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Backpacking, Caving, & Canyoneering
   Rock River, Silver Creek, and Laughing Whitefish River canyons
   Alger County
   Au Train, Michigan
   September 2-6, 2005


A 5-day exploration of
three Upper Peninsula canyons:

and caving in the
Rock River Canyon,
Silver Creek Canyon,
and Laughing Whitefish Canyon

September 2-6, 2005


By Gail Staisil
   Marquette, Michigan
   Copyright 2005

E-mail author at woodswoman2001@yahoo.com

View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.

Read Mary Powell's trip journal from this trip.

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September 2

An Evening Surprise -- Growls

It's hard to believe that it is the end of summer already. It's been an unusually hot summer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and it looks like temperatures will hold for the next five days of backpacking.

Today we are scheduled to start an exploration of the back country surrounding Silver Creek Canyon, Rock River Canyon and Laughing Whitefish Canyon. We hope to find a series of caves that were formed from wave action of Lake Superior thousands of years ago. Lake Superior is much lower in modern times, so these areas can be found far in to the interior of the back country.

Explorers for this trip include Michael, Mary, John, Cicely and myself. We all have traveled together extensively before this trip, except for a new addition to the group -- Cicely. We would welcome her at the Dog Patch in Munising, where we are scheduled to meet for breakfast.

The early morning ride to Munising went quickly. After the usual hearty breakfast, we all jumped in to our vehicles and drove our cars to a location on Rock River Road about 4.5 miles west of Highway M28. Since we were doing a circular type route, we left all of our cars together along a dusty county road.

We planned to follow a short path before we would work the Silver Creek area. After a confusing start with a bit of round-about travel, we continued on our way. Along the way, we found some evidence of old growth forest. The hill sides were full of seeps, so our boots squished along even though the summer had been very dry.

During a location check, Mary adjusted her boots for a lengthy amount of time. John filled the back of Mary's bonus pocket on the back of her pack neatly with twigs unbeknown to her. Others soon noticed and wondered how she had gathered so much brush so quickly. Things got off to a good start and laughter was shared when the truth was known.

We chatted along the way about past trips and many experiences were shared. We stopped along the high ridged bank of Silver Creek to have lunch while listening to the soft sounds of the sandy bottomed creek -- the water level was very low at this time of year. The breeze in the air made the warm temperatures tolerable.

We worked the north side of the Silver Creek Canyon and found at least a kilometer of cave-like formations. They consisted of many different sizes and many exhibited shelves. It appeared that ice climbers or hunters might of been there during past winters as evidenced by remainders of winter fires.

It was an easy walk for the most part, that is, there weren't a lot of obstacles in the way. We decided to camp on an old railroad spur that ran somewhat parallel to the ridge.

We set up camp, prepared our meals and then all of sudden we stopped talking in midstream as we heard a series of growls very close to us. Our eyes wandered all around and then Michael and Mary started to canvass the immediate area. Whatever it was, it was long gone. We speculated what the growl originated from, with the most popular opinion being that it was from a badger. Whatever it was, I'm sure it just wanted to let us know of its presence.

Evening set in quickly, the sun sets early at this time of year and it was to be a cloudy night. I decided to sleep in my hammock during this trip as the weather was expected to hold for a while and not drop below freezing.


September 3

"Flint-stone Town"

The night had been enjoyable. I slept in a light layer of insulation and no sleeping bag. I heard coyotes, an owl and an unknown sound during the night. Maybe it was the badger. :)

Breakfast was unhurried -- we left camp about 9:30 A.M. to explore the cliff with caves again. We ran in to a nice series -- at one point there was a higher ledge with several "rooms" in it. We all climbed up in to our own "apartments." It was kind of like a Freddy Flint-stone town.

We walked beneath the cliff until the rocky cliff face petered out. At the top of the cliff, we took a break before we did some cross country travel. During the morning break, John began to tell us his bee stories in chapters. John keeps bee hives as a hobby and is a great source of information on bee keeping. We could hardly wait until the next break to hear more, it became a goal to move further.

We found a spot along the river bank to have our lunch. John continued his story complete with animation. We were captivated to listen attentively.

After some cross country travel, we came to a road -- we decided to take a spur branching out from it so that we could travel more quickly and make camp for the night at a lake. We took another spur from that road in an easterly direction. The old road was overgrown through wetlands and an old beaver dam -- we bushwhacked through to the lake -- Laughing Whitefish Lake.

We arrived at a point of land on Laughing Whitefish Lake. The area is owned by the Nature Conservancy, we had a great site complete with mossy ground. I hung my hammock in full view of the lake.

Just after we retired for the night, two great blue herons landed in the evergreens in front of us. From our respective shelters, we watched them land and later take flight. During the night, large fish jumped loudly in the lake, coyotes yelped and owls hooted -- quite a memorable night at Laughing Whitefish Lake.


September 4

A Destructive Fire

It got colder last night -- it was probably in the 40F range. We joked about how we need to get acclimatized again for winter sledging.

