Emily and I pored over her ten-year-old McNally Atlas looking for a good snowshoe destination. The wind howled outside the small Ontonagon house as I checked the clock out of the corner of my eye. It was still early in the afternoon, with hours of daylight left in the snowy February day, but I still felt anxious to get going. My finger stabbed a spot, a spot that she had mentioned a few minutes earlier. We would go to Courtney Lake.
Normally I have all of my hiking spots planned far in advance, with back ups and options and fail safes. Today I did not. My new snowshoes had performed great on semi-packed snow this morning and not-as-well in deep virgin snow. The other hikes I had planned today were off-trail, random larks through the woods, and I didn't feel like setting off on more tough struggles. So Emily and I decided to go for groomed trails nearby, something not too far off our eventually drive to Freda, and Courtney Lake fit the bill.
Driving east on M-38 to the small park was easy enough, though it was a bit tricky to find the right road to pull off on. As we parked Emily told me about the equestrian trails through this park and the old Simar landing strip on the north side of the road that works as a great place for camping (with horses). She has a horse. I'm a little jealous. Anyways, we pulled off on Courtney Lake Road and parked right near the trail's start, a few dozen yards from M-38, and tried to get our bearings.
There were a few signs out for the trails, though it was difficult to tell which were for foot, horse, or winter. One sign was an intricate printed piece of paper all-but-ineligible from water stains and deep snow and the other was a rough wooden sketch with few good benchmarks. However, the wooden sign was clearly labeled as a 'ski trail', so we went off of that. There looked to be two lakes, Courtney and Sixmile, and a large loop that circled around Courtney and came back near Sixmile. However, we couldn't tell where the trails started. We set off in one direction, doubled back, checked another, turned around again, and finally set down one that was clearly labeled for horses.
We had picked the right one. The snow was maybe three feet deep in the woods with a faint double track in the center of the trail from a past grooming. Thanks to the snowstorm earlier in the week the track was muffled, though, and it was difficult to keep away from the track (we didn't want our snowshoes to mess with skiers). We didn't need the track to stay on the trail, the woods outlined things well enough.
While the wind whipped high above us and the roads were high-speed tunnels of frigid air these woods were calm and beautiful. The thick pines towered up, branches heavy-laden with piles of snow. The snow was softy and plush, drinking up the noises, leaving us in a surprising amount of quiet considering how close we were to M-38. We filled that quiet easily, chattering and catching up on affairs, my snowshoes crunching the snow loudly. It was a lovely stroll.
Eventually I began to wonder where we were. The trail stretched on in front of us with no discernible markers. I checked the time and noticed with some alarm that we were behind schedule, that to make it to Freda before sunset we had to leave quickly. I glanced around. There should be a side-route to Courtney Lake, a cut-off trail, but with no GPS or trail map handy I had no idea where it was.
The road! Courtney Lake Road, which connected M-38 to the campsites here, was just a few dozen yards to our left. We cut off into the woods, sinking deep in the clutching powder, and burst out onto the plowed road. Once we reached the road we jagged down it to catch a cursory view of the frozen lake and headed back to the car.
Our visit was short but pleasant, the thick snowy woods easy to lose oneself in. If it wasn't for the cliffs of Freda I would have been more than happy to continue down the loop, heading around the far side of the lake and meandering back up through the eastern woods. However, we had a long drive ahead of us on the treacherous stretch of M-26 from Greenland to Houghton and neither one of us wanted to make that drive and have no daylight at the end. We left Courtney Lake behind, making mental notes of the location for future camping trips.