By Jim DuFresne
The Steeb Pathway is less than a mile long, but reserve at least a half-day for it. Or even better, make it an overnighter. Seriously.
Its trailhead is in the East Branch of the Fox River State Forest Campground, north of Seney in the Upper Peninsula, an area with a strong connection to Ernest Hemingway. For that reason, it’s best to start this hike at the Seney Museum and Historic Railroad Depot.
I did, and on the front door was instructed to call for an appointment. It took Ed Nyman less than two minutes to arrive on a tractor with a front loader, wearing a hard hat and yellow vest. The township employee splits his time as a member of the public works department and museum curator. He’s the one with the key. Yea, Seney is that small: population 118.
The museum is a Hemingway artifact.
It’s the original railroad depot where the 20-year-old, still recuperating from an injury suffered as an ambulance driver in World War I, stepped off the train in 1919 with two friends. Shouldering rucksacks and carrying fishing rods, they hiked north from town for 3 miles along an abandoned railroad bed that today is M-77 and then camped along the East Branch of the Fox River for a week of fishing.
Among the tidbits we learned, it was Seney’s reputation as a “Wild West town” at the height of the logging era in the 1880s that drew Hemingway’s attention, a time when lumberjacks could belly up to more than 30 bars on Main Street. And that this was Hemingway’s only trip to the Upper Peninsula.
“Now we have one bar,” said Nyman, a life-long resident of Seney. “And growing up, I was told that he was here all the time. Want to see the rowboat he used at his family cottage on Walloon Lake?”
After moving to Paris as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, Hemingway used the Fox River experience to pen Big Two-Hearted River in 1924. But in the short story, he not only changed the river that his character, Nick Adams, fished, but changed the name of the river itself from the original Two-Heart to a more poetic sounding Big Two-Hearted.
Hemingway’s name stuck, and today the Big Two-Hearted is well known throughout the country, even though the author never saw the river, much less fished it.
The Fox, meanwhile, remains relatively obscure even in Michigan. There are more than a few anglers grateful to the author for that, and it’s why you can always get a campsite at the state forest campground.
Located just 4 miles north from where young Hemingway camped, the rustic campground features 19 campsites spread out among giant red pines, a bubbling spring that has been piped for drinking water and a stone marker dedicated to Hemingway’s U.P. adventure.
From 1936 through the 1980s, the campground was a working fish hatchery with local families pitching in to help rear brook trout in King’s Pond and then stock them in the Fox River.
Evidence of the hatchery can still be seen among the campsites. Built into the hillsides are stone huts that housed a root cellar and a storage area for equipment, while crossing the East Branch are cement slabs used to release the trout into the stream.
The best reason for spending a night here is not the East Branch, a small stream whose banks are entangled with tag alder, but King’s Pond that borders the campground to the north. The 6-acre impoundment is feed by a series of springs that send a constant flow of cold clear water through it to the East Branch, making the pond ideal for brook trout.
From the campground, the Steeb Pathway provides an easy and scenic hike around King’s Pond, much of it through a beautiful forest that has long healed itself from Seney’s logging days.
The footpath immediately descends a wooden stairway to the west end of King’s Pond and then weaves in and out of the hardwoods to watery views.
In less than a mile you emerge back in the state forest campground, but along the way you pass short spurs to viewing benches and an observation deck. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources still stocks King’s Pond, so on any calm evening it’s possible to sit and watch the dissipating rings of brook trout feeding on mayflies emerging at the surface.
Just like Nick Adams did a century ago.
For more hiking opportunities in Hemingway Country, the Fox River Pathway is a 34-mile trek that stretches from the Seney Township Campground on the edge of town to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. A scenic section for a day hike is where the pathway crosses County 450 (Fox River Road) before and after Fox River State Forest Campground.
This 2-mile stretch hugs the famous river most of the way and passes through the rustic campground in the middle. Bring a mountain bike for a quick return to your vehicle on the road, and you won’t have to backtrack.
The East Branch of Fox River State Forest Campground is 8 miles north of Seney via M-77. The rustic campground has 19 sites that are $15 a night and available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Jim DuFresne is an alum of the Michigan State University School of Journalism.