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



6 days
of swimming
and exploring
the remote,
northeast quarter
of a unique,
North Channel

Drummon Island
Chippewa County
North Channel, Lake Huron
   August 1-6, 2003

By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2003

E-mail author at

View Gail Staisil's
   Photo album from this trip

View Dan Soper's
   Photo album from this trip

Hikers along ledges

Charlie Robertson,
Gail Staisil,
and Dan Soper
inspect the limestone
cliffs and ledges along
the northeast shore
of Drummond Island.
(Photo by Mary Powell)



The long drive north

As we drove north to the rendezvous location for another wilderness journey, I wondered if Mother Nature would have any major surprises for us or if this would be a comfortable trip.

So far the summer had been pretty moderate compared to the extreme heat of last year. My husband, Dan Soper, was driving. This would be his first off-trail trip since boot camp and I was hoping he would find it challenging but not overwhelming.

The designated pre-trip bivouac was the boat launch at First Lake, one of a chain of small lakes formed by the Potagannissing River Dam, which created a wetland in the midst of Drummond Island.

Besides trip leader Michael Neiger, our company would include Gail Staisil of Midland and Charlie Robertson of Grand Rapids. Gail is a frequent participant in Michael's trips while Charlie, like Dan, will be a new addition to the group.

That's a good combination because it's fun to catch up on what friends have been doing and interesting to meet new people and hear about their experiences.

Dan and I had left home early, planning to take our time and wanting to be able to stop and look around at any places of interest. We did pause for coffee and gas at West Branch and we had a leisurely lunch of burgers with a bit of fudge for dessert at Mackinaw City.

Near the Les Cheneaux Islands the rocky beach lured us out for a walk. There was also some delay in waiting for the ferry to the island. Still we arrived at the planned bivouac in the late afternoon.


First Lake bivouac

Having had enough driving for one day we decided to set up camp and settle in for the evening rather than explore the island further by car. We picked a grassy spot in the shade and set up our tarps. As it was too early for dinner we decided to explore a bit on foot.

Along the lakeshore we found some candidates for the "World's Largest Cattail Award." First Lake looked more like "First Marsh"--very shallow with a little open water surrounded by a variety of reeds and water lilies.

At the west end water ran over a rather decrepit looking dam and down the rocky channel of the Potagannissing River. I wished for my canoe: the lake would have made a pleasant afternoon paddle.

Around 5:30 p.m. we decided to cook dinner. Dan made his first meal on the Esbit stove while I conserved fuel by building a fire in my hobo stove to cook a package of ramen with some fresh vegetables from the garden.


Mysterious tracks

After dinner we wandered down the road and out onto a small logging road. There in the mud were the clear tracks of a large ungulate. Could there be moose on this Island? The same tracks were all around our encampment but we had not seen any moose droppings....

On the way back to camp we encountered Michael driving up the road to see if anyone had arrived for this trip yet.

He didn't settle in though, as he wanted to check out the posting (or lack of it) on some private land in order to finalize our route. He was doubtful about the possibility of moose: he said it seemed like the last time he camped here there were cows nearby.

That didn't sound very exciting--I liked the moose idea better.

Michael drove off to recon the route and very shortly thereafter Gail arrived. We showed her the moose-shaped tracks and she said her sister had asked her if we were expecting to see moose on this trip as a book she had about the island listed moose among the fauna. Two votes for moose...

Gail planned to sleep in her car. We talked a bit and after awhile Michael returned and set up for the night. We fell asleep to the hum of mosquitoes and the singing of frogs around the lake.




A good beginning

The next morning we were rudely awakened by a loud bawling from the field by the river. The sound came closer. Getting up to look I saw a herd of cows in the field and four or five more scattered about in the woods. No moose...just cows....

We made a light breakfast and Gail distributed her home-baked Power Bars, her traditional contribution to our usual oversupply of trail snacks. Composed primarily of fruit, oatmeal and chocolate, these bars can withstand summer's heat as well as being smashed into unrecognizable shapes and still taste great.

As we concluded the meal Charlie arrived making the group complete. It was immediately apparent that he had his act together: no cotton, reasonable-weight pack, equipment on lanyards etc.

This trip was off to an auspicious start!


Heading for the trail

We stowed our gear and set off to spot our cars so that we had a number of options for ending the hike depending on how the trip unfolded.

