Winter Solstice, 2003, Waterloo-Pinckney Trail by Ken Knight

Reports by Ken Knight | John Lawton | Andy Mytys | Dennis Shubitowski

The sun is visible as a brighter spot in the eastern sky which is streaked with shades of pink, gray and blue. The lovely slim crescent moon we could see on our drive to Portage Lake is now invisible. Portage Lake is at our right and completely iced over. The trees are bare except for the evergreens which at this hour look black. The morning quiet was broken by just one main sound: Sandhill Cranes calling to each other as they took off for the day. It is just past 07:30 the day before the official winter solstice of 2003 and Andy, Dennis, John, and I are standing at the trailhead of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail ready to embark on a 24 plus mile hike along trail to Lyndon Park.

We had hoped to start our hike somewhat earlier than we were actually starting but we did not feel rushed. We struck out along the snow covered trail and soon left the shores of Portage Lake with its associated Sandhill Cranes behind. The skies slowly changed color as the sun passed through the official sunrise. The pink lined streaky clouds were soon lined with dusky orange and then basic gray. The morning was partly cloudy, about 32°F, with little to no wind. Except for the chatter of our group there were few sounds that could be heard unless you paused to listen. We spread out as we walked with me trailing behind the other three. I was generally out of earshot. I enjoyed the peace that comes with hiking in even a slightly snow covered woods. The trees even though bare are still interesting to look at . A bare tree, a living sculpture sometimes added to with patches of snow on its branches, is still worth observing. Now and then wood would rub against wood making an always varied and wonderful sound. A bird would twitter in the distance, my feet would crunch through the snow, and my straps would quietly squeak. A thoroughly enjoyable early morning. The trail rose and fell through rolling forested hills. The hills here are small, sometimes slippery with ice, but never unmanageable. Once in a while I would catch up to the group and we would all talk together about all manner of things. Of course, when two of the people do a substantial amount of gear testing for the Internet based BackpackGearTest.Org website: gear is always on the agenda. It is hard to have a coherent conversation when traveling in a line and I often found I missed what was being said by people in front of me so I didn't mind falling behind and out of the conversation.

We wound our way through the forest towards what is among the highest points in the entire county and supposed to be a great sledding hill. But before we reached this great hill we continued through the forest passing across two running water sources. I think we were all a bit surprised that the streams near Portage Lake and Willis Road were running. I know I was. Decades ago, according to John, the ponds near the stream by Willis Road were stocked with trout. Those days are long gone now. We quickly strolled past those streams, across some blowdowns, and took a short break probably within a half hour of Sackrider Hill. I had a quick snack along with the others but decided to continue on before they did so I would not get chilled. We passed the spot of a geocache that Andy, John, and I had tracked down last year. There were footprints leading into the clearing where the cache is located so it still is being visited paused at a trail intersection to let them catch up to me and we all walked the final small potion of trail up the steps to Sackrider Hill.

Sackrider Hill tops out at about 1,130 feet above sea level. That's pretty high in these parts - a good 300 feet above Ann Arbor. The morning was clearing and the temperature was rising. While it was a bit brisk on top of the hill with a slight breeze it was still a lovely morning. We wondered about the side trails in the area that apparently veer off into the state lands around the hill. There are a surprising number of trails that loop around in this area. As we came to the parking lot we discovered a casualty of Sackrider Hill. The hill may be a great sledding hill but it is steep, bumpy, icy, and you are probably just as likely to crash as have a good run. Last year we saw people sledding down the incline and many of them crashed. Even those that made it down without incident had rough rides. The broken plastic sled is a testament to how hard that steep incline is on sleds and people.

When we left Sackrider Hill I was again traveling along trail I had trod before. But I have never walked it all during the winter. We spread out and now and then bunched back together. When I was alone it was easy to hear birds again. We all heard blue jays and chickadees and I think I saw something small and dark scurry across the trail. The morning was edging into afternoon. We were making fine progress as we crossed through the open field with its lone dead scraggly tree, climbed over hills, crossed the small dam near Baldwin Road where a couple years ago I had lunch one February day with other people and we were visited by a roaming beagle who decided he would mark some of our gear. In time we reached the outhouses about 11 miles from the start of the hike. This was a good place to stop for lunch.

