Sign at the start of the hiking trail through Pictured Rocks

A Girls’ Backpacking Trip in the Upper Peninsula

It was 42 miles. With 35 pounds on my back. Six nights sleeping under the stars.

And oh, the stars. Have you ever held a quartz rock in the sunshine? Some of the thousands of facets gleam with dazzling light. Others, deeper in, glint with a subdued flicker. Layer upon layer, the sky was a deep pocket of quartz. 

We were backpacking through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula, me and three other women. I had been wanting to learn more about hiking and knew that Becky, my former coworker, had done some hiking from her Facebook posts. As it turns out, her sister, Julie, is a pro, the one who hooked her on backpacking, and they were planning a through hike for September. Julie invited Gail, a friend she knew from diving, and we were a foursome.

Looking down into Lake Superior from our backpacking trip through the Upper Peninsula
We started our trip at water level. Six days later, we’d been up and down the cliffs multiple times.

I couldn’t be hiking with a better group, in many ways. Julie is a paramedic — really, could you ask for more? Becky was formerly an occupational therapy assistant. Gail is a personal trainer. If my body were going to fail (which I feared it might, since I’ve never done anything like this and I have fibromyalgia), I would have all kinds of support.

Practicing carrying my gear for my backpacking trip.
Making sure I knew how to put it all together, get it on and stay upright.

But they also were marvelous companions. Becky and Julie were patient teachers leading up to the trip, advising me on what I should buy (dear God, the REI and Patagonia bill) and what I should bring. They loaned me a tent and hiking backpack, so my investment in hiking gear was a little less. And we shared stories and experiences along the way of kids and single motherhood and men and work and past trips and dream adventures.

Julie and Becky might be sisters for real, but I felt a real sisterhood that I hadn’t found anywhere else.

hiking Pictured Rocks in Michigan. with a great group of women
My friend Becky, right, was generous with her experience.

Julie blogs about her backpacking trips with detail and precision, so I won’t attempt to create anything similar; instead, I’ll just share a link to the Herd of Turtles. These are instead the thoughts and impressions and memories from the perspective of a humble newbie who earned her stripes over 42 miles with 35 pounds on her back, after six nights of sleeping under the stars. 

A hill of sand that I had to climb with my pack on during my through hike.
Walking in the sand at the beach is hard. Climbing this wall of sand with a pack on was very, very hard.

Backpacking through the Backcountry

People said this was a relatively easy trail, but sometimes there is more root than soil. Sometimes mud, sometimes deep sand. Sometimes it goes straight up or straight down. Up to the cliffs’ rim, then down to the beach. Up to the rim again, then down to the beach again. Different parts of me scream in pain with the different terrain. 

The rocky cliff and the waves from the massive lake below in Pictured Rocks in the UP.
Looking down over the cliff’s edge. If I was going to do that much work to get up there, I wanted to see down.

It’s hard to look up and take it all in when you’re watching every step. You can’t see the forest for the trees, quite literally. So instead you see the tiny details. A low forest of baby trees carpeting the rolling mounds alongside the trail. The earth around the river bend. Little bright green globes of moss, and then flat mats of sage and gray moss interspersed with pale rocks and glossy, leafy scrub and small salmon-colored plants. 

The view of the cliffs and the lake from the backpacking trail from Pictured Rocks.
Views like this were the reward. Views, and the small treats I planned for each evening.

On Day 2 the trail frequently opens to breathtaking vistas of the majestic lake from the vantage point of the birds soaring over the vast water to the horizon’s edge. Sweet breezes from heaven cool our sweat-soaked clothes. This is the reward.

The stunning cliffs fall away under our feet. Turquoise and green shimmering waters like that of a tropical paradise crash in waves against silky smooth stone carved in the very image of those waves after millennia of relentless rhythm. The original rocks that existed there before the glaciers have since been crushed into the sand that we slog through. The round rocks in every hue and pattern were deposited there from Canada, speckled granite just littering the beach. 

Looking down into the green and blue waters of Pictured Rocks.

This water is not only beautiful, but our life source. We can’t carry enough for a week of backpacking, so we filter water from the great lake along the way. Living off the land at its most basic. It’s cool to think we can do it, though I do appreciate drinking gallons at home without thought of rationing…or of the consequences of drinking a lot of fluids. 

Some of the hues that give Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore its name.
Some of the hues that give Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore its name.

My tent is small, only the shape of my mummy bag. It’s not big enough for me to sit up in, so dressing requires an extended boat pose. My yoga teacher would be so proud.

My pack and poles ready for another day of backpacking at the campsite.
Every morning I needed to consume some calories, get my tent disassembled and my pack set for another day of hiking.

