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Wilderness Tripping: Winter Camping and Caving
   Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
   Chapel River Basin and Miners River Basin
   Alger County
   Munising, Michigan
   March 4-8, 2004


Winter camping
and caving in the
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:

Snowshoes, sledges
cliffs, caves, & frozen waterfalls


By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2004

E-mail author at


View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.

View Mary Powell's photo album from this trip.

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The long drive north

Wednesday morning found me headed north again on I-75. There was a definite feeling of deja vu, probably owing to the fact that this was my fourth trip up this same highway in a two month period. It seemed like winter had just gotten started and yet here I was on my last snowshoeing/wintercamping trip of the season. Perhaps it is true that time flies when you're having fun...


Old friends & new ones

I had some reservations about attempting this trip as my back had been bothering me for the past week. However, there were some good reasons for not wanting to miss it, besides the fact that it would be the last chance this year to camp in the snow.

Two new participants were coming on this trip: it's always fun to meet new people and to watch their experience of winter camping. Also Gail Staisil, a regular member of our group, was coming. We hadn't seen each other in a couple of months as she'd missed a couple trips due to work commitments.



Meeting Frank

I met one of the new trippers at Gaylord, having made plans to carpool with him from there. Frank Trojanowski of Interlochen had arrived at the rendezvous point first and was waiting there when I arrived. He seemed cheerful and anxious to get started. We loaded my gear into his Tahoe and left my Neon in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Very soon we were crossing the Mackinaw bridge and noting that, while there was very little open water, the ice didn't appear to be very thick. We drove by the snow covered beaches and forests along US-2, turned north toward Seney and continued along M-28 to Shingleton. Arriving with a couple of hours to spare, we tried the only attraction in Shingleton, the Iverson Snowshoe Company, but found it closed.

We then drove the few extra miles into Munising but found it mostly closed too. The parking lot at Munising Falls had been plowed though, so we walked up and looked at the picturesque, partially frozen waterfall surrounded by icy seeps: a preview of what we'd be seeing on our trek.


And then there were six...

After the falls we headed back to Shingleton and parked at the proposed meeting place, the Woodlands restaurant. Upon entering we found Dave Mansfield of Flint already waiting, having found a similar lack of interesting things to do. He had scouted out the proposed trailhead in the daylight and reported that it was plowed though a bit muddy in places. We chatted and perused the menu until leader Michael Neiger and the other new participant Dave Foster of -Jackson showed up. We spent a pleasant couple of hours eating, talking about the trip and filling out the required paperwork.
Gail arrived quite a bit later having had to work into the afternoon. She was staying in a motel for the night while the rest of us planned to camp at the trailhead. As the restaurant employees began their closing routines, we paid our bills, filled an insulated jug with water for the morning and left to make camp and spot the cars. It was snowing, big soggy flakes that turned to water on contact, so we dug out our rain gear. We set up our shelters as planned near the intersection of county road 639 and the unplowed Chapel Beach road. Then we moved most of the cars to where the trip would end at the plow turn around where 639 effectively ends in the winter.

Group of six




Michael Neiger (Marquette, Mi),
Dave Mansfield (Davison, Mi),
Dave Foster (Jackson, Mi),
Gail Staisil (Midland, Mi),
Frank Trojanowski (Interlochen, Mi),
and Mary Powell (Flint, Mi).
(Photo courtesy of Gail Staisil)





Off to a good start

Thursday morning there were only a few clouds and the temperature hovered around freezing. We decided to take a chance and not start out in rain gear as we'd get way too warm pulling the sleds with it on. Gail showed up right on time as usual. A few extra minutes were spent helping Frank and Dave F. sort their gear and pack the sleds for off trail travel. We then started off on the long downhill road to Chapel parking lot. It was sunny and warm and a good crust beneath the top layer of snow made pulling easy. At the parking lot we turned onto the trail that leads to the west side of Chapel Lake and down to Chapel Beach. We had lunch overlooking a little stream, enjoying the hushed forest in its bright blanket of snow.


