The inspiration for our fall overnight bikepacking and camping trip last year came from this story on Bikepacking.com. We were heading “up North” to close up our summer cabin on an island on Lake Huron, so we knew that we wouldn’t be able to carve out the number of days necessary to do the entire journey. But we began exploring options for overnight riding and camping, ultimately settling on the scenic network of trails between two northern Michigan towns of Kalkaska and Traverse City.
Although that region of Michigan attracts a fair number of off road cycling enthusiasts, and is in fact the location of the venerable Iceman Cometh Challenge winter bike race, finding reliable trail maps proved to be a bit of its own challenge. I even reached out to a local blogger who highlighted some of the routes we were considering on her site, but she only confirmed that maps were non existent, and recommended following Iceman routing on GPS.
Previous experiences have taught me that GPS is just about useless when your phone is out of power or out of signal range, so I made a valiant effort to print at least rudimentary maps before we embarked. Although we were never close to actually being lost, on our return trip we got considerably off the planned course, and ended up inadvertently retracing more of our outbound route than we originally planned.
We embarked by car from a relative’s house near Kalamazoo on a mid-October morning, planning to make it to Kalkaska by noon, and be on the trail no later than 1pm, so that we would be assured of arriving at the campsite before dark. Since this was was meant to be a warm-up ride for further adventures up North, our route wasn’t long —only about 15 miles one way— but rolling fat-tire bikes loaded with camping gear on overgrown singletrack is definitely a slow paced activity, and we knew we’d have to stop to check routing and refuel, so we needed plenty of leeway.
Our route incorporated a tiny section of the mammoth 4,700 mile North Country Trail, which is generally very well marked, but in this particular region it intersects a dense network of local trails that don’t have similarly consistent markings, so staying on course required constant vigilance. The routing took us through beautiful, gold-speckled birch thickets, soaring pine woods, across open grassy prairies, and under stately old-growth forests. We traversed a section of the woods where a massive logging operation left enormous, mud-filled tractor tracks in the sandy soil that proved too much even for our fat tires bikes, and we resorted to pushing them over at least a mile of trail, skirting ankle-deep mud. After this vigorous workout, amid lightly falling rain, we emerged onto hard pack dirt roads, and stopped under the flame-orange tree canopy for a spot of hot tea. These rolling roads took us most of the rest of the way to Gurnsey Lake state campground where we planned to spend the night.
As we arrived under receding storm clouds, we found the entire state campground completely deserted. We had it all to ourselves, and had our pick of several beautifully situated sites overlooking the lake.
There was still plenty of daylight left, but with the sun at a lower angle, temperatures got perceptibly cooler. Since there was nowhere to get firewood, we had to scrounge logs left over on other sites, and spent over an hour traipsing around the campground, pulling in half-charred firewood and fallen branches along the roadways.
Did I mention we were hammock camping? We’d never hammock-camped in anything resembling wintry temperatures, and we had barely tested our gear prior to taking this trip. We hung the hammocks at right angles to each other on the tree-sheltered banks of the lake, stretched the tarps low above them as instructed, and installed the underquilts. We stuffed the sleeping bags inside so that everything would be ready for (hopefully) a good night’s sleep, and —since we were seriously starting to shiver at this point— set about building the fire and heating up some food. With rapidly falling temperatures, dinner was a pretty utilitarian affair, and after stashing our plates to protect them from any marauding critters, we huddled around the fire, and uncorked a flask of bourbon brought for this occasion.
On the night spent in the hammock with temperatures hovering around freezing, I will say this: use the bathroom before you crawl in, and hope that nature will not issue a call in the middle of the night. I was cozy inside my 20 degree sleeping bag , and grateful for the hammock underquilt wrapped around the whole thing like giant eggroll. The tautly stretched tarp provided good protection from the wind, and I got more or less restful sleep.
In the morning, we reluctantly crawled out of our cozy lairs to a light cover of fresh snow coating the campsite, our bikes, the picnic table and tarps. The first priority (after a bathroom break) was coffee. We made it using water from the lake filtered directly into the pot using a hand-held filter. After more warming up by the fire and a hearty breakfast, we packed up our camp, and headed back to the trail for the return trip.
We finished our ride in early afternoon, changed into fresh, dry clothes outside our car (you don’t know your clothes are clammy until you change into dry ones!), and headed in search of lunch on the way to our island cabin. After the strenuous, damp ride and a cold night spent outdoors, a hot fresh burger with fries and a delicious beer in a warm, log cabin restaurant overlooking Mullet Lake was the most luxurious and memorable meal.