Huron Mtns Trip, Pt. 2: “Seeing the Forest for the Trees”

September, 2012.

Return to Part 1

Day 3.
We woke pretty early and climbed around into the cab of the truck to hit the road. Our first objective today was to hit Alder Falls on the way to Big Bay (MAP). One of the main things you can see a lot of in the Huron Mountains is waterfalls, and I placed several of the more salient ones on our checklist.


We ambled down the side of a ravine in our pre-coffee stupor toward the sound of rushing water and the sight of a white band through the dark woods.




Further upriver, there were plenty more falls.


Even though Navi is surrounded in plenty of waterfalls at home in Newfoundland, our meager Michigan fare was still enough to keep his attention aroused.


It was time to head into the town of Big Bay, the only significant settlement in this entire region of Michigan, where we would find a gas station, coffee, a lighthouse, and some other things of interest before the full-on wilderness flog of the Huron Mountains would begin. Big Bay is also where the 1959 classic Otto Preminger film, Anatomy of a Murder was filmed—based on a 1952 killing that took place here at the Lumberjack Tavern. It even had a score by Duke Ellington.

In high school, the one math teacher I ever had who I didn’t hate was Mr. Rice. Mr. Rice was from Ishpeming, and had a very interesting sense of humor. Sometimes he would relate the story from his childhood where he actually saw Otto Preminger, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, and the film crews working, because a couple of the scenes were actually shot in Ishpeming. Apparently this was the most important thing to happen in Ishpeming since the discovery of iron ore a century prior. I was just glad to hear about something other than math.


Now freshly caffeinated and with the prospect of a new lighthouse at hand, Navi was in a much more animated state as we arrived at Big Bay Point Light. The road from town out to the point also presented us with a big fat mill of some kind, which we would check out more closely on the way back. I quickly noted that this lighthouse’s design was basically identical to that of 14 Mile Point Light, but without the fancy arches.

We split up and went our own ways for a while, investigating the grounds. An old dock:


The lifesaving station:


(For you landlubbers, that’s a place where a crack team of crewmen responds by boat to save shipwreck survivors offshore of a light station).

The shoreline was very jagged.


I was suddenly excited when I realized I was getting my first glimpse of the mysterious and forbidden Huron Mountains, seen here in the distance to the west:


Soon….

Sure, it may be to you just a mediocre-at-best collection of hills in a marginal part of the world that was explored centuries ago, but to me it is Eldorado…the most rugged and unmolested part of my favorite part of the world—my home. And the last major chunk of which I had yet to conquer.


Now you have to keep in mind, when I refer to these vast chunks of empty uncivilized land in the Yoopee as “wilderness” and the like, I don’t mean it in the same sense that I would refer to say, the Yukon, or Siberia, etc. The parts of Michigan that are like that are not necessarily “unexplored,” or “unconquerable,” they are the way they are because they were first explored in the era when American westward expansion was in its infancy, and as such Michigan kind of got bypassed by the bandwagon as it was speeding toward Manifest Destiny. Therefore our desolation comes from the fact that it was once peopled by miners and lumberjacks who left after only a very brief occupation as the wave of conquest continued to sweep over the breadth of this continent, without leaving much of an imprint of civilization upon the land, except in the major shipping ports that survive today. Though the Yoopee was once practically clear-cut, it grew back quickly and has remained mostly untouched since that time. So in a sense, it is a “born-again wilderness.” And because Michigan is naturally such an isolated place due to its being surrounded by water, it has consistently remained off the beaten track.

After a few more minutes, I found Navi and we got back in the truck. It was time to get on the road toward our goal. On the way back to town I slowed down for a closer look at the mill beneath the towering smokestack that had been pinging our radars since arriving in the area. I vaguely remembered something about there being a paper mill or lumber mill or something here, and cracked open my old copy of Hunt’s Guide to the Upper Peninsula to find out. Sure enough, this was the Brunswick Lumber Co. Mill, which opened in 1903 and made not only bowling pins and hardwood flooring for bowling alleys until 1932, but when it was bought by Henry Ford it also made wooden panels for the famous Ford “Woody” wagons until 1947.

Unfortunately the mill seemed to be in someone’s backyard, so I couldn’t stop and check it out without pulling up in their driveway. Oh well. I was able however to get kid of a neat shot of it looming over the town from a hill:


I got us on M-510 toward the great unknown, but before we could get more than a mile, both of us were rubbernecking at a fancy sign pointing to a detour to some scenic overlook called “Thomas Rock”…. Odd, it seemed bran-new and completely out of place; must have been some recent improvement or something. Oh well, can’t hurt to take a quick look.


