Wilderness Tripping: Winter
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:
March 3-8, 2005
By Gail Staisil
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Back Country Ice Explorations
Last evening four of us converged in Munising, in anticipation of our March sledge trip within the confines of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Mary, Dave and I had dinner at Sydney's where Mary and I guiltlessly shared a humongous desert. Michael then joined us and ordered his dinner after his delayed arrival. We all seemingly talked forever and quickly noticed that we were the only ones remaining in the restaurant. It was time to bring our conversation somewhere else, so we visited each other in our Sunset Motel rooms. It was there, that we exchanged a fair amount of goodies that we had brought with us..homemade cookies, flavored nuts and trail bars..yumm! We had stayed up late so morning wasn't far away.
I decided to eat breakfast in my room and add an hour of sleep to my agenda. Mary, Dave, and Michael headed over to the Dog Patch Restaurant to dine and then they would meet me at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Headquarters where we would purchase our permits. A hundred dollars later, they were procured. (4 people, 5 nights...it is not cheap anymore). Winter time travel within PRNL does involve permits, but not specific camp site selections like the rest of the year. During the winter, one may camp off trail with a few regulations (distance from trail and water requirements, no ground fires except for camp stoves, etc.)
Today we would embark from the western edge of the PRNL area near Munising Falls. First we would shuttle a few vehicles to our end point on Chapel Road off of H-58. With the shuttling completed, we checked out Munising Falls and then worked the trail a short distance before we would make our first small off trail adventure to a back country falls. We carefully made our way down the steep embankment while Michael stayed back to rig a belay line. He thought it would be a perfect test for some new Ti Block ascenders. We all tried them and had so much fun that we body rappelled back down and used them again ....and again. Dave had done a fair amount of technical climbing before, so he was a great source of information.
Leaving the guys behind to finish playing, Mary and I hooked up our sledges and traveled a short ways to another waterfall. Michael had referred to it as Twin Falls...it was a much steeper challenge. Our plan at this point was to spend much of our time working the series of falls and seeps off of this section of trail..it would be more of an experimental journey.
The guys set up a different belay and rappel system for this round of play. We would use a figure 8 or an ATC (Air Traffic Control) device to rappel and then we would use Ti Block ascenders to get back up the escarpment. We quickly realized that the oval locking biners work much better with the system than some of the more common asymmetrical types. Although Dave had his own climbing harness, the rest of us made swami belts with our climbing rope.
The 60 foot ice formations were really cool and the water flowing inside the frozen columns reverberated a rushing sound. Massive sculptures and textures of ice were abundant. We of course wore our climbing helmets in this fragile environment as the layers of cliff and ice easily erode. By the time we finished having fun, we decided that we should make camp after only another kilometer of travel. On noting the short distance we actually traveled today, Dave suggested that all miles are not created equal...how true when we stopped so often today.
Although the total snow depth is about two feet, there is a good foot of powder on top of a crust beneath. Getting around camp was difficult to do without putting the snowshoes back on our muks.
The Ice Climbers
Barred owls hooted as we drifted off to sleep last night...when I opened my eyes, it was already 8 AM...I certainly had a good sleep. I lay in my sleeping bag listening for sounds and discovered that no one else was up and about. I drifted off again but when I awoke, I heard the sound of a woodpecker welcoming the morning. I looked over and saw the others just starting to get up as well.
The low temperature last night was about 6 degrees. After a leisurely breakfast, we packed up and walked a short distance to the escarpment where we were going to rappel down. It was much steeper and slightly longer than yesterday's challenges, especially the last section which was the most difficult.
We thought we had heard the voices of children earlier this morning and we wondered if they were ice climbing. We descended over the edge and worked our way along the amphitheater walls. The ice column was impressively massive. We found the owners of the voices that we previously heard, two boys and their dad stood at the base of the ice column. They were all equipped for climbing. The older boy was about fourteen and the other boy was much younger. The teen was getting ready to ascend, we watched him climb the column and then free rappel almost effortlessly. His dad had set the ropes anchored from trees on the top of the ledge. We explored the area a bit more and then returned to our sledges after ascending up the escarpment.
