Hiking With Dirt by Andy Mytys

Ken Knight's Reprot | Andy Mytys' Report | John Lawton's Report

Here's my take on Saturday's "festivities".

The plan to hike legs 5-9 of the Dances-with-Dirt cross-country running event started off very well. I arrived at the Halfmoon Lake meeting spot at 7:15AM with Elwira, and John and Ken rolled in a few minutes later. We got our gear together, and started toward the trailhead as soon as we could.

The DWD event grounds were in chaos as I expected - essentially, while waiting for 250 runners to finish leg-1 of the relay, there remained over 2000 runners milling about, standing in Port-A-John lines, going through stretches, and visiting with other teams. Add to this a disorganized staff of volunteers and a few hundred cars driving to pre-designated relay exchange points, and lots of MUD, and you've got a pretty good idea of what this 100 km relay is all about.

We hiked out to the area where leg-5 was supposed to begin. On the way, I ran into my friend Chris who was running with the "Psycho Ernies" team - he had a striped shirt on and had put on some make-up to look like Ernie from Sesame Street. Crazy runners.

We got to the starting point of leg-5, but couldn't find the tell- tale black and red flags that would mark the route. I went over to ask some of the event staff where leg-5 began. They didn't have a clue. So, I decided to just hike in the direction that I remembered leg-5 going, and we soon found our first black and red flag. And so our hike on the "To Hell and beyond" leg began.

John started off in the lead, but Ken commented how I always post about my 1.5 MPH pace. We were certainly going faster than this, so John deferred the lead to me and I hiked off, a little slower than the pace John was setting but not by much. We crossed a field to cut down on the road walking and soon our route merged onto the Potowatomi Trail.

The morning temperatures were still cool, and there was a mist hanging over the ponds that we passed in the initial portion of our hike. We also noticed many colorful wildflowers, including cardinal flowers and spotted touch-me-nots. As I didn't have my camera with me, I didn't get a good record of all the fauna that we saw. One of the flowers I remember however, a purple flower with two light streaks down the middle area of the lower petal, wasn't in my Wildflowers of Michigan field guide - I will have to look for this flower on future hikes in the area and get a picture.

We were making good progress toward our goal of Hell, where we were scheduled to meet the fifth member of our hiking party. We were coming to an area where a chorus of sandhill crane calls greeted us from the right. We could see a field beyond the trees, but the slope of the terrain kept the bottom of the hill where we suspected the cranes were from view. As we continued to walk with our eyes toward the field, we walked right past a very large puffball. Elwira called us back to examine it - it was about the size of a basketball!

The first runner of the day would soon pass us. This was an Ultra- runner - a runner who ran the course solo, rather than as a relay, and would run a total distance of either 50 miles or 50 km. I yelled out "Way to go Ultra," a traditional compliment for these guys. I wondered if we would see "Flagman" Mike Bowen of Flushing, who runs long distance events such as marathons and ultra-distance events carrying a full sized POW-MIA flag, complete with lightweight pole. His goal, to run with the flag one mile for each American who lost their life in, or is listed as a POW of, the Vietnam War. He's at over 40,000 miles currently, with about 14,000 to go.

A few more runners would pass us by as we made our way to Hell... both men and women. The runners were in phenomenal shape, many of whom had legs that were visibly made up of bone and well defined muscle, and not much more. We were careful to step off the trail for the runners in those places where the trail was narrow, and the last person of our group would always yell "Runner" to those in front, warning them of what was coming.

For their part, the runners would say "thanks" or "passing on the left" as they came through.

We continued hiking further, entranced by the natural beauty surrounding us, the fantastic weather, and the easy to follow trail. We almost walked right by the sign that said "Wrong way moron," when we turned to greet a runner that was coming upon us. Suddenly, he went off-trail, into the woods. We had almost missed a turn in the DWD leg. Even though the trees in the area were marked with a multitude of flags, and there was the sign past the turn-off chastising the runners for missing the turn, we had almost missed it altogether.

We corrected our course, and while heading down the re-route we saw a few other runners pass who had also missed the bypass. "Wrong way," we yelled. They turned and soon proceeded down our path, thanking us as they passed.

We soon found our way onto Lilley Road, and continued down it until it met Patterson Lake Road, which we took into the town of Hell.

We stopped at the Hell Country Store where we were to meet Mike. We had now finished four miles, and had been hiking for a little over 90 minutes. So much more my 1.5 MPH pace. We walked through the store, examining the plays on the word "Hell" that adored the tourists- targeted merchandise. Ken took advantage of this stop to grab a pizza for breakfast, and bought a roast beef sandwich that he would put in his pack for lunch.

Mike arrived early, and soon we were back on Patterson Lake Road, continuing toward Hell Creek Ranch where we would start on the next leg.

