Biking, Hiking and Kayaking Wilderness State Park
BY DAVE FOLEY
Thunderstorms? Yes we knew they were possible but not until evening according to the forecast. It is just after one o’clock when we launch our kayaks. The sky is clear, except for a blue smudge of clouds on the western horizon. That’s probably the storm, but we figure we have several hours before it reaches us. A light breezes ripples the water. It’s a perfect day to be out on the lake. To the east we see the Mackinac Bridge. That evening the bridge will be the lead story on local TV news, as high winds tip a trailer over on the deck, closing the span for two hours.
Moving offshore from Waugoshance Point, our kayaks cruise by Wilderness State Park, which indeed appears wild. The landscape shows no signs of human habitation – just a strip of scrubby bushes lining the beach in front of the forest. Encompassing 10,500-acres, it’s the largest state park in the Lower Peninsula and contains more than 26 miles of shoreline. Occasionally I look toward the shoreline, but mostly my eyes scan the lake bottom for bass. The area is famous for its smallmouths, but all I see are a few carp darting away as my kayak passes over them.
We should have been paying more attention to the darkening sky. Cyndy wonders if we should turn back, but I am eager to keep going. As we pass by Temperance Island, I am intrigued by the masses of sticks protruding from the water … sometimes a couple hundred yards out in the lake – evidence that Lake Michigan is reclaiming what was lost during dry years. Seeing a photo opportunity, I have Cyndy paddle over toward the sunken brush. As I pull the camera to my eye, I realize that the sky is looking ominous. Storm clouds are forming and things are about to get ugly.
Turning our kayaks we pick up our paddling cadence and begin our retreat. It will take us nearly 90 minutes to get back to our car. The wind begins to chop the water. Raindrops pepper us. The first rumbles of thunder, sounding like unseen furniture being arranged overhead, bring an immediate change of course as we turn our boats toward shore. Although our kayaks are low profile, we’re still the tallest objects in the lake – perfect targets for lightning. A thunder clap, seemingly just overhead, sends a surge of adrenalin through my arms. Seconds later my kayak hits the shore with Cyndy close behind. After pulling the boats up into the scrub brush, we head down the beach toward our car a mile-and-a-half away. We jog and walk. It’s not easy when you’re wearing a wetsuit, spray skirt and carrying kayak paddles, but the wall of black clouds pursuing us is a motivator. Every time I turn around, it looks darker.
Just as we reach the car, I turn and take one last picture. The sky has a greenish tint and the storm cell has twisted the cloud into a massive dark-gray braid. We peel off our wetsuits and slip into dry clothes. As Cyndy starts the car, the storm breaks. Sheets of rain lash across the parking lot. We drive cautiously down the narrow forest road as the tempest of wind and rain renders windshield wipers almost useless. I worry about falling trees.
Five miles later we arrive at our campsite. The tent is still up, but the whole storm scene of thunder, lightning and torrents of rain is disheartening. When Cyndy suggests we stay at a motel in Mackinaw City, I don’t hesitate – not even for a second before agreeing. This is new for us. We’ve never abandoned a campsite before.
We check into the Holiday Inn, lounge in the motel jacuzzi, see the upended trailer on the bridge on the TV news and have a hot meal at a local restaurant. I wait for feelings of guilt about wimping out on our camping trip, but they never happen. We sleep well that night.
Early the next morning we check out of the motel. By 8:30 we’re walking back down the beach to recover our kayaks. Pushed by a gentle tailwind we paddle them back.
We spend the day exploring the Park’s trails on our fat-bikes checking out some of the 11-miles of trail open to biking. It’s not technical riding – most routes are flat, with just an occasional incline and are laid out on what were formerly two-track roads. A couple of sections are underwater, but you can blame the beavers for this. Park personnel work throughout the summer to adjust beaver construction to keep the pathways dry.
Although cyclists use the park, it’s best known by hikers. Within the park is a 38-mile network of trails with 11.4 miles designated as part of the North Country Trail (NCT), the national trail that winds from North Dakota to New York. Many of the trails are old forest roads that are closed to vehicles by locked gates. What intrigues us, and will certainly bring us back here, is that there are two walk-in sites that could be used on overnight treks. The most scenic is on O’Neal Lake. Combining the O’Neal Lake Trail with portions of Nebo Trail, Sturgeon Bay Trail and Swamp Line Road makes for a 13-mile loop with a night spent at the remote campsite.
Summer is a busy season at Wilderness State Park. Sometimes all of its nearly 300 campsites are full. In addition, there are six cabins and three bunkhouses, all of which are aptly described in the park brochure as “rustic.” Years ago we came to do some cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and spent a winter weekend in a bunkhouse.
We had only spent three days here – not nearly enough time. On our next visit we’ll try to complete our tour of the Waugoshance Islands without having to flee a storm and then put on backpacks, and head for a night on a backcountry site.