Sunday, September 18, 2016

Geocaching at the tip of Michigan's Thumb is a great way to spend a weekend

I'll never get sick of looking at the Lake Huron coastline, no matter where I am in Michigan.
So much is made in Michigan of what is "up north." Be it the argument that "up north" begins at the Zilwaukee Bridge, or at the Mackinac Bridge or what have you.

So much of the talk encompasses about the trek along I-75 or US-131. But so little is made of Michigan's Thumb region, which consists of several counties surrounding Lake Huron and the Saginaw Bay. For those coming from the Metro Detroit region, making the drive 2.5 hours north on Van Dyke is well worth the outdoors trek.

My most recent weekend was spent at the tip of the Thumb near Port Austin in a cabin off of M-25. That stretch of the state was quiet with the waves crashing near the sandstone rock formations nearby. A sandy beach lined the stretch of water, an area barely touched by development.

Part of our day was spent at Port Crescent State Park geocaching, an activity that consists of searching for hidden items in containers hidden all over. We were on the hunt for six caches in the rain, and were able to find five of them (the sixth appeared to have been missing for some time).

Finding the first geocache near the state park sign.
It was my first geocache experience, and was something I'm planning on keeping on doing in the future. Hiking has always been a pastime, but adding the hunt for a geocache gave it a little more of an adventure. They were located all around the park, with many of them near the trail. Some were well off the trail, requiring some detailed looking for the container. They ranged from a 35mm film canister containing a log to an ammo box with a full notebook and trinkets left by those who had visited it. One was even placed in a small lock box magnetically attached to a metal bench. These geocaches were entitled "Margie's Delight," named for the placer's mother. They're well worth looking for during a day hike at the park. We didn't have any items to leave in the caches, as we forgot to back them, but we did make sure we entered our information in the logbooks as we found them.
Our entry to the log on the geocache
(Stands for "St. David's")

While geocaching, the park itself was a pleasure to walk through. The pathway was a smooth
walkway that eventually led to the Saginaw Bay, complete with boardwalks through the beaches and sand dunes. It's the first time I've been to the park in well over a decade, having gone there a few times and staying at the group site at the state park.

While at the beach, we found it to be quite the communicable experience with others staying along the coastline. Our cabin was near a sandstone formation that had been graffitied by many people over the years. The water remained fairly calm but fairly warm as some of our group decided to swim in the lake.

There are several places to camp in the tip of the Thumb, including Port Crescent and Sleeper State Park near Caseville. It was a great reminder to see what spending time in the Thumb was like again, a place that tends to get overlooked when looking for a Michigan outdoor adventure.

A boardwalk along a trail in Port Crescent State Park near the water. It was
a rainy morning, full of clouds before it broke later Saturday afternoon.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Time to celebrate Michigan's National Park Service locations

The shores of Lake Michigan as seen from the sand dunes on South Manitou Island, part of
Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. The lakeshore is one of seven sites in Michigan
administered by the National Park Service.
Everyone is celebrating the National Park Service's 100th anniversary today. This date in 1916, Woodrow Wilson created what is now the National Park Service, which oversees America's biggest national treasures.

Here in Michigan, we don't have as many managed NPS sites as some other states. Out of the 59 national parks, only one is located in Michigan. Six other sites overseen by the NPS are located in the state (There are several designations of national park facilities for a reason. Here's a list of why some places are national parks, some are national lakeshores, etc). There are other "national" outdoors areas, such as the Huron National Forest, though those are managed by other entities like the U.S. Forest Service.

During my several decades of exploration as a child and adult, I've been to six of them (well, maybe seven. More at the bottom):

Isle Royale National Park

The sight of Isle Royale in 2005.
Michigan's lone national park is the least-visited one in the Lower 48, seeing only 20,000 visitors a year. It's up there as one of my favorite visited ones in the United States, spending a week there back in 2005. A boat ride of four hours from the Keweenaw Peninsula to the island in the middle of Lake

Superior granted us access to one of the biggest adventures of my life. Waking up next to an inland lake and seeing a moose bathing is a sight you don't soon forget. It's a park I highly recommend visiting if you have time.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the North Country National Scenic Trail

Another top-notch location in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Pictured Rocks is easier to access if you don't want to spend four hours on a boat. Here, there are more than 50 miles of trail, much of it making up the North Country Trail throughout the lakeshore area. I backpacked this stretch in 2006,
going from Grand Marais to Munising. It's a park that has a wide range of sights, including massive sand dunes in the eastern part and beautiful rock formations in the western part.