The roadwalk on Patterson Lake Road was short lived, and in a few yards we picked up on another small trail that led us into a hole in the woods.

As John and Mike were discussing the route that the trail would take, and where we would first cross water, we came upon our first water crossing - Portage River. Off went the shoes and socks... in my case just the socks, as I was hiking in sandals. Mike was also well prepared, with a set of aqua-socks in his pack. We watched a couple of runners cross, and it was apparent that the river was not as shallow as it appeared. John went off with the others, looking for a more strategic crossing spot, and I went on my way across the river.

In the end, everyone crossed at the same point and, more or less, got just as dirty and wet as everyone else. Once across, we found a comfortable fallen tree to sit on while we dried our feet and put our shoes and socks back on. A runner came up the ridge and said "Hello." Upon seeing that we had taken the time to remove our socks and shoes, he referred to us as "ladies" and continued on with his run. This was rather funny, we all thought.

We continued hiking down the trail, ducking under blowdowns and keeping a keen eye out for the red and black flags that marked the trail. A few more runners would pass, one of which already was marked with a ripped shirt and bloody chest - Dances with Dirt had claimed it's first visible injury!

As our hike went on, the first of the relay-runners, who started their run one-hour after they ultra-runners, would pass us. For the next few hour or so, we could expect an increasing traffic of DWD participants until we were passed by all 250 relay runners and the remaining ultra-runners.

As we neared the end of leg-5, we could see Hell Creek Ranch through the trees, cars parked in the fields, and the sounds of all the event- related hoopla. Rather than finish the remaining 100 yards of our leg, potentially causing a disturbance, we turned and began to follow the blue flags, the color designated for leg-6, "This Sucks".

Leg 6 followed the course of the horse/hiking trail network of the Pinckey Recreation Area in the vicinity of Hell Creek Ranch. We could see that some maintenance had been done in the recent past, with numbered posts with trail maps and directional arrows erected in key areas. Mike was a bit saddened to see that his "secret hiking grounds" were becoming "developed" and by the thought of the increase in traffic that would be sure to follow.

We continued with our hike, though for the next three miles or so we would have many runners passing us. While most of us hikers who started back at Halfmoon Lake had began with no runners on the hike, and witnessed a slow increase in traffic, Mike was, in contrast, thrown into "high traffic" without too much time for acclimation. For their part though, the runners were extremely courteous - even surprisingly so. One veteran runner, who was explaining the rules and tradition of the event to a newbie, added to the list of nuances by saying "and we have to hug the hikers too," pausing to give Elwira and Ken a nice hug. Some runners would extend their courtesy by thanking us for allowing them to interrupt our hike and run on "our trail". In truth, we had targeted this event specifically to overlap our hike onto and we were the ones who were "interrupting". However, we certainly made for a compatible group of trail users, and there were no crashes or ill-feelings. Like most runs, DWD is only competitive for a small percentage of participants, the remainder of which treat the event at a level of surpassing "personal goals" and, to keep it fun, interact with the surrounding community as they run. Indeed, by this stage many runners were socializing with themselves and, based on the conversation, it was clear that new "friendships" were being fostered during the course of each leg.

As for us being in the way of the event flow, runners were passing other runners all about - passing a few hikers was not a unique experience. In fact, passing us was easier than passing fellow runners as we tended to step off the trail when the tred became narrow. We cheered on as many runners as we could, and most showed their appreciation if not all out giving compliments in return.

The DWD route once again went "into the bush" and, once again, we almost missed it entirely. If it wasn't for a pack of runners in front of us leading the way, there's no way we would have noticed the route change - we just weren't paying that much attention. Apparently, many runners weren't either. As we slowly descended the steep slope, we'd yell back "this way" to any sounds we heard going past the "official" route. We collected the thank-you's of many runners who had been spared time, distance, and frustration by our good deed.

Soon, we came to the banks of Honey Creek. As we started to take our shoes and sock off again, we were able to watch many runners ford the creek and note which was the best, or more appropriately which was the worst, direction to take. The runners looked like African wildebeests - pausing momentarily before jumping into the waters and making for the closest bank on the other side. At first, it looked to be a rather harmless crossing. But, just a few feet from the exit, there was a hole in which runners would fall, going from water than was knee deep to water that was suddenly waist deep. Many runners could not adjust to this sudden change, and fell forward catching themselves on the muddy bank. The sounds of the sudden splash of water, combined with their verbal reaction, made for quite a humorous moment. When we actually watched the crossings on top of hearing all the sounds, we could not contain our laughter. Either could the participants. After all, this is why the runners come - to dance with the dirt. And now, the real bonus came as they were slogging through slop. I joked that such situations defined the man - either you're empathic or a sadistic bastard. It was clear that we were all sadistic bastards :)

We watched runners go by for perhaps another five minutes. We were certainly in no hurry, and the entertainment factor was quite high in sitting back and simply observing.

