After six months worshipping at the feet of Lake Superior, we’ve begun our initiation rite: a three-day, 30-mile pilgrimage along the most iconic shoreline stretch of the Upper Peninsula.
For being one of the state’s foremost tourism images, the Pictured Rocks are shockingly undervisited, especially by Michiganders. Preservationists had a long battle on their hands to pry the area from the lumber industry’s greedy fingers. By the time the lakeshore was established as public land in 1966, popular imagination was much more obsessed with the far west–the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, the coast of California.
Today, Instagram is swollen with images of Bixby Bridge, Lake Diablo and the sea stacks of Cannon Beach; meanwhile, you’d be hard-pressed to find a selfie taken beside what 19th-century documentarian Henry Rowe Schoolcraft called “some of the most sublime and commanding views in nature.”
Part of that is because Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore remains today, as it was for the explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries, “the fag end of the world.” Getting there at all requires a road trip of several hours from any major airport. As a result, the old-growth forests and sheer overlooks of Lake Superior go unnamed and largely unnoticed. The only way to see them is to travel the North Country Trail.
From Twelvemile Beach westward, the trail runs mainly over wooded sand dune, maybe ten feet at its highest. The path is narrow but well-maintained, lined by wine-colored maple saplings, fiddleheads with unfurled fronds clutched like actors in a Victorian tableau. It opens frequently onto windswept beaches, where the lake lies silent, its rings of color like an agate’s concentric circles. The fresh, fishy smell of the lake meets the scent of baking pine needles.
Last night in the hotel hot tub, we frequently stopped ourselves in the act of catching up on each other’s lives, saying we’d save this story or that for specific days of the trip. To my surprise, once we set out in earnest, we hardly speak. We exchange more conversation with the other hikers we pass.
It strikes me that maybe silence is the best use of this whole endeavor. The hard miles draw deeper thoughts up from the ground, thoughts that don’t lend themselves to easy conversation. It takes me back to road life, where the miles eat up superficial confidence, and the close quarters wear down the wall of protection between you and your rider. Doing all you can to move forward, you’re forced to simply be, which in turn reveals the joy of being with. And won’t it be something to share stories, when we celebrate our journey over well-deserved pizza and beer, about the experiences we had as individuals while sharing the road together?
My dewy-eyed introspection continues in this vein until I realize that I’m thinking less about the stories and more about the pizza and beer. Introspection can serve you only so far.
Once you get past 7 Mile Beach, the trail shifts from dune to deep woods, exchanging elevation for a serpentine series of bends. Light filters through the trees like the rafters of an old barn. Against the evergreen limbs, illuminated lacy swaths of new leaves–orange, yellow, green–look like banners in a church on a high holy day.
The shade is welcome. The mosquitoes are not.
Pause for a brief chest-thump regarding my homemade bug spray, which stopped a mosquito millimeters from my face and sent it right back into the woods. The secret, you ask? Vanilla extract. Try it–you’ll see.
Fun fact about campsites on this trail network: the number listed beside your reservation is not the number of your actual site. We spend nearly 30 minutes looking for Site #7 at Beaver Creek before we finally give up and create our own in a strangely perfect spot adjacent to the actual grounds. Hidden by a rise and fall, it’s sheltered by a fringe of pines, carpeted by moss, and looks out directly over the mouth of Beaver Creek toward the first of the Pictured Rocks.
Bryan sets up the tent–I crawl inside intending just to change my socks, and immediately pass out.
When I wake up, the predicted rain looks like a definite eventuality. The sky is veiled in thin, anxious cloud. It’s not cold yet, but it is getting wet. We stumble down the dune to collect water. The sand squeaks under our feet, a cute but spine-shuddering sound. Seagulls wheel and cry overhead. A few cracks of lightning send us back up the dune, seeking the comfort of our dehydrated dinners.
I’m starting to wonder about getting started on the eleven hours of sleep I want, when the sky cracks again. Not with lightning, but with a sunset. The sky blushes sci-fi red as a vaporous sphere of rain drifts lazily across the horizon like the sail of a ship.
The campers above us have built a fire in the ring. We gather there as the sun takes its time retiring, trading stories of the adventures that have brought us from Wyoming, Illinois, Montana and Maine to the shores of Lake Superior. Each story concludes, as it ought, with an invocation of respect for the lake. An unnatural glow on the horizon rises from the water, as if the sunken ships were signaling their agreement.
Day two begins with a light rain shower and the first of many bridge crossings. It doesn’t take long before we’re reaching steep elevations, each bringing us closer to the Pictured Rocks, and higher over the lake.
The landscape is somewhere between a forest in Indonesia and a set from Lord of the Rings. At one moment, we’re closed in by electric green overgrowth that looks more like vines than trees. The next moment, we’re clambering up a spiral staircase of old-growth cedar roots.
My grandparents came to Michigan for the big city life–supermarkets, factory wages, wide boulevards. This is not my grandparents’ Michigan.
This is feral Mishigamaa, formed by glaciers, volcanoes, storms and floods, bleeding out its age in copper, iron and limonite. This is the land where wolves roam the frozen lake in winter, and migrated birds return within hours of the melt.
This is where the Mamaceqtaw speared salmon by torchlight, the Ojibwe recorded their dreams on birch scrolls, and the ghosts of the Mishinimaki still dance in their snowshoes.
Midday brings us to Chapel Rock, one of the best-known landmarks most Michiganders have never seen. Carved 4000 years ago by high water (back when Superior was just a glacial lake), it boasts not only the oldest exposed sandstone along the shoreline, but also a lone pine fed by an opportunistic root that crawled to the mainland on a long-since-crumbled arch.