The North Country Trail, mentioned above, traverses through several states from New York to North Dakota. Running along the western side of the Lower Peninsula before entering the Upper Peninsula, it travels a length of more than 4,600 miles once completed.

Keweenaw National Historical Park
This is a park I know I've visited, but it would have been about 20 years ago on a family vacation as a child, and I honestly don't remember a lot of it. It's one I'd like to go back to and appreciate a bit more as an adult. This area focused more on history of the peninsula on Lake Superior, especially the copper industry that was so important to Michigan for many years.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Located in the northwest portion of the Lower Peninsula, this is a popular spot for so many Michigan residents. It's garnered national attention in the last five years, being named the most beautiful place in the U.S. by Good Morning America in 2011. The dunes are wonderful, yes, though my favorite part of this lakeshore isn't as easily accessible. South Manitou Island, which can be reached after a 90-minute boat ride through Lake Michigan. This island has its own sand dunes, along with giant cedar trees and shipwrecks along the coast. I've been here multiple times, the most recent being 2010.

The one-room schoolhouse in Westland built by Henry Ford.
Motor Cities National Heritage Area
This is one I've been in my entire life, but never realized its existence until just a few months ago. This isn't a specific area per se, but covers several spots in Southeast Michigan important to the development of the automotive industry. These sites have markers at several locations, including near a one-room schoolhouse built by Henry Ford in Westland (soon to be in Livonia) and areas that attracted Detroiters for recreation near Walled Lake in Novi.

River Raisin National Battlefield Park
This is the lone NPS site in Michigan I've yet to have gone to. Located near Monroe on the shores of Lake Erie, this location commemorates the battles that took place there during the War of 1812, where the area was taken captive by the British. This location joined the NPS recently, being placed under its authority in 2010.

Wild card: Mackinac National Park
While not a national park today, most of Michigan's Mackinac Island was once a national park, the second one in the union after Yellowstone. Mackinac Island became a national park in 1875 and was transferred back to the State of Michigan 20 years later when it became a state park.  That designation remains today. It's an island I've been to a few times, though I'd like to go back.The island is worth a visit, not just for the natural scenery, but for the culture, the history, and, if you're into it, the fudge.

What's your favorite national park site in Michigan? 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Not far from home: A day trip to Brighton State Recreation Area

Bishop Lake at Brighton State Recreation Area.
So much is made of going "up north" (and no, I won't make you define what "up north" means) in Michigan during the summer, and for good reason. There's something special about the lakeshore, the woods, the river up north that's so unique.

A smattering of wildflowers still in bloom in late July.
But that feeling isn't one that can only be felt along the Straits of Mackinac or Lake Superior. Sometimes, that "up north" feeling can be achieved a lot closer to home. Case in point: Brighton State Recreation Area in Livingston County.

I've long gone to the park next to Brighton State Rec Area, but have never traveled to this park. My wife and I decided to take an adventure this afternoon and see what the nearly 5,000 acres of state park land offered. Driving into the park makes it feel like you've taken a portal out of modern times, as it quickly takes you away from the bustle of Brighton and into the backwoods, where a few homes are located on a nicely-grated dirt road. 

After picking up a trail map, we went to Bishop Lake, which was full of activity. The tail-end of graduation party season meant lots of pavilion use, along with plenty of families looking to spend some time at the beach on a muggy day. Opting to stick around Bishop Lake, we hiked along the path that encapsulates the lake, complete with boat launches and a recreation area near the campground with modern activities such as cornhole, tetherball and an outdoor foosball game that requires the playing of 12 live players.