Finally, it was our turn to cross. John went first, and found a plank of wood on the floor of the creek which he brought up and placed on the side of the bank for footing. The rest of the party soon crossed as well. I was surprised at how cold the water was. It was easily in the mid-40's. This creek was clearly spring-fed.

We continued down the trail and found John and Mike a little ahead of us waiting. "You know, we didn't have to cross at all," John remarked. We had come onto our second crossing of Honey Creek, and the route had us crossing back to the side we had come from. This crossing was more of a challenge. There was no gradual decent down a bank into the creek, as the banks were steep. You had to jump in, and climb out. Fun!

As I pondered how to climb out of this crossing without getting myself dirty, I noticed a spotted salamander on the edge of the steep bank. I pointed this out to Elwira and Ken - John and Mike had already gone on ahead onto the next crossing.

A few more runners would pass, and I stayed in the water to watch how they would attack the bank, hoping to see an easy way out.

Soon we were all finally out of the creek, but in a few steps down the trail yet another crossing waited for us. This one looked rather easy and harmless, but then John pushed his walking stick into the much and pulled it out, showing a good three-feet of mud awaited us.

We each took our own approach at crossing this nightmare - I used my trekking poles to balance across a fallen tree, using it as a bridge to cross relatively unscathed. Ken, on the other hand, used this log to guide his way across, walking through what proved to be the deepest of the mud. By this time, Ken had tucked his socks between his chest and shirt. Between looking like he had a mutant breast, being almost chest deep in mud, and having a look of utter confusion and, at the same time, thorough enjoyment on his face it was hard not to explode in laughter. I think everyone had a good time laughing at everyone, and themselves, on this leg. The leg did "Suck", but not in a negative sense (well, maybe for those runners who would loose their shoes).

Elwira and I rushed ahead, while Ken worked his way out of the chest- deep muck. The trail proved to be rather soft in this area, and spending too much time standing in one spot would just lead to one sinking into the trail itself.

We only went a short distance before coming to the next crossing, which once again proved that none of this "fun" was actually necessary. A bushwhack down the bank of the creek would have gotten us to the same destination, with the advantage, or disadvantage, or remaining clean and dry.

We waited and waited for Ken. We could hear him struggling behind us, and runners would assure us that he was "just around the corner". Ken finally appeared, and then disappeared, at least his knees did, in front of us. At this point, Ken had both feet stuck in the mud and couldn't move. He also had one half of one trekking pole in each hand, as apparently the mud had disassembled his pole as he moved down the trail to catch up to us. Ken finally removed his feet from his shoes, and simply dug his shoes out. Until they actually came out though, it wasn't clear who the victor would be - Ken or the mud. A few runners expressed concern, and offered to stay and help. We declined, having more than enough manpower to meet the challenge. I wondered how many offers were out of concern, and how many runners were just looking for an excuse to take a break and stop the insanity!

We took a little extra time on this last crossing, splashing in the water to clean ourselves off a little. Mike came back for us - he had taken a nice nap while waiting for us "ladies" after he just marching straight through all the crossings. We had indeed taken our time, and by now the last of the runners had passed. Once again, the trail was ours and ours alone.

As we continued with our hike, we came across a a crawfish in the mud, which we initially thought might be another salamander. A little further up the trail, where the terrain had once again become dry, we saw a garter snake off to the side, and I found a stopwatch.

We soon came to the part of the leg where following the official route would just take us down a rail-trail into the town of Hell, where we would just have to come back down the same route on the next leg. Rather than hike for 1.5 miles down a converted railroad grade, we decided to stop for lunch and start on Leg-7, Horsey Hell, here. The route was colored pink, and easy enough color to follow, and it was clear by looking at the map that the trail was rather flat, and without any river crossings.

This leg finished back at Hell Creek Ranch, where we had planned to use the outdoor water pumps to clean off. However, Mike had some business in Ann Arbor to attend and the hike was taking much longer than the 2-3 MPH pace that he had planned for. Rather than split the group, we continued on, following the white flags of leg-8 back towards the Hell Country Store.

Leg-8 followed the access road to Hell Creek Ranch for a little bit and then, as with previous legs, disappeared into a hole in the bush. Mike and I were really attacking this leg, as there were some narrow and sloped trails with aggressive inclines. We soon were, unknowingly, far ahead of the rest of the group and I heard Elwira yell to wait up. I stopped, but Mike indicated that he really needed to get back to Ann Arbor. We said our goodbyes, and he continued onwards.

