Porcupine Mountains, September 2012

Day 4

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Our hike-from-point-A-to-poinnt-B routine had ended yesterday, and today marked the start of what would become two days of short hikes, explorations, and site-seeking excursions, or, as I referred to it, the lost relics tour.

Today’s itinerary included the following activities: hike back to the Lake of the Clouds overlook, stop off at the Mead Mine, hike up and over the ridge above the Mead Mine to look for the Carp Lake Mine, visit the Panama shipwreck site, explore the Nonesuch Mine, bushwhack through the forest (without becoming lost) to look for the B-17 crash site, hike out to the Summit Peak observation tower, and finally, drive to the western-most boundary of the park to check out the Nawadaha, Manido, and Manabezho waterfalls on the Presque Isle River.

Any person with a sound mind and even a modicum of logical thinking would have concluded that this was a rather ambitious schedule for a single day. Maybe it was the excitement of what lay in front of us, or maybe just a minor lapse in judgment, but we honestly thought we would check off everything on that list. We were wrong, although, we did come close.

Thick, gray clouds blanketed the entire expanse over our heads, completely blocking any hint of blue sky above them. The problem was, however, that this blanket did not provide any warmth; instead, it only enhanced the damp, cold air that hung in the forest.

One of the first things we did after emerging from our tents at 9:00 a.m. was to rekindle the fire. Buried beneath a couple of inches of the white, powdery, virtually weightless ash were several blackened embers. They were still hot enough for Ken to ignite the fire again by laying the remaining pieces of birch bark on top of them and fanning them into a flame. Adding some small twigs and branches quickly transformed the miniature flame into a small fire that was just enough to help banish the morning chill, as long as we stood directly in front of the fire. We ate pop tarts and washed them down with some hot tea, reloaded our backpacks, and were heading west on the access trail toward the bridge by 10:20 a.m.

It took us about 30 minutes to traverse the 300-foot climb to the Lake of the Clouds overlook. When we reached the top, the sky was still cloudy but the sun was poking through small gaps that were beginning to form in the cloud cover. As wind pushed the clouds eastward, roving patches of sunlight illuminated the trees, momentarily changing the lackluster color of the foliage into patches of vibrant fall hues before changing back to their dull appearance as the sunlight progressed along the landscape far below. There were quite a few people milling about on the rocky outcrop, most of whom were taking pictures or just gawking at the breath-taking vista, and of course, we followed suit.

Back at Derek’s car, we strategically positioned our packs and all the gear into the back seat and trunk, and drove off to find the Mead Mine. After descending from the Lake of the Clouds overlook, the Mead Mine is approximately 1.75 miles east down M-107. The adit, a horizontal opening into a mine, is visible, literally, only a few feet off the southern edge of the roadway, although, if you were not looking for it, you could easily pass by and not be aware of its presence, just as we did the last time we hiked here.

Finding the mine’s entrance was not difficult because there was another car pulled over and several people standing near the edge of the roadway taking pictures. Derek pulled the car onto the southern shoulder and parked behind the other car. The adit is too small to accommodate seven people at once, so we walked across the street to investigate a path leading away from the shoulder of the road while waiting for them to leave. The gravel walkway ran north for 40-50 yards and brought us to a tailings pile that was roughly 80 feet wide at its base and about 150 feet long. The pile of red, crushed rocks was high enough to rise above some of the trees further down the slope of the hill. From this vantage point we could clearly see Lake Superior roughly 0.8-mile further north and an endless stretch of trees to the east and the west.

The adit’s jagged, slightly rectangular opening was roughly eight to nine feet wide and about six feet tall. We descended the nine or ten rough-hewn rock steps and peered into the tunnel. From where we stood, the temperature was noticeably cooler, the air had a damp, somewhat musty odor, and the sound of trickling water emanated from the blackness at the far end of the tunnel. There were about five sets of large timbers supporting the ceiling within the first fifteen or twenty feet past the opening. There is no artificial light to illuminate the tunnel so the visibility dropped off quickly past the entrance. I pointed my camera into the dark void and took a photo. The flash revealed that the rest of the tunnel was not obstructed by supporting timbers and at the far end was a retaining wall with a small grate not far from the ceiling. A shallow river of water flowed from the retaining wall toward the entrance where it eventually disappeared into a large, square drain.