John and Dennis fired up their stoves and had hot lunches while Andy and I ate our sandwiches from Zingerman's deli. Everyone was happy. We continued on our way towards Waterloo park headquarters and then past that to the Eddy Geology Center and Lyndon Park. The afternoon was sunny and the day was a beautiful day for hiking. The snow was vanishing as the sun beat down upon it but there was still more snow than not. We passed Loveland road and continued on through the horse trails that are all around the area and share some of the same treadway with the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail. Especially before Loveland road some of the trail was really rather nasty. The horses tear up the ground and leave ruts behind. When the temperature drops those ruts freeze in place and make footing a bit tougher. You also need to pay attention to where you are and not go off the trail onto another trail that will take you off to somewhere you do not want to be. I made that mistake at one point and until I reached a road crossing, perhaps a quarter or so mile away, I did not know of my error. I had left the black horse trail for a red one. I turned around and soon heard Andy calling to me and we met each other near the intersection where I had zigged instead of zagging. We continued on through the hilly terrain between Clear Lake road and the Waterloo headquarters. Some of those hills are always tiring especially when covered with snow. We all felt the strain as we reached to top of the ridge that is just south of Clear Lake and dealt with the hills that lead you to the park headquarters.

As we got closer to the Waterloo park headquarters and the miles piled up we all got a bit more tired. This hike is not a cakewalk by any means. During the summer when several of us hiked about 18.5 miles of main trails, small side trails, and off trail following the Dances With Dirt race route we completed that hike in 7 to 8 hours and felt it was considerably easier. After a similar amount of time today we had not even covered the 16.5 miles to the park headquarters near McClure Road. It was a real pleasure to arrive at the cedar grove that marks the headquarters and where Andy's car was. I strolled in at about 16:50. The last few tenths of a mile to that grove are, I think, really rather pretty. One of the things that I particularly like about this portion of trail is that it winds past Crooked Lake that at this time of year is frozen over. Frozen lakes are always nice to look at.

After having cookies and hot drinks we hoisted our packs and began the last third of our hike. The sun had officially set now and twilight was darkening the sky. We still had 8 miles to go over some modestly hilly terrain. As twilight deepened it became harder to see but none of us turned on our headlamps or flashlights. Even though it was getting darker the reflected light from the snow made it light enough to see. When you add the use of your other senses, especially the sense of touch as communicated to you by your feet, it is fairly easy to stay on the trail. I enjoyed hiking in the gathering dark. There is a completely different sense of the world during this time of day. Eventually the light does fade completely away and you do have to turn on your headlamp. If there had been a sizable moon (and a clear sky to see it by) perhaps we would not have had to flip on our lamps, but the night was dark. Once you turn on your headlamp the world changes again. Within the beam of the headlamp things stand out clearly. At the edges of the beam the light is softer and details are lost. Outside of the beam nothing is really visible and if you flip the light off you cannot see a thing since your eyes have adjusted to the bright light emitted by the headlamp. I have found that it is best to aim the light farther down the trail to help diffuse the light and give everything a softer glow that makes it easier to see more.

Everyone was slowing down. I was particularly careful on descents that were sometimes a bit slippery. I did not want to lose control, fall and find myself heading into unknown territory. Up and down we went slowly working our way towards Lyndon Park. It was now feeling more like work than a good walk through the forest. We had certainly slowed down and at least for me the time seemed to move more slowly most noticeably when we were moving up or down hills. We passed by the Green Lake campground access road and still had a couple miles to go. Then we passed the entrance to Lyndon Park and had considerably less distance to go but some nice hills left to surmount. Then the big step up that is just before a bench in a curve on the trail which meant we probably had less than a half mile to go. We reached the first parking lot and had just a couple more tenths of a mile to go and then at about 20:50 we reached the parking lot that held a solitary vehicle. We had arrived at Dennis' truck. We had finished the hike. However, our day was far from done.

Dennis had left the tailgate unlocked so we were able to drop our gear and gain some basic shelter from the wind, but Dennis could not find his keys. The keys were nowhere to be found. Dennis and Andy sallied forth to find a spot where they could get a cellphone signal. John and I hunkered down in the bed of the truck and waited. And waited. And waited. Two hours later Andy and Dennis returned in Andy's car. They had managed to call Elwira who had driven out to pick them up and drive them to Andy's car (remember his car is about 8 miles, by trail, away) together they drove back to retrieve us. We then all drove to Portage Lake where John's car was. By now it was nearing midnight. Dennis had also called his wife, Lisa, and she was on her way with a spare set of car keys. However, she had an hour plus drive and I doubt she reached Lyndon Park until somewhat after we left Portage Lake. John and I drove back to Ann Arbor and he dropped me off around 00:40. I would not be surprised to learn that Andy and Dennis did not get home until much closer to 02:00 since Andy was planning to wait with Dennis for Lisa to arrive and his drive back to Livonia must be a good 45 minutes.

Some 20 hours after the day had begun with my early wake-up it was coming to a close (remember I got up around 04:00 to prepare for Andy’s planned 05:00 pick up. He didn’t get here until just after 06:00.) It had been a remarkable day. I wonder seriously if I will ever do such a hike again.


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