January 30, 2022

FTV: Where Are We?


     John Pepin of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources wrote an excellent article about the Craig Lake State Park (A Visit to Michigan’s Most Remote State Park – published in the Ontonagon Herald, April 10, 2019).  The park straddles the Baraga – Marquette County line just north of Lake Michigamme.  This article was interesting for several reasons.  First of all, I was unaware this area had been owned by the family who also owned the Miller Beer Company.  Three of the lakes in this state park bear the names of the Miller’s children.  I was also not aware that the father and oldest son died in a plane crash shortly after taking off from Milwaukee on the way to a pre-Christmas hunting trip in the early 1950s.  The State of Michigan took over the Craig Lake parcel in 1966 and designated it as a wilderness area.  Lastly, it piqued my interest because I spent an overnight fishing trip there.  I can attest to the state keeping their promise to create a park for those who wish to experience camping in a wilderness setting because there are many square miles to wander with little evidence of human presence.  

     Having taken many hikes in the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park with my Junior High classes, pre-hike prep meant sharing a few horror stories about hikers not paying attention to where they are heading.  This was especially true before our annual eighth grade orienteering trek where we employed compasses and topographic maps to get around while hiking cross country.  We would hike pre-planned routes from the Escarpment Trail near the Lake of the Clouds Overlook to a little bump of a hill near Green Mountain Peak.  The stories always covered the same territory:  don’t panic and trust your compass and map.  Those who get the most turned around in the wood are the ones who are sure their compass must be wrong.  There is no better way to illustrate this point than to have a real live Geography major tell them some true tales about getting turned around in the woods.  Intentionally, the word ‘lost’ was never used in these stories.  ‘Lost’ means ‘call out Search and Rescue’ so I preferred to use the term ‘misplaced’.  Being misplaced helped us teach them to keep their wits about them and work the problem – key tools needed to get back and to not actually get lost!  Panic is never a good option.

     When my brother Ron got out of the Army in 1973, we pooled our resources and bought a 13 foot aluminum canoe with a padded shoulder bar to make it easy to carry.  That summer I was called to work at the Huron Mountain Club a month earlier than the rest of the kitchen crew, so there wasn’t a lot of canoeing time available for me that year.  At the beginning of the next summer, however, I had a month and a half break between the end of the term and having to report to NMU’s Field Station south of Pictured Rocks National Park for classes and a new summer job. As May played out, Ron, Jim Soderberg, and I decided to take our portageable canoe into one of the remote lakes of the Craig Lake State Park to do a little fishing.  Ron had dug out the necessary maps and decided we would park at the public access site at Kewayden Lake.  From there, we could carry the canoe and a couple of backpacks of camping gear cross country to Crooked Lake which was in between Kewayden and Craig Lake.

     On the appointed day, we parked the truck, loaded up our packs, hoisted the canoe, and struck out on a compass bearing toward the lake.  We traded pack and canoe carrying duties often as traveling through the woods on uneven ground with a canoe on one’s shoulders was more taxing than hiking with just a backpack.  Less than a half mile into the woods, we crossed an old logging road that was going in the same general direction (more or less) as our compass bearing, so we opted to take the easier path.  When it became apparent we should have already made it to the lake, we sat down on a berm at the side of the road and dug out the map.  In my archives I have a wonderful picture Jim took of me looking dejectedly down at the map while Ron scratches his head trying to answer that eternal question, “Where are we?” 

     Studying the topography around us and comparing it to the map led us to the realization the old road we were on wasn’t ‘more or less’ going in the right direction – it had made a subtle bend to the north and was now running parallel to Crooked Lake.  The bend in the road had taken us around a sizable hill which now stood between us and our destination.  After discussing the two options before us (backtracking and then re-entering the woods or taking a bearing to the lake with the shortest route – over the hill), we opted for going over the hill.  It wasn’t a bad decision because the hill had been logged.  Between blow-downs and slash left behind after logging, we were able to pull and push the canoe to the top of the hill without much trouble.  The downed trees and tops kept the canoe at waist height, making it easy to move.  The downhill side was even more littered with debris and at some point, we lost the handle on the canoe and it took off down the slope toward the lake.  We were about to draw straws as to who would have to swim out got get the canoe back when it hit the thick leather leaf brush growing around the lake.  Thankfully, it stopped dead in its tracks albeit with a couple of new dings in the bottom from sliding over the downed trees.  This was great news because it was early in the summer and the lake was cold (as we could tell when we reached the canoe and found ourselves thigh deep at the shore)!

     We managed to get our stuff in the canoe and paddle the length of this long, narrow lake to a little peninsula we had seen on the map.  It turned out to be a nice sandy point with easy access to the water and enough open space around it so the breeze kept the bugs at bay.  We made camp, tried a little evening fishing, and then turned in for the night.  While breakfast was cooking the next morning, I wandered into the woods to answer the call of nature when I stumbled across an old portage trail.  After what we had crashed through the day before, this resembled a two lane highway.  Curious, I followed it until I caught sight of Craig Lake where the trail ended (or started depending which way one is traveling).  On the other side of the lake there was the distinctive glint of sunlight shining off an Airstream trailer.  Apparently there was an area where people drove in to camp.  Had we driven a little farther down U.S. 41, we could have parked at this location, paddled across this lake, and portaged the canoe to our current location minus the bushwhacking.  I went back to our little camping spot to share the news.  We laughed about it, even after we spent a whole day catching exactly zero fish.  When I compared notes with Jim recently, he confirmed my memory of the sun glinting off the Airstream.  He also reminded me the only fish we saw on this adventure was in the talons of an Eagle who obviously had better luck than we did.  On the way out, we took the straightest route from the east end of Crooked Lake, back to where we parked, wisely ignoring any and all logging roads we crossed.

