Searching for elk along the Shingle Mill Pathway
Backpacking with Dave Foley
I’ve never seen an elk in the wild. That seemed reason enough to visit Pigeon River Country State Forest, where 500-to-900 of these animals comprise the largest free-ranging elk herd in the Midwest. While most of the viewing is done from cars or special elk viewing stands, Cyndy, Glenn Pascoe and I were hoping for a closer encounter during our two-day backpacking hike.
Section Four Lake is one of several lakes encountered along the trail. Dave Foley photo
Driving north 90 miles from our home in Cadillac, Mich., we exit I-75 at the village of Vanderbilt and then continue east another half-dozen miles to the Shingle Mill Pathway trailhead. This is one of three trail systems that have been established in the 105,000 acre Pigeon River State Forest. The Shingle Mill Pathway offers loops of 11,10, six, 1.2 and 0.75 miles. We study the map and select the 10-mile option.
The first mile of the path leads us through a meadow next to the Pigeon River, a fast-flowing trout stream known to hold good numbers of brook, brown and rainbow trout. Looking at the riffles sliding into deeper runs, I imagine a future day when I might return wearing waders and flipping spinners into these trout havens.
Soon, the trail leads away from the river and into the forest. The thick grass and shrub ground cover gives way to a carpet of leaves and pine needles lying at the base of mature red and white pines, as well as maple and aspen whose upper branches blot out the sky, stifling plant growth in the understory. The effect is as if we were walking through a natural cathedral – dark tree trunks lining a dim interior, illuminated through a leafy stained glass-like curtain of red and yellow leaves.
Section Four Lake is one of several lakes encountered along the trail.
Hikers on the Shingle Mill Pathway get frequent looks at the Pigeon River, one of Michigan’s premiere brook trout streams. Dave Foley photo
Usually, on back country hikes, I spend most of my time looking at the ground immediately ahead of me, watching for tree roots, rocks, and holes or concentrate on my footing going up and down inclines. On this trip I can look around more since this pathway is mostly level, a smooth dirt trail of leaves and pine duff, free of Nature’s trip wires, as well as steep climbs or descents.
It’s the second week of October and the color is peaking. With every gust of wind through the treetops, red maple leaves break loose and glide to the ground. The aspen and poplar trees are in transition, their foliage a mixture of green and yellow. Though we’re enjoying the leafy color show, what we’d really would like to see is an elk or at least hear one. Autumn is when the elk are rutting and we’ve been told they can be heard bugling in their quest for a mate, but the air is silent, save for the occasional raucous caw of a crow. My research says that in addition to the bugling, bull elk will charge into a thicket and rush about breaking brush to intimidate would-be rivals and impress females. A squirrel sprinting through the leaves is the only commotion we encounter as move along the trail.
After walking a little over five miles, we come to Grass Lake, an aptly named body of water that appears to be equal parts water and floating vegetation. Here our map says we will find “dispersed sites,” which are openings in the trees large enough to pitch a tent and with a circle of rocks that serves as a fire pit. We make camp, cook a one-pot meal of tomato pieces and rice, build a fire, then listen and watch as it grows dark. The crackling of the popping logs in the fire and our conversation are the only sounds; no elk bugling is heard.
A stormy night filled the trail with leaves. Dave Foley photo
Shortly after nine we head to our tents. An hour later it begins to drizzle. We sleep well though in moments of wakefulness. I hear raindrops hitting the nylon overhead. Refreshed after ten hours of sleep, we emerge from our tents at seven-thirty as the first light of morning reaches our campsite. The sky is gray, but at least there’s no moisture falling as we fix breakfast and take down tents. An hour later, as we slip into our back packs and begin walking, the rain begins again.
A night of wind and rain seems to have blown off a huge amount of leaves and our path is covered with a mosaic of red, yellow and orange. Walking along a ridge, we note that poplar and aspen are waging a successful takeover of the once-dominant conifer forest. For the first time since we began the hike in the Pigeon River Valley, we’re in open land, much of it the result of a managed tree cutting program.
In the final miles, the trail drops into a lowland where we follow several hundred yards of boardwalk through a cedar forest until we once again are beside the Pigeon River. A short time later, we reach our car.
Although we frequently hike the trails along the Manistee River, or follow stretches of the North Country Trail near our home, the Shingle Mill Pathway is a more-level path, an ideal place for those seeking an easy entry into backpacking.
And then there’s the elk. You would have thought that with an estimated herd of 500-to-900, we would have seen one or least heard them bugling. I think a return trip is likely. Maybe next time I’ll be in a canoe and I’ll have my fishing rod along.