Friday, December 12, 2014

A night and a day at the Norwich mine

This is the first in (hopefully) a series of posts about my adventures from many years ago, when I lived in the beautiful Copper Country of Michigan. These were originally written for fellow Copper Country explorers and history fans such as myself, and so I've added a little more background information and history. I'll start the series with one of my all time favorite explorations.

The trail back home

The Norwich mine is a vast series of interconnected mines, all sitting atop a rugged and remote bluff in Ontonagon county. The Norwich, and its nearby cousins (with names like "Ohio Trap Rock", "Hilton", "Windsor", and countless others) were all started, lived a brief life, and were abandoned in the mid 1850's, when copper fever was running through the western Upper Peninsula. Only the Norwich lived longer than a few years, limping along in various forms for several decades.

The Norwich lives in a very unfortunate location: West of the Ontonagon river. Something about the geology of the Copper Country cursed the trans-Ontonagon region. Only one truly successful copper mine was ever established west of the Ontonagon, and it most certainly wasn't the Norwich. Of the hundreds of mines, prospects, explorations, and test pits in the far west of the copper range, few brought more than a couple pounds of copper to the surface, and virtually none made a profit.

This rugged, broken landscape of cliffs and ravines is called the "Trap Hills". The Norwich Bluff itself rises 500 feet above its surroundings. With no room for big surface plants like those at Quincy or Calumet & Hecla, the mines left very few signs of their existence... above ground. Without any reason for anyone to return, the houses rotted, the roads grew over, and only the shafts and adits remain to mark the mine sites.

It's this exact remoteness, ruggedness, and nearly complete disappearance that attracts me to mines like the Norwich. That, and a taste for hiking alone in a rocky and beautiful land, put the Norwich square in my sights for exploration.

Now, Norwich Bluff sits squarely in the middle of Ottawa National Forest. In 2010, the Forest Service proposed a "recovery plan" for Norwich, intended to stabilize and secure the many abandoned mine shafts at Norwich (which had been left open for the last 150 years). In particular, the wide open shafts left near the North Country Trail were considered "unsafe" and would be filled or covered. Images of bulldozers and chainsaws flashed across the minds of Copper Country explorers everywhere. While reality wasn't quite so bad, I was eager to see the results of the "rehabilitation". But classes had to get taught, research had to get researched, and other (closer-to-home) exploring had to get done.

At long last, one Friday in early October of 2011, I made a last-minute decision to run off to Norwich, camp overnight, and spend all of Saturday hiking and exploring there. That spur-of-the-moment choice turned into one of my fondest memories of exploring in the UP. I could have spent a week there and not see it all. (Indeed, one of my fellow explorers -- nailhed -- did exactly that.) Here's the story of my night and day at Norwich.

Friday, October 7, 2011: I skipped out of work (that is, grad school) early and headed south on a beautiful fall afternoon. The trip from Houghton south to Ontonagon was uneventful. A small dirt two-track leads from the main road to a Forest Service gate, which bars all but hikers from following the overgrown mining roads which criss-cross the bluff. I parked on the two-track just off of the Norwich Road and walked in, checking out the rest of the road for drivability and scouting for campsites.

Suddenly, I heard a heavy "thunk". Running ahead, I found a big pickup truck with its nose in the ditch and its rear wheels right off of the road. The sheepish-looking driver and passenger were just getting out and surveying the damage. Apparently my car parked on the shoulder had faked them into thinking that it was solid all along the road, and they drove right into the ditch. After some false starts, two of us jumped up on the tailgate to add some weight and the truck managed to get out with minimal damage. The two men pulled out and left me alone at the bluff again.

I took a short walk along the base of the bluffs to see what I could see. To the west, I followed a trail which leads up to the location of the Norwich's adit, a horizontal opening drilled into the face of the cliff. While the adit has been long since covered over, I could feel cool air still blowing out of it.

Norwich bluff at sunset
Heading east past the gate, I followed an overgrown two-track down to the Norwich Cemetery, the only remnants of the town which once served the mine. A few monuments in the cemetery still remain. The scenery along the way was gorgeous. A cluster of aspens near my campsite were lit up by the setting sun, making a dramatic scene with the bluff in the background.

The forest service road was dry, but it was filled with prints from the last week's rains. There were plenty of boot prints, but also some deer... and either a large coyote, or a small wolf. At that moment, I had my first second thoughts about my spontaneous camping plan. As things turned out, I was in no danger of any animals being out and about that night.

It was a pretty windy day, so I decided to set up camp at a small flat patch near the gate, in the shadow of the bluff. Naturally, as soon as I had pitched my tent and anchored it thoroughly against the northwest winds... everything shifted, and the winds began to race out of the south. In fact, all night winds raced up along the Ontonagon River flats and smashed into the Norwich Bluff face, trying to toss my tent into the bluff in the process.

I never sleep well alone in a tent, and the ridiculous noise of the wind didn't help. As the tent shook and shimmied around me, I was startled by every creak and crack from the trees. I eventually started covering my ears with spare clothes, my sleeping bag hood, and even a backpack, before falling asleep some time after 2 am.

Saturday, October 8th: I had planned to get up with the sun (a lazy 8 am), but my late and sleepless night delayed me until 10. I made breakfast, packed up camp, and sorted out the essentials into a daypack.

I started my hike in a dramatic fashion: Climbing straight up the bluff. A large rock slide comes off the bluff face, made mostly from poor rock dumped by the Norwich while in search of copper-bearing rock. (The sheer volume of poor rock hints at how successful they were.) I tackled this rock slide with energy, hoping to find the Norwich B shaft just above it. The climb was tough, but I was rewarded with spectacular views along the way.

Norwich road from above

The entire countryside was filled with yellow aspens and green pines. The Ontonagon river ran right through the middle. Gorgeous.

Sure enough, B shaft was right where I expected, sitting wide open at a cut in the rock face. The B Shaft was Norwich's main shaft, and connected to the (closed up) adit far below. A huge chunk of rock sat in front of it, the result of a botched attempt to fill the shaft. A frayed nylon rope descended down into the dark hole, left by some more adventurous -- or more crazy -- visitors. My fear of falling back off the cliff was perfectly balanced with my fear of falling into the shaft, which is truly a spectacular hole in the ground. I pondered how difficult it must have been to begin the shaft, up there on the sheer cliff face, before moving carefully up the cliff. After climbing to a convenient rock at the top, I sat, resting and enjoying the view. Also, I tried not to get blown off the bluff by the strong winds which continued from the previous night.

After a rest, I headed straight north into the forested interior of the bluff, knowing that the Norwich "A" shaft was nearby. I found it with no trouble -- seemingly dug out beneath a giant boulder (really an outcrop of the bluff). It was covered by a metal bat cage, but is otherwise sitting out as if waiting for miners to return. Someone had left a plastic water bottle in the cage. Grr!

The Elusive A Shaft in its native habitat.
At that point, some pink tape caught my eye, dangling from a nearby tree, and another past that. Following these, I ended up on a faint trail which must have been the nearly overgrown Norwich Mine Interpretive Trail (which is itself a branch of the North Country Trail, which runs through the area). The trail headed north away from the bluff face, running along a deep gorge. I decided to stay on the trail, and see where it brought me.

I had brought with me a GPS and a small, hand-drawn map. The map was copied from Joseph Papineau's fascinating and heavily en-colon-ed book, The Norwich Mine: An Historical Journey Across Time, Or, A Dream of Copper Riches Lost: 150 Years, West of the Ontonagon, 1841-1991: A Timeless History of One Copper Mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The included a sketch of the roads, ruins, settlements, streams, dams, and other features which had once existed around Norwich. As I would find, it was extremely not-to-scale, but it still proved quite useful.

The trail brought me past many small pits and trenches, and finally to the North Country trail. The trails met up right at what seemed to be a small earthen dam, presumably used by one of the many mines nearby. The North Country trail continued east along a high ridge.

The Norwich Bluff is really a series of high parallel ridges, separated by deep valleys. On each ridge and in each valley, the Norwich and its cousins "gophered" for copper, digging uncounted numbers of trenches, pits, shafts, and adits. Throughout the day, I tried to keep track of which ridge I was on -- the first being the steep cliff face of the bluff itself. I believed that I was probably on the second ridge.

While it was a lovely hike, there wasn't much to see until I came across a sign giving directions to quite a few locations. This was a major intersection in the North Country Trail -- as major as you can get in the middle of the Trap Hills, at any rate -- and I thought through my options carefully while trying to identify my location on a map. In the end, I followed an arrow east towards Front Run Creek, which cuts a deep gorge as it runs towards the Ontonagon River. After a long descent, I came down into the creek valley, where several trails branched off -- one north up the creek (seemingly unlabeled), one down the creek and out of the bluff, another to the west into the valley between the first two ridge lines, and yet another (the main NCT branch) heading east towards the high bluffs on the other side of the creek.

