lake Superior shoreline to witness what was promising to be a dramatic sunset. Already gathered around the mouth of the Big Carp River were a handful of other backpackers and I could see several were on their cell phones.

Then it occurred to me. I could get reception at this spot. I could make a phone call, send a text message if I knew how, connect myself to the rest of the world.

I could even see if it was time to start dinner.

The question I debated at that moment was; did I want to?

How extraordinary in today’s world to be able to totally disconnect yourself in a place as beautiful as the Porkies.  No phone calls, no emails, no Facebook, no Trump-versus-Clinton rants on the television. No news other then another backpacker telling you the bridge over the Big Carp River that washed out during the summer still hasn’t been replaced.

Some of us didn’t even know what time it was.

I found this timeless state of mind refreshing and rare.  I realized in another day I would emerge from the forest at a trailhead and there would be my car with its clock and its radio, the first step to getting reacquainted with the world.

But until then I decided that flip phone of mine would stay unflipped.

Posted in Backpacking, Camping, Jim DuFresne's Trail Talk Blog, Michigan, Personal Journey, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Trails, Upper Peninsula Adventure | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

County Road 371: One Short & Adventurous Drive

371signIn the latest Trail Talk blog from MichiganTrailMaps.com, Jim DuFresne writes about the most amazing road he has ever followed in Colorado. Country Road 371 offers spectacular scenery, lots of outdoor adventure and places to camp. Even more amazing, CR 371 is only 10 miles long.

Jim no more flew back to Detroit then he immediately drove north to begin working on our expanded coverage of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. An updated version of his longtime guidebook is slate

d to be out next spring. But before then we’ll be uploading maps, trail coverage and blogs to our web site. Our next Trail Mix newsletter will be devoted to the beloved Porkies. Sign up now at michigantrailmaps.com/newsletter to make sure you get the free newsletter that comes with our newest downloadable maps.

By Jim DuFresne

The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area is a vast stretch of Colorado that covers 109,107 acres from the historic town of Leadville south to Pueblo on the edge of Great Plains, protecting 152 miles of the Arkansas River, the state’s longest.  The area is so vast it’s managed by three agencies; Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

North of Buena Vista the upper valley of the recreation area is stunningly scenic, a valley of towering peaks and steep canyons that slices through the Sawatch Mountains, Colorado’s highest range, and is accessed primarily by US-24. But departing the highway are two-tracks, forest roads and easily overlooked dirt roads. Like County Road 371, perhaps the most intriguing one of them all.

And it’s only 10 miles long.

But it’s hard to imagine many roads in Colorado, and there are none in Michigan, that offer so much outdoor adventure, places to camp and panoramic views – along with the pull-offs to gaze at them – in such a short distance as this Chaffee County Road.

CR 371 begins as Colorado Street in the historic downtown area of Buena Vista, the result of a gold rush in the 1860s and a popular stagecoach stop until three railroad lines arrived in the mid 1880s. From there the county road heads north as a paved avenue but by Mile 2 it’s a graded dirt road, winding past rocky bluffs with Buena Vista nowhere to be seen.

Rafters on the Arkansas River.

Rafters on the Arkansas River along County Road 371.

Above you can watch rock climbers carefully making their way up sheer stone faces. Below CR 371 is a thunderous display of whitewater, curls and drops that is the Arkansas River. If it’s July or August you’ll also see rafters bobbing their way downriver. A lot of them.

The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area is generally regarded as one of the country’s most popular locations for whitewater rafting and kayaking and the Upper Arkansas River is the most commercially rafted river in the United States. Period. That’s why there are half dozen commercial raft companies in and around Buena Vista – Wilderness Aware Rafting, KODI Rafting and Browns Canyon Rafting to name but a few –  and even more lining the river all the way downstream to Salida.

You can stand on the river in mid-July and watch hundreds of commercial and private rafters being swept through churning rapids or glide across a stretch of flat water that is perfectly smooth. The economic muscle of the raft companies is such that they reached a deal with the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District that regulates the release of water into the Arkansas and the hundreds of fly anglers who arrive to experience the river’s world class trout fishery. Throughout the summer until Aug. 15 the power companies release enough water from reservoirs to accommodate the rafters. In turn the rafting companies promise not to launch at any access site after 2 p.m. to allow anglers a portion of the day without a rubber hatch taking place.

