Ultima Thule, Pt. 1:"Adventure"

June, 2011.

One night I was unable to sleep after having been bit by the wanderlust again, as so often happens to me at this exact time of year. I went online and bought passage aboard the ferry Ranger III to Isle Royale. Usually a trip of this magnitude would involve months of planning, but since I have always harbored a deep desire to sail to Michigan’s northernmost island, I have technically been planning this trip for years. About a decade, actually. Isle Royale is a wilderness island in the middle of Lake Superior, and one of the remotest, harshest places in America besides Alaska. It is not to be taken lightly.

In order to get there from Detroit, one has to drive north 10 hours to Houghton, then charter the boat to take you out across Superior, which is a six hour journey. Or, you can also charter a seaplane there from Houghton County Airport. A big part of my impulsive decision to go for the plunge immediately was the fact that the peak season was not yet upon us and it was more likely that I would have the island to myself, not to mention bug season should be just about over.

The island is 45 miles long, 9 miles wide, and has a total area of 207 square miles. It is surrounded by 450 other small islands and sits within the largest, most unforgiving body of freshwater in the world. Superior is almost 1,400ft deep…actually an inland sea rather than a lake, and has the attitude to prove it. There are no permanent residents of the island, and it is only possible to sail there from May-October, due to the severity of storms and the possibility of the big lake freezing over. The entirety of Isle Royale is a National Park, designated as a permanently protected refuge…so essentially it is a 207 square mile wilderness, located within a 31,820 square mile water-wilderness known poetically to mariners as the “Ice-water Mansion.”

To put this in perspective, imagine uprooting the state of Delaware, removing all the residents, plopping it in the middle of the ocean, covering it wall-to-wall with virgin boreal forest and you have Isle Royale. Granted, Delaware is quite a bit bigger than Isle Royale, but you get the idea. Isle Royale’s BIG. And empty. The isle is so big, that it has lakes of its own--many of which have islands of their own! This was going to be a little different than the time I went to North Manitou Island…Isle Royale is about twenty times bigger and more remote.

The difficulty in getting there, and in staying alive once one gets there is what has kept it a primeval wilderness since the dawn of time. That difficulty and expense is what has kept the logging, fishing, and mining industries from succeeding there, though all three have been attempted.

Nonetheless, man has always had a presence on the isle. Aboriginal people were there at least 5,700 years ago. And this is where the fame of the isle comes into play--it was where mankind discovered mass copper. Archaeologists have been studying these aboriginal mining activities since the late 1800s--there have been 1,500 ancient mine pits identified on Isle Royale, some quite deep and some with stone tools found left in place.

As I’ve explained in other posts, Michigan had the greatest source of pure copper anywhere on Earth for millenia, and thus it was here that Man began to facilitate his own development from a creature of the Stone Age into a creature of technology. These Bronze Age ancestors of the Ojibwe used round stones found on the beaches of the isle to hammer out the hunks of pure copper from the rock along the ridges of this strange land. They also devised a way to use fire to heat the rock, then pour cold water on it to cause it to split, thus opening the rock even more easily. They then traded the ingots in barter with other peoples over the millennia, and plausibly Michigan copper found its way across the globe in the form of weapons, tools, jewelry, and idols. Man had advanced--now his tools were more durable, his weapons more deadly. Later, he would learn the secrets of conducting electricity.

The reason for all the copper here is due to unique geologic and tectonic factors. Eons ago, the Earth’s crust underneath the Lake Superior basin had a massive collapse, and the volcanic activity that ensued brought pure molten copper up through the rock in veins. You can tell by looking at the satellite view that the island is basically pure rock and extremely craggy:

Here is a series of diagrams I drew on the long, mind-numbing boat ride out to the isle:

At the bottom you can see how the Earth’s crust collapsed in the middle and filled with water, forming the western half of Lake Superior. Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula are two opposite ends of the same broken strata, which were forced upward at an angle when this collapse occurred. Volcanic eruptions brought lava to the surface along fault lines in these strata (which we now know as copper-bearing lodes), thus forging the destiny of Michigan’s “Copper Empire.” Then the glaciers came, scraping the soaring mountains down to little nubs like a colossal lathe, exposing the copper at the surface and leaving the deep scars you see stretched along the isle’s entire length. Hence Isle Royale’s extremely ridged geography, as you can see from the cross-section diagrams I have drawn at the top.

