Saturday, March 13, 2010

Grand Island National Recreation Area--- March 2010

Friday -- A Day of Surprises

It was to be a much different year. Last year when we traveled in March across to Grand Island on ice-covered Lake Superior, the island was surrounded by ice. Starting at the south, we had been able to travel along the cliffs up to the northern shore. I carefully watched the coastal ice reports that are fun to monitor throughout the winter as the trip drew wasn't to be. There was good ice to get to the island and to travel across Murray Bay but sporadic pack ice was mostly evident north of the East Channel Light. The leader of the trip, Michael, was of course also monitoring the situation and kept the rest of the group informed. 

As I drove over to Munising from Marquette, a mere 40 miles, the temperature hovered at 1 F. Although the winter had been bountiful enough with snow, it hadn't been particularly cold. Temperatures for the trip were predicted to be on the warm side possibly getting up to 50 F. What a contrast to this morning!

I knew our trip leader would cautiously examine the ice, interview ice fisherman and other locals about the conditions once we got there (as well as have a back-up plan - Pictured Rocks). Upon arrival he made sure everyone had their safety equipment including a throw bag, a waist harness with locking carabiner and a pair of ice picks and..... that they knew how to use them. We practiced throwing our rescue rope bags and discovered quickly that many of us were throwing them too high...that meant re-packing our throw bags and doing it again until we got it right!

While we were at the ferry dock a local outfitter (Carl) and a local writer and musician (Carl B) showed up and accompanied us on their snowmobiles on the first leg of the journey to the lighthouse on the Thumb of the island -The East Channel Lighthouse. They both were acquainted with Muir who was on our journey.

When we got to the lighthouse we decided to stay within its view and have our lunch. As just mentioned, Muir, who often has worked as a kayak guide in the summer months, was part of our crew. He entertained us by telling the legends of early natives who inhabited the island including the story of how Longfellow wrote "Hiawatha" based on Grand Island.

Not to be outdone, Carl Behrend, (the songwriter) sang his original tune relating to that story. He has produced a number of CD's of "Legends of the Great Lakes" that I was already familiar with. Wow, this was really turning out to be a different type of trip as we usually don't have was certainly unexpected, but delightful.

After passing the light house, pack ice had settled in between the shores. Although frozen, it was too risky to travel up the Thumb of the island or beyond. We left our sledges and walked close to and behind the ice overhangs before we would turn back part of the way from whence we came.

We traveled back towards Muskrat Point and headed across the ice to the trail that connects Murray Bay to Trout Bay on the tombolo. We made camp at Trout Bay. There were actually two other camps set up at Trout Bay consisting of ice climbers that had arrived by snowmobile. We were somewhat apprehensive about the possibility of it being a noisy night but thankfully the ice climbers were not much into snowmobiling itself. After a few runs all was quiet.

We individually explored the peaks of ice that form along the shoreline..from a distance they look like a small mountain range. Close up I could see the fissures and blow holes all results of different storms bringing in massive waves of ice and freezing in place at various times.

On the other side of this mountain range Trout Bay was filled with pack ice...some frozen together but much of it in ever changing bands or drifts of chunks of ice.

Our party of nine spent the night setting up camp at the Little Dune site (BJ made a snow shelter and some slept without shelters) cooking, visiting, and relaxing. Although the beach was heavily snow covered where my camp was, just behind it in the pines I found a dry place to lay in the pine needles for awhile. Besides Michael, the other trekkers included Muir, BJ, Mike F, Larry, Mary Ann, Mary, Cathy and myself. We were all treated to yummy chocolate cake with walnuts made by Michael's sister Sue back in Marquette.

Today had been a warm day as predicted and most people were easily down to their base layers while sledging. As the evening settled in the temps dropped but it was in general a warm night (20's F) with clear skies and a whole lot of stars.

Saturday -- Muir Takes a Plunge!

It had been a quiet night, however we all had an early wake-up call. About 6 AM we heard the first of many snowmobiles and I knew right away that they must be ice fishermen and women. One by one they cut their engines and embarked on their sport.

I lay in my shelter until about 7:30 AM and when I got out I saw the large group of fisher persons behind the mountains of ice on the shoreline. A few of them had brought in flat boats on their snowmobiles presumably to use if the pack ice they were standing on would decide to push out with the wind. The fish like to hang out under the edges of the ice so based on the amount of fishermen it would suggest that the fishing is good there.

Because we could not travel on ice further up the coast of the island we made the decision to travel to the north end of the island on the regular trails. The other option would have been to bushwhack but we didn't have enough days to travel that distance if we wanted to go all the way to North Beach.

We traveled the length of Trout Bay along the snow-covered shoreline and then headed inland on to the trail. That meant a long steady climb from camp. It wasn't too long before everyone was stripping down to base layers both from the climb and the rising temperatures. We stopped at the Trout Bay overlook and soon some snowmobilers stopped as well. We would be seeing quite a few today and they were all courteous. We of course moved well off the trail as soon as we heard them coming.We covered a lot of terrain and some struggled with their skis on some of the ascents while pulling a sledge (they took them off). Uphill definitely requires great traction.

