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

ice castles,

Winter camping
in the
Pictured Rocks

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Alger County
Munising, Michigan
   March 6-10, 2003

By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2003

E-mail author at


Mary Powell prepares to descend a steep slope

Mary Powell
of Flint, Michigan
prepares to
descend into
the 2000-person
Amphitheater Cave
in the backcountry
of the Pictured Rocks
National Lakeshore
(Photo by Mary Powell)


It had only been a little over two weeks since the last winter camping trip when I found myself driving north again to play in the snow. I had made some final adjustments on my sled and, with the recent adventure under my belt, I was pretty confident that I was ready for this one.

I reached Shingleton just in time to get a final hot meal and fill my water bottles. (Most of the U.P. closes shortly after dark.)

From there I drove through the sleeping village of Van Meer and past the Bear Trap Inn, which definitely was not closed. Its large parking lot was filled with snowmobiles and more were circling looking for a place to land. It was easy to see why they were so concentrated here: the lake-effect snow north of M-28 was about the only white stuff I'd seen since leaving Flint.


The pre-trip bivouac was to be wherever the plows turned around on CR 620, which winds through the woods north of Melstrand, past a number of private cottages and out to Chapel Beach. Trip leader Michael Neiger had said his information indicated that the road would only be plowed a couple of miles.

I had driven much further than that when I reached the turn around. There was a truck parked there but it wasn't Michael's. Suspecting that it belonged to Ed Pavwoski, the third member of our group, but still unsure that I was in the right place, I started back up the road to double check. I hadn't gone far when I encountered Michael's red Ford Explorer headed in the opposite direction and I followed him back to the turn around.

We got out and exchanged a few words of greeting, but it immediately became apparent that getting some insulating layers on was a priority. When I had trouble handling the side zips on my pants I said, "Wow! This air is mean! How cold is it anyway?"

Michael set out a thermometer, which soon read -30 F. We surveyed the camping possibilities and selected a couple of spots just over the berm. There we packed the snow down a little and spread out our bags. I stashed my water bottles in the bag so they wouldn't freeze and decided to walk around a little to generate some body heat for the night.

I followed Ed's trail a bit but he was WAY back in the woods... Returning to my bag, I took off my mukluks and slid in, pulling the draw cords 'til the hood was snug around my face. The night was very clear and the sky was filled with stars like you never see in town. Despite the slight residual chill in my bag I was sure this was where I wanted to be.


Thursday morning dawned sunny but still very cold. I had to apply some leverage to the screw cap on my fuel bottle--it was "vacuum sealed" even though it had been filled in an unheated garage at -10 F. Once in the stove the alcohol required several minutes of heating over a candle before it would ignite. Fingers weren't useful for very long outside of their mittens either...

While we were fixing breakfast, Ed appeared from his bivouac in the woods wondering if we were ready to go yet: he's always been an early riser. It was good to see him again.: He'd not been on a trip with us since last winter as bicycling is his thing in the warmer months.

We assembled our gear and packed it into the sleds and spotted Ed's truck where we hoped to finish the hike. The preliminaries being accomplished, we struck off through the hardwoods, bushwhacking in the direction of the Little Miners River and a cave Michael hadMichael and Ed pulling their sledges across a frozen wetland discovered several years before.

Michael Neiger
of Marquette, Michigan
and Ed Pavwoski
of Lansing, Michigan
pull their sledges
across a frozen wetland
en route to the
Amphitheater Cave in
Miners Basin.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

He called it "the Amphitheater" because of its size and shape--like half a inverted bowl, 50 feet high and 160 feet across. We had visited it once in the summer and had seen the Little Miners spilling over the top into a pool in the middle of the floor. We were anxious to see how it looked at this time of year with the waterfall probably frozen.


Travel through the hardwoods was pleasant and we reached the vicinity of the cave around mid-afternoon. The approach we'd used in the summer, along the escarpment, had been rendered too hazardous to use by loose drifted snow and patches of ice.

We scouted around a little and found a way to get down the steep slope beneath the cliff and approach the cave from below. We used a rope for a more controlled descent, not really sure that it was necessary. Later however, when we began to climb back up, we were very glad it was there.

Approaching the cave from the front we had an awesome view of the 50-foot column of ice that the waterfall had created. We climbed around the base of this tower and found it had some hollow channels beneath its surface where the water still flowed with a muffled gurgling sound. Michael Neiger exits the Amphitheater.

Michael Neiger
of Marquette, Michigan
exits the entrance to
the Amphitheater Cave
alongside the frozen,
50-foot column of ice
formed by the
Little Miners River.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

Seeps along the back of the cave had covered the rock with rows of gigantic icicles. The afternoon sun provided great lighting for pictures and we spent quite a while exploring and photographing this frozen cave.


We expended quite a bit of energy getting back up the hill to our sleds and might have been content to settle nearby had the rules of the park not required that we camp only in campgrounds.

We fastened our waistbelts, picked up our ski poles and headed for the Potato Patch campground. The rim of the basin seemed to go on forever, but eventually we approached the cliffs and could see the frozen surface of Lake Superior between the trees.