This is a busy river.

The historic Midland Railroad Tunnels are used by vehicles today along Country Road 371.

The historic Midland Railroad Tunnels are used by vehicles today along Country Road 371.

At Mile 2.5 you reach the junction with CR 375, a dirt road that heads northeast into the mountains, and then arrive at the first of three tunnels carved through the rock bluff that towers above the road. The narrow tunnels were blasted through the rock during construction of the long-abandoned Colorado Midland Railroad in the 1880s. The Midland Tunnels are so narrow that you stop, peer into them to make sure there no opposing traffic or falling rocks and then slowly proceed.

CR 371 continues as a winding dirt road in a tight canyon for the next four miles with rock formations similar to the Red Rocks of Sedona, Arizona. The few posted speed signs range from 20 mph to 35 mph. Twenty seems fast for a road so narrow, 35 death defying.

The final rock along this stretch is the largest, Elephant Rock, and then the valley opens up with rugged mountains to the right and the famed Collegiate Peaks to the left. Next to Elephant Rock is a BLM camping area. This very rustic campground does not have drinking water, electricity or trash services. But what a view! Lining the horizon is the Ivy League of high peaks; Mt. Harvard (14,420 feet), Mt. Columbia (14,073 feet) and Mt. Yale (14,196 feet) among them.

At Mile 6 is Railroad Bridge Campground, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife facility with toilets, grills, walk-in sites with tent pads and easy and quick access to the Arkansas for rafters, the reason for the changing rooms. There is also a historical display devoted to the G.A. Kelley, who staked the first gold claim in the valley in 1859 to ignite a gold rush and a century of mining along the Arkansas and its tributaries.

The BLM camping area at Elephant Rock in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.

The BLM camping area at Elephant Rock in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.

In a way it hasn’t stopped because one of the most popular outdoor activities in the Upper Arkansas is recreational mining. BLM and state land is open to gold panning – without having to stake a claim or register a permit – and you’ll see people hunched along the bank, swirling mud and gravel in the bottom of their pan, looking for a little dust, flakes or even a nugget. Trying to strike it rich while on vacation.

Beyond Railroad Bridge, the county road enters another canyon, passing more rock formations, small camping areas, put-in sites for rafters, trailheads for hikers and mountain bikers. And once again CR 371 becomes a tight avenue and at times a one-lane road.

As a pick-up truck approached me here, we both paused and then inched along at less than 5 mph to avoid scrapping each other. There were six inches separating our door handles. At one point there were rugged rocks to the right me, ready to make a mess of my sub-compact rental, to the left was a steep drop-off – with no guardrail – where at the bottom was the thunderous whitewater of the Arkansas. A miscalculation in either direction and I was doomed.

You never take your eyes off this road. You want to look at the river or scope alpine slopes for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep or watch a fly fisherman battle an 18-inch rainbow … you pull over. Somewhere.

Eventually CR 371 makes a sharp turn to the left, crosses the river on narrow bridge, passes somebody who has a Burlington Northern Railroad caboose in his front yard (obviously zoning laws aren’t a big deal out here) and at Mile 10 arrives at paved US-24.

I pulled over, unpeeled my fingers from the steering wheel and let out a deep breath. What a way to spend an afternoon. And I was less than 10 miles from the lodge I was staying at in Buena Vista.


Posted in Camping, Colorado adventures, Fly fishing, Jim DuFresne's Trail Talk Blog, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Happy Unbirthday on Southwest

On a recent flight home from a flyfishing trip in the Rocky Mountains, Jim DuFresne fell in love with Southwest Airlines and in this Trail Talk blog our main blogger tells us why.

EshopPhoto2Fall is almost here, a time when hiking and backpacking is at its best; no bugs, no crowds, nobody else on that stretch of beach but you. If you need some sugguests on where to go check out the selection of books and maps MichiganTrailMaps.com offers in its e-shop like 50 Hikes in Michigan, that covers the best 60 treks in the Lower Peninsula.

