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.



Amphitheater & falls

Little Miners River Falls
greets Sierra Club
at the entrance to the
Amphitheater cave
(Photo by Gail Staisil)


Trip journals and photos



in the
Miners River Basin
and the
Chapel River Basin

Alger County
August 30 -- September 3, 2001

By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2001

E-mail author at


In the beginning

On a Wednesday evening in the end of August, having completed a long but not unpleasant trek from the lower peninsula, I arrived at the outskirts of Munising with my carpool partner, Lori Watson, for the second time this summer. It was to be the take off point for a five day hike at Pictured Rocks as it had been for a trip to Grand Island a month earlier.

We bypassed the city tourist park, which we'd found to be less than 7 spelunkerssatisfactory on the last trip, and headed for the USFS Bay Furnace Campground a little to the west in the village of Christmas. There, we found many of the amenities the tourist park lacked: relative freedom from road noise, spacious forested sites, quiet neighbors, and ground that you can get a stake into.

Bob, Sue, Lori, Mary, Mike,
John, and Michael pause
over a tributary of the
Chapel River.
(Photo by Gail Staisil)


After claiming our spot and setting up shelter, we ventured back to the highway seeking dinner. A couple hundred yards from the campground driveway we found Foggy's Steakhouse and Bar. There you can cook your own steak on an open grill--or for an additional $2.00 they will cook it for you. Not being quite hungry enough for steak, we ordered sandwiches which were very good.

After dinner, Lori lightened her pack and read while I ambled down the beach savoring the cool breeze, the view of Grand Island across the bay, and the waning sunset. I returned to camp by the light of an almost full moon. The weekend was looking very promising.

Gathering and going

Thursday morning, Lori and I joined other members of the group at the Dogpatch restaurant, an easy-to-find place with a varied menu and a decor flavored by the 'Lil Abner cartoon strip.

Starting the trip with us were Mike Ugoroski from Flint, Bob Massa from Bloomfield Hills, John Hergott from Fenton, and our leader, Michael Neiger from Marquette. Gail Staisil from Midland and Sue Schenk Drobny from Marquette would be joining us later. Over pancakes and a smorgasbord we caught each other up on what we'd been doing since our last trips together.

Breakfast concluded, we drove toward the park. The sky Mary Powell darkened and there were heavy showers, but by the time we lifted our packs to begin the hike, the sun was out again. After walking a short way down a gravel road, we began a bushwhack along a section line to avoid crossing private land.

Mary Powell takes a break
from exploring the many
and varied caves secreted
away along the rim of
the Chapel River Basin.
(Photo by Mary Powell)


On the far side of a small creek, the brush became thicker and in a little while our footprints were filling with water as we lifted our boots. Still farther along we found ourselves stepping from hummock to hummock and finally we were balancing on roots, fallen saplings, and small tufts of grass.

Somewhere nearby was a stream with very leaky banks. Michael suggested we might want to change to sandals or aqua socks as we would be fording the Miners River soon. Those with good balance and dry boots did that. Some of us decided there was no use in getting a second pair of footgear wet.

We came upon the river just below the beaver dam responsible for the widespread flooding. Fording was a bit tricky but was accomplished without major problems. We then located a semi dry spot for lunch. Despite the swampy nature of the area, there were few bugs and the break was much enjoyed.

A scan of the topo map as we prepared to move on disclosed the next obstacle: multiple contour lines merged into a half inch wide brown streak directly ahead. Someone asked if there were any stairs....

Entering frogland

The slope proved to be steep, but not terribly difficult to climb, though I was personally thankful at a number of points for strategically placed vegetation. We reached the top expecting to bushwhack much of the afternoon to get to our intended campsite--a small lake on the Little Miners River.

However, we came upon a not-too-old logging road headed in the right general direction and we followed it instead. Every hundred meters or so there were sizeable puddles in the sparsely vegetated Little Miner's River Ponddirt road. Each puddle was the home of numerous small frogs who dove for safety as we approached, making splashing sounds and leaving ever-widening circles of ripples...

An old beaver pond,
now a wetland,
forms the headwaters of
the Little Miners River,
a tributary of the Miners River.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

We found a pleasant campsite at the location Michael had proposed--near the banks of an old beaver pond on the Little Miners River.

