Ultima Thule, Pt. 7: “The Loneliest Place on Earth”

June, 2011.

RETURN to part 6
Click for trail MAP

I woke early and began packing. I checked my clothes and they were of course still wet. This was hell. I got everything set, ate my little bit of trail mix for breakfast, and steeled myself for the last thing I had to do before leaving--shove myself into those cold, wet god damned pants and boots.

I figured, “Well, at least I have some fresh dry socks,” but that was negated as soon as I stood up and felt the cold goosh of retained water squeeze out from the boots’ insulation and saturate them. My jeans were frigid and sticking to me. I had not even intended to wear these past the first day. I shouldered my poncho-covered pack and strode out the door. I knew that was the only way to lift my spirits--get the hell on the trail.  I had been chomping at the bit to get out of that f#$%ing shelter for one very long night.

It was not long before I came to Siskowit Mine again, and there were more wildflowers I stopped to get pictures of…this is some kind of wild rose, and they were everywhere:

Luckily the rain wasn’t quite so heavy today and it seemed to take pauses every so often, which made me quite glad. I wanted to think that it would maybe clear up later today but I knew better than to get my hopes up. When I finally came into view of the Siskowit Mine after an hour of hiking, it was a rock foundation that had caught my eye, as before:

I’m thinking that this was a hoist foundation, seeing that right nearby was a flooded shaft:

I dropped my pack in a good spot, and then began exploring outward in expanding circles, looking for more ruins.

I had my poncho and compass with me. I didn’t find much.

I traveled up a slight hillside through a clearing, stepping on lush, spongy lichen the whole way.

At one point I found this, which I think may have been manmade, judging by the fairly uniform sizing and arrangement of the rocks, but it was hard to tell:

According to Mindat.org, the Siskowit Mine consisted of four shafts, one adit, and four levels...
Work began at this location in 1845. In 1847, the Siskowit Mining Association commenced operations on the property. The Siskowit Mining Co. took over operations in 1849 and ran the mine until it closed in 1855. The mine produced 190,000 lbs. of refined copper.
That’s a long time to be abandoned in a forest…156 years. It’s a wonder there was anything left visible at all!

As I wandered further up the hill through haggard, lichen-bearded conifers, I saw less and less of note. I started to wrap back downward, keeping an eye all the while on my compass needle. Coming back toward the ruins I had started with at the bottom, I noticed a huge cleft rent into the ground running basically parallel to the trail and shoreline:

So densely treed-in, it was hard to discern its extent, let alone get a decent photo, but it was rather impressive and piqued my curiosity.

I scanned carefully along it, peering in to see if there were any openings that might be caved stopes or shafts. That’s kind of what it looked like to me--a long stope that had been mined up to the surface and caved in. Carefully picking my way through the snaggy corridors of this dark woodland I completed a circle around the cleft and found nothing else in the way of hints.

I did however find plenty of moose droppings. I had yet to see a moose on this trip but their poop was everywhere. I stepped with padded feet through the dim bowers of this secluded vale over fallen log after fallen log and realized that the reason the forest floor was so spongy here was that it was merely made up of layers of thousands of years of decayed fallen trees like the ones I was climbing through now. There were few if any mushrooms here on the isle, mostly just lichen and moss.

Coming through another rocky clearing, I found another suspicious pile of somewhat uniformly-sized rock that may’ve once belonged to a manmade foundation:

I returned to the trail followed by a cloud of mosquitoes that wanted to suck me dry. I reapplied DEET from my backpack and ate some more trail mix.

Siskowit’s location was actually almost right on the shoreline, and in fact here is the small tailings pile that had been spewed from the adit, now barely discernable from any other naturally occurring hump of gravelly ground:

I stood on it to look out over the harbor to Mott Island:

Here is the adit itself, not far from the trail, now flooded and obscured in foliage:

According to Cultural Resources On Isle Royale National Park: An Historic Context, by Philip V. Scarpino, Siskowit Mine was one of the three biggest mines on the isle during the first wave of mining attempts. Siskowit also operated mines at Mott Island, Washington Harbor, and "near McCargoe Cove," but it was here on Rock Harbor that they based their main operations.