It was already almost noon so we decided to walk for a while before we would stop for lunch. Our lunch stop was glorious..sunny and probably 20 degrees. We languished in the sun, rested against the tree trunks and then got back to work. We were to camp in the "Cliffs" area, with a good view of Grand Island.
The Sledge "Rider"
Morning arrived. We all slept under the stars on a brilliantly clear night. I don't think I moved the whole night. I did wake up and glance at the stars but I peacefully went back to sleep.
We left camp to hike the Lakeshore Trail. The contrasts of the different sections of ice in Lake Superior was outstanding. There were ice flows connected by clear ice, and further out there was a clear ice sheet. No apparent moving water was evident but there was no way it was safe to cross over to Grand Island, of which we could see the northern coast.
We noticed some recent woodpecker activity along the way...fresh holes had been drilled into dead trees and the fresh fragments littered the snow. One of these holes was huge in length, it must of been several feet long.
We reached Miner's Castle by noon. We took in the usual views while Michael stretched out on the viewing platform transformed into relaxation by the rays of the sun. As he left the area, his mood was very light and soon he was "sledding" his sledge down the road to Miner's River with him aboard. He lay on top and used a large tree pole for directional control. He was elated and teased us as we arrived at the bottom of the hill much later than he, as the rest of us had used the traditional method of traveling with a sledge - - - snowshoeing.
We all paused at Miner's River and decided to go as far as Miner's Lake before we stopped for lunch. The lake was still frozen while the former wasn't. After lunch, Mary decided to work on getting the accumulation of snow off of her snowshoes and discovered that they were missing. She had been walking without them and they had purportedly fallen off of her sledge a short distance away.. They were quickly retrieved and we all traveled across the lake. Mary led us through the swamp aiming for the notch in the escarpment that we had viewed from the lake. We arrived at the base of the escarpment where we quickly located the frozen waterfall that had cascaded over the cliff. The 60-70 ft. fall was massive in the amphitheater setting.
We explored all the ice seeps and frozen falls and then headed back a short distance along the base of the escarpment. Our goal was to haul our sledges up the 170 ft. steep slope. The guys had pulleys, ropes, biners and more. After a couple hours of experimental work, they decided it wasn't the best option so they descended and we all camped at the base. After dinner, we all practiced ascending and rappelling techniques including the Australian rappel. Michael collected and lit a lot of our candles and placed them at intervals up to the halfway point of the hill. It looked like a downhill ski slope at night.
During the evening, we could hear chunks of ice or rock falling from the waterfall area..it had been a warm day with a definite melt. We could also hear a barred owl during the evening hours.
We had a late evening dessert of rich chocolate mousse and jokingly discussed the merits of the Australian rappel....which is rappelling downhill perpendicular to the slope while you are facing the bottom..lets see the advantages were...being ready to defend yourself from the enemy advancing from the base of the hill, photographing the scenery on the way down, watching an avalanche rolling over your friends at the base...it was definitely time for bed :)
Out Of The Swamp
The temps had stayed warm throughout the night. I used my big puffy jacket for a pillow..what luxury. We ate breakfast and then decided to do some more rappelling and ascending before we left camp. Soon after, we worked the edge of the escarpment in the swamp, We eventually worked our way out of the tangled cedars and in to the open hardwood forest. Sledging became much easier but we soon had to climb back up the escarpment to rejoin the Lakeshore Trail which we had left 24 hours before. It had started to snow during our journey and it lightly continued into the afternoon hours.
During lunch we sat with our backs to tree trunks to keep out the wind and snow. As we traveled the trail, the snow along the edge was highly interspersed with much sand from previous strong winds...the snow had become a light brown color.
We met two backpackers along the way. They were pleased to see us as they hadn't seen anyone so far on their trip from Grand Marais west to Munising. One of the fellows owned a cabin in Grand Marais. They were carrying packs rather than sledging so they inquired about our mode of travel. They had tried to lighten their loads by being conservative on their food rations. With the deep powdery snow on parts of their journey, they realized they didn't bring enough food to keep their energy level up...we offered them food as some of us always have way more than we need. They declined mostly because they had enough left, as they had cut their rations a few days before to make it last.
Shortly after, we took an alternative bushwhack route through the hardwoods to keep us away from the shoreline trail. We would need to converge with the trail again to lower our sledges down a steep slope adjacent to the stairs that lead to the Mosquito Beach area. Some of our sledges took a beating in this attempt but most recovered nicely.
