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Wilderness Tripping: Advanced-level Backpacking Trip
   McCormick Tract--North End
   Marquette & Baraga County
   Champion, Michigan
   October 1-5, 2004


The McCormick Tract:

A Wilderness Area
In Marquette And Baraga Counties


By Gail Staisil
   Midland, Michigan
   Copyright 2004

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Friday, October 1

Splint Rapids

"There is common ground where kindred spirits walk"...I think of this quote often as it so indicative of our group journeys.

Today is an exciting day, we were heading back to one of my favorite places. It is the McCormick Tract, a federal wilderness area in Marquette and Baraga Counties, which is predominantly road-less and trail-less. The history of the McCormick Tract began in 1884 when Cyrus McCormick made his first camping trip to the area. He later purchased many parcels of land and established a retreat in the early 1900's. In 1967, his descendants willed the area to the USDA (Forest Service). It was a lasting gift that greatly benefits all of us.

The morning plans included meeting for breakfast, at the Hungry Hollow Cafe in Big Bay. I decided to forgo breakfast and meet the others shortly after. The 7 AM meeting time was reading too early on my radar, as a bit more sleep was badly needed. As I drove from Marquette where I had spent the night, the morning was still dark and the time I arrived at the appointed place, the sky had lightened considerably, and I then joined the others, who had satisfied their appetites considerably.

After arrival, I distributed some homemade goodies to the crew and we then piled into our cars, to navigate the lengthy dirt roads which would take us to the North Gate of the McCormick Tract. There is a short trail that leads from there (maybe a half-mile), to a view of the West Falls on the Yellow Dog River. We would then embark on our own bushwhack adventure to various places within the Tract. Some of these places I had been to before but other locations were new places to explore.

Our group consisted of people who had explored the tract before, and people who had previously never set foot there. I must say that everyone was enthused with the possibilities. Our group included Michael, Dan, Mary, Mary Ann, Charlie, and myself...six strong.

The weather forecast was gloomy - rain and snow was predicted for all five days that we would be in the bush. The sun this morning was surely appreciated and we all got rid of our jackets before we even started the adventure.

We spent some time at the falls, and then found an upstream area to cross the river, without having to remove our boots. After the river cross, we aimed towards "Crow's Nest" outstanding outcropping with great vistas of colorful forest. The color was rapidly improving and probably was at about 35-40 percent according to this colorologist :) We decided to have our lunch in this splendid location.

After lunch, I removed my vest and it seemed to be unseasonably warm...I was soon down to my sleeveless shirt. We worked hand railing the river sometimes close to it, and sometimes further up along a ridge where walking was mostly easier. Our goal was to reach a nice flat rocky outcropping on the other side of one of the forks of the river...a location Michael called Splint Rapids. This place had a little bit of history for some of us, as it is where we bivied soon after Mary badly hurt her knee several years ago.

About an hour before we reached our intended target area, it began to sprinkle rain and subsequently it increased in intensity, just as we were donning our rain gear.

The rain continued as we made camp. Setting up camp had a few obstacles in that the ground is very rocky deeming any stakes useless. I had brought my Golite Hex for this trip which requires a fair amount of staking...I quickly gathered enough rocks to use as anchors, but the whole set up time was very time consuming in the incessant rain, with securing each of the rocks with rope tie outs added to the loops of my shelter...I was wishing I would of had my regular tarp with me, as it would of set up much faster. I finally got it up, but it was not without trying my patience.

The rain kept everyone at bay. Most went to bed early...around 8 PM or so. I listened to the rain as I drifted off to sleep...


Saturday, October 2

A Birthday Celebration At Lake Margaret

We all seemed to sleep well and everyone was up quite early. Michael said that it snowed during the night - big, heavy, wet flakes. There was heavy frost on our shelters, as the night got quite cold.

We decided to head to Lake Margaret. I started the first azimuth by heading north to the ridge above the river and easterly for awhile, to see if we could get an elevated view of the Mulligan Swamp, at which we had bivied at the edge of one time. After the ridge, we descended south, down into the edge of a swampy area, and then headed back and forth between swamp and ridge areas. At one point we noticed snow still evident in the swamp in the early afternoon. The swamp areas were quite colorful with a splendid interface of fallen colored leaves and green mosses.

Charlie finished the navigation for the day, by leading us to the north shore of Lake Margaret. We found a nice rock outcropping not far from a point that some of us had explored on the west end last year.

We celebrated Michael's birthday tonight with homemade chocolate brownies complete with candles and special cocoa. It's always nice to be away from the rest of the world for these special times that are shared with friends.

Overall the day was cool but sunny, which we so appreciated after yesterday's and last night's rain. The wind died down in the evening and the stars shone in a very clear sky.


Sunday, October 3

Bulldog Lake And The Historic Dam

What a beautiful morning! We sat on the bluff below our camp site and watched the day begin. After the morning necessities of breakfast and packing, we ambled on to pursue the next lake...Bulldog Lake. We skirted the shoreline and eventually crossed the channel on a historic dam. The concrete dam was still intact and had remnant bolts and other pieces of metal anchored in place. We had our lunch on the opposite shore, where we could visually speculate what the dam must of looked like in its heyday. Charlie effortlessly scaled a log out into the water, to get his new supply of water for his afternoon needs...the rest of us took the less thrilling approach :) by obtaining it at the shoreline.

