Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The trail to Cadillac - the Cadillac of trails

The White Pine Trail's uninterrupted motor-free 92 miles begins in Grand Rapids and runs northward to this gorgeous lakefront park in downtown Cadillac.

Let me share what I saw on the last three days on this adventure.  And let me indulge a bit more in sharing my collection of ball caps.

Hat 26 worn by a real shady character.
Hat 26 actually got a better chance to show off when we came upon this hunter shack.  Surprising how many of these little units have their own stoves up here in the north country.

When I was looking for a subject for Hat 25 to pose with, I met this little grass snake crossing the trail.

"Hey, Mr. Grass Snake, would you mind posing with my hat?"
"Sure.  No problem, dude!"

Hat number 24 got showcased in Reed City.  Here the White Pine Trail intersects with another long distance rail trail, the Pere Marquette Trail.  Reed City is not a small place, but this intersection of non-motorized trails is what they've chosen to use to define themselves.  It's the "Crossroads city".  Here's Hat number 24 resting at the very epicenter.

Nearby is their reconstructed Depot and on the approach from the north they've built a covered bridge near one of the old original railroad mile markers.

Just north of Big Rapids, where my last report left off, the trail crosses the Muskegon River on a bridge that was the most expensive project of the trail.

I took a couple of off-trail days in Big Rapids, and while wandering around town I got Hat number 28 to pose with a failed oil-well turned into a successful mineral water business.  Michigan ingenuity.

Hat 29 posed with a scrawny looking guy holding a treehouse,

and with couple more of the Ferris State U mascots.

These bulldogs are all over town, even on the water tower.

Now for a little discussion of Michigan trails and why I choose to hike selected rail trails (as I did in Ohio too) rather than stick with the route of the North Country Trail.

The White Pine Trail is admittedly flat and straight much of the time.  But it's continuous.  I find that I crave consistency in my trails.  I prefer a long, steady rail trail over getting jerked around on a staccato mash that includes plentiful road walking (including woods roads) with a sprinkling of exclusive foot-traffic-only trail mixed in. 

Even trail that is 'advertised' as pure hiking trail is often a cobbled-together mix that includes logging tracks and other old road beds and jeep trails.  Except where scrupulously protected, such as on the Appalachian Trail, these old road beds still get used by motorized vehicles.  It just doesn't feel like 'real' footpath in the woods.  On the other hand, rail trails tend to be exactly as advertised.  This is true with the White Pine Trail.  And so it won my heart.  It is a linear State Park, allowing bicycle and snowmobile traffic, and hikers of course, but no wheeled motorized vehicles.

Michigan's Department of Natural Resources takes their trails seriously, both rail trails and a big collection of multi-use woods trails that selectively cater to hikers, horses, cross country skiers, snow-shoe hikers, snowmobiles, ATVs, motorcycles, mountain bikes, and ORVs (four-wheel drive cars and trucks).  They've built and maintain networks of these trails on state land, but the only trail types that they've connected over long distances are the snowmobile trails and rail trails.  Hikers are welcome on these trails, of course, but the foot-only hiking trails that they support are loops, not long-distance trails.  And so this long distance hiker has chosen to go with the flow - to find a route that takes best advantage of all the available resources.

I hiked six straight days on the White Pine trail, uninterrupted by any other sort of hiking experience.  That is why I went there.  Here are the GPS Tracks of the last three of those days.

And for a more close-up look, zoom in on the area of interest on this interactive overview map.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why Question?

Careful.  This is a tricky riddle.  It's the deepest inquiry any conscious being can explore.  It has two precisely opposing, perfect answers but only one correct response.

Stumped?  Here is the correct response:

(This is not Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism.  It is Budai, a Chinese deity or folk figure who lived around 907-923AD.  Some faith traditions say he replaces or will replace Gautama Buddha.  A Zen kōan describes his central teaching.  While handing out candy to children, he was approached by a monk, who asked "What is the meaning of Chan [his religion]?" He responded with "How does one realize Chan?"  Kōans are meant to be deliberately perplexing - paradoxes at heart.)

When distilled to its essence, the question is a paradox.  One of the best I've found.  The balanced response to all life's intractable problems is to dwell on them only so long - long enough to distill them down to the inherent paradox (every problem is rooted in one), then to accept the absurdity, throw up your hands, and have a good cleansing laugh.

So what are the two perfect, precisely opposing answers?

