Lake Superior's Magnificence
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2007)
October 17: The autumn sky is fading into gauzy blue twilight as we pull up to the vacation cabin we’ve rented on Lake Superior. I can hear the waves before I’m even out of the car.
A native Midwesterner now living in the Pacific Northwest, I miss Lake Superior most of all (its wild shores, remarkable clarity and seemingly endless blue horizon).
Julie "Nelly" Neal, a big-water sailor who prepared for the ocean on these waters, loves it, too. We beeline right past the house for the beach and marvel at the giant lake’s muscle, jacked up into stiff white peaks, breakers curling and crashing like Pacific rollers onto the broad boulevard of sand. It feels good to be back home.
Within 15 minutes, the Milwaukee contingent of our group arrives: Nancy Lorenz from Elm Grove, Faith O’Leary from Oconomowoc and Julie "JJ" Eiselt, who flew in from Charlotte, North Carolina. Anne "Bergie" Burbach, who now lives in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, will arrive tomorrow morning. (That’s six of our usual group of eight, all classmates from Brookfield Central High School in suburban Milwaukee. Two other friends couldn’t make it, but we’ll call them tonight.) We exchange shrieks and hugs all around and begin a warm whirl of conversation that won’t stop until Sunday afternoon.
The rambling house has more than enough space, and our party, like all good ones, starts in the kitchen. We each settle into our familiar roles, some the result of old habits, some reflections of our newer lives. JJ, who loves to cook, begins whipping up appetizers complete with spices she brought from North Carolina. Nelly tends bar.
I’ve spent lots of time in this park and the surrounding Upper Peninsula of Michigan researching books and travel articles, so I pull out my maps and plan some hikes for the weekend. Faith, our social nucleus who keeps in touch with everyone, brings us up-to-date on other classmates as she and Nancy unpack groceries.
We particularly enjoy the story about Nancy, who looks like she stepped off a magazine cover in a gorgeous orange sweater and scarf, turning heads at the local IGA this afternoon. We also tease JJ mercilessly about her love of creature comforts, including the "sound machine" she brought along to help her sleep. She’s slightly horrified by the ’70s decor of our cabin and perhaps by the North Woods in general.
"Are jeans OK out there? " JJ asks at one point, trying to be a good sport about it all. "I mean, if I go out there? "
Over pizza and red wine, we plan a bonfire on the beach, and time later in the cabin’s hot tub. When we finally turn in for the night, Nelly and I opt for nature’s sound machine, cracking the window of our shared room and letting the rumble of Lake Superior lull us to sleep.
The Perfect Hike
October 18: Surprise! The first flick of winter snuck in while we were sleeping.
The day dawns cold. And rainy. "Oh, and it was in the 60s last week! " laments Wendy Peterson, owner of our cabin and the resort next door. (We find out after we’re back home that sunny Indian summer weather returned the following week.) Ah, well, fall is always fickle. We shrug it off and opt to enjoy a leisurely small-town cafe breakfast in Ontonagon and let the weather improve a bit before we hit the park.
Only Bergie and I have been to the "Porkies" before, so we head first for the park’s iconic view, Lake of the Clouds Scenic Area. Trees line the easy trail from the parking lot to the edge of a 1,400-foot basalt escarpment that surveys this storied mountain range. Here, the forest simply falls away; hundreds of feet below, the Porkies spread out in all their glory. The serene, deep-blue lake cuts through a rumpled landscape of peaks and valleys, now splashed in crimson, copper and gold. "I had forgotten how beautiful this place is, " says Bergie, soaking in the postcard scene. "We camped at the Porkies when the kids were little. I need to get the family back here. "
Some of the park’s finest hiking trails strike off from the overlook, including the Big Carp River Trail, a beauty that leads west along the exposed bluff before descending to old-growth forest and a gurgling trout stream. But it’s a blustery day, so I suggest the more protected Overlook Trail, a three-mile route that winds through fat birches and hemlocks.
Not the best idea. The deeper we venture into the woods, the wetter and sloppier the trail becomes; eventually, we encounter snow. For those of us with hiking boots, it’s no big deal, but poor Faith is in tennis shoes. She soldiers on with her perennial good cheer, but when we get back to the van, her feet clearly are wet and cold.
"For me, this is a good lesson on being prepared, " she says as she peels off her socks. †I’m a Girl Scout leader, for Pete’s sake! For me, it’s a reminder of the selflessness of moms; you can bet Faith’s kids always have warm, comfortable footwear. I look down at my waterproof/breathable boots and jacket a little sheepishly.
