Ultima Thule, Pt. 9: “Who Are You?”

June, 2011.

RETURN to part 8
Click for trail MAP

The trail bounded down past some concrete footings that I found out were the ruins of an early radiophone communication tower:

It was one of a pair of twins that I believe had a wire strung between the two; as you can see the other tower is still standing.

Passage Island was once almost purchased from the US government by Canada. The Canadians petitioned US Congress in 1871 for appropriations to put a lighthouse here, but Congress was not interested, since such a light would have served mostly Canadian ships and there would be little benefit to Americans. In 1875 US Congress was finally persuaded to build a light on Passage Island if the Canadian government would reciprocate by building a lighthouse marking the dangerous Colchester Reef in Canadian waters of Lake Erie. Still no action had been taken by the Americans in 1879, so the Canadian Prime Minister tried to convey the urgency of the situation by offering to buy the island. Initial steps for lighthouses at both Colchester Reef and Passage Island finally began in 1880.

There was a helipad, which is still used I imagine by the Coast Guard, seeing as the Passage Island Light is still an active aid to navigation:

The lighthouse was automated via solar panels in 1978, and has received little maintenance since then. In fact, most of the time it is Captain Ron who is roped into sailing out there to do repairs on the functioning radio antenna. He mentioned that the outhouse had one of its walls blown completely off last week from another storm.

What a lonely outpost of civilization….

The lighthouse itself was built of the black basaltic stone hewn from the nearby cliffs and is as formidable a fortress as you will find on the Great Lakes. Its Norman Gothic architectural style lends even more to the austere appearance. Personally, it might be my favorite…if I had my choice of any ten buildings in the state that I could choose to own or live in, this lighthouse would be on the list for sure. The date stone above the door denotes the year construction was begun. It was not completed until 1882:

I would have helped myself to this opening on the basement window, but the ranger stayed nearby the whole time:

Passage now also functions as a remote weather monitoring station for the lake (National Buoy Data Center Station PILM4), hence all the doodads and implementia on the catwalk of the lantern room. I walked out to the point across the jagged rocks at the foot of the light. Here you can see some more storm damage:

The "Eye of the Needle" passage is notorious for fog. In December 1933, the lightkeepers received a commendation for their service when the fog horn failed during a sub-zero blizzard. They braved the storm to repair it, but in the process one of them received severe frostbite to his face.

The land mass you can see in the distance here is the tip of Isle Royale itself:

Jeez-o-Pete’s--an abandoned two-holer, eh:

The Canadian passenger ship Monarch wrecked at Blake Point on the northern end of Isle Royale in December 1906, and the Passage Island lightkeepers assisted in rescuing them. In December of 1919, the ice was so bad that the Coast Guard boat sent to pick up the keepers of this light could not make it through, and they had to be rescued by a Canadian icebreaker.

This old tram system was installed to make the work on the fog signal easier; it was moved by a steam powered winch.

The wheels are stamped as manufactured by the Russell Wheel & Foundry, Detroit:

Russell Wheel specialized in making railroad cars for the logging industry as well as structural steel for lighthouses, but they also provided ironwork in a few cases for downtown Detroit skyscrapers, such as the Hammond Building and the Farwell Building.

The ruins of the radio tower footings again:

I personally think this is one of the handsomest light stations on the Great Lakes:

Finally it was time to head back to the MV Sandy.

View from another cliff:

The Sleeping Giant again:

The sun was now out in full force, and I was very much put at ease by this.

The darkness of my mood had begun to melt away entirely.

Leaving the protective cove to head back into the open seas of Superior.

Passing the light station again, on the way back to Isle Royale:

Looking back one last time:

Though I have just said that Passage Island is Michigan’s northernmost point, I must confess that there is yet another place further out in Michigan waters that is more northerly, the Gull Islands (another VIEW). Consisting of little else than lichen and bird crap-covered rocks barely poking above the water’s surface, the Gull Islands are Michigan’s literal “northernmost point,” though they are not habitable, and are not reachable unless you have your own boat or seaplane. They do not lie anywhere near a shipping lane, and as such are not a navigational hazard, so there is no lighthouse there. The coordinates are 48.26209 N by 88.26479 W. As the bow of the MV Sandy nosed toward home port leaving Passage Island behind, we could barely see the dark, low silhouettes of the Gull Islands out across the fantail, looming on the horizon just to the right of Passage. For now, this was as close as I would ever get to reaching Ultima Thule.