The apostle Paul, from out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, has offered a fine version of one side of the argument.

My father clued me into this answer during one of our deep philosophical discussions.  I was arguing that Jesus could not possibly be the one and only son of a truly universal God.  He would have no relevance to an intelligent civilization at another time in a far away galaxy.  They could never even hope to receive the good news of the Gospel.

My wonderful Dad, who I miss and think of daily, summed up his unshakable faith with this simple wise answer: "It is sufficient."

Why question, indeed?  Doubt is the devil's tool.  Never question.  Accept.  On faith.

Paul even threw in a great paradox that is another way of explaining Budai's Kōan.  When we accept our weakness, yield to our human inability to resolve the intractable problems of existence, only then do we find perfect strength and unlimited power to actually realize (tap into) our personal God.

The modern critical thinker offers the opposing perfect answer.

Seek to beat back the unknown.  Minimize uncertainty at every opportunity.  Maximize awareness so that we can more fully and successfully navigate this existence.

This answer has been in vogue among progressives for a couple centuries, but I think the pendulum is swinging back the other way now - back toward balance.

Einstein himself, late in his life, may have contributed to this trend, writing in his 1949 book "The World as I see it":

"A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."

Seeking balance.  I've found it is the most productive endeavor one can pursue.

Balance between beating one's head against a wall in order to break through it and beating one's head against a wall because it feels so good when we stop.

Balance between balance and imbalance.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The White Pine Trail - Too Good to Miss

Riverwalk, downtown Rockford, where the North Country Trail joins the White Pine Trail.

The North Country Trail put me on this 92-mile-long Michigan 'Linear State Park', but I'll be damned if it's gonna get me off.

After forcing me to do another dreary road walk from near Lowell to the town of Rockford, northeast of Grand Rapids, the North Country Trail joins the White Pine Trail, a well-supported rail trail with state funding and its own web site.  The NCT follows the White Pine Trail for 7.4 miles to Cedar Springs and then leaves it, launching the hiker on yet another long road walk.

Another road walk? Really? When, stretching northward before my feet lies a long, beautiful, finished, non-motorized trail with peaceful country walking well away from aggressive dogs and harrying traffic - just beckoning me to follow it?

Here's what Hat number nineteen says to that.

I recalled the advice from good old Yogi Berra, who once said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

And as venerable old Abe Lincoln said, while agreeing to pose with Hat 21 in Rockford, "Be sure you put your feet in the right place [PJ] ..."

So I did.  I've been enticed to leave the North Country Trail once again.

Hat 22 along an unpaved section.

It doesn't hurt that it's a short-cut too.  The White Pine Trail will take me 77 miles from Cedar Springs (at NCT mile 215) to Cadillac, then I'll have an 18 mile road walk to rejoin the NCT at mile 411.5.

The North Country Trail will meander through National Forest land on foot-only trail and I'll be following a bicycle trail.  Mistake?  I don't think so for at least five reasons.

First, bike trail provides more variety.  I've hiked National Forest all over the country.  Unlike parks, National Forests are there simply to preserve and manage trees.  Trails in national forests are 'Green Tunnel' all day.  You see lots of trees and are hard pressed to find much else worthy of note.  Not so on bike trails.  In the midst of the long road walk to Rockford, the NCT used another short bike trail, just four miles--the Cannon Township Bike Trail--and it gave me a significant boardwalk over a wetland, where hat number twenty posed

and some artfully constructed revetments.

Second benefit of bike trails.  Cultural enrichment.

This is the fourth bike trail I've hiked that doubles as a preferred Amish thoroughfare.  I had hat 23 pose before a field of hand-gathered hay, the hundreds of neat stacks barely visible through the morning mist.

The Amish Settlement here, between Morley and Stanwood is among the most conservative anywhere.  Had I taken the North Country Trail I would have been oblivious to this Amish settlement and its contribution to the farm-to-table healthy lifestyle movement.  Conservative?  Well, this particular Amish Farm has its own web site and Facebook page.

Reason three - Infrastructure.  Bike trails are better funded, get more government attention (including maintenance), than hiking trails.  Trailheads are abundant and spacious, usually have restrooms, and often have other services nearby.

Reason four - although there are dogs, they aren't aggressive.  This includes the kind out walking their humans on leashes as well as this unaccompanied mascot of Ferris State University at Big Rapids, who happily posed with Hat number eighteen.