We turned around to pull in and found a brand-spanking-new park with signs, cedar chip trails, handrails and the whole bit. Blech. Oh well, I guess even though this kind of touristy crap doesn’t really fit into the atmosphere of the Yoopee, I have to admit we might never have known about Thomas Rock otherwise; it used to be just a little-known local hangout spot where you can overlook the town of Big Bay and Lake Superior. The view of the town and the Brunswick Mill was again very cool:


The lake in the foreground is Lake Independence.


To the east, more hills:


Below, an old (and probably abandoned) firetower:


I’m conflicted, but I think it's actually probably good that this Thomas Rock overlook is here, since there are really so few opportunities for the average person to see a “mountaintop” in this state; usually the only way onto these heights is by undertaking a very strenuous hike after a long drive on remote roads. The few mountains we have in Michigan are not easy to find, and that does little to help our tourism image. Scenic overlooks are basically nonexistent here, since every other part of the state that is not a shoreline is either flat, or cloaked under a lead weight of tree cover obscuring all view (or both).

This was the last we would see of such things for about three days though, because now we were finally headed off of paved roads, and into the uncharted wild of the Hurons. This would be what our roads would look like until we emerged on the other side, in L’Anse.


We would be without road names, street signs, or a predetermined path. We were depending on Navi’s crude GPS unit, my compass, and 7.5-minute topo maps. I was out to see whether one could drive across the Hurons with a regular motor vehicle, on actual roads, and with the loose itinerary I had drawn up, I intended to do it in two or three days. I had intentionally left two blank days near the end of the 10-day itinerary just in case we got lost. Today was Monday, October 1st, and according to how I drew it up, we should be able to see the sights and emerge somewhere near Skanee or L’Anse by Wednesday, October 3rd. Navi had to be on an airplane at 11am on October 8th.

MAP

One thing I did know was that there was a constriction point somewhere near the Baraga-Marquette County line, in the middle of the Hurons region, at Big Erik’s Bridge. As far as I knew, that was the only sure way to get from the eastern half to the western half across the Huron River, so that was a main objective we somehow had to find. It was also the only manmade structure for a VERY large area. Besides that, we would be hitting more waterfalls, Mt. Arvon, Dodge City, the Yellow Dog Plains, Bald Mountain, Mt. Curwood, and the Arvon Slate Quarry, depending on how quickly we moved. The target was Mt. Arvon—being that it is Michigan’s highest point, both Navi and I had to get there, or bust.

Once we turned off of M-510, Navi’s GPS unit basically turned into nothing but a fancy compass. Yeah, it pointed in the direction of the coordinates I told him to punch in, and sometimes it showed nameless squiggly roads on it, but most of the time it didn’t show anything but a vast blank expanse of nothingness. Most of the trails we were using did not qualify as roads in Garmin-land, so we had to guess which way to go to get to where it was pointing us. Often we had no lack of choices, as there were plenty of forks in the road leading down temptingly beautiful holes in the forest. Currently, we were on the road to Dodge City, which as you will see is anything but (MAP). Though a ghost town, it probably qualifies as the only settlement within the heart of Huron Mountain country.

Along the way we had to ford a creek…


…where not far away we saw what I believe to have been Yellow Dog Falls #7, on the Yellow Dog River. Since I had stopped the truck to get out and inspect the treacherous incline and rocky riverbed ahead of us before attempting to drive it, we easily found several small waterfalls in the area where the river was intersected by the smaller creek:




Having charged through the creek like a muhf#$%^&ing boss, we eventually found ourselves back on a larger, graded road again.


I wondered if this meant we were close to the Yellow Dog Plains? My memory told me that Dodge City was on the edge of that massive open area. The leaves were in just about peak color, and we had been in a narrow tunnel of them for a few hours now, so stopping for art-fagging was rapidly becoming an every-ten-seconds thing.


Back in Detroit the leaves were still very much green, and wouldn’t start turning until we came home. Further on, this archaic plow sat whiling away the decades in loneliness:


When I posted this photo on Panoramio, I was surprised to see that a man later commented, "Nice pic of my family's plow truck "Walter," it's been a few years since we drove him. We used to keep the Dodge City road open up to our camp with him when logging wasn't going on in the winter...it's a Walters, not sure exactly when it was built, I'd say 1950's, if you put fresh batteries and fuel in it and a few shots of starting fluid it would probably fire right up. First time I drove it I was around 13...my gramps taught me."

