Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 5: Rest Day at McCargoe and the Minong Mine

Last time: Chickenbone to McCargoe to Chickenbone to McCargoe...

Inside the Minong Mine

On the 5th day, we rested. We "slept in" at McCargoe Cove, which is to say, we woke up slightly after the sun had risen. Morning was taken up with camp chores -- doing laundry in a bucket is always a joy -- and enjoying not being on the move for a day.

Sarah's plan for the rest of the day was to read, relax, swim, and take it easy. My plan was a bit different: Visit the Minong Mine.

The Minong Mine was Isle Royale's most successful copper mine, although that really doesn't say much. Isle Royale is, geologically, part of the same rock formation as the rest of Michigan's Copper Country. Ancient miners visited the island and extracted pure copper from the rocks, leaving behind small pits visible to the first European visitors. With the mining boom on the Keweenaw, some prospectors naturally tried their luck on the island as well. There was undoubtedly enough copper, but Isle Royale's remote nature -- especially the way it is completely cut off from the mainland for 6 months of winter -- quickly killed off even the richest mine.

Black-eyed Susans at McCargoe

The Minong Mine is accessible down a spur from the legendary Minong Ridge Trail, which runs along the Minong Ridge (see a trend yet?) between McCargoe Cove and Windigo. This meant that I also got to have a taste of the Minong Ridge Trail, which is famous for its beauty and extreme ruggedness.

I followed the Minong Ridge trail uphill from McCargoe -- or tried to. The campground's multiple criss-crossing paths led me astray, and instead I found a new outhouse. On try #2, I ended up in another shelter's front yard. Try #3 took me to the tent campsites. It turned out that the shelter's front yard in try #2 was on the right track -- I had to skirt around the shelter before continuing uphill.

Minong Ridge trail with wildflowers

When I finally found the trail, I almost flew along it. The day was cool and sunny, the sky was a rich late summer blue, and the breeze was light. The trail was lined with wildflowers in the sunny openings, and birches towered high above me. I felt great: healthy, energetic, well-rested, and happy.

The trail climbed steeply uphill as it mounted the ridge. It soon started following the edge of a steep rocky ridge with many deep ravines cutting into it. At one point, right next to the trail, I found this curious cut:

Ancient mining pit? Minong exploration?

I suspect it was a mining pit -- whether prehistoric or just a test pit for the Minong Mine, I don't know.

In just under a mile, I came to a signpost marking the spur trail to the Minong Mine. The spur trail headed steeply down the south face of the ridge, winding through dense pine forests. The first landmark was a vertical shaft, surrounded by a wooden rail fence. I looked as far over as I dared, but couldn't see much. Next down the hill was an angled shaft that was wide open. I peeked at this one too, but I knew better things were up ahead.

Old tram rail in the Minong adit
At the base of the hill, I found what I was looking for. A small spur that led into a shady trench. Here, the Minong Miners had drilled an adit -- a horizontal opening -- straight into the Minong Ridge. I walked under the cool shade of the trees, into the shadow of towering rock walls blasted out of the Minong ridge itself, and straight into the depths of Isle Royale.

The mine still had rails in place from old trams, which were probably pushed by hand, since it was expensive to bring (and feed) horses or mules to the island. There was no timbering or support -- the rock was strong enough to stand without failing for more than 100 years. The adit ran beneath both of the shafts farther up the hill. Here's the angled shaft from below. The photo at the top of the post shows the spectacular tree growing out of its mouth:

The angled shaft and tree (on the right)
My way to the vertical shaft was barred by a shallow pool of water. Beyond the pool, the vertical shaft was choked with fallen trees and brush. I suspect the shaft went much deeper below the water level, but I couldn't get close enough to see.

I spent about half an hour happily wandering in, out, up, down, and around this beautiful mine. The scent of the musty, humid, cool air reminded my of my days of living in the UP and exploring a new mine every weekend. This was a little bit of heaven.

The bottom (?) of the vertical shaft

After enjoying all of the pleasures that the adit had to offer, I continued downhill to explore the rest of the mine area. Below the adit's mouth, the Minong's poor rock piles sprawled across the valley.  "Poor rock" is the unprofitable rock the mine drilled through in order to get to the copper. The Minong's poor rock was strewn all over the countryside, filling in every possible nook and cranny. It looked like they didn't even try to organize it. Jagged rock outcrops stuck out from the hillside, where the Minong had apparently blasted around them in its search for copper, leaving the broken rock where it fell. Occasional water-filled pits showed where the miners had found a promising vein.