Scarpino notes that they most likely took up initial residence in the former fishing cabin left abandoned by the short-lived venture of the American Fur Company. Furthermore, archaeological evidence suggests that they began work by excavating an ancient aboriginal fissure mine nearby--could that be referring to the odd trench I had explored moments ago?

By 1850, the Siskowit Mine was doing well enough to erect a steam-powered stamp mill here. This mill caught fire and was destroyed in the winter of 1852-'53 however. The miners were not ready to give up yet, and worked diligently to have another one ready by spring. Of course, the mine still failed financially by 1855.

The Foote Expedition of 1868 reported finding (and photographing) an elaborate two-story dwelling that had been left abandoned by the Siskowit operation. Judging by the photo, Scarpino asserts that "This was no simple cabin. It was built to last by people who expected to turn the wilderness into a home while they prospered extracting copper from the Island."

There were a couple other random gashes in the rock, also flooded:

Looking down into a steeply angled fissure of some kind:

I was getting torn up by the mosquitoes here, who were now ripping actual small hunks of flesh from me with every bite, and carrying them off into the woods to greedily feast upon with loud gobbling and smacking noises. I knew Three Mile was not far off, so a respite there in a shelter might be nice.

Something along the trail caught my eye again not far away, and I turned to squeeze into the trees to investigate. Between the tightly packed spruces sat two oddly discarded metal trunks.

My first impression was that these were boxes or traps placed here as part of some kind of biological or wildlife monitoring project or experiment by the Park Service. I decided to tilt the lid open on one of them to see the contents, but nothing was inside. The other was equally as empty, but these were in such good condition that I couldn’t figure out why they had been ditched here. They looked maybe like totes that you’d have on a fishing boat or work truck...or perhaps items jettisoned from an airplane in distress in order to lighten its load?

I shot a few more pictures along the trail now, since the rain had pretty much let up for the time being, though the drab gray sky still hung with oppressive gloom.

I found Three Mile Camp deserted. There was a shelter right on the water’s edge that I stepped into so I could take a break.

I peeled off my soaked footwear again and noticed with some measure of excitement that my pants were not quite as sopping as they were before. Damp and clammy yes, but not soaked. I knew Rock Harbor was a mere four miles away, and the time was currently just past noon. I decided I would not in fact stay here at Three Mile for the night, that I would speed to Rock Harbor and get there early so as to secure a shelter.

Then I would be able to go take small hikes (provided it’s not pouring rain) up along Scoville Point and Tobin Harbor and such while waiting for tomorrow to come when I would be able to sail off this horrible rock, and home to dry clothes. All I had to do was make it through today and tonight. One relief was that I would certainly be around other people again, and a modicum of civilization.

When I did roll into Rock Harbor Camp I had another moment of dread as I looked for an open shelter, though at this point I was feeling fairly comfortable with asking someone to share. I did find an empty one eventually however--and it had a picnic table inside it! Oh, luxury of luxuries!

I peeled off my wet things again and sat on it in great pleasure. My pants had continued to become drier, but my boots were a New Orleans-style disaster zone still. Well, despite the objectionable stench and discomfort, at least my feet weren’t floating inside them anymore. I hung my stuff to dry again around the walls of the shelter. The temperature was still decidedly cool, and I put on my dry stuff again. I sat here for quite some time resting, and considering what I would do with the rest of the day. The rain was a mere drizzle now, so I felt like some walking around was in order. On the picnic table I luxuriantly laid out my big topo map, and a spread of trail food so as to give myself a feeling of great and rare extravagance. No longer was I to dwell on the hard floor like some low beast; I couched myself upon a seat, as becomes my true and noble two-legged bearing.