Suddenly, with little warning we popped out of the forest onto the bustling main drag of the cosmopolitan metropolis of downtown Dodge City. If you look straight ahead you’ll notice a local landmark, the fabulous “dirtpile,” and on your left you’ll see examples of the fine architecture of this vibrant--and walkable!--downtown community, including all three of its buildings:


In all honesty, I can’t find jack shit about this place, and neither could Navi. Not even Hunt’s Guide mentions it. I don’t know if it’s considered a ghost town, or if someone still lives here, why it was founded, or what even classifies it as a town. But it is marked on maps.

It is however not marked in one particular atlas that is renowned for having noted old ghost towns long after they had vanished, the Mapbook of Michigan Counties (published by the Michigan DNR up until about 1989), which I find odd. The version I have is c.1984. For what it's worth, there is another Dodge City in Clare County, listed in the Michigan Encyclopedia.


In my estimation this Dodge City probably started as a lumber camp, or was just a place name given by the one family who may have ever settled here. Navi and I got out of the Rusty Camel for a minute to stretch, soak in the desolation, and snap a few shots. There was no one here, and no evidence that they had been anytime recently. Finding this to be rather eerie, we got back in and continued past this “town.”


Back on the road. This was what we saw for an inordinately long portion of the day as I sped along as quickly as I dared on the uneven, bumpy trails. But we would get another brief break from the stifling woods soon; Navi inquired as to why we would want to go to this “Yellow Dog Plains” and what was so special about it. I simply responded that it was a huge, flat open space, the only real open space in the entire region, nine miles long and two miles wide. I imagined that it probably looked pretty cool, surrounded in hills and deep forest.

Courtesy of BRN
So that’s where we aimed. Of course, over the balance of the day we did run into a couple dead-ends and bad trails we had to abandon and throw it in reverse to get out of, but generally we seemed to look like we knew what we were doing. Our ability to find Dodge City put me more at ease about our chances of being able to handle navigating through this wilderness. Suddenly a light began to appear at the end of the tunnel and we shot out into a huge open area. I had to assume this was the Yellow Dog Plains (MAP).

Ironically enough, it was the one place we had seen all day that wasn’t yellow:


On the left-hand side of the road the land fell down a good 10 or 20 feet to a broad flat area covered in young trees. I pulled over to get a good look and enjoy a view for the first time since we had left Big Bay.


Navi seemed as fascinated with this switch in scenery as I was, and we both climbed out of the now mud and dust-covered Rusty Camel to stretch our legs and snap a few pics. At the far edge of this vast expanse, the encircling hills forming the rim of the Yellow Dog rose up above the pointy tops of the young evergreens.

Not as much of a “plains” as I was expecting, as I had envisioned a broad grassy prairie with occasional wetlands. Not far beyond those encircling hills was the boundary of the McCormick Wilderness, a 17,000 acre preserve that used to be Cyrus McCormick’s personal retreat, now part of the Ottawa National Forest and one of the most rugged, unspoiled pieces of country in America. One of these days I have to get in there….


One good thing about this particular road we were on was that I could get up to 50mph on its nice flat grade without worry of busting my suspension or skidding off the road from hitting unexpected bumps. Up ‘til now we had been relegated to about 25-30mph, with occasional 40mph spurts. Even though it is only about a 53-mile line of sight between Marquette and L’Anse, and even if there was a direct route between the two, it would still take a pretty long time to get between the two at this rate of speed.

Our actual path measured a distance of more like 87 miles. So at that speed it would take about four hours to get between the two cities, if we didn’t stop for anything, or get stuck. If you simply took M-28 like everyone else, it would take more like one hour. Good thing I topped off the gas tank in Big Bay, eh?


We got back on the road and plunged back into the woods. The main reason there are any maintained roads back here (especially this one) is because of the logging industry, and the newly reactivated Eagle Mine, whose heavy trucks frequently thundered between here and Marquette. Rio Tinto was currently reconstructing the old Humboldt Mill near here as well, which was originally built by the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co., and later reused for refining gold ore from the Ropes Mine mentioned earlier. We were just a couple years too late to explore a giant abandoned Humboldt Mill.

I was beginning to wonder where we were again, in relation to the Baraga-Marquette County line. There were no signs of any kind out here, and in the deep woods it’s hard to gauge distance and direction when you’re flying as fast as you can through the twisty-turnies, and up and down hills. Our next waypoint was supposed to be Big Erik’s Bridge (supposedly named after some logger from the 1920s), and not far from there was our destination for the night, Bald Mountain. Happily, we seemed to be basically on schedule.

Eventually, the forest opened its jaws once again and spit us out into daylight onto Big Erik’s Bridge!


Not much of a bridge—it’s not even paved—but in lands like these, everything counts as a name-worthy landmark. It was a welcome sign of human civilization, and oasis of open space after the crushing claustrophobia of the dense woods. It was some kind of strange relief to again be in the presence of manmade things, giving off a pacifying sense of safety and a feeling of security in knowing that there was some recognizable milestone in the midst of this seemingly endless sea of trees.

We were now seeing other people here for the first time since leaving Big Bay several hours ago; while we were here, maybe two or three other cars passed over the bridge. It was a good feeling to know that we were not lost. Except for the minute village of Skanee, we were officially at the most substantial manifestation of mankind's presence for a 20-mile radius, and a choke point for traffic throughout the mountains; this was one of the only places of crossing, where people could get from the Marquette County side of the Hurons to the Baraga County side, meaning that we had reached our “halfway point” as it were.

 

That’s what I was most happy about; now I had a real sense of distances out here, and I was more comfortable with exploring casually instead of worrying about staying on schedule. I also knew that it meant we had achieved our goal of locating a (sort-of) viable east-west route across the Huron Mountains, because just past Big Erik’s Bridge I knew there was a well-established, easy-to-follow road leading directly into Skanee, and from there onward to L’Anse. Huzzah! But we weren’t done out here yet.

We stopped just past the bridge at a little picnic area that had been established for weary travelers such as ourselves who had been shunted down roads not wide enough to stop or turn around anywhere for a break. My legs were fatigued from constantly working the clutch; it had been almost an hour since we left the Yellow Dog Plains, and we had been driving since well before that. I knew that Big Erik’s Falls was here too, so we took a stroll down to the river.


There was another more seldom-visited falls further upriver to the south, but we were bushwhacking, and signs of private property dissuaded us from bothering with completing the journey, since the falls were not supposed to be very spectacular anyway. We returned to the Rusty Camel and got out the maps and the jotted list of coordinates again to calculate our route to the final destination of the day, Bald Mountain. Unfortunately there was no way to drive all the way up to Bald Mountain; this would involve some hiking as well, so we had to figure out what was the nearest point we could drive to and leave the truck behind.

I started up the truck again and headed back across Big Erik’s Bridge to take a fork in the road we had passed earlier, which would lead us further north up toward the Superior shore. It was about three more miles before we found our closest point. From what veteran Hurons explorer Jacob Emerick had told me, there was a trail that hooked to the east up around the back of Bald Mountain, which was easier than trying to navigate around the swamp that sat below its steepest southern elevation. We decided on a three-way intersection with a triangular island of trees in the center of it as the best place to leave the Rusty Camel behind and continue on foot.

With the sun beginning to sink in the sky already, we quickly geared up our backpacks and everything we would need to spend the night up there. Our hike was going to be about two miles over fairly easy country before bushwhacking our way up the nearly 1,200 foot bluff. But I had been assured that the view was worth it—one of the best you can find in Michigan.


Because we were bringing beer and a tent, my pack was pretty heavy, making the trip seem tougher than it really was, but once we came into view of the mountain’s rugged stony face looming in the distance, I was stoked.


The wide two-track trail that Mr. Emerick had said is often washed out and impassable without a Jeep was actually in fine shape, but didn’t last much more than a mile before we crossed through a narrow mucky footpath into a wetland. There was a point at which we had to decide when to cut off the trail into the woods to climb up into the saddle between Bald Mountain’s three peaks. Using Navi’s GPS as a distance finder, and my compass as a pointer, we did just that. The woods were fairly open once we got up into the piney highlands, which made this hike very pleasurable indeed.


This was beautiful country and I couldn’t wait to reach the summit. The weather was very agreeable as well, even though a slight haze of clouds had materialized to blot the dazzling sunlight that had characterized most of the day thus far.


We kept checking the GPS and compass periodically to make sure we were headed to the correct peak.


