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Michigan Bush Rats' Wilderness Tripping: Winter Camping and Sledging
   Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
   Alger County
   Munising, Michigan
   March 1-6, 2007


A Michigan Bush Rats' Adventure:

6-days of
Sledging, Winter Camping,
and Caving
along the shoreline of the
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

March 1-6, 2007


By Mary Powell (NatureLady)
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2007

E-mail author at powell_mm@hotmail.com




Review NatureLady's photo album from this trip

Review IsleRoyaleGirl's photo album from this trip

Review WoodsRunner's photo album from this trip

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Most Bush Rats' trips focus on off trail exploration of previously unvisited territory, but for a number of years now, the March trip has consisted of a pilgrimage to some favorite sites within the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to see what sculptures of ice and snow nature has fashioned there.

This year we had hoped to make at least part of the trek out on the lake ice at the base of the cliffs, but the late freeze and scant ice shelf put that plan on hold for some future time. We were nevertheless looking forward to sledging in the snowy woods, checking out some new ice formations, trying out new gear and generally enjoying the last of the winter camping season. Michael called it an eye-candy trip.


Day 1

Dogpatch to Amphitheater

Cathy, Dave and I stayed at the Sunset Motel in Munising Wednesday night while Michael and Gail drove over from Marquette on Thursday morning. We met at the Dogpatch, a restaurant we've frequented sufficiently to order without opening the menu. One of the regular waitresses entertained us with her accounts of the collapse of Miner's Castle last summer and of her investigations pertaining to a prominent local murder case. The latter story would have made a great chapter in a sequel to The #1 Ladies Detective Agency.

After a pleasant breakfast and the routine signing of paperwork we retired to the Visitor Center across the street to obtain our backcountry permits. While there, Michael asked permission to use the not-at-all-busy reception area to retro Dave's new Ojibway snowshoes with some crampons he'd made. While he worked the rangers chatted with us about our plans and the classic wood frame snowshoes. When the crampons were on, we headed out H-58, spotting Michael's car at Beaver Basin, Gail's and Dave's at Chapel Road and driving back to the starting point in mine.

As we put the finishing touches on packing and buckled on our sleds, Dave tried out his new crampons on one of the small hills of snow created by the plows. He and Michael demonstrated the ice axes they'd gotten in hope of being able to use them in traveling on the shore ice....maybe next year... There was other new equipment too: Dave had brought 200 feet of lightweight large diameter climbing rope and Gail had a new belay device to try.

We started out down a snow covered two track, following it to the edge of a swamp where we figured a rough azimuth to take us to the ridge on the far side. From there we headed west, our objective for the afternoon being Amphitheater cave on the Little Miner's River. Traveling conditions were good (crusty snow) and the weather was pleasant, though both the wind and clouds increased as the afternoon progressed. With a short break for lunch we reached the ridge above the cave in the late afternoon, but with enough daylight left for exploring and photography. We donned our helmets and got out the ropes to make the steep ridge more manageable. Taking cameras, extra layers and snacks, we headed down.

Amphitheater is a sea cave from thousands of years ago when the Superior shoreline was much higher. The Little Miner River spills over the middle of the opening, producing a cool mist and pleasant waterfall sound in the summer and a spectacular tower of ice in the winter. This year's tower was beautiful as always, mostly a frosty white, but tinted in places to the color of tea or latte by the minerals leached from the rocks. There were some cascades of completely clear icicles that looked like drip castles made of blown glass. The river could be heard within the hollow column running, trickling, dripping to the bottom. Behind the tower, in the cave, seeps had created massive curtains of ice. Like the tower these were tinted to hues of tan and light rust and the late afternoon sun gave some a bluish cast.

We put on the extra layers, explored the corridors of icicles, took numerous pictures and relaxed with our snacks to soak it all up. When the light began to fade, we returned to the ropes and climbed up to our sleds.

A gusty wind was howling in the treetops and we sought out a somewhat sheltered section of the ridge near some evergreens to set up camp. The evening was occupied with the preparation of food and the melting of snow for the next day's water. By the time we finished dinner a light snow was falling. Experimenting with his headlamp Dave found the dimmer setting made the falling snow look like dotted lines in the air--probably some kind of strobe effect... The snow continued through the night and by morning there were eight to ten inches of fresh white fluff...Beautiful!