We took several steps into the tunnel, waited about 30 seconds for our eyes to adjust to the dark, and then slowly made our way back to the retaining wall. When we reached the back end, Ken turned on his headlamp and shined it through the grate.

The retaining wall separated us from water that filled the rest of the mine to a height of about five feet. A small hole pierced the retaining wall near the lower left corner of the grate allowing for a controlled release of water from the opposite side. The sound we heard at the mine's entrance turned out to be the stream of water landing in a puddle at the base of the wall. Metal piping emerged from the wall at ground level and ran the length of the tunnel all the way to the opening where it eventually disappeared into the ground near the drain. Affixed to the base of the wall, next to the smaller-diameter piping, was a larger pipe with some type of valve assembly. I assumed its main function was to facilitate a complete draining of the accumulated water should there ever be a need to access the mine in the future. There is no ventilation in the mine so the temperature remains a constant 44-47 degrees throughout the year. As a result, about 20,000 bats call the mine their home and hibernate there throughout the winter months. The grate in the retaining wall allows the bats to enter and exit the mine, while at the same time, keeping out predators and curious humans.

Lake of the Clouds did not always bear its well-known, ethereal name. Over 150 years ago it was called Carp Lake, and in 1858 the Carp Lake Mining Company began copper mining operations on the opposite side of the ridge from where we were now standing. The company sank two shafts near the top of the ridge not far from the present-day Escarpment Trail. The mine operated on and off for 71 years, although much of the work was conducted during the 1860s and 1870s. Sometime around 1928 work began on the Mead Mine on the north slope of the ridge. The mine, apparently named after one of the foreman, was designed to be an adit of the Carp Lake Mine. The intent was to have miners tunnel through the northern slope of the ridge and connect to the mineshafts on the southern slope. Work progressed for about one year, during which time the tunnel burrowed 1400 feet into the earth before forming a “T”.

Over its lifetime, the Carp Lake Mine only produced about 30,000 pounds of copper. In 1929, the mine closed forever, most likely due to the lack of profitable amounts of copper and the looming economic collapse of the Great Depression. The adit never did connect to the Carp Lake Mine.

Our next excursion had us searching the woods for the remnants of the Carp Lake Mine. West of the Mead Mine adit is a trail that departs from the roadway and climbs up the ridge at an angle. We parked the car on the shoulder near the trail and began the hike up. The short, unnamed path intersected the Escarpment Trail at the top of the ridge. Not far from the Escarpment Trail, down a small side trail, was a hole in the ground. The hole was about three to four feet in diameter; it was lined with squared-off stones and had a wooden fence around it to keep people from away from the edge. It was not very deep and we learned later that it most likely was not a mineshaft, but probably an old water well.

The narrow path led us further away from the Escarpment Trail and down the southern side of the bluff. A nearby sign announced the presence of a mine, so we knew we were on the right course. We hiked down the steep slope to a point where the trail ceased to exist and then roamed the forest in search of mining relics. We found a couple small iron pieces that must have been part of mining machinery, but nothing larger. After returning from our trip, I made contact with Bob Wild, the park interpreter. Bob said that we had been in the right place and if we had only searched a little longer, we would have found the remains of the 1858 Cornish stamping machinery. Bummer!

Long before Henry Ford rolled his first mass-produced Model T off the assembly line in Detroit, Michigan, making the modern-day car more affordable to the masses, Michigan was leading the way in another industry—copper mining.