Thus, hiking the isle length-wise is much easier than cross-wise…making it a deceptively challenging place to backpack. It is very easy to underestimate the difficulty level and overestimate one’s ability to cover ground there. Everything is sharp rock, and the ridgelines running along the spine of the island can be every bit as steep as what you will find in the Rocky Mountains, though they are only around 1,100ft tall. The tallest point on the isle is Mt. Desor, at 1,394 feet.

Isle Royale was named by the French Voyageurs and fur traders in the 1500s-1600s, and eventually was usurped from the Ojibwe by the British. After the American Revolutionary War in 1783, during the Treaty of Paris Benjamin Franklin allegedly drew the new international boundary line to embrace Isle Royale based idly on the fact that he had heard rumor of copper deposits there. He moved his pencil line, and thus Isle Royale and the Yoopee became part of America instead of Canada. As a result, there is a mountain on the isle that was later named in honor of Ben Franklin. The Ojibwe however still considered it theirs until 1842 when they officially ceded it to the U.S.

The explorer Douglass Houghton, Michigan’s hallowed State Geologist, touched off America’s first mining rush in the 1840s when he discovered copper in the Keweenaw. Four lighthouses were erected on and around Isle Royale, hardy Scandinavians and Irish set up primitive fishing villages, and logging began as well. This all fizzled out by the 1900s as the cost and difficulty inherent in operating in such a remote and harsh location quickly killed all of these industries. Isle Royale thus has never been fully conquered by man. There are still many shipwrecks littered around the isle as well, some still visible on the beaches or by diving. During the height of the copper rush, Isle Royale actually had enough of a population to break off from Keweenaw County and become its own independent county, though this bold move was short lived, and after 22 years it reverted back to Keweenaw County protectorship as the isle was abandoned.

By 1940 the isle had officially been made America’s largest, most remote, (and least-visited) National Park. It was legally designated as a protected “wilderness” and has remained untouched since then except for the ranger stations at Windigo on the western tip of the isle, and Rock Harbor at the eastern tip. The few fishermen and other hermits who remained were allowed life-leases on their properties, and could live there for as many generations as there were a descendant who cared to stay and maintain said property. Almost all of those people are gone today and their houses have either fallen into ruin, or been reused or demolished by the Park Service. The hiking trails on the island are merely ghosts of the paths used by the miners and fishermen who once forged an existence here, tracing their routes to the many sheltered coves and places of portaging supplies, or tramming ore from mine to dock. The Park Service has merely maintained these old paths instead of making new hiking trails, and thus the vast bulk of the island’s total area has never had a path cut through it, resulting in huge sectors of impenetrable wilderness.

As a product of both the supreme remoteness and the protected status, the wildlife here is pristine like you won’t find elsewhere. There are moose and wolves on the island. There are bald eagles, mink, fox, ermine, muskrat, weasels, beavers, five different kinds of bats, and there used to be caribou. But there are no deer, chipmunks, ticks, raccoons, or other such common creatures. There are no bears either. There are plenty of rare plants found on Isle Royale however.

I was beyond psyched to finally be going to the isle. I’ve always been a rather solitary person, and hiking is the way I’ve always found seclusion when I want to have time to myself. I’m fascinated by it; seeking out the remotest places, so to me this was a personal dream destination. On the morning of the Sunday the 19th, I hurled supplies into my car along with some maps and hit the northern road on a gorgeous morning. The sky soured once I passed Saginaw however, graying up and becoming very gloomy. It would remain so for the rest of my trip.

