Friday, August 6, 2010

Day 1: The Trailhead (Or Lack Thereof)

    We planned well, I must say. It's that instinct before the trip to overplan, and overpack. I swear I've yet to go on a trip that I haven't grossly overpacked for. We had a full 5 days and, depending on the weather, anywhere from 40-80 miles of trail to hike. Being March the sixth, in the northern half of lower Michigan, snow was a variability of weather we were trying to plan for. I decided to call the McDonalds in Oscoda and ask the person who picked up how much snow was on the ground. The phone rang twice and a lifeless voice told me I was talking to McDonalds and asked "How can I help you?". I asked them how much snow was on the ground, they replied without missing a beat that there were spots of snow but 90% was melted off. I thanked them and curtly ended the phone call. I told my friend that snow would not be a problem for us, since there was little on the ground and then extended forecast showed 40º and sunny all week.
Co. Hwy 602, Shore to Shore Trail intersection.
    We planned to drop off in a town called McKinley. Why McKinley? Because it was the closest distinguishable habitation to an intersection of Forest Service roads and the S2S trail. Luckily there was a landmark in town which the GPS had programmed in. Our GPS drove us straight to the Scenic Riverwood Bar, on the corner of McKinley Rd and Co. Hwy 602. The Scenic Riverwood Bar was actually the remains of a stick frame building encased in sheets of corrugated steel since the owner must have been too lazy to maintain the preexisting structure.  Turning on to Hwy 602 immediately dropped us onto a dirt road and a quarter mile later we found the trail. Blue diamond blazes on either side of the road and a respectfully well maintained wide trail to accompany the blazes.
    There is an approximately equal chance that the McDonalds' employee was so unobservant that they failed to notice the snow around them, or that I failed to take into account the fact that black asphalt parking lots like those found at McDonalds tend to melt snow much faster than shaded forest trails. Regardless, there was a significant ammount of snow left on the trails when we arrived. The weather, however, held out to be even better than we had dared to hope for. It was brilliantly warm! Alright, it was probably only 40º all week but it was the first spring weather break and we were backpacking, it was spring time, and the weather seemed perfect.
    The first day we alloted plenty of margin for error since we had read all the horror stories about working into backpacking. How it takes a few weeks to get used to putting in long days with the pack, and how people often are overconfident in their abilities to hike. So we decided to shoot for eight miles the first days out, and if we got more done (which we were sure we would), then the rest of the trip would be easier for it.
    Let me tell you, snow is a real bitch on a horse trail. You see the number of horses that travel the trail each year GREATLY outweighs the number of backpackers, and thus the footing for most of the trail is in the form of a well worn, six inch wide, hoof groove. A cross section of the trail would appropriately be reminiscent of a V shape. Put two inches of wet, melting, slushy snow on muddy V shaped trails and you have a virtual recipe for backpacking disaster. Every step we took would skew our ankles and force the inside of the foot to slide down into the sloppy, muddy groove. This was painful, slow going, and demoralizing.
Overlooking the AuSable 4:22pm, 3/7/2010
    We started optimistically, ate a mid afternoon snack on an overlook of the AuSable river, and enjoyed the scenery. Until about five o'clock that is. That's when the rush of starting out on the trip began to abate and our senses became quite keen on the fact that the trails were not treating our feet well. The snow began to get thicker as we entered thick cedar stands where little sunlight was able to penetrate. The temperature began to quickly plunge and my friend's boots, which had become wet, froze into blocks. We cursed the snow, and complained about our pains. It was about then that I relaized I had left my Columbia fleece in the car. What is it they say? Misery loves company?
    The sun was setting quickly on us, so we chose a clearing and dropped our packs. The tent, owned by my friend, was set up by him. I gathered old White Cedar branches, obviously dead and drying for years, for a fire. The oily cedar wood took a flame perfectly, without even any kindling (using toothpick sized sticks). We layered up with our insulation, and I realized that it was going to be a cold night without my fleece. I did, however, bring my Mountain Hardware down vest which saved my hide (literally). We made dinner of a single packet of quick pasta dinner, some naturally refidgerated cheesewheels, a quarter of a large sausage, and whatever else we had rationed out.
Camp, night one. Frozen boots clearly visible.
    Crawling into our bags we conversed back and forth about whether or not we would be able to endure the trail. First day optimism overcame the aches and pains and we decided we were well on our way to Oscoda. This idea would change quickly with the first painful steps of morning. Sleep overtook us and the night passed quickly.

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