Finally, reason five - serendipity.  I'll be hiking lots more trail in the woods once I finish the White Pine Trail.  In most places the hiker doesn't have two distinct options to choose from.  But here I had a chance to do something different.  A chance too good to miss.

The five days covered in this report started near Grand Rapids and ended at Big Rapids.  Here are the screen shots of the GPS tracks.

And here, for reference, is the interactive map - the big picture, which can be zoomed to see much more detail.

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Monday, July 17, 2017

Surging through Lowell - Home Base of the North Country Trail

NCT trail headquarters building on a quiet early Sunday Morning

I stormed into town on a Saturday with the streets jammed.  The town of Lowell was abuzz.  The streets were packed with tourists and celebrants.  It was their annual Riverwalk Festival.  Every parking spot downtown was full.  The only spot I could find was 'Fifteen minute parking only'.  But that was enough, because in the heart of all the swarms of people - the town's biggest attraction of the summer - the North Country Trail Headquarters office was closed.  Their office hours are 1-4PM M-Th., 10AM-4PM on Friday, and they apparently saw no reason to make an exception for the festival.

Maybe they had a vendor booth that I didn't notice in my allotted fifteen minutes.  But as circumstances worked out, I never did get a chance to return to town when the offices were open.

It would have been just for talk - just to check in - a feel good moment.  I already have the t-shirt and hat (number 24 in my rotation)

I already have all the maps I need, and I'm already a member.  My only questions were answered on their web site. (They have had just sixteen end-to-end hikers in the trail's history.  They offer a patch and a rocker to long distance hikers at various mileage levels and state completions.)  If I just wanted to look around, then I think I managed to do it all by peering through the windows on the quiet Sunday morning when the photo up top was taken.  The space inside was small.

The Lowell Riverwalk itself is small -- only three blocks long. (Note that the on-the-ground trail blazes and the 2013 handout map from the NCT web site [shown below], tell the hiker to skip one of those three blocks, between High Street and King Street.  The online interactive map includes that extra block.)

The best of the North Country Trail hiking in the area starts a mile north of town and goes through some hilly landscapes with deep woods.

There is a high bluff above the river with what can only be described as a knife-edge ridge walk

And there are a few high barren spots where the soil is too sandy to support vegetation.

Hat number seventeen got to pose for both of those cameos.  But this report starts two days earlier when I was wearing Hat fifteen and coming out of the north end of Barry State Game area.  This looks like an old nursery or Christmas tree farm.

Next, coming into Lowell from the south there is a walk along the Paul Henry Rail Trail along the Thornapple River through Middleville.

Everything looks peaceful and normal in the Friday morning downtown market scene above, but it's deceptive.  All the power in town was out and it would stay out until Sunday.  Just before dawn on that Friday morning a horrendous severe squall came through.  Fifty-five mph winds had ripped down dozens of trees.  I had to crawl through several major blow-downs like this in a few miles of paved rail trail.

After the Paul Henry Trail, there is a short section of really pleasant woods trail through the Middleville State Game Area, then there are nine miles of road walk to Lowell - corn fields with blue sky and roadside sky blue cornflowers for hat number sixteen to pose with

This road walk includes a little dip into Dolan Preserve, with a section of dead end trail beside the Coldwater River

and it includes an inexplicable bypass of the considerable boardwalk trail through Maher Audubon Sanctuary.

With a little bushwhack from Woodschool road along the ridgeline between wetlands I easily included Maher Sanctuary in my hike.  NCT could easily build trail along that ridge.  I'm surprised that they haven't already.

All in all an eventful and variety-filled three days along the North Country Trail.  For another perspective I present the screenshots of the GPS tracks.

And for the more inquisitive, you can delve into as much detail as you wish on the interactive map below.

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Now, I don't normally do this, but I have built up some concerns about the NCT management.  It seems to me that there is a disconnect between the North Country trail leadership and the trail hiker experience.  If they can't even correctly blaze the trail within three blocks of their headquarters, it tells me that something is wrong.  If they don't care enough to open their doors one Saturday out of the year when the festival named after a section of the trail is taking place, then to me, there is something wrong.  What?  My impression is that management is too focused on managing the trail on "paper".  Too much time in the office.  Too much emphasis on talking the talk - on the bureaucracy and politics associated with managing a National Scenic Trail, and not enough about 'being there' on the trail for hikers.  Just my two cents.