Fastpacking Dam to Dam

I’ve been a trail runner and an ultrarunner for about six years now, and I’ve enjoyed camping ever since I was a kid, so the idea of combining trail running with camping appeals to me. That’s just what fastpacking is. Fastpacking is a style of backpacking where you try to pack light and go long distances by hiking fast or even running. When I started reading about fastpacking I knew it was for me.

Last Christmas I bought myself an Osprey Stratos 34 daypack, a Eureka Solitaire 1 person tent, and a thin fleece sleeping bag that would be my basic gear for fastpacking. As soon as the weather was warm enough to survive in my light sleeping bag I started getting into it with some shorter overnight trips. For example, one weekend I parked in Middleville on Friday night after work and ran/hiked the North Country Trail down to Yankee Springs where I camped for the night. To train for fastpacking I did most of my running with my backpack. Running with the pack obviously adds weight and changes your balance, so I figured I needed to train for it.

When I decided to get into fastpacking I made myself a goal of at least 100 miles over 3 days this year, so I started planning. I found that there were about 128 miles of the North Country Trail running south to north through the Manistee National Forest. That route actually runs from Croton Dam to Hodenpyl Dam, so it seemed like a neat point-to-point course. At the North end by the Manistee River the trail splits into the Manistee River Trail on the East side of the river and the North Country Trail on the West side. I decided to take the Manistee River Trail, which adds a couple of miles, but I heard from many people that it was the more scenic route. I liked the idea of saving the best scenery for the end of the journey, to give myself an incentive to finish. So I had my plan, and I spent several months dreaming about it.

Finally the time came. On Saturday before Labor Day I parked at Croton Dam and head out on the North Country Trail. It was nice to have Lecia Selzer join me for the first 9 or so miles, since I would be alone for most of the rest of the weekend.

Running and hiking with the pack went well the first day. I had close to 30 pounds on my back at the start, about half of which was food for three days and about 5 quarts of water. This was more weight than I would have liked, but, not knowing where the good sources of water would be, I wanted to carry plenty. The morning was uneventful. I ran and hiked quite steadily for the first 25 miles or so. The terrain was relatively flat, and the ground was a nice soft surface of sandy soil with decaying pine needles and oak leaves. In the afternoon the heat and the miles started to wear on me. I was glad I carried as much water as I did because I came close to running out in the middle of the afternoon, but then around 4:00 P.M. I came to a cold, clear, sandy bottom stream and stopped to replenish my water, which I would treat with iodine tablets. While I was there I took the opportunity to soak my feet and cool off in the creek. It was heavenly. I saw a heron perched at the top of a tree above the creek, but it flew away before I got a chance to take its picture. When I left that creek I felt like a new man and ran well for a while again, but by the time it got dark I was ready to be done for the day. My plan was to stop around 9:00 P.M., and at that time I was near Highbanks campground. I could have had a nice campsite there, but for the full wilderness experience I decided to go a little further and just find a spot in the woods to camp. By the time I set up my tent, all I wanted to do was sleep, and I slept pretty well in my little one person tent on a bed of pine needles and leaves. I covered roughly 50 miles the first day.

Morning came on day 2, so I packed up and got back on the trail. My plan for hydration was to alternate Gatorade and water, but for my first bottle of the day I had Starbucks Via Instant Iced Coffee. Since I love my coffee, that was a good way to start the day. The morning started off well, but by late morning I was already noticing the heat and humidity. I began to walk more than I ran, and I took some extended breaks to try to keep cool. I kept hoping for a creek as cool and refreshing as the one I had found on Saturday afternoon, but I wasn’t that fortunate. I did meet some cool people on the trail. I met a hiker named Andy, who had hiked dam-to-dam a few years before, and I ran into Chris Koster, who is one of my son’s cross country coaches. Meeting people tended to lift my spirits for a while, but by about 8:00 P.M. I was thoroughly exhausted. It started to rain, and, while rain might have been refreshing earlier in the day, at that point I didn’t want to get wet, so I found a spot to camp, set up my tent, and crawled in. I felt cozy lying down in my little tent listening to the rain come down while I stayed dry. As I lay there I reflected on my slow, tiring day and decided I would be OK with shortening the trip to about 100 miles. I only covered about 35 miles on the second day.

I woke up on day 3 feeling rested. The morning was cool and crisp as I got moving again. Between the cooler weather and a good night’s sleep I ran well and probably felt the best I had felt during the entire weekend. I began to think that if I had a really good day, I could still finish my original goal of 130 miles. Providentially the weather stayed cool, cloudy, and breezy, and it drizzled a little bit off and on. This was perfect running weather. It also helped that my parents met me at the Udell trail head a little before noon. I was able to lighten my load by leaving my tent and sleeping bag in their car, and seeing them boosted my spirits. People who run with me know I like hills, and I had the most hills to climb on day 3. It was fun to see familiar territory when I went through the Udell Hills/Big M area where the North Country Run is held. The hills got bigger when the trail started following the Manistee River. I found myself high on the banks of the Manistee River overlooking the valley. I love that kind of terrain. At Red Bridge I took the option of crossing the river and following the Manistee River Trail the rest of the way. I now know why that trail is so popular with hikers. It featured some spectacular views of the river and the hills on the other side, as well as some lovely waterfalls in the streams that feed the river. The beautiful scenery, the cool weather, seeing my parents, and the thought of reaching my goal all combined to make day 3 the most enjoyable day of my trip. I covered about 45 miles on the third day.

In the evening of the third day I reached my destination! Shortly after 7:00 pm on Monday I reached Little Mac, a suspension bridge built for hikers to cross the river from the Manistee River Trail to the North Country Trail. Just beyond Little Mac the Hodenpyl Dam came into view. This officially marked the finish of my dam-to-dam fastpacking adventure.

While I was planning this trip I kept wondering whether 130 miles of fastpacking over 3 days would be harder or easier than a 100 mile ultramarathon. My conclusion: not to diminish the challenge, I think the fastpacking is slightly easier than the race, because you get to sleep at night. After a long day of running and hiking it feels wonderful to crawl in my tent for a good night’s sleep. Each morning I felt rested and ready to take on another long day.

I will definitely do more fastpacking in the coming years. For someone who loves both trail running and camping, this is a great way to take the adventure to a new level.

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