Another hill too steep, too long, and too rocky to pedal. As we pushed the handlebars forward again we heard a huge crunch-thump-snap! The snap was a big one. Something just out of sight was heavy. We upped our chit-chat game calling out to the bear we hoped was a fallen branch.
Black bears are not aggressive nor territorial but we pulled out the spicy spray anyway. We stayed close together and made our way up the trail migrating past the site of the sound. The steepness of the trail and the soreness in our legs was gone like magic.
Pathfinder checked the rear again to find he had a black and brown face looking right back. He made eye contact with a 400lb. black bear and it took off across the trail. It wanted to go west and we got in the way. The encounter was yet another reminder of the pure wilderness we were in. Of course, by now on day 2, we were expecting the unexpected after what we’d been though.
Blue Fox Camp BikePacking Excursion, August 2017
The quest for Blue Fox Camp has a bit of a back story. Ice climbing FBET members explored the area between Thessalon and Aubrey Falls for suitable cliffs a couple years ago. They remarked at how picturesque the area was and how they heard of a fish/hunt camp on Kirkpatrick Lake supposedly only accessible by float plane or ATV.
In 2016, The FBET Overlanding Project made an attempt on the narrow trail in Jeeps. The route quickly showed teeth and the Jeeps started losing parts to the obstacles. Without easy access to a slew of ATV’s a new plan was in order.
Enter the Expedition Biking Project. Loosely formed in late 2016, we tested some packing skills and gear near Traverse City, MI. A quick overnight in early December gave us a taste of cold weather riding and we even got a slush storm.
In late April 2017, the team attempted a section of the Pigeon River Country State Forest near Vanderbilt MI to further test range and just get out and pedal. A detour into a 100 acre clear cutting en-route to a good gravel road proved our two-wheeled machines were very capable even without a trail. We played lots of hike-a-bike and, while not much like wheeling luggage through an airport, it’s not as terrible as it sounds.
The stage was set to do what the Expedition Biking Project was created for. To drive a vehicle as far as possible and deploy bikes to continue the mission. Blue Fox Camp is the perfect subject as it’s nestled on a trout lake 20 miles or so from the end of the nearest roads. All we had to do was load up and pedal there.
We met up at Tunnel Lake Trading Post north of Thessalon. In attendance were Expedition Leader Pathfinder, and members AR, Spock, and KneeHigh. Spock heads up the Expedition Biking Project for the team. All four members include cycling in their quiver of skills. After final checks we hit the road. A bit of off-roading and the parking spot was achieved without much fuss. Load and go. 12:30pm day 1 begins.
It should be noted that we bumped into some locals in a pickup truck as we were loading. They shook their heads when we said “bike” and Blue Fox” in the same sentence. Typical FBET though.
The first several miles were simple gravel roads. Fist sized rocks in the road kept our speed down and brakes warm on downhill sections. Uphill sections though??? It was all about the hills. Longer and steeper climbs than any of us were used to. We had to step off and push several times. Still, steady progress was made. We can easily claim that despite pushing the rigs up the steep stuff we were making more than double time compared to backpacking. It was fun outrunning the barrage of mosquitoes and black flies. The deer flies could keep up and soon we had 20+ swarming behind each of us. Not too bad when you’re moving though. It was good incentive to keep pedaling.
Minor gear adjustments doubled as breaks. There is no way to test everything. It’s not about the challenges out there, it’s how one adapts and overcomes them.
Then the fun started! Off the road and into the soup. Rocky, muddy, twisty, gnarly ATV trail led the way. And hills!!! Spirits were up because the land is so beautiful and we were treated to a lakeside practically every mile. Shore lunch/water fetch, warm breeze, and what looked like possible rain. It was forecast anyway.
Lunch done so on we go……
DANGER it said! A pretty wonky looking bridge in the middle of the bush and an official government sign says nope, don’t do it. We did it.
By 5pm or so we had overcome hills, bugs, the dangerous bridge, a heck of a rain shower, and even shallow water crossings. Lots of everything. We heard thunder in the distance and the clock was ticking. The only distance reference to our goal was a straight line by GPS and it took massive energy to knock off the miles.
We tried to keep our feet dry but that was not in the cards. Just look at these water crossings. So many puddles and creeks. We attempted to ride countless puddles but hidden rocks caught us out and eventually you have to walk in the soup.
It seemed a final 2 mile decent would bring us to camp. We couldn’t wait! The narrowest, rockiest, steepest thing thus far was the final leg. This pathway was the wildest entrance to a place of business we’ve ever seen!
We arrived!! We beat the storms, we conquered the trail, we even beat sunset (just). We saw a dozen buildings, a huge lake, Blue Fox Camp painted here and there…..but not a single person.
Since we planned to camp on our own, didn’t know if or when we would arrive, and didn’t wish to cause a fuss, we didn’t notify anyone of our travel plans. We imagined a fishing camp with people and such and we would just visit and find a few spare trees to camp under out of the way.
The thing was, the place didn’t look ‘open’. What was going on? Was it abandoned? There were plenty of signs people had been around but who? We had more questions than answers. Little did we know that we would be learning quite a lot soon. The main priority at this moment was shelter from more incoming storms and a modified game plan.
Three of us are Search and Rescue Volunteers and while we found ‘signs of human passage’ there was nothing recent. We continued to explore the camp respectfully but we noticed the storm was creeping up on us and it had gotten quite breezy. Every cabin door we checked to see if anyone was about was unlocked.
We decided to take shelter from the storm in one of the cabins and just see what played out. With lightning in the area, seeking a structure for shelter is the best option, your structure or not. Though we were not comfortable in someone else’s cabin we needed to get indoors. We made the best of the circumstances.
