by Drew YoungeDyke
(This Michigan Outside column was originally published in the July 2019 issue of Woods'n'Water News)
Chris saw the bear first, a sow standing near the base of a pine, separated from us by about 50 yards of underbrush. Then we spotted the movement up in the tree and could make out two cubs. And she definitely saw us, starting to make an arc away from the tree and towards our position on the trail. Being perceived as a threat by a black bear sow with cubs is probably the most dangerous situation you can find yourself in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, but we had another problem: The bears were right where we planned to access the Pigeon River, where the Shingle Mill Pathway we’d run with our waders in backpacks veered closest to the river.
Chris Engle, a fellow outdoor writer, and I have fished a few times around Gaylord since we met in 2012 through local fishing and conservation legend Dave Smethurst while travelling together to a town hall meeting in Alpena to speak against the Land Cap Bill. On a mid-May weekend, I was up from Ann Arbor for my son’s baby shower the day before at my parents’ house in Gaylord, and I had a short window to fish early that Sunday morning before I was expected for a family brunch, so I invited Chris. He and I have ice fished on Manuka Lake, fished for walleye with Sarah Topp of Huron Pines on Otsego Lake, and fly fished a different stretch of the Pigeon, but this was the first time we made it a flyathlon, running up the trail to fish the river upstream back to his car.
We had already changed from our running shoes to our chest waders and assembled our fly rods, but we wisely backed away and made our own off-trail wide arc away from and around the bears – which took us directly uphill through thick cover, not the easiest path in cheap boot-foot waders and a rigged eight-foot fly rod. And while the uphill slog was difficult, the wetland we had to traverse to get back to the river was even tougher, and wading the river impossible in spots due to a high flow and beaver damming.
I stripped a streamer through pools without a bite while Chris fished a spinning rod. We leapfrogged the river down the trail back closer to the car when the rain started pouring, with thunderstorms expected later in the forecast. I tried a bead-head nymph and Chris finally landed a rainbow trout with his Panther Martin. While the fishing wasn’t great, it was a classic Pigeon River Country foray during which we spooked a deer, flushed two grouse, did some wayward bushwacking, saw some trilliums on the forest floor, waded beaver pools in the river, and, of course, saw a mama bear and cubs.
While we expected a little workout from trail-running the couple miles up the trail to where we planned to enter the river, what surprised me – but shouldn’t have – about our morning of fishing is how hard my legs worked to climb uphill through brush, to slog through wetlands, to climb out of the high-flowing river to the bank where beaver dams created pools deeper than my waders, and sinking thigh-deep in thick muck and struggling to escape it.
There have been several workouts I’ve done through CrossFit and Train To Hunt which engaged similar muscles and worked my legs the same which helped push through those unexpected situations in the woods, like weighted box step-ups, lunges, and squats. Unexpected situations – like navigating uphill wide around a black bear sow and cubs - are why I think it’s often most important for hunters, anglers, and trappers to stay in decent physical condition or work to get in better physical condition. One of the simplest ways to train your body for unexpected uphill or cross-wetland hikes, though, is simply to hike with a weighted backpack.
Gear needed for this is simple: hiking boots or shoes and a backpack capable of comfortably supporting whatever weight you’ll put in it. Personally, I use Altra Lone Peak trail-running shoes, Prana Stretch Zion pants, and the Tenzing TZ3000 internal frame pack, which is the same one I use for deer hunting. Be honest about your current conditioning level and don’t overload your pack – just pack the equivalent weight of what you would carry in the field. I often just load it up with my actual overnight backpacking kit. Find a public land trail – Michigan has 12,500 miles of them – and go for a hike, it can be that simple. A 200-pound person (my approximate weight) can burn 550 calories per hour according to LiveStrong.org.
If you want to support conservation efforts while you train, you can also sign up for the Hike To Hunt Challenge from Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. This is a fundraising challenge which support the organization’s efforts to protect wild public lands and access to wild public waters by signing up and getting friends and family to pledge donations based on how many miles you hike. At the same time, you could win prizes from outdoor gear companies like Under Armour and Vortex . The 2019 Challenge started on June 1 but it runs until July 31, so there’s still time to enter. Sign up at www.backcountryhunters.org/hike_to_hunt_2019 and join the Michigan Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Facebook Group for local events.
Whether you enter the Hike To Hunt Challenge or just strap on a pack and hike a few miles to burn some calories and increase your leg strength, you’ll be better prepared for the obstacles that we all encounter from time to time in the outdoors. Whether it’s dragging a deer out of a valley in November or circumventing a mama bear and her cubs on your way to a trout stream in May, your legs will thank you for the preparation when the unexpected inevitably happens afield.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and manager of sporting communications for the National Wildlife Federation. He is also the host of the National Wildlife Federation Outdoors podcast, a national board member for 2% for Conservation, a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, and a state-appointed member of the Pigeon River Country State Forest Advisory Council.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the PRCAC, or any other entity.