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Stake Rescue 2014: The Great Stake Rescue at Cropsey Pond

Cropsey Pond

Cropsey Pond

Losing gear in the backcountry is never a pleasant experience. Feelings of loss (“Where did it go?”), denial (“It has to be in my backpack somewhere!”), guilt (“I never should have put it in my pocket”) and even frugality (“Now I have to buy a new one”) engulf you, each chewing off another portion of your fragile psyche as you attempt to accept the fact that recovering your precious item is highly unlikely.

It had only been two weeks since I lost my tent stake during the Birdathon in the Pepperbox Wilderness, and the feelings of loss, denial and guilt were still raw. Despite these feelings, I made the decision to return to Cropsey Pond and attempt a rescue mission for the poor stake. Although I noticed it missing at Sunshine Pond, it most likely was either lost at Cropsey Pond earlier in the morning when I broke camp, or, Heaven forbid, the previous summer at Sitz Pond.

Cropsey, being easier to access and the more likely contender (or so I hoped), is where I plan on starting my search. My backpack is packed with enough food for three nights in the backcountry, so if I strike out at Cropsey, I can always make another attempt at Sunshine to search some more. If the stake turns up at Cropsey, then I plan to head over into the Wilderness Lakes Tract, in the southwestern Five Ponds Wilderness, to scope out possible alternatives for future Birdathon adventures.

Section Stats:
Date: May 29, 2014
Length: 2.1 miles (2.1 total daily miles; 2.1 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Moderate

It is after one in the afternoon by the time I pull into the parking area at the end of Necessary Dam Road, just downstream from the Stillwater Reservoir dam. The handicapped accessible campsite adjacent to the parking lot and along the Beaver River is chock full of stuff, including a car, but not another soul is in sight. I watch for its occupants to return as I eat my lunch, with only hordes of mosquitoes and a few black flies for company, but not a single individual ever returns to claim the site.

Despite the overcast skies, the weather looks substantially better than when I left for the Birdathon a couple of weeks ago. The cloud cover may seem a little oppressive, but the probability of imminent rain seems far off compared to what I encountered earlier in the month.

My route remains similar to that of the Birdathon from two weeks ago. I pass the gate at the beginning of Raven Lake Road, just before crossing the bridge over the Beaver River and continue north along the dirt road. It is only a brief jaunt after reaching the other shore, before I turn left into an old gravel pit, leaving the last vestigial of civilization behind me. As soon as I enter the gravel pit, I head northwest into the forest, with every step bringing me closer to Cropsey Pond, and hopefully my beloved stake.

Hermit thrush nest

Hermit thrush nest

My plan includes following the same general route as the Birdathon to Cropsey Pond, which allows me a second chance for a view at rocky outcropping from a hillside overlooking Stillwater Reservoir. Luckily, there is no rain this time to obscure the expansive view of the large reservoir.

The ascent of the hill begins almost immediately upon entering the forest at the edge. The forest canopy is now alive with more vibrant greenery than was evident a mere two weeks before. The canopy is not the only game in town however, as the forest floor has gotten into the act, with an assortment of different plants exiting the ground in search of their share of the early season sunlight.

After a half hour of ascending the hillside through the forest, and dodging some rock outcroppings, I arrive at the viewpoint that I discovered just a couple weeks ago. Without the rain and mist in the air, the view of Stillwater Reservoir is even more impressive than I remembered, with the reservoir dominating the entire view to the southeast. Capturing the view with my camera proves tricky, as I must tiptoe around the many clumps of fragile lichen growing on the open rock surface. Unfortunately, my photography skills are not up to par to do the whole view justice.

Upon cresting the hill not far from the viewpoint, with a cloud of mosquitoes and black flies surrounding me, I cross a small stream just before a brown blur takes off in a huff from the forest floor. Upon closer examination, the blur was likely a hermit thrush, as a nest in a fern lies right near my feet. After taking a few photos with my camera, I continue with my route toward my ultimate destination, trying my best to leave the area as little disturbed as is humanly possible.

View of Stillwater Reservoir

View of Stillwater Reservoir

The terrain takes on a rolling nature at the height of land, with short descents followed by short ascents, and vice versa. Evidence of the 1995 Microburst begins to appear, with an occasional tip-up mound appearing nearby. As the rolling landscape begins to transition into a steady descent, patches of blue sky emerge from within the overcast overhead, instantly putting me in a better mood and adding a little skip to my step.

As I continue on, I notice my route has gotten off-track, as the intersection with the wetland I used to determine my compass bearing just never appears. Instead of spending time searching for it further, I just set my compass for a new bearing for north/northwest, the general direction to Cropsey Pond.

