Catching autumn’s finish on the Manistee River/NCT Trail
Backpacking with Dave Foley
Hiking along the Shingle Mill Pathway two weeks earlier (September, 2017, Silent Sports) had whetted our appetite to do some more backpacking, so when Michele Andrews suggested that we do the 21-mile Manistee River/North Country Trail Loop between Hodenpyl Dam and Red Bridge, Cyndy, I and our friend Glenn Pascoe didn’t hesitate to say, “Yes.” This hike was practically in our backyard being just 24 miles west of Cadillac and about 35 miles south of Traverse City.
Having heard the North Country Trail (NCT) segment would be the more challenging, we decide to cover that first. Leaving the Red Bridge parking lot, we turn west and pick up the trail by following the blue diamond trail markers into the forest. Initially the NCT appeared to be living up to its billing as within a few minutes after we begin hiking, we start up a steep climb. At the top, the trail levels off, offering little more than gentle ascents and descents as the path snakes its way in easy traverses up and down the high ridges that overlook the river valley. The dense forest obscures much of the view, but with most of the leaves down, we can look out and realize how far we had climbed above the river.
The Little Mac connects the North Country Trail with the Manistee River Trail. Dave Foley photo
The red, yellow and orange leaves of the poplar and maple trees which had been on display two weeks earlier now are a faded crimson and brown carpet underfoot. With most deciduous trees now barren, the yellow and lime leaves of the beech trees growing in the understory light up the woods. We pass by a few campsites, but although their locations are picturesque, creeks and rivers where one might replenish water are far away.
After walking about 8½ miles on the NCT, we turn right on a spur that will take us to the Manistee River Trail (MRT). Here the path follows a high bluff and we pull out cameras to digitally record the magnificence of the river looping its way through the bottom land. A short time later, we cross the river on the Little Mac, the largest wooden suspension bridge in the Lower Peninsula. The Little Mac was built in 1996 and enabled the 11-mile section of the NCT to connect with the 9.5-mile Manistee River Trail.
At this point the path becomes the Manistee River Trail, which was completed in 1992. This section gets more use and has established and marked campsites, but no outhouses or potable water. The only source of potable water is at Red Bridge. Travelers doing the whole loop should carry some form of water treatment. We hike another mile-and-a-half and make camp.
As the first tongues of mist begin to rise off the river and the evening’s gray skies fade into night, I note that it is only 7:15. I light the fire. The handful of birch bark I had placed as tinder flares, igniting finger-sized sticks which soon spread flames to larger wood, but the fire is anemic. Recent rains had dampened the wood. Only when I pick up the blower tube and puff air into the blaze do the flames begin to build and produce enough heat enough to warm us. Unlike summertime fires, which are made for toasting marshmallows or to add ambiance to a scene, offseason visitors want their fires to warm them. We roll the sitting logs closer to the flames and hold out our hands and feet to catch the heat.
When leaves have fallen and snow will soon be in the forecast, this between-the-seasons time is a fine time for hiking. Dave Foley photo
In the outdoors, one gets a real appreciation of how long the nights have become. Knowing that dawn won’t come until around eight, we realize that even though we’re dog tired, going to bed at 7:30 isn’t a good plan. We sit by the fire and talk, but by 9:15 climbing into a sleeping bag sounds like the best idea.
Down in the river valley, the temperature drops to about forty. Some cloud cover may have kept it from getting even colder. Fall camping isn’t for sissies or folks with lightweight sleeping bags. Light begins to seep into the valley a little before eight. We pull on down jackets and fleece, but we’re still cold until we have our hands wrapped around steaming cups of coffee and cocoa.
After breaking camp, we cover the first miles quickly, hoping our activity will warm us up. Within a mile, we are shedding outer garments. Although it meanders inland occasionally, much of the trail follows the bluff overlooking the river. The views are spectacular and we stop several times to take pictures. We see one occupied campsite and several day hikers. Two weeks earlier on a Sunday afternoon hike along the ridge, we had encountered dozens of people, most of them carrying packs. I would guess that on weekends during the peak color season every campsite would be used.
With much of the trail running along a ridge above the river, photo opportunities abound. Cyndy Foley photo
By one o’clock, we emerge from the woods on Coates Highway near Red Bridge and return to our cars. As I drop my pack into the trunk, I wonder if we’ve just spent our last night in a tent this year.
With rain and maybe a touch of snow in the forecast for the next couple days and knowing how fickle the weather is in November, I rather think this may be the end our camping season. If it is, our hike along the Manistee River ended it on a high note.