Day 2

Potato Patch and Beyond

In the morning we were in no hurry. We indulged in considerable gear talk over breakfast and Michael did some maintenance on his stove which had cooked a bit slowly the night before and was refusing to sound like a rocket at lift-off. When all were ready we headed off, following the edge of the cliff and checking each drainage carefully in search of more frozen waterfalls.

The first couple of small creeks had eroded the cliff, but the third looked promising and so the ropes and helmets came out again and we dropped over the limestone edge to see what was there. Around a small point to the south we found an ice column smaller than that at amphitheater but still very pretty. It had more of the crystal clear glass-like formations, the ice curtain behind it had more color and the rocks between the curtain were covered with moss. When we'd explored and photographed this formation, we headed along the bluff to the north through a hip-deep drift of snow. Not far away we found a second small cave with it's own frozen falls and curtain of icicles. When we'd soaked up the views in that one we climbed back up to our sleds and had lunch.

After lunch we trekked through the woods to Potato Patch campground and then on along the coast checking out the views from the cliffs. There was minimal shelf ice and very few of the volcano-like ice formations we'd seen in past years. There were, however, extensive curtains of ice on the cliffs and we photographed many of these. The lake was a deep turquoise with some areas looking milky with slush. There was intermittent sun and a few rolling breakers.

We decided to camp early so as not to go beyond Mosquito the next day--that way Gail would be able to spend another night with us before leaving to keep some appointments and be ready for her next ski race. Starting set up early, we got a bit carried away with building. Gail's shelter ended up being very snug, with two complete walls of snow blocks. Dave's tarp became a steep pitched tent with a snow wall at one end and room underneath for at least three campers with gear... Michael also added some snow block walls to his explorer shelter. We had quite the little town when we were done.

The wind had shifted to the north and was steadily increasing as the evening went on. We could hear the waves crashing on the shore and there were occasional cannon-like booms as they hit caves or ice formations at the foot of the cliffs.


Day 3

On to Mosquito

The morning was lightly overcast and a strong steady wind blew from the NE. Out of the wind though, it did not feel particularly cold. Michael reported that it was 25 degrees. I thought perhaps Dave was sleeping in (very unusual) until I saw him carrying his morning coffee toward Michael's place: he had moved his stove from his usual outdoor cooking spot to his tarp to escape the wind. I built a fire in my hobo, made coffee to go with my blueberry granola and fixed a hot drink to go into the thermos for lunch.

The wind continued all day. We traveled the Coastal Trail to Mosquito--not an unpleasant trip despite the wind. Out on the lake the waves have been building--there are huge swells slushy with chunks of ice. The waves break onto the shore ice, building the formations along the edge and they pound into coves and caves making thunderous sounds and fountains of spray--restless, powerful, chaotic activity. Yet there is a kind of serenity in detached observation from our secure place on the shore

Approaching Mosquito, we used the ropes to assist in lowering the sleds down the stairs from the bluff to the shore ice and traveled across the ice to the river where we turned inland and reached the campground via the bridge. We chose to camp toward the back near the river and away from the wind. The early evening was taken up with solitary activities, napping, reading, exploring. After dinner we gathered in Michael's tarp for conversation, most of which concerned gear or tripping.

When we finally retired I slept well, awakening once around 3 AM. The forest was flooded with moonlight and the wind had softened to a peaceful sound.


Day 4

Mosquito to Chapel

We awoke to a bright though lightly overcast day. The wind was all but gone. As we were sipping our morning coffee Gail came by with her sled in tow to say goodbye to the group. She was headed to the Chapel parking area and her commitments back in civilization. When she had gone we finished our breakfasts and our packing and started a leisurely amble along the coastal trail toward Chapel. A short distance from the campground is a bluff where storms drive the waves upon the rocks with such force that they spray over the top of the cliff coating the trees and bushes there with ice. Several years ago these frozen structures were massive, resembling castles or a city made of glass. This year's display was smaller but still very pretty. We spent some time photographing the intricate constructions of ice-laden branches and fresh snow.

Continuing along the trail, there were many stops to take in the views. Cathy was especially intrigued as she'd only seen this stretch before from a kayaker's perspective. The trail has many photo ops and we took advantage of all of them. Lover's Leap, Indian Head, Sail Rock, Grand Portal Point, and Battleship Row were all viewed from many vantage points. By noon the sun was out, and after lunch on Grand Portal Point, the deep wet snow made harder work of pulling the sleds. It added weight to the snowshoes too, sticking to the tops and clumping in the crampons.

