The roar seems out of place. It is mighty, intense, rhythmic — the unmistakable sound of surf hitting sand. Except in this case, it’s caused by icy waves hurling themselves against mounds of frozen snow. It’s an incongruous melody to hear when you’re snowshoeing through silent woods thick with snow-kissed birch, hemlock and maple, where the only notes drifting up into the still air come from the thwap of our aluminum shoes smacking against the snowpack.
Ed and I continue forward as the din crescendos. And then, coming out of a delicate curve in the trail, all fury breaks loose. The path has slyly moved us to within 100 feet or so of Lake Superior, that greatest of all the Great Lakes, and she is in a testy mood this morning. A small clearing in the trees offers us a view of pounding whitecaps, frothy spray and ice-robed sand.
I step off the trail and toward the lake, climbing atop a giant mound of snow. Once light and fluffy, it’s now trapped under a crusty coating of ice, the result of spray continually hitting it and then freezing. A powerful wind gust smacks me in the face, and I pull my scarf up over my cheeks.
“Look at the snow!” Ed yells to me through the gale, his finger pointing to a spot just in front of his face. “The wind off the lake is blowing it horizontally!”
Indeed, the flakes — more like tiny ice pellets — are flying from the lake, across our faces and into the woods. Just moments earlier, sheltered from the tempest, I’d paused to lift my face to the heavens and watch fat flakes slowly drift down. What a difference a few feet made.
I snap some photos of Lake Superior in all her fury, then clomp back into the woods and scurry down the path. A minute later it leads us away from the lake, and the flying ice pellets revert to lazy, fluffy flakes.
“You don’t get to experience that on any old snowshoe trail!” Ed says, with more than a touch of Midwestern pride.
The Porkies have it all
Ed and I have snowshoed and skied our way across northern Wisconsin and much of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but we had never before visited the Porcupine Mountains in the U.P.’s western half. Now, we wonder why it took us so long to get here.
The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, or the Porkies for short, is a 60,000-acre swath of land pressed up against the south shore of Superior just west of Ontonagon. It’s Michigan’s largest state park, and harbors America’s largest virgin hardwood-hemlock forest. But more important for those who enjoy winter in the outdoors, some 200 inches of snow descend from the heavens every December through March, transforming the Porkies into a winter wonderland.
And it’s an equal-opportunity wonderland at that. The park’s eastern end is home to Porcupine Mountain Ski Area, with more than a dozen runs, 625 feet of vertical rise and a milelong run. Surrounding the ski hill are 25 kilometers of trails groomed for Nordic skiing and snowshoeing, while the Porkies and the surrounding region are crisscrossed with 350 miles of groomed snowmobile trails.
For hardy souls, three of the park’s cabins and six yurts are available for winter rentals. You can also book the 12-person Kaug Wudjoo Lodge, a 1950s-era building that once was home to the park manager. But be forewarned: All of these accommodations are typically reserved a year in advance.
Those looking for a true wilderness experience can backcountry ski, snowshoe and camp in the park’s more remote acreage. The less rugged, myself included, can stay in motels or other area lodging.
When we arrived a few days earlier, we first checked out a small cluster of trails north of the ski hill to get a sense of our snowshoeing pace. A park ranger had told us that most people average 45 minutes per mile on snowshoes here, although it depends on the trail’s difficulty and snow conditions. We were moving more quickly than that, so we determined we could explore all of the trails over the next 2 ½ days.
Our meanderings were magical. The River Trail took us alongside the burbling Union River, still visible in spots despite a thick blanket of snow. The steep Log Camp Trail rolled us up and down the ski hill’s back flank and to the East Vista, a rocky outcrop offering an expansive view of Lake Superior. The rugged Double Trail was a mile straight uphill to the West Vista, another mountaintop viewing area some 1,400 feet high, also overlooking the lake.
But our favorite, by far, was the Big Hemlock Trail, a 3 ½-mile path that makes a sweeping curve west of the ski hill. It hadn’t been groomed in a while, we were told, because storms earlier in the year littered the trail with downed trees and massive limbs that park personnel hadn’t yet had time to clear. One ski hill employee suggested we might want to skip it for this reason. We opted to give it a shot, and were thrilled with its rustic beauty and challenging terrain.
Unbeknown to us before arriving, two warming huts are tucked among the trails, complete with stoves, firewood, cooking utensils and comfy seating. We entered one after our blustery lakeshore hike, and I pulled out some beef jerky and water. Then I spied a trail register.
Leafing through its pages, I read note after note from happy hikers who stopped in to toast bagels on the tiny stove, or prepare steaming mugs of coffee and hot cocoa. The last entry read, “ ... Drinking beers & wine to warm our spirits, and started a fire to warm our weinies [sic]!” The author included a sketch of a plump hot dog on a metal skewer.
I looked down at the cold beef jerky in my hand, which suddenly appeared unappetizing. “We’re doing this wrong!” I wailed to Ed. “Why didn’t we think to bring along food to cook, and maybe a beer or some hot chocolate?”
“We’ll remember next year,” he said.
Because, without discussing it, we both knew we’ll be back.
If you go
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is about 290 miles, or 5½ hours, northeast of the Twin Cities. For more information go to michigan.gov/dnr or call 1-906-885-5275.
Porcupine Mountains and Ontanagon tourism site: porcupineup.com.
Melanie Radzicki McManus</URL> wrote “Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail.” She lives near Madison, Wis. (melaniemcmanus.com).