photos and story by Lauren Ross, Communications & Events Coordinator
On a busy holiday weekend in late summer, I drove north as many people do, through slow-moving construction traffic, and past backed up lines of cars at the tollbooth on the Mackinac Bridge, continuing on until the number of cars on the road dwindled and the primary landmarks became decaying, abandoned motels and towering rows of pines. From there, turning off the main road onto a dirt road, I followed my GPS to an old forest service road (more two-track than road) up and down hills, and swerving left and right to avoid large rocks. Eventually I reached the end of the road, a big yellow sign on a pole announced “ROAD ENDS.”
At the trailhead a boot brush station informs visitors of the need to “Stop Invasive Species in their Tracks.” Beyond that, a trail is barely visible among the roots and rocks of the forest. I am grateful for the white diamonds nailed to trees that provide reassurance I am still on the path. It’s half-past three in the afternoon now, and the warmth of the sunlight peaks through cracks in the forest canopy. A recently downed tree partly blocks the trail about halfway in, but makes a nice seat as I swing my legs over. I know I am nearly there when I begin seeing blue diamonds through the trees—indicating the North Country Trail.
An old military-style canister rests on a post at the junction, inside are maps and a notebook for trail users to sign. There is a mix of factual information and colorful commentary on people’s treks. I continue straight across the NCT toward an opening in the trees. I have to duck past a few low-hanging branches, but soon come out onto a rock face to see the expanse of thousands of acres of forest, as far as I can see in all directions. A creek meanders through the trees several hundred feet below, and I am struck by the immense silence out on this cliff face. With barely a bird chirping, only a light breeze rattling the leaves overhead, I feel I must whisper to myself thoughts of awe and delight so as to not disturb the peace.
Back on the NCT, I headed in search of a suitable spot to set up my tent. The goal, an amazing sunrise view off to the east, overlooking those thousands of acres of forest. I finally decided on a spot about a mile from the initial overlook and set up my tent a safe distance from the edge of another cliff. Boiling some water to rehydrate my backpacking meal, I watched the long shadow of the ridge I was on extend out over the forest below as the sun began to set behind me to the west. I walked out onto the bluff and watched the nearly-full moon shine brightly in the bluish-purple sky that was becoming gradually darker. Then, with what remained of the day’s light I went to hang my food bag in a tree to keep it out of reach of any bears in the area.
At 3 a.m. I woke to my alarm as planned and laced up my boots, grabbed my camera, and carefully made my way to the cliff’s edge, my headlamp lighting the way. After setting up my tripod and camera, I turned off my headlamp and let my eyes begin to adjust to the darkness. Faintly in the sky over the ridge to the north, I could see the flashes of light indicating the aurora borealis was active, and so I released the shutter on my camera. “Pillars!” I spoke more loudly to myself now—a measure of security to ensure that my presence didn’t surprise any wildlife in the night. For nearly an hour I watched the lights dance, shrinking and growing and shrinking again in intensity.
At 6:30 a.m. I woke again, the black sky turning gray as it began to regain its blue hue. In the forest below a fog had formed in the cool night air, and as the sun rose up over the horizon it released the moisture from the confines of the tree canopy where it gathered in low spots around creeks and ponds. With the aid of the fog, individual trees stood out in the forest below, and features of the landscape that were previously camouflaged became well-defined. The sun rose up over the nearby ridge, warming my face after a chilly night, and signaling that it was time to pack up and hike out before the day became too hot. But for one last moment, I took a deep breath of the fresh forest air and reveled in all that I had witnessed.
In Michigan, few places remain where people can experience nature on such a large scale. And though we have been reminded in recent years how important connecting to nature can be for our minds, bodies, and souls, threats continue to arise that could erase those places as we know them. Difficult to ignore were the flashing red lights of distant wind turbines even in this very remote place, a reminder that human-altered landscapes are everywhere. And like a crumpled piece of paper, these places, once altered, can never be the same again. So, they deserve our protection now.
Learn more about a coalition to protect this wilderness area in Michigan Nature Presents: Keep the U.P. Wild