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Wilderness Tripping: Backpacking & Spelunking
   Grand Island National Recreation Area
   Alger County
   Munising, Michigan
   July 3-8, 2003


A Week of
Sea Caves,
Archaeological History
and More

By Gail Staisil
    Midland, Michigan
   Copyright 2003

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July 2 - Pre-Trip

I arrived in Munising around 4 PM. Tomorrow I will be joining Mary, Michael and Aaron to venture over to Grand Island. It is an island that I passed by several times each year on my way to visit my family in the Western U.P. I often wondered what it was like as I heard different reports from acquaintances who had visited there. Now I would get the opportunity to explore it myself. It was 88 degrees when I arrived at the Alger Motel which is located just east of town. The owner informed me that it was much cooler in "town", a mere mile away. Gail, Mary, Michael, and AaronI descended the hill and found my car temp. to read 68 degrees...what a difference 20 degrees makes.

Gail Staisil (Midland, Michigan),
Mary Powell (Flint, Michigan),
Michael Neiger (Marquette, Michigan),
and Aaron Cliff (Alto, Michigan)
explore the massive, six-entrance cave
historically known as "The Cave"
located on the Thumb at Trout Point.
(Photo courtesy of Gail Staisil)

View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.

My first stop was to visit the Pictured Rocks Visitor's Center. I wanted to inquire about getting a permit for the 2 nights following the Grand Island trip. I had a few extra days before I was expected in Houghton. The ranger informed me that I couldn't get a permit until the day before my intended arrival as they don't reserve most sites. I'll have to take a chance later.

I headed off to Miner's Beach where I spent a couple of wonderful hours enjoying a walk and found a spot to reflect on things. I also traveled over to Sand Point where I got a closer look at the island that I would be going to tomorrow.


July 3 - Treasure Diving

Thursday morning arrived, I knew the rest of the group were meeting for breakfast at 7 AM. I decided the night before to skip a formal breakfast and meet the group at 8:30 AM.

The ferry to the island was to leave at 9 AM. I caught up with everyone at the Dogpatch Restaurant before they left for the ferry. We all headed over to Powell Point and met the captain of the ferry, he also sold us our tickets. There were two mountain bikers going over as well so the boat was full. The ferry boat is actually a pontoon boat. It is all that is needed as the crossing is short and quick. I'm surprised that Michael doesn't have us swim across with our packs!

Upon arrival, we headed over to the information building to look at the displays. Grand Island is now a National Recreation Area but was once owned by William Mather of the CCI Mining Company. It actually has a long history but that's the short version of it. We headed over to the west side of the island where the mosquitoes were out in droves in the forest. We stopped at Merchandise Beach to explore which was the sight of several shipwrecks. The strewed goods washed up on the shore giving the beach its current name. Michael is writing a guidebook on Grand Island so he is a great source of history for us all.

After we left the beach, it started to rain. It looked to be temporary so we didn't don our rain gear. It ended up being a real soaker but we didn't care as we knew we had plenty of dry gear to change into, plus the fact that it was refreshing as we were quite hot.

Our next stop was the Juniper Flats campground area where there is a group site. As we arrived, the rain stopped and we decided to have a break there. Aaron soon became fascinated with the goal of diving off the outcroppings into Lake Superior below. He retrieved a few pieces of treasure that had fallen into the lake - read trash. We also found a lone juniper that the campsite was named after. (On a solo trip a week later, Michael found more junipers).

We spent some time at Red Pine Point and then headed to Mather Beach. On the north end of the beach were two structures, one of which was the Mather Lodge and the other was known as the Playboy Club. Apparently the later was named after the fact that it was a get away for the boys, kind of like a hunting camp. Mary and I (separately) experienced walking the shoreline quite aways north. We saw where Echo Creek flowed into Lake Superior.

Some of us stayed up well into the evening and watched the starry sky and the quarter moon sink to the horizon.


July 4 - A Baby Fawn

Today is a holiday! Michael said that we probably wouldn't leave camp until 10 AM this morning so most of us stayed in our accommodations rather late. It was well after 8 AM before I decided to vacate my hammock. It had been a warm night and I only used my sleeping bag as a quilt. The mosquitoes were quite active outside my hammock so I was in no hurry to emerge.

I packed up my camp and headed to the beach where I was to meet everyone for breakfast. Mary was well on her way to making cinnamon rolls for everyone on her small wood stove. Michael had just arrived as well and was brewing his necessary morning drink - coffee. Aaron was still "sawing logs" at the campsite, we wouldn't see him for a few hours yet. No one was in a particular hurry as we only had about six miles to hike today.

As we had breakfast, a baby fawn ran down the beach for quite a distance...we watched it until it disappeared into the tree line. It was a perfect way to start the morning.

It was almost noon before everyone was squared away and we headed out. Today our walk involved doing the beginning of the high cliffs section which continues for about twelve miles. There are many fine overlooks but no real access to the water so we provisioned wisely. Our destination tonight would be North Beach. One cannot camp at North Beach but we found a suitable spot out of the protected boundary. We set up camp and headed down to the beach, it was already 6 PM.

