Pinckney State Recreation Area
Trailhead Elevation: 888 ft.
Dec. 15 Hike In:
Distance: 11.06 mi.
Elevation Gain: 433 ft.
Start Time: 3:01pm
End Time: 7:38pm
Dec. 16 Hike Out:
Distance: 4.30 mi.
Elevation Gain: 206 ft.
Start Time: 8:20am
End Time: 10:19am
The opportunity once more arose to get a good backpacking adventure in this December. I've grown to love and enjoy these winter excursions as they add a number of logistical challenges not present in the summer. That, and hiking in 20-30 degree weather in Michigan is much to be preferred to hiking in 70-80 degree humid weather in the summer. About two weeks out I started watching the forecast and it appeared I would have low 20's and almost no precip to deal with on my planned dates. That was looking pretty good to me. Two days before my event I was thrown a curveball. Southeast Michigan was hit with a pretty good snow storm. Where I live it was only about 4 inches of snow, but at Pinckney it was more like 8 inches. As the storm was happening I didn't fully reckon how it might impact my hiking plans.
It wasn't until I was packing the morning of that I even began to take the snow amount into effect. I decided close to the last minute to bring along my winter boots, snow gaiters and microspikes. Even as I packed them they felt like a Plan B as I was hoping the frequently well traveled Poto Trail would be compacted leaving the snow gear less relevant. In the end, I'm very glad I brought what I did. I made two new adjustments to my typical winter hike plans. The first was that I would bring along a sandwich for supper and eat it while hiking. In the past I've done freeze dried meals at camp and while that tastes good and the warmth of the food is great, its also a challenge to stand out there in the cold while heating up water and cooking. I've found that when I setup camp and cook immediately after a long hike in, I'm cooking while my body is also cooling down post-hike. Add that to standing outside, standing still, in 20 degree weather, and it gets cold fast making for a not so great supper. So I grabbed a Panera sandwich to eat along the hike. The other plan was to not worry about starting early or making camp by sundown. I planned to hike the last hour or so in the dark with the primary intention of not having so long inside my sleeping bag once making camp. I've had times in the past where I make camp and after eating, I am in my sleeping bag by 5:30p making for a long evening in a bag. I brought along more than adequate lighting to make sure I could safely handle the trails. It was right around 3pm on Friday when I hit the trails. I parked at the south end of the Silver Lake lots but then walked to the trailhead by the lake. I was wearing running shorts with wind pants over them on the bottoms. A short-sleeve running shirt, a long-sleeve tech shirt, and a long-sleeve t-shirt on top. I had light gloves, my head band, and an orange winter cap to top it all off. This combo of clothing would work perfectly for the entire hike. Never got cold, and really didn't get too warm or sweaty either. Skies were completely cloudy as I began to hike it seemed as though there were shades of only two colors in the entire world. It was in the upper 20s as I worked in and the snow had foot trails in it but wasn't overly compacted. This was my first hiking trip trying out my new Samsung Gear 360 camera. I have taken quite a liking to 360 photos and previously have had to use the Google Street View app to do them manually. The gear 360 camera now takes them with one button push. The initial few miles of trail went pretty well with mixed parts of compacted snow and some parts with just a few small footprints. I didn't see anybody. The temperatures were in the 20s but my clothing kept me very warm and in good condition. As I neared the junction for the shortcut near Glenbrook Road I noticed that the backs of my heels, particularly on the left foot, were starting to blister with my snow boots. I began to consider whether taking the shortcut would be smarter just to get me to camp. On the other hand I really wanted to get the full mileage in today. So I took the gamble and continued on northward instead of the shortcut to get the full 11 miles in. I also began to do the math and realized that the snow was indeed slowing me down and I would miss my estimated time of arrival. Where I had figured I might do this in 4 hours or a bit less, it was looking more like four and a half or 5 hours. Once north of the shortcut I figured I might be on completely untouched trail, but that was not the case. I continued to see footprints and I was curious if they had been from hunters or if it was someone from the road intersection just taking a short hike. When I reached the next crossing at Patterson Lake Road I finally got out my supper. I ate my steak and arugula sandwich from Panera as I hiked and this worked really well. It was just before 5 p.m. and I wanted to get the food in before it got dark. After eating I turned my head lamp on figuring that if there were any hunters out near dusk I wanted to make sure they knew I was a person and would see my light. When things finally got really dark I pulled my bigger Anker LC90 flashlight out of my pack and kept it in hand should I need it. When I reach the very northern part of the Potawatomi Trail by the fence line Sarah called me on the phone and I talked to her for just a short bit. It was definitely dark then and I knew I had a few miles to go and nearly two hours of hiking. I like to think that if it were not for the blisters I would have enjoyed every minute of it. Thankfully at every portion of the trail there was at least some semblance of old footprints that made things easy to follow. It also was a great benefit having hiked this before and knowing where I generally needed to go. I think if that had not been the case I would not have hiked so far in the dark. It also helps that this trail in most places has thick trees and brush on the sides that also makes it hard to get lost. The track southward did seem to take a long time though in the dark and I'm sure my feet weren't helping matters. The only navigation challenge I really encountered was just south of the shortcut intersection and the Rogucki memorial, where there was a bit of a clearing. It was there the main tracks headed west into the trees. I could tell at the time that didn't seem correct and sure enough as I looked ahead I could see faint footprints heading downhill ahead of me. This happened to be the area of the sandy hill that I'm used to hiking in the other direction. I figured the main set of prints I was following must have been from some locals who then cut off the trail there.
I was up with first light around 7:30am. I had recalled hearing bits of falling snow over the night and sure enough almost an inch of new snow had fallen since I had entered the tent. It had fallen off the sides of the tent but it had pooled and gathered atop the tent. I spent a number of minutes getting warmed up after waking and then bravely changing clothes and putting some cold layers back on. I also tried to sort out my gear as much as possible there in the tent (also while still sitting in my sleeping bag) before I got out. Once I finally made it out of the tent I shook all the snow off and proceeded to get things all packed up. It was here that I finally found those elusive tent stakes. The rainfly and most of the tent were moist due to perspiration from my breath and the new snow.
I grabbed my food for the morning and threw it in a pocket, everything else I got back in its place in my pack for the hike out. My boots were so cold to put on and the backs of my feet still hurt from yesterday's blistering. I've long wanted to do my hike out over the full seven miles of the southern section of the Poto. But it seems every morning when I wake up after camp (usually a cold one), I just want to get out as quick as possible. I always take the shorter 4 1/4 mile route to depart. Today would be no different. With my feet hurting I just needed to get to the trailhead.
Everything, toes included, were cold as I set out from camp. The fresh inch of snow had all but obscured most previous footprints. I warmed up within the first 30 minutes. When I neared Pickerel Lake I started seeing people. After the main junction there I ran into a handful of XC skiers, trail-runners and dayhikers. The trail became more and more compacted as I had initially expected it. With the snow and my hurting feet I didn't make as quick a time as I usually do, but I was able to make it out to the parking lot and the car in about 2 hours.
In all I was very pleased with my first snow camping expedition. I learned a number of things and even more importantly, had a good time. Sometime I still want to backpack the full 18 miles of the Poto without having hurting feet or cutting things short anywhere. I've done the full as a trail-run before, but never with a fuller pack. Until next time I guess...
I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk).