Ultima Thule, Pt. 8: “The Passage of the Sleeping Giant”

June, 2011.

RETURN to part 7
I’ll spare you the details of how I passed the rest of that night, but let us suffice it to say that it was very similar to my previous two nights. I arose quite early and marched myself to the ranger office to see about the boat to Passage Island as soon as they opened at 7am. It was grayer and drabber than ever before, and the drizzle still fell. By some miracle when I walked into the office, the girl said that there was a boat going at 1:00 or 1:30pm! Hell yeah! I just had to go over to a different building to let them know to put my name down on the passenger list, and pay the fee. It would be a five or six hour trip: sail eight miles to the island in a small vessel, stay for a couple hours, then come back eight miles. Not bad. And according to the weather report posted at the ranger station today, Mother Nature might be almost ready to take her foot off my nutsack for a minute. I don’t know; I wasn’t seeing it happening myself, judging by the looks of this sky, but I guess it can’t stay rainy forever either can it?

I went back to my shelter to decide how to best spend the time I had until the trip to Passage. I was pretty psyched that I was actually gonna be able to go to Michigan’s northernmost territory after all. I was also pretty happy about the fact that my pants were now tolerable to be in again, despite not being completely dry. And my boots no longer squished when I walked. I folded out my MAP again.

Well, I guess I could make another trip to Scoville Point…might as well. It’s probably more scenic than anything I’ll find by taking the trail up around Tobin Harbor, which is the only one here that I haven’t gone on yet. As I sat and packed a small amount of things for my second trip to Scoville, I remembered on the sign that it said the trail to Scoville Point is a “leisurely three hours”…which meant I had plenty of time. As I was doing this and tidying up my shelter, I was startled when I saw something on my hand--it was a pure ray of dancing sunlight!

I froze and instantly looked up to the sky in time to glimpse a brief chink in the grey armor just wide enough for the sun to smile through for a second. Then, just as quickly as it had come, it was gone. Nonetheless it warmed my mood just a little…maybe, just maybe, this shit would break today. Right as I was finishing up what I was doing and about to leave again, I noticed a man approach my shelter and read my permit tag…he had just arrived in camp and was looking for a place to stay--so far without luck. I told him that I had space to spare and that he could stay with me. He was delighted at this, and said that if neither he nor his son could find another open shelter anywhere, he would definitely take me up on that.

Pretty soon he was back with his son (who was my age), and politely asking me if I was sure I was okay with them bunking with me. This extra courtesy was in fact undue since shelters are intended for multiple persons and no one has the right to an entire shelter to themselves (furthermore he had no idea how desperate I was for someone to talk to by that point). I said “of course,” and they brought their stuff inside. They had just gotten off as mean of a trail as I had come from the other day. I hadn’t yet run into anyone who was actually doing all that good in this weather, heh. Seems like everybody had some kind of horror story. These guys had come all the way from Daisy Farm this morning, having sailed into Windigo from Minnesota aboard the Voyageur II several days ago. They said they had been tenting it since they got on the isle and that this was the first shelter they had wrangled since the rain began. Damn.

According to them, McCargoe was very full when they passed through it on Wednesday…meaning that I had indeed made the right choice when I turned back to return to Daisy Farm. At least they had dry clothes on, I wryly noted. We sat and exchanged stories for some time, and excitedly chit-chatted about the trail in the way that lonely, stir-crazy hikers do in places like this. Turns out they were from DeKalb, Illinois. I was so glad to have someone to talk to finally…another human voice and face…so far, today was turning out pretty kick-ass. I told them I was just about to leave for a few and that they could set out their gear to dry however they wanted. They profusely thanked me once more, and I strode eagerly out the screen door for one more power-tour of Scoville Point.

I made note of the time by peeping through the ranger’s office window on my way to the trail, and set out with great speed and confidence. I noticed the clouds were not quite as heavy as they had been…nor was the wind as angry as it was yesterday. Soon I realized that the patches of blue appearing in the sky were indeed very real and not another hallucination. I still had my raincoat on however.