Amphitheater: a spectacular cave

I awoke Friday morning to find the dull headache of the past evening had grown to awesome proportions. I was glad to have an ample supply of Tylenol and caffeine which, in time, fixed the problem.

We began the day by bushwhacking to a point farther down the river where Michael had previously discovered a small but picturesque falls dubbed Little Miners Falls. A short distance farther along the river we swerved to the side and located a ledge of sandstone, a remnant of what had been a rocky shoreline thousands of years ago when the water level in Lake Superior was Amphitheater Cavemuch higher.

Sierra Club spelunkers
enjoy lunch in the
massive, 2000-person
Amphitheater Cave
along the Little Miners River.
(Photo by Gail Staisil)

We donned our helmets and edged along the wall of rock. Clambering up a slope, rounding a corner and ducking under a ledge, we were greeted by an awesome sight: a huge sea cave had been cut into the stone by the ancient waves.

The arch-opening of the cave was easily 50 feet high and 120 feet wide. The cave was at least 80 feet deep. The Little Miners River cascaded from the center of the arched roof into a pool directly in front of the cave where it then flowed out of sight through the screen of trees into the valley below. Michael left us there to explore and enjoy the beauty of the place while he went to pick up Gail at a prearranged rendezvous.

Peach and gray layers of rock circled the walls of the cave. The splashing of the river into the pool was soothing. Everything in the cave was cool and moist. The whole place was very secluded: walk a few meters downstream and the cave disappeared from view, obscured by the trees. Michael returned with Gail in the time he had allotted. We ate lunch there in the cave, still taking in its beauty.

The onion field

After lunch we bushwhacked along the edge of the valley toward Potato Patch campground and a possible meeting with Rick who had been on our Grand Island trip. We didn't find him, but we did find some interesting artifacts from past logging and/or syrup making activities: a sledge tip, an evaporating tank, and heavy cast-iron grates. Syrup vat and grate

A large, metal vat
and cast-iron grate
found by Sierra Club hikers
south of the Potato Patch
Campground were likely
part of a maple sugar operation
in years past.
(Drawing by Mary Powell)

We ate dinner at Mosquito Beach then bushwhacked into the buffer zone at the park's edge to camp, selecting a fairly open area in the beech-maple forest for our site. Walking around there and setting up camp several people said, "Do you smell onions?"

By morning we had found our noses were right: there were patches of wild onions growing in the forest duff. Gail provided the night's entertainment: she had brought a brand new Hennessy hammock to try out. We found the set up, operation, and camping possibilities it presented fascinating.

Saturday was caving day

We got a fairly leisurely start Saturday morning. Following trails and old two tracks, we moved toward our rendezvous with Sue whose job had precluded her from joining us sooner.

We found the remains of what was probably a recreational lodge site from the early 1900's. Intrigued by an old wood stove, we tinkered with reassembling it from the fragments we could find and discussed its possibilities in a winter camping scenario. Mike U. found a bear trap nearby and we exploited its photographic opportunities before moving on.

Sue was waiting as arranged and we Mushroomall hiked to another sandstone bluff, this one overlooking Chapel Lake. There, Michael had discovered a series of sea caves on a previous trip.

One of the various
mushrooms spotted in the
Pictured Rocks backcountry.
(Drawing by Mary Powell)

Faced with waiting while a scout party, composed of Michael, Sue, Bob, and Mike U., assessed the difficulty of several traverses, I decided to take a swim in Chapel Lake. What a treat! The lake edge in that area has a sandstone shelf one to three meters wide a couple of feet under the water. It made access very easy and provided visual beauty as well.

It was populated by a variety of aquatic plants and colorful fish. Among waving green, brown, and burgundy seaweed, pale pink and blue minnows and larger silver fish were clearly visible against the white rock--an almost tropical scene.

All thoughts of the tropics retreated rapidly, however, as I climbed back up the hill after swimming. The brisk breeze on wet clothes was definitely chilly!

The hidden caves of Chapel Basin

The advance party had returned, having decided to proceed with the afternoon's exploration as planned. We had lunch on an overlook with a panoramic view of Chapel Lake. Then, donning our helmets again, we belayed down the initial slope. After negotiating a couple Chapel River Basin Caveof difficult turns where there wasn't really room for a person with a pack on, it was pretty easy going.

