Saturday, November 5, 2022

Winter 2022: A Snowshoeing and writing retreat in the Keweenaw


My old friend, the Cliffs

The beginning of January is a hectic time in our household. Winter semester begins as early as January 3rd, and there are literally weeks of planning to complete before then, not to mention tying up the previous semester and oh, yeah, something about holidays.

But January 2022 was different for me. I was starting my first ever sabbatical: A semester with no teaching responsibilities. After seven years as a professor, (and ten years as a student before that) I'd earned the right to temporarily exchange teaching for a major project, in my case, writing a book.

Sarah, sadly, still had to teach. But she encouraged me to use my sabbatical to do things I wouldn't have otherwise done. One thing I never get to do during the school year is travel up north. All of my backpacking and hiking in da UP is done between May and August, which to be fair is a pretty good time to be there. But as a student at Michigan Tech for ten years, I'd learned to love the Keweenaw Peninsula's spectacular (and intense) winters. I became an avid snowshoer, something that is rarely even possible where I live downstate.

So I reserved a small cottage at the North Shore Cottages, a set of vacation units on the Lake Superior shore north of Calumet. I reserved it for 10 days in late February, including two full weekends, on the assumption that a blizzard would undoubtedly delay my arrival or hasten my departure.

With friends and family I called my plans a "writing retreat", but the real goal was half writing, half snowshoeing. I made a list of favorite Keweenaw snowshoeing destinations to visit and sought out guided events as well. I rented a car for the whole trip, so that Sarah could have our car to use at home. I paid a bit extra to make the rental an SUV, so that I would have all-wheel drive for the snowy UP roads.

A couple of weeks before my trip, I came down with a nasty cough. Like, keep-me-up-at-night bad. Covid tests and a doctor's visit shed no light. Nobody could tell what it was, or do anything about it. Tea and cough drops soothed it a bit. Luckily, with two weeks before my trip, it would certainly settle itself by then, right?

Interlude: I mostly write these blog posts for myself. They help me reflect on my experiences shortly after each trip, and they provide me with pleasant reminiscences when I read them years later. Reviewing past trips can be a lovely way to spend a dark winter evening.

All of which is to say, if you're reading this -- welcome! I hope you enjoy my stories. But please know that this post, even more than my others, is written for myself, as a sort of after-the-fact diary of a memorable trip. I hadn't intended to blog about it, but I've found myself remembering it fondly. I've also found the details slipping out of my memory, which encouraged me to write it down while I still remember enough of it.

Now, on with the story!


Blue ice on Lake Superior

Thursday, February 17, 2022: I packed up my rented RAV 4, kissed Sarah goodbye, and headed north. It was cold and windy, but not snowy. It had been a strange winter in the lower peninsula, and I barely saw fresh snow -- and no snowbanks at all -- until I was well past the Mackinaw Bridge.

That's why all of the snowmobilers were heading the same way as me. When I pulled into my hotel in Newberry, it was already packed with snowmobilers. (I'd decided to stay in a hotel to avoid driving my in-laws nuts -- and possibly infecting them with whatever I had!) The parking lot was piled high with snow banks, and the air was crisp and clear with a whiff of snowmobile exhaust. Ahh, the smell of a northern winter.

Friday, February 18: I woke up to an equally crisp, clear, and frigid morning, with temperatures forecast to peak around 10 degrees. The forecast also called for snow to build later in the day, with the potential for a nasty storm over the Keweenaw -- my destination and home for the next 10 days.

I hopped into my trusty rental SUV and raced west, hoping to beat the snow. Things started out well enough, but by Marquette huge flakes of lake-effect snow started to cover the windshield. I stopped to text my "landlord" and arranged to arrive a bit earlier than planned, so that I didn't have to delay my arrival and risk being stuck in a worsening storm.

The snow got much worse as I turned up the Keweenaw. By the time I'd reached Houghton, I was starting to second-guess whether I should try to find a hotel for the night. I pulled in to Roy's, my favorite bakery in all of the UP, for a quick break. Of course, I also picked up 15 of their best frozen pasties, plus a hot one to eat for dinner. And a jelly-filled donut, just for good measure.

I decided that I was close enough to risk it. I drove some white-knuckle miles along US-41 up Quincy Hill, following in the tracks of the car ahead of me. In Calumet, I turned and made my way to Tamarack Waterworks road and made my way cautiously downhill and directly into the storm. After a few guesses at some high-snowbanked corners, I reached the lakeshore and found a sign pointing down the driveway for my cottage.

The cottage on a less snowy day. Lake Superior is on the other side of the building.

The driveway was freshly cleared, and the cottage was blazing with light and warmth. It was like finding a cozy cabin waiting just for me in the middle of a blizzard. Exactly like that.

The "Port Side Cottage" was set next to Brewery Creek, a picturesque stream bordered by evergreens and extremely deep snow. Just a few dozen yards in front of the cottage was the Lake Superior shore. The cottage had walls of windows facing both the lake and the stream, giving (I assumed) spectacular views, but what daylight the storm let through was quickly disappearing. Lake Superior was out there somewhere.

The cottage itself was tiny and cozy. There was one main room, with a kitchenette, small dining table, and a large sectional couch that I could easily stretch out on while I stared out the windows wrote. Next door was a bedroom that was tightly packed with two beds, and beyond that, a small bathroom. That was it! There was a front door leading to a small porch, but I wasn't about to go out there.

Being extremely Covid-cautious and knowing that cleaning people had probably been inside the cottage very recently, I made a key mistake: I opened the windows and turned on ceiling fans, to try to air the place out. The wind cleared out the room, all right, and dropped it down into the 50's. I caught a chill that I couldn't get over, and that made my cough even worse.

To fight the chill, I found a small space heater and turned it on high. Then I reheated my pasty with a super hot oven and enjoyed it with a liberal dose of ketchup. Afterwards I curled up under my camping quilt (a very wise thing to bring) and phoned with Sarah for a while. I slowly warmed up, but the cough didn't go away.

After trying to read for a while, I gave in, took some Nyquil (I brought two full bottles) and went to bed with the storm raging around the cabin.

The breakwater and remnants of the waterworks

Saturday February 19: I slept late and woke up to a cold, windy, but clearing winter wonderland outside my windows.

I spent the morning tidying up email and doing a bit of writing. Just enough to justify the name "writing retreat".

I also woke up to an email canceling my afternoon plan, a guided hike to the Point Mills nature preserve. The cancelation was due to a combination of weather and lack of interest (apparently I was the only person who signed up to attend). On the upside, the cancellation email turned out to be from one of my former students -- the sort of serendipity that makes a teacher's day.

Instead, I headed out to check out the cabin's waterfront. The cabin, one of several rentals, was built at the former location of the Tamarack Mine's waterworks -- an industrial site that pumped water far uphill to Calumet, for use in the mine's boilers. A massive concrete breakwater bristling with ancient pipes fronted the lake. I walked along, examining the breakwater, without putting on snowshoes. I realized that this was a big mistake once I started to "posthole" into the deep snow.