Every hitch in your giddy-up becomes quickly evident when you walk for hours every day. Something in my right hip hurts, aches, and I have a hard time lifting my right leg to drive it forward for each step. When I tighten the pack straps over my chest to alleviate the pressure from the waist strap on my bruised hip bones, my left shoulder and my neck are on fire.

My new boots feel surprisingly good, but by the end of Day 2, I have matching calluses/blisters on the outsides of my big toes. By Day 4, my left heel begins to hurt; by Day 5, there’s a creaking sensation inside it when I flex my foot. But also by Day 5, my hip starts to feel better…or at least I don’t notice it as much anymore.

Stopping for a break with my hiking companions along the lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula.
Taking a brief breather with my companions.

Our first day was the longest — 12.1 miles — and for me, it was grueling. I hadn’t yet developed trail legs, which is a thing. I was still awkward yet with my trekking poles, though they became an extension of me by the second day. I had never done anything like this, so I didn’t know what to expect.

I hadn’t developed a hiking rhythm, and I had to think too much about what I was doing, paying attention to the ground and learning the ropes and getting to know my companions, to be able to go into my head with my thoughts.  

Perhaps harder, however, was the second day. It was the second-longest at 8.7 miles. By now I had slept on the ground for two nights, set up and tore down and carried that really heavy pack for two days. I had not showered for three days, I had peed in pit potties and the woods, I had sweated through light rain. I was reaching the point of ick saturation, and hadn’t yet crossed the threshold beyond disgust. We hiked to the point of pain; fortunately, we stopped just short of despair.

The kind of people you meet on the trail are simply great. They weren’t all alike, but they were all like-minded. Adventurous sorts, generally laid back and kind. Not much to prove or one-upmanship. Friendly in a somewhat quiet way. As you pass those heading the opposite way, you stop and compare notes for a bit: whether they’re doing the whole trail, in how many days, what camps they stayed at, things to avoid or look forward to ahead, such as sources of drinking water to filter or pump.

There were the two intense, serious older gentlemen who were covering the trip in three days — ultralight hikers. There was the group of jovial gents who, though we never would have guessed, were 71 and older, carting a little cooler with the remains of their beer from the night before and with the goal of reaching their endpoint to watch the game.

Some, you end up crossing paths with several times as you each hike in the same direction, but at different paces, as with the two recent college graduates who were training for the Appalachian Trail next summer. One young man would rise early, hike ahead and read Lord of the Flies when he got to their next destination; the other would rise late, strap on his sandals and pack and jog the trails, reaching camp not long after. 

Enjoying a rare campfire after a long day of backpacking in Michigan.
We didn’t have a campfire every night — some nights it was too late and too dark when we got into camp. So this was a rare treat.

There were those we met around the campfire: the brothers, one of whom worked for the park department in Toledo, hiking with a coworker and an older friend to an interior lake for some fishing; the Petoskey baker and his accountant, hiking through with their teenage sons. (We would meet that baker, Greg Carpenter of Crooked Tree Breadworks, again in Petoskey. He remains a Facebook friend.)

A quiet inland stream through the woods of Pictured Rock National Lakeshore where we were hiking.

People share things around the campfire — details about their hike, stories about other hikes, tidbits about families and jobs. I experienced trail magic for the first time around one campfire; Becky and Julie were discussing how to heat our meals for the next two days after we ran low on fuel at the end of Day 3, when one of the brothers mentioned that he had a spare fuel canister that he’d be happy to unload from his pack. The trail will provide, so the saying goes.

At the next campfire, we enjoyed a little Scotch, courtesy of our friends from Petoskey. To appease the gods of trail magic, we left our spare firewood next to the ring at our campsite in Mackinaw on the final night of our trip.

The fellows who shared their Scotch had hiked in with pasties, a specialty in the Upper Peninsula. As Greg the baker explained, pasties historically were lunch for the miners in the area. Their filling of beef, potatoes, rutabaga and onions was hearty. We decided we needed to try the local fare before we left the area, so we picked up pasties (pronounced pass-tees, NOT paste-ees, which are something far different) when we hit Mackinaw and prepared to camp for the night on our way home.

The ones we finally found were good (most places were closed), but they needed something. Sriracha, perhaps. I enjoyed the local beer from Upper Hand Brewery. Beer was our reward for finishing the trail, and the thought of it was what kept me putting one foot in front of the other some late afternoons.  

Sunshine on Lake Superior during our backpacking trip.
Any chance to actually get close to the cool lake was treasured … though it meant that the trail was going to go up again.