By Jim DuFresne

I flew out to Denver last week and then spent my birthday with my son and daughter-in-law before heading into the Rockies for outdoor adventure and fly fishing. They gave me some wonderful gifts; a t-shirt from their backpacking trip this year to New Zealand, a collection of flies designed to fool those finicky Colorado trout and a “Complimentary Drink” coupon for Southwest Airlines for my flight home. My son travels a lot for his job so I suspect, living in Denver, he has a shoebox full of those coupons.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

I flew home on Sunday and made Michael drop me off at the airport more than two hours in advance. The last time I departed from the Denver Airport it was a horrible experience. I arrived almost an hour and half before the departure time but security was such a nightmare I almost missed my flight.

Not having flown Southwest all that much, I paid an extra $12 this time for “Early Bird Check-in.” When I arrived at the airport Sunday morning lines were non-existent. I printed out my boarding pass and checked in my luggage in less than 10 minutes. When I arrived at security a TSA agent told me I had “TSA Pre-Approved” check-in. I was through it in five minutes or less.

I headed towards my gate but – with over an hour to kill – stopped at the food court in the terminal to enjoy a breakfast burrito (a staple in Denver) and a large coffee while reading the Sunday newspaper on the airport’s free Wi-Fi. I was so unrushed and relaxed that suddenly I realized my flight was about to board. I hustled to Gate C-26 where to my horror the A group had already boarded. I was positioned at A 40. I jumped in right before the B group and managed to grab that aisle seat on the emergency exit row where there are only two seats.

Then I sat and watched passengers walk past me, wondering who my seat buddy was going to be for the next three hours. I spotted him was as soon as he entered the plane. He was 300-plus pounds but only 5-foot-8 and looked like a human bowling ball with a fuzzy tennis ball for a head. He was so large he walked down the aisle at an angle. Meanwhile I kept up this mantra because let’s face it, I’m not so petite myself: Please Don’t Sit HerePlease Don’t Sit HerePlease Don’t Sit Here

The moment of truth came when he stopped, eyed that seat and then said, while tossing his carry-on into the luggage rack overhead, “excuse me.” We never battled over the arm rest because after he sat down, I never saw it again.

Southwest3That’s when I decided I was going to cash-in that coupon. By the time the stewardess arrived for our refreshment order it was after 11 a.m. in Denver, past noon in Chicago and 1:10 p.m. in Detroit. Or as Jimmy Buffet once sang in a song: go ahead and have a drink, it’s five o’clock somewhere.

Still, I felt sheepish and a little self-conscious so I held up the coupon and said “my son gave this to me for my birthday and said I had to use it today.” Which was all true, I just neglected to tell her my actual birthday was a week ago.

The stewardess suddenly smiled and told me to put that coupon back in my wallet, this birthday drink was on Southwest. I should have been tip off when she asked me my name and wrote it down but when she returned with my coffee, bloody Mary, a tiny bag of peanuts and a small bag of cheese nips, well, it was the closest I’ll ever come to having a free Sunday brunch on an airline.

The rest of the flight was uneventful which meant there was no turbulence, my row buddy turned out to be a really nice guy (though I’ve had less physical contact with some of my ex-girlfriends than I did in a three-hour flight with him) and the babies around us were either happy or sleeping.

When the plane touched down in Detroit Metro, the stewardess welcomed us to Detroit, gave us the local time, the gate we were arriving at and then said “today is the birthday of Jim in 11C, let’s all sing him Happy Birthday!”

To my shock, everybody in front of me and around me turned around, looked at me and began singing. I could have died.  Even when we were disembarking, people were wishing me a happy birthday and the guy across the aisle gave me his unopened bag of peanuts.

I was so embarrassed I ran off that flight, ducked into the first restroom I came to and hid in stall number eight until I was pretty sure everybody else was already at the luggage carousal.