The campground was rather mundane in the summer, but totally deserted and covered with a deep blanket of snow in the winter, it was quite beautiful. After choosing our sites from the many that were available, we walked to an overlook to view the lake in the little daylight that was left.

It reminded me of pictures of lunar landscapes--large smooth areas interrupted by irregular ridges of ice. There were a number of volcano-like formations that are created early in the winter as waves smash against the pack ice eroding caves that end in vertical tubes from which the water shoots, forming small mountains of ice around the opening where it lands and freezes.

We returned to the campsites to put up our shelters, stopping at intervals during this endeavor to enjoy the pastel winter sunset over the lake. A peaceful evening followed, much warmer than the night before. By the time we finished the evening meal, the stars were out and a crescent moon had risen.


Friday morning we awoke to cloudy skies and a light snow falling. A little fog hung in the campground and softened the edges of the cliffs in the distance, obscuring some of them completely. The landscape was a study in shades of gray, like a black and white photograph.

By the time we finished breakfast a gusty breeze was blowing and patches of blue had appeared in the sky. We started along the cliffs, following the trail to Mosquito Beach. Travel was not difficult but the steady wind from the lake made it feel much colder than it actually was.

Approaching Mosquito Beach the trail drops gradually at first then comes abruptly to the top of a wooden staircase....at least we figured the steep zigzagging descent must be a staircase as there was an occasional board visible in the deep drifts.

Michael thought a nearby ravine might be a better way to get down. He told us to wait a minute and disappeared over the edge. The first few seconds were quiet, then there were sounds of crashing brush and muffled exclamations. We waited.

After a minute or so of quiet, Michael appeared at the bottom of the hill (amazingly still followed by his sled) and told us to take the stairs. This we did very carefully--a runaway sled weighing 70-80 pounds is a definite hazard.


Proceeding across the beach atop the ridge of pressure ice, we could see there were others here: a couple of human figures could be seen moving on the far side. (We later encountered this rather taciturn pair on the trail and exchanged greetings but they weren't inclined to chat.)

We came upon one of the volcano-like formations such as we'd seen the evening before--a cone shaped hill of ice with its "crater" filled with fluffy snow. Michael probed it with his ski pole and it sank with almost no resistance.

I volunteered to step in and see how deep it was. Normally fairly constrained in expressing an opinion, Michael said, "Are you NUTS!? That could be VERY deep!" Later, I saw what he meant.


The huge ice formations on the beach begged to be explored, but we decided to pick out an area to camp in first and to leave the sleds there. We chose a site a little back from the shore--one that gave us shelter from the wind.

Unbuckling our sleds, we took our cameras and headed for the beach. As we emerged from the woods we spotted a brightly colored tent atop the nearest ice formation. Braving the elements on that exposed perch was a young man who waved cheerfully to us as we moved toward him.

After exchanging greetings (we learned his name was Alex) Michael asked him if he had something to secure the tent to the ice, explaining that the winds along the shore are very unpredictable, often reaching high velocities rather quickly.

He also asked Alex if he'd like to come with us to look at the ice formations. Alex said that when he got his tent squared away he would join us.

We moved down the beach, checking out the ice structures sculpted by early winter storms. In a bay area like this, before it freezes solid, the waves break up the sheets of ice that form on top of the water and, aided by the wind, pile the fragments along the shore. Then the piles are eroded by the wind and waves, coated repeatedly with spray and decorated Mary Powell explores the ice formations along the shore of Lake Superiorwithlayers of snow.

Mary Powell
of Flint, Michigan
explores the 30-foot-high
ice formations along the
Lake Superior shoreline
at Mosquito Beach.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

The large windswept hills covered by drifting snow resembled sand dunes in the Sahara--a person atop one is dwarfed by its size. We found caves of varying sizes and huge crevasses along the cliff of ice.

Several caves were big enough to go into and one had a ledge inside where you could stand and look up the open "chimney." Gazing at the sky visible through the opening more than thirty feet above me, I thought about what might have happened if I'd stepped into the one filled with snow....

We took quite a few pictures before heading further down the shore to Lover's Leap, a rock arch that reaches up to the cliff top. We explored it and took some more pictures before heading back to the campground, arriving just as darkness set in.

Alex hadn't caught up with us along the ice ridge and as we entered the woods we saw his tent dug in among the pines. Apparently he'd decided that "discretion is the better part of valor." We invited him to join us for breakfast.

We spent the evening relaxing. The Spartans were right in saying that hunger is the best seasoning for food--dinner was great! There was very little wind among the evergreens.

After the meal, I sat back in the snow lounger I'd dug and read for quite awhile. On a walk down to the beach before turning in I found a steady wind tugging at the trees and erasing our trail with drifts of snow.


Saturday's plan was to hike from Mosquito to Chapel Beach. Again the steady wind from the lake made it feel colder than it was. After awhile we decided to bushwhack through the woods instead of following the trail along the cliffs in the wind.

Alex had joined us as he was running low on supplies and his car was in that direction. Along the way we found the remains of a porcupine that had become dinner for some other forest inhabitant-unusual because there are not many animals that can kill a porcupine.