I headed north up the creek bed and quickly found myself in the "Miner's Cut". Living on top of a 500 foot high bluff, the Norwich had unending troubles trying to ship copper out to the rest of the world. The Miner's Cut was one attempt at making a passable road to the outside world. About 100 yard up the creek, the trail began to run between steep rock walls, partially cut by the stream. The cut had been artificially widened and deepened, resulting in the spectacular feeling of a pass through mountains. I don't think that the photo really does it justice, but it's a spot worth visiting:

Miner's cut
I continued onwards and quickly came to Forest Road 642, which is an overgrown grassy two-track. It's about as fancy as the roads get in the Trap Hills, though. Following the road back west, I came to a branch trail leading to the fire tower.

Norwich Bluff, being one of the highest spots in the area, was a natural site for a fire tower in the early 20th century. Of course, the tower has long since been torn down. In the meantime, trees have grown up, leaving only cement footings and not much of a view.

Just down the branch, however, was a mysteriously well preserved shaft. It was fenced with nice new logs and a bat cage. It looked as if the winds of the night before had taken their toll, and dropped an entire tree onto the nice new fence:

Norwich "firetower" shaft
My path took me back to the many-arrowed trail sign, and I re-followed the trail down to Front Run Creek. This time I took the southwest branch which led into the valley between the first and second ridgelines of the Norwich Bluff. My plan was to head in towards an old stamp mill site, but I was about to be seriously sidetracked.

As I walked along, I started to see depressions off to my left. The ridge just south of the trail was literally riddled with old shafts, but these had suffered an unfortunate fate. They had previously been guarded by old wooden fences, maintained by locals with an interest in preserving the area themselves. As part of the Forest Service's plan, those fences have all been removed now, and a number of the shafts were closed up with foam. However, not all of them were filled -- for example, this series of scary-looking stope holes which are merely covered with dodgy-looking bat grills, which you could easily walk right over:

Newly barred stope

At this point, a bit of a sideline... and a rant. This area was the first place where the capping and covering at Norwich became really obvious to me. It was clear that most of the shafts in this area had previously been open and surrounded by the old wooden fences. In fact, all around I could see the small rock bases which had held the fence posts in place. Most of the time, these bases were the best way to find the shafts. The old fence posts and cross-bars had been cut off and tossed into the forest willy-nilly. They were all over the place, even where there were no obvious shafts -- as if the Forest Service had had a caber tossing competition with the remnants of the fences. Given the amount of "respect for nature" which was indicated in the paperwork and planning, it was especially strange.

Wherever the shafts had been filled, they must have been filled in at bedrock level. In the months since the plan had been completed, they had become covered over with leaves and now looked just like the usual depressions around filled-in shafts -- except for those fence post bases surrounding them. However, the shafts were in no way more safe. Without the fences, it's incredibly easy to stumble onto caving ground or fall right into a shaft -- with a bat grating 2 or 3 or 10 feet down into the ground. It was easy to see how you could stumble onto those stope holes, and the ground on either side consisted mostly of rotten rock, ready to collapse into the mine. I would guess that the entire location is less safe for most purposes, and a lot of history has disappeared.

OK, back to my story. At this point, I was entering a cut in the ridgeline which lead into a small valley, where I believed that the Hamilton mine had once had a small stamp mill. A stamp mill was a building which processed the copper-bearing rock produced by these mines. All stamp mills worked effectively the same way: By smashing the living daylights out of the rock, until it crumbled apart and released the tiny copper fragments trapped inside. The Hamilton mine was a very old mine indeed, and used very old stamp technology: Big heavy iron blocks, called stamp heads, that were repeatedly dropped onto the rocks. (This is effectively the original stamp technology. More modern mines used steam-powered stamps and even rollers.)

There was a small flat area to the left which looked like a shaft (but turns out to have been blasted away to make room for a trapper's cabin). There was a lot of metal scattered around, including a heavy iron stamp head, marked with its maker's name! I was definitely in the right place. Following the trail further, I came to a cut where a seasonal stream tumbled down the cliff face. Looking up from the bottom of the cliffs that evening, I saw that I had been close to one of the most spectacular lookouts along the entire bluff, but I didn't climb up to it at the time.