But by the time I drove home I had come to two conclusions. I chalked up the free coupon and the singing as one of the best Unbirthdays (remember Alice in Wonderland?) I ever had. Why feel guilty about it?

That and Southwest is the only way to fly.

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Shaving a Mile Off a Day’s Hike

The new Manistee River Trail and Hoist Lake Foot Travel Area maps from MichiganTrailMaps.com

The new Manistee River Trail and Hoist Lake Foot Travel Area maps from MichiganTrailMaps.com

In our latest Trail Mix e-Newsletter, Jim DuFresne pondered how far he’s willing to go to shave a mile from a day’s hike (with a backpack on no less). It drew considerable response so we’re reprinting that portion of the newsletter as a Trail Talk blog. It’s for those of you who haven’t gotten around to subscribing to our wonderful e-newsletter.

Don’t forget MichiganTrailMaps.com just released another new map, the second edition of the Manistee River Trail, a 23-mile loop that includes a portion of the North Country Trail. The new map is totally updated and more detailed than ever and comes a month after the release of our Hoist Lakes & Reid Lakes Foot Travel Areas map. You can order either or both through our eshop.

By Jim DuFresne

Judging from the boot prints in the mud, I wasn’t the only one who debated and then decided to take a chance on the Jordan River Pathway.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

The dilemma was whether to take the new reroute around the wetlands – an uphill climb that added 0.8 miles to first-day trek to Pinney Bridge Campground – or stick with the original trail and see if I could make it without sinking up to my knees in marsh mud.

Clip a mile from the hike? I’ll take my chances on the old boardwalk in the wetlands.

This backpacker’s paradox is the result of over-active beavers and a damaged foot bridge. When the bridge went out in 2014 the DNR quickly posted a detour around the area. After descending almost 400 feet from Deadman’s Hill Trailhead, hikers had to re-climb the ridge via the 3-mile loop spur and then descend it again.

That was a lot of elevation just to keep your boots dry.

A hiker crossing the old boardwalk along the Jordan River Pathway.

A hiker crossing the old boardwalk along the Jordan River Pathway.

So last year the Jordan Valley 45° Chapter of the North Country Trail Association explored, marked and cut a new segment of trail to serve as a reroute around the hazardous wetlands. It’s a huge improvement over the detour. But you still have to climb a bit, about 100 feet, and it’s just enough to make some of us – especially those hauling frozen steaks and a box of wine in our pack – to pause and ponder the alternative.

The first time I took the reroute. The second time I chanced it.

Just a 100 yards past the 3-mile loop junction, the new trail splits off to the left. I picked up the original trail and entered the wetlands area. Nervously I might add.

You begin with two stretches of boardwalk and they seemed in relatively good shape. But along the second one you hike along the base of a huge beaver dam that towers four feet above the planking. Mother Nature’s little engineer been busy I thought. If that dam ever collapsed, the boardwalk would be impassible.

But it was holding up nicely. Thank you very much.

Fall colors along the Jordan River Pathway.

Fall colors along the Jordan River Pathway.

I pushed ahead and within a half mile from the junction I had arrived at the bridge. It was clearly damaged, complete with some yellow caution tape as if it was a crime scene for a doomed backpacker. The first two spans partially collapsed into a V, just inches above the sluggish stream the bridge crosses. But they seemed stabled as I tiptoed my way across.

It was the third one that was wobbly. It wiggled so much that halfway across I had one of those moments where I froze, not knowing whether to continue or retreat. I slowly crossed but was ready with my walking staff extended in case I suddenly found myself in the stream.

I made it to the other side with clean boots and socks but am not sure if I would do it again. I suppose you could ford the stream but it looks like a boot-sucking quagmire where you’d be up to your knees before you knew it.

Someday the bridge will simply collapse or be removed due to liability concerns. In that case the reroute is a fine replacement.

But until then, as the boot prints clearly indicate, there will be backpackers asking themselves that eternal Clint Eastwood line from his Dirty Harry movie.

“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky today?”

For a map of the new Jordan River Reroute go to our web page on the Jordan River Pathway.