That small amount of exploring whetted my appetite, and I wanted to get outside more -- perhaps on actual snowshoes. But where to? I had just a few hours of daylight left, no time for any of the big adventures I'd planned for later days. I decided to check out McLain State Park, which would at least be an interesting site. I packed up the RAV4 with a daypack and my snowshoes and headed uphill.

On my way there, I passed a sign for a remote trailhead of the Swedetown Trails. Swedetown was mostly for skiers -- at least as far as I knew -- and I'd never really been on those trails except to help out with the Great Bear Chase. I decided to stop anyhow and take a quick look, which turned out to be a momentous decision for the rest of my trip. To my surprise, the trailhead map showed an extensive set of snowshoe trails, and from the looks of the fresh powder, they were nearly untouched!

Muggun Creek loop with fresh powder and pines

I strapped on my snowshoes and headed down the Muggun Creek snowshoe loop. The day had cleared up considerably and the wind calmed down, although the temperature remained a crisp 10 degrees. There was a fresh foot of powder overtop of a deep and well-packed base, and in many places I was the first person to touch the trail since yesterday's storm. Sun shone through snow-covered pines, making gorgeous shadows on the fresh snow. The views lifted my heart, but they were also bittersweet as they brought back memories of beautiful days snowshoeing while I was a grad student.

The trail followed a high bluff above Muggun Creek, often criss-crossing well-groomed (but empty!) ski trails, before descending into a valley and following along the bubbling and picturesque creek itself. A high hillside across the creek was strangely melted and curiously artificial looking. I later learned that it was holding back Calumet's wastewater settling ponds.

I completed 3 beautiful miles of snowshoeing and was back in the car before I noticed that my cough was almost completely gone.

Back in my cozy cabin, I heated up a frozen Lasagna for dinner. I curled up on the couch under my quilt and enjoyed a quick call home and some reading before bed. My cough returned just in time to ensure I needed to take NyQuil.

Daily mileage: 3 miles.

Cliff drive, seen from high above the North American gap

Sunday February 20: Today's plan was to visit one of my favorite old Copper Country Exploring locations, "The Cliffs". Another good reason to visit the Cliffs was another impending blizzard, with forecasters calling for two solid days of heavy snow starting Monday. Better to get outside and enjoy the Keweenaw now, and spend time writing during the blizzard.

The weather remained too cold for salt to work well on roads. Cliff drive, which is only ever kind-of plowed in the winter anyhow, hadn't been cleared recently. Luckily my all-wheel drive SUV handled it just fine... or at least well enough. I reached the end of the plowed section of road, which was right about where my trailhead was located, with a minimum of trouble.

I carefully did a 3-point turn between the high snowbanks (ok, it was more like a 12-point turn -- the snowbanks made the road quite narrow) and parked along the shoulder, facing back the way I'd need to exit. I double-checked that the SUV could get started moving after a full stop (always a potential problem when parking in snow, especially on an unplowed shoulder). Ah, UP winters -- it was all coming back to me.

I snowshoed up the North American Gap, a low point in the cliffs that held a two-track, currently a snowmobile trail. The trail passed the old North American mine, hidden beneath a dense cover of evergreens. My cough seemed especially bad today, and the cold air wasn't helping as much as it had yesterday. I probably made it worse by overdoing the uphill hike, huffing and panting the whole way, and by the time I stopped for a break I had build up a massive headache too. Certainly the fumes from passing snowmobiles didn't help, but the looks from the snowmobilers -- utterly confused by the lone snowshoer hupping his way up their trail -- were worth it.

After a few turns (and a few more pauses for breath), I reached my goal, a high overlook at the very edge of the Cliffs. The overlook was spectacular as always, with views out over Cliff Drive and the interior of the Keweenaw, but the gray sky didn't help me get any good photos. It looked like the clouds might clear out a bit, but the wind was too sharp to sit and wait at the overlook. I hiked back downhill into a protected hollow and whiled away some time before checking the lookout again -- no luck, but I didn't mind re-enjoying the view. I repeated the whole process a few more times before the headache and cough convinced me that I needed to get out of the wind and back into warmth.

Downhill was considerably easier, and I felt good enough to spend a few minutes tramping through the old North American mine ruins on the way past.

Trees on the cliffs

Back out on the road, I paused to let a rusty truck packed with college-aged guys zip past. I put everything back in the SUV, turned it on, slowly pressed the gas, and... spun my wheels helplessly. I tried "rocking" and putting it into low gear... nothing worked. I was completely stuck.

Just as I was getting out to see if I could shovel a path for the wheels, I saw four Michigan Tech students hurrying down the road. They had piled out of the truck as soon as they saw this hapless guy in his California-plated SUV spinning his tires. They had me moving in no time flat, and paused only to yell "Don't stop! Keep moving!" before I drove off. They probably talked all day about the poor lost dude from California who didn't even know how to drive in snow.

I made it as far as Calumet before I stopped at a gas station, where I poked and prodded every button on the dashboard and looked up everything I could think of in the owner's manual. I searched on my phone. I couldn't avoid the answer: It was no wonder I'd gotten stuck -- this stupid SUV only had 2 wheel drive!

In a foul mood, and unwilling to do anything more dangerous than drive down a paved road, I went back to the cottage. Overall, it was a disappointing day: Gray weather, a tough hike, a nasty cough and headache, getting stuck and discovering that my rental didn't even have the one feature I'd chosen it for.

Some warm lasagna, a quick call home, and some quiet reading while looking out the windows at the Greatest Lake did make the evening a bit better. My cough hadn't let up, and I suspected that the dry radiator-heated air of the cottage didn't help, so I started simmering some pots of water in hopes of humidifying the air. I quickly steamed the entire place up and still went to bed coughing. I woke up in the middle of the night and had to take a second dose of NyQuil.

Daily mileage: 2.2 miles.

Looking through a boiler ruin at the North American mine

Monday February 21: I woke up feeling better. I looked outside, expecting a blizzard, but the forecast had pushed it off until the afternoon. It was going to be a multi-day snow event, so I decided to use the morning to get outside while I still could.

I started with a quick walk around "town" -- the rental properties at the Tamarack Waterworks -- examining some of the old brick waterworks buildings and a barrel sauna for guests to use (I never did get around to using it, sadly). This only whetted my appetite, so I packed up the SUV and carefully navigated uphill towards the alluringly close-by Swedetown Trails.

Knowing now that the car only had two-wheel drive actually made it easier to drive "correctly" -- I'd survived up here for 10 years in a tiny 2WD car. You just have to have a healthy respect for physics.

At Swedetown I enjoyed their main snowshoe trails, the big and small Bear Paw loops. These started at the main ski chalet in Swedetown, a "suburb" of Calumet, and wound through beautiful and dense pine stands while mostly avoiding the busy groomed ski trails. There were a surprising number of people on the trails for a Monday morning. They all seemed exceedingly cheerful, and I had more than one conversation about how great it was to get out "once more before we're socked in!"