As I charged forward on I-75, I had a lot of time to do some thinking. I believe I do my best thinking while on the road. Which is why my steering wheel is covered in ink-pen scribbles, probably. As I was driving I wondered about all the other cars on the road; where they had come from, and their destinations. It occurred to me that out of all of these hundreds of people who I passed on my day-long journey, I was likely the only person on the road going to the ultimate northernmost reachable point in the state. Everyone else around me would be stopping short somewhere along the way. But I…I was going all the way. That kinda felt weird, and special. I was on a quest.
Ultima Thule

  1. The northernmost part of the world believed habitable by ancient geographers.
  2. A distant territory or destination.
  3. A remote goal or ideal.
In medieval geographies Thule was the name of the northernmost known country, often Iceland. The Greek explorer Pytheas is the first to have written of Thule, doing so in his now lost work, On the Ocean, after his travels between 330 BC and 320 BC. The Roman poet Virgil later coined the term Ultima Thule, as a symbolic reference to denote an undiscovered land beyond the borders of the known world, or some lofty, unattainable goal.
[Latin ultima Thūlē: ultima, feminine of ultimus, farthest + Thūlē, Thule.]

As I reached the Straits of Mackinac, I realized that I still had quite a bit of go in me, and it was still early in the day. I refilled my tank and continued across the bridge to the Yoopee without pause. The bridge’s speed limits had been lowered however due to high winds in the straits.

Rolling through the hills and deep arbors of the Yoop’ today the landscape took on a very moody atmosphere, as much of the coastline and encroaching forest was shrouded in fog. The temperature was in the low 50s. Not a single soul was about, but eerily it seemed everyone had their smokehouses going, adding their inky, low-hanging plumes and fishy potpourri to the soup of gray that wreathed the woods. As my car cut through the mists, I knew I definitely had to stop and get some smoked lake trout or whitefish.

I shot through the long “Seney Stretch” with ease, up into the Marquette Range and realized that I was still going strong, and likely would have no trouble reaching my first destination by tonight. The plan was to spend tomorrow investigating some spots in Ontonagon County before finally going the rest of the way to Houghton to meet my boat at 9am the next day.

Around Greenland and Mass City were a string of mines that are a little off the radar of most Copper Country explorers, and the hill where the Lake Mine used to be was particularly riddled with juicy little ruins and open shafts for me to stick my nose into. Recent discussions on CopperCountryExplorer about the Lake Mine area was what sparked my interest; I had been idly studying maps of the location for a few months now.

I noticed that the Bill Nichols ORV Trail snaked through the area along the old railroad bed, and I could park in Greenland at one end, don a backpack and merely hike directly through the whole “corridor” of ruin sites I sought to explore. Should make for a nice little excursion. Not to mention the old Adventure Mine was in Greenland as well, and they hold tours of the place which come with some renown, so I’d heard. It would be neat to legitimately see the inside of a copper mine for once, instead of just surface ruins. And yes, the mine is called “Adventure Mine,” and yes, that is its original name dating back to 1850; it was so named because the mountain that it mined was called “Adventure Mountain,” haha. This corridor through the "foothills" of the Porcupine Mountains is particularly interesting, being richly littered with old mines and ruins seldom explored…“Adventure” is a fitting name.

I pulled into Greenland just before nightfall and it was still drizzling. Greenland is a small village. How small? Their post office is in an old mobile home.

I had no idea where I was going to stay the night, I figured on just crashing out in my car somewhere. But for now I wanted to kill some time until the sun set. So I drove over to the Adventure Mine location, to see what time they opened for business tomorrow. The hills were very dark and hushed tonight, and hinted a sense of excitement and fresh exploration soon to be undertaken, hidden behind the motionless, drizzle-beaded boughs of the brooding woods. I couldn’t stand it, I had to snoop around some. I left my car and walked a little bit. I could tell there was a lot here, but it was hard to see much with darkness rapidly falling. There was a fenced, flooded shaft right at the edge of the trees, marked “Adventure Shaft #3,” and trails going up into the woods. I didn’t want to stray too far, but something caught my attention…the lusty, adventuresome musk that I had been breathing in from the aromatic pines was suddenly punctuated by a distinctly different smell…it was the smell of an open mine. I soon rounded a corner and saw this fearsome maw:

Wow...what a huge adit opening…you don’t see this very often in Michigan. Most are sealed and buried. I stood there in awe as the day’s last gray light faded, feeling the cool exhalations of this hole in the mountain and I knew that this was where the oily, musty decay smell was coming from. I could hardly wait for morning.

CLICK for Part 2.
CLICK HERE to skip right to Isle Royale.

The Greenstone, 2011

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