The approach to Chapel, as at Mosquito, has a steep incline. This time we lowered the sleds one at a time with a rope. On the beach was a large area of open water behind the low ice ridge that had formed there.

Apparently the higher temperatures of the water seeping steadily from the ground was enough to maintain the thawed area. We negotiated the jumble of huge ice slabs to walk into the huge cove at the beginning of Battleship Row.

Having swam into the cove the summer before and seen the motion of the waves against the rock walls and the clear deep water illuminated by shafts of sunlight, as well as heard the constant sound of waves and dripping water, I found it strange to see the cove so gray, unmoving, and silent.

Eastward down the beach were other attractions. The waves of early season storms repeatedly pound the cliff there coating them with ice. Even the trees on top of the cliff, more than a hundred feet above the water, were covered with ice from the spray.

The result was a giant fairy castle of ice tinged with varying colors: white, pale turquoise, rusty orange, pink and lavender. Again the light was good and I used up quite a bit of film.


After finding a campsite and getting set up, we enjoyed another pleasant evening. Alex talked of the places he'd been and listened to some of our stories in return.

We learned that, among other things, he'd worked as a photographer--a useful talent on wilderness trips where there are so many beautiful things to capture on film. He was good company too and we hoped he could join us on a future trip.

Michael and Alex spent part of the evening trying without success to fix Alex's stove, which was refusing to light. Alex then traded Michael some fuel for some hot water.

Snug in my shelter after dinner, I read for awhile and listened to the gusty wind harassing the trees.


Sunday started out well--the sun was shining--but it didn't go exactly as planned. After breakfast we followed the river to the outlet of Chapel Lake. Our objective was to visit a series of old sea caves along the escarpment overlooking the lake.

Working our way along the shore near the outlet Michael checked the ice frequently to make sure it was solid. In spite of this, at one pointMichael Neiger checks the ice Ed broke through.

Michael Neiger
of Marquette, Michigan
checks the ice for thickness
with a knife
at the outlet
of Chapel Lake.
(Photo by Alex Chard
& Mary Powell)

This necessitated a hasty scramble to get him and his sled out of the water and get the slush off his boots and pants. We also dumped a couple of gallons of lake water out of his sled and scraped the ice from its bottom.


On the move again, the lake widened out before us. Despite a cold breeze the warmth of the sun could be felt and travel over the smooth expanse was easy.

When a scree slope came into view below the escarpment to the west, Michael said it was time to have a look at the caves. That meant climbing about a hundred feet up a high-angle slope in deep sugary snow...

We parked the sleds near the shore and got the rope out again. We picked our way up, zigzagging between rocks and vegetation that gave us some purchase on the slope.

We used the rope to get over a short near-vertical section. Once at the escarpment it became apparent that we were not going to be able to walk easily along the ledge as we had in the summer. As at the Amphitheater cave, seeps had covered the ledge with sheets of ice in many places.

Michael did a bit of recon and determined that we would not be able to reach "Raptor" cave (the largest of the series) within our time limitations.

We contented ourselves with looking in the small ones close by and having lunch on the ledge with a great overview of Chapel Lake. Climbing back down was easier than going up and we were soon back to our sleds.


A little more snowshoeing brought us to the end of the lake and the end of easy travel. In front of us was a swamp that looked quite impassable but Michael barely paused before disappearing into the brush.

Alex followed. Ed's sled wasn't behaving well and he decided to make a few adjustments.

It was several hours before we saw Michael and Alex again though we could sometimes hear their voices far ahead. At one point Michael found the remains of a raccoon cached in the snow by whatever had killed it. Always thoughtful he left a tuft of the fur near their trail so that Ed and I would see the find too.

Michael was trying to get Alex back to an established trail so that he could get to his car before dark as he had to be at work the next day.

Eventually the swamp gave way to woods and we came upon Michael and Alex taking a short break where they had found the trail. Another mile or so brought us to the unplowed Chapel parking area.

After farewells Alex headed toward his car. The rest of us didn't have far to go as we planned to camp in the buffer zone just up the road. We walked a ways and chose a spot in the hardwoods.


Ed started to dig in, commenting, "You know, I never shovel snow at home...."

I dug a small rectangle throwing the snow around the edges to make walls over which I tied my tarp. Michael did much the same but his excavation matched the size of his tarp much better than mine did...maybe when I've had another twenty years of practice...

The usual evening routine followed: boil water, cook dinner, melt snow to make more water for the next day.

Ed turned in early and Michael was very quiet. I read a little but then just sat back to watch the sliver of moon come up in the hazy sky. I was tired of pulling the sled but not really ready for the trip to be over.


The next morning we packed our gear into the sleds one more time. Ed was still well supplied with food and gave me a gallon zip-lock of his excellent trail mix and some venison jerky. "For your next trip," he said, knowing it wouldn't get stale as I was driving from this trip to Minnesota to try dogsledding.

The trek to his truck was all uphill and seemed to take a long time, but the hardwoods in their blanket of snow were very pretty. When we had collected our cars and stowed our gear, we adjourned to the Bear Trap Inn (still busy with snowmobilers) for lunch--where we spent the time talking about next winter's trips....



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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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