Usually I have to remember to pack hairspray on my trips; on this, I had to pack bear spray. I was anticipating a little can of something like mosquito repellant. As it turns out, it’s a giant bottle of super-duper pepper spray. I suppose it does need to be able to take down a bear.

We each had them holstered in our packs; because they would be tricky to grab while wearing 35 pounds (or as much as 50 in the case of the other women), we decided we would work out a Charlie’s Angels maneuver to grab each other’s canisters, aim and fire. We were locked and loaded for bear. 

My companions showing me how to filter lake water for drinking water along the Pictured Rocks hiking route.
My companions showing me how to filter lake water for drinking water along the route.

We were drinking in Mother Nature the whole way … literally. We filtered water from icy Lake Superior and tasted the minerals that colored the rocks. Floaties from leaf debris or other sources bobbed in our cups. I just had one cup, and it only got the barest of rinses between uses since our water was so dear, so I had sand-flavored oatmeal and oatmeal-flavored coffee. By Day 4 it was no matter — after feeling neither hungry nor full for the first few days, I was famished. 

Enjoying a Clif Bar along the trail during my packpacking trip through Pictured Rocks.
This was the finest treat and a relished source of calories each day. And yes, I ate the same shelf-stable things over again each day.

When backpacking, certain elements of hygiene go out the tent flap. You don’t shower in the wilderness; you rub down with baby wipes after you shed your clothes and before you pull on your thermals. They do a modest job at first, but with no running water, no ability to shave, and lots of grit and sweat, baby wipes and a swipe of deodorant only slightly quell the stink and my squeamishness.

I changed my socks, undergarment and shirt each day, but wore the special non-cotton, moisture-wicking pants (cotton kills, the guys in the REI backpacking department reiterated) for four days. Imbued with sweat and mud and smoke and food particles and muck and bark and dust, they should have been able to walk to the washer themselves when I got home.

Since I had managed to get through Day 4 without needing my backup pants, however, and because our hike out on Day 5 was just 7.1 miles, I decided to wear my cotton, non-hiking pants for the final day. I stashed them in my tent the night before. (My tent was too small to hold the rest of my pack, so I could only keep the next morning’s clothes within, and borrowed space from another woman’s tent for my pack.)

Throughout the night I caught whiffs of some lovely fragrance as I slept; as it turns out, it was my clean pants. The fresh fragrance of clean clothing was so distinct against the funk of everything else that it stood out. I noticed that I could pick up on the scents of new people hiking into the woods on Day 5, as well: cologne, soap, cigarettes. It had been so long since I had smelled anything but me and the woods that these whiffs of civilization sliced the air.

A full water bottle and a sign for a bathroom were rare along the backpacking trail in Pictured Rocks.
A water pump *and* a potty? It was like the Ritz Carlton.

Some camps had no toilets; there, you just answered Mother Nature’s call off the trail. Some had pit toilets, which was better than bark in your bum, but the stench was almost unbearable. My favorite by far were the outdoor thrones. These were new pit toilets built on wooden platforms in discrete locations hidden down a path outside two of our campgrounds.

They were tricky to find, but diamonds in the rough. With no walls or door, they traded privacy for the fresh scent of real pines all around. The only worry: That that would be the moment I would see a bear, and I couldn’t reach my beware spray stuck in the sand nearby. Could there be a worse way to go?

I did experience bear terror during one midnight trip to the little girls’ room. The batteries in my headlamp apparently had died as I shut it off before sleep that night; fresh batteries and my toilet paper were in my pack in Julie’s tent. I decided to make do with my phone light and tissues and headed out in my thermals and hiking boots. There was no way I was going to find the long and winding road past camp to the outdoor throne without my headlamp, so I wandered through brush away from our site armed with my bear spray.

It was a windy night, branches creaking over the sound of the waves, and dark. I was alone and jumpy. I was relieved when I returned to the tent. I started to unzip the flap when I heard a low rumble; terrified, I jumped and juggled my bear spray, struggling to open the tent as fast as possible, realizing as I did that the flimsy fabric would provide little protection. My heart was still racing when, diving headfirst into the tent, I realized it was just one of my hiking companions, snoring.

The sun setting during our backpacking trip in Pictured Rocks.
I saw many sunsets — and sunrises — on this trip.

For the most part, I slept like a baby while backpacking. Before I embarked on this adventure, I had done tons of research, talking to my hiking friends and reading articles and reviews. When I got to REI, which is two floors of adventure heaven in Chicago, I found a friendly face and picked his brain, too. So I ended up with an inflatable pillow, a mummy bag rated to 21 degrees, a mummy liner and an inflatable Big Agnes sleeping pad that totally saved my bacon.