We left camp and followed a 4WD road for a while. We then calculated an azimuth so that we could T-bone the North Country Trail. We wanted to check out the bridge over the Laughing Whitefish River that supposedly crossed the river, as we would use it on our return tomorrow if it was in place. We found a series of platforms and stairs leading to the cool bridge. It was a very steep descent that was nicely structured by some creative North Country Trail volunteers.

We took a break at the bridge and then returned to the upper ridge. From there we bushwhacked a short ways to a series of old 4WD roads. Since they were generally going in the right direction for us, we took them to land us at the Laughing Whitefish Falls.

The Laughing Whitefish Falls are a hundred foot wall of water cascading over a vertical limestone shelf. The waterfall is named for the river. The river is so named because the mouth of the river resembled a laughing whitefish when viewed by the Ojibwa Indians from Lake Superior. The drought this year has greatly affected the amount of water that is flowing but they were still nice to view.

We sat at the base of the falls and watched four boys trying to catch frogs without getting all wet. At least that was the advice of their parents. The falls are a popular tourist attraction so we knew that we would run in to a few people.

After lunch, we started to work the series of caves on the western edge of the river. We had only gone a short ways when we realized that we smelled some thing like a camp fire. It soon became apparent that partially burned brush and trees that had fallen over the edge of the upper ridge above us were the cause of the smell. We re-conned the top ridge and discovered the remains of a recent fire. Trenches had been dug by firefighters and charred remains of trees and roots were unsightly.

We continued our re-con along the ridge where we found more caves. After a while, it became apparent that no more caves were evident. We walked the upper ridge and bushwhacked over to a connector trail to the North Country Trail. There was a really cool waterfall along the way with an amphitheater setting. We sauntered through the forest with anticipation of reaching the bridge that would take us across the river to camp.

I stayed down at the bridge as the others ascended to find a suitable spot on the ridge. I was hot and wanted to clean up a bit -- the water and sun felt luxurious.

After dusk, a team of dogs yelped in the distance. Michael figured they were sled dogs. The night was otherwise quiet.

My hammock seemed to slacken during the night. One of the trees that I had used to support the hammock was on the small side. I decided to lower my hammock to the ground early in the morning to spend the last few hours on the ground, rather than sleep in an awkward position.


September 5

"The 1951 Dodge"

We all were up and about by 7 A.M. As we were eating breakfast, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. A rather large raccoon slowly crawled up to the top reaches of a tree in the largely hardwood forest.

We decided to take the North Country Trail as it was headed generally in the direction we were going anyway. We came across an outstanding spring that came out of the rocky hillside beneath the trail, forming the headwaters of Silver Creek. It flowed in to a small pool and tumbled over a ledge in to a very luscious valley. The valley was intensely vivid with green moss covered rocks -- very pretty.

We followed more of the NCT, it was way under-utilized, some times it was hard to tell if we were on the trail or in the forest itself, as there wasn't much distinction or tread.

We circled back to the Silver Creek and set ourselves up for lunch just off the dirt roadway. We soon heard a vehicle approaching. It was a 1951 Dodge Truck that had once been a fire vehicle in Colorado. The new owner had repaired the 5700 pound vehicle and was having a great time utilizing the old roads in the back country. Michael and John were envious of the owner of the Dodge and of course it was nice to see some thing older than me. :)

After lunch, we bushwhacked through to the Rock River Falls. Along the way, we saw a cabin in the national forest boundaries. Maybe it belonged to the national forest or maybe it was grandfathered in, when the forest was established.

Rock River Falls were very enticing even though the water level was low. Water fell over the twenty foot tiered ledge producing two separate falls, one being about three foot across. We sat on the rock ledges underneath the edge and had an instant high pressure shower.

We decided to stay near the falls as we prepared our dinners. I lingered there the rest of the evening until I could no longer visibly see the falls as darkness set. The others had drifted back to their bivy sites a bit earlier. We all had chosen to make our camp on the upper ridge on the west side of the falls. The sound of water would embrace us all night long.

I finally went to bed but couldn't sleep. Five hours passed and no sleep occurred. I was near the top of the falls so I could hear the volume of water vary in intensity as it poured over the edge of the falls. The mini falls below the edge also had their own rhythms so my focus jumped from one to another too often.


September 6

A Return to Reality

Our plans for the day started by climbing the long steep slope back to the top of the ridge. We traveled an old railroad bed and an old re-grown road or two, it was often hard to tell if we were on an old road or just in the rest of the forest. Along part of the ridge, we noticed some more "cave" possibilities but we decided to save that for another trip.

When we reached our cars, they were literally covered with a thick layer of dusty dirt. They had been left just off of a highly traveled 4WD/ATV route. We loaded our gear and had high hopes of jumping in to Lake Superior as soon as we got back to Highway M28 which ran along the lake. It was a possibility that was fully realized and after being refreshed, we took lunch at the Brownstone Inn. The meals there are outstanding and we readily consumed the tasty entrees.

The group parted to return to their respective homes. For two of us, the journey was short but the rest of the gang had to travel back to the Lower Peninsula to resume their normal activities. We all knew it wouldn't be long and we would be back in the woods again.



View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip.

Read Mary Powell's trip journal from this trip.

Read another photo-journal.



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