M.O.R.E. or Less day 4: Manistee River Lodge to Scheck's Place SF Campground

Commentary by Chuck (green) and Steve (yellow)

Previous: Day 3 Nichols Lake to Manistee River Lodge

June 4, 2021

7:45 a.m.

Our morning departure time was greatly assisted by 2/3 of our group having minimal gear to repack, though I think Chuck (the only one who'd had to use his sleeping kit) was still the first one ready. We stopped to get a picture in front of the lodge's bait shop and then set off to rejoin the route.

There was always a bit of tension, for lack of a better word, between our two goals of experiencing the M.O.R.E. route and riding the entire Michigan-Wisconsin loop we'd planned out. The M.O.R.E. route became the basic framework that we tailored to suit our purposes. Our overriding goal was to complete the loop, so even early on we often opted to cut mileage in order to make time, though we paid close attention to the course notes so as to hit the highlights.

Getting back to the route seemed like a pretty simple process. Looking at Ride with GPS, we had two choices: one a virtual straight shot north and one that required us to head west first. The more direct option put us five miles ahead on the course, so that's what we chose. RWGPS, like Strava, has a heat map layer that shows where people ride; this is really helpful when freestyling a route...usually.

We were at the x. You can see our route in bold red and the heat map lines in shades of purple.

The heat map showed a light but well-defined line leading basically straight north to our route. We arrived at the river crossing only to be faced with a fenced-off dam. Clearly we weren't going to be crossing here. It was back to the maps to reroute ourselves.

This maze of fencing temporarily robbed the early morning joy from our upbeat temperament, but we quickly rebounded.

This is one of my favorite parts of bikepacking and adventuring - Running into unknown obstacles and then thinking on the fly to create and execute a recovery plan to get back on track.  We were lucky enough to practice this skill many times of the coming days.

So lucky,

8:05 a.m.

So much for the direct route. Had we taken our option B to return to the course we'd have ridden mostly pavement; instead, we detoured onto a road with no heat map at all and endured 3+ miles of sandy bullshit before rejoining our route.

We met a local guy on the roadside and asked about the shortest route to get across the river. I still laugh out loud thinking back to his nervous smile of doubt when we decided to ride the 3+ miles of sandy BS on loaded bikes.

After our failed attempt to go north we had to detour west to find a bridge over the river.

Aforementioned sandy bullshit
8:35 a.m.

Once across the river we rode some mostly gravel roads. Still shaded and rideable, they made for pleasant miles.

9:14 a.m.

A little later we turned onto forested doubletrack. With the shade and mostly dirt surface, these were also a fun ride.

9:26 a.m.

Well, except for the random sandy patches. I hit one wrong, and my front wheel washed out. On the way down, I managed to scrape my left arm hard on one of my aerobars. My right foot was still clipped in and pinned under my bike and body weight, so I had to wait for Chuck to finish documenting my plight before he could help extricate me from my bike.

In my defense, crash photos are a well-known and absolutely expected thing to do for a fellow Virtus teammate.

I'd expect nothing less.

Photo credit: Chuck "Don't get up yet!" Vohsen

Not only did it hurt in the moment, but my arm continued to bother me on any rough roads for the next several days. But I did get a good bruise and nice scar out of it.

This was a nice stand of forest, close to the river and fairly secluded. I was convinced that I was going to spot a black bear somewhere in this stand of hardwood, and as such had ridden a little off the front. Unfortunately I didn't see a bear and missed the whole crash scene. When Kate and Chuck rode up, the injury was already looking really painful.

Michigan bears are apparently shy. Our failure to see any bears or moose is my one enduring disappointment from the trip.

9:31 a.m.

We reached singletrack about 14 miles in, and the fun, flowy trails (I know I say that every day, but every day it was the truth!) were a blast. Well, except for the times I was pushing my bike uphill, but the awesome downhills made up for it. Once again there were times it made sense for me to go first on the climbs, and while often on the descents I'm the one to move over so I don't spoil the guys' downhill fun, that wasn't always the case on this day.

Again the trail was just right for me to feel comfortable carrying speed, and more than once I reached the flats without the guys having caught me. Thankfully my time in front must have coincided with low spider activity, because I ended up with far fewer webs to the face than Chuck dealt with.