After lunch, we hand-railed the channel to a neat outcropping and then inspected remnants of an old logging camp. The clearing gave us a visual clue as to its whereabouts. Our next destination would be Island Lake. I would be the navigator for this link, and it would consist of a very long, 2,500-meter azimuth. Luckily, I was very accurate and we ended up in the right place...that's always nice.

Island Lake has an outstanding peninsula where we stayed a few years ago. The peninsula has a predominately open pine forest and the needles are so cush to sleep on.

Being that it was day three, I decided that maybe my hair could use a simple rinse...I ended up washing more than that inadvertently, when I fell in the lake...luckily it was very shallow and only my pants and boots were wet...between the wind and a fleece hat, my hair may not of looked better, but it felt better (note to self: why was I wearing my boots?)

After dinner, it began to rain, so everyone scurried under their shelters and retired early once again. I read for awhile, but soon after, decided to sleep. The rain only increased in intensity and soon it was freezing rain, and then snow.


Monday, October 4

Onward To Summit Lake

When we awoke, our tarps had a layer of snowy ice, especially built thick on the edges. We had our breakfast, scraped the ice off our shelters and headed out for the day. We would hand-rail around to the opposite side of the lake. Soon after we left, I noticed a brilliant display of white snow across the was so pretty with the autumn leaves...we hoped to get there before it melted. We crossed an old beaver dam to the south shore. Along the way we found evidence of an old logging camp but not much remained except for some thick iron rectangular plates.

Shortly after, we were at the "snow site" which hadn't melted a bit, as the temps remained consistently below freezing. There was an old beaver lodge perched along the lake's edge, along with a much forgotten boat from the past...kind of unusual, in that the wooden boat was encased with a layer of metal on the was mostly submerged in the mud and vegetation.

Mary led us to Gordon Lake for lunch where we all had a hot drink along with our other fare. We bundled up with extra clothing until we would walk again.

Charlie led us to Summit Lake to bivouac...along the way, the snow remained on the ground. We approached a creek which we hopped back and forth on so many times, that I lost count...I joked about all the creek crossings on this trip. We were thankful that we didn't have to wade any creeks or rivers this time, as the change in weather was not something we were acclimatized to, as of yet.

The colors on the trees today were invigorating plus the snow on the leaves was awesome.

Our camp site on Summit Lake was small but adequate...everyone was rather close together. I lit my candle and stayed up for awhile reading. During the night and early morning, most of us heard beavers slapping their tails and barred owls hooting.


Tuesday, October 5

Outcroppings And Beaver Dams

Morning arrived...I ate breakfast by candlelight even though it was after 7 AM...there are a lot of dark hours now.

We left camp and walked up a series of ridges. There were remains of an old cabin foundation and metal pieces from the stove. The latter seems to be the most common item we find from the past.

We walked through a draw with high rock walls on one side. Michael found an old survey locator tag - a metal one that was partially grown into the tree (Evergreen Lake area).

We climbed to the top of many high points and peaks. Many used to be lookouts in the McCormick days, but the tree canopies have well covered most views. We had lunch on a high point near a box canyon. The high outcropping was substantial in size, had nice views and could possibly be a place to bivouac in the future.

After lunch, we steeply descended into a draw, and then had to find a place to cross the river which was damned up by beavers. It was a relatively new dam, so the crossing was iffy. I heard the exclamations of my trail partners, as they mostly got their feet wet while trying to cross on the dam, or just in the back of it while hopping hummocks, which were largely spaced. I carefully inched my way through the restricting branches and eventually made it. Michael found a neat find in the dam...a set of deer antlers! We all made it safely across, but we still had a couple hours of walking left, before we made it back to the cars.

It was already 5 PM when we reached the cars. Mary Ann had to scurry back to Canada, but the rest of us drove to the Border Grill in Marquette for a welcome Mexican dinner.

Another great trip to the McCormick Tract was over, the fourth one for me and I anxiously await a chance to explore there once again. It's remoteness is a powerful draw.



Something To Think About

Gaining northerly access to the McCormick Tract is done by navigating through a series of dirt roads, that transect the Yellow Dog Plains and the Huron Mountains area. It is a mostly pristine environment which is currently being threatened by possible sulfide mining operations.

A Canadian mining company bought some of the mineral rights in this area. Since this would likely effect the vast watershed to a great extent, citizens and environmental groups have joined forces to form the Eagle Alliance. The Alliance is very concerned with the destructive long term implications if this mining is allowed to occur. Not only would there likely be damage to the watershed but the remoteness of the area would be substantially reduced by the influx of mining operations. It could also limit our present access to the tract which would take one through their territory.

(To be more informed about this situation...Google Marquette sulfide mining or the Eagle Alliance).




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View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip

View Mary Powell's journal 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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