We traveled on the ice crust along Lake Superior. There were huge mounds of ice formations making it almost like a mini mountain landscape. We traveled in to the Mosquito area to make camp.
Soon after, it was approaching sunset. It was a brilliant sky with oranges and pinks and a neat sun pillar appeared. As we watched the sunset, our attention was divided with focusing on the open water area that ran like a river in front of us. On the seaward side it was a sea of ice chunks...some were like round swimming pools with their centers filled with liquid water. As we observed, we could see waves working their way in to the open river-like area. The snow chunks undulated as the roller waves underneath helped create a new pattern.
Today we saw coyote tracks again but little other animal sign activity.
During the night, it began to snow. It was mostly the pellet icy type of snow. I had been using my green puff jacket for a pillow again. Since I was sleeping out in the open without my bivy covering my head, I had to scramble a bit...I removed the jacket from underneath my head and stowed it in my sledge which was right near my feet. The snow didn't accumulate too much by morning but it's better to keep my gear from getting wet.. The winds had picked up throughout the night and the ice washed out into the big lake...it was replaced by huge waves. We were to bushwhack today from the shoreline to Chapel Lake where we would explore a series of caves. The winds were wild but back in the forest, they were less of a problem...still there, but easier to contend with. It was mostly a hardwood forest after we penetrated a thick fringe of evergreens. The temperature hovered around 22 degrees, but with the winds it felt much colder. I think all of us became somewhat chilled to the bone.
We had lunch at the end of a draw and then T-boned the existing trail before Chapel Lake. We re-located the caves and hauled our gear down the escarpment leaving our sledges on the ridge. This is the only time of the year that one can back country camp at PRNL, as the rest of the year, you must stay at official sites. The no fire rule still prevails other than a fire in a camp stove.
Mary and I spent the night in the deepest part of the cave while Michael and Dave chose their berths under the receding edge of the escarpment wall. We all had complete protection from the winds which still prevailed. Mary and I stayed "down under"...we wondered if it was warmer on the top ledge. There was an ice seep in the cave with hanging icicles included. We named the cave "Winter Haven", Michael suggested that the name might be a little too cush :)
Everyone was rather quiet tonight. Mary and Michael were reading, Dave was in deep thought, and as for me...random thoughts were going through my head as usual..I wondered if there had ever been a fire in this cave before and I wondered if anyone had ever slept in this cave pre-PRNL, especially during the winter months.
A band of stars appeared..the rest of the sky was cloudy, I went to bed early and left my candle burning nestled in the rocks on the otherwise sandy floor. The candle reflected off the walls and the textures of the ceiling were quite evident. It was a cool way to drift off to sleep. The candle lasted long into the night and it was fun to see the illumination when I awoke intermediately.
Morning arrived. I heard Mary getting her breakfast together while I lay in my sleeping bag. I didn't have much to do this morning as my water was already procured and prepared for the short journey ahead.
We bundled up our gear and we carefully navigated the icy ledge with our belongings. Michael balanced his load on his walking stick which he placed across his shoulders. All of his gear hung from the stick, making only one trip necessary. We climbed to the ridge and loaded our sledges.
We bushwhacked a short ways out to an existing trail and mostly climbed up to the parking area for the Chapel Basin. The road is unplowed in the winter so we still had over 3 miles of mostly uphill hiking to do before we would reach our vehicles.
It snowed heavily at times and the winds were still brisk. We reached our destination by noon and loaded our gear into the shuttle vehicles. We all traveled to Shingleton for lunch so that Mary and Dave could easily make their way back downstate. During lunch, Michael already formulated an "agenda" for next year's March trip while it was fresh in his mind. We all discussed other options for future winter trips and more...they might include the Porcupines and McCormick Tract...I sure hoped so, but it would depend on other trippers willingness to travel further. A change of pace is always welcome but going back to traditional areas always has its rewards too.
Michael shuttled me back to my car in Munising and then I headed west to see my family in the Keweenaw. I was looking forward to visiting, skiing and enjoying the huge accumulation of white stuff in that area...I was not disappointed!
View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.
Read Mary Powell's trip journal from this trip.
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