A Woodland Hike…At Last!

 

Last Friday – Jeff’s day off of work – we decided to finally venture out of our house and either take a drive past some woods, or maybe even hike into some. The last time we hiked was March 13th, seven weeks ago. In the past seven weeks of our pandemic shelter-in-place, we drove downtown to the church building once to video a communion, and then last Tuesday at 7AM, I bravely entered a small store for groceries. Otherwise, it’s been home-deliveries and neighborhood walks. But on Friday, a good old day off, and with great trepidation from us both, we headed to the woods of Fort Custer State Park, about 20 minutes drive from our house.

We took face masks, but expected to only wear them if there was no way to avoid another human (e.g., passing people walking towards us on a narrow trail).

Our first shock came as we headed to the park: at 10:30AM, the Meijer grocery store had about 200 cars in its lot. And, oh, the traffic on the road! It was busier than a normal pre-pandemic Friday day-off day out.

Our second shock: Oy-yi-yi! The park itself was incredibly crowded, and we didn’t even go to the more popular places.

We bumped down a dirt road towards the Kalamazoo River. Usually when we’ve gone there, the small dirt parking lot is empty. Last Friday? Three cars. Crowded! We parked away from them and were getting ready to head for the river when a truck pulled in with three teens who popped out and headed to the out-of-the-way trail going along the river. The very trail I thought no one would be on.

Looking up the hill from our parked van, I spotted a bushed-over trail going away from the river…and away from people.  It looked like a deer trail, but as bushwacking is not unfamiliar to us, and the woods beaconing, up we headed through the brush. It connected to an equestrian trail. The thing about hiking on an equestrian trail is if you aren’t diligent about watching your step, well, horses are big old free-soilers, you know. I kept thinking we’d see someone, or need to step off-trail for a horse which had right-of-way. We didn’t see either person or horse.

We heard a lot of birds, and saw two tiny blue butterflies. Spring wildflowers were blooming,

and the mayapples were starting to bud.

Trees hadn’t started to leaf, so the walk was rather open, even going near a swamp.

Over one section, the path cut through grass. There was woodland before and after it. So, knowing the history of the park, and similar places in other Michigan parks, I’m guessing that was once someone’s lawn, although the brambles grew thickly around it. If I were curious enough, I’d research it.

But then (and now) I’m simply delighted that the two of us were able to be alone in the woods, and forgetting about the world for just a moment, to take one glorious hour’s hike.

 

Hiking Around the Double Dammed Lake

 

Actually, this lake within Fort Custer State Recreation Area has no name. It is labeled on the top of the map as a green-colored maps wetland. Therefore, I gave myself permission to name it: Double Dammed Lake, for at one end there is the man-made dam, and further downstream there is another dam, constructed by beavers. Hence, Double Dam. With all my stops for photos, it took us about an hour and a half to hike the wooded trail around this lovely, peaceful place.

 

There were 20-30 mph winds last Friday when we hiked it. You’d think walking through woods would make it less windy. I thought so. It was not so. I suppose leaves are needed to barricade the wind force. But because of the wind and the lack of leaves, we listened as the trees spoke to us — creaked to us might be more accurate — as they rubbed against each other.

 

After our quite winter, it was lovely to hear the voices of birds speaking. There were crow, red-winged blackbirds, and hawk. We saw duck last Friday, too. Other days we have seen geese and trumpeter swans there and an abundance of birds.

Sometimes when the water level is low, like last Friday, an abandoned road is revealed through this wetland-lake. It gives me pause, wondering about people who used this road long ago to reach their homes and farms, this road which is mostly under water these days.

 

As we headed over the man-made dam, Jeff asked if I wanted to take the road back to the van (the slightly longer route), or bushwack over the hill. I chose the more direct line, following what looked like a deer trail through the tall grass. About one third of the way up the steep hill, I got winded and asked, “Who picked this way?” But going that way confirmed my guess, first by the flattened grass and then by the piles. This was indeed a deer path, with deer beds and piles of droppings, hidden out of sight until you suddenly came upon it.

 

All in all, it was a wonderful little adventure with my best friend on a late winter day.