Finally, we reached the bare stone roof of this forest and got our first real look at the deep country that we had been traveling through:


We were almost right on the county line, with Marquette County and the Hurons to the east…


…and Baraga County to the west, where I was shocked to see the thin arm of the Abbaye Peninsula boldly visible, extending out into Lake Superior:


And in the haze beyond, the even greater arm of the Keweenaw Peninsula was barely legible behind it:


It was out there on that mysterious Abbaye Peninsula that our travels would eventually take us in the next couple days.


But it was the furtively huddled forms of the enigmatic Huron Mountains themselves that I was most intrigued by:


This leaguer of stone hills represented not only a natural barrier, but also a social barrier that I might never be able to cross; it was inside that girdle that the elite Huron Mountain Club exercised their complete authority, and no one could enter without permission—or so local legend dictated. As billionaires’ clubs usually are, their activities are not privy to the public and as such, gossip has to fill in the void.


Mount Benison, Huron Mountain, Ives Hill, Mummy Mountain, Burnt Mountain, Trout Mountain, the creatively-named Breakfast Roll, Mount Ida, Mount Homer; these peaks all belong to them, and have since the 19th century, meaning that no “mortal” man has seen the untainted Edenic delights that exist within since the days when the Ojibwe still claimed this land.


How the Club allegedly manages to catch every transgressor straying onto their lands remains a fascinating question, but it is a fact that they have a private security force made up of retired or moonlighting law enforcement officers, who I hear can be complete assholes when encountered.

Another thing is for sure—this piece of land that they have carved out of the public trust for themselves is and has always been one of the most beautiful garden spots in all of Michigania, which is what makes it sting all the more. Not that I trust the National Parks or Forest Service to do a better job maintaining such a treasure in the least—but what’s the point of keeping it so pristine if only the privileged elite are allowed within its borders?


That to me is the antithesis of everything the Yoopee stands for: an east coast style rich man’s club presumptuously inserting itself into the patently unpretentious, working class Midwest, where the unparsed bounty of mother nature has been cut off from public access like a slice of cake for the consumption of the aristocracy. They were allowed to preserve a sanctuary of that beauty for their own enjoyment while the surrounding countryside was pillaged of its timber and minerals, and polluted by some of the very company interests they controlled. Hypocrisy at its finest.

Founded in the late 1800s as a playground for the capitalist elite of Chicago and Detroit—in other words, trolls—it garnered immediate resentment from native Yoopers who grew up without fences or fancy gates, or a concept of trespassing. In their eyes the Yoopee was created as a gift from God to be enjoyed freely by all; to “claim” a section of it and make it exclusive was a cardinal affront to the Yooper way of life—an attempt to bring the “city” (and its attendant class divisions) to the “country.”

More reading on that:
www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/open-country/2012/05/battle-public-access-salmon-trout-river
www.pasty.com/discuss/messages/994/1526.html


Below us, a fiery carpet of autumnal trees spread out to infinity.




Behind us to the north was Lake Superior:


We began unpacking our gear and setting up camp.


To the south lay the imposing form of Mt. Arvon’s deceptively gentle-sloped silhouette, Michigan’s highest point:


It too smugly awaited our attempt at conquest. Together, Arvon and the Abbaye represented the main two of my last “final frontiers” in this state; hard to reach exploring goals, which I had sought to attain for many years. Tomorrow.


Navi was just as committed to topping Arvon as I was, since one of his hobbies is checking off the high point of every state he visits. But the challenge of Mt. Arvon is not in climbing it—it’s in getting close to it. All our lives, it was technically the closest high point to where either of us lived, but one of the hardest to reach because of its remoteness and lack of designated roads to get to it. At last, we were close.


According to Navi’s calculations, we had gone about 75 miles today since leaving Captain Daniel’s Hill, not including backtracking errors (see route on MAP).


We set up the tent just down from the peak in some sheltering woods, ate some Trenary Toast for dinner, and started cracking beers.

The broad, full moon rose again, this time over the lightless bowers of the Hurons:


I got together some dry bleached sticks for a small fire, and Navi passed me the whiskey as we whiled away our peaceful, if spooky “Night on Bald Mountain.” I kept the fire very low, so as not to advertise our presence to any eyes that might be watching from afar.


Across the expanses of wild black space below echoed the shrill, maniac cries of coyotes.

CLICK for part 3


References:
Hunt's Guide to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, by Mary Hoffman Hunt & Don Hunt
Michigan Encyclopedia, edited by Matthew L. Daly, Jennifer L. Herman, Caryn Hannan

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