Monday, January 25, 2010

Winter Camping in the McCormick Tract January 15-19, 2010

Getting Together

We assembled at the White Deer Lake Trailhead at the south end of the tract around midmorning on Friday. The sun was out and the weather was a bit warm for January.

Though most of us had spent the night in less than optimal lodging, the motel bathrooms being totally nonfunctional, everyone seemd to be in good spirits and anxious to be on the trail. We unloaded our equipment in the well plowed parking area and the gear talk began...

A New Piece of Equipment

As the group was big and would inevitably get spread out, Michael had bought radios so the head and tail of the caravan could keep in touch. When these had been demonstrated, he said those who were ready could start out while the others finished packing their sleds. We started off on the old two-track that runs NW along Baraga Creek.

We ambled along taking pictures of the snowy lowland on our left and the rocky outcrops towering on the right. The white stuff contrasted nicely with the dark water and rocks and the delicate lace of the bushes--many of my shots looked like they'd been taken in black and white.

When we'd gone quite aways without seeing any sign of followers, we waited for the rest to catch up. Michael took the lead and when the road had led us into the woods some distance, we bushwhacked west to reach Lower Baraga Lake where we paused to regroup.

Injury Already!

The radio came to life and Muir at the back of group reported that Larry had injured his ankle and he was taping it for support. The group trickled in and we waited, snacking on dried fruit, candy, trail mix and the other goodies that supply fuel for wilderness travel.

When the last two arrived Larry was limping markedly and in obvious pain. He felt better after resting.... until he put weight on the foot again.

After a brief discussion it was decided that Michael would accompany him back to the trailhead so he could get medical attention and the rest of us would proceed to the north end of the lake to set up camp as planned.

Maryann eyed the sled Michael had loaned Larry: it had plastic sides while the one she borrowed didn't. She inquired about their trading since he wouldn't be going very far and the sides make the load more secure. They agreed to trade and as they shifted gear sled to sled, NCT asked if he could borrow the whistle they'd apparently discussed earlier...

Larry joked that he was not sure this boded well for the he was, not even dead yet, and the group was dividing up his gear!

Onward to Camp

Though there was a bit of slush under the snow near the edges, travel conditions on the lake overall were pretty good. This was a good sign for the trip as sledging on waterways is a much easier way to cover ground than bushwhacking through the woods. We probed the ice in questionable areas but found it all to be solidly frozen.

At the north end of the lake we found a bit of open shoreline bordered by a brushy wetland that seemed to have the right combination of space and tarp supporting trees for a camp. NCT, Maryann, Gail and I spread out along the shore, while the others made a cozy circle among the low bushes nearby. There was more gear talk and demonstration as everyone got set up. Sharing tips and techniques is always a pleasant learning experience.

The sun was setting, casting long shadows across our tracks on the unblemished snow and painting the sky in pastel shades of peach and pink. A pleasant evening was in the offing.

Evening of the First Day

I chanced upon a nice piece of hardwood in the mostly evergreen forest nearby and was sawing it into firepan lengths when NCT reported that Michael had radioed that he'd made it back to his sled and was headed in our direction. It wasn't long before he appeared around the curve of land that blocked our view of the far end of the lake.

It was quiet for awhile as everyone cooked and melted snow for the next day's water. Later though, we gathered to talk and share cheesecake for dessert. We began to get acquainted as people told stories of their life and other trips they'd done.

The sky was black and studded with stars that can't be seen amongst the lights of the city. There was the deep quiet of the wilderess and the magic of candle-lighted tarps. The temperature dropped, but only to the teens so we were very comfortable and talked til almost 10PM before crawling into our bags.

Sunshine Again

Winter makes for long nights: when I awoke around 7:30 there was only a faint glow in the sky. I got up anyway though, as 10 hours is more han enough rest. I built a fire, brewed a bit of the nectar of life, and watched the sunrise over a breakfast of scrambled eggs wrapped in a tortilla. Not bad, but should have brought a bit of hot sauce...

There was a lot of talk along with the morning camp chores, and at 10AM, some were packed and some were not. Michael shared the plan for the day and said said those who were ready could get started. With NCT in the lead, we bushwhacked through the dense pines at the edge of the lake and up a steep slope into mostly hardwood forest where it was pretty easy traveling NE to Upper Baraga Lake.

Though all of these lakes are pretty, I found this one more scenic than most. Long and narrow, it had points of land that projected out dividing it into a series of different vistas like beads on a chain. The land sloped down steeply along much of the shore, covered with dark green spruces and pines, some of which were magnificent specimens. We followed the lake to its north end and waited there for the rest of the group.

A few ravens called overhead. We had seen otter trails and the tracks of deer, squirrels, rabbits and other small creatures and heard a pileated woodpecker's intermittent drumming.The sun was out in a clear sky and the day was warming rapidly. We put on jackets while sitting, but didn't need to zip them up. 

