USFS Roving Crew Part 5: Hello to Hiawatha

Mud says I look like I have leprosy. Personally, I don’t think he quite understands what leprosy looks like, but even I have to admit, I look bad. I have scars all over my arms and legs in various stages of healing from the skeeter bites that I can’t manage to leave alone. In a self-conscious effort to resolve the problem, I lather myself in Walmart brand scar gel every night, but it doesn’t seem to get any better. Who knows if it ever will?

Near where we were crashing in Rapid River, MI.

On our first day working for the Western Division of Hiawatha, we spent the morning helping a youth corps at Little Bay de Noc Campground where they were clearing up some overgrowth on the beach. The beach is maybe the length of a tennis court, with tall grasses and weeds covering up most of it. We spent a good four hours chopping and pulling out big roots and grasses and shaking all of the sand off them so we could bag ‘em up. A little while into working, Moss yelped and jumped into the air, exclaiming in shock that she had been stung. Luckily, Moss went off to the bathroom and returned triumphant. The stinger was gone and I let out a silent sigh of relief. 

After lunch, we planned our route for condition surveys and left the youth crew, who still had a good two-thirds of the beach to get to before the day was over. We drove out north toward Munising where we surveyed a few campgrounds and a lighthouse. 

Christmas Lighthouse in Hiawatha (left). Part of a lake near a survey site (right).

By midday on Thursday, we had finished all of our surveys and campsite photos, which involved being chased around by a lot of cute dogs and zooming around some wild dirt roads to find that the road to the campsite was blocked by big logging trucks or only accessible by an ATV route. Along the way, though, we had seen some beautiful, tucked-away campsites, been able to talk to all sorts of people, and hear all kinds of conspiracy theories as to why the Forest Service wanted these campsite photos. 

Our project partner, Brenda, told us we would be spending our last day up in Munising working with a person named Bender. We’d probably be working on some kind of trail brushing project out on the North Country trail, but she wasn’t sure yet. There was a boat headed out to Grand Island too, but it probably would be too tough to coordinate, she said. We should not get our hopes up. 

We did anyway. 

Grand Island, just a half-mile boat ride from Munising, is a National Recreation Area maintained by Hiawatha National Forest and offering biking, hiking, swimming and camping. It looked absolutely beautiful and we were determined to go there.

We finished up some paperwork with Brenda and then headed off for the rest of the day, Brenda promising to get back to us about our plans for the next day. 

Route to a campsite we were surveying in Hiawatha.

At 5:30, we got the text: Bender was taking us to Grand Island! Moss slammed her head against the headrest in uncontrollable excitement. We ran back into the bunkhouse to tell the crew, whipping open doors and shouting the good news. On a high, we jumped back into the truck and headed out for our hike. 

Driving all day had been getting us antsy. So much time was spent staring at the world through glass and watching it all just pass by. I worried our legs might atrophy. We went to a nearby hiking and mountain biking trail complex, just fifteen minutes north of Rapid River. To my horror, the parking lot was swarming with children. They rode around on little half-sized mountain bikes and pumped up little tires while we apprehensively exited the car to try to maneuver past them. They teetered past us, on their wobbly children’s legs and one of them tried to talk to us, but I managed to leap out of the way just in time.

Once we made it on the trail, I finally felt like I could breathe. Other than jumping out to wiggle a sign or look at a culvert, we hadn’t stretched our legs all day, but now we were confronted with so much space. Everything opened up and felt light again. We vented and talked about life and mortality and how we could totally kick those little kids’ butts at mountain biking. 

Moss wandering around hear some cool abandoned buildings.

On our drive back to camp, we stopped off at some abandoned buildings we had seen on our way up. Across from a 19th century one-room schoolhouse, they sat untouched for who knows how long. Shoes were still sitting out on the front porches next to boxes of empty beer bottles. Everything sat still and waiting. We wandered around for a while, uncovering all sorts of forgotten treasures, and then hit the road hoping that Zircon and Mud would be cooking up dinner when we got back. 

Friday morning, we drove up north to meet Bender for our trip over to Grand Island. He looked and acted exactly like Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp) and to be honest I was a little afraid our boat ride would consist of us going through a dark tunnel and him singing a spooky little song while we fear for our lives. 

