Wednesday, January 27, 2010

McCormick Tract Wilderness 5-Day Sledge Trip - January 2010

Day 1 -- Ten, Nine, Eight.....Trekkers

It all started a few months back. Michael advertised a group trip to the McCormick Tract for January 2010. I was highly excited as this wilderness area is on my "favorites" list for places that I love. Although I had taken many back country trips there in all the other seasons, I had not experienced it in the winter months. Many other trekkers were apparently just as optimistic as the trip quickly filled to a maximum of ten people. Most of the time it is hard to get a few people to be enthused about a winter trip but having a full slate makes one realize how special this place really is!

McCormick Tract is a federal wilderness area covering almost 27 square miles that was donated by descendants of the Cyrus H. McCormick Family to the federal government in 1967. It became a protected federal wilderness in 1987. It was once a wilderness retreat for the inventor of the reaping machine and his family and friends. Little remains of the original structures that dominated a small part of the tract but the spirit of enjoying nature and solitude remain today. I have long followed the history of the tract and can imagine the good times that were had there.

I met the rest of the group at the southern terminus of the tract off of the Peshekee Grade in Marquette County, Michigan. I had opted to miss the breakfast gathering of the group in Ishpeming where many of the out-of-towners had spent the night. When I arrived everyone was in various stages of loading their sledges. I was already fully packed so I spent the interval introducing myself to four persons that I hadn't met before and greeting those I already knew. It was quite comfortable to stand around and wait as the temperature was quite mild and the winds non-existent. I knew I would quickly be taking off any additional layers as soon as we started moving.

The group consisted of Michael, Mary, Mary Ann, NCT Hiker (Mike), Don, Muir, Matt, Larry, and myself. The tenth person (Dave) had to cancel due to family concerns.

Michael was a bit concerned about the size of the group so he had purchased radios so that the lead and sweep person could communicate. I actually wondered if this would be annoying as I don't like extra noise in the wild but the radios were thankfully not used excessively. In the winter it is easy to follow the tracks of others anyway, but the group did split at various times for different reasons making the communication easier.

The journey began by crossing the Peshekee River on the old access road to White Deer Lake but we quickly diverted into the woods after passing along rugged and towering outcrops. We would follow Baraga Creek to Lower Baraga Lake. With the warm temperatures huge chunks of snow let go from the heavily snow-laden evergreens as we passed through and I don't think anyone was safe from the experience of being showered with snow.

The snow depth looked deceptively shallow but as some of us with smaller snowshoes walked through we were sometimes up to our thigh in a hole. The creek was still flowing but had huge mounds of snow perched on various rocks and logs in the landscape. The open water of the creek made for a lot of slush as we entered the lower lake. We carefully made our way checking the ice and then decided to travel inland from the shoreline for awhile until the ice became more safe.

We stopped for lunch and waited for the rest of the group. Muir radioed that Larry had sprained his ankle and that he was wrapping it. Larry was having a tough time and when he arrived Michael told him to have lunch before they figured out the situation further. Larry seemed to be able to walk without much discomfort without the sledge but pulling the sledge made him too uncomfortable. After a few attempts at trying his ankle out, it was apparent that the trip was mostly finished for him. Although we hated to see him leave already, it was best that it happened before we went further away from our vehicles. Michael pulled Larry's sledge out for him so that Larry could walk unassisted. Now we were eight. 

While Michael was returning with Larry to his vehicle, the rest of the group traveled to the north end of Lower Baraga Lake. We carefully checked the ice and it was solid. We made camp just back of the shoreline and waited for our leader who returned at dusk with his own sledge. The evening was spent listening to others talk about their lives and travel and of course gear. 

The night was unusually mild and the sky was clear and filled with stars. It probably was in the 20 F range in the early evening and the next day was predicted to be at least 40 F.

Day 2 -- Sunny and warm with amazing scenery

The night was relatively warm. At 9 AM the guys said that the temperature was 9 warmed up fast after that. I don't know how high the temperature got today but I assume it was at least 40 F. We headed off the lake up the steep bank and inland through the snow-laden forest to Middle and Upper Baraga Lakes. I guess technically there isn't a middle lake, it is just that the upper lake has two sections with a narrow section in between the two parts. The only open water was found in that connection but we easily skirted it by getting on the shore of the lake.

We often got dumped on by snow falling from the branches...just a bit of snow and no one in particular was targeted except perhaps Michael who often went through first and likely shook the branches as he sauntered through the forest.

After leaving the lake, the next leg would be more difficult as there would be some high rock bluffs that we had to get around. Michael led the group up diagonally without too much effort. I have been real impressed with the aggressive crampons on the snowshoes that I am currently testing - Atlas 11 Series. I haven't slipped at all on climbs where I have noticed other people backsliding and sometimes falling while they are pulling their sledges uphill.

The route through the forest to Lake Dortay was fun as well. Muir has been taking the sweep position. He relayed that he really enjoys this spot as he usually breaks trail on most of his trips and it also keeps his speed in check. We have all witnessed that he is quite the sprinter on his snowshoes!

