As we entered the Manistee National Forest bound for the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness area, a sign warning us of the obvious – that is, that the road was not plowed in the Winter – prefaced a narrow thoroughfare buried in snow, save for two tracks denoting the presence of others. Trusting the might of the Subaru, we pushed on. The asphalt ended a mile or two in, replaced by gravel, and heralded by a rougher ride with an even thinner passage. As our cell signal began to falter, so too did our Google Maps accuracy, which led to our missing a turn. This led to a test of Jess’s backing up capabilities in thick snow. Two heart-pounding minutes later I was back behind the wheel, thinking calming mantras, as we finally neared the Nordhouse Dunes parking lot.
Taking a brief glimpse at the park map, we set off on foot. Jackson immediately made his feelings known about hiking in in the snow, but with quick thinking Jess distracted him by finding the largest acorns I’ve ever seen, telling him to hold on to them should we encounter a squirrel. The thought of finding a squirrel proved more than sufficient in aiding Jackson’s ability to walk the trail without complaint. Though steep in spots, the path was a joy to walk, with defiant plant life, and others less so, reaching up through the blanket of white. Jackson took the hilly parts in stride, determined to find the mysterious black squirrel (if you live in MI/have visited MI/follow this blog, you’ve seen these darker-hued brethren of the more common gray variety), inspiring smiles for both parents.
One particularly sharp incline convinced us our destination had been reached; surely a climb of this height would reveal our quarry at the summit! Alas, our joy was unfounded. Reaching the top, we saw only more woods. A check of Google Maps told the truth: we were only a third of the way, and also that we are old and tire easily. There was naught to do but continue.
After encountering another trail intersecting with our own, more trodden by the looks of footprints, we engaged in muted disagreement about what to do next. Deciding to continue our course due West at the same moment Jackson’s interest in the unseen rodent had dissolved completely, I carried him what would turn out to be the last hundred yards or so, finally coming within view of Lake Michigan as the woods gave way to sandy dunes, spotted with wild and delicate grasses. As is often the case with the Big Lake, the waters hue mirrored that of far warmer climates, belying the chill of the wind, and remained altogether as beautiful a sight as it was a relief.
Jess headed off on her own to grab some well-earned Nikon shots, while I carried the fully ‘over it’ child of mine further down the path. After a few minutes of serene water-staring (a frequent hobby of mine), Jess beckoned us over to a dune with what appeared to be an easy descent to the beach. Comparing it to my previous vantage point, I had my doubts, but as Jackson’s irritation had infected me, I kept these to myself, I think subconsciously hoping for a humorous outcome. I was not disappointed.
Jess’ path turned out to be a clandestine snow drift clinging to the precipitous, icy side of the dune, with a cloaking thin layer of sand disguising it. As my laughter erupted, I felt my Jackson-induced edginess flow right out of me and into my beloved snow- and now sand-covered wife. Calling a truce, we made our way to the water, enjoying the sights of the sun and surf before heading back, choosing a different trail for our return.
As we neared the parking lot, we realized that the path I had directed us toward at the beginning of our quest was much more difficult than the one, that, well, everyone else we encountered had taken. I could at least be proud of inadvertently setting up my family for far more exercise than anticipated. But now, as one would expect, hunger pangs had set in, so we steered the Subaru southward to Ludington, arching eyebrows at Google Maps’ suggestion that we drive into and across Hamlin Lake to get back to the highway. (I should also mention that the new road we found out of the park – without GPS – was wide, plowed and straight.)
Heading toward Ludington, we drove through landscapes that were far less “in-season” than we’d anticipated, the unexpected rain having brought the temp up to just-melted. As the sunset drew near, we resolved to head straight through downtown for Ludington’s shoreline upon entering town. We chose a spot by the breakwater adjacent to the Ludington North Breakwater Lighthouse, and let the serenity of the Sun’s drop below the horizon envelope us. The ice, spray, and striking rays of orange light above the blue conspired together to recreate that same joy that inspired us to move here two years ago. This sky, truly, answered the question of ‘Why Michigan’.
Stay tuned for the final entry of Manistee (Mis)Adventures, in which we encounter an ancient hotel that would have made Kubrick proud, a representation of pure family-style Italian fare made even more memorable with to-go booze, a dangerous white-out drive back, and a telling of the great service and even better grub of the longest-lasting and best-loved restaurant in the unassuming yet inviting beach town that ended up being our destination. Also: Rambo.