Hiking With Dirt by Ken Knight

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Map Photos came from the Dances With Dirt site.

This has been quite a day. Full of forests, and muck, blue skies, and muck, flowers, and muck, fungus, and muck, and finally good people, and yes more muck. Andy, Elwira, John, me, and Mike (for a portion) were going to hike a segment of the Dances With Dirt race route. Our plan was to hike legs 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 which cover some 20.7 miles of the race's 60 or so mile route. These legs would take us through a variety of terrain including the dreaded water and swamp crossings around Portage River and Honey Creek. We were set - or so we hoped.

John and I met Andy and Elwira at Halfmoon Lake just before 7:30 on a crisp, mid-40s, clear morning. The race had been underway for some time already and the park was a beehive of activity. After we got ourselves ready we joined the horde of runners at our more sedate hiking pace to begin leg 5 of our hike. As we strolled through the forests along small side trails marked with orange and black ribbon to note the trail we would be passed from time to time by runners. At first the vast majority of these runners were those doing the entire course by themselves: the ultra marathon runners. They had started running around 6:00AM. We would let them pass and continue on our way. Soon the small trail, rather like a deer trail though it's origins may be wholly with Dance With Dirt since while they do vary the route from year to year they can only vary it by so much merged with the Potowatomi hiking-biking loop trail. At this time of day there were no bikers out. They knew that a major running event was happening and it was prudent therefore to just wait until all the runners had finished with the Poto later in the day.

We chatted and ambled on towards Hell, Michigan perhaps some 4 miles away (the end of leg 5 at Hell Creek Ranch is perhaps another 1.5 miles past Hell.) We're not sure how accurate the trail data are. Certainly the route sketched on the maps we had does not really conform to what we actually hiked in many places. But, it seems to me they ought to know the distances of each leg. It was a fine morning to be hiking. We passed by some truly large puffballs as we strode confidently towards Hell. We were able to take in the natural world around us. Maybe the runners can do that too, but I expect they're more focused on their next step. You wouldn't want to run into a tree (and even at our pace I picked up my share of scratches.) But, we were not running so we could enjoy the chorus of sandhill cranes that we heard off to our right down below where we hiked. We never could see the birds, but hearing is in many ways just as good. In time we would begin to be passed by runners moving at a much higher speed than the ultra-marathoners. These runners were part of teams who would do the course as a relay race with each member doing multiple legs over the course's length.

When we reached the small general store in Hell it was just a bit past 9:00AM. We settled in to wait for Mike to drive up. We had time for a snack (very fine by me since all I'd had to eat for breakfast was coffee and a couple Washtenaw Dairy doughnuts). Mike showed up pretty much on time and we were ready to tackle the final portion of leg 5 that would take us to Hell Creek Ranch.

After leaving Patterson Lake road and diving back into the woods the trail took us towards Hell Crek Ranch. Soon we would have our first water crossing. We paused at at Portage River. There was a drop and then you had to splash across the muck-laden riverbed and climb out the other side. Runners came up to us, paused for a moment, and plunged in. The far bank is steep and slippery. It's hard to get good purchase, but we all made it and managed to not get to dirty in the process. After striding along the trail in bare feet for a time trying to work the worst of the oozing mud off it was time to put the shoes back on. I think that the climb to the top of the ridge where I put my socks and shoes back on is perhaps the longest I have ever hiked in bare feet. As we sat on the fallen log changing clothing a runner came by noticed what we were doing and said something to the effect of "hello ladies" - funny in a way but still he's a bit of a schmuck.

We continued on towards Hell Creek Ranch. The number of runners, especially those on the relay teams, continued to increase as we moved forward. We were within sight of the ranch and the hundreds of people that wre there and decided that we did not need to go any nearer. We would just have to turn around and re-trace some steps anyway and why get mired in the mass of Dances With DIrt runners and cause any trouble. Leg 6 could start a couple hundred yards early.