Don told interesting stories of his guide experiences for both Wintergreen (dog sledding expeditions) and for guiding kayak trips to Grand Island and Pictured Rocks. He also raised his family in a remote part of Alaska so we were all ears for details.

Matt also is an experienced back country enthusiast who was taking his first "group" trip in a lot of years. He travels solo for the most part which I often do. There are good and bad to both but he really seemed to enjoy the group camaraderie of like-minded people.

At Lake Dortay we set up camp at the end of the lake having completed the first two days of our journey without any difficulty. The snow on the lakes has been crusty for fast travel and the intervals in the woods have been quite easy compared to many trips.

It was relaxing to set up camp when I didn't feel tired. There was a bit of a wind in the open area where we camped so I built short snow walls under the edges of my tarp to have more protection.

Talk today revolved around sledge designs and back country skills. NCTHiker made a new hobo stove and was fired up about using it for all his back country needs. He designed and fabricated a very cool design and it should prove plenty sturdy for a lot of snow camping.

During the evening Muir made a fire to dry his wet mukluks as the canvas and moose hide just doesn't stay that dry in these warm conditions. Michael plunged his foot accidentally into a hole at camp and joined him to dry his liners at the "laundry". Usually after we settle at camp a lot of us like to take off our snowshoes after we "pank" or pack the area down but we often end up finding holes underneath the snow the hard way!

Day 3 -- The Acropolis

The winds really picked up during the night but finally subsided by morning. My tarp was flapping more than  usual as the wind caught an edge of the tarp and shook it for all its worth. Because it rattled, it kept me from sleeping so I tied a few additional guy lines so I could get some rest.

The skies were filled with brilliant stars with a cold clear sky. It probably got down to about 10 F, I awoke around 8 AM and heard a few people stirring but it was very quiet overall.

Four of us left camp early and left Lake Dortay for Island Lake. Along the ice on the former, we saw tons of coyote tracks. At the edge of the lake we checked the map and concluded that a good route would entail skirting high bluffs on the inland jaunt to Island Lake. Matt led the way and in no time we were at the next lake. The second group arrived a bit later following our tracks. That is one of the perks of winter treks compared to other seasons where the signs of travel are not apparent even if one is not far behind.

Since we had extra time due to the fast and easy conditions, Michael asked the group if they would like to explore some other areas such as the Acropolis which was plotted on early McCormick Tract maps. Some of us had been there a few times before but it was neat to climb it in the winter. We left our sledges at the base and climbed up for the view. Although it wasn't clear enough to see all the way to Lake Superior, we knew it was hidden in the distant view.

We then freestyle-bushwhacked to Bulldog Lake with Matt and Michael taking turns at the lead. Muir provided coordinates once in awhile to keep them on track. There was much sign of moose activity along the way with tracks, a moose bedding area, and signs that the trees had been grazed.

We arrived at the old logging camp site along Bulldog Lake. Most of us chose to camp on the snow-covered rock bluffs towering over the lake and Muir was content to make his home in the open field.

Day 4 --The Old Pumphouse

The morning started with a spectacular view over the lake. NCTHiker saw some motion further down the lake and it was determined to be an otter. We had seen quite a few otter slides over the last few days so it was neat to get a glimpse of one.

After everyone packed up their belongings, the sledges were belayed down the steep outcrop to the lake below us. It took awhile to get each person's sledge down but we were on our way across Bulldog Lake quickly enough. We were heading towards the channel that separates Bulldog Lake and White Deer Lake. When we got to the channel it was very slushy but we were able to skirt along the shore without difficulty.

Once on White Deer Lake, we headed towards the island where many of the foundations rest from the McCormick Camp days. We passed one of our favorite bivy sites up high on the Fortress and noticed right away that it looked quite different than the last time we had viewed it.  Either a small fire or other natural disaster had stripped the pine trees of their once healthy appearance. 

Since Muir had to leave today to get back to Finlandia University, he requested that Michael show him the pump house from the early days that was hidden back in the forest. Michael wasn't sure what draw it was in so he and Muir traveled parallel to see who would find it first. Most of the rest of us were with Michael when he spotted the pump house. It is likely the only remaining structure at McCormick and it was built strong with cement and other sturdy materials to serve its purpose in the heyday of the early years.

Muir left after lunch and now we were seven. The rest of us bushwhacked to Camp 11 Lake where we set up for the night. Matt explored the cliffs above us but the remainder of the group were content to stay at camp. Michael scouted for a bunch of fire wood like he did every night for all those who were using hobo stoves.

We had seen tons of otter slides again today. It seems to be the most active animal in the tract this winter! Another evening was spent visiting while people attended their hobo fires.

Day 5 -- The Final Leg of the Journey

Since there were only a few miles to go and it only required a short bushwhack to get to the old road which we would travel to the parking area, Matt and I left earlier than the rest. We were followed by NCTHiker but we never did see him again, as the rest of the group caught up to him at some point and they completed their journey together. The trek out was peaceful but like most trips there was a bit of sadness that the trip was over. It is certain that I will be back!

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