When the rest of the group caught up, I indicated that Mike had moved on and we continued with our hike, but at a more leisurely pace. We had already completed over twelve miles of trail since the morning, and we had been on the trail for more than six hours with little rest, save for the kibitzing at the river crossings and our lunch.

We soon came upon another fork in the trail, one side which was blocked by a pink streamer. John said he wasn't interested in fording another river crossing, which was where the "official" trail led, so we all followed him under the streamer, around the bend, and over the bridge. We picked up the trail on the other side of the bridge, continuing down the official course. I really enjoyed this area and it crossed through deciduous forest. We hiked on for perhaps another mile and exited back onto Patterson Lake Road, and in a short while came upon the Hell Country Store.

We rested on the store's front porch, and in a few minutes Mike came walking down the road. Mike had taken the official route, hiking perhaps only a quarter mile further than we had but, due to a river crossing and having to take his shoes off and put them back on, had fallen behind. It would seem he would have been better off staying with the group. We all had a good laugh and took the opportunity to say a proper farewell to Mike.

Our final leg of the day was routed in orange streamers. It would bring our total mileage for the day to just under 19! I assumed that the route followed that of previous years, and the reason that I did not see any streamers going back toward the road was that they had already been cleaned up. John looked at the map and pointed out that this year's route had been changed from what I described. This was exciting, as it meant that I would now have a backwoods loop hike that I could take from Halfmoon Lake to Hell and back without spending too much time on "official" trails.

John was also scheming away. John is very familiar with the area, but there are 100's of side trails in the area and he has yet to explore them all. Today's hike had netted in a horde of new routes for John, and he was looking forward to seeing what route back to Halfmoon Lake our last segment would uncover.

We walked down a rural dirt road for a while, through a residential area where some kids were shooting off their gun for some reason or another. Once again, the route just dived into the woods, and we were soon climbing and dipping down yet another narrow track, a tred that not only led up or down but was angled to the side to boot. I don't know if it was the miles we had already put on or what, but this last segment felt like it was the hardest yet. Yes, the muck slowed us down... but it wasn't really physically challenging. This route was, at least for southeast Michigan, and I felt like I was really being exposed to a treat.

The leg climbed and dipped across a ridge, paralleling the road, before heading west and joining up with the Potowatami trail. We continued down the Potawatami trail, with a short deviation onto the Crooked Lake Trail, then back onto the Potowatami, for almost a mile. While on the Potowatami, we saw a few fish in the streams and some frogs. We also saw bikers. These bikers were aggressive in their speed and turns, and were concentrating and reacting to what was immediately in front of them, without any knowledge of the band of hikers around the next bend. Fortunately, we could hear them coming and get off trail.

Unlike the runners, there were no friendly greetings or apologies - there was little time for this. All the bikers could do was swerve away from us, and all we could do was to make sure there was enough clearance for them. Some of the bikers had matching "uniforms" on, some of which were advertising the University of Michigan. I wasn't sure if they were just the typical Ann-Arborite's, with unwavering spirit for their team, or part of a campus mountain biking team - they certainly had the trail skills and strength in propulsion to make me think they were competitive racers.

John jokingly asked when we would see the "Hell Racers" and, before I could respond, a biker unexpectedly came around the bend at high speeds. We didn't hear or see this guy coming, and he was equally surprised to see me. All that I could do was to position my hiking poles together and in front of me (across - not point first silly) and ready myself for the impact that was sure to follow. Fortunately, the biker was able to swerve at the last moment. There was John's "Hell Racer".

I was glad when the DWD course had us back into the thick woods, down some game trail and away from the dangerous Potowatomi. The remaining 1.5 miles of trail would be down this tract, and we would not get out to finish our hike easily. The trail dipped and climbed, snaked every which way, and really worked to make the experience a lasting memory. I was getting low on water, which certainly did not help, and the only thing I could think of was how lucky I was to have be on such a hidden jewel and to be able to add it to my repertoire of hiking trails.

We finished our hike, after being out for almost 10 hours. We completed nearly 20 miles, got wet, got dirty, and had a grand time.

That night, I certainly felt that I had been through a workout - no, make that an arse-kicking. We stopped at home to let our dog out (thank God we didn't take her... we'd never get her clean) and take a shower. After feasting at Livonia's Old Mexico, I returned home, went to sleep, and didn't think about moving again until 14 hours had passed.

Next year, we will be back. Dances with Dirt... maybe for the runners. For the hikers, it is "Sloshing thru Sludge". John is already hinting at being interested in the western portions of the course, so we will hike the last few legs of the race, avoiding the runners until the last hour or two of our hike. Mark your calendars folks!!!


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Last updated: September 10, 2003