Birds were the star of the day, with us seeing more than a half-dozen varieties. They included an
A heron hangs out in a marsh. Notice the pattern on the bird's
chest and neck. We couldn't see that detail from far out.
oriole, a heron, a cardinal, a goldfinch and several others. Geese populate the lake greatly, but there's no shortage of fowl at this park.

The simple, one-mile trail spans around most of the lake, connecting campgrounds and other trails to Bishop Lake. Plenty of flowers still remained this late in the summer.

Three foot trails exist for hikers, including a six-mile trail. There are places for horseback riding, as well as mountain biking, but those were areas we didn't explore today. Along the foot trail surrounding Bishop Lake, on that is handicap-accessible, there were several spots to sit on a bench and relax as the cries of families playing in the water could be heard.

We spent several hours at the park, something that can easily be done by day visitors looking to get outside in the summer months without having to drive too far to enjoy the amenities. Make a stop here if you ever get a chance.

This butterfly was having a good time on this flower.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Negwegon State Park: A jewel on Michigan's Sunrise Coast

A look north along the trail toward South Point at Negwegon State Park. A sign for the Pewabic campsite is passed by our group hiking.
So much is talked about when it comes to west Michigan.

The Lake Michigan lakeshore is a beautiful part of the state, complete with wonderful places stretching from New Buffalo to Traverse City. But in all of that talk, the east coast of the state, dubbed the Sunrise Coast, tends to get lost in the mix.

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the east coast of Michigan's Mitten. I've gone there for many summers as a child, spending a week a summer in Presque Isle, north of Alpena. That's why I was thrilled to return to northeast Michigan this past weekend while backpacking Negwegon State Park.

Originally named Alpena State Park, the park was later renamed Negwegon State Park after an Ojibwe chief from the 1700s. It's a park that's clearly not visited often: the front sign is very clean and the road to the park looked pristine. We pulled into the lot to find just a few cars there, a sure sign of a quiet weekend. Sure enough, just one other group was camping in the park more than a half-mile away.

Trillium flowers along the trail.
There are four campsites at the park, each at least one mile from the parking lot. Each is located on the shores of Lake Huron, giving wonderful views of the beach. The main trail that leads to the
campsites saw a peppering of wildflowers, including trillium. Saw but one Jack-in-the-Pulpit flower along the trail, though I suspect more will come in the coming weeks. It was a bit swampy along the trail, with some boardwalks constructed along areas of standing water. Trees still remained bare over the weekend, the one preceding Memorial Day.
The Twin Pines campsite.

The campsite I stayed at with part of our group was Twin Pines, which came equipped with a picnic table, fire ring and a rudimentary pit toilet. Over
a small berm of sand was Lake Huron, about 100 feet from the campsite. The lake provided a light breeze, which tried to keep the rash of mosquitoes and gnats that were present this trip.

After some time on the beach where some of the younger members of our group went for a swim (and they picked me up and threw me into the cold, calm water), a hike to South Point capped the day
before cooking dinner. South Point is roughly 2.2 miles from the parking lot, and it also features a campsite nearby, one that looks out into the bay. There are several islands visible from this point, including one that contained, what looked like, hundreds of seagulls. We could hear their cries across the bay as we looked out. The water tower in Alpena was also visible.
The view looking south from South Point.
We had heard from another camper at the park we were at the night before South Point was worth the view. I agree completely, and is well worth even just a day hike to it if not camping locally.

Negwegon clearly doesn't get a lot of visitors. That's a shame. It's a park full of natural, untouched beauty, with breathtaking views of one of the world's largest lakes and first-class camping sites. It's worth it's own visit driving along US-23. If in the area, be sure to stop in and make a reservation at a campsite.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A view of the wolves in southeast Michigan

One of the wolves at the Detroit Zoo.

It appears Royal Oak has as many wolves as Isle Royale does now.

My wife and I stopped in at the Detroit Zoo this afternoon, a place we've grown to love in recent years. We stopped in at feeding time near the gray wolves and wanted to share one of the few animals there at the zoo that are found natively here in Michigan.