Scoville Point looked to be quite the scenic hike, and short enough to where I could accomplish it without need of a backpack's encumbrance. It was one of the narrow bony fingers of stone that jutted out dramatically from the northeastern end of the isle. It was only four miles out and back however, so if I was going to make it take all day I would have to walk slowly and savor it. That sounded fine to me. Then perhaps tomorrow morning if I wake early and it is not pouring rain, I can take a quick hike along Tobin Harbor before getting on the boat.

I changed socks again and sacrificed one last pair of dry ones in hopes that this would help eventually absorb the moisture out of my boots to a more tolerable level. I set out to Scoville Point, and tarried near the docks and the visitor center / ranger station, but was soon reminded of my shame and continued on into the woods again.

I quickly became aware that this was indeed quite the scenic neck of the woods. More so than anything I had seen on my trip to the isle’s interior in fact. I stopped and took long pause in many places to gaze out across the gray waters and rocky cliffs.

Somewhere along here too was the Smithwick Mine, but I would not come across that until I was on my way back. I soon found a small rocky beach and sat for some time watching in wistful idleness as the waves rolled in from the gray distance. How I wished the sun would just peek out, just for a few minutes.

I thought about how I had not heard any wolves while I was here on Isle Royale. Then again, I was fast asleep all night, and I didn’t really spend any time in the island’s interior which is where the wolves mostly roam. What a bummer. I picked up and moved on along down the stony spine toward Scoville Point. It had started to sprinkle again. Suddenly I came around a bend and popped out of the thick cedar woods to see a huge panorama of rocky formations:

Wow, this was pretty neat. I could see I was getting close to the end of this razor-sharp peninsula. I kind of wanted to climb on the big formation to the right with the weird cove and everything, but I rushed ahead along the trail on my way instead, because it seemed like the rain might be starting up again. It was pretty windy too.

I was now leaving the forest behind, and traversing over mostly bare rock. It was as though I had come to the very fingernail of this bleak and bony spike of land, pointed out in accusatory fashion as if to cast grim aspersion upon the freezing north waters that lay out in the eternal distance of this unfriendly sea. The wind picked up mightily, and I felt the cold breath of the Ice-Water Mansion open up like a dragon’s roar and cut through me as I advanced. There was still one last copse of trees ahead at the tip of the point that I knew would give some shelter from the wind.

My long trailing poncho flapped behind me as I struggled over the uneven rocks against the blustering wind one step at a time. I was walking on the edge of one of the splintered bones of the very earth itself, pushed up from beneath the skin by some violent encounter long before time began. The view was incredible but I only took these few pictures because of the cold and severe gusts.

From here at the tip of this grim peninsula I could see to my left more of the countless, and equally long and narrow quills of land stabbing out into the northernmost waters off the isle:

And there were more scattered nameless islands, as the end of Isle Royale tapered out into nothingness like the tail of a comet:

I stood rigid against the wind for some time, just staring like a statue out into the unknown. I knew that somewhere out there beyond my sight was Passage Island, the true northernmost point of Michigan, despite what I said earlier about Isle Royale being the northernmost. Passage is tiny, and basically just big enough to fit a lighthouse onto.

I knew that it was possible to go there via a boat from Rock Harbor, which the Park Service sometimes runs, but I wouldn’t be able to do that on this trip due to the fact that I was leaving tomorrow morning, much to my regret. So much for achieving Ultima Thule. Oh well.

I headed back to the cover of the forest’s swishing boughs for the long slow hike back to my camp.

On my way I gazed across the inlet of Tobin Harbor to descry the ruins of some wooden cabin:

…perhaps one of the old fishermen’s shanties?

I knew they were still out there, many of them. Unfortunately, to get to this one I would have a hike of almost ten miles around Tobin, including a climb up and down Mt. Franklin, unless I wanted to bushwhack the shoreline.