If you spend any amount of time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you will most likely see or hear the term Copper Country. The term refers to an area of land that is rich with copper and runs almost 100 miles from the Keweenaw Peninsula, southwest toward Ontonagon County. The copper in this area is unusual because it is in the form of pure metal and not the typical copper sulfides and oxides. After the initial discovery of copper in this region, it was not long before prospectors and businesses flooded the area, all of them hoping to cash in on the highly sought-after metal. As a result, copper mining in the western part of the U.P. boomed from 1845 through 1887. During most of those years, the Upper Peninsula’s Copper Country produced about three-quarters of the country’s copper, and in 1869, it produced an unbelievable 95% of the country’s copper supply. In the mid-1860s, a town, and a mine by the same name, appeared in the Copper Country. They both bore the name, Nonesuch.

The town of Nonesuch was settled in 1866 near the banks of the Little Iron River in what is now the southeast corner of the Porcupine Mountains State Park. One year later, the Nonesuch Mining Company began operations on the site and quickly sank two shafts, followed by two more shafts in 1869. The mine’s name originated from the type of lode it was working—Nonesuch Shale—which is a dark, tightly packed formation consisting of siltstone, sandstone, and shale. The population at Nonesuch grew and eventually peaked at 300 persons. The town had a school with 30 students, a U.S. Post Office, markets, a boarding house, a livery stable, a stagecoach service, and even a uniformed baseball team.

The Nonesuch Mine was not very profitable, and as a result, it opened and closed five times between 1867 and 1912, each time under the direction of a new owner. The mine relied on a stamp mill to process the raw ore. A stamp mill operates by crushing ore-bearing rock into smaller pieces, making it easier to separate the metal from the rock, in theory, at least.

The problem was, however, that Nonesuch Shale primarily contained small flakes of copper and not large pieces. The technology of the time was not sufficiently advanced so most of the fine pieces of copper were lost during the processing. As a result, much effort was expended for very little product, and in the end, it was the downfall of the Nonesuch Mine.

The Nonesuch closed for good in 1912 after it had reportedly swallowed several small fortunes. It was said that the Nonesuch Lode was “…one of the richest beds of copper bearing rock to ever be opened.” Ironically, due to the nature of the copper, and the less than adequate technology of the day, much of its wealth had been lost to the tailings piles. Over its lifespan, the Nonesuch had produced about 390,000 pounds of commercial grade copper.

The story does not end there, however. The Nonesuch Lode lived again when the White Pine Mine opened years later, only a few miles away from the original location of the Nonesuch Mine. Over the White Pine’s 43-year history, it produced more than 4,000,000,000 pounds of copper, making it Michigan’s most productive copper mine.

The parking area was only a few yards off South Boundary Road. Recent rainfall had left the unpaved surface a minefield of puddles and reddish-colored slurry. We gingerly made our way across the parking lot to a large informational plaque near a gated trail, careful not to splash the red, muddy mix onto our clothes. The sign was a typical State Park design bearing several photos and some basic information about a piece of Michigan’s history that was abandoned long ago, has mostly been forgotten, and is now protected for future generations by the State.

We walked around the large metal gate, intended to prohibit vehicular traffic, and followed the soft, grassy trail south through the woods. The trail continued for about 0.3-mile before curving to the east in the midst of a clearing and then back to the south where it brought us back into a wooded area. A sign directed us off the main trail to a narrow path that maneuvered downhill toward the mine. Shortly after, a wood railing fence came into view, and behind it, rising from the shroud of dense foliage, were the crumbling remains of the Nonesuch’s stamp mill. Only a small portion of the building remains, but what is left is still intriguing. Large, rough-faced, gray blocks formed what little remains of the walls and the various openings.

A few yards south of the stamp mill, a tunnel rose out of the ground at an angle. The tunnel, built from the same type of rock as the mill, was open at the end that faced the trail. After our hike Bob Wild told me that this tunnel was most likely part of a large oven used to process the rock and the copper. Again, a wood rail fence prevented access to the structure and a small sign in the opening read, “DANGER. Keep Out.”

