Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Porkies

Though coincidentally home to porcupines, when viewed from the east this range of ancient mountains resembles a crouched Kag, or Porcupine. That's why they were called Kag wadjiw by the Ojibwa. The name stuck.

Due to years of citizen advocacy, this magnificent place was first secured as a park in 1945. With further protections since gained, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness became the crown jewel of the Michigan State Parks system and today ranks among the finest relatively undisturbed landscapes on the Superior Basin. At its heart stands nearly 35,000 acres of virgin northern hardwood forest, said to be the largest such tract to remain in North America.

From a 4x5 transparency

After near to twelve hours on the road and well past dark, on the first night of our first trip together to Superior, Heather and I arrived at the Presque Isle campground that marks the western end of the Porkies. We set up camp and devoured a stack of hastily prepared Bisquick pancakes slathered with rich currant jelly made by Heather's dad. Then we fell asleep to the whisper a big lake offers at its shore.

The next morning brought our first Northwoods lesson: leave a plastic jug of dough on the picnic table overnight and you'll later clean up after a critter ambles along and savages the jug for to get at the bounty of tasty goo while you're otherwise oblivious.

That morning also revealed that we'd pitched our tent at the forested edge of a high bluff looking roughly west out over Superior, so it was all good.

Heather, from a vintage 35mm negative

Our relationship with the place now stretches near to 40 years and is indelibly personal.

In the Porkies Johnny, Heather and I bushwhacked over the hills searching for evidence of Copper Complex people, to no avail. Likewise our always half-hearted hunt for the crashed B-17, artifacts of which can be found in collections scattered throughout the region.

We didn't actually look for the legendary pictographs as told to Henry Schoolcraft by the Ojibwa shaman Chingwauk, but always hoped we'd somehow find them anyway. To date, no one has.

Me & Johnny, from a vintage 35mm negative taken by Heather

It was on the South Boundary Road at dusk where we encountered our first wild wolf, many years before those were properly reestablished and long before one could even imagine we'd be engaged in civic conversation about hunting wolves, as we are again today.

This particular wolf instead worried over road kill just off the shoulder of the road.

We slowed and pulled alongside.

The wolf lifted its formidable head to address us with the most sentient eyes I've ever seen. In them could be found no sign of fear or aggression, though they fairly shone with a remarkable awareness and make no mistake.

In response, Heather rolled up her window.

After a while the great beast took a step back and drew itself in to the darkening wood. We left the wolf to its meal and returned to camp exhilarated.

I've not again been so close to a wild wolf until last autumn, during this Odyssey. To be sure it was under entirely different circumstance but again at the side of a road, which is an unhappy story for another time.

Heather and I spent half our honeymoon at the Presque Isle. On my 2nd night of marriage I managed to bounce a thankfully dull axe off the back of my hand. Heather fixed me then and there and our template for wedded bliss was set.

Of all the fish I've ever tussled with, by far the finest of 'em swam the Presque Isle.

Heather fishing the mouth of the Presque Isle, from a vintage 4x5

I once fought a fish upriver and down for more than forty minutes, tethered to only 6# test. Finally I gained the upper hand. At last I brought the behemoth to dark water at river's edge. In another moment, I'd need come to grips with a monster from the deep.

Then with a sharp thwipt no doubt heard all the way to Isle Royale, the line snapped. My knees shook while I used my left hand to pry loose my right from the rod. The name of the beast remains a mystery.

Then there was the time the biggest Steelhead I've ever seen rose from beneath my feet as I retrieved a spinner through fast water while perched upon an undercut shelf. I swear she never moved a muscle of her brightly colored flanks and became simply one with the current so when that spinner reached just there she was there too, to kiss it softly as it passed. And the fight was on.

For... I dunno, maybe three seconds. Seemed like forever then as now, so amazing the sight and rich my memory of it.

Funny, how often fisher folk's greatest tales involve no fish at all or the one that got away. Best leave that to ponder for people who don't fish...

And did I mention that the South Boundary Road is my favorite drive anywhere? Miles of classic two lane blacktop rolling up and down and all throughout the naturally indistinct boundary between governmentally sanctioned wilderness and not.

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness is wonderland. A complex, richly rare landscape ideally suited to adventure and quiet contemplation in turn and at your discretion.

It's for that and because I take the place so personally, that we'll spend some bit of time there over the next few weeks...


