For the past couple of years, I kept hearing
hikers speak about the McCormick Tract Wilderness in reverent
voices. They talked of a land of big trees, unspoiled rivers
and lakes, uncommon wildlife, swamps, and trackless wilderness.
The more I heard, the more I knew I had to go there.
A weekend in early May turned out to be
the perfect time to experience the McCormick Tract. Four of
us, three men from Michigan and a woman from Wisconsin, met
in Marquette. From there we drove 50 miles northwest to a
remote trailhead in the northern part of he tract.
We entered the forest in the morning under
gray, sodden skies with winds gusting up to 20 miles an hour.
A trail led us through a mature forest of white pine, eastern
hemlock, and a mixture of birches and other hardwoods. The
ground already was soaked from a heavy rain.
The tract once was crisscrossed by more
than 100 miles of trails, but they faded away long ago through
lack of use and maintenance. This trail, faint to begin with,
lasted for about a mile. Then we were on our own. Travel by
map and compass was the rule here.
Our leader, Michael Neiger of Marquette,
was a veteran of the McCormick Tract. Most of his trips had
been in the winter, either snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
His maps were annotated with his favorite places, and with
sites he wished to explore.
To lead us and to keep close track of where
we were, Neiger had frequently to consult the maps and compass.
He used the rivers and swamps, high spots, and the lakes to
make sure he was "found" at all times.
On the West Branch of the Yellow Dog, a
National Wild and Scenic River, we could hear the roar of
a waterfall well before we could see it, and soon we were
marveling at the river tumbling down a series of steep cascades
and creating piles of white foam.
We followed upstream and crossed the river
on an old beaver dam. We climbed some high knolls, which gave
us excellent views of the surrounding forests. The trees,
most just beginning to leaf out, seemed to represent every
possible shade of green.
We climbed another outcrop to the bare
rock at the summit. This area, Neiger told us while consulting
his maps, was once known as the Crow's Nest. He said the former
owners of the tract, the McCormick family, with the help of
other wealthy landowners, built a wooden lookout tower here.
A few remains of the tower still littered the site.
The McCormick family bought the tract around
the turn of the last century after most of the land had been
logged of its prized white pine. The McCormicks were descendants
of Cyrus H. McCormick, the inventor of the reaping machine,
and had made their fortune with International Harvester.
Here in the Upper Peninsula, just south
of the Huron Mountains, the family had built a network of
camps, buildings, and a lengthy trail system. The main estate
was on an island in White Deer Lake, but nearly all the buildings
have been dismantled and the trails have faded from lack of
use. The only remaining signed trail in the wilderness is
the three-mile-long foot trail to White Deer Lake in the tract's
southern section. Alert hikers can spot the faint remnants
of trails and roads from the McCormicks' time, as well as
tools and implements.
Gordon McCormick donated the land to the
U.S. Forest Service in 1967. The 16,850 acres of the McCormick
Tract became designated as a federal wilderness when the Michigan
Wilderness Act was passed by Congress in 1987. It is Michigan's
second largest federally designated wilderness area, smaller
only than the Sylvania Tract, and is about one-third the size
of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
After lunch, the rain came down in a steady
drizzle that would continue for the next 24 hours. The rain
made the logs and rocks slippery and we had to be careful
where we stepped. A twisted ankle or knee out here would be
a major problem. Hypothermia was also a concern in these conditions,
so we had to stay warm and dry.
Later we visited the East Falls on the
main branch of the Yellow Dog River. It was just as impressive
s the first falls, featuring rapids, plunging water, and still
pools, all the while surrounded by a deep forest. Two old
footbridges from the McCormick era crossed the river below
Leaving the falls, we headed cross-country
through a marsh, through another section of forest, and across
a marshy steam (where I managed to step up to one knee in
muck), until we came to Bulldog Lake in the evening.
"I go to the wilderness to suffer,"
Steve Coppock of Troy joked, trying to keep our spirits up.
"I go to be humbled."
The lake was a welcome sight, even in the
rain. A forest that came right down to the water surrounded
the entire shore. On one side, stumps from an old forest poked
through the water. As we retired to our tents, a loon cried
out from across the lake.
The McCormick Tract is a haven for many
kinds of wildlife. In addition to loons we heard ruffed grouse,
pileated woodpeckers, and northern saw-whet owls. We saw the
signs of moose, deer, black bear, coyote, wolf, fox, and beaver.
Both moose and pine martens were reintroduced
to Michigan near the tract because of the exceptional habitat
for both. Both animals are believed to be flourishing in the
tract. Wolves also likely roam the terrain.
Though we didn't fish, small populations
of smallmouth bass, northern pike, and trout inhabit the nutrient-poor
waters of the lakes and streams. At least 18 sizable lakes
are spread throughout the tract, and the headwaters of four
rivers--the Huron, Yellow Dog, Dead, and Peshekee--start here.
The forests were last logged more than
70 years ago. In many rugged sections--rocky outcrops, marshes,
etc.--giant old trees soar above the forest canopy. The outcrops
are nearly as high as it gets in Michigan, as several top
out at more than 1,880 feet above sea level.
The second day, still cold and wet, we
hiked through the forests and marshes and along the margins
of streams. In one scenic marsh we admired many spider webs
jeweled with raindrops.
Around lunch we came to Island Lake, so
we ate near shore in a nice pine grove. Nearby a high rock
cliff, covered with statuesque white pines, plunged into the
dark waters of the lake.
We continued for another mile and a half
until we came to Lake Dortay, a scenic little gem surrounded
by wilderness. We set up camp for the night next to a rocky
lip jutting into the lake, which on the old maps was called
Pine Point. Mercifully, the rain stopped. A cold wind still
blew but the clouds broke and soon the sun shone on us and
transformed the landscape.
In the evening, fish began rising to the
lake surface, forming ripples and making little popping noises.
Spring peepers called from all directions. Two common mergansers
zoomed past and skidded to a landing on the lake's far side.
A bat darted over the water. As the first stars came out,
we heard the faint calls of sandhill cranes, and then the
beeping of a northern saw-whet owl.
"This is wonderful," Neiger said.
"No people. No beer cans. No litter. There aren't many
places like this."
On our final day we lingered around Lake
Dortay until 11 and broke camp under sunny, warming skies.
We headed up a small drainage and then entered a vast section
of forest. The walking was easy on the leaf-covered ground
among the many large trees, some at least 12 feet around.
Boulders as big as buses rested in the
woods far from any other rocks. Scenic brooks meandered through
small valleys. Spring beauties and trout lilies poked through
the forest floor. Black-throated green warblers, northern
parulas, and ovenbirds sang around us. Grouse continued to
drum, and we occasionally flushed one.
We climbed to the tope of several rocky
knolls and looked out over the forest. Whenever we looked
there were only trees. For our entire trip we didn't see another
The beauty of the land climaxed at a stunning
box canyon. On three sides of us, rocky cliffs, covered in
green moss, rose 60 feet straight up. The warm sunshine filtered
through to the forest floor.
When we walked out onto the dirt road,
after three days of bushwhacking., we regretted leaving the
tract. We were already making plans for our next visit.