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


wet, &

Marquette & Baraga Counties
October 3-7, 2002

By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2002

E-mail author at

View Gail Staisil's
   Photo Album from this trip

Aaron, Mary, Jane, and Gail pause atop a peak in the McCormick Tract

Aaron Cliff, Mary Powell,
Jane Beckwith, and Gail Staisil
enjoy the view from atop
Acropolis, a peak in
the McCormick Tract.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

On a cool, cloudy morning following a night of intermittent drizzle, five of us assembled in the Hungry Hollow Cafe in Big Bay. This was the starting point for our October backpacking trip in the McCormick Tract.

To anyone not knowing our plans for the weekend, we probably looked like perfectly reasonable people. Had we known what challenges Mother Nature had in store, some of us might have equipped ourselves a little differently, but being serious wilderness addicts, we probably would have gone ahead with the plan anyway....

Consuming pancakes, etc., with me were Jane Beckwith of East Lansing, Michigan, Gail Staisil of Midland, Michigan, Aaron Cliff of Marquette, Michigan, and trip leader Michael Neiger of Marquette, Michigan. After several refills of coffee, we had caught up sufficiently on each other's lives to turn our attention to the trip at hand.

Securing permission to leave the mere two wheel drive vehicles at the edge of the cafe's parking lot, we loaded our gear into those with four wheel drive that had a better chance of being able to handle the back roads, and headed for the trailhead. The forty-five minute drive afforded tantalizing vistas of the country we would be hiking in--rocky hills covered with dense mixed forest changing to its autumn colors.


Upon reaching the trailhead at the northern edge of the tract we weighed our packs and made some final gear choices. Then, this being a Michael Neiger trip, we turned our back on the trail and began instead to cut an azimuth to a spot that looked interesting on the topos.

It was a perfect day for hiking, cool with mostly sunny skies punctuated by a few dark clouds. The mostly hardwood forest was not difficult to travel in. We had a new group member, Aaron, to get acquainted with. It was an auspicious beginning.

Adding to the good things, we completed our 2000-meter azimuth right on target--coming up against the base of a rocky hill that was easy to see on the map, but invisible among the trees until we were almost face to face with its stone wall.

Working our way around it, we started for our next objective, a small box canyon Michael had discovered on a previous trip. After some brief instruction, Aaron took over cutting the azimuth on point. Like a seasoned pro, he took us right to the little box canyon.

Rocky outcrops rose on three sides of us darkening the spaces between the trees. Everything was cool and damp. The stream that drained the valley burbled softly in the undergrowth. After taking in this beauty for a while, we decided it was time for a scenic overlook and climbed the most precipitous hill to catch glimpses of the surrounding countryside.

A short break was spent talking and enjoying the view. Then we headed for our proposed campsite on Island Lake. After wandering through a bit of swamp along the lake, we found the intended spot--an open area in the pines on a small peninsula overlooking the water.

Intermittent gusty winds and approaching clouds suggested a storm. Most of us set up our shelters back a bit in the trees, but Aaron's tent went up in full view of the lake. After dinner he had to get the hang of bear hangs--no small feat in the dark. The evening ended with everyone retiring to their shelters for a bit of reading.


It rained intermittently through the night. Morning was damp and overcast, but seemed a bit warmer--maybe 45 or 50. Aaron had mentioned several times that he was hoping there would be a stream crossing on this trip as he had never done that with a pack. The shortest path to our first objective for the day was directly across the narrow Mary Powell and Aaron Cliff ford a narrows in Island Lakestrip of lake right in front of our campsite--a perfect opportunity to practice!

Mary Powell of
Flint, Michigan and
Aaron Cliff of
Marquette, Michigan
ford a narrows on
Island Lake.
(Photo by Gail Staisil)

View Gail Staisil's
   Photo Album from this trip

Some participants, however, were not enthused at the prospect. So Aaron and I did the swim, floating our packs in front of us and hurriedly changing to dry clothes on the far shore. We explored some rocky bluffs, getting warm with the effort and waited for the rest of the group to hike around the lake. A carefully cut azimuth then took us to Lake Dortay where we had lunch.


Clouds continued to roll in and it drizzled or frankly rained much of the afternoon. We made our way through the dripping woods to Upper Baraga Lake and followed its shore toward a campsite Michael had located on another of his trips.

He said it was located on a raised peninsula in Middle Baraga Lake and we were motivated to push onward despite the rain by promises of a spectacular view.

As the afternoon progressed, the persistent precipitation found some weak spots in my raingear. Water began to trickle between my shoulder blades.