We regroup in front of a glowing fireplace at a local pub and a delicious dinner of fresh lake trout, accompanied by the sound of Lake Superior washing onto the shore just beyond a wall of picture windows. Back at the cabin, we curl up on couches and talk until the wee hours. No TVs, no CDs, just the soft ticking of the wood stove.
"You know what’s so great about this? " Nelly says thoughtfully. "We have all this stimulation in our lives. People don’t talk to each other anymore. And then we come here, and there are no distractions. You have your friends and nature. What else do you really need? "
October 19: A perfect day greets us Sunday morning with parchment color birch trunks glowing in the spotlight of the morning sun, their yellow leaves silhouetted against a cobalt sky.
"I can’t even remember the last time I slept seven hours! " Faith exclaims as we make coffee. But the temptation to lounge longer is overshadowed by the tug of the brilliant day. We soon pile into the van and head for the park’s west end, spotting wild turkeys and bald eagles along the way, and losing count of the white-tailed deer scampering out of our path.
I always feel compelled to "show off" the Upper Peninsula, and the Presque Isle River is an easy place to do it. The tumultuous, tea-color water puts on quite a show in its final, frenetic run to Lake Superior, plummeting over three waterfalls, swirling in potholes and crashing over a riverbed of stacked and shattered shale.
"I can’t believe this, " Nancy keeps saying, incredulous. "This is amazing. Just look at the color of that water! "
We clamber up and down the stairs and paths along the river’s west bank, snapping photos in front of waterfalls and lingering for a long while on the swinging bridge, mesmerized by the rushing whitewater.
The trail ends at a long curve of Lake Superior beach mounded with stones that crunch like marbles under our boots. We’ll part ways by the end of today, but no one seems in a hurry. Faith and Nelly have wandered off on a beach walk. JJ kicks at some driftwood as Nancy and I hunt for agates and pleasing rocks for our gardens.
Bergie simply stares out over Superior. "My husband doesn’t know where I am, my kids don’t know where I am, and my phone battery just died, so I’m good! " she says, only partly joking.
It’s obvious from the look in her eyes that she is savoring some rare personal time. We all are, time to ourselves, and also time to be ourselves, without pretensions, distractions or agendas. And, what better place to do that, and celebrate old friendships, than this land of timeless mountains and centuries-old trees?
Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Go North Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park edges Lake Superior at the west end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 25 miles northeast of Ironwood (906/885-5275; www.mi.gov/porkies). For area information, contact: Western U.P. Convention & Visitor Bureau (800/522-5657; www.westernup.info).
Think Big Encompassing more than 59,000 acres, this place feels more like a national park than a state one. It is Michigan’s largest state park, stretching 21 miles along the southern shore of Lake Superior, with four lakes, rivers and streams, waterfalls and stands of virgin hemlocks, pines and hardwoods. These mountains include some of the region’s highest elevations, including Summit Peak, reaching nearly 2,000 feet.
Peak Season Autumn arrives early and almost always brings impressive color to the area, usually at its best in late September or early October. Dress in layers; bring a jacket.
Want to hike to a jaw-dropping overlook? Along a wild Lake Superior beach? Under centuries-old hemlocks? Over a rushing river? Check, check, check, check. With 90-plus miles of hiking trails, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park offers some of the best hiking anywhere, with both quantity and staggering variety. Here are some suggestions: Easy Stroll Enjoy a one-mile walk along the Union Mine Trail, a loop north of the Union Spring trailhead, where interpretive signs point out evidence of copper miners who once worked here. Waterfall Trek The East and West River trails skirt the Presque Isle River, forming a two-mile loop. Spend an afternoon enjoying the area’s waterfalls and beaches.
Iconic Views From the Lake of the Clouds Overlook, the dramatic Escarpment Trail climbs and dips along the precipitous ridgeline for more than four miles. Hike as far as you’d like, and then return the way you came, enjoying a fresh westward view. Backpackers can make a loop, swinging south and west on the Government Peak Trail into the heart of the park.
Daylong Adventure From the Summit Peak Scenic Area on the park’s south boundary, create a 10-mile loop by following the South Mirror Lake, Little Carp River and Lily Pond trails. This route hits many of the park’s highlights, including a lovely wilderness lake, bird-filled wetlands, towering trees, the rushing Little Carp River and the Summit Peak Observation Tower poking three stories above the treetops.