Sue, Lori, and John
take a break while
exploring a string of
little-known caves
high above Chapel Lake.
(Photo by Gail Staisil)

As promised, a series of caves appeared for us to explore. While they all had the general configuration of sea caves--a dome ceiling and more or less flat floor--each cave had its own unique flavor:

  • Raptor was very large with a mostly open entrance and a high ledge on which there was a nest composed mostly of sizeable sticks. The floor below it was littered with sticks and refuse which we poked through, curious as to the identity of the nest builder. Post-trip research by Sue determined it was likely a raven or a hawk.
  • Down and Out had an entrance mostly blocked by fallen rubble. Two small openings allowed us to slip into the dusky cave to find copious evidence that it had been used for shelter by animals.
  • Coal showed evidence of past human occupation: coal, a worn shirt, and some metal.

There were assorted other caves of varying size, though nothing approaching the scale of Amphitheater. One had interesting erosion patterns--colored sandstone layers, pockets, and columns which we used as a backdrop for pictures.

More post-trip research by Sue disclosed that most of the droppings in the caves were likely of porcupine origin. Seems these prickly creatures lead a communal existence at times.

By late afternoon we had reached the end of the bluff. We stowed our ropes and helmets and headed for a campsite in the buffer zone again. This night's spot was dubbed "intersection camp" for its location at the convergence of Coralroottwo overgrown roads.

Sue found native orchids, called coralroots, in unusually prolific numbers. She neglected to point these out to the rest of us (she brought them up later in an e-mail) for fear of enhancing her reputation for eccentricity.... Witnesses to some of her previous wilderness behaviors though would undoubtedly have thought her pointing out a few saprophytes pretty unremarkable.

One of many flowering plants--
possibly coralroots--
spotted in the
Pictured Rocks backcountry
and buffer zone.
(Drawing by Mary Powell)

After an evening meal accompanied by much talk, everyone retired to their respective shelters just before the rain began....

Sunday: a day of beaches

Getting on the trail around 9:30 the following morning, we reviewed Mosquito River Falls on the way back to Mosquito Beach. Though we joked about going where the crowds were, we saw relatively few people considering it was a holiday weekend.

Once at Mosquito, we relaxed awhile, walking in the waves and exploring. We then hiked to Chapel Beach, stopping at each lookout along the way to enjoy the familiar vistas: Lover's Leap, Indian Head, Sail Rock....

At Chapel Beach we stashed our gear and again split up to explore or relax. Gail and Lori joined me for a swim around the point and into the Cove for pictures.

At the end of the afternoon, we left the beach for a "20 minute walk" (read more like an hour) to another buffer zone campsite. This particular trek seemed to be mostly uphill along old two tracks overgrown with raspberry brush. When we found a more or less flat spot on the far side of the park boundary, everyone was more than ready to settle-in for the night.

Dinner conversations were nevertheless upbeat, including, among other things, a rather graphic description of the intricacies of moray eel control. Michael had saved enough energy for further experimentation with Gail's new hammock and tarp....

Focus on fungi

Upon opening my eyes Monday morning, the first thing I saw was a pair of spiky white balls about two inches in diameter perched on short stalks--yet another species of fungus to add to the collection of sketches I'd started earlier when I'd realized there was an astounding Pictured Rocks floravariety of mushrooms here I'd never seen before.

There was no hope of recalling them all without pictures or sketches. Their colors spanned the rainbow: international orange, silvery lilac, bright yellow, burnished copper, velvety red, and shimmering white.

The Pictured Rocks
backcountry and
surrounding buffer zone
are home to a variety of flora.
(Drawing by Mary Powell)

There was every imaginable shape from dinner-plate-sized shelf fungi to pale yellow ones that resembled coral to small round ones of various sizes that looked like marbles scattered on the moss. There were sturdy toadstools that looked like thatched huts for leprechauns or fairies.

Mushrooms must be Mother Nature's late summer decoration as her wildflowers are in the spring....

All good things come to an end

This trip was no exception. I told myself it was necessary to return to civilization as my food supply had dwindled Pictured Rocks 8to a granola bar and a few raisins but it didn't help. We packed and hiked at a steady pace toward our cars in the Chapel parking lot.

The Pictured Rocks eight,
minus Sue, take a break
before leaving the lakeshore
for the long drive home.
(Photo by Gail Staisil)

There remained only a parting meal at the Dogpatch and the long drive home. It had been another really great trip.

Read another journal...

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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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