On a break I put my pack towel around my neck to soak up some of it. Later, as we waited while Michael double checked our position, I wrung out the towel, thinking fondly of the Gore-Tex jacket I'd left in the trunk because it weighed a bit more than the one I had on. My clothes were soaked. Water had reached my boots and they squished with each step...


It was late afternoon. The temperature was dropping and the wind was picking up. Another hour's bushwhacking brought us to the proposed bivouac.

The view was indeed awesome--the lake could be seen through the pines on all sides of the little point. Unfortunately, standing in that raised open area bore a distinct resemblance to being on the test stand in a wind tunnel.

My body temperature headed southward at an alarming rate and I could see the others shiver too. Michael stated what we all were thinking: this was not going to be a good place to camp. He suggested that we wade across the narrows to the other side of the lake and look for a spot in the thicker woods since we were headed there the next day anyway.


I was more than a little anxious to get out of the wind. Approaching the water it was obvious that "wade" was an understatement: it was at least knee deep. Deciding that there was no way I could get any wetter, I walked on in.

Preoccupied with getting to shelter, I didn't hear the others calling, entreating me to loan my sandals to Jane if I wasn't going to use them... Somewhere near the end of the crossing, getting warm began to seem less important.

I climbed the small hill on the far shore feeling very detached and wondering if we were to camp right here or travel on a little further. Gail made it across and said to look for a place to camp.

I wandered back and forth thinking alternately that there were no good spots or that they were all OK. Aaron arrived and confirmed that we were to camp here.

I set my pack down and looked for something dry to put on. Water had filled the dependent bulge at the bottom of my pack cover and wicked up into my clothes bag. I put a very damp jacket under my raingear and donned an almost dry hat.

Michael and Jane made it over. He told us to get set up, get dry, and eat something hot.


I saw Gail looking for hammock trees. I got out my tarp and had to concentrate to figure out how to put it up. Then my fingers were too cold to tie decent knots.

When I had a shelter of sorts, I asked Michael if I should look for firewood before it got totally dark. He said I should get water and make something hot to eat. I wasn't sure I could do that, but couldn't muster the resolve to object either.

My Nalgene bottle was on top of my pack. I remembered that the lake was down the hill. I felt like I was watching someone else instead of doing things myself and chuckled mentally to see that I was in such sorry shape.

It seemed to take a long time, but I got back with the water, managed to get a cube of Esbit fuel out of its package, get it lit and set the pot on it to boil.

I wondered absently if wet polypro bottoms were worth putting on. I really wanted a nap... I put on the wet underwear and started eating a PowerBar because a part of my mind was nagging: "You HAVE to keep doing something..."

Darkness arrived. I no longer felt cold--just tired. My arms and legs were heavy and stiff. When about half the bar and half a cup of coffee were gone, Aaron came over asking about starting a fire.

The part of my mind that was trying to keep me moving latched onto the idea as something to do--though looking out at the sodden vegetation, the probability of our getting anything to burn seemed small.


I got up and began to look for firewood with him. There seemed to be only two kinds: pieces too small to have any dry wood in the center and ones too big to split with my three inch knife blade. We gathered some of them anyway.

Going out for one more look, I happened to spot a fallen spruce at the edge of the light from my headlamp. There was an arm-sized piece of splintered wood sticking up. It broke off with a satisfying crack.

Looking along the trunk I saw that bark split when the tree fell was covering several more broken pieces. Dry wood! It was, however, firmly attached to the fallen tree. I began to reef on it--repeatedly pushing and pulling at it.


Suddenly I was shivering again and very aware of how cold I was. Building a fire no longer seemed just an interesting exercise: it was crucial, we HAD to succeed....

Aaron came over and we managed to get several large pieces loose and drag them back to my tarp. I cleared the wet leaves from a barren space near the front edge of the tarp and split some kindling from the relatively dry spruce pieces.

The activity had warmed my hands enough to work the lighter but it was hard to get the flame in the right place for the shivering. I finally succeeded, set the burning fire starter on some twigs in the middle of that cold, wet space and quickly piled slivers of spruce around it.

I held my breath watching the tiny flame. After a few seconds the slivers began to burn. There was hope! I added more fuel and the flames climbed up between the pieces.


After a few minutes there was perceptible heat. We added larger wetter pieces. They dried and the flames continued to grow.

From Jane's location in the darkness, there was an exclamation: "Oh! I didn't know you had a fire, I'm coming over!" There was a brief rattling of metal from that direction and she appeared in the firelight ready to cook.

What an optimist! Things continued to go well, however. The flames grew and a pile of coals developed. My shivering decreased.