Posted in Backpacking, Jordan River Pathway, State Forest Pathways, Trails | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Art Neumann: For the Love of Trout

Art Neumann, a founding father of Trout Unlimited that was established on the banks of the AuSable River in 1959, died last week at the age of 99. Even if you’re not a fly fisherman, you should give thanks to one of Michigan’s greatest environmentalists, who dedicated his life to cold, clear streams and fish that were truly wild. In this Trail Talk, Jim DuFresne writes about his most memorial evening with Art Neumann.

FinalCoverMichiganTrailMaps.com is proud to announce the release of Jim DuFresne’s newest guidebook; The Trails of M-22. The full-color, 192-page book focuses on 40 of the most beautiful paths that are accessed from what many consider Michigan’s most beautiful highway.  The 116-mile state highway, that wraps around Michigan’s little pinky like a glove, passes through the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the state’s most popular national park, and serves as the gateway to more than two-dozen preserves protected by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy in Benzie County and the Leelanau Conservancy in Leelanau County as well as state parks and rail-trails.

Featuring outstanding photography and more than 40 full-color maps, The Trails of M-22 is $19.95 and can be purchased online from the MichiganTrailMaps.com eshop.

By Jim DuFresne

Art Neumann, one of the original founders of Trout Unlimited, was rambling down the road near Selkirk when he suddenly applied the brakes and did a double take at the side of the road. “Good lord look at that,” Neumann said. I looked, but all I saw was an open gate.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

But what is simply an open gate to one person is an invitation to Neumann. “That’s my old access,” he said. “I’m going in and play ambassador.”

There are those who say nobody knows Michigan trout streams better than this Saginaw angler, and there is probably no stretch of water Neumann loved more dearly than the Rifle River. He could have caught more trout in the Holy Water of the Au Sable or bigger trout in its South Branch, but it’s the Rifle where Neumann as a youth mastered the rudiments of fly fishing and eventually came to appreciate everything that a trout symbolizes.

Of all the holes and pools within this river, this is the one stretch Neumann liked to fish most. And he did until he lost his access to the water when the cottage owners he knew either died or moved away. But that evening the gate was open.

Neumann turned down the dusty dirt road and stopped at the first cottage. “There is a good pool just downstream from here,” he said, but nobody was home. So he drove to the next one, and I watched him enter a beautiful log cabin where he played ambassador for at least ten minutes. I wasn’t inside, but I could just hear Neumann tell the owners about the days when the Rifle was a top trout stream, or how Trout Unlimited was formed, or how he served as TU’s first executive director. And when he finally stepped outside and had a little spring in his step, I knew this master fly angler had received what he so dearly possessed in the past.

Permission to fish.

“Were they fly anglers?” I asked.

“Nah, they just dangle a worm once in a while,” Neumann said. “But when I get home I’ll send them some flies and an instruction book. That’ll get ’em started.”

Art Neumann, a founding father of Trout Unlimited, fishing on the Rifle River.

Art Neumann, a founding father of Trout Unlimited, fishing on the Rifle River.

We drove down to a spot on the river, stepped out of the car, and walked past the trunk filled with our gear. Neumann, who had fished this river since the 1930s, first just wanted to see the Rifle flow through his favorite stretch.  It was a thing of beauty, then and now. “It’s pretty clear,” said Neumann as we stood on the bank watching a few trout rise upstream. “I caught a 20-inch brown in a pool around that bend once.”

When Neumann finally did open his trunk, I discovered I’d grabbed the wrong metal tube at home and now had my eight-weight rod when what I needed was a five-weight. It might have been a problem any other time, but not with Neumann.

Always somebody who was dabbling in reel repair and rod refinishing,  in 1948 Neumann converted his garage in Saginaw into the Wanigas Rod Company, where he built his fiberglass fly rods and sold only the flies and equipment you truly needed to catch a trout in Michigan. For the next 42 years that shop, which had enough room inside for only three customers, two if they walked in wearing vests and waders, was the pulpit from which Neumann preached what was then a revolutionary concept: catch and release. You catch a trout, you put it back. The trout is then there to catch again. Neumann like that concept, preserving the resource for what he really enjoyed: catching trout on a fly.