Wolves have captured my emotions for many years, starting with my 2005 trip to Isle Royale. I still remember hearing the wolves howling in the distance during the night we spent at McCargoe Cove. I've watched with close eyes on developments surrounding Michigan's wolves, including the studies down on Isle Royale in relationship to the wolf/moose population, as well as the short-lived hunting season the state enacted several years ago.

These wolves were brought to the zoo almost 11 months ago and can be found in the very back near the kangaroos. It appears the white wolf is a eight-year-old female, and the darker-colored wolf is six-year-old male. They both share a larger, two-acre space in the zoo designed specifically for them and were brought in from a zoo in Minnesota. They are both native to Canada.

Nothing pales in seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, something I haven't completely experienced when it comes to wolves. But to just get a glimpse of their majestic walk is enough to keep my imagination moving, as was the case this afternoon. 

A collection of wolf photos taken April 17, 2016 from the Detroit Zoo.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Flashback Friday: Backpacking Nordhouse Dunes on Lake Michigan

The sunset over Nordhouse Dunes last May.
A map found on trail.

The weather is (supposedly) warming up in Michigan, though I swear it's snowed more so far in April than it did in January here in my Oakland County home.

But warmer temps are coming, and that means it's time to start thinking about warm-weather trips. While any of these trips can be done most of the year, it can be slightly more enjoyable when the sun agrees with you.

That's why I've recently reminisced about one most recent trip, a May 2015 backpacking excursion to Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, part of the Huron-Manistee National Forest. This property encompasses more than 3,400 acres of forest, abutting the Lake Michigan coastline north of Ludington.

It's a spot I've backpacked several times, first as a teenager, again in college and most recently in May. It's a reoccurring trip for the group I work with at my church because it's such a unique place with great views of Lake Michigan from many campsites. It's a lengthy drive to the starting point from the state highways, further preparing you for being more alone than usual.

It's a sandy trail to begin with, with thick forest scattered throughout. To get to any views of Lake
Hiking along the sandy dunes.
Michigan from where we started, we had a few miles hike through the woods. Bushwhacking through the underbrush was a challenge, trying to head toward the lake to find our campsite. To access Lake Michigan, hiking over a large hill was all but necessary. Steep with little to hold onto at certain parts, I've always remember the ascent to the top was a challenging one with a pack.

But it's worth it for the view, looking down at the dunes with grasses and other vegetation. And it's uplifting to see the waters of Lake Michigan in the distance.

Hiking in the woods near Nordhouse Dunes. Just like most
trails in western Michigan.
A popular place to camp is along the water, but inland enough where you can set up a tent with the shield of a dune protecting you from the wind. Head up and other the dune, and the water is right there within a few hundred feet.

May is a great time to head to this park. It's typically very quiet with few other people around, though this past trip saw many more crowds along the lakeshore, possibly because of an article written about Nordhouse Dunes in an online article on The trees are green, the water is still cold (though many of the youngsters we took on this trip braved the water) and the sights aren't dotted with other humans.

It's a place I'd recommend highly. Just not the weekend's I'm there. I prefer my national forests quiet.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Time to come back: photos from our new home near Walled Lake

The sun sets over Walled Lake March 25, 2016.
A long, long time.

That's roughly when I last updated this page. That can't happen anymore.

Life gets in the way. Moving, family, work. It all gets in the way of spending time doing side work, like updating this blog. It's high time to get back to it. So here we go.

I'll be sure to share trips from months past on it soon, but thought I'd start off with some simple sunset photos near our new home. My wife and I recently moved to Novi, not far from Walled Lake, one of the largest lakes in Oakland County. Living off a lake is new territory for each of us: the closest I've lived to a body of water was the Saginaw River in Bay City, and that was a long time ago. Here, the first thing we noticed was the noticeable increase in wind speed on certain days. It cuts through the trees and is typically faster than our former home in southeast Oakland County. It's like living up north.

I decided to head out and enjoy the sunset last night, taking along my camera and trying to find a way to capture it best.

It's time to spend some more time outdoors. Here's to a happy spring and summer outside. More to come.

A swan swims in Walled Lake on March 26, 2016.
The City of Walled Lake in the distance.