By this point I'd realized I would be visiting the convenient and exceedingly well maintained Swedetown trails a lot on this trip, so I purchased a season snowshoe trail pass. Only in the Keweenaw is it a reasonable investment to buy a season pass in late February.

By lunch time, the snow had started -- lightly, for now -- so after 3.3 beautiful miles of snowshoeing I headed back downhill to the cottage. I spent the afternoon writing and occasionally stopping to appreciate the astonishing beauty of the view out my side window: Huge lake effect snowflakes falling in front of a dark cedar woods, with a bubbling snowbound creek in between them.

At night I coughed, took NyQuil, and tried to sleep. The wind howled and gusted and the snow battered the windows.

Daily mileage: 4.3 (1 mile around "town" and 3.3 at Swedetown)

View from the cottage. That's Lake Superior... somewhere.

Tuesday February 22: This blizzard was the real deal. It continued all night, all day, and all night again. I could rarely even see the lake out my front window. When the snow occasionally lightened for a moment, I caught sight of massive waves crashing against the pack ice.

I stayed cozy in the cottage for most of the day, focusing on writing. With exactly zero cell service this far away from civilization, I had to rely on the cottage's wifi, which in turn relied on a line-of-sight dish connection to a tower up the hill in Calumet. With the dense snow and gusty winds, my connection occasionally failed. I felt wonderfully isolated.

I only ventured outside for a very brief walk in the afternoon and quickly retreated in the face of frigid wind and stinging snow.

Daily mileage: 0.5

Wednesday February 23: After a night of NyQuil-and-howling-wind-induced nightmares, I woke late to find sunlight shining into the cottage. The storm had cleared after two days; it left behind a gorgeous winter wonderland and two feet of fresh, fluffy powder. (Keweenaw County's official records show 31 inches from February 21st through the 23rd.)

I suited up fully -- big coat, thick hat, snow pants, big gloves -- and opened the door to find this:

That's... a bit much.

Just behind it was the landlord, plowing and snowblowing with enthusiasm. I thanked him and took a very brief walk along the road, which would have been significantly easier with snowshoes. Luckily, the Keweenaw County Road Commission was out in full force, showcasing their fearsome plow trucks, as well as their fearsome efficiency in using them. The snowbanks next to the road were up to my shoulders in places.

I decided it was best to let the plows have some time to clear the roads (they plow at 60+ miles per hour and don't slow down for anyone), so I went back into the cottage, made some unexpectedly strong coffee, and spent the morning writing my way through a caffeine buzz (thanks, Keweenaw Coffee Works!).

The day continued to be spectacular, bright and sunny, and after lunch I was confident that the roads would be driveable again. I quickly shoveled the plow chunks away from the end of the driveway (an inevitable consequence of the super-efficient road plows) and hopped in my 2-wheel-drive SUV for a trip up to Swedetown.

Yep, Swedetown again. The trails had one more designated snowshoe loop that I hadn't yet tried out, and I wanted to be there on this gorgeous day with several feet of fresh powder! I could see that I'd made quite a mistake by never going to Swedetown's trails in the 10 years I lived in the Copper Country.

The Woodland Trailhead for Swedetown was pretty far out of town on a well-plowed but narrow gravel road. The only other car at its parking pad drove out just as I arrived, so I had the whole place to myself.

I snowshoed onto the long and narrow "Lotus Lookout" loop and discovered that I was the first person since the storm to venture onto it. The sky was clear and blue, the powder was deep and untouched, and the bare trees cast sharp-edged shadows in the brilliant sun. It was a snowshoer's dream. This was the kind of day made the months of gray-cloud lake-effect-filled drudgery worth it.

Shadows on fresh snow

Lotus Lookout itself was apparently an opening onto a scrubby field, where the fresh snow reflected the sun to almost painful levels. I stood for a while, soaking up the sun and enjoying the clear blue sky. After returning on the other side of the loop, I still had some energy left in my legs. I turned off onto "Bruce's Crossing", a short connector to the main ski loops that was also wholly untouched. As I reached the core ski loops, I looked behind me, only to find an older woman on racing skis slowly following in my footsteps. I hadn't heard her at all! She thanked me for breaking trail. Another skier stopped to chat with us as we all rested. The topic of conversation was the only possible thing: How glorious the day and fresh snow were.

Rested again, I decided I would rather turn around instead of trying to find my way along the busy ski trails. I returned in my own footprints. Swedetown's snowshoe trails were most excellent, and I was sad to have ignored them for so many years.

I wasn't quite ready to go home, though. With a few more hours of daylight -- and not a cloud in the sky -- I headed down to a completely different place, one that I'd been to hundreds of times before: the Quincy Mine. I pulled in to one of my favorite access points along Kowsit Lats road (named tongue-in-cheek after the housing development that replaced a pasture at the end of the road), which turned out to be incredibly narrow, with snowbanks easily above the top of my car.

I found a place to pull off, put on snowshoes, and headed out to the Quincy #7 rockpile. This pile of the mine's poor rock spills off of a tall hillside and gives a spectacular overlook of Houghton and Hancock, with the Portage in between them. It did not disappoint, although with the cool air (10 degrees), the sun getting low, and the wind staying high, I found it hard to stand still and enjoy the view.


Three corners of Quincy buildings

I went back to the car, changed into thicker gloves, and then walked down Roundhouse road. The old Quincy roundhouse was still there, fully renovated, as was its old watering station out front. I scrambled my way up the roadside snowbanks, face-planting only once, and snowshoed along the old Quincy & Torch Lake Railroad. This trail too was completely untouched, with powder so deep that it nearly reached my waist!

I had a grand time circling up through the core of the Quincy Mine's surface plant, visiting beautiful brick hoist houses, poking my nose into preserved ruins, standing in awe of the iconic #2 Shaft-Rockhouse, and staring down a gated mine shaft that was venting its (relatively) warm air up into the sky. I also overdid it a bit in the cold air and deep, trackless snow, having apparently not learned my lesson from snowshoeing the Cliffs. "Heart-pumping" doesn't quite describe the level of aerobic activity involved. I got simultaneously drenched in sweat and nearly frozen in the arctic air. I eventually slouched my way back to the car, legs leaden, fingers frozen, and soul satisfied. I turned up the heat full blast.

What a day! I'd had some of the best snowshoeing I'd experienced in years, in spectacular (if cold) weather. Back home, I curled up with a quilt to phone Sarah as I watched the snow fall. As I watched, a few local deer crossed the creek in front of the cabin, struggling through the incredibly deep snow drifts.


Quincy Mine's #2 Shaft-Rockhouse, a Copper Country icon

I slept well until a fit of coughing woke me up in the middle of the night. I checked my phone to see headlines blaring about Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Daily mileage: 3.7 (0.5 at "home", 2.1 at Swedetown, 1.1 at Quincy)

Thursday February 24: The morning was again bright and sunny, with another 4 inches of snow overnight. I woke up with a bit of a headache and tiredness that told me I'd overdone it yesterday -- but oh how glorious it had been!