For someone who is always cold, suffers interrupted sleep thanks to fibromyalgia and likes to curl up on her side, I’ve rarely been so comfortable. I decided I might set up my arrangement in the living room when I get home.

The lighthouse at Pictured Rocks, one of the stops during our backpacking trip.

Julie’s excellent backpacking packing checklist suggested a notebook and pen; since I wouldn’t have technology, I thought it sound like a good idea — both so that I could take notes about my trip, and so that I could leave a trail of fond farewells if I got lost in the woods. Ironically enough, I realized while I was sitting around a campfire that I had brought the notebook that I’d received as part of a welcome package when I stayed in a three-room luxury hotel suite as a food and wine writer. From one extreme to the other.

Our backpacking group atop the lighthouse in Pictured Rock.
Our intrepid little crew. Our worn-out legs could hardly manage the stairs to the top of the lighthouse, but the fascinating tour by the senior volunteer living there for the summer with his wife was well worth it.

I didn’t have cell service for three days of our backpacking trip, which is really unnerving for a social media manager such as myself. But I did have songs running through my head, mostly without rhyme or reason. “I’m the Man” by Aloe Blac. “Riptide” by Vance Joy. “Stolen Dance” by Milky Chance. It was my walking music when I wasn’t chatting with my trail mates or pondering my future in silence.

When the hunger kicked in on Day 4 and my trail food had grown monotonous, every interesting fungus looked like food. There was curried cauliflower, a pancake sprinkled with cinnamon, a sesame seed bun, even one that looked like a moldy heel of bread. Not that I’d eat that. Not on Day 4, anyway. Maybe if there were a Day 14.

A stunning view of the sun over the water framed by pine trees during my backpacking trip through the UP.

The forest also seemed filled with magical fairy tale finds. We came across a Frog and Toad mushroom, and ferns that you could imagine fairies peeking through. A forest floor of fuzzy tufts of green that looked like troll hair. We expected to see the witch who lured Hansel and Gretel lean out of the door of a tiny, dilapidated, eerie cabin that used to house summer rangers.

We even came across an old car deep in the woods, the insides rusted and filled with leaves and cobwebs, that Beetlejuice might have driven to that spot. I spent a lot of time with the Brothers Grimm as a child, so my imagination was stoked. 

Looking back at the lighthouse where we'd filled our water bottles that morning along the Lake Superior shore during our backpacking trip.
Midday on Day 5, we looked back at the ground we’d covered since that morning, the lighthouse where we’d just filled our water bottles off in the distance.

On Day 5 we veered off the trail to check out the log slide. It was a significant investment of energy — up 50 yards of deep sand one way and down 50 yards on the other, then the same in reverse. But I was thrilled I had made the side trip. I could look out over the vast blue lake, down the steep hill and along the distant, forested coast to the lighthouse, so very, very far away on a lonely point.

It was incredible to imagine that we had hiked from there just that morning, that we had just filled our water bottles at the foot of that amazing landmark and had traversed the ground between on foot, carrying our survival on our backs.

I was in awe of us. I was in awe of me, that I had accomplished something I thought only sturdier, heartier people did. Even though I would go home with a pair of matching blisters and an inflamed tendon and a sore hip and bruises and two giant bags of ick to bleach, boil or burn, I was glad I had done it. It was worth every step in my Big Blue Boots.

The view of Lake Superior and the hilly shore from atop the lighthouse during our hiking trip.

The coolest part of backpacking: trail magic. I like the idea of preparing to your fullest ability and being smart about your resources, but trusting too that the trail will provide. That the community of people out there will take care of one another without fuss or hesitation. That you share what you have and what you know when you see a need, because you never know when you might have a need. Trail magic is a good thing to have and to give whatever your path.

Sign at start of trail for hiking Pictured Rocks

When we finally hiked out of the backcountry that evening, winding endlessly through the hottest field under the brightest sun to the car we’d left a week earlier (we took a shuttle from there to the trail’s start), it was both a celebration and a let-down. The warmish beer was a welcome reward, but it was also a little sad to think about going back to everyday life.

We spent our final night at an RV park just over the Mackinac Bridge, where I took a long, hot shower, watching literal clouds of filth rise from my body like Charlie Brown’s grubby little friend, Pig-Pen. I do like running water — in fact, I’m something of a clean freak — but the necessity of releasing standards, being in the moment, focusing intently on one’s surroundings, carrying everything for one’s survival and enjoying unstructured companionship was so far out of my norm as to be transformative.

Which is exactly the best that travel can be.

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