Reaching the point by 9:49am (according to the time signatures on these .jpg files), I decided to climb around a bit more on these rocks that I had passed on the first time, despite the nagging soreness in my hips from all of my hard exertion in this cold wet weather.

Found more examples of pretty and rare wildflowers in bloom:

Looking over the edge I could see down in the clear water what looked to be exposed veins of feldspar and quartz running lengthwise through the strata.

Indeed this place is a prime spot for copper and silver exploration.

The waters now began to look blue instead of just gray:

On my way back I stopped and took a few pics of some the ancient mine pits dug by the aboriginal natives:

I only recognized that that’s what they were due to a sign nearby. Hard to believe that these nondescript holes in the ground were as old as the pyramids. You have to wonder which ancient copper artifact in a museum somewhere was made using metal harvested from this very pit.

Well, despite the early glimmers of blue and sun, the pall of deathly gray returned in force not long after those fleeting harbingers of hope had briefly triumphed in the sky, reclaiming the day for drear and gloominess. I arrived back in Rock Harbor from the point much earlier than I had wanted to, completing the "three hour" Scoville trail in just over an hour. I sat on a bench in the harbor…I could see that the Isle Royale Queen IV was now docked; she was the ship that sailed from Copper Harbor at the tip of the Keweenaw. I had not been sitting long when a familiar voice behind me called my name; it was the guy from DeKalb, inviting me into the lodge for coffee and breakfast. There was no possible way in the f#$%ing universe that I could refuse that, so in I went.

The father and son were in the middle of breakfast, had seen me through the window and decided to invite me in. I decided against a full breakfast, but greedily sucked down a much-needed cup of hot, soul-nourishing coffee. I couldn’t believe how cool these two guys were; they seemed to love engaging me in conversation (perhaps because I was a Detroiter, which they found fascinating), and there seemed no lack of topics to discuss. We talked about our respective histories and accomplishments in hiking and camping. Soon I noticed that there were people congregating outside at the dock where the MV Sandy was tied up, meaning that the voyage to Passage Island was about to embark. I bid my shelter mates a quick farewell and thanks for the coffee before grabbing my poncho and heading for the dock.

I was dressed in long johns, a sweatshirt, a t-shirt, my now mostly-dry hoodie over that, and my poncho. It was 50 degrees here, but I knew that it would be freezing out on the open water--and god forbid we get another storm blow up on us while we were out there. But it didn’t matter--I was so psyched that this worked out so well, and that I was finally going to a place I had wanted to get to for so long. Captain Ron manned the wheel, there was one deckhand, one ranger, and a small handful of other people (mostly botanists) who were going on this trip. I sat on the fantail this time instead of in the cabin, feeling that I wanted to be in the open air since it was no longer raining. The motors roared to life and we moved out of the harbor and bore northeasterly hugging the shore all the way to where I just had been at Scoville Point. We continued on northeasterly along the strings of islets until we came into the open waters of Lake Superior.

There we ran into some chop, but nothing more than a gentle roll. The MV Sandy chugged along through the three-and-a-half mile wide “Eye of the Needle” as it is called by Great Lakes mariners, so named because it is the narrow gap between Isle Royale and Passage Island, and is the most direct shipping lane to and from Thunder Bay, Ontario. As such it is one of the busier passages in Lake Superior, and in the days before modern navigation was also one of the most perilous, despite being over three miles wide. And it was for that reason also that the Passage Island Light was erected in 1882.

Passage Island: MAP

A mere couple square miles in area, tiny Passage Island with its bleak, towering basaltic cliffs grimly jutting from a meager evergreen canopy in Michigan’s most desolate waters is the “dot” of the exclamation point of the Isle Royale archipelago…the very last outpost of the very outermost edge of the once-mighty empire of Michigan. It sits at latitude 48 degrees and 15 minutes North, placing it about one degree north of Maine’s northernmost point. Due to the danger of navigating this passage (“threading the needle,” in laker parlance) in fog or gale, the Passage Island Light was outfitted with a fourth-order Fresnel lens and a 1,500lb fog bell that was rung by a clockwork mechanism. We motored on for a couple hours in the cold, and soon saw the dark outline of our target on the clouded horizon. Off the port side to the north, Captain Ron pointed out what is known as the “Sleeping Giant.”