Rock piles and blasted outcrops
A father and son, who I recognized as part of the very large family group from McCargoe, were sitting on top of one of these outcrops. I stopped to chat with them as I wandered along the base of the big hill, looking for more mines to explore. They pointed me up a narrow ravine that led to a second adit, this one a short stub without any shafts to let in daylight. I spent an inordinately long amount of time playing around with my camera in this adit, resulting in nonsense like this:

Alien? Or just mine junkie?
Back towards the first adit, I found that there was indeed some method to this poor rock madness. To the east, the Minong had gotten its act together, and dumped its poor rock in long low piles that partly filled a very long, very green swamp. I followed the piles until they petered out, after which a low line of rocks continued into the swamp. This was an old mine road, constructed straight through a line of swamps at the base of the big hillside. The mine used it to access McCargoe Cove, where they had built a stamp mill (a massively inefficient water-and-gravity-operated machine for pounding the copper-bearing rock into tiny pieces, freeing the copper from its surrounding rock).

I wandered slowly along the road, which was just barely above the water level of the swamp. The day was warm and the swamp was green with life. The sky was a fantastic blue that reflected in the surface of the water:

Minong mine swamp, or possibly mill pond.

After reaching a long berm that was probably an old dam, I turned around to return to the main mine area. Along the way, I noticed a couple of places on the high tree-covered hillside where large rock piles tumbled down off of the hillside and into the swamp. Rocks don't do that by accident: There was a mine up above those rockpiles. (Looking at the aerial view now, there were even more rockpiles hidden behind some trees. The Minong Mine really "gophered" up that hillside!)

The rockpiles weren't accessible from the main Minong Mine area, which made them even more tantalizing to me. They were, however, clearly located somewhere not too far off of the Minong Ridge trail, which ran right up on that same hillside. Since the Minong Ridge trail was parallel to the old road I was now walking, I realized that I could find the mines by measuring the straight distance along the road between the main mine area and these rock piles. Then, I could measure out the same distance on the Minong Ridge trail, and identify the right location to find the rockpiles. As I walked back, I counted my paces until I met the spur trail coming down the hillside from the Minong Ridge trail.

The Minong Ridge

I headed back uphill to the Minong Ridge trail. Before I could measure back along the trail towards the rock piles, I had another goal to attend to. I turned left, continuing farther away from McCargoe. The trail took a steep uphill through a dense pine grove, climbing higher up onto the Minong Ridge itself. When I popped out in a rocky, grassy clearing, I was near the top of Pine Mountain, supposedly site of a good overlook.

Sure enough, on my right (north) I could see a faint volunteer trail heading towards a sudden rocky outcrop that jutted high above the grassy hillside. Above the top of the outcrop, I could see nothing but sky. There had to be a good view from up there!

McDonald Lake (foreground) with Lake Superior

I headed off trail, whacking through tall grass and juniper bushes. The outcrop rose so steeply that I had to hand-over-hand climb, pausing only when I found an unexpected cluster of blueberries. I eventually made my way to a high rounded ridge top. As I crested the ridge, the view took my breath away. I had a stunning and uninterrupted view over the north side of the island. Several hundred feet below me lay a dense forest of Balsam firs, with the blue gem of McDonald Lake nestled in the middle of them. Beyond that was the wide expanse of Lake Superior, and beyond that, Thunder Bay's "Sleeping Giant" lay shimmering in the not-so-distant haze.

Sleeping Giant in Thunder Bay

As with all Isle Royale ridges, the north side was a sheer and nearly vertical 200 foot drop. I took off my pack, sat down with my legs dangling over the edge, and enjoyed the view. I also "enjoyed" a Clif bar, which only tastes good after ridiculously hard work -- like climbing the Minong Ridge. I quietly soaked up the views and the sun. It was one more perfect piece of a perfect day on Isle Royale, and I didn't want it to end.

