I’ve been wanting to get up to a section of the North Country Trail near Nichols Lake on my mt bike for some time now. Weekends fill up fast between hanging out with the family and exploring some parks near my house so I figured why not do it some day after work. I work with a guy Nate who was working in China for a few years and is now back in Michigan. Nate loves to explore as much as I do so when I mentioned it to him, he was in.
Two days prior we formed a plan; get off work at 5, head north with the mt bikes and sleeping bags, check in at Nichols Lake Campground and hit the trails by 6:30. And that we did, although it was 7 when we finally hit the trail but still plenty of time for riding.
Our plan was to ride out for an hour and a half then back on the same trail where we’d be off the bikes at dark or slightly after dark. I brought my headlamp just in case we got stuck on the trail after the sun went down. The North Country Trail is very well-marked with the infamous blue triangle and even in the dark you can’t get lost, just follow the symbols.
The section of trail starting at Nichols lake just north of Whitecloud MI heading south to M20 is one of the few sections of the North Country trail in that area that allows mt biking and it’s really a sweet section to ride on. Going from north To south for the first 10 miles there seems to be more low-grade downhills than uphill. No complaints from me on that one. There’s a few small bridge crossings and jungle like firn cover in some sections and an area that opens up from past logging that stretched for a mile or two. It wasn’t until Nate made the comment, “I’m surprised we haven’t seen any deer yet” that we started to see deer everywhere. There’s nothing more serene than watching two or three deer bouncing across an opening in the forest in 4′ high grass in the evening at sunset when the sky takes on that orange glow. There’s a certain grace and rhythm that they run to that’s like watching a symphony. Ok Joe keep your mind on riding and start thinking about a turnaround point.
We come to a road crossing which is a paved section of road. We decide to check the map and see where we’re at and start thinking about where and when we want to turn around and head back. We’re looking at the map and see that there was a dirt road crossing that we should take a right on and we can loop around back to camp. Anytime I can avoid repeating the same section of trail that I just rode I’m all about it. We just needed to take a right for 3 miles, then another right and bam we’re back at camp, 6 or 7 miles of easy riding on gravel roads no problem right. Ah, you would think, but even though my cateye said that we should be at that intersection, the road we see is paved. Hmmm instead of realizing that the map we had is 8 years old and that the dirt road could have been paved since then, I just said “oh my cateye must be off it’s probably right up here, lets keep riding”. I made one of these miscalculations in an adventure race once and roamed the woods for 3 hours finding my way out. I swore I wouldn’t never make those quick decisions again when finding my way but Ok so I did it again.
We did find that dirt road a few miles down the trail but the map must be off, definitely not my navigation skills. We turn right and start heading back, confident we’re on the right track. As soon as we make a right the road was downhill which was again really nice but man o man is this sandy. Oh boy I hope it gets better!! We cover maybe a 1/2 mile or mile and the sand seems to be getting worse instead of better. Nate asks if we should stop and check the map again just to make sure it’s the right road, so we stop and take a look. It looks like we only need to ride 2 to 3 miles on this road then we’ll come to an intersection with another dirt road. Nate questions if we should turn around and just take the trail back but I’m like No way I’m not riding back uphill in this sand let’s keep moving forward. A couple of miles later and lots of sand, our energy is getting sapped. We should have hit that crossroad by now but we don’t see it. All I can think of is how much wilderness there is in the Manistee National Forest. We didn’t see a soul for what seemed like forever and the sun was getting low in the sky. I didn’t have a compass but as long as the sun was up we knew that we were heading West and North and that’s the direction we needed to go. I was thinking that if we’re out here in the dark and no compass, navigation could be difficult unlike being on the North Country Trail with the clear blue markings. This motivated me to keep riding forward and harder, all the time cursing the sand and Michigan trails. Finally we see a Y in the trail, it’s not a crossroad but at least it’s something.
We stop again and check the map. I think we’re realizing now that the road we’re on isn’t the one we thought originally. At this point, we’re trying to place our location to the map based on the curves in the road that we rode. Do we take a right or left? Well right takes us North and it looks like it’s this trail here, ( I’m pointing to the map) so let’s go right. I shove the map back into my pack and head out. We start riding and it’s just as sandy and equally as remote, and on top of that the flies are in full force. We don’t stop but just find it in us to keep cranking through this sandy crap, and I’m wondering if Nate isn’t just about ready to kill me about now. Two miles later and ” hey hey” we see a paved road and what do you know we’re about 50 meters from where we crossed before on the trail. Ok now we know where we’re at and finally realize the paved road IS the one we wanted to take before. We take a left.