I spent the morning writing and doing laundry in one of the nearby buildings. In between, I had a pleasant chat with the property manager, Melissa, while I helped her shovel plow chunks out from the driveway.

Following the pattern I'd set for these beautiful days, I planned a big excursion for the afternoon. Today I wanted to recreate an old favorite outing: snowshoeing along Hunter's Point in Copper Harbor, where Lake Superior builds spectacular blue ice formations along its rocky shore. I'd done this hike many times when I lived up here, and I wanted to see it again.

The roads remained icy and snow-packed, but the sky was sunny and beautiful. I drove past lovely sites like Great Sand Bay and stopped to enjoy a quick jaunt up onto the rock wall at Esrey Park, far up in the Keweenaw. Snowbanks everywhere were enormous, and it was clear that the Keweenaw was heading for a year of record snowfall (official total as of May: 325.6 inches, high but not quite a record).

I parked at the end of the plowed road nearest to Hunter's Point and found a surprising number of cars. I guess other folks could manage to take the beautiful day off, too! One couple in particular was putting on snowshoes while their dogs ran joyfully around.

The couple asked me some questions about the point that implied that it was new to them, so I suggested we walk together. The trail to Hunter's Point was well packed down from previous visitors, so my hiking was much easier than yesterday. We chatted and the dogs played hide-and-seek with me until we reached the beach, at which point we headed our separate ways.


Blue ice canyon

I was not disappointed by the blue ice, although it was covered by more snow than usual (shouldn't have been a surprise, I guess). I found that I had to push myself to continue along the full shoreline, fighting fatigue, a headache, and a general desire to just go home and rest. I did walk all along the shore out to the end of the point, and then back on the Copper Harbor side.

Much like yesterday, I pushed myself too hard, and two days of going full-tilt added up. My cough only got worse, as did a nasty headache probably induced by overdoing it. The drive home was long and unpleasant, and I went to bed early.

Daily mileage: 2.5

Friday February 25: I slept well and woke feeling excited. I planned to take today entirely off from writing, for a most excellent reason: Visiting my favorite place in the UP, the Porcupine Mountains!

The Porkies offer guided snowshoe hikes throughout the winters: "advanced" on Fridays, "beginner" on Saturdays. Today was the very last advanced hike of the season, and being quite sure that I wasn't a beginner, I decided to check it out.

I left early, since it would take nearly two hours to get to the Porkies from my cottage at Tamarack Waterworks. On my way through Calumet, I stopped at Pat's Foods to acquire another Keweenaw favorite, Gitche Gumee hard cider.

The drive to the Porkies was thankfully uneventful. I realized halfway there that I would need to get a parking pass for the day -- an extra-expensive out of state parking pass -- as yet another consequence of having a half-useless California rental car.

A quick stop at headquarters took care of the pass, after which I headed to the Porkies ski hill (another place I had never been before). It was yet another gorgeous and sunny day, and the place was hopping with downhill skiers and snowboarders. The license plates in the parking lot showed that they were coming from across the midwest to enjoy one of the few places with actual snow.

I picked up my modern metal snowshoes and daypack, and after some bumbling around, I found the snowshoe barn. Ranger Katie arrived soon after and was astonished at the 17 of us who showed up for the season's last advanced snowshoe hike. Part of the reason for the crowd was that several local North Country Trail chapters had sent members. It had been such a long and cold winter, Ranger Katie explained, that she had never had more than one or two snowshoers come to previous hikes!

Ranger Katie recommended that anybody (like me) who had brought modern metal-frame snowshoes should trade them out for a loaner pair of traditional wooden snowshoes. The reason, she explained, was that we would be traveling through waist-deep fresh powder from the recent blizzard, and nothing floats better on powder than a 4-foot long set of traditional snowshoes. I obliged, thinking about my traditional pair that I'd left at home.

The huge group trudged across the base of the ski hill, where we took over the ski lift. This was part of the draw of the hike: A free ride up the ski lift, with its spectacular views out over Lake Superior. With 17 people, most of us totally unfamiliar with how to use a T-bar, we clogged up the ski lift for quite a while. The operator obligingly stopped the lift so that each of us, wearing our giant snowshoes, could easily get on and then, at the top, get back off again.

East Vista view (sadly, I took few photos during the epic backcountry snowshoe)

The view from the chair was everything I could hope for. I spent the ride up chatting with a medic from Ironwood who was here with a group, as we both gawked backwards at the view over an icy Union Bay. At the top, we gathered in a nice big group, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the scenery, until Ranger Katie vigorously encouraged us to move away from the lift while the enormous backlog of skiers and snowboarders started to catch up with us.

Ranger Katie successfully wrangled us over to a less busy view of the lake, and from there we headed down into the backcountry. Sometimes walking on the sides of ski trails, sometimes going overland, we snowshoed our way down the back of the ski hill "mountain" and stopped for short talks about glacial erratic boulders, ski warming huts, hemlock trees, and animal tracks. We made it to East Vista, a lovely viewpoint showing off Union Bay, and then plunged back into the deep powder for some serious downhill bushwhacking -- although most of the bush was hidden under many feet of snow. We stopped for selfies, hauled each other up when we tipped over, laughed, chatted, and had a wonderful time.

After several hours of glorious snowshoe bushwhacking, we popped out onto a groomed ski trail that led us right back to the lodge (or, if you were me, you fell over the edge of a snowbank and face-planted onto the trail when you mis-judged your giant snowshoes). It had been a fantastic snowshoe hike and a wonderful capstone to my vacation.

I said goodbyes to the various people I'd met, returned my borrowed snowshoes, and got into the car. The drive back north was uneventful. I was practically glowing from the wonderful day.

In Calumet, I topped off the excellent day by picking up an imperative of Copper Country cuisine: A Gipp Burger, to go, from The Michigan House. I drove as quickly as I dared down the hill to my cottage, trying to keep the burger warm.

As I was about to turn in to the driveway, burger on my mind, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye and slammed on the brakes. A tiny dog disappeared in front of the SUV. I opened my door, dreading what I might find, only to have the small, hyperactive dog jump straight up onto my lap and start licking my face. Luckily, I kept the burger safe. The owners, who had just arrived from Illinois and were unloading at the next cabin, gratefully retrieved their little yapper, and I finished parking.

I made it inside with the burger still mildly warm. I heated it briefly in the oven before deciding I couldn't wait any more -- both due to hunger and anticipation -- and so I scarfed it down. Even half-warmed and dried out from the oven, the burger was everything I'd hoped for.

Stars over Tamarack Waterworks

The night was clear and cold, so I took the chance to do another favorite Copper Country activity: Taking photos of stars. I set up my fancy camera gear out on the cabin's front porch. With my fingertips nearly freezing off, I didn't take the time to compose the scene as much as I usually do. Nonetheless, I got a decent result.