So far, I hadn't seen any stamp sands -- the coarse sandy remnants of crushed rock, left by a stamp mill. In fact, the valley seemed to be filled with low swampy growth and tag alders, making for a dense bushwhacking nightmare if I went off trail. The trail looped around the valley and, contrary to my map, continued on west towards the Norwich A and B shafts again -- apparently I had found the other end of the long-abandoned Norwich Mine Interpretive Loop of the North Country Trail. I turned north again to try my luck bushwhacking back to the Valley of the Shafts, as I had mentally named it. As I rounded a small head of land -- what was that? Ruins! In fact, the only ruins that I would see all day. I had managed to stumble upon the Hamilton mine's stamp mill without even trying.

There isn't much there besides some a few threaded rods poking out of very old stone foundations and another stamp head. Those buggers are so heavy that even scrappers didn't find them worth carrying down the long trail out of the bluff. I also found a small field of stamp sand with nothing growing out of it -- a surreal reminder of the distant past, surrounded by the high cliffs of the Norwich Bluff.

Hamilton stamp mill -- the only ruins I found all day
Nearby, there were even more shafts, pits, and trenches in the hillside. I headed back down the trail, intending to return all the way back to Front Run Creek. Along the way, I noticed a rather large earthen dam off to my left (north), which must have dammed the small seasonal stream which ran through the valley. It was hard to imagine how this was ever effective -- although given the lack of success of these mines, perhaps it never was.

At the same time, to my right (south), I noticed even more poor rock pouring down the ridge line. Climbing the ridge and finding the source of the rock required quite a bit of effort. Along the way, I passed a filled-in adit. At the top, sure enough, there was another barred-up shaft, and a series of filled shafts running along the ridge. Wow, this was almost getting to be monotonous -- was there any place that wasn't dug out up here? What, exactly, was holding up the ground that I was standing on?

I finally headed back down to Front Run creek, and this time took the North Country Trail to the east, up the other side of the creek's valley. The trail headed right over an even larger earthen dam which must have once dammed up Front Run Creek, undoubtably built by the Norwich or one of its relative, in one of the many attempts to make the mine pay.

The trail up the side of the valley was very steep and covered with wind-fallen trees, but no mines that I could see. I hoped to make my way to the old Windsor mine along the eastern extension of this bluff. After perhaps half a mile, I came to an excellent lookout, and took the chance to lay back and take a power nap in the sun. It was awesome.

After the nap, time was getting tight, so I abandoned my plan to find the Windsor shafts and headed back down to Front Run creek (which had turned into my base of operations, it seems). At long last, I headed down the creek towards the bottom of the bluffs. Along the way, I noticed some funny looking clearings below the trail. Climbing down, I found two barred-up adits, both with lovely rock walls and gates built out front. No, not a "keep out" kind of gate -- a little wooden gate like you might put on your garden. These were much older than the Forest Service's restoration, and must have been built by the Norwich's old caretakers.

The adits were clearly draining their mines still, as I nearly lost a boot in the muck in front of one of them! These adits ran beneath the trail (formerly a mine road) and were only visible with careful observation.

Welcome to my adit. Make sure you close the gate behind you!
I continued down the steep trail, reached the bottom and headed west back towards the gate and my camp. Taking stock of my provisions, I noticed that I was nearly out of water. I had packed 3 liters just for today, which is usually more than enough for one person, even on a hot day and working hard. Clearly I'd been working harder than I thought! It was about 3:30, and I had been hiking for only around 5 hours.

After a detour to visit a fellow explorer, get a glass of water, and check out the Bergland historical museum, I headed back north towards Houghton. I was exhausted, my legs ached, and I still felt dehydrated, but boy did my soul feel good. Norwich is a wonderful site, and even now -- after all of the Forest Service "improvements" -- it is still a magical place to visit. I highly recommend it to anyone who might be in the area. I plan on returning as soon as possible to explore even more.

Advice for explorers: If you plan on going to the Norwich, channel your inner Boy Scout and be prepared. I used two maps (one from Papineau's book, one of my own drawing), a compass, and a GPS extensively. If you plan to go off trail -- or even just try to follow one of the less maintained trails -- you can easily get lost. Even the best maintained trails are faint at best, and most maps are horribly out-of-scale. I also used a full day's worth of water in 5 hours. The climb up the rock slide was incredibly dangerous, and in retrospect was not the smartest way to do things. My GPS reports the slope as 70%. Do that ridiculous climb at your own risk.

Above all else, know how to read the ground around a mine site. With the "improvements", it's easier than ever to walk onto dangerous ground. If you're not proficient at identifying shafts, adits, subsidence, and the signs of caving ground, don't even think about going off-trail. Help is not close at hand.

Thanks for reading this far. If you have a Norwich story too, feel free to post it in the comments.