Leg 6 (AKA "This Sucks") meanders through narrow trails following blue ribbons for the next 5.1 miles. While the initial section of this leg has some decent-sized, for around here, climbs and descents the leg is actually fairly level gaining and loosing about 500 feet in each direction over it's entire length. Sounds like an easy hike, right? A nice stroll through southeastern Michigan forests along narrow trail that have good footing. If that was all that this leg had to offer it would be easy, but it has much more in store for the hiker or runner. It has water. Water flowing in a river; flowing in a stream; creating standing swamps. Water that turns the ground it has saturated into soft, squishy, sucking muck that has a deep and powerful organic aroma. At times you might feel as though you are walking across a firm peat bog with each step bouncing back as you plant your feet. But, most times you would plant your foot and slowly start to sink. The muck would ooze into your shoes and around your feet. An all-encompassing fairly warm embrace. Not really unpleasant albeit dirty. Not bad until you had to pull your foot out. Then the suction took hold. You strain, stretching your leg muscles to free the trapped foot. Grudgingly, hopefully, the ooze relinquishes its grip and you pull your leg free with a sucking sound and are ready to take another step.

After hiking over the bulk of the hilly portion on nice firm ground we dived into the bush and descended to a low area. We found ourselves at Honey Creek. This was the first of 4 crossings of Honey Creek. Honey Creek is not a warm flowing stream like the Portage River was. It's cold spring fed creek. Those first few steps weren't too bad, but then they found the pit where the water depth increased markedly. We'd warn them but it would do no good. You couldn't really avoid the pit if you wanted to go directly across. Cause for plenty of amusement for us as we watched them slosh across crying out at all the muck that was invading their formerly dry feet. We had to, in time, take the plunge too. Into the warm waters we went. The waters lapped at my knees and then at my shorts as I passed through the pit. The muck oozed around my bare feet. I was getting a free mud bath just like everyone else in our group. Things went well until you had to climb out. Off with the shoes and it's time to slosh through the mud again. Not too bad. Then the second crossing came. This one had a log you could cross upon if you were game. Andy was game. The others found their own paths. I found my path. I found perhaps the worst path of all. The mud was deep and the suction severe. Soon I was waist deep slowly creeping across the creek. Wishing I had tried Andy's route since the worst that could have happened was I'd fall off the log and get wet. I was getting wet and dirty as it was. The water and mud kept inching up and I kept inching forward. Step. Strain to pull the leg free, step, strain. It's just below my chest now. Step. Strain. Step. I'm at the bank. How to get out? It's hard to pull myself up and out, but I did it. I'm covered in black mud now. I'm definitely quite a sight. I've been dancing with the dirt. Much more so than anyone else.

The ground here is non-stop soft sucking muck. If you can pick your steps well it might not be so bad, but I found the poorer paths. I can't put my shoes back on because they'll get flooded with muck and I'm afraid I'll loose one or both to the staggering suction. My hiking pole sank in and then disassembled itself as I pulled it out. A victim of the suction. A runner found the trapped section and handed it back to me. Another runner, cried that he'd lost a shoe in the stream (he managed to free it). Others slogged on by dealing with the ooze as best as they could. The rest of my group pulled ahead and called back now and then to see what was up. I slogged on through the ooze. Still barefoot now carrying my shoes in one hand, my disassembled hiking pole in the other, and keeping my pair of socks nestled underneath my shirt like some sort of mutant breast. On I went. Hard hard work. I got a helping hand from a runner who had found a fairly solid patch of ground. I had been becoming transfixed in a really tough spot. On I went. Then I thought I was done. I could put my shoes back on. I called out to the others, not too far ahead, to let them know that was what I was doing. On went the shoes and I moved out. Big Mistake. There was one last bit of major muck. It caught me, grabbed at my feet, I began to sink. I tried to free myself but the pressure was too great. I could free myself and loose my right shoe for sure and probably my left. I worked my left foot free, but the right was doomed. It wasn't going to move. So, I pulled and out popped my foot. I tossed Elwira my hiking stick parts and began to work on freeing my shoe. Andy, Elwira, John, and Mike waited. Kibitzing a bit as they did. Looking entirely too damn clean. With relatively little black mud adorning their pants legs, arms, or hands. I worked the shoe free and waded across another crossing of Honey Creek. I was able to wash out the shoe. Free it of most of the mud that had accumulated. Elwira had done the same for my hiking staff and it could now be used as it was meant to be used.