We got enticing glimpses of Maxton Plains in the process. That area consists of large flat areas of bedrock, which look almost like pavement when exposed. Most of the plain is covered by a thin layer of soil which supports a unique alvar landscape--sparse mixed forest and intervening grasslands sprinkled with wildflowers, lichens and a number of rare plants that grow only in the poorly drained alkaline soil.

We saw deer, eagles and sandhill cranes as we drove. Dark clouds rolled in and a brief intense shower ensued. We returned to the trailhead and found Dan attending the packs clad in his rain gear.


An orange visitor

Some of the others put on rain gear too, but I decided it was too warm for that: it would be OK if my shorts and shirt got wet.

The sky was clearing, but water still dripped heavily from the foliage as we started along the snowmobile/ATV trail. The smell of wet weeds was strong and sweet. We walked along in high spirits chatting and getting acquainted.

At the first break all rain gear was stowed.

As we sat on scattered boulders a small amphibian emerged from the wet grass near my feet. Less than three inches long he was international orange with small red spots on his sides. Apparently unafraid of us, he allowed himself to be picked up and continued his search for food along the back of my hand.

When I later looked him up in an Audubon field guide I found he was a red eft, an immature form of the red spotted newt. He was most likely looking for springtails, being capable of eating up to 2000 of them in a day.

We saw a number of these efts in the course of the trip, as well as numerous small frogs of various kinds.


That sinking feeling

Keeping close track of our progress across the map, Michael soon determined that it was time to leave the trail and bushwhack over to Third Lake and camp on a point near an old hunting cabin he had found on a previous trip.

This leg of the journey went well at first, but soon we were hunting for hummocks and roots to keep our feet out of the water. Seemed like it took a long time to find solid ground again but when we checked our watches it had only been about an hour.

We decided to push on to the point near the cabin since it was a nice spot to camp and access to water was easy. We followed an old logging road awhile, finding some dilapidated equipment that was apparently being used in a current logging operation as there were some new excavations and clear cutting.

After a short break Charlie volunteered to do the azimuth cutting that would take us to the cabin.

Climbing a bit we skirted a ridge and soon came upon the cabin. It appeared to be mainly used for hunting and was well maintained. We picked out camping spots nearby. Gazing across the lake Michael mentioned that that was the way we would be going in the morning....




A morning swim

Saturday morning was overcast but warm--perfect weather for a lake crossing.

After breakfast we wrapped our packs in tarps and rain covers and stripped to swimming garb and water shoes. We tied our sleeping pads up to make improvised PFD's (personal floatation devices).

Looking across the 300 meters or so of lake we planned to swim, there was a strip of open water in the middle edged on both sides by pickerel weed, water lilies, rushes and cattails. Gail & Michael finish fording 3rd Lake

Gail Staisil,
Michael Neiger,
and the rest of
the crew
finally finish
Drummond Island's
Third Lake.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

View Gail Staisil's
   Photo album from this trip

View Dan Soper's
   Photo album from this trip

A brief recon into the water the evening before had determined that the bottom was fairly firm but covered in loonshit (decaying vegetation). This was going to be messy.

When everyone was ready we started out. Wading in, our legs disappeared in the dark soupy material and we moved slowly avoiding submerged logs and roots.

By the time we were waist deep the drag of the weeds was considerable and swimming seemed the better option. Floating alongside our packs and improvised PFD's we began to paddle.

When we cleared the margin of weeds and moved into open water progress became easier. That didn't last long though: from the middle of the lake to the rushes and cattails lining the far shore, there was a floating mass of aquatic plants with tons of trapped, decaying debris.

We swam around the initial masses we encountered then tackled the solid mat. We found we could push it down and get on top. Once there, the most efficient locomotion was a semi-crawl, semi-swim pushing the packs ahead. It was like trying to cross a giant bowl of spaghetti.

Once on the far side of the floating stuff we were back in the weeds and water lilies. A final hundred meters and we climbed out on an old dock where we poured water over ourselves to rinse off most of the debris. We dried off a bit, unwrapped our packs and were ready to hike.


Bushwhack to the Big Lake

Since Lake Huron lay to the east, we started off on a 90 degree azimuth, which took us to a ridge that we contoured around before heading east again.

We traversed a couple of klicks (kilometers) of low woodland and eventually emerged from the woods onto the rocky shore of Lake Huron's North Channel where we had lunch and studied the map.Lunch along the North Channel

Charlie Robertson,
Dan Soper,
Gail Staisil,
and Michael Neiger
enjoy lunch
along the
North Channel
of Lake Huron.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

View Gail Staisil's
   Photo Album from this trip

View Dan Soper's
   Photo album from this trip

As we were very near the boundary of state land we decided to camp nearby rather than push on to get past a long stretch of private property.