NyQuil and coughing dogged me all night, as usual.

Daily mileage: 2.5-ish miles in the Porkies (I forgot to track the route)

Tamarack Waterworks lakeshore

Saturday February 26: I hadn't made many plans for the weekend, because I hadn't really expected to still be here. I'd reserved my cottage across two weekends, assuming that weather would force me to arrive late or leave early. As it was, both weekends had excellent weather -- all the blizzards were on weekdays -- and so here I was without a Saturday plan.

After a morning of writing, I decided to visit my alma mater twice-over, Michigan Tech, where I could see the snow statues from Winter Carnival. It was an incredibly windy day (and, still, cold), so my walk was brisk. Winter Carnival had ended two weeks ago, which was long enough for the snow statues to start to degrade. In a few cases, they were also buried under giant piles of snow as campus's incredibly efficient snow removal heroes looked for anywhere they could find to put the massive amount of white stuff. Still, it was sunny and beautiful, and I enjoyed the walk.

Ice mound, soon to be an ice volcano

Back at the cottage, I felt an itch to get outside again. I put my snowshoes on and walked up and down the lakeshore in front of the Tamarack waterworks. The wind blasted my face and took my breath away. I enjoyed seeing and photographing the wind-sculpted shapes made by snow and ice, but I soon had to go back inside to warm up.

Daily mileage: 2.6 (1.7 on campus, 0.9 along the lake)

Sunday February 27: Today, for my last full day in the cottage, I had an excellent idea for what to do. My goal was Elmo's tower, which sits perched high atop the Cliffs near Phoenix. I'd snowshoed and hiked up to the tower and its scenic viewpoint many times over the years, and wanted to enjoy those spectacular views again. That, and a redemption of my less-than-stellar visit to the Cliffs at the start of the trip. But when I reached the start of the unplowed two-track that leads in to Elmo's Tower, to my dismay I found a gate that was clearly marked No Trespassing with very shiny and new signs. I drove around to another entrance and found the same postings.

I was disappointed but decided not to push it, and instead headed all the way back down to Quincy. It was another sunny and beautiful day, and I wanted to enjoy my last full day in the Keweenaw to the fullest.

View from a Quincy fill (not shown: skiers and snowboarders going mountain-goating)

I again parked at the #7 rockpile and snowshoed up past the Quincy roundhouse, but this time I continued down the old railroad grade towards Mont Ripley. Somebody else had been there before me, leaving a nice set of snowshoe prints to follow along in. When I got close to Mont Ripley, I discovered that one of the railroad's "fills" -- a ravine filled in with mine rock, making an extremely steep-sided path for the rails to follow -- was now a backcountry ski and snowboard destination. I watched, open-mouthed, as several skiers and snowboarders made their way effortlessly down the incredibly steep slope and into the woods, showing all of the skills and fearlessness of mountain goats.

The sun felt so good in the cold air that I kept finding excuses to hang around in the sunlight. I took photos... I texted photos to people... I gawked at the skiers some more. I took a detour up into Quincy's industrial core, and then back down Roundhouse Road again.

At long last, I felt ready to head back to the cottage, where I spent the evening packing, cleaning, and coughing. It had been an excellent final day.

Daily mileage: 2.3

Lotus Lookout, at the Swedetown trails

Monday February 28: I woke up early, ate a quick breakfast, and packed up my rental car. The weather had taken a turn, and snow was threatening throughout the entire UP. I left the cabin with a small pang of sadness -- it had been a wonderful place to stay -- but also excitement to get back home.

The roads were snowy and the wind was cold. The weather never exactly reached blizzard level, but it snowed heavily for most of my trip through the UP. The trip home was a series of minor failures: I tried to pick up Keweenaw Coffee Works coffee but could only find whole beans (I don't own a grinder); I couldn't find an open coffee shop anywhere in the UP; I barely managed to find an open lunch place and then only managed to actually eat lunch at 2 pm just before crossing the bridge.

Downstate, the snow was melted! What a difference from the Keweenaw. It was like I'd jumped a month into the future.

Summary: I hope you've enjoyed my reminiscences about a (mostly) lovely trip to the Keweenaw. The trip was a successful writing retreat (the book is done and submitted to the publisher!), while also being an excellent getaway to the snowy north. I enjoyed the best snowshoeing I've done in years, and got a renewed appreciation for just how hard the winters are up north. It's amazing how quickly my memories of northern winters lost their "edge", and this trip thoroughly refreshed and sharpened those memories.

I'm glad I did the trip, and I'm also glad to be home. My cough went away a few weeks after returning, and all it took was two doctor's visits, allergy medicine, decongestants, an antibiotic, an inhaler, a neti pot, and tons of rest.

I won't have another chance to take a sabbatical for at least seven years. Until then, I'll be going up north in the spring and summers only. Perhaps next time, I'll visit the Keweenaw in the fall!

Oh, and: If you rent an SUV, don't expect all-wheel drive.


Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Porcupine Mountains Solo April 2022, Days 3 and 4: Escarpment snowshoe and home

 Last time: Too many waterfalls, too much driving - All backpacking posts

You can find links to all of my hiking and backpacking trips in the adventure index.

Frozen Lake of the Clouds, a sight rarely seen by hikers

Sunday April 24, 2022: I woke up refreshed from a great night of sleep. The night was cool, not cold, but the wind howled and Lake Superior's waves crashed. Rainstorms blew through during the night, leaving the air fresh and clean. It was wonderful.

I had been contemplating two options for today's hike. Both involved hiking down the (still closed) M-107 to the Government Peak trailhead. But what would I do from there? Option one was to follow Government Peak trail south to Trap falls, a scenic waterfall that should be roaring. Option B was to instead head up onto the Escarpment and enjoy one of the premiere hikes in all of Michigan.

I'm sure you can tell what I chose: Escarpment! My actual decision-making process went more like this: I've seen a lot of waterfalls. And I've even seen Trap Falls in spring before. Plus the Escarpment... well, it's the Escarpment. And so the choice was made.

I hiked out to my car and drove all of a half a mile down M-107 to the Whitetail Cabin parking area (the entrance to Union Bay campground, where I was parked, is also on M-107). I pulled in to the small parking lot, got out my daypack and snowshoes, and headed around the barricade.

Icy M-107, looking towards the Escarpment.
Also notice the different trees on each side.

Like all Porkies roads, M-107 is a snowmobile trail in the winter. That means it's not plowed, and the snow machines pack it down into a feet-thick crust of snow and ice. This packed crust takes quite a while to melt -- much longer than a regular snow-covered road -- and so the park roads are usually closed until the middle of May.

Snowmobiles (and snowmobilers) are also notorious for dropping bits and pieces of equipment all over the road. On this hike, I found bits of tread, broken pieces of head- and taillights, a spark plug cable (!), headphones, a cell phone charger cable, and so many pointy tire studs.