  1. A big regret of mine is that I didn't "discover" the Porcupine Mountains and the UP until I was over fifty. I've vacationed in northern Wisconsin for many years, and the Wisconsonites only mention Uper's and the UP with derision and distain. Only an hour and a half from my cabin and it's like another world. I've hiked many of the Porkie trails, and although short, one of my favorites is Nonesuch. It's humbling to see all that remains of a town of 300 people are a few crumbling walls being taken over by the forest. I love to walk the Superior shoreline and wade in the amazingly clear always cold water. I have little bowls of Lake Superior Rocks at home and at work, and they can make me smile if I’m having a bad day. The UP's waterfalls also intrigue me. I can sit for hours and just watch them. My favorites are some of the more remote falls, but a couple of weeks ago I hiked through the snow down to Bond Falls and it’s even more beautiful in the winter than the summer and fall. Without the crowds you can really appreciate the fall’s majesty, it was hard to tear myself away even after a couple of hours. When I’m home in Illinois, I explore the internet looking for interesting places to visit, and when I’m at my cabin, I haul out my Michigan Delorme to go on another adventure. If you ever see a “mature” lol, woman hiking with a big brown Doberman stop and say hello! Joyce P.S. another new discovery this year is Randall’s pasties, how did I live without them?

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to share.

      Special landscapes inform our spirits. No matter at what point in life, it's all good that you've embraced this one. My marker for final approach to the Northwoods comes when passing the Mississippi watershed divide -- just a few miles more before I'm out of Wisconsin and into the wild.

      Nonesuch is among my favorite places in the U.P. We started going in there back when Copper Range Company still owned the land. If you've not yet read it, please search for "King Copper -- Nonesuch" on the blog and that'll take you directly to my essay on the place.

      Last year I too walked into Bond Falls for the first time during winter. I was so blown away by the sights that I didn't do my best work. Intended to return there this winter. That won't happen. Consider sometime parking at the South Boundary Road and walking down to the mouth of the Presque Isle River, which is the most astounding winter landscape I've ever seen. Should you go, best to bring someone with you as it's a mighty long way from there back to anything like civilization, there's no cell signal and it's always good to have help at hand on the occasion it's needed.

      And if on the off chance you've not visited Yondota on the Presque Isle north out of Marenisco, by all means do. Probably better to do that in spring as it takes a few miles of unplowed gravel road to get there, but it's a supremely wild set of waterfalls through deep woods. One of my very favorite spots to just sit beside the river...

      I couldn't have done this project without either my Delorme or pasties, the greatest road food ever. Randall's pasties are excellent, as are Joe's in downtown Ironwood.

      Again, thanks for sharing. It's gratifying to know not only that folk are paying attention but that my work strikes a personal chord, as those are what bind us to this magnificent place.

      Travel safe.

  2. Yes, I have been to Yondata, in the summer, spring and fall and this year I even went in December. While portions of the falls were ice and snow covered, the water was still moving and it was still beautiful, it was just after a fairly heavy snow and all the trees were snow covered and the trail unbroken. (I do have a four wheel drive jeep). In warm weather I love to sit on the huge rock outcroppings alongside the falls for a solitary lunch. Although the falls are just a short ways off the gravel road, I've yet to see another person in any season. Speaking of favorites, nearby Nelson Canyon Falls is my favorite, the walk along the creek to the falls is surreal in its beauty and the falls themselves although small are magical. But, the hiking is not easy, I’m getting too old to be climbing over downed trees and walking uneven boulder and root covered ground, with only a whisper of a path in most places. I visited late this spring and the wildflowers along the creek were amazing, and when I finally reached the falls and climbed down into the canyon, I just sat for an hour and absorbed the almost rainforest like feeling and the spray of the falls. The directions I had were kind of tricky, but luckily some helpful person had marked the entire 40 minute hike to the falls with pink surveyor’s tape.
    Finally, I would love to visit the Porcupine Mountains during the winter, but I fear my snowshoeing, or hiking capabilities are not up to that long a walk in snow, and more importantly, I don't have a friend foolish enough to travel with me! (I did read your essay on your misadventures there last winter). Joyce

  3. Yeah, this getting older stuff ain't for sissies, that's sure. Going in, it was uncertain how well I'd handle all the physical rigors of this project, but as it turns out I did O.K.

    For a few years after the dam south of Marenisco washed out, you couldn't hardly go to Yondota without there was crowds of kids, hunting the river for Musky. This last autumn a local who lives on the river told me the trout have returned, which means the Musky are pretty much fished out, so both the trout and the quietude once again reign...