I am happy now, going from sand to pavement is like heaven and riding seems effortless, we’re making good time again. On top of that we’re passing all the familiar landmarks that we saw on the map and now we know exactly where we’re at again. At this pace we’ll be back before sunset, perfect!
We ride 3 miles on paved road and we see the next right that we should take, I yell out “2 miles and we’re done”. We turn right and start the home stretch. Ok wait a minute, not more sand!! Sure enough as dry as it’s been, even the more travelled gravel roads are stirred up with all the sand rising to the surface and on top of that this road was graded recently and it left the micro ripples from the blade of the truck. Now we’ve got sand, more flies, and the teeth rattling ripples that shake bike and body parts loose. At this point i’m cursing this road, this ride, the flies, ME for getting off the hard pack NCT and everyone else in the world. I’m not having fun any more!!!
Ah finally we see in the distance the yellow sign of where the road T’s and we know that that road is paved AND that the entrance to the park is 100 meters to the left. We’re soo close now just keep pushing.
Finally we hit the paved road and within minutes we’re back to camp and off of the bikes. YES, we made it and not a second too soon it’s just at the point of total darkness. The first thing we did is look at each other and give a high five and almost simultaneously we laugh and say “That was AWESOME!!!” Now that we’re done, somehow those miserable miles of sand turned into part of this cool adventure!!! You have to Love it…Let’s get something to eat!
On the way in and only a mile from the campground we saw a place called “Woodys” it was the only place we saw that was within 10 miles of our campsite. We were both famished, not so much from the 21 miles we rode, but from the last 10 of spinning our wheels in the sand. The last few miles I kept thinking of a pizza and cold beer oh yeah!!! The sign on Woody’s said Wednesday Special, 1/2 off on bread sticks with the order of a large pizza. Yeaaah man this is going to be good I don’t care if the pizza is a frozen jacks at that point I’d eat anything. On the way, Nate brings up a good question that I didn’t think of. “I wonder if it’s still open” As we drove up, we saw the OPEN sign all lit up and cars in the parking lot. YES, it’s open and we’re ready to eat. We walk in and right away you could smell pizza and food. In fact, as we walked up to the bar the old haggard woman tending bar dropped a large, awesome looking pie in front of two guys. “We’ll take one of those and two beers” Nate called out to the one toothed barmaid. “Sorry fellas the kitchen closes at 10, no more food served tonight but i’ll get ya a beer” It was 10:02!!! “No way, you HAVE to be joking us” Nate says can’t you rustle up something to eat from the kitchen? “nope” kitchen is closed! With much disappointment we asked where else we could get some food and she said “maybe in Bitely”.
Neither Nate or myself have ever been to Bitely but with the directions we got from the old bag at Woody’s we headed out. Bitely was only 5 miles down the road but there’s not much to it. If we weren’t paying attention we could have missed the whole town. Sure enough though there was a place that had its lights on and it said food and drink. We arrived at the Bitely Bar and the sign said open. Nate said he’d run in and see if the kitchen was open while i put in my contacts. Before i had a chance to get the second contact in, Nate came back out. He said that the kitchen was closed there as well but they said they’d wip up some nachos. Something a little healthier would have been nice but I wasn’t about ready to go back without eating. Before I could say “let’s just eat some nachos and get a beer”, the owner came out and yelled across to us that she’d fire up the pizza oven and cook us one up. We lucked out and without any hesitation we were running inside.
We sat down at the bar and ordered a microbrew but settled for a Budweiser instead. We ended up ordering the nachos AND a large pizza with all the toppings. 15 bucks for a large with up to 15 toppings, we took them all. Forty five minutes later, A large pizza, big plate of nachos, a pitcher of beer and a not so good bloody mary and we were heading back to the campsite, oh yeah life is good again. If you ever get up to Bitely MI, stop by and say hi to Judy and the gang and order a pizza it was pretty good.
We got back to the campsite and within 5 minutes I was out. It was a perfect afternoon, a clear cool starry night and one awesome adventure. Nate and I were back to work at 7:30 a.m. and had one excellent adventure. We had more stories to tell from one afternoon than some people I know from a week in Cancun! Don’t wait for those two weeks off to get your adventure on, find it Today!!!!