Snowshoeing the U.P.'s McCormick Outback

When we crawl from our trenches in the morning, the sun shines brightly, the sky is clear, and the snow squeaks like Styrofoam in the cold. To get warm blood flowing, I strap on my snowshoes and head to the bluff, walking up and down about 20 times. Despite the chill, the sun on the last day of February is strong, and I can feel its warmth penetrate my jacket. Meanwhile Foye heats water for oatmeal, which cools in moments to a cold gluey paste. But soon our daypacks are on, and we're heading into the woods.

Foye snowshoes 20 yards into the forest, then stops. "Hmm," he says. He looks around. He heads another direction. He stops. Finding a trail under four feet of snow is not so easy. He pulls out his GPS, takes a reading, looks around again and says, "There it is." He discerns things we don't, and heads off in the right direction.

The Bentley Trail is not a thing of dramatic vistas, like, say, something in the Rocky Mountains. It's subtle and intimate, a Michigan trail through and through. We wind through forests with old growth trees towering above. One tree Foye loves is a black cherry he calls the Sentinel. It rises straight as an arrow for three or four stories before its first branch appears. The trail meanders down ravines, comes upon open fields in the forest. At one such field we stop for lunch. Foye once found a moose antler here the size of a small Boy Scout, so he calls it Moose Shed Field. A set of coyote tracks wanders across the field face. I can only imagine how thin the dog must be about February 28, here where there seems nothing to eat but snow. Well, except in our packs – Todd and I pull out Ziplocks of sliced pork tenderloin we cooked in preparation for the trip. Ice crystals encrust the surface, and eating it is like eating a meat ice cube.

We head on and soon crest a ridge and see a ravine with a tributary to the Yellow Dog River running through. "McCormick and Bentley would stop here for lunch on the way north," Foye says. "So they called this the luncheon ravine." We drop to the creek and see a shallow trench left by a beaver belly, gliding along the shore.

Soon we come to a small bridge that crosses about 4 feet above the creek. McCormick had many of these bridges built as part of his desire to make the trail more easy stroll than extreme sport. Today, the bridge has three feet of snow on it, and it's narrow, not quite wide enough for two snowshoes side by side. Foye goes first, then St. John, then me. "It always gives on the last man," Todd says. He takes two steps and proves unfortunately prescient. The snow gives way – turned out there was a missing log under all that snow. Todd falls to the ice. It's a thin layer on the stream, but it holds him as he's on all fours, for a moment anyway. It starts to give, and water washes over the ice plate as he grabs hold of ski poles we hold out for him and he scrambles up the steep snowbank. Damage report: a wet boot and pantleg. He'll be okay.

"How much farther?" St. John asks.

"A mile," Foye says.

"You been saying that for two miles."

Our destination is a series of waterfalls on the West Branch of the Yellow Dog River. Supposedly one of the most beautiful sets of falls on the system, but when we drop into their valley, we find that snow and ice lie thick over that section of river. The falls are completely obscured. Foye seems disappointed, but other than Todd's fall, we've had a great day outdoors. We head back, doubling our pace, since the trail is broken, and there's no wayfinding required. Still, by the time we get the stove lit for supper and begin the endless melting of snow for water, the sky is deep-space blue black and stars shine improbably bright in the cold clarity.

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