What I discovered that night on the Rifle was when your fishing partner is a rod builder; you’ll never lack a rod. Neumann unzipped a black case that held almost a dozen of them and selected one for me, a fiberglass rod he had built years ago. “I’m going to spoil you with this one,” he said.

Next he gave me a leader, a Neumann 60-20-20, after he saw the knotless leader tied to my line and lectured me on the benefits of tying your own. And then just before we split, with him heading downstream to try and find that 20-inch brown again and me upstream, he gave me a few flies. “Not much is hatching right now,” he said. “Try the pale blue dun.”

A wild brown trout.

A wild brown trout.

I did, and the first fish I caught was so small I couldn’t tell what it was. But half an hour later I floated that fly over a dissipating ring, and the fish returned to take it. It jumped three times before I gently lifted the eight-inch brown trout out of the water.

It wasn’t another 20 minutes later when the current took that fly, swept it along the bank, and gave me my hardest strike of the evening, almost catching me off guard. But not quite. I kept the tip up, working the fish away from the brush along the shore and into the middle of the river.

The trout never jumped, but there was little question it was large. When it finally tired and came to the surface I saw the largest brown I had ever caught on a fly in Michigan in the short time I had been fly fishing. It was 15 inches long with a band of reddish dots along the side. I marveled at the fact that I caught it in a river I never expected to catch such a fish.

Then again maybe I didn’t catch it. I was using an Art Neumann rod with a leader he tied and flies he selected. And I was fishing in his river. Knowing all this, I gently took the hook out and watched the trout return to the depths from which it came.

It was, after all, Art’s fish.

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When a Trail Closes We All Lose

Hiking-Trail-Closed-SignA couple of snowmobile trails were closed this winter due to misbehavior by snowmobilers using them. What do you care, you’ve never been on a snowmobile in your life. But you should as it’s another reminder that our wonderful trail systems in Michigan are often fragile networks.

To find a ski trail for a late winter escape go to MichiganTrailMaps.com or its special Nordic coverage of great groomed tracks.

By Jim DuFresne

It could have been a single snowmobiler or it could have been a caravan of a dozen or more. It could have been a single incident or something that happens repeatedly throughout the winter. We’ll probably never know.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

What we do know is that Trail No. 4 is closed for the rest of the winter and who knows when it will reopen. In one of the most popular snowmobiling region of the Lower Peninsula, Trail No. 4 was a vital link between East Jordan to Charlevoix but in early January, it was quickly shut down with no public debate or advance notice.

Trail No. 4 was a mix of seasonal county roads, road rights-of-ways and trails across private land. When somebody or some group of snowmobilers left the designated route and ran at will through woods and fields or maybe did a little hill climbing, property owners pulled the plug on their segment which in turn closed down a nearly 20-mile trail. Or as the Michigan DNR so delicately put it: “Permissions were rescinded this year by the land owners, who felt the snowmobiling public did not respect land owners’ wishes regarding land access and use.”

Snowmobilers following a trail in Benzie County.

Snowmobilers following a trail through the woods in Benzie County.

With more than 6,200 miles Michigan has one of the most extensive systems of interconnected snowmobile trails in country. But let’s not kid ourselves; it’s an extremely fragile network built on handshakes because half of it is located on private land. Leave the posted trail and race through an orchard today because the freshly fallen, unmarred snow is too inviting not to and tomorrow that trail might be closed.

This has been a longtime problem with snowmobilers because of the tradition of bar-hopping and drinking while riding. The problem has been improved over the years thanks to stiffer laws that hit snowmobilers with a DUI charge when they are caught drunk and an educational push by the Michigan Snowmobile Association to separate the two activities. Still Trail No. 4 wasn’t the only one closed this winter. Trail No. 768 that connects Mancelona to the Starvation Lake area in Antrim County was also shut down for similar reasons.

Nor are the challenges to build and maintain a network of trails unique to snowmobilers. As much as we’d like to think a trail is permanent, it often isn’t.

