“What book do you want to read tonight?” I was taking my girls to bed.
My eldest, Keira, hands me one. She likes to take charge of these sorts of decisions. Rowan, our 3 year old, is already curled up comfortably in my lap. “Here daddy, we can read your favorite.”
It’s by Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are.
“That is my favorite”, I respond, smiling.
“I know why”, she tells me.
“Why?” I ask.
“Mommy says that you are the king of the wild things.” She thinks for a minute, then “Is that why you go away sometimes? To see the wild things?”
The snow had started falling in Michigan, and I couldn’t wait to get out there. The last several weeks had really been chafing at me. Hunting season had finally ended, at least with shotgun and rifle. I would take my chances with the muzzle loaders. I woke up at 3:30 am, dressed quickly taking care not to wake the dogs, grabbed my pack, and headed out to the car. Outside it was snowing, hard. Two new inches had fallen on the car since last evening. I stopped at a convenience store for some coffee and a cheap pair of sunglasses. I had broken my last pair and would need something for the anticipated snow glare. As I drove through the whiteout, I felt my spirit uplifted. I had been looking forward to the first trip of winter for some time now.
Somewhere around Grand Rapids, the snow started to taper off. That’s ok, I thought, still plenty to go around. Soon though, I was starting to see the snow cover thinning along the median. By the time I reached Muskegon, there was no snow to be seen. I briefly started to think about heading elsewhere, but decided not to waste any additional time in the car. It would be great regardless.
I reached Nordhouse Dunes just as the sun was rising. It was a brisk 31F. I started out on a trail that would take me along a ridgeline north to the Lake Michigan Recreation Area. There, I would hit the shore of Lake Michigan and follow this south to the adjoining Ludington State Park. I had planned a loop route through that area before returning via the beach to Nordhouse where I would complete a loop of the perimeter. My route overall would look like a stick with a loop at each end and would cover about 25 miles.
A dusting of snow frosted the ground as I started out
Snow covered meadow
Climbing to the ridge
Animal tracks were everywhere.
Crossing a snowy ridge
Soon I could hear the crash of surf pounding the shore. Once I reached the treeline, I could at last see the water’s edge.
The wind coming off the water was biting, and I stopped to add a layer. Then I headed down to the water.
Stepping out from over the dunes, I was instantly blown away by the beauty of this place.
I stopped to snack on some dried figs, pears, and mango. Mostly, I just wanted an excuse to take in the scenery, but the fruit was bursting with energizing sweetness. The figs tasted like pure sugar, and the pears, they were my new favorite. I was in that zone I often found when backpacking where all the daily chaff is stripped away and simple pleasures take on a heightened significance.
I walked along the shoreline, savoring the blue skies and the crash of the waves. Hard to believe this was a lake and not an ocean. It would be easy to convince myself that I was on some tropical island, that is if I wasn’t bundled up and wearing hat and gloves.
The dune grass was golden under the azure sky
Twisted driftwood assumed a variety of forms. At times, I'd see what I thought was a dog or a person sitting on the beach, only to have it resolve into wood as I neared.
A busy dune beetle sifted through the particles of sand for treasures only a beetle mind could comprehend
Hours seemed like mere minutes as I walked the shoreline. At times, the waves lapped at the dunes, leaving not much room for passage.
Under the sun’s glare, I was thankful for my cheap sunglasses, I couldn’t feel the warmth, but my face was starting to respond to the UV rays.
Tracks of a large canid. No human tracks nearby.
Remains of a shipwreck
I was also glad I had brought my poles today. I don’t usually use them but thought I’d need them for the snow. They did a great job in the 18 miles or so of sand I encountered.
Leaving the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area. I propped my camera on the sign to shoot this picture.
It was now 12:30 and I decided to stop for a lunch of Manchego cheese, venison sausage, and ak-mak whole grain crackers.
As I ate, I spent a fair bit of time pondering the correct order to eat my lunch. After extensive trial and error, I decided that it was a bite of sausage, followed by the cheese, with the crispy cracker at the end. The richness of the cheese counterbalanced the saltiness of the sausage, and the earthiness of the cracker neutralized the sharpness of the cheese. Those paleo guys would probably omit the cracker, but I kind of liked it. It brought everything else into balance.
Big Sable lighthouse in the distance
Passing the lighthouse, I followed the Coastguard trail. This snowy dune led to the site of another shipwreck excavation.
Young buck near a closed campground
Soon I reached Lost Lake, which was not actually all that hard to find. I had struggled with water extraction from Lake Michigan. While I had brought a length of cord to tie to my water bottle , to get within range allowed the waves to lap at my feet. The waves also churned up a lot of sand the needed to then be filtered out. Lost Lake seemed like an easier prospect for water collection. I did need to carefully bypass a transitional zone of reeds along the banks. In this 30 degree weather, I preferred not to get my feet wet.
Light snow through Luddington State Park
A stone lean-to near the lighthouse trail
Nearing the lighthouse
I reached the Lakeshore again by 3 pm. Two hours until sunset. As I walked the beach, I spotted two gulls fighting over something dark on the shoreline. They scattered as I approached this large salmon, and rejoined the battle soon after I passed by.
As shadows lengthened, the dunes lit up with a coppery glow.
Soon the sun began to sink into Lake Michigan.
I headed inland as the light faded, setting up camp in a small copse of Jack pines to avoid impacting the fragile dune ecology.
Firing up the ti-tri
Dinner was a homemade venison chili-mac, served with a large wedge of Zingerman’s Sourdough Bread. After many years of settling for packaged foods, I had recently decided that I should be eating in the woods as well as I ate at home. Since then, I'd been running my dehydrator almost non-stop. The presentation lacked aesthetic value, but the flavor was heavenly and I wolfed it down quickly.
After dinner, I fed twigs into the fire, contemplating life’s mysteries. It was now about 6:15 pm. People always ask me if I ever get bored on these solo trips, but I never do. Time seems to slow down, and my thoughts are free to roam as they will. Life becomes simple, problems easily solved. Existence condenses to the here and now. I thought about these things for 5 minutes or so, then cracked open the whiskey, mixing it with a bit of the left over hot water from dinner. Less than an hour later, I was asleep.
I awoke to the sound of rain, drumming down on my tarp. Turning over, I went back to sleep.
7 am and still raining. Believe it or not, the national weather service had forecasted a 0% likelihood of precipitation, and given the short duration of my trip, I had taken them at their word. I was packing my winter gear, which provided for water resistance, but not so much for rain. 0% had seemed fairly definitive. It was going to be a wet day.
I stripped off my baselayer and stuck it in my packliner. Might be nice to have something dry for later. I put on my R1, covered it with my windshirt, and hastily broke camp. Heading out into the rain, I stopped briefly to look out over the seething Lake. Then I started the trek back to the car and warmth.
Walking through the deep sand, I warmed quickly. Periodically, I would look over at the lake. Regardless of the weather, it was hard not to feel awe and gratitude to be out here, surrounded by such elemental beauty.
Leaving the shoreline along a narrow trail through the dunes
One last look back at the lake
Trails through the Nordhouse Dunes were unmarked, and it took trial and error and some compass-work to find my way back to the car. I stopped briefly in Ludington for an outstanding breakfast at Bonnie’s before starting the 3 hour drive home.
Post trip thoughts: Although I have lived in Michigan for 8 years, I am continually amazed by the diversity of the wild places here. I may not have gotten the winter trip I thought I was looking for, but I received something of greater value. There will be plenty of time for camping in the snow soon enough. At the moment though, the thing I am most grateful for right now is my family. Thank you for understanding that sometimes dad needs to go to where the wild things are.