We walked around the two massive, stone structures and admired the work of the people who built them, way out here in this remote area, long before the modern conveniences of CAD, laser levels, and tungsten carbide saw blades. The Little Iron River meandered through the forest to the rear of the stamp mill and across the river was a large tailings pile. Ken managed to cross the river and spent some time exploring the pile of crushed rock but never found anything of interest.

Adjacent to the mineshaft were several circular holes in the ground. The holes contained years of forest debris and many had small trees growing in them. I came to learn that the holes are called precipitating tanks and they most likely date back to the early to mid-1880s. Precipitation represented a new, cutting-edge chemical process for collecting fine consistency copper after the raw material had gone through an initial milling and chemical treatment. Miners at the Nonesuch experimented with this method as a last-ditch effort to extract the difficult-to-obtain copper flakes from the lode. In the end, even this latest high-tech solution proved ineffective and the mine closed for good in the early 1900s.

As we turned our back on this historic sight and began our walk back to the car, my mind wandered and I began to imagine what this area looked and sounded like over 140 years ago. I envisioned a large treeless area with wooden housing, a schoolhouse, various outbuildings, and the rugged stone structures of the mine itself. I smelled smoke wafting through the air from countless wood stoves, the industrial odor of an active copper mine, and the delicious aroma of home-cooked meals permeating the forest. I heard the screams of playing children as they ran through the woods and the monotonous crushing sound of the stamp mill as it pulverized chunks of rock.

Those sights may have long ago faded into obscurity, save for the couple visible relics that the forest has yet to reclaim, however, there is one common experience that remains unchanged between us and those pioneers from over a century ago—the gurgling sound of the Little Iron River and the sound of a mid-afternoon breeze as it whooshes through the treetops. If you ever get a chance to visit the Nonesuch Mine, take the time to let your mind drift off; you may find that this common link to the past is all you need to envision, for yourself, what it must have been like here all those years ago.

Our next excursion was one that really intrigued us. It too, was a trip back in time, but it had nothing to do with the lifeblood of the Copper Country, rather, it had everything to do with a piece of World War II history.

At approximately 10:35 p.m. on April 18, 1944, crew #3349, a ten-man group assigned to a B-17F (42-30762) embarked on a 1,000-mile night training mission. The 75-foot long, 56,000-pound plane took off from an Army Air Base in Sioux City, Iowa and flew in a general northeast direction toward Lake Superior.

By 1:55 a.m. the crew was a few miles outside of Marquette, Michigan when one of the plane’s four, 1200 hp engines caught fire. The pilot began a detour to Duluth, Minnesota for repairs. While en route, he attempted to feather the propeller, a technique used to reduce the drag produced by a failed engine, allowing for a more controlled flight and descent. Ultimately, the process failed and the engine blew. The pilot turned toward land and ordered the crew to bail out of the dying aircraft at 2:10 a.m.

The first four men to jump from the plane landed near a beach along Lake Superior and safely made the trip, on foot, to nearby Silver City, Michigan. The rest of the crew managed to safely bail out of the plane before it succumbed to its fate—crashing into a thick, remote section of forest.

By 10:00 a.m. a Civil Air Patrol spotter had located the twisted wreckage, and by noon, nine of the ten airmen had been found and rescued. The last crew member, Sgt. Leonard Rogers, was located two days later walking down a remote logging road. Fortunately, the crewmen came away from the crash with only minor bumps and bruises and went on to fight in their first combat mission two months later over the skies Bordeaux, France.

The Army quickly swooped in and removed the plane’s .50-caliber machine guns, ammunition, dummy bombs, and its Top Secret Norten Bombsite. The military then wanted to douse the wreckage with fuel oil and burn the remains, but that plan never came to fruition, and what they did not haul away was left to fight its own battle with nature and the elements in this remote forest in the Upper Peninsula.

