Timber Wolf, Lake Superior, Ontario

A lone timber wolf greets
paddlers along the north shore
of Lake Superior, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)

The Rucksack Masthead
By Michael A. Neiger, Marquette, Michigan
Wilderness tripper: backpacking, winter camping, swift-water canoeing
Web site URL: http://therucksack.tripod.com • E-mail: mneiger@hotmail.com
Contents copyright © 1984-2007 by Michael A. Neiger • All rights reserved.

Trip journals and photos


off trail
in the tract
is well-rewarded

Note: this trip log was originally published as an article in the July 2000 issue of the Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine, pages 62-64.

Marquette & Baraga Counties
May 7-9, 1999

By Kevin Breen
   Grand Rapids, Michigan
   Copyright 1999

E-mail author at




Land of big trees

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 the falls.

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 person.



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.



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In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
— John Muir 1838-1914, Alaska Wilderness, 1890

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