We saw two backpackers today that were heading in the opposite direction towards Trout Bay..I think they were surprised to see all of  us!

We quickly stopped at North Beach and most wanted to press onwards to camp but we were excited to learn that Muir wanted to jump in Lake Superior. Some of us grabbed our cameras...paparazzi!!!.... and headed down to the water's edge for this event. I must say that this is the first time on any winter trip that I have been on, that anyone has decided to take a swim. Although the rest of us were all hot from the sun and the work load it didn't seem that appealing to me or the rest of the crew. Way to go Muir!!

We trekked by the North Light and traveled further down the coast a ways. The reflections on the partially frozen lake were great from the sunset as viewed from the cliffs. The sky was filled with rosy pinks.

Sunday -- The "Abandoned" Sledge

I slept quite well throughout the night. I did hear the wind pick up so I wondered how those who were close to the end of the cliff fared. We set out about 9:30 AM on a highly frozen track. I decided to don snowshoes for better control (besides, I am testing a pair right now). I clipped right along and stopped at  Preservation Point. It was there that I learned from Muir of what had just transpired.

Apparently BJ "lost" his sledge and didn't even know it! He had flew down a hill and even though he knew he was going fast he didn't realize that his sledge has became undone (rope attachment) on a flat section before he descended. Story has it that he didn't discover it until Muir asked him where his sledge was at the bottom of the hill. Meanwhile Mary had seen BJ fly by her and kind of figured that maybe Michael had offered to pull BJ's sledge for some reason. Anyhow, it was a fun story and it definitely beat the story of the time someone lost their snowshoe and didn't realize it right away! Stuff happens!

After a break, I soon decided to put my skis back on rather than the snowshoes. I traveled a few hundred meters and quickly learned that it was a bad decision. Here was the "mother of all hills" of the trip. It was quite frozen and narrow and very hard to herringbone because of the later. The edges of the skis had a hard time cutting into the surface as much as I would of liked. In addition, the fact that it resulted in hanging the tips of the skis over the cut away edge of the slope was creepy.

Why did I change to skis as I could of just zoomed up with the snowshoes with those awesome fore and aft crampons? BTW, I am testing the Atlas Series 11 Snowshoes and they have the most amazing traction I have ever experienced but they weren't doing me any good right now attached to my sledge! Anyway it was a tough climb and a bad decision but there was no backing out when I was already part way up the steep incline with a heavy load pulling at my waist.. I will remember that hill in the future!

Today had been snowmobile free until a few came by at mid-day. Cathy had lost her hat so she asked one of them that if they found it, if they could pick it up and leave it at the ferry dock on their way off the island.

We then traveled to Juniper Flats which is a group site on the west side of the island. We set up camp and Carl B stopped in to see how our travels had gone. He said that it was good we were leaving tomorrow as the ice conditions were worsening with the several days of warm temps. All of the ice on the west side of the island had been pack ice to the north of us and there were only traces of it wherever the wind blew it. We heard another snowmobile and it was Cathy's rescue man who brought back her cool was that!

Camp was perched above a small cliff so Muir and BJ decided that they could suspend their water bottles down into Lake Superior with a rope to fill them rather than melt snow. It worked but they had to break through some of the thin areas around the pack ice. A few benches were located at the camp site and some of our group decided that they would make good spots for a nap.

The evening brought relaxation, a view of two eagles over Lake Superior, Cathy trying Mary's skis at camp and almost doing a flying endo, Larry having a mishap with the bench, and I falling flat on my face after stumbling on something with one of my snowshoes. The camp area was quite deep with snow so in order to travel around we had to keep our snowshoes on all evening.

Monday - Winter Ascents

What seems simple enough in warm weather months is often difficult in the winter. What comes to mind is the ascent from camp to the main trail. This ascent is steep and has a switchback curve and reality speaking, "difficult" wouldn't even describe it in other seasons. But try pulling a sledge and making those curves without problems. One by one we left camp and most of us had difficulty.

My own sledge flipped and had to be easy task when the weight of the sledge is pulling away from you. Mary Ann was behind me and as I unbuckled my harness she kept the sledge from descending backwards. She then helped me push it around the corner. Mary helped Mary Ann and so forth....

There was only a little more than three miles left before we got back to the ferry dock on the island. I took off sans snowshoes or skis as the hard pack surface of the trail was very frozen and didn't necessitate either. The time flew by quickly. Along the shoreline I was getting closer to real ice pack (a good sign for crossing).

Along the way I saw signs of recent deer crossings and their associated paths in the hemlock forest. I waited for the rest of the gang as we would cross the ice together for safety reasons. It was thankfully an uneventful crossing and any concerns by anyone about being left on the island remained unfounded.

We all gathered at the Dog Patch in Munising for the traditional send off to our respective places that ranged from the Keweenaw to Ontario to Ann Arbor in the southernmost part of the state. Many conversations took place at once so I drifted into some and then another.

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