I re-joined our little band of merry hikers. My spirits were still high. Hard dirty work to be sure, but I was having fun. The runners were having fun even as they bitched. We found a lost shoe that looked like it had been lost for some time. We wondered how many shoes had become forever trapped in the sucking mud of this section. How many runners end up leaving the section with one shoe or less to wear?

The worst of the muck would pass and we were able to amble forward again at a steady enjoyable pace. It was around noon when we reached the end of the section. I should say the end for us. The section actually went a little farther to the Pinckney Elementary School, but we were ready for lunch and saw no reason to just stroll the short distance to the school and back. We were now alone. All the runners had passed us by. THe Ultra-marathoners had passed us long ago and the people doing this section as part of their team-relay had finished passing us while I was working my shoe free from its mud-embrace. The day had turned into a lovely warm afternoon with a clear blue sky. I expect the temperature rose into the mid-upper 70s. A very fine afternoon. Very fine especially since we were now done with leg number 6 which really did have sucking power.

After a leisurely lunch we set off again. We were now heading along the back-side of the loop that would first take us past Hell Creek Ranch and then back to Hell itself. Legs 7 and 8 would occupy us for a bit less then there stated 6.7 miles since we did not start at the very beginning of leg 7. What a joy to not have to worry about sucking mud. We strolled through deciduous and coniferous forests along two-track and then narrow hiking trails. We had a great time. Soon we found ourselves spreading out a bit. I generally was the at the rear of our group because I tended to slow down on portions of the narrow trails especially when they descended a bit. I had to watch out for ground level logs, low overhangs that were just high enough to be missed by me while I focused on the trail but no so high that they could not give me a wallop on the top of my head. We were heading back towards the Portage River. We had more or less decided that this time we would take the bridge across the river instead of fording it. Mike said his goodbyes and took off ahead of us. He had errands to attend to. We figured we'd not see him again. We crossed the bridge and were soon hearing the sounds of Lake Patterson road. The trail began to work its way through a man-planted forest of trees that all seemed to be about the same height. Pretty in its own way. We crossing the road and were in the center of downtown Hell back at the general store. I suppose it was around 3:00PM. We had time for a drink, a chance to use the porta-johns, or even get a snack if inclined (I did not). As we did this Mike came striding on up. Either the race route takes a much larger turn away from the bridge before fording the river than we think, Mike was hiking slower than we think, or he followed the "natural path" which is a big loop outside of the race route that still takes to this spot. If he had hoped to beat us to Hell then he lost that hope, but I'm sure he still made it into Ann Arbor in time to do his errands.

We lingered in Hell for a while before embarking on the final leg of our journey. Leg 9, about 3.6 miles back to Halfmoon Lake seemed longer than the portion of leg 5 that took us to Hell in the first place. We ambled along the narrow trail waiting to connect with the Potowatomi again. When we did it was a mixed blessing. The bikers were out. We kept having to move off the trail to let them pass. I swear a couple veered towards me as they did pass. For me hiking the Poto was a bit of a chore. I found the bumps in the trail, water bars and the like, a pain. They're hard for me to distinguished and so I would slow down so as not to trip and fall. When we veered off the Poto onto the narrow side trails again I was happier. Those side trails did a fair bit of climbing and descending, but I could live with that. It felt like this leg had more ascent and descent than earlier legs of the course, but by this time we had hiked over 15 miles. I was getting tired. I imagine the others were too. We marched on. I could hear people hollering in the distance. It sounded so close. Where was Halfmoon Lake. Maddeningly close. We curved up and around and down the contours of the land and then, a little before 5:00PM emerged on to the grassy lake front. Hundreds of people were there cheering on their friends as they finished. We strode under the race's finish line and our own finish line. Returned a pair of glasses we had found not too far away and then settled down at the lakeshore to relax. It felt so good to take off my mud-encrusted shoes and sock. It felt even better to wade into the warm waters of Halfmoon Lake and wash some of the mud off my legs and arms. It was a glorious afternoon and we had done what we had wanted to do.

We figure we hiked close on 18 miles today. And when you try and factor in the amount of time we spent at breaks it turns out that we were moving a good clip. We were tired and knew we had done something significant. We had met our goals for the day and had fun doing it. That's perhaps the best way to end any day hike.


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