Wilderness Tripping: Winter
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:
A 7-day, late-winter,
March 5-11, 2006
By Mary Powell
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View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip
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Sunday--Getting Out There
This trip was one we had done variations of a number of times before, so the objective was not to explore new ground but to share our enjoyment of winter camping and to see what winter had wrought on the lakeshore this year. So far, it had been a winter of extremes: we'd had rain on January trips and the February Canadian trip had almost been thwarted by two feet of fluffy new snow. The predicted weather for this trip was mild, with highs to be in the thirties and lows around zero, but the area we would be traveling in had a substantial cover of crusty snow. We were guardedly optimistic: 30's and rain or sleet can be pretty miserable, but if it snowed or stayed reasonably dry we should have fun.
We met Sunday morning at the Dogpatch Restaurant in Munising. We had breakfast and dispensed with the pre-trip paperwork. We had a new tripper, Debbie, from the Ann Arbor area. She and Dave, who hails from Davison, and I had spent the night at a local motel while Michael and Gail had driven over from Marquette that morning.
After breakfast we drove out H58 to Chapel Road. Some of us waited with the gear at the snowplow turn around there while cars were spotted at Chapel parking lot and on the Beaver Basin Road. Debbie and Gail were planning to leave on Wednesday as Gail was signed up for a ski race and Deb was conserving vacation time. Beyond that the spotted cars gave us a choice of endpoint should the weather take a turn for the worse.
A Warm Afternoon
When the group reassembled we donned our snowshoes, buckled on our sleds and started out following an old logging road. Though the warm temps had softened the crust a bit, travel was easy. There were many tracks in the aging snow cover--lots of coyote and deer, squirrels, mice, 'possums, raccoons and birds. We passed some private land, plunging temporarily from the hardwood forest into a lowland covered with evergreens and deeper snow.
Climbing back into the hardwoods on the far side, we continued toward the Little Miners River and Amphitheater Cave. Around mid afternoon we ate lunch sitting on our sleds in the hazy sunshine. After the meal, noting our rate of travel, we realized that even if we pushed ourselves to make it to the cave this evening there would not be much light left when we arrived. And so, when we came upon a nice open area of woods on a rise not far from the river, we decided to camp for the night.
We put our shelters fairly close together so we could chat. Since we were not yet in the park proper (where fires are illegal except in campground fire rings--very difficult to locate under the snow), we gathered wood for a small fire. We built it on my firepan and everyone gathered at my place for a while. We heard coyotes calling a number of times through the evening and stars were plentiful in a hazy sky. The moon put in an appearance too: about a quarter full, it cast pale shadows on the snow, and later made a soft glow on my tarp as I lay down to sleep.
Monday--To the Cave and Beyond
Monday morning it was warm again and lightly overcast. After breakfast Michael calculated that an azimuth of 251 degrees would intersect the river not far above the cave. We could then follow it downstream to see what sort of ice sculpture the falls, which tumbles over the front of the cave, had created this winter.
The sleds pulled easily on the crusty snow. After going a little way we found snowshoe tracks leading in the general direction of the cave. Michael had given the coordinates to several people and was glad to see that some had made it out here. We worked our way along the edge of the steep slope to a spot near the cave.
There we got out ropes and helmets. It's possible to get down to the cave without a rope, but having it there makes getting back up a lot easier. Edging down into the cave we saw that the ice column created by the waterfall had been heavily affected by this winter's warmer weather. Instead of being an almost solid tower, as we'd seen in the past, it was a hollow crystalline cone with the waterfall splashing inside. There was a huge crack across the front that we could peek into.
There were also open pools of dark water below the falls. These had been frozen in previous years. The back of the cave was curtained, as usual, with huge icicles created by water seeping from the layers of sandstone. Most of these icicles were blue or white, but some areas were colored a rusty beige by minerals from the rock. Walking among the huge floor-to-ceiling icicles was like walking among the columns of an ancient Greek building. Beautiful!
When we'd seen our fill of the cave and its ice, we climbed back up to our sleds and had lunch. After the meal we headed up the coast toward Potato Patch campground. It was warm and the snow was a bit sticky. Most of us got down to just one layer of polypro from the effort of pulling the sleds. Michael was looking for another spot to practice with the climbing equipment but though we crossed many rivulets running over the escarpment to the lake, we didn't find a good spot to rappel.
Evening at Potato Patch
We arrived at the campground in the late afternoon, giving us plenty of time to set up and explore before dark. We spread out in the open space setting up a variety of shelters. The view over the lake was beautiful. There was some shelf ice and a few stacks along the shore. Snow on the cliffs of Grand Island glinted in the distance.The sunset was clear and bright with pastel yellows and peaches fading to shades of mauve and violet.
We mostly cooked and ate on our own, but after dinner we drifted over to Gail's place carrying our pads to sit upon and chat. Her shelter had a friendly glow from the candles she'd set out. Overhead the sky was crystal black and the stars were very bright. The night promised to be colder.
Tuesday--Trekking to Mosquito
When we'd had breakfast and packed our sleds, we began hiking the shoreline trail from Potato Patch to Mosquito Campground. It was a cheerful sunny day and we set an easy pace through the hardwood forest. We stopped here and there to check the views from the high beaches. The wind had swung around to the SW and was rapidly carrying the pack ice from the channel. Between the floes the water was many shades of turquoise and blue. It was the first time I'd ever walked that stretch without a mean wind blowing in from the lake and it was most enjoyable.
Approaching Mosquito, we belayed the sleds down a snowy stairway and then down a slope onto the shelf ice. We played a bit there with rappelling, then proceeded to the campground where we set up among the huge pines. Debbie found a neat spot overlooking the river. We made some hot drinks and returned to the shore for the view. There were a couple of snowmobilers (definitely illegal) and a lone fisherman.
The guys experimented some more with the ropes and 'biners. Gail went up the trail looking for scenic spots to photograph. When she returned Debbie and I also decided to go look at the "icy forest," an area along the cliff where the autumn storms drive the spray more than a hundred feet into the air so that the entire forest along the edge becomes coated with many inches of ice. This frozen forest has a kind of beauty, but also a rather spooky or ghostly look. Returning to camp, we spent the evening with food and conversation.
Wednesday--Mosquito to Chapel
I awoke several times in the night hearing rain on the tarp. By the time we finished breakfast though, it had stopped. Gail and Debbie said their goodbyes and headed together toward their cars, leaving us standing among the dripping trees. The day remained cloudy as Michael, Dave and I headed for Chapel Beach.
The snow along the trail was brown with sand blown off the beaches, but the snow back in the woods was deeper, mushy and sticky, so going inland was not much of an option either. We worked our way past Lover's Leap, had lunch at Indian Head, and went on past Grand Portal. Being an expert at losing things, (on previous trips I've lost my glasses, boots, sleeping bag, watch, etc.) I managed to lose (and had to walk back to find) the same blue jacket, not once, but twice that afternoon. The guys were very patient.
At Battleship Row we gazed down at the ice and discussed the possibility of walking out on it to explore one of the coves. As we watched, however, the apparently solid shelf broke up and huge leads of icy water appeared.... Definitely no ice walking there!
The descent to Chapel was a bit tricky involving some quick footwork and sled control. We continued through the campground and picked out a spot near the creek. Again we heard coyotes several times during the evening. We talked a bit about life back in civilization, about work and the politics of the workplace--a good thing to be away from. We were thankful that it wasn't raining though it remained cloudy and the snow was mushy underfoot.
Thursday--Chapel to Coves
A good deal of rain fell through the night. Beginning around 3:30AM it continued in varying intensity 'til we finished our breakfasts--with an extra cup of coffee 'cause walking in the rain was not too appealing. As we started toward Coves Campground the snow was like a sodden sponge. The trees dripped and water puddled on the frozen ground. Fog permeated the forest.
The sleds moved fairly easily on the thin layer of snow in the open campground. When we hit the deeper snow of the trail however, the combination of heavy snow on our snowshoes and the drag of it on the sleds made forward motion a lot of work. As before, near the high beaches the snow was brown with sand and in some places there was more sand than snow.
Taking a few extra breaks, we worked our way to Spray Falls where we found another ice covered forest. This one was created by blown spray from the falls. Trees and bushes were covered with feet of ice in some places. There were unusual fluted layers resembling the wavy edge of some sea shells. The falls itself poured out from under the ice and fell unimpeded to the lake below. We sat on our sleds by the creek and ate lunch.
After eating we started for the campground again, motivated by the thought of looking for caves in the valley nearby. Moving away from the falls though, we saw a broad band of continuous shelf ice below and the thought of getting out on it captured our interest.
By the time we reached the campground, however, we decided that an early camp and a bit of rest might be in order. We pitched our tarps along the open edge of a low plateau with a view of the forest below. The fog which had cleared at midday began to return. By the time we got settled it hung thickly between the trees. Finding wood for our hobo stoves proved a bit of a challenge--even split hardwood was damp inside. There was an intermittent light rain. We cooked, read, and talked about exploring the ice in the morning.
Friday--A Day on the Ice
When we woke the fog was gone and the sky was clearing. After the usual leisurely breakfast we headed for the lake. We planned to spend some time exploring ice formations and checking the pace of ice travel for a year when we would plan a trip entirely on the ice.
Our first challenge was getting down to the shelf ice which lay 15-20 feet below the forest level. In this area the shoreline was more or less a straight drop to the lake. A short way from camp we found a small stream dropping over the edge creating a couple of large ice steps that would make the descent somewhat easier.
I rappelled down and the other two lowered the sled on ropes while I guided them down and detached them at the bottom. When Michael and Dave had rappelled down and retrieved the ropes, we started out.
The entire expanse of ice was covered with rounded lumps of snow varying in size from a couple of inches to perhaps two feet in diameter. On close examination we could see that they were built up of concentric layers of snow. Perhaps loose chunks of ice were rolled about by the wind accumulating layers as they moved. Looking across the open ice, these lumps, colored tan by the imbedded sand, looked very much like a huge colony of small animals sunning themselves.
Also on the shelf ice were rows of stacks, ice formations resembling small volcanoes. They form in the late autumn storms. Waves erode the exposed edges of shelf ice creating chimneys into which successive waves splash and freeze building little mountains of ice with hollow centers. These are fun to climb and explore.
We didn't find the huge caves of previous years but there were a number of them that were large enough to walk or crawl through. There were also some picturesque arches and impressive crevasses. We experimented with the ropes, carabiners and pulleys, belaying off the sleds, Michael's Alaskans and his Bowie. We talked about the challenges of camping for several days on the ice.
At the end of the afternoon we were on Twelve Mile Beach. We set up camp in the woods not too far from the trail leading to Beaver Lake. We went back out on the ice to climb some more and to watch the sunset. It was one of vivid colors: a brilliant orange sun sank behind Grand Island, painting the streaks of cloud in bright orange, crimson, scarlet, fuschia and finally purple. Spectacular!
Back at camp the wind picked up as we ate dinner. The skies were clear and the temperature dropped noticeably. A 3/4 moon was bright enough to paint clear shadows on the snow and fade the stars a little. Orion hung over the opening in the trees above camp, silently on guard. It was a peaceful evening. I finished the book I'd brought and listened as Michael and Dave discussed plans for a future trip along the shore on the ice. Ice axes, it seemed would be essential... And maybe tents would be easier than tarps out there...
Saturday--Leaving the Park
The sky was still clear in the morning and the frosty pastel sunrise developed into a beautiful day. We followed the trail to Beaver Lake, cut across it to the campground and took the road back to Michael's van. A short drive retrieved the other vehicles and we headed for a post trip lunch, feeling good about how the trip had gone.
View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip
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