The road started out partly clear, with piles of snow along the edges. That filled in quickly, and by a mile into the hike, I finally had to put on my snowshoes (learning my lesson from the mistake I'd made on Friday). 

The day was gray and warm. I had packed for essentially any weather -- rain gear, coat, fluffy layer, t-shirt. The exertion of snowshoeing uphill caused me to shed layers. As the sun started to peek out from the dense layer of gray clouds, I wondered if I should have brought sunblock!

Not today!

It was an eerie feeling to walk -- on snowshoes! -- down the center of a state highway, with nobody else in sight. No people, no cars, no man-made noise. This road is often so packed in fall that the backups last for miles. Today, I was completely alone.

Even though I've driven M-107 dozens of times in my life, the view on foot was so different than the view from a car that it might as well have been a totally different road. I slowly walked past the scenery and got to see it more clearly. I could look deep into the woods, see the details, pause to inspect each seasonal stream-turned-waterfall. It was a unique experience.

This stream barely exists any other time of the year

This pleasant amble eventually brought me to the Government Peak trailhead, where there was ample evidence that snowmobilers had enjoyed it throughout the winter. I paused for a quick snack, then picked up my gear and headed up the trail. 

Government Peak trail itself, always steep and rocky as it climbs up ancient lakeshores, was an absolute river in the spring melt. The water ran over, under, and around the remaining snow. I kept my snowshoes on for traction as I trudged upwards, and I was glad to be wearing waterproof winter boots as well. I relied on my hiking poles constantly for support, balance, and a little extra push uphill.

The first uphill on Government Peak trail.
Everything that isn't snow is covered with running water.

Oh yeah, the mileage signs. Porkies trail signs are notorious for being both inaccurate and inconsistent. Here's the first sign you see, right at the Government Peak trailhead. Notice that the Escarpment trail turnoff is just 0.1 miles away, and Trap falls is 2.25 miles:

Escarpment trail: 0.1 mi, Trap falls: 2.25 mi

After hiking that 0.1 mile and reaching the Escarpment turnoff, there's another sign, below. Magically, Trap falls has gotten 0.15 miles farther away than it was 0.1 miles ago!

My advice: Use the signs as only the most general suggestion, and never trust them when it's critical.

The Escarpment trail was another steep, rocky river of meltwater. Here I had another unique experience: snowshoeing across a boardwalk.

Snowshoes suggested

As I gained elevation, the trail started to clear up. I was suddenly snowshoeing on bare rocks! I took off the snowshoes and carried them as far as the next turn in the trail, where I was presented with a solid trail of snow and ice. I put the snowshoes right back on again.

I finally topped out at the edge of the Escarpment, a south-facing trail. That meant that it was snow-free (although the tread was ofter filled with meltwater). Confident that I wouldn't need the snowshoes, and not wanting to hand-carry them for the next several miles, I took a break and figured out how to tie them onto the back of my daypack.

Selfie with snowshoes and Lake of the Clouds

The Escarpment was as gorgeous as ever. I stopped often to enjoy views of the Big Carp River valley. With no leaves on the trees and all of the brush down, I could see much farther than in the summer. I was even able to catch some views out towards Lake Superior, and back east towards White Pine.

East towards White Pine (the old mine stack is just barely visible in the center)

I took my time and enjoyed every moment of the hike. I moseyed and dallied my way 2 miles to the halfway point, where the trail takes a steep plunge down into a valley between two "mountains." By this time the skies were well on their way to clearing, and the spring forest was bathed in warm sunshine. It was warm enough that I took off my fleece.

Government Peak in the distance

On the way down into the valley, I quickly started encountering snow again. In fact, the entire valley was filled with squishy snow.

The valley halfway along the Escarpment is absolutely filled with old mining remnants and I couldn't help but see them through the clear, brush-free woods. A collapsed shaft first caught my eye, then an old adit. I wandered off-trail, examining every mine and relic I could find while postholing the whole way in the squishy snow. I ran into a bubbling spring stream, which I followed partway down to the old Carp Lake Mine site. I'd been all the way down to the bottom of the Escarpment before, long ago, and seen the remains of the steam-powered stamp mill that still lives there.

Today I decided that my quickly tiring legs didn't need the extra trouble of hiking all the way to the bottom, and it would be too wet and mushy anyhow. So I turned around, headed back uphill (still postholing the whole way) and found the sign that marks the shortcut trail leading to M-107.

Here, quite belatedly, I undid my snowshoes from my daypack and put them on. Thus it was that I came to be snowshoeing in a t-shirt, surrounded by brilliant sun, blue sky, and snow as far as the eye could see.

Upper Big Carp river

I had a choice facing me: I could begin my trip home by heading downhill towards M-107. Or, I could continue along the Escarpment by heading uphill -- way uphill -- to the top of Cloud Peak. It had become such a beautiful day that I decided I couldn't possibly miss the views from one of the highest points along the Escarpment. So, uphill I climbed, slowly but surely.

I soon popped out into the large swath of open rock at the top of Cloud Peak, the long-ago site of the original Lake of the Clouds overlook. The sky had continued clearing, and I was presented with a clear blue sky and spectacular views of the distant Lake of the Clouds -- which was still frozen!

I found a ledge of rock with a particularly good view and sat down to enjoy lunch (peanut butter and rice cakes, with meat sticks and gorp). I rested and soaked up the sun and the incredible setting. The contrast between the blue sky, the warm sun, and the frozen lake were both jarring and wonderful.

Frozen Lake of the Clouds

I watched birds circling high above the Big Carp River -- but below me. Ravens, hawks, and (I think) a bald eagle all circled, looking for food or just riding the thermals. I'm not sure about the bald eagle because, well, how often have you seen one from above?! A sandhill crane flew past, parallel to the cliff and at eye level to me, croaking its spooky rattling call the whole way.

Before, during, and after lunch, I took so many photos. With such an iconic view staring me in the face, how could I resist? As I took photos, the wind gusted more and more, until it was almost blowing me over (thankfully, it was blowing away from the edge of the cliff).

After a glorious half hour in the most beautiful place in the world, the wind gusts finally convinced me it was time to turn around and head home. I packed up, strapped on my snowshoes, and headed back down to the valley, and then down the half-way trail.

The half-way trail turned out to be a river. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised; it's the lowest point along the Escarpment. In addition to all the water coming down from the halfway-valley, the trail also collects water from every spring rivulet along the hill. At some points, I was literally wading through water along the trail. Thank goodness for waterproof snow boots!

At the very bottom of the trail, this small set of wooden steps had become a waterfall:

Water pouring down from the Escarpment into the ditch that these boards cross.