We had been drenched my rain again earlier in the day on the hike over so we were happy to dry out some belongings and go swimming too. There is an awesome beach here, not a stone in the water. I stayed in for quite awhile and was happy to be immersed in a cold bug free zone.

Before we arrived at camp today, we also took a glimpse at the North Lighthouse. We bushwhacked in where we could get a closer view of the lighthouse. It is privately owned so we couldn't explore its grounds. I took a picture through the trees in the heavy rain, so I hope it turns out.

Tonight I'm sitting at the far eastern side of the beach against the sandstone walls writing and enjoying some solitude. Mary and I returned later to this area to watch the sun sink into the horizon.


July 5 - The Promontory

Woke up at 6:30 AM but didn't dislodge myself until 7's so nice to just lay there and relax. Mary was already up and the guys were sleeping. I packed up and headed to the beach. The bugs are quite bad in the woods so its a relief to get to the beach where there are fewer.

It was the start of a beautiful day. I took a few mini walks to each end of the beach and read for awhile until everyone was ready to go.

We stopped at the northeast point overlook and a few others...we were leaving the north shore and heading to the eastern cliff section.

We decided to bivouac tonight at a large outcropping that Michael found on one of his recons. It would involve a bit of bushwhacking and some steep descents to the lake so that we could find a place to get to the water to swim and drink. We luckily found such a place after a bit of searching. Michael put in a fixed rope with hand knots so that we could descend to the small cobblestone area amongst sandstone cliff walls. We were able to scramble around the walls for a better view or different view of the area. Aaron decided to check out a small cave like opening on one of the upper cliff walls. After carefully ascending from the water he discovered that there wasn't too much to the hole.

I decided to swim out past the cliffs and found a pleasant shelf like area. We were losing sun but I found some huge rocks to sit on and dry out. Mary later came by and went for a swim too and then Aaron rejoined us. We were all sitting on separate huge rocks that had most likely fallen from the high cliffs...Aaron remarked that we were like three turtles basking in the sun. I replied that the only difference was that we weren't all stacked up like real turtles often are.

Michael spent the afternoon high above us where we would sleep tonight. He was trying to get some writing done. As a group, we hadn't ascended to that location yet.

Earlier today at the North Light overlook, we met two mountain bikers. One of them knew much about the lighthouse as he is the caretaker for it when the owners are absent. He has opened and closed it seasonally for the last twenty years. He told us of the Hovercraft that the owners use when they sometimes come up in the winter. He also mentioned the tram that used to be located on the cliff walls. It was built to bring in supplies to build the lighthouse.

Michael rejoined us and suggested that we eat dinner at the shore as the bugs were bad at the top of the cliff.

We now had to get back up the cliff with our packs. Michael ascended first, it was now my turn. I was a bit worried as I had smashed my hand earlier when I had fallen on a huge rock. I slowly ascended with my pack but as I got almost to the top, my foot started sliding and a lot of the earth gave away. Michael quickly had me descend part way and he came back to get my pack so that I could climb unencumbered. Mary and Aaron followed.

We still had a ways to go before we reached the top of the cliff. We were on a promontory high above Lake Superior with views on three sides. Mary and Aaron quickly decided to bivouac close to the edge and Michael and I chose a spot further back. I still had a view of the lake from one side of my hammock.


July 6 - Many Eagle Sightings

I stayed up late last night and slept in late this morning. I was actually up at sunrise but went back to sleep until 8 AM ;)

We were off to a late start today. We didn't have a lot of miles to do, but the heat was wearing on all of us. We agreed to bushwhack to a cave that Michael was looking for. We didn't find it and decided not to look further as it was too hot.

We observed Trout Bay from a distance, it didn't look too busy. We were going to camp there tonight at an established campsite. There is no backcountry camping allowed in that location. It is called the tombolo, which is an area that connects two islands, in this case the main part of Grand Island with the thumb area. As we descended to camp, we noticed a big change in the temperature. We had been so uncomfortable and now we were cool. We still wanted to swim as we were sticky, so we set up camp and then headed to the water. I didn't stay in long but it was refreshing nonetheless. We ended up staying on the beach for awhile.

We saw two more eagles today making it four so far. We have also seen a lot of voles which seem to be everywhere. It's almost hard not to step on them as they are running all over the place.

Mary made everyone blueberry crisp for dessert tonight, it was well received.


July 7 -Swimming In The Sea Caves

It was a peaceful night last evening. I woke up around 5:30 AM and headed out to witness the sunrise shortly after 6 AM. The sky was colored vividly pink and orange. I sat on the beach alone while the others slept. I decided to saunter down the Trout Bay beach for a ways to see the four historic cottages that lie close together along the bay. They have all retained their original architecture. Although they were set back some distance from the shore, they appeared to be covered in cedar shakes. After my hour-long walk along the shore, I returned to camp and gathered up my gear to have breakfast at the beach.