R & R!

Since it was early afternoon there was plenty of time to relax. We set up our shelters in the woods just off the beach. Then we went for a swim.

The lake water was refreshingly chilly and removed the last vestiges of "eau de swamp" from the morning swim.

We lounged on the beach, read and talked. I looked up some wildflowers I'd seen earlier then baked some cinnamon rolls on the hobo stove. They turned out rather mediocre--the baking system needs some fine tuning. Dinner was good though.

Afterward I walked down the shore to Sand Point alternately taking in the sunset and enjoying the potpourri of flotsam, jetsam and natural objects that are always spread on a beach.

Besides the usual bits of worn beach glass, interesting rocks, pieces of board and chain, this evening's display included a gull's nest with olive speckled eggs, a bright blue plastic 55 gallon drum partly buried in the sand, and a very weathered picnic table wedged behind a large boulder.

It was dark when I got back to camp and definitely time to sleep.




Hiking the shoreline

The next morning, Sunday, we hiked north along the coast, across rocks of varying sizes interspersed with stretches of sand.

Near Colton Bay we encountered a grouchy islander. Though his offspring were running the beach with ATV's he clearly did not like our passing by in the water. Assuring him we intended no harm to his property we quickly moved on.

A couple of coves farther along we settled along a log like a flock of gulls to eat our lunch.

The shoreline was beginning to turn into long shelves of flat rock that were easier to walk on than the cobblestone beaches. In the area known as The Ledges these shelves became almost continuous with some stretches tilting down into the water while others were a few feet above it with waves breaking along their edges.

Though still composed mostly of limestone, these low cliffs were darker in color and we began to see more fossil rock.

Quite a few snakes were sunning themselves among the rocks. The snakes included a number of garter snakes as well as a larger one that had orange, black and white stripes.



Near Reynold's Bay we picked a place to camp. Michael and Gail swam off the rocky ledges.

After putting up our shelters we built backrests of the many loose stones and had a comfortable dinner overlooking the water. Dark clouds piled up above the lake and moved toward us.

As we were packing up our pots and stoves, the clouds let loose and we made a hasty retreat to our shelters. Lightning flashed brightly, thunder crashed and rain poured down for almost an hour.

At dusk the rain abated. We emerged briefly into the still-dripping landscape and quickly hung our food. Charlie moved his tent to higher ground. Then another shower sent us in for the night.




Mist in the morning

We awoke on Monday to a landscape softened by fog, its sharp edges obscured, its colors muted...

The black rocks of the shoreline were glistening wet and there were puddles in every depression.

We gathered for breakfast in the little circle of chairs built the night before. There was a lot of talk about what had gotten damp and what we'd managed to keep dry.

As we ate, gulls and terns glided by in search of fish in the shallow water along the ledges.

By the time we began to gather our things the sun was visible as a bright disk beyond the drifting cover of fog. We packed our gear and dissembled our chairs, leaving the beach as we'd found it.


Ledges, lichens, and fossil rocks

For a long way the shore consisted of the crumbling ledges of limestone which were easy to walk on. Increasingly the ledges and loose rocks contained the fossilized remains of various prehistoric aquatic creatures.

Stone replicas of spiral shells, cones and discs, and branches of coral were everywhere. Still imbedded in the ledges were more fossils--broken white and gray shapes in the darker stone, vestiges of things that lived an incomprehensibly long time ago.

Thinking on this made me feel very small--a mote in the total scheme of things, a passing phase... What signs would our people leave for those who walk on future beaches?

The rocks were interesting for another reason too: they were covered with lichens of many colors: bright orange, lime green, black, sage and others.

Having been intrigued by them on last summer's trip to this island, I'd brought a book hoping to identify some of them. The first thing I discovered on opening the book, however, was that you need a magnifying glass to ID lichens...

The only kind that readily fit the textbook picture was the orange one that seemed to be "xanthoria elegans" or elegant lichen. I did learn though, that most lichens are slow growing, taking hundreds of years to cover a rock of any size. We were admiring a very old palette of colors...

They are also good indicators of air quality because they are very sensitive to acid rain and pollutants.


A mystery solved

As we moved farther north and west along the coast the ledges gave way again to cobblestone beaches and stretches of gravelly sand.