I came out on M-107, which was solid ice at this point. I made a short detour out on to the red rock piles of the Meade Mine to enjoy the Lake Superior view (the mine is now a gated bat cave). After that, I started the long snowshoe slog home along M-107. It was still sunny and beautiful, but boy were my legs tired. Even so, it was still a fantastic walk along the strangely silent road. It truly was a perfect day, brought to me by the unexpected silence, the chance to pause and rest and enjoy every spring waterfall, and the beauty of the deep woods.

As I neared my car, I saw the first other humans of my day, a distant group of 5 people who were likely slogging their way along the Deeryard ski loop in boots. I never caught up with them.

Back at my car, I checked my GPS: 10.4 miles! I had hiked all of 2, maybe 2.5 miles on the Escarpment itself, and the rest was getting there and back. No wonder I felt so tired!

One last view of the Escarpment


Back at the yurt, I split more firewood to leave for the next campers. I also (finally) got up the courage to clean out the disgusting half-burned trash from the fire pit, which I put in a bag and threw away in a campground trash can. Was that so hard?

Dinner was a new freeze-dried meal: Alpine Aire Chicken Pot Pie, which was delicious! (As is any freeze-dried food after a 10+ mile day, so maybe don't take my review too seriously.) I paired it with an icy cold beer that I had stuck in a snowbank earlier in the day.

The heavy meal and heavy beer conspired to make my eyelids heavy too. Knowing it was supposed to be a cold night, I decided to start a fire in the wood stove before going to bed. I was successful -- and adding heat to full stomach and beer made me even more sleepy.

I fell asleep quickly, but kept waking up when the fire burned down and the cold crept in. I would stir the embers, add another log, and go back to sleep again. It was hard to keep the temperature comfortable.

Moody Lake Superior


Monday April 25, 2022: After a long night of tossing, turning, and tending the fire, I was ready to head out and find coffee! I left a few notes in the log book as I ate a quick breakfast. I was packed and out of the yurt by 8 am. 

I walked through the deserted campground one last time. The air was cool and breezy. I took the path closest to the lake, which was foggy and gray.

My first stop on the long trip home was at Camp Coffee, a tiny coffee-selling trailer parked in a wrecker's front lot in L'Anse. The trailer was quite popular, but I eventually got my coffee and enjoyed it on the drive across the UP. The rest of the drive was long but uneventful, and I was back in Grand Rapids in time to enjoy evening rush hour.

From Day 2 -- the Presque Isle River's "dry" mouth


Final thoughts: Every trip to the Porkies is different, and I haven't had a bad one yet. Bad days, yes, with hard slogs and exhaustion. Likewise, this trip had ups and downs, but the visit as a whole was excellent.

This was my first Porkies visit in early spring. I knew I was rolling the dice with weather and trail conditions. I was lucky to get generally good weather (excellent weather for my Escarpment hike), but the late and cold spring kept the roads closed and caused me to be snowshoeing rather than hiking.

As it turned out, early spring was the perfect time for solitude. Compared to my busy visit last August, the difference was astonishing. The park was nearly deserted this April because early spring is a tough time in the Porkies. The roads are all closed, but the snow is too melty for snow sports. It's hard to get anywhere, and when you get there, the trails are made of mush, mud, and meltwater.

So if you're up for adventure (and wetness) and know what you're getting into, early spring is great. It's not for the faint of heart, though.

My 10+ mile Escarpment hike is one of my favorite Porkies hikes I've ever done. The solitude, beauty, perfect weather, and amazing experience of snowshoeing in a t-shirt all made the hike unforgettable. It was also an excellent chance to slowly walk along a state highway, alone, and enjoy scenery I might usually see only as a blur through a car window. My hike to the Union River waterfalls was another good long-distance hike, filled with interesting scenery and hard work. Even the middle day -- filled with too many waterfalls and too much driving -- was still better than not being in the Porkies.

Union Bay East Yurt was a new "cabin" for me, although I'd stayed in its next-door twin (Union Bay West yurt) before. It was especially lovely at this time of year, because Union Bay campground was closed. In the regular season, the yurt would be too close to the business and noise of the campground.

Another warning: Union Bay East, like all of the park's yurts, claims to fit 4 people. It's certainly possible -- it does have 4 bunks after all -- but it would be more than a little tight, especially if bad weather drives everyone indoors. Unlike cabins, the yurts don't have any meaningful storage space, or really space at all. I'm not sure where four people could even stash their packs!

To sum it up: This was a unique trip, one I won't likely have the chance to do again for many years, if ever. I'm glad I did it, and I highly recommend something similar for the adventurous Porkies hiker.

Miles hiked: 11.2 (10.4 on the Escarpment and M-107!)

Total miles: 24.1

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Porcupine Mountains Solo April 2022, Day 2: Presque Isle and Black River Waterfalls

Last time:  Union Mine waterfallsAll backpacking posts

You can find links to all of my hiking and backpacking trips in the adventure index.

One of the Presque Isle waterfalls, although heaven knows which one

Saturday April 23, 2022: I slept well, snuggled into my incredibly cozy camping quilt. The night was colder than predicted, and my brain kept waking me up to tend the wood stove fire. Occasional rainstorms sped through, pitter-pattering on my yurt's roof. Lake Superior absolutely roared all night long, with white caps crashing against the shore. As one log book entry put it, "some people pay hundreds of dollars for a white noise generator as good as Lake Superior."

I finally awoke to this view -- not one that most campers would be excited about. I have no idea why these curtains are in the yurt:

Aaaaaah, a bear! (Actually an ad for "Yukon Thunder" soap in curtain form.)

The woodstove was cold and the morning was chilly. I restarted the fire from embers (zero matches!) and got the yurt warmed up in no time. On-and-off rain continued as the wind gusted and Lake Superior attacked the shore. I took my time enjoying breakfast (mush, I mean, oatmeal), reading, and generally having a lazy morning.

When things looked dry enough, I headed out on the day's adventure: more waterfalls! This time my target was the many waterfalls on the Presque Isle River, at the opposite end of the park. Because the park's roads were still locked in with ice and snow, I took the long way around (compare to the usual South Boundary Road route in red):

The long way to the west side of the park

As I drove, the sun unexpectedly came out. Wisps of fog and mist streamed across the road as the rain and sun encountered frozen ground and snow.

An hour later, I arrived at the gated and locked entrance to the Presque Isle campground. I was far from the only person to have the idea to visit the Presque Isle waterfalls today -- I parked behind a line of 4 or 5 other cars. The road to the campground itself was still covered in several inches of ice and snow.

I wore rain pants and a rain coat along with my day pack. The most recent weather forecast called for a gray but warm day with occasional rain, clearing up in the afternoon. It was already getting sunny, but I decided not to chance it.

Presque Isle River Rapids

I've seen the Presque Isle waterfalls before, but the West River trail is always a pleasant walk. The river was roaring with spring melt, as thousands upon thousands of gallons of water roared over every rapid and waterfall. I spent lots of time taking photos, but like yesterday, the unexpectedly sunny sky gave me trouble. It also warmed me up, until I eventually had to take off all of my rain gear.