The most popular preserve that the Leelanau Conservancy maintains is Whaleback Natural Area, a 40-acre tract located just south of Leland. Whaleback is a 300-foot bluff that rises above Lake Michigan and offers spectacular views of the Manitou Passage, especially at sunset. But from the trailhead the access trail passes through private property for a third of a mile before officially entering the preserve.

Entering Whaleback Natural Area.

Entering Whaleback Natural Area.

Access is allowed through the kindness of the surrounding property owners.  And so far trail users have done what trail signs ask them to; Stay On The Trail! But the situation is hardly permanent and Whaleback might be only a couple of bad incidents away from becoming an isolated preserve that nobody can reach.

Sometimes it’s not a trail that closes. In the late 1980s, I skied or hiked Merriman East Pathway every time I was in Iron Mountain. The 9-mile state forest pathway was a beautiful mix of heavily forested terrain embedded with large rock outcroppings. Then the timber rights were sold to a logging company and what replaced much of the forests was clearcuts. I was sickened when I returned unknowingly the first time and later was told “the trees will grow back.”

Sure, but not in my lifetime. The trail is still there, it was everything else that changed.

Sometimes trail conflict is the fault of misbehavior on the part of trail users. Whether it’s a snowmobiler blasting through a farm field or hikers littering the woods with water bottles and Powerbar wrappers.

And sometimes it’s not.

Michigan’s newest path is already one of our most popular trails; the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail. The 27-mile trail that extends from Empire to Glen Arbor and beyond is a massive $12 million project that has been opening in segments since 2012. But the National Park Service and trail organizers have run into a road block for a 5.2-mile stretch that would wind past Little Traverse Lake east of Glen Arbor.

Even though the trail would be on national lakeshore land north of the lake, residents with seasonal cottages and homes along the lakeshore have opposed it. Vehemently.  They are fighting any trail passing through their area, whether it’s on public land or not. It’s the classic not-in-my-backyard stance because they don’t want to share their slice of northern Michigan with cyclists, hikers or skiers in the winter. Or probably anybody else.

The issue has landed in court because these are not little log cabins along the lake, rather half-million dollar cottages, whose owners have the money, political connections or whatever to force lawyers for the National Park Service and Department of Interior to begin the long process of gathering documents and preparing for the lawsuit. Who knows when that segment of the Heritage Trail will ever get built?

Trails are not a right because you pay taxes, not like clean water, public safety or functional schools. Trails are something you nurture, build and then fight like hell to protect.

That means the future of trails falls squarely on those of us who use them. Trail users need to know that you have to behave responsibly when using trails. That you have to support the groups responsible for building them; whether it’s TART, Inc., North Country Trail Association, Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance or whoever,  by becoming a member or sending them an end-of-the-year donation or joining their volunteer work parties.

And even then you should still be ready to give again when you use a trail in the form of a park pass or a donation at the trailhead.

Trails are not free even when you don’t have to pay. But the alternative could be that the trail you love today is gone tomorrow.

What’s that trail worth then?

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A First Timer’s Guide To Snowshoeing

When it snows – and it will snow sometime this winter – maybe this is the year you give snowshoes a try. If so, here’s our primer for anybody stepping into a pair of rug beaters for the first time.

For suggestions as to where to go snowshoeing, check out MichiganTrailMaps.com where more than 200 trails have been covered and mapped.

By Jim DuFresne

I took Patty Zwers snowshoeing for the first time because I was the one who took her cross country skiing for the first time. She thought Nordic skiing was interesting but I could see from the beginning it wasn’t her sport.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

Too much slipping and sliding.

But Zwers loves winter, loves a fresh snowfall, loves being in the woods so I borrowed a pair of rug beaters and introduced her to a new sport. She fell in love with snowshoeing immediately.

Within minutes of arriving at Saugatuck State Park, she had her snowshoes on and was strolling through the woods. “Who would have ever thought walking on tennis rackets could be so easy?” Zwers said.

Then she fell.

She crossed her tails and entangled the crampons of one shoe into the decking of the other, effectively tying her feet together, and it sent her face first into the deep power. “Whoa! Spoke too soon!” she said laughing.