Michael finished eating and began to buck up some larger pieces of wood with his Bowie. Soon we had an ample supply.

We spent the balance of the evening breathing smoke and alternately exposing body parts to the heat. Our clothing steamed. There was the smell of wet wool and an occasional whiff of overheated boot rubber.

One by one we got our pots on the fire and filled our stomachs. The chill receded and conversation became cheerful.

At one point Aaron said, "Guess you have to take what you get--sometimes shit happens out here..."

Jane responded with a grin, "This is the shittiest trip I've ever been on!" By the time we headed for our sleeping bags we had stored up enough heat for a comfortable night.


I awoke in the chilly gray of early dawn. There was a thin ring of ice in my water bottle. Depression moved in like a dark cloud: I was toasty in my sleeping bag, but with the leaky rainsuit, I had no way to stay dry. I was afraid of being cold again.

There didn't seem to be much alternative to getting up though. Coffee helped. After packing, we broad scattered the sodden ashes of the campfire, stirred the soil and put the excavated vegetation back, leaving the site much as it had been when we arrived.

We headed east toward our objective for the day, White Deer Lake. We planned to see the remains of a recreational lodge from the early 1900's and to look for a place called The Fortress, which had been a day use area in that time, providing an overview of the lake.


As we walked the clouds thinned and patches of blue sky appeared. By the time we reached the lake only a few fluffy clouds remained and we picked a sheltered, sunny area near the site of the old lodge for lunch.

Only the foundations remained but I found them aesthetically very interesting and took quite a few pictures. The poured concrete walls were intact and their crisp geometric shapes contrasted with the softer outlines of the plants growing around them.

There was a complex play of light and shadow overlaid on patterns made by dampness left from the rain. Fine cracks were edged with minerals leeched from the cement.

Rectangular window openings and round stovepipe holes framed brilliant fall colors and the blue sky. Awesome! Where are the sketchpad and watercolors when you really need them?


Lunch was pleasant if perhaps a little chilly. There was a small rocky island offshore that seemed to have the scant remains of some more buildings. Its bareness made me want to go out there and plant something. When we were about to wrap up the meal Jane said, "Look, there's a blonde woman over there!" One of the guys said, "Yeah, right!"

Jane said, "No, really there is... she's walking by the water." Skeptically we turned our eyes where she was pointing and, sure enough, there WAS a blonde by the lake. She came over to where we were seated and we struck up a conversation.

Her name was Michelle and she was out for a hike on her day off. She'd walked up an old two-track from the south side of the tract about three miles away. We plied her with chocolate to find out more.

She was a college student whose current job consisted of tracking down moose tagged with radio transmitters to see if they had produced any offspring. She was going to be in the area just a few more weeks, then was moving to another wilderness job out west.

No amount of chocolate would persuade her to divulge the results of the moose population study though... So, after inviting her to hike with us some time, we finished packing up our things and arose to go in search of The Fortress.


After wandering a bit along the edge of the lake, Michael gave Gail an azimuth and she expertly led us to a rocky bluff on the northwest shore of the lake.

At the bottom it wasn't very impressive, but Gail scouted out the remnants of an old hiking trail and followed it upward. Upon reaching the top we saw why the former owners had liked the spot--we were a couple hundred feet above the water with a panoramic view of the lake and the surrounding forest.

The blue sky and the fall colors were reflected in the water. A tiny island lay below with a couple of cedars clinging precariously to its rocky surface.


A small flock of Canada geese flew by at eye level. Though it was mid afternoon, it only took us a few minutes to decide to spend the night on the Fortress.

Exploring a bit, we found the remains of a large raised grill and a bench with a view of the lake. We climbed down to get water and returned to set up our shelters.

Then it was R&R. A very leisurely evening meal was followed by the sunset and then the stars.

Aaron decided to sleep out under them. Michael and Gail heard an owl calling on their side of the bluff. Relaxation gave way to peaceful sleep.


I was awakened in the night by the sounds of Aaron scurrying toward his tent and rain falling on my tarp. I pulled down the front edge, moved farther back to get out of the spray, and fell back asleep.

Opening my eyes again at dawn, I saw that it was still raining. Sitting up I noticed that someone had left their boots out in the area where we had gathered for dinner and they had about half an inch of water in them.

Looking for my boots so I could retrieve my food bag, I discovered the ones out in the rain were mine. Oh, well....they hadn't quite dried out from the last soaking anyway...

Over breakfast I learned I wasn't the only one who didn't have their act together: Aaron had forgotten to put the fly on his tent and had slept in the rain for quite a while...

