Is it winter or spring..? Nobody in the Detroit region really knows, especially March. Regardless of this month's conditions, here is our March Survival Guide: five tips for surviving, and dare we say thriving, within the most unpredictable month of the recreational year.
The idea for this article struck me exactly one year ago today, as I stared at the muddy soup that had previously resembled the Milford Mountain Biking Trail. The trail was simply unrideable, so my mind started racing to other recreational pursuits that I could substitute for my ill-fated MTB session.
Kayaking on the Huron River? No, that's a no-go. Most of the river is still frozen.
How about skiing? Eh, half of the runs are green fields thanks to the recent rains and heat spells.
Trail running? Road running or biking? Anything??
I settled on a hike with my trail pup that March day - a messy, muddy hike through the rolling hills and leafless vistas of Highland State Recreation Area. That hike changed the momentum of my day, however; from the pit of recreational despair rose up an idea - no, a calling - to brainstorm a game plan on how to avoid similar scenarios in the future. A predetermined attack plan for maximizing outdoor experiences in less-than-ideal conditions. A means of heading into unpredictable elements head-on, as opposed to allowing the weather to dictate your outdoor agenda.
The net result is this five-point survival guide to the month of March, fit for every outdoor enthusiast.
1. CAPITALIZE ON SHOULDER SEASON FLEXIBILITY
As everyone in the Detroit region knows, you can experience all four seasons within the month of March. One week's whiteout blizzard can abruptly melt into the next's 80ºF heatwave. The end result is that muddy, thawing trails tend to dominate this season, but nimble, proactive outdoor enthusiasts can harness the power of March to their advantage.
Does the forecast call for snow? Awesome - grab your board or skis and plan on getting first tracks at one of Detroit's "Big Four" ski and snowboard resorts, which will remain open - weather permitting - through the end of March.
Dryer conditions coming down the pipeline? Sweet - we recommend opting for your road bike, pavement running shoes, or kayak while the natural trails thaw out, which can take days or even weeks of consistently dry weather. Trail running and mountain biking, in that order, should be the last activities on your March recreational agenda. Remember: if you're leaving deep tracks, leave the trail.
2. MAXIMIZE YOUR HIKES - FOR THE NEXT HIKER
The sun rises. The trail thaws. The trees remain barren. Your lungs are filled with the crisp air of early spring. And your eyes calibrate to unspoiled vistas of the our region's beautiful forests, hills, and waterways.
Well...almost unspoiled. Unfortunately, flowers aren't the only colorful beings that come forth from our annual snowmelt. Trash - lots and lots of trash - reliably emerges each spring from the pristine snow that had hid their existence for the past season. Even autumn's fallen leaves that have wrinkled under the pressure of the snow can no longer aid in its concealment.
March is the single best time of the year to go hiking with a trash bag and protective gloves. The coming weeks will provide a fleeting window between snowmelt and bloom where hikers' visibility - especially within areas with thick cover during the warmer months - will reach peak levels. March represents the perfect opportunity to volunteer your time towards preparing our trails for the peak usage months that are just around the corner.
Would rather volunteer with others rather than lead your own cleanup hike? No problem - DNR has even organized several official "Volunteer Stewardship Workdays" for this month, with the next occurring at Highland State Recreation Area on March 18th.
3. GO SHED HUNTING
For most hunters, there are two primary hunting seasons: whitetail deer and waterfowl in the fall, and turkey hunting in the spring. In between those peak periods, hunters can get a little stir crazy - especially during the late winter and early spring months when harsh conditions cause wildlife to bed down and cabin fever to set in.
Fortunately, March provides an exceptionally time of year for whitetail hunters to chase their game in a different, non-lethal way. Shed hunting consists of scouting for the shed antlers of bucks, which are typically completely shed by March. Like other antlered animals, deer begin to shed their antlers following the late-fall rut when their testosterone levels start to rapidly decrease.
Beyond just yet another excuse to get back in the woods, shed heading can provide hunters with several informational benefits towards preparing for next fall's main event. Finding the shed of a particular buck that you had scouted over previous informs you that, obviously, your target buck survived the previous fall. The condition of the base of the shed also indicates the general health of the animal (the cleaner the better). Last, the location of the shed can identify late-season bedding habits, food sources, and travel corridors.
4. KICK OFF YOUR TRAINING REGIMEN
While we at Expedition Detroit are firm believers that race season never truly ends, we're also not oblivious to the fact that mainstream race season kicks off post-thaw in April. Several of Detroit's leading race companies, like RF Events, Kona Running, and several others kick off their formal race season on April 1st.
With March's notorious oscillation between wintry and spring-like conditions, the Detroit region's favorite running trails will be your best - and possibly only - bet for consistent outdoor recreation. Most of April's races constitute lower-mileage races (10K or less), so March presents the perfect opportunity to build up your running base with consistent, low-mileage runs. Trust us, your de-hibernating legs will thank you.
5. PLAN YOUR SUMMER ADVENTURES
Believe it or not, backpacking, bike-packing, canoe-camping, and regular car camping season is just around the corner! Don't let the unrelenting snowfalls discourage you - in just a few short months, the Detroit region's thousands of miles of cycling, hiking, and paddling trails will be open and accessible for your overnight adventures.
While winter remains, we invite you to join us in our planning efforts. The Michigan DNR's campsite reservations are already starting to fill up for the peak summer months, so we strongly advise that you jump on any prospective dates that you are hoping to camp within a state park or recreation area. Our #TrailTuesday series will also continue to highlight our region's 50 most popular trails for hiking, backpacking, cycling, and trail running - especially during post-thaw conditions.
To help with your planning activities, here is a quick run-down of our favorite Detroit region guidebooks:
Best Tent Camping Michigan by Matt Forster
Best Bike Rides - Detroit and Ann Arbor by Rob Pulcipher
50 Hikes in Michigan by Jim DuFresne
Paddling Michigan by Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom
Rail-Trails - Michigan & Wisconsin by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
What are your favorite "Shoulder Season" recreational activities? Do you have any additional insights or ideas that would benefit Detroit's outdoor community this month? If yes, then awesome - let us know in the comments!