Visiting the Chapel Lake caves

When lunch was over we went on to the escarpment on the west side of Chapel Lake. After a premature descent from the plateau, we pulled the sleds back up and continued along its edge until we came to the notch in the rocky ledge that lets one climb down with relative ease to the base of the escarpment. There Michael had found a series of caves that date back many thousands of years to an interglacial period when Lake Superior, now several hundred feet below us, was at this level and its stormy waters eroded the sandstone. As we set up camp there I was looking forward to exploring those caves again. I had seen them before in the summer, but wondered how they would look trimmed with ice and snow. On previous trips we'd found piles of scat in some of them and I thought it was possible we might find them occupied. After a cup of coffee and a snack, we used a rope to descend the steepest part of the slope and then walked along the base of the escarpment examining each cave as we came to it. The piles of scat remain unexplained. Another tripper had done some research and found that porcupines sometimes live communally in the winter, but there was no sign of them now. There were only raccoon and coyote tracks in the sand and soft snow around the caves. Some of the caves had signs of human occupancy: pieces of coal and metal relics. One cave Michael named Raptor because it has the remains of a large bird's nest in a cleft in the ceiling. The neatest find, however, was the frozen seeps along one stretch of the escarpment. After numerous Kodak moments there, we returned to our camp in time to have dinner before dark.




Windy and wet

In the morning there was wet snow on the tarps and a gusty wind blowing. We put on our rain gear and picked up the trail to Chapel Beach. As we neared the Superior shore, the wind and blowing snow increased. Where the trail was fully exposed along the edge of the lake the cold was penetrating our rain gear, chilling us through our light base layers which were damp from the effort of hiking. The blowing snow stung our faces, wet our gloves and made seeing ahead difficult. We pulled ahead into the shelter of some pines, put on our insulating layers, and had a hasty lunch.


Dave's departure

After lunch Dave F. was thinking that the combination of weather and pace would take its toll on him in the upcoming days and decided to turn back, an option he had discussed with Michael before signing on. Frank wavered a bit but decided to continue with the group. We said our farewells, Michael reviewed the route back with Dave and we arranged to meet at the trip's end.

The weather improved as we walked the coastal trail--the snow stopped and the wind dropped to a steady breeze that brought cooler temperatures and drier air. We stopped here and there to photograph the scenic snowy cliffs and the mix of ice and water below.

Michael's goal was to get past Grand Portal Point and we did, but just barely. We camped in the woods not too far back from the cliff edge. When we had our shelters up we walked out to check the view.

Grand Island could be seen in the distance, its snowy cliffs catching the last of the sunlight. Later, after dark, the radio towers around Munising and the glow of the city could be seen. Farther out and more north was the glow of Marquette.

Frank retired early to his tent. The rest of us sat up awhile listening to the sounds of the winter night. The wind picked up and moaned steadily through the treetops. We could hear waves breaking against the rock below.




Breaking trail along 200-foot-high cliffs

I awoke the next morning to gull's cries on the lake. Though it sounded like there were many of them, by the time I got my snowshoes on to check it out there were only a few bobbing quietly in the icy slush. The sky was clear and it promised to be a beautiful day.

After breakfast we continued along the coast. I broke trail for awhile thereby acquiring a great deal of appreciation for Michael's efforts in that regard. Not much was moving in the woods. We saw a few ravens and an occasional woodpecker.

Several hours later we lunched at Mosquito. After eating we did the long climb out of the river valley and bushwhacked through the hardwoods toward the coastal trail again.

In the late afternoon we stopped to camp a couple hundred meters back from one of the high beaches. The site we chose was along the edge of a clearing which merged into a wetland.

A peaceful evening ensued. We kept an eye out for game in the clearing but none appeared. A barred owl called at intervals and another seemed to answer, each time from a new location.




A surprise meeting at the Amphitheater

Sunday morning we got back on the coastal trail. It was a little cooler and travel was more comfortable. We lunched near Potato Patch campground and continued toward the objective for the day, a large cave called Amphitheater on the Little Miners River.

It wasn't too long before we were on the escarpment above it. We would leave our sleds there and use our ropes to negotiate the steep slope.

Surprisingly, as we put on our helmets and sorted out the gear we would take down, three other hikers came up from below. After a cursory greeting they snowshoed off into the woods. As they didn't have packs and weren't dressed to accommodate much change in conditions, we surmised they had come most of the way by snowmobile.