When Michael and the rest of the group arrived we cut overland toward the circle of small lakes to the north. We had a late lunch along the shore of Lake Gordon and headed toward our planned bivouac on Lake Dortay. 

Evening of the Second Day

It was very warm and the wet snow clung to our crampons and soaked into our mukluks.The area we chose for camp there was a bit more open than the previous night. Scattered small cedars,willows, leatherleaf and laborador tea indicated that it was very wet in the summer.

We set up camp, gathered firewood and began the evening routine. I decided to sleep out and so had plenty of time to get a start on cinnamon rolls. Muir and his dad set up a pedestal fire and soon had mukluks propped up to dry around it. Michael worked with NCT on the finer points of wood splitting and hobo stove operation since he'd brought one for the first time on this trip. The sun set and the quiet of dinner time was punctuated by intermittent sawing and stove sounds.

Suddenly there was a loud "Eeeow!" sort of exclamation from behind me and I turned to see Michael scrambling hip deep in the snow. Crossing from NCT's place to Muir's fire he had stepped into an unfrozen spot, sunk to the mud and soaked a boot. He retired to his place to start dinner and change footwear, but soon returned to join Muir in propping bootliners to dry around the fire.

The sky put on another awesome show as we talked around the fire. The flip baked cinnamon rolls were of marginal quality, but appetites stoked by fresh air and exercise assured that they disappeared anyway. We adjourned to our bags, full, content, and with almost dry boots.

A Lookout in the Woods

Unbelieveably the sky remained clear and the most of the group was stirring when the morning glow appeared. When some of us were ready, Michael gave the radio to Maryann and we started for Island Lake. We cruised SW to the end of Lake Dortay and figured a rough azimuth to the goal.

Matt took the point and brought us out right where we wanted to be. We radioed, as instructed, to say we'd made the lake, then headed up to the north end to wait for the rest of the group who'd paused to check out some moose tracks. When they arrived, we talked about bushwhacking north to a lookout point for lunch, but that course didn't look very promising and we decided to continue east toward Bulldog Lake and try for some other high points along the way.

Michael figured an azimuth and led us to an escarpment which rose perhaps 70 feet above the surrounding terrain-well above the tallest trees. Leaving the sleds at the bottom, we snowshoed up for a look and the view was well worth the effort.

To the north we could see the haze over Superior and all around the rocky terrain dotted with ponds and criscrossed by creeks. We soaked upthe view and took pictures as Michael talked about other trips to the area and things that had been found. When we'd had our fill of looking, we returned to the sleds and pushed on toward Bulldog Lake, stopping for lunch along the way.

We relaxed inthe sunshine after eating: this trip had all the beauty of winter with few of the discomforts.

Evening Day Three

Another azimuth or two took us to a site on the shore of Bulldog Lake where there'd been a lumber camp many years ago. There remained a sizeable clearing in the woods and some decided to camp there. The rest of us opted for view property on a ledge overlooking the lake.

 I decided to sleep out again(I get really lazy when the conditions are good) and so just needed to flatten a spot with my snowshoes(to keep me from sliding off the hill onto the lake) and build a comfortable seat for cooking. That done, I gathered some spruce branches to use for kindling along with the nice piece of hardwood Michael brought me from farther back in the woods.

As the sun was still up and a slight breeze blowing, I dug out my sleeping bag and hung it over the skeleton of an evergreen to dry out the past nights' moisture accumulation. There was an ancient scrap of rusty chain, probably a remnant from the logging days, hanging on a lower branch of the tree. Maryann pointed out another piece of history farther up the hill, rusty metal with some red paint still clinging, it appeared to be part of some kind of machine.   

As I set up my firepan, I gazed out over the lake. The setting sun lit the clouds and I studied the wandering trails left by animals in the windblown snow. My feet were damp from the warmth of the day and I switched to overboots so my liners would dry before bedtime. This made travel in camp a bit hazardous as the packed snow was hardening to a slick coat of ice as the temperature dropped.

Dinner came together without difficulty and I soon had the next day's water bottled and dessert cooking. When the others had eaten, they came and sat around the fire, and we shared apple crisp and conversation. Among other travel tales, we enjoyed Matt's account of subduing an iguana and Don and Muir's stories of life in Alaska and guiding for Wintergreen. From the western sky a waxing crescent moon seemed to be smiling at us.

Otters and Old Buildings

Next morning the sky was overcast, though the sun was a hazy disc in the clouds at times. During breakfast NCT spotted a black form moving across the snow on the far side of the lake. Lacking binoculars we guessed that it was an otter, based on its bounding style of locomotion. The temperature remained comfortable and we began our day's travel by lowering the sleds to the lake with ropes, as the slope on which we were camped was steep.

Radio in hand, the first group started across the lake toward the outflow stream and White Deer lake to the southwest. When we reached the far shore I passed the point position to Muir and made a necessary stop.

Behind a cedar I mused on how much more interesting these interludes can be in the woods than at home. In front of me this morning was a large, nearly perfect spiderweb with each silken strand strung with snowflakes. And on the snow were the tracks of a mouse(or some small critter like that) and a small pile of seed husks where he or she had stopped to eat.