As we approached Chapel, we looked up the coast to check the prospects for traveling on the ice to Beaver Basin. The prospects were not good: there was only a very narrow ledge of shelf ice and open water could be seen in the distance. We went on across the bridge and again camped toward the back of the campground near the river. The evening was peaceful, but toward the end the wind was rising again and snow was falling.


Day 5

Inland to Escape the Storm

The wind had howled in the treetops all night and as we rose in the morning it still blew hard off the lake and the snow flew almost horizontally through the campground. We packed but were not particularly eager to go out into the wind. Preparing to strap on his snowshoes, Michael noticed that one of the crampons he'd added was cracked through in the middle. Checking the other he found it was also giving way. Apparently a stronger material or different design would be needed for next year... He took the time to remove the jagged pieces so they wouldn't damage the snowshoes.

He then proposed that we take a little while to go back to the first cove of Battleship Row and see what this northwester was doing with the waves there. This proved to be a great suggestion. We stopped at several spots along the way to watch the surf creating huge fans of spray along the shelf ice, but the best sights were still ahead. When we reached the cove we found that overnight the waves had sent spray over the bluffs and into the forest which is perhaps fifty feet above the lake.

The trees were coated with ice and massive icicles hung from the edge of the cliffs. The turquoise water below was slushy with pack ice, some chunks of which were huge. The waves carried this mixture into the cove, slamming it into the sea caves at the back of it. These openings appeared to swallow the icy water and then to regurgitate it as the swells receded. We watched this show for quite awhile from a sheltered spot among the trees. The colors changed as the sun came and went behind the clouds. The waves thundered and made an infinite variety of spray fountains. The wind caught the spray and made it into snow.

It was the kind of scene that brings to mind the words of a hymn, "when I, in awesome wonder, consider all the works Thy hands have made..." When we had taken in as much of this as we could, we turned away and headed back to our sleds.

By the time we had buckled them on, we had decided to go inland toward Dave's van at the plow turn around on Chapel Road rather than along the coast to Beaver Basin and Michael's vehicle. We passed the campground and followed the trail toward Little Chapel Lake where we stopped for awhile to visit Split Rock Cave. This small sea cave on the edge of the lake would make a good shelter in really bad weather. It has a roof opening that would carry away smoke from a fire (if they were allowed) and is closed enough to block the wind as it was doing that day.

Continuing along the trail we took a break for lunch not too far from Chapel Lake. We reconsidered our plan to visit the caves there. It was late enough that there wasn't time to explore them fully and getting down to camp in them without crampons would be tricky. There was also the issue of the number of miles that would be left for the next day... so the Chapel caves were left for another year and we continued toward the parking area. The snow was well above the sleds in some of the little valleys the trail passes through. At the junction of the trail from Mosquito it was good to see Gail's tracks from the previous day coming in.: no matter how experienced, anyone traveling alone could have problems.

When we reached the parking lot with its familiar apple tree, it was already late afternoon. We moved a couple hundred meters back into the hardwoods and set up camp. This time we all did variations on the explorer shelter. One side of mine covered a door-like opening beside a stump, but if anything lived there it must have stayed asleep.

I joined Cathy and Dave for hot chocolate and hors d'oeuvres before gathering firewood for my hobo. Despite the extra layers and the warm drink it was chilly--definitely colder than the previous evenings. Still, it was a pleasant last night in the bush. We visited each other intermittently, finally turning in around 10PM. Michael reported the overnight low as 2 degrees.


Day 6

It's All Uphill...

The next morning was sunny. The forest was silent and sparklingly beautiful. Despite such beauty the walk out becomes a bit tedious because the road back to H-58 from Chapel climbs steadily up over rolling hills. Snowmobiles had been down it sometime before the last snow and their packed trails did make the pulling easier. Cathy took the lead and must have been in the mood for a workout as we didn't see her for a quite a while. By the time we reached the car we were all looking forward to the customary post-trip lunch.

When we'd shoveled out all the vehicles, we adjourned to the Woodland restaurant in Shingleton for some REAL food and, as usual, we talked mostly about when we'd be getting out again.



Review NatureLady's photo album from this trip

Review IsleRoyaleGirl's photo album from this trip

Review WoodsRunners's photo album from this trip


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