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory - Tunnel of Terror Scene (6/10) | Movieclips

The boat ride ended up being, to my disappointment, surprisingly normal. It was a quick trip over from Munising, not more than ten minutes, cutting across the bay through the gorgeous blue-green waters. It was so clear that when we pulled up to the dock we could see all of the fish scurry off.  We’d ridden over with a bunch of supplies: chainsaws to chop up some fallen trees for firewood, gas and seedlings that would be planted by a school the following week. Once the boat was tied up, we worked to unload it all, hiding all of the seedlings in the shade and then heading with the rest of our supplies to the work site. 

Mud getting off the boat at Grand Island.

Moss helping unload some plants at Grand Island.

Our first project of the day would be making firewood for all of the campers on the island. Bender taught us all how to use the log splitter, with one person positioning the logs, one person guiding the blade and another grabbing the quartered pieces and piling them up to the side. We all got into the rhythm of it, with two log splitters going at the same time and us producing a steady supply of firewood. It was fun work if you were the one in control of the splitter. You felt so powerful controlling the blade and slicing up big chunks of log like butter. It was easy to lose all sense of time. Before we knew it, it was nearly lunch and we all separated to work on different projects across the island. Zircon went with another Forest Service employee and worked on a few condition surveys, Rock and Moss went over to a nearby beach to repaint some signage, and Mud and I stayed behind to continue cutting up firewood. 

Zircon and Mud working the log splitter with a Forest Service friend.

Near the end of the day, we learned that Ottawa National Forest had a backlog of surveys and nobody to complete them. Instead of heading out to West Virginia and New Hampshire, following our next week on the east side of Hiawatha, we would be in Ottawa for the remainder of the season. I worried the crew would mutiny.

After Zircon, Rock, and Moss finished their projects, I sat everyone down to break the news. What followed was a lot of anger and disappointment. The dreams for their season had just disappeared and they would be roving no more. We rode back to the mainland in silence. 

One of the gorgeous beaches on Grand Island.

Our new project partner for the east of Hiawatha, Rog’, had snagged us the primo campsite over at Three Lakes and when we got there that evening we set up our tents and made a quick dinner before exploring our new pad and starting a fire.  Everyone was still processing the news and so we all sat there staring out into the fire looking like a real depressing bunch. 

Rock, Zircon and Moss looking out at the water moodily.

On Monday, we set out to do our condition surveys. We only had four of them to do, all of which were about an hour drive south near Saint Ignace, where Mud had taken a boat over the weekend to Mackinac Island. We surveyed a big campground first, with 75 campsites and its own carnival food stand dishing out fried Oreos at nine in the morning. We all split up, Mud taking care of the rec.gov photos, Zircon, Moss and Rock surveying the campsites, and me wandering around to look over all the miscellaneous items. We surveyed a decommissioned campground next and then a couple of trailheads, finishing up with them all by the end of the workday. 

Lake Michigan near a campground we surveyed.

We spent another day taking campsite photos for Rec.gov and then for the last two days we helped Rog’ and a gang of rec techs break ground on a new hiking and biking trail that would go from a campground to a nearby lighthouse along Lake Superior. 

Point Iroquois Lighthouse on Lake Superior, where the trail would end.

Following flagging through the trees, we were to open up an eight-foot wide corridor for the trail to pass through. We grabbed pulaskis, cutter mattocks, and loppers and headed off into the woods to start working. We each started on our own section, chopping and lopping and clearing out the area. We cut down small trees that were in the way, pulling their entire root systems out of the ground, and chucking them off trail. All the while, the rec techs were following up behind us sawing down the bigger trees that we couldn’t get to and ripping out any other pesky vegetation with a trail dozer. They were forever looming behind us, causing us to jump up further on the trail. 

Mud pulling out a big root (left). Moss doesn’t really know how to hold a pulaski (right).

By the end of the second day, we’d finished clearing 1500 feet of trail, much more than the crew had initially estimated. Walking back through it, there was now a clear, defined path where there had once been just a vision. Though the completed trail was still a long time coming, it felt great to be a small part of its creation. We walked back to the truck where Rog’ and the Forest Service gang thanked us for our help, and then we headed on our way to Ottawa.

The next day, we drove to Iron River, MI for a last hurrah. We hit the town, got some ice cream, and at the end of the evening sat in a parking lot to say goodbye to Moss. That night, Moss wandered off to the big rock in the sky (or more literally, hopped on a greyhound bus back home to Utah). We never saw her again.


Visit the Roving Resource Crew Series page for more entries.