Pausing on other trips, I've been visited by a flock of chickadees, buzzed by a hummingbird, surprised by snakes, peeked at by a possum and scolded by squirrels-- not to mention harrassed by mosquitoes etc.....none of that ever happens at home...fortunately....I guess...

I returned to the track left by the group ahead of me and ambled along beside the frozen stream. The going was easy and there were many signs of otter. I stopped to photograph tracks and a hole in a drift by the stream which probably accessed the water.

Muir radioed that they had reached the remains of the old McCormick lodge and Michael replied from behind that their group was just entering the woods. As I crossed the lake, I was saddened to see a swath of huge white pines on the high escarpment along the northwest shore had succumbed to some kind of disease or maybe a small fire, though that seemed less likely.

 I soon caught up with the group ahead as they began to explore the small island and the remnants of the buildings there. The group from behind joined us and we snacked as we talked about the plan for the rest of the day.

One of our objectives was to locate a building Michael had found years ago and thought might be a spring house. Muir, who had to leave us later in the day to get back to school, was especially interested in seeing it.

After a few moment of perusing the maps, we headed up a small valley near the end of the lake. Unsure which side draw the building might be in, we dropped our sleds and cut to the right up the first likely one we came to. This resulted in our inadvertently exploring a considerable area before we found it, as it turned out to be in the next draw over and only a couple of hundred yards from where we had left our sleds.

The main group found the spring house or cistern building first, while Muir, who was ranging around on his own, came upon what was probably the pump that filled it. We walked back and forth between the structures taking pictures and speculating. All agreed that it was an excellent find and definitely worth the searching. The building was still in good shape, with the roof intact and the cistern totally dry. Might be fun to see again in the summer....

We returned to the sleds for lunch and after the meal said our goodbyes to Muir who started off for the two track which would take him back to his car from the lake. The rest of us started back up the draw toward Camp 11 Lake where we planned to spend our last night in the bush. The way was uphill, but not to long or difficult and we arrive at the lake with time to explore and play around a bit before setting up camp.

Final Evening in the Bush

Michael retrieved a couple nice pieces of firewood for NCT and me to share. Matt climbed the ridge behind our site to have a look at the terrain we'd be covering in the morning. The clouds had become thicker and sprinklings of snow fell intermittently. I decided that putting up my tarp might be a worthwhile thing to do.

Maryann and I secured our explorer shelters on the same tree, ending up with sort of a duplex where we could talk as we fixed dinner. Somewhere on the trail I had lost the basket from one of my ski poles--when I'd noticed it missing I could sort of picture which spruce trap had captured it but didn't think I'd find it if I went back. I asked Michael if there was a way to improvise one, as I found having three "legs" instead of four a bit awkward.

As usual when it comes to wilderness glitches, he'd run into it before and said, "Sure, no problem." He proceeded to saw  a slice about 3/4 of an inch thick off one of the pieces of firewood, drilled a hole in the center with his awl and knife and lashed it to the pole with cord, leaving it loose so it would tip instead of cracking. Using it the next day, I quickly forgot that it had been broken, as the improvised basket worked just as well as the original.

Dinner was pleasant and dessert was soon bubbling over the fire. The snow picked up a bit and we wondered if it would accumulate enough be pose a problem in the morning. There was more conversation about past and future trips. The mood was relaxed and cheerful as is usual on the last night. When the group headed to their shelters, I laid in my bag, enjoying being warm and comfortable, and listening to the sprinkle of snow on my tarp.

Trekking Out

We awoke to a couple inches of fresh fluff. While some of us took our time with breakfast, Gail and Matt left early as they had obligations back in civilization. NCT got off ahead of us too, but had a snack and some Kodak moments, so Maryann and I caught up with him. Michael and Don chatted and took their time, but arrived at the cars not much after us.

This was a good thing because in the process of starting the car and loading gear, I slipped and let go of the door which swung shut locking my only set of keys inside... Someone watches over me because the door did not latch all the way. After getting warm by adding a couple layers to his trail garb, and inquiring as to how I could have been so unwise as to leave home with only one key, Michael pulled out a length of wire and opened the door. Needless to say, I now own a second key...

We decided not to do the usual post trip meal as there was nothing very close and we were headed in different directions. We said our goodbyes, promised to post our pictures and to meet again at some trailhead soon. Maryann headed to Wisconsin to visit grandkids, Michael and Don headed to Marquette and Houghton, while NCT and I, being trolls, pointed our cars toward the bridge.

P.S.  For those who were there: I haven't  forgotten about looking up those bugs we saw-just can't find them.  Will do an addendum when I do :)

View additional photos from this trip.

ADDENDUM: I found them! They apparently are snowflys...Duh?  Here's a fairly short, but interesting article about them.

1 comment:

  1. Mary, I so enjoyed reading about your amazing adventure! Thank you for sharing I look forward to reading about your next trip.