The forest becomes much denser now, with young beech trees making the going more challenging. The myriad large logs lying on the forest floor provides clues to the regeneration, as these downed giants are remnants of the 1995 Microburst storm. The young tree’s nascent leaves are already blocking some of the direct sunlight from reaching the ground. The lack of light has taken a toll on the plentiful trilliums covering the forest floor. These early bloomers are no longer flowering, having already had their brief moment in the sun.

Blowdown regeneration

Blowdown regeneration

The more arduous conditions and my thoughts of trilliums past their prime, coax my mind to drift toward contemplating my own eventual aging. At some point, I may have to put aside the bushwhacking and return to trail hiking when the struggle becomes too difficult for my increasingly frail body. There are quite a few more years of bushwhacking in me before that happens, at least, that is my hope.

Soon after detouring around a small wetland, Cropsey Pond appears downslope through the dense young foliage. I exit the forest to find myself much farther east than usual, arriving right along the old southern inlet stream, not much more than a trickle these days. After doubling back upstream through the open vegetation, a small beaver dam presents itself as a convenient crossing point, the pitiful stream’s water level much lower than during the Birdathon two weeks ago. A massive dam lies in view just upstream; its enormity hiding the fact only a small pool of water resides on the other side.

After crossing the stream, only a short distance through the forest separates me from my Birdathon campsite. With trepidation over finding my lost tent stake, I cross the distance quickly, finding myself emerging right at my campsite, just a short distance uphill from Cropsey’s south shore. My Pinnacle backpack is quickly discarded, not wanting to waste even a second before resuming the search for my lost little stake.

Prodigal stake returns

Prodigal stake returns

Returning to the exact spot my tarp occupied two weeks ago, only a slight impression of crushed plants and disturbed leaf litter remains. Backcountry guilt sets in momentarily, even though the noticeable impact is not as much as I imagined, but more than I am comfortable with. My breadcrumb is still in plain view, though a couple of the letters maintained their shape better than others.

And then, over to the right, is something entirely out of place among the grays and browns of the forest floor.
The metal sheen can only mean one thing.

Eureka! Success!

There it is, my stake, safe and sound, just where I must have dropped it two weeks ago. Its obvious location made me wonder how I could have possibly missed it, despite the obvious fact that I had.

I quickly return the prodigal stake to the stuff sack with its overjoyed companions, giving them a chance to celebrate and get reacquainted before needing them to set-up my tarp. With the trip a complete success, my focus changes to setting up a campsite in the same place for the second time in a single month, an unheard of endeavor for me in many years indeed.

With it shy of four in the afternoon, I play with the idea of heading back to Raven Lake Road and starting the second portion of my trip in the southern Five Ponds Wilderness. This has always been my original plan if Cropsey yielded the stake, so entertaining the idea of getting a jump-start on the next phase of my trip rattles around in my head for a while.

Campsite at Cropsey

Campsite at Cropsey

With increasing laziness setting in, the idea of moving on recedes rather quickly from my mind, leaving me planning on enjoying the peace and quiet of Cropsey Pond for a second time this month. The black flies and mosquitoes hovering around my head fail to assist in my decision making however, they appear even worse than when I was here earlier in the month.

Two dueling barred owls call back and forth to each other; one being fairly close-by. Hopefully, I will continue to hear them later in the evening too. These are not the only wildlife making their presence known either. A short burst of spring peepers momentarily dominate the soundscape, before they once again falling quiet. A Swainson’s thrush, a species NOT heard during the Birdathon, serenades me nearby, as I curse it for not being present when I needed it two weeks ago.

Other wildlife hang out at the pond. A female hooded merganser flies over the water, finally landing somewhere along the pond’s eastern half. A massive beaver swims over from the opposite shore, appearing at first as a log floating in the water.

With the five o’clock hour, I make my final decision to stay put for the evening. The opportunity for a better campsite in the same general area appears remote, given the terrain and dense vegetation regeneration from the beaver’s constant assault on the surrounding hardwood trees. The intervening two weeks’ worth of growth has transformed my previous campsite somewhat, leaving it vastly less acceptable. Luckily, I only need to endure it for a single night.

Food bag

Food bag

With the late afternoon transitioning to evening, the usual campsite chores get my undivided attention. After finishing the tarp setup, I follow it up with treating water, hanging a food bag and making dinner. Afterwards, I spend the time unwinding, first going through the woods to the southern inlet for a little while before returning to Cropsey to stand at the shoreline watching the evening transition to night.

With the diminishing light and a surge of black flies and mosquitoes, I beat a hasty retreat to my tarp to contemplate the remainder of my trip and its many options after bushwhacking back to Raven Lake Road tomorrow morning. Whatever I decide, at least I will be doing it with a complete set of twelve happy and healthy tent stakes.

A successful gear rescue is a sweet thing indeed.

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