Amphitheater: the ice and snow show

With our stuff in daypacks to free up our hands, we clambered down the hill using ropes and eased along the base of the escarpment to the cave. I had seen it in the winter for the first time last March when the temperatures had been much colder. I was eager to see how the warmer weather this year would affect the ice formations.

As expected, it was beautiful! Instead of the solid column of ice we'd found before where the river drops over the front of the cave, we found the Little Miners River pouring off the edge into a crystalline volcano-like structure with the ice reaching all the way to the top of the cave in back.

An occasional sifting of snow from the ledge above combined with the spray of water made some awesome pictures. The many seeps at the back of the cave were still mostly frozen, but enough melting had occurred to expose sections of the cave walls giving nice contrast for pictures.

It was also easier to see the real dimensions of the cave than with last year's massive ice formations. We snapped pictures, snacked and rested a bit.


A side trip to Miner's Falls

When we'd had our fill of Amphitheater Frank decided to return to the sleds and wait while the rest of us took a side trip to see if we could get a look at Miner's Falls.

To do this we had to hike a half a klick (kilometer) or so up the river valley. We weren't sure we'd be able to get past the where the rocky walls closed in on the river.

We descended to the bottom of the valley and snowshoed upstream through the frozen swamp which had a beauty of its own. The dark green of closely spaced cedars and hemlocks contrasted nicely with their thick snow cover.

We crossed and recrossed the river on snow bridges to avoid being squeezed up against the steep rock walls. The gurgling/rushing sounds of the water urged us on. There were some steep spots and they were made more difficult by the soft, sticky snow which tended to clump in our crampons.

As we approached the turn in the river which concealed the falls, we had an awesome view of a curtain of massive icicles, frozen seeps, on the opposite cliffs. Then carefully climbing up the rocky slope and around the corner, we got a view of the falls.

Swollen somewhat by the melting snow, the river rushed off the rocky ledge, spraying outward before dropping to the ice and rocks below. To the left was the curtain of frozen seeps, to the right a rock wall encrusted with icicles. VERY nice! Worth the effort to get there.

After capturing each other's likenesses with the falls in the background we turned and hastened back toward the sleds. It was late afternoon and we had a way to go before camping.


Back to the sleds

This side trip was the last straw for whatever was wrong with my back and I lagged quite a ways behind on the return trip.

We were really glad we'd used the rope to get down as it made getting back up a lot easier.

We found Frank waiting by the sleds looking like a large blue marshmallow in his oversize parka. This coat was causing some envy in the rest of us and we joked about drawing straws to see who would get it should anything happen to Frank...

But for now we were all ready to find our camp for the night.


The last night in the bush

Using some old two-tracks and a bit of bushwhacking, we moved to the buffer zone at the edge of the park where we chose to camp in an open area of hardwoods. As evening came on the sky cleared and the bright orange sunset through the trees was a beautiful end for the day.

Since we were out of the park, a campfire would be legal. Michael and Dave gathered and cut some wood and I built a fire that burned through most of the evening on my fire pan. Behind me Gail lit candles, giving her tarp a soft glow as she cooked and melted snow for the next day.

At Michael's tarp I could see the blue-white spot of his headlamp. A healthy dose of ibuprofen took my mind off my back and the evening became mellow. Dave came over to share the fire for awhile. As on the previous night a barred owl called now and then. I laid down fairly early to read and finished the mystery I'd brought.




Return to civilization

Morning brought a pleasant day though it was cloudy and a bit warm for sledging.

We didn't have a huge distance to travel to the cars, maybe four klicks, but it would all be done with map and compass, bushwhacking and making use of old logging roads where possible. Michael did his usual nice job of it. We climbed a plateau, followed a ridge and skirted a swamp, passing by an interesting camp on a bit of private land. The last little distance was on unplowed back roads.

Around one o'clock we were sorting gear and packing it in the vehicles. We reconnected with Dave F. back at the Woodlands restaurant where we had a parting meal. Hearing of his travels after leaving us at Chapel Beach and sharing the highlights of ours made a nice conclusion for the trip.



View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.

View Mary Powell's photo album from this trip.

Read another photo-journal.



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