But then Zwers discovered another nice aspect of the sport; a spill while snowshoeing is not half the disaster it is when skiing because getting up is twice as easy.

She’s not the only one to stumble on that.

According to Outdoor Industry of America, the number of people who snowshoe has almost doubled since 2008, making it the country’s fastest-growing winter sport. In 2012, almost 4.1 million people snowshoed, 44 percent of them women.

Is it time for you to don a pair of snowshoes for the first time. Once you tried the sport, it’s easy to understand its growing popularity:

Patty Zwers snowshoes in Saugatuck State Park.

Patty Zwers hits the trail with snowshoes in Saugatuck State Park.

Better equipment: There is no comparison between the wood-and-rawhide models I strapped on in the 1980s and the pairs I use now. Utilizing synthetic decking and aluminum tube frames, my models are lighter to walk in and provide greater floatation on the snow. Crampons on the bottom – there are two sets on each shoe – allows me to climb, descend and traverse the steepest slopes with little or no slippage.

Utilizing synthetic decking and aluminum tube frames, my models are lighter to walk in and provide greater floatation on the snow. Crampons on the bottom – there are two sets on each shoe – allows me to climb, descend and traverse the steepest slopes with little or no slippage.

Rotating bindings use metal rods under the balls of my feet to allow my boots to pivot up to 90 degrees for a more natural stride. The bindings also cause the tails of my shoes to fall away as I raise my leg, shedding snow off them and reducing leg fatigue.Even the price – most snowshoes range from $130 to $260 a pair – is less than what I paid for Nordic or downhill skis.

Even the price – most snowshoes range from $150 to $280 a pair – is less than what I paid for Nordic or downhill skis.

Easier To Use: The best improvement of snowshoes in the past few years has been the ease of putting them on. No more wrapping long laces around your boots with icy fingers. On many models, you step into the bindings and simply tighten them with ratcheting straps on top and behind the boot.

Saugatuck State Park's scenic Lake Michigan shoreline during the winter.

Saugatuck State Park’s scenic Lake Michigan shoreline during the winter.

Greater Availability: Due to their booming popularity, any place that was selling or renting skis a decade ago are probably also stocking snowshoes today.

You can now rent snowshoes from many ski resorts, outdoor shops and nature centers. Places like Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville and Nub’s Nob in Harbor Springs even maintain special snowshoe trails. So does Forbush Corner, a Nordic center south of Gaylord.

Many parks offer guided snowshoe walks on the weekends and have a limited number pairs available for rent. Parks include Ludington State Park (231-843-2423), Hoffmaster State Park (231-798-3711), Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (231-326-4700), Hemlock Crossing, an Ottawa County park (616-786-4847) and Meridian Township’s Harris Nature Center (517-349-3866).

Quicker To Master: The main attraction of snowshoeing has never changed; it’s easy to learn. Unlike like snowboarding or skate skiing, anybody can step into a pair of shoes and within minutes be confidently trekking through the winter woods.

In snowshoeing it’s important to keep a wider stance and a slightly longer stride than normal to prevent stepping on top of one snowshoe with the other. During ascents, kick your snowshoe into the slope and step down to maximize the grip of the toe crampon under your boot. When going downhill, maintain balance by leaning back on the heal section.

That’s pretty much it.

It Burns Lots Of Calories: When ski poles are added, snowshoeing becomes a great way of cross training, a low impact exercise that combines an aerobic workout with strength training.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a male would burn almost 700 calories an hour snowshoeing, women usually more than 500. In comparison, most people burn less than 300 calories an hour walking at a pace of 3 mph.

It’s Fun: For all its benefits – low cost, low impact, easy to do –  many people take up the sport because it’s simply enjoyable. Snowshoeing is an uncomplicated way to get outside and into the woods during a long, snowy winter like this one.

One trek through the woods to the frozen shoreline of Lake Michigan at Saugatuck State Park and Zwers was hooked.

“It’s so quiet,” she said as we headed back. “That’s what I really love that about snowshoeing in the winter.”

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