The cabin was littered with stuff. And it was left in such a way that we couldn’t tell if people were squatting randomly or what. There was a calendar open to May 2017 so there were clues it had been inhabited within a couple months.
We were pretty settled in and working on dry clothes and some food. Just after dark we heard the thunder of ATV engines and headlights filled the camp. We knew we would be discovered soon and we were concerned about what might happen next. Who were these people?
These fine people just happened to be the owners of Blue Fox Camp and after a bit of explaining (and apologizing for the intrusion we deemed a safety issue) they said it was okay to stay put in the cabin. The lowly staff cabin it turns out, but we were quite comfy nonetheless. With the flip of a few switches they had lights and music on in the lodge. Satellite wifi for the paying guests even! All of a sudden this vacant place was alive.
Getting to chat with the owners as we all settled in was really rewarding. We learned that the history of the camp dates back to post WWII when the Canadian government gave 15 acre parcels to returning service members. In fact, with more land than men, they opened it to US GI’s for a time.
In a bizarre twist, one guy said some former owners of the camp had ties to Ada and Comstock Park MI. We had that feeling of travelling across the country and seeing a car with a label from a local dealership. We came all this way through all that trouble to find a wilderness camp with a story that includes Grand Rapids MI. The world is a small place sometimes.
The lodge had a guitar laying around and it sounded pretty nice. Pathfinder couldn’t resist that six string. The owners brought their kids and we goofed around until we could take no more.
Day 2–Up and Out
We slept in a bit. Maybe 8am by the time we were really motivated. We had a decision to make about our exit route and we knew either way the challenge to get out was real.
But first some pics with the old Jeep. She’s seen better days.
We had two options. We could retrace our path exactly or we could divert west to what looked like a much more groomed path we had crossed previously. The camp owners said the alternate route had fewer miles but featured similar inclines and obstacles. And oh, it also featured a knee deep water crossing “20 feet wide”. We decided to challenge the water crossing in exchange for a few miles of what would almost certainly be several hills to climb over.
The push up out of camp went smooth enough. Mostly walking the steep rocks but we did bump into that bear in the first few miles. We’ll never forget how the bear gave us pause. It was a “had to be there” moment like so many Fortune Bay moments are. It was a full size adult bear and it was a full reminder that yes, we are in deep wilderness, and there are natural things larger than us like weather and moose and bears. It was refreshing and raw.
Now on to the intersection…..but first a too steep hill.
Westward and it WAS faster. Much like a two-track compared to the previous. We were riding with such fury Spock lost a tarp to the pure speed and had to double back for it. This fancy path would soon give way to hills……you guessed it…… too steep to pedal….full of wet rocks and such. Picture a staircase that goes way up and as you near the top you notice it simply turns a little and continues, a few times. This was the norm in these parts. Hills you can’t see the top of.
We were inventing new ways to hike our bikes. Left hand, left grip. Right hand, right grip. Right hand, stem. Right hand, seat. Left pedal forward, or back. You seem to clip the pedal with your right calf no matter where it is, so most of this jockeying was just for something to pass the time.
Before long your body starts to bother you about food. We noticed we were within a mile of a nice lake. You’re pretty much always a mile from a lake…..we lost count of pristine lakes. Our lunch spot was picturesque and it was nice to get off our feet. Still the mission loomed. Gather water, pound your groceries, and hit the road.
So after lunch off we went on our way. And then it happened……
The trail simply disappeared into a pond. Not kidding. There was no sign of the trail continuing in sight. Would we have to turn back? Is this the crossing the guys were talking about? What happened to “20 feet across”? How deep was the water? How much time would this take to overcome? There had to be a way though right?
A bit of scouting revealed the exit to this crossing was around the corner but the distance from one shore to the other was closer to 100′ than the 20′ as advertised at camp. With one option to choose from we began to haul the stuff over. Our shoes and socks were completely swamped from some point the previous day so stepping in the water wasn’t really a thing. The water wasn’t even cold.
Now how cool is this??!!!
Soon enough the narrow rock strewn path gave way to wider sandy forest road. The hills still didn’t disappoint though. More hiking. Spock was running the altimeter via GPS and noticed about 1550′ at one peak. We were parked at about 950′ so we needed to come down at some point obviously. But when? We only had 7 miles to go. One such drop was so long our ears equalized on the way down.
We have no photos of actual riding down the huge hills because there’s a lot going on and holding a camera isn’t a good idea! But every hill we hiked up we rode down and that process was very rewarding.
We knew the end was near, and good thing. The sandy road was made of clay and crushed gravel that stuck to everything. Our chains and gears were getting packed. Some gear combos could no longer be achieved. What a mess!
Needless to say we rolled down and down some more to our vehicles. Gear tear down and load up was a quiet, photo-less moment in the weekend. We were too exhausted to be chatty. We got loaded up and, once all seated in climate controlled comfort, got a bit more chatty on the radios.
No wilderness excursion would be complete without NEEDING four wheel drive to actually exit. All three of us have capable vehicles and we chewed through the 5 miles of hydro line access trail. The steep rocky bits and water crossings were much easier than pedaling! It must be said that the path was pretty grown over and we all proudly got some new scratches. It was a cool frosting on our well earned BikePacking cake.
We hit the highway and shot to the nearest all day breakfast diner where we stuffed our faces and recalled some of the finer points of what we had just achieved. It was a whirlwind of travel and we learned many things.
We learned our bikes are very capable machines. We learned these four people work very well together. We have not seen an event this physically and mentally demanding in a very long time. One at a time, challenges were overcome. These team members just don’t give up. It was an awesome sight.
The Blue Fox Camp on Kirkpatrick Lake ON in the Algoma Highlands is accessible by float plane, ATV…..and the Fortune Bay Expedition Team BikePacking Project. See you on the next one!
–By Mike “Spock” Pemberton