I was a little torn as to what to call this edition of FTV. ‘Mountain Climbing’ is a little misleading because it sounds like it will be about Leslie West and his band called Mountain. That will be a topic for another day. I almost called it ‘Climb Every Mountain’ but that made me think of The Sound of Music and it is definitely not about Julie Andrews. I will stick with ‘Mountain Climbing’ with a subtitle of ‘Confessions of a Geographer’ and the reason for this will become apparent as the tale unfolds.
The story actually begins in May of 1980 when Mount St. Helens blew its top. I was finishing up my second stint at NMU and had a grad student job as the Geography Department Map Librarian. Part of my job involved selling topographic maps of all types, including all of the USGS Maps for the Upper Peninsula. I also was responsible for archiving some 250,000 decommissioned US Army maps which were periodically distributed to map repositories at institutions like NMU. The Map Library also held various wall and specialty maps that were available for faculty and student use. When we heard reports of the Mt. St. Helens blast, we dug out the 3-D plastic topographic maps on hand to see if we could make sense of the mountain suddenly losing a cubic mile off of its summit. My office buddy Mike suggested it would be like uprooting all of Michigan’s highest peak at one time, so of course, we had to look it up. We found it (Mount Curwood is the western end of the Huron Mountain Chain) on another map and noted it had a lofty elevation of 1980 feet above sea level.
The map library had been notified around this same time that there had been a new survey done and they had corrected a few erroneous elevations found on Michigan maps. Mount Curwood was found to be only 1978 feet above sea level while the peak next to it, Mount Arvon, was raised slightly from its previous elevation to 1979 feet. In other words, Michigan had lifted the title of ‘highest peak’ from Mount Curwood and placed the crown on nearby Mount Arvon. When I returned to Ontonagon for the 1980-81 school year, I had a discussion about this very topic with Bruce Johanson. We talked about those poor people who ‘collect’ highest peaks of states by climbing them. We pondered how many from the High Pointers Club (people who aspire to climb all of the state’s highest peaks) would now have to return to the wilds of Baraga County to climb the new highest peak for Michigan. We decided that we should join the club by taking a few students and ascend Michigan’s newly crowned highest peak when school let out in early June of 1981.
Having had a family camp on the mouth of the Silver River since 1958, I had spent a lot of time bird hunting and snowmobiling in this area. My brother and I had gone up to the fire tower on the top of Mount Arvon on different occasions and even though the switchback platforms on the ladder to the the top had begun rotting away, we could still get high enough to get a good view over the treetops. We had also taken note when it was dismantled along with just about all the fire towers in Michigan that had fallen into disuse. I assured Johanson that we could drive almost to the top because I had done it before.
When we arrived at the base of our climbing destination with our handful of students in the van, it was already a hot and muggy day. We were somewhat disappointed that the road had a Grand Canyon size wash out in it. We ended up having to park in an old gravel pit near the base of the hill. From there, we took the shortest (and it turns out, also the steepest) route to the top. We found the old pads where the tower had been anchored and the upper end of the road that we couldn’t take to the top due to the washout at the bottom. The peak was heavily forested so there wasn’t much of a view, but it was still a nice hike.
We were a hot and thirsty bunch when we got back to the van and the plan was to stop at the family camp, have lunch, and take a dip if the Silver River wasn’t too cold that early in the summer. On the way, we took a quick stop at the Huron Bay Trading Post where we picked up some cold drinks and souvenir Baraga County maps for the kids to commemorate their triumph over Michigan’s highest peak. After we cooled off in the Silver River (and it was still a tad chilly for my taste), we were sitting around the camp table when I spied something on the map that made my blood run even colder. “Johanson,” I said, “we are definitely going to come back next summer and climb Mount Arvon.” He was a little surprised but replied, “Raisanen, like Mohammed, I have been to the top of the mountain. Why would I need to go there again?” I pointed out that it was true, we had been to the top of the mountain, but it was the wrong mountain!
It is most difficult for a Geographer to admit to making a mistake involving maps, but there was no avoiding this one. All the time I spent on this hill in the past (and in comparison to the mountains of the world, our’s are ‘hills’ in comparison), we called it Mount Arvon. Looking over the map after we had hiked to the top just a few hours earlier, I noticed that Mount Curwood was clearly marked and so was Mount Arvon, but in between those two twin peaks stood the Mount Arvon Fire Tower Hill. Yes – we climbed the hill that rises from the saddle between Mount Curwood on the west and Mount Arvon on the east. Ooops.
Our old buddy Ralph Winrich and I had a discussion about this topic in the late 1980s when he first began presenting NASA In The Schools programs here at our invitation. Whenever we were able to get Ralph to do a school program, he would also do a free teacher’s workshop at the Intermediate School District in Bergland. On his first swing through the area, he was staying in an establishment west of the Ontonagon River and when he asked for the quickest route to Bergland, I gave him the standard,”turn right coming out of the driveway, turn left at Silver City and when you hit the stop sign in Bergland, you will see the ISD building one block in front of you.” The mists of time have obscured how we got the directions balled up from this point, but suffice to say Ralph asked me a couple of questions about highway numbers and like any good local resident who instinctively knows how to get to Bergland, I may or may not have lead him off track with my answer. That is my story and I a sticking to it. It is much too late to make this long story short, so I will cut to the chase: Ralph somehow ended up in Bruce Crossing and not recognizing the intersection I had described, he asked for and was given clearer directions on how to get to his real destination in Bergland.
During every workshop he conducted for us from that day on, Ralph would find some good natured way to slip this little adventure in miscommunication into the discussion. At one point, Ralph mentioned the need to visit Mount Arvon so he could add it to his personal list of highest peaks attained. I told him I knew the area well, but after the Bruce Crossing to Bergland fiasco, would he actually believe me if I gave him directions? I even fessed up about the Mount Arvon Fire Tower excursion. Ralph has always had a funny sense of humor and as I recall, the two conditions he put on using my directions were: “1) As long as you don’t come with me and take me up the wrong mountain, and 2) as long as I can stop and ask someone else for directions.” Ouch and touche!
Show me a geographer who says they have never been ‘misplaced’ (see, we can’t even say the word ‘lost’) and I will show you a person with an extremely selective memory (we also don’t call ourselves ‘liars’ in the same way fisherman never remember where their good fishing holes are or copper pickers will not admit to where they found a nice sample).
I vowed that one day I would actually get off my duff and go back and finish the trek to the top of Michigan’s highest peak. For his part, Johanson beat me to it and even e-mailed me a photo of himself at the top of Mount Arvon in the fall of 2015. Thirty five years after the fact, I guess I am going to just have to go and write the final footnote to this tale about wandering geographers. When I do, I will be sure to let you know and if I get ‘misplaced’ – again.
Top Piece Video – How could I not use Joe Bonamassa’s Mountain Climbing?