After a good, long, soul-satisfying rest, I packed up and headed up along the ridge line to the highest point, where moose antlers awaited me:

Moose antlers on the Minong Ridge

With a long look over my shoulder, I climbed back down towards the trail and headed back towards McCargoe. As soon as I passed the Minong Mine turnoff, I started counting my paces, trying to correct for the zigs and zags of the trail. Only a few paces past my target distance, I realized that I was passing one of the deep ravines that I'd noticed on my way up. I saw the faintest volunteer trail heading down along the ravine -- it could have been a moose trail -- but I decided to follow it. I left my bag on the trail and took only my camera. After a long downhill hike along the side of the ravine, I finally found a way to scramble down into it. I turned and walked right back up the floor of the ravine. It had nearly vertical rocky sides and ended in an abrupt rocky wall right at the edge of the Minong Ridge trail, with small piles of shattered rock here and there. It could have been a mine exploration -- or it could have been frost-cracked rock that was moved and piled up by the spring floods. There was definitely no sign of the large rock pile that I had seen from the swamp. Nonetheless, the ravine was cool and deep, and trees arched high overhead in a particularly fetching way. I was glad I'd come down here. (Much later on, back home, I checked the aerials and realized that I was in exactly the right place -- but still several hundred feet too high on the hill. I suspect the ravine was part of a mine exploration.)

With that, I hoofed it back up to the trail and headed back to McCargoe Cove.

When I got back to the shelter, Sarah had just returned from her own fantastic day of laying around and reading on the dock. She had also met and befriended our (extremely) wide array of fellow campers. We ran through the interesting details as we ate a late lunch, and then headed down to the dock for more swimming and reading.

At the dock, Sarah introduced me to some of our most fascinating neighbors: Four 20-somethings from Ann Arbor. Two (a husband and wife) were farmers, along with a brother and an exchange student. They were all incredibly athletic. They had hiked 15 miles each day so far and felt just fine, thank you, and were looking forward to the death march all the way back to Rock Harbor tomorrow. The brother and exchange student spent their time doing flips off the end of the dock, presumably to burn off their excess energy.

Flip, flop

After a fantastic cool-down swim, some reading, and some good conversation with our neighbors, we went back to the shelter for dinner. We had saved our last freeze-dried chicken and dumplings for tonight. We also had carted a small (750 mL) box of wine across the island just so we could sit back and enjoy it on the dock tonight, just like we did last year. It was every bit as fantastic as you could imagine.

It was too beautiful of an evening not to sit down by the long, deep, blue cove. The bad-ass Ann Arbor farmers were still at it. Another couple sat fishing at the end of the dock on tiny folding chairs. Until the moment I saw them, I hadn't realized how desperately I wanted a chair. While backpacking, there's never a way to sit back. You're either sitting upright without a back (picnic table, ground, log...) or laying down. The chairs made my back ache in sympathy. I vowed to buy one as soon as I was back on the mainland.

Another feature of that evening was the huge family of 9 (or maybe a pair of families traveling together) that had taken over one side of the dock. The kids were noisily cannonballing (I admit that we joined them a few times). The father was sitting, fishing, and smoking out here in the wilderness -- we casually shifted to his upwind side. The mother wove bracelets while loudly complained about just about everything, including the rule that they were blatantly breaking: No groups of 7 or more sharing the same (non-group) campground.

The large, noisy, and smoky group eventually cleared out, leaving a much quieter evening behind  them. As we relaxed, a large and fancy sailboat (under motor power) motored down the cove, circled around at the end of the dock, and headed back up the cove, where it disappeared behind a small point. Soon we heard the putt-putt of a small inflatable launch come from their direction. The older couple in the launch waved at us and then headed straight to the end of the cove, past a pair of buoys clearly labeled "Closed Area". The buoys marked the outlet of a wilderness stream (which emptied from West Chickenbone), where no motorized craft are allowed. The launch poked around, looking for a way up the stream, and soon disappeared into high weed. Once again, I was not impressed by boaters.

As soon as the motor noise died away upstream, a river otter poked its head above the water and started swimming towards us. The dock grew silent as we all watched it swerve, dive, and pop back up far away. It was hunting for food, and eventually it dove and reappeared directly under the dock, where we could hear it splashing about, probably enjoying dinner.

Otter in the water.
With that lovely wildlife sighting, it was time to go to bed. We wandered slowly up to the shelter, pleased with a day well spent. A gigantic full moon rose slowly above the harbor, adding a little more magic to the world. We fell asleep enormously happy.

Next time: Around the point we go!

Miles hiked: 2.0 (dayhike). Total: 10.6 trail + 12.5 dayhike = 23.1 miles.
Moose sighted: 0. Total moose: 2.5.

Only a tiny bit of hiking on the left of the map -- to the Minong Mine and back


Jacob Emerick said...

Every day of your trip sounds a bit more wonderful. Nice exploring around the mine, I really enjoyed that area as well. Those views from Pine Mountain are ridiculous - so refreshing to get north-facing cliffs in a Keweenaw-esque area.

DC said...

Yeah, everything always feels backwards to me on Isle Royale. All those cliffs, facing the "wrong" way!