The horizon profile of the hills of the Sibley Peninsula at the mouth of Thunder Bay takes on the shape of a giant man laying on his back with his arms crossed:

The legend told by the Ojibwe is that in the beginning of the world, there was a man and a woman, and the Great Spirit, Gitchee Manitou told them the secrets of the precious metals and jewels that lay within the earth, but made them promise never to reveal it to the white man. They lived on for a long time, but one day the woman died. This made the man lonely, and eventually he showed the white man where some of the metals could be found. Then the white man came in great numbers and laid waste to the lands. This of course came to the attention of Gitchee Manitou and he was angry. As punishment the man was turned to stone, and put to sleep for a thousand years. Very much like the Adam & Eve story, if you’re paying attention. There's another more detailed version of the myth, HERE. As fate would have it, the richest silver mine in North America is located precisely at the feet of the Sleeping Giant. It is mostly submerged, and called Silver Islet Mine, but is now abandoned.

I became excited as I could begin to make out the tip of Passage Island where the dour black stone lighthouse stood defiant watch over the strangely calm waters.

We made for a nice sheltered cove in the center of the island.

As we came within reach of the mouth of the cove and revved the engine down to a hushed idle, the attention of everyone on board was arrested by the sight of a large bald eagle flying directly toward us from that cove.

It circled us a few times, almost as if in welcome, or warning, and then turned to fly directly back where he had come from without further ado, as if he now had other important matters to attend to. There was certainly a tense, magical feeling in the air as we daintily glided through the entrance of the glassy cove. The wind had stopped, and the brooding trees stood huddled and motionless as the whole island stared at us in silence, slowly wrapping its stony, forested arms around our boat, as if to pull us into an otherworldly place where time is not measured by man.

The oppressive silence and stillness here was one of the eeriest things I have ever experienced…I have never felt more “watched” than I did at that moment. It felt like we had interrupted something.

Off the port bow we approached a structure, a rickety steel boathouse that was obviously quite old, and in disrepair. As a matter of fact it was the northernmost manmade structure in Michigan:

This was where we tied up, and debarked. A steep trail led up the hill immediately behind the boathouse, and we clambered up in single file. The hike to the lighthouse would be over a mile across fairly rough terrain. This felt like one of those episodes of Star Trek where they take a shuttle craft to land on and explore the surface of a new planet.

We stopped along the way as the ranger pointed out a few of the unique biological features of this island to the botanist contingent of our party. I noted with some apprehension the fearsome-looking “Devil’s Club,” which is poisonous and harms you by injecting venom through its many prickly spines. This plant is not found anywhere else east of the Rocky Mountains besides here on Passage Island:

There was a lot of it around here. Wouldn’t it suck to be a shipwrecked sailor stumbling around here in the dark through a patch of those f#$%ers? It’s odd, but in spots the terrain here on Passage was almost jungle-like compared to that of Isle Royale.

Lots of lush mosses and ferns, so much hanging lichen in the trees that it at times almost gave the impression of jungle vines.

And all kinds of different blooms from what I had found on Isle Royale.

Apparently for some reason moose had never come to this island, even though nothing is really stopping them. As a result, there is an odd abundance of all the plants that moose usually deplete by chowing them down relentlessly in their normal habitats, such as Isle Royale.

Climbing the tall stone bluffs that made up the island's western half, rising over 200 feet above the lake surface, we came to a cliff that overlooked the northern shore of the island.

In the distance was the Sleeping Giant again:

This particular spot (above) is also where a shipwreck occurred several years ago; some wreckage is still to be found underwater. We continued marching along the rough trail to the light station.

Eventually, almost as if Gitchee Manitou had now decided that we were okay and meant no harm, the sun came out and smiled upon the island a couple times, changing it from a frightening, brooding terrain to one of a much more cheerful disposition. Finally, I came out of the woods to see the tower of the lighthouse poking up through the dense conifers:

CLICK for part 9.

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