Monday, October 3, 2011

Pigeon River Getaway

I love autumn.  Each summer I wait patiently for the air to cool, the sky turn deep blue, the grasses to turn to gold, and the trees to blaze.  This is when I long for the woods, when the air is dry, the ground warm and the bugs long gone.  Being an artist who does shows all summer, fall is the time when I get to take a break, a much needed break.

I was not certain until the day before I left where I was going to go.  I had looked at the Pigeon River area for several years but never gone there.  I decided it was finally time.

Pigeon River Country may be one of the most "remote" areas of northern lower Michigan.  Northeast of Gaylord by some 20 miles, it is home to the High Country Pathway, a 70 mile loop trail, and the Shingle Mill Pathway, a multi-loop trail.  As you'll see from the map below there are many "roads" that cris-cross the area but they are mostly two-tracks, probably old logging roads, and don't host any real traffic.

This is state forest land and there is still some logging, but out on trail you wouldn't know it.  The area was logged extensively in the late 1800's but there are now areas of the forest where one can find 100 year old white pines.  There are also cedar swamps and a variety of woodland habitat such as upland pine, hardwoods and fir.  The area is also populated by white-tailed deer, elk, black bear, cougar (probably) and wolves (maybe--wolves were recently confirmed in the northern lower peninsula this spring, and this seems like a logical place for them to be).

I camped at the Pigeon Bridge campground.  This campground is the official trail head for both the Shingle Mill and High Country Pathways.  Knowing I would arrive late afternoon on Tuesday, I had decided to camp there instead of the more remote Pigeon River campground so that I could hike the short 1 1/4 mile loop in the evening.

Shingle Mill Pathway--arrows indicate campground and trail.

It was a spectacular afternoon, cool and clear.  The drive up had been amazing--I don't think there's a prettier drive anywhere than U.S. 127/I-75 north of Claire in late September.  Much of the route is divided highway and so you are treated to blazing colors on both sides of the road.  Where the median wasn't forested it was full of golden rod and New England asters, and the golds mixed with deep purple just took my breath away.  I wanted to stop along the highway and take pictures, but I didn't think that was a good idea with the RV.

I was a bit surprised then to get to the Pigeon River and find very little color at all, at least where I was.  The area hosts a lot of pine, white and red, and very little hardwoods.  None the less, the hike was gorgeous.

 The trail passed through open woods carpeted with bracken fern.  The air had a spicy scent from the drying ferns.

Within a half mile the landscape opened up into a meadow, turned silver by acres of little bluestem going to seed.

The bracken fern here were in the midst of their color change.

Ah a red maple!  What a joy, that riotous color!

The loop back toward the campground hugged the eastern shore of the Pigeon River.  Chickadees and Yellow-rumped warblers plied the shrubby vegetation gleaning bugs.

So here's a quiz:  What do you get when you take a river and add a stand of poplar?

That's right, you get BEAVERS!  Now I did not see any beavers, but by golly there was lots of beaver activity, and much of it clearly recent.  The wood of this "beaver pencil" was still wet.

There were well defined paths from the trees to the water where these heavy-bodied rodents (they can weight upwards of 60 pounds) dragged their poplar dinner to their lodge.

While it seems like beavers do a lot of damage, they in fact keep meadows open by removing invading trees.  Poplars are aggressive growers, and since we work so hard to suppress fires these days, beavers are the only things that will keep these meadows open.  These beavers were clearly quite busy!

Can you find all the beaver pencils?

There was no cell signal out there, and it had not occurred to me to call the girls when I got off the highway, so after my hike I drove back to Vanderbuilt to let them know I'd arrived.  I did not bother with a fire that night--I feel that they are generally more work than they're worth--and instead read a few chapters, played Angry Birds on my phone, and turned in around 10pm.  The following day I was planning to hike one of the longer loops and wanted to get an early start.

Next:  The Shingle Mill Pathway

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