Ugh, so many webs.

10:34 a.m.

So happy on the singletrack
10:34 a.m.

As the morning went on, that downhill speed was accompanied increasingly by the sensation of our rigid forks jackhammering over roots. At the bottom of one bumpy descent, Chuck realized his brake handle pivot pins were rattling loose and taped them back into place. 

I always keep a short roll of gorilla tape on my seatpost, and it saved my ride on Day 4.  Taping the brake handles back together seemed a little sketchy at first, but without other options, it had to be done. Without those pivots there are no brakes.  Little did I know at the time, but that simple repair would last the rest of our trip, and are actually still on my bike today.  (Note to self - order some new pivot pins!)

We decided that maybe discretion was the better part of valor and opted to take the forest road we'd arrived at to intersect with Upper River Road, which ran alongside the Manistee River. This decision was made strictly in the interests of our bikes and not at all because we were facing yet another hill and the alternate was almost dead flat. 

Alas, when Chuck and I coasted down to the tree blocking the road we realized our detour was a weed-choked maze of deadfall. "Never mind!" we called to Steve, and began pedaling back up. Escape thwarted, we returned to the trail and continued upwards, reaching a new and improved reroute three miles later.

Upper River Road
12:11 p.m.

As I've mentioned before, those road detours were always a little risky because we never knew what to expect from the surface, but this one was mostly hard packed with a relatively light sand covering. We still kept our distance from each other so that when one of the bikes randomly fishtailed into a ditch it didn't take out anyone else, but overall the travel was good.

So good that we initially missed our turn to the Manistee River suspension bridge. The route actually crossed this bridge on the Manistee River Trail, a pedestrian trail that the course notes cautioned to walk your bike on, but we'd already decided to take an off-route detour to hit a store outside of Mesick. In retrospect, I should have done more due diligence, because there were both a pharmacy and a Dollar General right in town. In my rushed prep, however, I missed those.

12:44 p.m.

Anyway, we backtracked to the bridge. Since we weren't actually crossing it, we just dropped our bikes at the top and hiked down to the river to memorialize this landmark.

I was glad that we backtracked to the bridge. Very cool structure with an amazing view. The river was beautiful. The sun was so hot by that time that I was seriously envious of the group of paddlers hanging out in an addy.

The water was SO clear!

From the bridge, we quickly made our way to the Hodenpyl Dam Store to grab some snacks. Outside of the store, Chuck asked a guy about restaurants in town. The man mentioned a couple options and then said something about a big detour because the bridge across the river was closed. "It's like 20 minutes by car," he cautioned us. Now, you have to listen cautiously any time you get travel advice from someone who's driving, because their "couple of miles" is usually twice that in reality...so who knew how many extra miles this reroute was going to take us.

We'd decided our reroute with the help of Google maps, which had been curiously silent about this closed bridge. I pulled up the app again, typed in Mesick, and Google again made no mention of any detours. Maybe this guy just didn't know what he was talking about.

Unfortunately, the woman behind the counter confirmed the bad news about both the closed bridge and the detour before adding, "But you're on bikes. You could probably take the shortcut. It's closed to traffic but they wouldn't stop you." Saved! I wrote down her directions, which ended up only costing us only about three miles...and closed to thru traffic or not, we were passed by a lot of cars on that stretch. We weren't the only ones wanting a shortcut.

Lunch stop!

We stopped for lunch at the Bucksnort Bar, and I had a pulled pork sandwich that remained my favorite meal until the last night of the trip. It was great to be inside on a hot day, and we savored the cool air as much as the meal. The waitstaff was kind enough to refill our bike bottles, and then I took a cup of ice outside to dump down my shirt. Girls may not be able to pee standing up, but having a sports bra to hold ice on a hot day makes up for that in my book.

Bucksnort Saloon was one of my favorite restaurants of the entire trip. Great burgers, beers, and super friendly service.

Before leaving town we made a quick stop at the pharmacy to replace the sunscreen I'd lost the previous night. There was only one bottle with the higher SPF, so Chuck and I decided to just share it. This worked out pretty well for me because he carried it for the rest of the trip. Using fork bags gave him a lot more extra storage space than I had with my stove on one fork leg and a nalgene bottle on the other.