Later we left camp and scouted other sites for wildflowers. The best fine was a wild rose bush on the sandbar. As I smelled the petals, some of the petals dropped as they were past their prime. I held onto a petal for quite awhile as it was so soft and had an incredible smell.

Today we would be exploring caves - sea and inland caves. We bushwhacked out to Platter Rock along the way. It is comprised of big plates of rock that jut out into Lake Superior. Aaron jumped off the high edge of rock several times. He lost his neck medal that he wore there. It was a medal that safeguarded travelers. I told him later that if he had to lose it, it was the perfect place as it would protect all those who travel in Lake Superior's rough waters. I hope he felt better.

We later arrived at a second area with huge plates of rock. Aaron scouted it for us and found large sea caves underneath. We all had to see them so we swam in the really cold water. We managed to stay in over 45 minutes but Michael thought we best exit. We then decided to check out the inland caves that Michael had found on an earlier expedition. One of them was much like being in a slot canyon, not a place to be if you are claustrophobic. While we were exploring, strong winds suddenly came up and rain began. We had left a few things out so we were concerned about their safety. We hurried back but everything was OK.

The weather broke and we were able to spend the evening on the huge rocks. We were actually set up at a kayak site as this is really the only access to this area unless you bushwhack in like we did.


July 8 - Shipwreck Bay

Today we did a short bushwhack to an old road and from there we bushwhacked to a huge cave near Trout Point. We had to use a fixed rope to get down the cliff and then we explored all the intricacies of it. It had several portholes and huge cavern like openings. We took some snacks down with us and sat amongst the huge boulders outside of the cave entrance in Lake Superior. We later visited some inland caves which Michael previously had found. He called one of them "Lantern Cave" as he had found parts of old lanterns and wood stoves there.

We had lunch on top of a point that jutted out into the lake. We then bushwhacked out on an old road and eventually came out at a sea kayak site at Murray Bay. The bay was the site of several old shipwrecks of which many remains were evident. Everyone wandered around to check out what they could find.

Earlier today, Michael mentioned that Mary wanted to leave early and catch the ferry tomorrow sometime. Before we started the trip, my plan was to spend a few extra days somewhere...everyone wanted to join in so we decided to stay on Grand Island for two extra days together. Even though plans are changing, I have decided to stay anyway and have fun!

There is a small peninsula here called Agate Island for some reason. The "agate" part I understand, but not the "island"...maybe it was an island at one time. I went for a walk on the island and found a spot to reflect on the day.


July 9 - "Survivalists"

Aaron surprised me this morning by waking up early. Aaron and Mary had camped on the "island" which was only a short distance away from where I bivied in my hammock along the shore and Michael camped further back in the woods. It was only 7 A.M. I had woke up earlier but the air looked so foggy that I went back to sleep.

Mary set her tarp up at the beach so that we could all have cover for there was a little rain in the air. We all settled in for a leisurely breakfast followed by a lot of laughter. Mary and Aaron were leaving today but Michael was staying. We all walked back to Trout Bay where we parted our ways. Aaron was off to venture to Isle Royale with his cousin and Mary was going to Quetico for a canoe trip.

After a short discussion, Michael and I decided to head to Murray Point to bivouac. We tried to catch up to Mary and Aaron as they were not far ahead of us, but they faded into the landscape. We arrived at Murray and headed past the managed campsites to find a suitable place. We ran into the archaeologist that is working on the island who also had another researcher with him. We talked with them awhile and then headed out to the point area where we found a spot back in the woods. During the daytime, we would hang at the beach as it was cloudy and pleasant. Later Michael set up a tarp as it looked as if it could rain. I went for a walk to the cemetery where the oldest "white" residents of Alger County now lie (that's what the sign says). Michael got some writing done.

While we sat on the beach and enjoyed the views from under the tarp, a loaded pontoon came by. We overheard its occupants comment on the fact that we must be survivalists. I suppose it looks like that to others, if they only knew how pleasant this all is..

We took a walk further down into the bay to search for an eagle who was nesting there. We were able to see the eagle, but not the nest. We did also see vultures in the sky.

We continued to use the scope that Michael brought along on the trip. We later explored the surface of the moon with it. It is surprising how much detail we could see in it's irregular surfaces.

The evening was quite pleasant when we retreated into the woods.


July 10 - Departure

Morning arrived but we chose to sleep in quite late. It was peaceful and I was content so it was hard to get up.

When I got to the beach, Michael had already set up his tarp as rain was imminent. It proceeded to rain so we sat under the tarp for a few hours before we made our way to the ferry. There were already enough passengers for a full ferry (seven), so we politely waited for its return.

Another awesome trip was ending. As I reflect on the excellent times of this trip, I realize how important are our relationships. The scenery is different each time we are out, but the common bond we share brings us back together each time. Aaron suggested that he would be on the next trip only if I were going. Although I know he was just being kind, it adds to the reasons I like to show up again and again.


View Gail Staisil'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.
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