I got back to my shelter and sat down to take a few more bites of trail mix and bread for dinner. It had started raining again. Oh well, at least I would be leaving in the morning. I sat on my picnic table and decided to carve my trip log into the plank that was holding my hoodie up to dry. As I carved the dates in under my name, and the inscription “Riding the Storm Out: June, 2011--Going Home Tomorrow,” a sudden incongruence occurred to me…there was something screwy with the dates; they didn’t quite mesh up. I stopped and said to myself, “Okay, I know I got here on the 21st, and I am supposed to be here for four days, leaving on Friday the 25th. There’s nothing complicated about that….” Still though, something wasn’t right. I started counting on my fingers. “Today was Thursday, meaning tomorrow is Friday. Pretty simple f@#%ing math there. So then why is this still not making sense?” I decided to stop in mid-carving and get out my boat tickets to solve this matter right now. As I looked, I found with dread that I had made a mistake. Today was indeed Thursday. Tomorrow was indeed Friday. But the 25th was a Saturday. I still had one more day.

Oh hell no. How the hell would I fill up another day? I was, to be honest, quite sick of being here at this point…the rain, the cold, the utter petrifying loneliness, the sickening wetness that had enveloped me for two days, the shame in my heart for having had to turn back. The nights were definitely the worst…the mornings had that repulsive apprehension of having to get back into cold wet clothes, but nothing like the mental panic and loneliness while having to wait for the blackness of night to fall. This is the kind of place that makes you really appreciate things, like the sound of your boiler kicking on at home, or the smell of fresh laundry, or a grocery store. I just wanted to go home. I just wanted to sleep somewhere that didn’t have sad poetry carved into its walls. I wanted to eat something other than nuts and hard bread. I wanted a motherf@#%ing beer, man. Seeing the sun would be nice too. The slight boost in mood that I had accomplished by hiking to Scoville and by securing a place in Rock Harbor for the night was dashed to bits. What kind of an idiot loses track of time so badly out here that he can’t even remember which day he’s supposed to be where? I probably could have still went to Minong Mine…well, maybe, if I had wanted to tolerate the wetness. I don’t know. Whatever.

I heaved a deep sigh of sadness and stared in anger and frustration at the wall of my shelter where I had carved the erroneous trip log. Across the room a larger inscription read boldly, “BOOKS ARE HEAVY--READ YOUR SHELTER.” By the sounds of it, I would have to take that advice again tonight. The hour was about 7pm, and it was raining. I had just used up the one hike I had in the area. I looked at my map. If I wanted to hike anywhere tomorrow without backtracking over stuff I‘ve already seen, I guess I could go out to see Mt. Franklin…but hell--that was as far away as Daisy Camp where I had just come from! Besides I didn’t really feel like climbing another mountain with wet boots. I was hemmed in by the geography of this narrow peninsula…I had only two ways I could legitimately go--Scoville Point, which was a dead-end that I had just gotten through exploring not even an hour ago, or go back into the isle’s interior out past Three Mile which I had also just gotten back from because I had deemed this trip a wash. Damn.

I was now also concerned for my food again--I stopped in mid-chew on the hunk of bread I had in my mouth and swept around with my eyes to take stock of what I had left. Was there enough for another day? Yes, but just barely. If I stretched it. Because of my miscalculating which day I’d be leaving, and because of being so miserable and cold from the ordeal on Mt. Ojibwe, I had taken to eating extra food--both to keep warm, and to keep happy. F*ck….one disaster after another.

Well, I guess I could see about that boat to Passage Island for tomorrow…I had no idea if it was going to run or not, and from what I knew about it, its schedule was pretty irregular. There was no way I could check on it now however, as the ranger office was closed for the night. I would have to wake up extra early and go see. Which meant I now had another three hours to kill until nightfall…great. I swept out my shelter a couple more times, and killed the last bit of whiskey.

CLICK for Part 8.


1 comment:

  1. It would seem you're not very good at keeping track of how many days you have north of the bridge :)


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