Leaving Mesick we opted for another detour, this time of our own choosing. The course notes for the upcoming section of route weren't super encouraging: "Trail is not well used and slow going...Hilly section with some tough sandy climbs and descents...sections can be rugged and a bit swampy..." It's true that Matt also noted things like "good remote camping [and] Good scenic over looks as well", but these perks weren't enough to outweigh the cautions. Road it was!

We traded 16 miles of road for 20 miles of singletrack, briefly intersecting with the course again just after Baxter Bridge State Forest Campground. We pulled over at the Old 131 SF canoe pull-out to check our route and make some decisions for the rest of the day. "We're getting in the river before we look at any maps," Chuck declared, making a beeline for the water.

4:51 p.m.

I was maybe less enthusiastic about this plan initially. I can get really destination-focused, sometimes (often?) to the detriment of my enjoyment. Thankfully, I had riding partners who know how to savor life, and once I got into the cold water it felt amazing. Lake and river dips became a regular component to our days and made a huge contribution to our ride satisfaction index.

As we dried off we decided on a destination for the night. Still in the less-fun sounding trail section, we continued on roads with the help of Google's bike directions. The initial going was paved and smooth, but conditions deteriorated as we neared our campground. First there was moderate sand...

6:37 p.m.

And then Google directed us first onto the deep sand of a motorcycle trail, which was either slow going or, for my still (I mean, always, really) skittish self, a lot of bike pushing. 

What fresh hell is this?
6:45 p.m.

Next Google tried sending us onto a non-existent road. Maybe it was there at one time, but there weren't any remaining signs of it. We followed a motorcycle trail spur in the correct general direction, hoping we weren't wading through the ankle deep sand for nothing. Both guys fell in this stretch, and the only reason I didn't is because I was already pushing my bike. 

I should have been walking but you know... Anyway, at some point the front wheel went sideways, the bike discontinued forward motion, and I kept traveling. At least until I was deposited "gratefully" (not gracefully) in a deep pile of sand. I quickly stood up, worried that I may have broken something on the bike, only to spoil Kate's plan to get a photo of me on the ground in a dust cloud.

I resorted to the question I always asked when conditions were sub-optimal: "What would you be doing right now if you were home?" For me, the answer almost always ended up with "Wishing I was doing something like this," and it never failed to reset my attitude.

Finally we turned onto an actual rideable road, and from there it was only a mile or two to Scheck's Place State Forest Campground. We checked out both sides of the road, opting for a roomy spot on what turned out to be the noisier side of the campground. Being a Friday night, most of the sites were occupied, and being so close to the motorcycle trail there was a bit of ORV traffic, which thankfully trailed off before bedtime.

The Boardman River passed right by the campground, and once our tents were set up we all walked down to soak our tired legs in the cold water before dinner. 

Hanging out in the Boardman River

Back at camp we ate supper, successfully hung our first bear bag (and by "we", I mean Chuck), and got ready for bed. After four days of constant togetherness, being around the guys was like being around family. There's your best self, and then there's your real self; hopefully the two are pretty close to the same, because on a trip like this you don't have the energy to pretend to be something you're not. Still, I was a little surprised at the unconscious comfort level.

I wear a partial in place of two lower front teeth that I lost as an eventual result of a bed-jumping accident when I was in grade school; I'm really self-conscious about those missing teeth. Pretty much the only people who see me without them are my family, and I try to avoid even that. And still, as I stood around camp talking to Chuck and brushing my teeth, I unthinkingly popped them out and continued brushing with my partial in my hand before realizing what I'd done and breaking into laughter.

It was a good laugh at the end of another great day.

It had been another 70 mile day, a good one despite the hilly singletrack, the heat, the long stretches of road, and the deep sand at the end...and the best part was that we got to get up the next day and do it again.

Next: Day 5 (not live yet)


Michigan Off-Road Expedition website

Strava for the day

RWGPS LP3 section - Wellston to Mesick

RWGPS LP4 section - Mesick to Scheck's Place (though we used almost none of this in actuality)


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