From the time we started walking along the shore we had been intermittently seeing scat that was composed almost entirely of crayfish skeletons.

It was cylindrical and about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Definitely not gulls' and there was too much of it, it seemed, for it to be from raccoons who visit but don't live on the beach.

This morning we caught sight of three moving shapes headed for the water some distance down the beach. They were black, their bodies were slender and they moved with an undulating sinuous grace. Otters! They paused at the water's edge to look briefly in our direction then disappeared into the waves.

It was Charlie who connected them to the ubiquitous droppings.


A relaxing afternoon

As we walked the fog dissipated and the clouds thinned.

By noon the sun was shining brightly. We came upon a stretch of public land that consisted, in part, of a sandy beach.

We decided to camp there.

Our shelters went up in the woods and our stuff that was damp from the storm was soon spread out in the sun.

A couple of ATV's passed by and then "neighbors" came over to see what we were up to. A friendly young couple, they chatted awhile and offered us the resources of their cabin: did we need some cold pop or to use their dryer?

Feeling somewhat decadent already, lying around comfortably in the sun, we thanked them but declined. When they returned home we had the beach to ourselves for the rest of the afternoon.

We swam, of course, and explored.

A little way down the shore a couple of small streams dropped from a low ledge onto the beach supporting a profusion of greenery and flowers.

Inland was a once large lake that had shrunk to a wetland. Beyond the beach was more cobble rock that stretched to the next point.

We relaxed, read, ate, and talked till darkness fell.




Markers in the woods

Over breakfast the next morning we decided that part of our mission for the day would be to look up Marker 5 on the neighboring point.

The location of major survey markers is noted on topo maps and we'd looked up Marker 4 along our route earlier in the trip. It proved to be a cement pillar about four feet high with a small clearing around it.

Would Marker 5 be the same? Turned out it wasn't: Gail found that the brass plate denoting Marker 5 was cemented into a large boulder on the beach.

We saw a third survey marker on the last day of the trip too. A Chippewa County one, it was a brass plate on a low cement pad with a picturesque arrangement of wildflowers around it.

More decadence...

We ambled along the shore knowing that we didn't have much ground to cover.

Michael and Charlie explored a two-track while the rest of us stuck with the beach. Eventually we found each other again...

We approached Grand Marais Lake wondering if it would be necessary to float the packs and swim from point to point as it appeared we would on the map.

When we arrived, however, the low water levels in the Great Lakes had reduced the fording to a wading.

Exploring in the woods nearby we found we found an old aluminum boat and a set of decoys far from where any water had been for a long time.

We selected the nameless point west of Grand Marais Lake for our last bivouac of the trip.

There would be only a short walk to Charlie's car in the morning.

Charlie, Dan and I pitched our shelters near the tip of the point for the breeze and the unobstructed view of the sunset and the night sky. Michael and Gail found a neat clearing among some deer-cropped cedars and set up there.

We had hours and energy left.

There was a small island offshore and some of us decided to go there just because it was there. After a somewhat laborious wade on slippery rocks in waist deep water we received a rather unfriendly greeting from the gulls who clearly felt we were in their territory.

Returning to the mainland we swam off the rocky ledges there to get cleaned up.

I decided to explore the area inland from camp. Old beaches had been replaced by grassy prairie with old cedars showing where the shoreline had once been.

Wildflowers were sprinkled among the grasses: harebells, potentilla, St. John's wort, death camus, daisies and others.

Ponds of stagnant water were populated with frogs and salamanders. They were likely the intended prey of the several snakes that disappeared into the grass as I approached.

Finally tired of exploring I returned to camp and found preparations being made for dinner. The sun was low in the west and the breeze was turning cool.

We enjoyed a peaceful meal and sat on the beach to watch the sunset. When there was only a glow left in the sky and the mosquitoes became a nuisance we retired to our sleeping places.

I lay in my bug bivy intending to watch the sky fill with stars. I did see a few but fell asleep long before the sky was full.




The end comes too soon as always...

The next morning we packed our things and walked the short stretch of shore around Chippewa and Hay points before crossing a marshy cove to Charlie's car.

We loaded our gear and drove off to retrieve the cars we'd spotted to give us options. At Maxton Plains we took time to read the informative plaques regarding its unique ecology.

Our little caravan then proceeded to the Bear Track Inn for a parting meal and another fine wilderness trip was concluded.


View Gail Staisil's
   Photo album from this trip

View Dan Soper's
   Photo album from this trip


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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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