We packed slowly after breakfast hoping the rain would stop, but gave in eventually and started out in a light drizzle.


We headed north and east toward the Yellow Dog River and the cars. The sky was a study in grays and the rain fell steadily. We lunched under a tarp. Aaron Cliff and Jane Beckwith work their way across the East Branch of the Yellow Dog River

Aaron Cliff of
Marquette, Michigan
and Jane Beckwith
of Lansing, Michigan
work their way across
the East Branch of the
Yellow Dog River.
(Photo by Gail Staisil)

View Gail Staisil's
   Photo Album from this trip

By afternoon it seemed like water was everywhere--running down the trees, dripping from rocks and leaves, flowing in rivulets, standing in puddles.

We splashed on, thinking a raft might be necessary soon...or maybe an ark. We hunted for an old hiking trail that would have taken us where we wanted to go, but didn't find it.


By four o'clock I was soaked again. When I bent forward water trickled down my chest; when I stood up it ran down my back.

When we thought it couldn't rain any harder, it did.

The temperature was dropping again too--a fire was definitely in the plan for the evening. We began looking for a place to camp--not an easy thing to find in those thickly vegetated, rocky hills.

Finally we came upon a relatively level area with rocky bluffs to one side. A slight rise was partly encircled by a huge puddle of water. It was raining hard and water was pouring off the vegetation.

Michael asked us if we wanted to camp with that puddle as our water source or go on awhile: the way the terrain was lining up with the map he thought we would find an abandoned beaver pond and the elusive trail we'd looked for just a little way beyond the hill.

Aaron said, "I think we should stay here--it's the first dry spot we've seen in hours. Just goes to show that everything is relative: in a deluge anything above the water line is "dry."


Shelters went up quickly. Michael and Aaron gathered and cut up a number of sizeable logs.

I split some into kindling and got out a fire starter. It refused to stay lit in all that wetness.

I got out a cube of Esbit fuel and moved a little farther under the tarp. Even then it took a bit of coaxing before the flames really got going.

Michael, who normally eschews such conflagrations, was telling me how to make it bigger so everyone could get warm. Soon there was a bed of glowing coals about four feet long and clouds of steam were rising from our polypro.

Pots of food moved on and off the heat. By the end of the evening we were well fed, thoroughly smoked and relatively dry.

Jane took off her balaclava for the first time in four days. Her normally neat hair was tangled and standing out in all directions. We joked about starting a new page on the Web site: examples of "hat hair" seen on our Gail Bosio and Jane Bewith enjoy a laugh under the shelter of Mary Powell's tarp sheltertrips.

Gail Staisil of
Midland, Michigan
and Jane Beckwith
of East Lansing, Michigan
enjoy a laugh as Jane
removes her balaclava
under the shelter of
Mary Powell's tarp.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

View Gail Staisil's
   Photo Album from this trip

The water level in the puddle nearby had risen 'til it flooded part of Aaron's tent and was crowding Michael's tarp.

Aaron decided to sleep under my tarp by the fire. As the others retired to their shelters, he spread his sleeping bag on the ground. I asked where his pad was.

He said it was in his tent, probably floating. I told him he'd be needing it. He said he didn't want to get wet again to retrieve it. I didn't argue--experience is a great teacher.


Dawn was chilly. There were patches of snow in the low spots, frozen droplets on our tarps and a rim of ice crystals on the puddle. Aaron got up very early and went in search of his pad.

I got up just after first light and gathered some small pieces of wood for a finger warming fire. Stirring the ashes a bit, I found enough coals to get it started. It had the desired effects: warm fingers and company for breakfast.

By the time we were packed and had the fire cleaned up it was mid morning. We joked about not being able to get off the afternoon shift on this trip. Heading off over the hill we found the abandoned beaver pond and the adjacent hiking trail right where Michael thought they would be.


We followed the path when we could find it and kept to a rough azimuth when we couldn't.

After a while, we came to the West Branch of the Yellow Dog River and followed it. Along the way, Aaron found a nice shed from a 12-point buck.

Before long, we came to a series of very pretty waterfalls. We took a short lunch break in a clearing among the hardwoods then continued down the river looking for a place to cross.

There was a nice site for a future bivouac in some pines on a bluff above the rushing water. We crossed in an area where the stream split into several small branches.

On the far side we found the trail we'd turned our backs on at the beginning of the trip and followed it back to the cars, savoring this last hour in the bush.


At the trailhead we found the cars lightly decorated with fallen leaves. We changed into REALLY dry clothes and headed for the Border Grill in Marquette for a parting meal. Another good trip--and a good lesson in the rigors of cold, wet weather.



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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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