     A few years before I retired, we decided to revisit one of our old seventh grade hikes at the Porkies, a trek we hadn’t taken in at least a dozen years.  I talked Bruce Johanson out of retirement for a day as this had been one of our yearly fall hikes when Bruce and I were teaching Jr. High History and Geography/Earth Science, respectively.  Back in the day, we had rediscovered an old trail from M 107 that went up and over the Escarpment at the east end of Lake of the Clouds.  The trail at the top passed the old Carp Lake Mine and then continued south to the valley bottom where an old stamp mill site was located.  There are still some big roller stamps, boiler pieces, and a lot of stamp sand to be viewed at the bottom of this valley.  As we passed the mine site at the top of the hill, I warned the kids out front, “The trail makes a tricky turn to the right, so watch out and don’t miss it.”  They missed it.  By the time Bruce and I got there, all we could do was follow the pack to see where they would end up.

     We hiked about 20 minutes longer than we should have so I called a halt and asked everyone where they thought we were.  When we finally agreed we were now ‘misplaced’, I asked them what the next course of action should be.  The old path the leaders followed past our turn off had petered out.  We obviously were no longer on any trail and definitely not at the stamp mill site.  Most wanted to go back and find the trail, but we were far enough off the beaten track, I said, “Well, that is a possibility, but we know the stamp mill is at the bottom of this valley.  We haven’t crossed the river so we know we are east of the stamp mill.”  We proceeded downhill until we could see the swampy river channel and then turned west until we walked right to the stamp mill site.  Actually, the group that was (again) out front walked right past the site.  This time, the sharper eyed hikers trailing them spotted the old equipment.  On the trip back to the bus, the students who first saw the stamp mill site were amazed that the ‘leaders’ out front had missed the fork in the trail in the first place.  When we hit the turn off point the group missed on the way to the stamp mill site, it was rather obvious they had been jack rabbiting along and not paying attention.  With that said, everybody hiking behind them either missed it or didn’t bother to speak up.  It was another good example of why one does not just blindly follow others into the woods.  Paying attention to where you are headed and searching for landmarks along the way must always be on one’s mind.

     Another favorite ‘lost trail’ story doesn’t even involve getting lost in the woods.  In the early days of the orienteering hikes, we would take a small group of high school volunteers and run them through the routes so they would be familiar with the terrain.  One year, there had been a late April snow drop that covered the Porkies but we decided it would still be a good day to take the training hike.  Mark Szaroletta was home from college and volunteered to come along.  About a half mile west of the Lake of the Clouds parking lot, Mark and I were given the task of running a  line to the north from the top to the bottom of the Escarpment.  We played out a physical line to the bottom of the Escarpment and another quarter mile beyond that.  The forester who helped us on these earliest orienteering hikes thought running into the line we played out would be a signal to any groups that drifted off course on the way back.  The forester took the main group west on the Escarpment and Mark and I broke off and headed north to string our line.  Hiking the trail with six inches of wet snow was tricky because you couldn’t see what was underfoot.  Hiking off the trail was even worse.  We reached our end point but rethought our original plan to bushwhack straight back to the parking lot.  We decided the safer bet was to retrace our trail back to the top and abandoned the idea of heading on a new bearing back to the Lake of the Clouds parking lot.  We arrived ahead of the rest of the hikers thankful neither of us had turned an ankle.

     We had driven out to the Porkies in a couple of cars and trucks.  Luckily one was a four-wheel drive we used to get everyone to the Lake of the Clouds parking lot.  Upon our return, Mark and I had no other choice but to walk the winding road down from the parking lot to the old toll booth area at the base of the hill where we had parked my car.  As we rounded the last big bend, we came upon a Greyhound size charter bus parked diagonally across the road and a group of people standing around a fire they had built in the middle of the road.  The group was from a private school somewhere and were making their annual camping trip to the Porkies.  Their driver had decided they could drive a bus up the same road we had needed four-wheel drive to ascend.  Needless to say, they didn’t make it.

     Mark and I had a couple of hours with nowhere to go until the rest of our crew came out of the woods, so we offered to take one of their chaperones to the park headquarters to call for help.  This was in the pre-cell phone days, but their driver had already called for a tow with his CB radio.  While we waited, one of the chaperones lit into us:  “If you hadn’t parked in the turn around, we wouldn’t be stuck here.”  He calmed down a bunch when we walked down to the toll booth area and showed him what they missed.  Yes, we were parked in the area next to the toll booth, but they didn’t see the wide turn around loop on the other side of the road.  Oops!  The tow truck finally arrived, tugged the rear end of the bus back on the road, and after extinguishing the bonfire, they loaded up and drove away.  When our bunch came down the hill, they had to drive around the remains of the bonfire and saw the tracks made by the bus and tow truck.  We explained what had happened in great detail and to our amusement, nobody believed us!  They were sure we had, for some unfathomable reason, built a fire in the middle of the road while they were hiking to Green Mountain Peak and back.  They had no explanation for the dual tire tracks and icy skid marks made by the tow truck and the bus.

     We didn’t get misplaced that day, but we did avoid a mystery.  I later asked Mark, “Okay, let’s say we had gone the full distance and come back after the bus had already departed.  How would we have unraveled the mystery of the tracks and a bonfire in the middle of the road?”  He had an even better question:  “If that bus load came here to go camping, where did they go when they got the bus unstuck?”  I am not totally sure where they ended up pitching their tents, but at least they didn’t get far enough in the woods to get lost when they went back to the park’s headquarters.

Top Piece Video:  A 1985 version of CCR’s Up Around The Bend . . . after all, Mark and I discovered the stuck bus on a bend . . . plus, I like this version – John F has started playing his live stuff very fast!