Over the years I've thrown around the term 'Death March' a few times in reference to past hikes. The term has some real negative connotations in a historical light, though it is also used to describe a project management antipattern and a Grand Canyon Rim to Rim (to Rim). I use it to describe a long, tough hike, when the last leg is more focused on dragging one tired leg in front of the other than anything else. And I've had my share of these hikes over the years.
Early in my explorations, back during the hayday of the waterfall project in the spring of 2009, was when the tough adventures started. The snow was deep and slushy in the woods and made any venture out an ordeal. I was not heading out for short hikes, either. I would spend all day out in the woods, plowing through the deep snow for miles and miles, only to drag myself out after sunset with pants soaked and boots sodden.
The three that stand out from that period of time are Leatherby/Upper Silver, Carp River, and Mulligan. Each of those hikes were well over ten miles through the deep snow, all to capture an overflowing waterfall surrounded by banks of white. Mulligan in particular was a gnarly day. I had started on Silver Lake Basin, crossed over the northern hills to Mulligan Creek, and followed the creek downstream for miles through tag alder. When I finally reached the lower falls there was still three miles to walk along snow-covered roads before I could return to my car. Logan and I were both dragging on our way out.
A year later I decided to haul Logan up from Wisconsin in the winter for a loop up by Sugarloaf Mountain. We climbed the mountain, crossed down the other side, then trudged up the shore past Wetmore Beach. The plan was to make it to Little Presque Isle, circle around to Harlow, climb Hogback Mountain, and then return. Logan gave up at Little Presque Isle. I was forced to carry my eighty pound German Shepherd the four miles back to the car - he was just too tired to make it back. That death march was the last time I took Logan to Michigan.
Mulligan Plains holds a lot of bittersweet memories. There was that one waterfall hike and there was a winter hike along the eastern cliffs in -15° weather. And then there was a ridiculous circumnavigation of Silver Lake Basin.
It was in May, with a heat index over 100°, and the bugs were disgustingly thick. I brought a single bottle of water and had it drained a few miles into the hike. The hike was 17 miles long. The last leg along the rugged and scenic north shore was all stumbles and jelly legs and I'm not entirely sure how I climbed the eastern hill. When I finally tumbled back to my car, an hour or so after sunset, I drank half a gallon of water and passed out. That day was probably the closest I've ever been to heat stroke.
There was a few tough hikes further west, too. Namely in the western Huron Mountains. Bald Mountain is by far the easiest peak to reach, maybe a mile from the parking spot and a few hundred feet to climb. To get to the good stuff, the lands of Mt Benison and around Cliff Lake, involves miles of hiking through the woods and close to a thousand feet of climb. To get beyond to Mountain Lake… Well, that's a hard day.
My first climb up Mt Benison was in the spring of 2012. I scaled Superior Mountain with all of my camping gear, dropped it at the top, and continued on down the Little Huron River valley. By the time I reached the southern outcroppings overlooking Cliff Lake my legs were hurting. Reaching the summit of Benison did not give me any new views, and when I reached a meager view off the east side I simply turned and headed back. I had to descend all the way back down to the valley and re-climb Superior from the east. As soon as I returned to my gear I plopped down and took a two hour nap before setting up for the night.
A few years later I re-tackled Benison with the sole goal of reaching Mink Run. I took a flatter, longer route around the hills south of Little Huron River and camped near Cliff Lake. All I had to do the next day was climb the southern shoulder of Benison to reach Turner Point.
This time it was hot and buggy, little clinging gnats and mosquitoes so thick they plugged my nostrils, and I was pouring sweat before the sun broke the horizon. I brought a water filter with me on that trip and ended up drinking close to a dozen bottles on a relatively short morning hike. When I reached the top of Mink Run I was cramping and sore, reeking of deet and covered in flies, and chose to limp off instead of continuing on to Huron Mountain.
Of all of my past marches there is still one that stands out, one that I still hold as the most ambitious and most ridiculous day hike I ever attempted. It was early spring of 2014, feet of soggy snow still lying on the ground, and I headed over to Pictured Rocks to attempt the well known Chapel Loop. Even with a few side tracks tacked on I didn't expect out past the afternoon.
The nine mile loop ballooned to 23 miles through slush, deep puddles, and spring mud. I started before the sun was up and didn't make it back until the sun was back down. There were several points, like when I lost the trail near Mosquito Falls or watched the sun drop out of sight along the soggy road back that I considered just calling it a night. Somehow I made it out of there with a full day's adventure and a ton of pictures of the icy shoreline.
Were all these death marches worth it? Mostly. The Pictured Rocks definitely was. The drive back to Wisconsin that night was tough - I had to stop for catnaps every thirty minutes and only got a few hours of sleep before work the next day - yet that day was incredible. The Benison marches are probably the most frustrating, as the tough conditions usually forced me to turn around early. Hopefully they all taught me something. I have a feeling that any death march in Arizona would involve more dire consequences.