It was a beautiful evening on the water as we came back along the string of islets leading into Isle Royale.

Upon landing at Rock Harbor again, I felt myself in such a good mood, and so ready for real food again that I would break down and have dinner at the Rock Harbor Lodge. I sat right at the bar and ordered a Gay Miner Beer (two, actually), and a big fat hamburger. While I was there I ran into the drenched chick from Calumet again, only this time she was dry and drinking there with her family who I surmised were staying at the lodge. She recognized me and came over to thank me for giving up my shelter. I barely had anything to say between ravenous bites of my meal however.

I finished up and came back outside, now nicely buzzed off of two beers, seeing as my tolerance had gone down and my metabolism had gone up from being out here. I noticed with some satisfaction that the Ranger III was now also sitting nicely at moor, waiting to take me home in the morning:

The evening sun was so beautiful and warm that I set out on a short hike up along Tobin Harbor.

The waters of Tobin were so perfectly quieted that it caused an almost disorienting mirror-effect.

The weather was absolutely perfect right now. Even without the slightest breeze, I was completely comfortable and moved at a fair clip across the trail. My pants were now dry, and my boots were nearly enough so to fool me into thinking they were.

The strange calls of the many rare birds in the motionless boughs echoed through the woodland for miles.

I heard more loon calls as well. Still hadn’t seen any moose or wolves, though I kept having to step over moose crap.

At the Suzy’s Cave trail, I crossed back over and looped back to Rock Harbor. Before I came to the actual Suzy’s Cave however, I noticed something that took me aback for a moment--it was another cave:

I snapped a few shots and crawled in...

It led out to the mouth of yet another cave--and then it dawned on me--I was in Suzy’s Cave….

I hadn’t bothered to explore the actual cave the first time I was here, because I assumed it led nowhere. Oops!

Continuing back along the shore to camp, I looked out across the becalmed Rock Harbor and the outer fence of islands:

The horizon was still lost in a haze but all else was perfectly clear. It was like the string of islands was hanging weightlessly in the clouds….

I returned to my shelter a little tired from all the walking I’d done today, but not quite willing to call it an early night in such heavenly weather. God dammit, I came all the way here and this is my only nice day, so I am going to get my money’s worth out of it.

As I sat there chatting with my newfound shelter-mates and momentarily airing my feet out, I got the idea, “hey, why not walk out to Scoville Point one more time and wait for the stars to come out?” That could be incredible. I could only imagine the insane brilliance of the night sky out here. My Illinoisan companions wished me luck, and I split.

By the time I got all the way to the point the twilight was still deepening, and I had lots of time to sit and think, while enjoying the amazing beauty of the isle when it is not frowning at me and pissing rain on my head. The natural beauty here is every bit as gorgeous as you will find in the better-known national parks out west, such as Yellowstone.

As the sun set I snapped a few 15-second exposures of the scattered coastal islands floating in a deep blue abyss, like a belt of asteroids in outer space.

Unfortunately the grand celestial display of stars that I was hoping for did not pan out, and was lost in the haze of the lake’s moist air. I slowly groped my way back through the dark for the two miles to Rock Harbor to call it a night. My Illinoisan shelter-mates were already snoring. I crawled into my bag, very happy for once. All my gear was already mostly packed in readiness for a quick departure tomorrow morning.