 

 

Return to Fort Custer

Our last three Fridays (free days) have been kind of bizarre. With the January bleak-and-dreary weather and drippy trees with muddy-slushy ground, we haven’t done much hiking. Today, though, we were blessed with a 90-minute hike at Fort Custer recreation area. Besides a ranger removing a life jacket from a drain and an orange-capped hunter in a car, we had the park to ourselves. Blessed.

With the snowy-melted-refrozen ground, every step was a crunch.

We did discover something new to us: At the group campsite area, which we have passed through dozens of times in the past 16 years, we found a lake access spot. It’s sloped down to the lake and only good for kayaks or canoes to be put in. But new discovery!

It was a quiet hike (except for our crunching steps). Nothing much to comment on, so here are some other photos from today:

 

Good Ole Fort Custer (near Augusta, MI)

 

Gloomy day. Overcast (no cloud distinctions in the white-grey above) with borderline freezing temps (30-32 degrees). Ice, a concern because of knee. But, hey! One day off a week = get outside when and if you can! We assumed the area Riverwalks would be too snowy/icy and the forest trails too soft/muddy. I suggested walking around the Fort Custer campground, thinking the gravel road might be rough enough. Jeff suggested parking walking the overlooking-the-lake picnic area. It was settled.

Sliding over the icy park roads, he commented how our outing might just end up being a pretty-drive day. (Insert a Sandy frowny face.) He also mentioned he was glad he grew up driving on snowy-icy Wisconsin roads, wishing we had a four-wheel drive vs automatic. I, too, was glad for his skills, for my heart fluttered drifting over that ice.

We found the park unusually crowded for a wintery Friday, with many trucks scattered throughout. The signs on one side of the road in the park read “No Firearms November 15-30” the signs on the other side read “No Hunting”, but we did notice a number of hunters (dressed in orange) out and about. Hopefully, just bow,

Still, after we reached our destination, I had to get out of the van. The parking lot was icy from melted packed snow. With my cross-country ski poles for sliding prevention, I wanted to make it to the untrodden snow off the lot.

Jeff grabbed his hiking stick which has a hunter-orange band around it, and since I was already wearing my colorful-goofy winter cap and red gloves, I grabbed my emergency-orange cap, and tied it to my ski pole strap. We also wisely decided to stick to open territory vs the woods, to be more easily seen by hunters.

Winter/Snow hikes are quite different than in any other time of year. You notice things unique to winter, like footprints and pawprints and hoofprints. I also try to estimate how long ago a track was made. It makes for a fun winter hiking game.

Here is my boot print to the left, and a man’s print to the right. Can you spot the difference in time? (e.g., iced heel, slightly eroded edges, leaf)

Besides boot prints, dog prints and a few smaller paws (raccoon perhaps?), there were also the distinctive deer prints.

One unbeknownst thing to me, which Jeff spotted right away, was a blood trail. I think I looked around for a huge bloody area, possibly deer kill, which had then been dragged off. But what former hunter Jeff spotted were the tiniest specks of red blood here and there. Perhaps a wounded deer?

We took a low gage trail down to the beach.

 Stopping at a picnic table for a shot, I was thinking in my head, just as Jeff said it out loud: “Carlson picnic”. Yes, we have brushed snow off table and benches to have a picnic in our past. But not this day.

I found the ice patterns and leaves along the shore pretty, and even spotted fowl prints.

 

We found canoes and boats simply left outside in the open. (FYI, canoeing or kyaking in winter has not been a known Carlson activity.)

Bushwhacking back up the hill to our van to avoid the ice, we did not get the expected hitchhikers (burrs) clinging to us, probably because we wore blue jeans and nylon coats. But the unexpected part was sinking a deceiving 7″ below the snow-dusted surface of snow-grass to terra firma, and consequently lifting my knees high with each step. Very difficult to capture a photo of this. I found it easier to follow in Jeff’s prints, even with his wider-longer stride.

No matter what the weather, I encourage you to get outside, but stay safe, both on the snow-packed-icy roads, and especially if walking through hunting territory.

(BTW, I’m honored when people tell me face-to-face how they enjoy going on our weekly hikes with us. It’s our pleasure to share God’s wonders.)