Part of yet another waterfall on the Presque Isle river

I eventually reached the suspension bridge to the "almost" island that gives Presque Isle its name. Here I did something new: I walked the island down toward the river mouth, which was surprisingly quiet and calm. Not a soul was around, and I could scarcely believe that the lazy river that emptied into the lake was the same as the roaring torrent just a few hundred yards upstream.

The "dry" side of the river

I sat down on a convenient patch of grass and ate my usual camping lunch -- rice cakes with peanut butter -- while I watched the river flow past. It was immensely enjoyable: quiet, solitary, and beautiful. In retrospect, it was the best part of the day.

The "island" in the middle of the Presque Isle river's mouth divides the river in two. Most times of the year, the east branch of the river is totally dry, and you can walk across the riverbed in peace. Today, this "dry" side of the river was running high, a sure sign of just how much melt water was pouring down from the highlands. I eventually got up from my quiet patch of grass and hiked upstream, until I came to a waterfall I had never seen before. In most times of the year, this is bare and dry rock:

Not dry this time!

I climbed carefully down to a ledge near the waterfall and tried to take photos of the rushing water. Today, the waterfall was running so hard that I couldn't keep the camera lens dry -- which is why you get the blurry photo! As I sat down here, a family I'd been playing leapfrog with all day appeared, featuring a 2-ish year old who proceeded to throw a stick directly at me. The parents, staring at the waterfall, didn't seem to notice nor care.

Normally, hikers cross over to the east side of the river by walking across the dry riverbed. That wasn't possible this time, so I backtracked along the west bank, enjoying the waterfalls a second time.

View from the Presque Isle suspension bridge


By the time I got back to the car, there were still many hours of daylight left -- so many that it felt silly to drive back and sit in my yurt. So, I decided to check out one of my "stretch" goals for the trip: the waterfalls along the Black River, which I had never before seen. The Black River runs roughly parallel to the Presque Isle river, just a few miles west of the park.

A few miles as the crow flies, that is. No drivable roads head directly west to the Black River and the Black River Scenic Byway that runs along it (although the North Country Trail makes a nice beeline that way). Once again I ended up taking the loooooong way around:

Crow-flying distance from start to finish: About 5 miles.

The whole route took nearly an hour on the road, but the trip took much longer than that in total. That's because waterfall after waterfall pours down the Black River, and I stopped at (almost) every one. The National Forest Service has done a nice job of building up each of the waterfall areas with a parking area, a quarter-mile of trail, and an enormous flight of steps down to the river.

I ooh'd and aah'd at almost every waterfalls (I accidentally blasted right past Great Conglomerate falls). However, each waterfall's parking area was closed for the winter, so cars had to find their own ways to park wherever was clear. Sometimes I had to walk an extra mile, other times I just had to try not to fall down an icy flight of stairs.

Sandstone Falls on the Black River

I was perfectly nice. Well, mostly. Certainly the scenery was beautiful, the woods deep, the rocks dramatic, the rivers roaring. Nothing to complain about, right?

The problem was... well, there were two problems. First, much like everything else in the western UP, the Black River was absolutely filled with the meltwater from a long, hard, and snowy winter. This sounds like a good thing: Water is what makes waterfalls waterfalls, right? More falling water = more waterfall. That's true, but often the best part of waterfalls is not about the amount of water, but what the water looks like.

There was so much water running down the waterfalls that they had almost no definition or shape. The rocks that give the waterfalls form, the eddies and rapids that give them interest--they were all hidden under thousands upon thousands of gallons of rushing whitewater, spray, and foam. The sheer volume was impressive (and loud!), of course, but there's really only so many ways for a few zillion gallons of water to rush over a ledge.

Rainbow Falls on the Black River


When I got home several days later, I looked up photos of the waterfalls in other times of years, and they were much more interesting than what I saw. More than once I said "oh, that's what the waterfall is supposed to look like!" Fall would be a perfect season to view the Black River waterfalls; early spring is not.

The second problem was more about the format of the trip. In the end, the day's waterfall visits got more than a little repetitive: Drive a couple of miles, find the next access road, figure out how to park without getting stuck in the snow, hike in to the real parking lot, hike down 100 steep steps to a viewing platform, spend a few minutes seeing yet another roaring waterfall, and then reverse all of the steps.

I was getting tired at this point, but I also just didn't enjoy the repetition. Unlike yesterday's wonderful hike to the Union River, today's hike was broken up into many short segments, punctuated by short drives. I should have realized this long ago, but I really prefer one long hike to many small ones. Spend some time on my feet, get to really see a place from the ground, get into "nature" mode. It's just not fun to stop and start constantly, switching my mind between the details of driving and the joy of hiking. That's what the Black River waterfalls had me doing, and it did not do the trick for me.

There's quite a large drop-off between foreground and distance


I finally made it all the way to the end of the road -- Black River Harbor, once the site of a struggling fishing village, now the site of a nicely maintained park. A wedding party clung to each other in the increasing windy day. I briefly walked around the park, checked out a suspension bridge across the river (to me it looked just like the one at Presque Isle), and then I got back in the car to undo the entire trip.

I did do one very un-camping thing: I stopped at the Burger King in Ironwood for a good old fashioned greasy dinner. After just one day of camping, it was still amazing.

As I started the long drive home (of course, it was the looooooong way), the sprinkles and wind turned into downpours and blasts. Thunder, lightening, wind gusts, and even more fog and mist! The weather only added to my discontented mood. I drove slowly along M-28 until I finally outran the nasty weather.

Waterfall detail


I stopped by Headquarters to top up my water supply, which is when the torrential rain caught up with me again. At least I had a rain coat with me. It must have been a narrow line of storms, because shortly after the torrential rain caught up with me -- in fact, just after I'd finally filled up my water pack -- the storm blew past and left just a light mist.

I parked back at Union Bay and walked across the campground, pondering how I enjoyed Friday's waterfall hike so much more than today's. As I did, I noticed two things:

First, most of the shelf ice and icebergs that were present yesterday were gone. Blown out to sea or melted away (or both)? Either way, the spring melt continued unabated.

Second, a group of birds feeding on the ground flew up in front of me, leaving this strange birdie to forage on its own:

Mystery bird

Any clue what it is? It was almost like a white version of a Goldfinch, but larger. My best bet is some sort of albino or mutant.

The evening continued windy with occasional rain showers blowing through. I had expected today to be gray but dry, so once again the forecast was... imprecise. I spent most of the evening indoors, except for a brief burst of hauling and splitting more firewood between showers.

The night was warm enough that I didn't light a fire. I fell asleep to the howling wind and roaring waves crashing against the shore. Even a less-than-stellar day that ended in a cozy yurt next to Lake Superior was still pretty good by any standards.

View through the yurt's roof window

Next time: Snowshoes and sunburn - All backpacking posts

Miles hiked: 6 (3.1 at Presque Isle, 2.1 along Black River, and 0.8 back and forth to the car)

Total miles: 12.9