I actually sat awake for some time, unable to sleep. There was something on my mind, like I was a little creeped out by the walk back from the woods or something; a feeling that I couldn’t shake. The father next to me was quite restless in his dreams, and I could hear him moving a bit. After a while I could tell he might be having a nightmare, and emitted a little whimper or moan every so often. Eventually I figured out that he was not just moaning, he was trying to say something…he was definitely dreaming; it sounded like he was running from something, or witnessing something too horrible, too spiritually troubling to describe. Suddenly, he let out the most bone-chilling sound that I have ever heard come from a human mouth--


My heart froze. It was just the way he said it--gutteral, almost growled--through his tears of helpless anger and fear. Not even William Shatner could’ve made it any more dramatic, but this guy wasn't acting. I had just heard the primal utterance of mortal terror that an imperiled creature emits from the core of its soul, when it realizes it is about to die. Whatever this guy was dreaming, it was certainly the absolute worst possible thing that he had the ability to conceive of. It was like an invisible phantom of the woods was hunting him, or some shadowy inhuman ghoul of pure galvanized evil was standing before him, methodically cutting his wife and kids into ribbons while he watched, paralyzed. I realized that if this guy’s dream was scary enough to make me shiver, then I had to wake him up just out of common decency.

Luckily his son had also been awakened by the horrible groan that had been loosed, and yelled “Dad! Wake up, you’re dreaming!” He had to kick him to get him to come out of it, and when he did he was blubbering like a baby…“Oh god…the most horrible dream…thank god….” The son asked him if he was okay, but he went on, “…it was bad…oh god…it was so bad…” and paused to compose himself before finally answering “Yes, I'm ok. Oh god…it was horrible…Kyle, come here,” and reached out to embrace his son for several seconds. I said nothing, pretending to still be asleep as I continued listening. Then the son said, “Dad, I had the same dream last night. It's okay, just go back to sleep.” There were a few more minutes of traumatized, shaky breathing from the other side of the shelter before I heard the father finally wind down and drift back to sleep.

I sat, shaken, and yet pondered with great curiosity that last surprising comment for quite some time. They had the same dream?

That was...strange. I had never witnessed anything like it. It’s kind of frightening to hear a grown-ass man shaking and in tears over a mere dream, so it must have been something incredibly momentous rearing its head from the deepest nadirs of the human psyche. I recalled how he had told me at breakfast this morning how this was his twenty-fourth visit to the isle. His son was on his eleventh. They had been out in the woods for a pretty long time before I came across them…and then for them to both be having the same dream? That’s f’d up, like genuinely unnerving…I mean, just the way he said it. “WHO ARE YOU”…? That is about the most messed up shit I ever heard.

They must have both experienced something pretty traumatic at some point in the past that was producing these dreams. I could only speculate as to what. Laying there pondering this in the dark as silence returned to the woods again, I began to postulate potential demons of my own that may have resulted in this sort of episode. Solitude, and the feeling of being at the mercy of the woods can really tinker with the human mind. I was afraid to guess at what the dream was about, but I kept drifting to thoughts of the windiigo and other such deep-seated fears of things that have menaced mankind from the dark bowers of the primordial forest since the dawn of time. There are thick, strong roots still holding human consciousness down to superstition of the unknown. It is a rare man who is very easily plagued by trouble from it, but it is an even rarer man who is not troubled at all by the blackness of the unknown.

Being out here forces you to be at odds with your psychological problems, like a boxer in a ring. Suddenly all the distractions of the city, and mental noise of one's daily routines are left behind, and the creeping terrors gnawing at your conscience are brought out into full view here, where you have nothing left to hide behind. If you are a strong person, or a person who does not quickly succumb to the loneliness of the woods, you may not have to put on those boxing gloves in your lifetime. But any man, if he spends enough time out in the wilds, I think he would eventually find himself in that ring, unable to escape, circling round and round with his demon in a one-on-one death bout. It’s just a question of how long it takes for you to succumb. And whether you are psychologically strong enough to prevail.

It was a long time before I could fall asleep.

CLICK for part 10.

Great Lakes Lighthouses Encyclopedia, by Larry & Patricia Wright, p. 388-389
History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit, Michigan, by Clarence Monroe Burton


  1. Passage Island, eh? TBH I completely missed this while planning out my Isle Royale adventure. Will definitely have to keep it in mind, though.

    Also, that's one hell of a spooky experience.

    1. Passage Island was totally cool.

      And yes, that episode with the dream experienced by my shelter-mates was relayed verbatim from my memory, jotted down when it was still fresh in my head. It's something I won't forget, and have never figured out...and it still gives me chills thinking back on it today. Perhaps it was magnified in my mind by the fact that i myself was in a dark place in my life at the time, but nonetheless it was like something straight-out-of-a-movie creepy...


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