I’m surprised by how strong I still feel at this stage. My feet, however, feel like coals on a barbecue. As soon as we shuck off our packs, I step into the base of Chapel Falls. The magic water travels up my swollen veins and goes straight to my head. Like the most basic of bitches, I indulge my amateur yoga skills–my hips, normally intractable, open like a Dutch door.
Lake Superior has been described as a monster–violent, hungry, treacherous. Explorer George Munro Grant described it this way:
“Those who have never seen Superior get an inadequate idea by hearing it spoken of as a lake; Superior is a sea; It breeds storms and rain and fog…it is cold, masterful and dreaded.”
Even on a calm day, where the lake’s pellucid calm lets you see right down to the sandstone shoals, these descriptions make sense. The cruise boats pass by every half hour, often passing each other; Superior swallows up their wake as quickly as it swallows freighters and the bodies of men.
Given these descriptions, drinking the lake feels like getting away with something. The water slides down your throat silky and sweet, cold as hell. You’d never guess how powerful it is, until you feel it charging through your muscle tissue like the breakers in a November gale.
The weather is wonderful all afternoon, until it’s suddenly not. Bryan hustles us along, optimistically asserting that if we hurry, we can set up at Mosquito River (our second night’s grounds) before the rain hits. But the overlooks keep delaying us. It’s hard to resist seeing the Pictured Rocks from on top of the pictured rocks, even with a storm spreading like black mold directly overhead.
Just as we’re wondering who would take out a kayak crew in weather like this, thunder splinters the air like machine gun fire, setting us on a sprint over the final two miles. Not until we’re mostly soaked through do we realize we’re not going to outrun the storm.
Perversely, as soon as we arrive at Mosquito, the clouds have thinned again. Bryan and Gabe get to fulfill their optimistic prognosis. I stumble down to the shoreline in search of sunlight.
Mosquito, for all its eponymous faults, has the surpassing virtue of being situated on a sheltered cove that looks like something out of ancient mythology–a west-facing amphitheatre blazing white in the sun, the water muttering contentedly at its edge like a monster who has recently fed.
The sun lights up the tiny ridges so that the sandstone looks like carded wool, drying my shirt and my chilled bones underneath it. I snap photos knowing that none will do this place justice, but it’s fine, because this is the part of the trip I’ll remember best.
Looking back, I find I have little to say about day three. I’d like to tell you it’s because the landscapes we encountered left me speechless. But it’s really because it’s the final day of our hike, and the longest, and the muddiest.
I do remember crossing bridges through swollen rivers choked with yellow bog lilies.
I remember wading through waist-high ferns.
I remember so many wildflowers–blue waves of forget-me-nots punctuated with certain pink mutants, the elusive jack in the pulpit, and frothy pools of trilliums, the pride of Michigan spring.
I remember streams percolating like coffee, then disappearing over the side of sheer drops. At one bridge, two of them ran over opposite ends of a cliff, twisting together as they fell. Peeking over the edge, I see no trail below–further proof that the natural wonders of the Upper Peninsula exist for their own sake. The northern lights, the calypso orchid, these hidden waterfalls, reward only those who fight and persist long enough to stumble upon them by accident.
Midway through the day, the sun breaks out again, just as we break out from the trail onto civilization: Miners Beach, with its glorious amenities like picnic tables and clean toilets.
We take our time over lunch like French gentlemen farmers, meditatively slurping our reconstituted Thai noodles and repeating the assurance of the park ranger who just checked our pass: that from here to Munising Falls, the trail is–and I’ll quote him–“straight and pretty much downhill.”
Our jokes at this ranger’s expense that grow more savage as the day goes on. The previous day’s rain has done its work–the path could have been straight as an arrow but it is now a chain of swamps, linked together by mossy bridges that might as well be covered in ice. Maneuvering through the morass highlights the development of my relationship with the trekking poles. Previous awkwardness has given place to a desperate codependence.
I’ve never been this muddy or out of breath. I’m so tired I can’t even swipe at the mosquitoes anymore. I start setting mental images ahead of each step: Netflix in bed. Kombucha. A hot shower, wastefully long. The hotel sauna.
As each final mile turns out not to be the final mile, my thoughts drift toward other peripatetic hardships–pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, for example, or soldiers in the Vietnam War.
I’m not comparing myself to them; if anything, they chasten me for my exhaustion. Neither God nor Uncle Sam required me to be here; I came here for fun.
Make no mistake: despite the mud and the rain and the screaming feet and the distance still to go, it is fun.
Everything in the organism I call me segments into its parts, and each just does what it was built to do–effort without equivocation. My brain, normally so assertive about what’s too hard or complicated for me to do, is now powering me forward like a coxswain in a rowboat. The sound of my own breath is like the roar of a crowd, pulling for me.
Then, in a rush, it’s all downhill. (Just like the much-maligned ranger said.) A mudslide detour around the falls sends us down to the road, in the parking lot, and there’s Bryan’s car. In a few minutes, we’re just three more wet people running for shelter from the downpour on our holiday weekend.
Except we’re hobbling. And unlike the disappointed fudgies staring glumly out the windows of our hotel lobby, Munising in the rain looks to us like the Las Vegas Strip, shrieking the siren call of civilization.
There’s no morning after quite like the morning after your first backcountry voyage. I wake up feeling as though something has happened to me. And I don’t only mean the new creak in my knees, or the protest of my shoulders at carrying anything heavier than a jacket. I’ve acquired a taste for that pine-soaked, unsalted, rare northern air, and I’m ready for another round. I drank from the Big Lake and now it’s in my blood, calling me back.