I had read about the B-17 plane crash several years before this hike, but had forgotten all about it until only a month or two before we left. Ken and I scoured the internet for information and clues to the location of the crash site. We were never able to come up with a definite fix, however, the shreds of information we did have, led us to believe that we had a good chance of finding the site. We pulled up several different maps of the park, used the few clues we had, and plotted a path we hoped would lead us directly to whatever remained of the wreckage.

We drove to a predetermined place, parked the car, and began walking. About 15 minutes later, our journey took us away from roads and trails of any kind as we began an almost mile-long bushwhack into the untamed forest.

Before leaving home, I triple-checked our route and had pretty much memorized key landforms. Topographic maps discovered during the research phase also helped us plot a course in case the GPS was not able to maintain a fix from within the forest. Still, even with carefully plotted topos and handpicked GPS coordinates, not being on a maintained trail with signposts was a bit unnerving. If we became preoccupied with talking and not paying attention, it was only a matter of seconds before we lost our bearing and would have to reorient ourselves. It was glaringly obvious how people become lost in the backcountry and wander in circles for days; in the forest, everything looks the same if you are not paying very close attention. Surprisingly, to me, the forest was not as thick with vegetation as I had thought it would be. It’s not that I pictured it to be as vegetation-clogged as the Amazon rainforest, requiring a machete to progress only a few feet, but I didn’t think it would feel as open as it did.

For the next 30 minutes or so we followed a definitive path, albeit a physically invisible one, through the forest. We plodded along across decades of accumulating leaves, stepped across fallen branches and limbs, and clambered over larger, downed trees. Eventually, the final landmark appeared before our eyes a short distance in front of us. Weeks of anticipation were about to be fulfilled.

We stopped for a minute to discuss how best to conduct the search. The plan was to head off in different directions to search for pieces of the wreckage, each of us being careful to keep at least one other person in sight, or at the very least, within earshot. We studied the ground for metallic objects. We looked up to see if any treetops had sustained damage from the impact of a large object in its death throes. We paid close attention to the tree growth at ground level, figuring that when the B-17 finally hit the ground it would have mowed down a large swath of smaller trees, and anything that grew in that area since then would be considerably smaller than the surrounding trees.

For almost an hour, we scoured the landscape; up hills and down the other sides, over trees and logs, through ravines, and across small valleys. We finally had to admit that our research and calculations had fallen short and we began to retrace our way back through the woods. So close, yet so far away. It was a disappointing walk back to the car, but we had a lot of fun in the process. Even though we didn’t find the crash site, the thrill of the hunt was rewarding all by itself. After all, our knowledge of what lay concealed in these woods was still more than what most people had knowledge of, and even though we never found it, we still had been much closer to a piece of American history than most who visit the park.

At 1,958 feet above sea level (1,360 feet above the Lake Superior), Summit Peak is the highest elevation in the Porcupine Mountains and it was the destination for our next stop. A gravel path departs from the parking lot and extends for a shady, half-mile through the trees, to its terminus at the Summit Peak observation tower, a 40-foot tall, wooden tower with an observation platform at the top. The hike is not overly strenuous, but it’s an entirely uphill endeavor. For those who lack the cardiovascular fortitude to make the trek in one shot, there are benches scattered along the length of the trail. There also are several lengthy sections of wooden boardwalks and steps to traverse before reaching the tower.

When we finally arrived at the observation platform we had unobstructed views to the west, the north, and the east, including Lake Superior, countless acres of rolling hills, valleys, distant ridges, and thousands of trees that have never felt the bite of a lumberjack’s axe or gnawing of a chainsaw.

By now the sun had begun creeping toward the horizon, bathing the landscape with spears of rich, orange light that caused the fall-colored foliage to glow as if illuminated from within. On a clear day visitors standing on this same platform can see landmarks that are miles away, such as the Copper Peak Ski Jump in Bessemer, Michigan (20 miles away), the Apostle Islands (25 miles away), and the unmistakable smokestack near the former White Pine Mine (about 10 miles away). Today, however, those objects were not visible, except for the black and white smokestack, but the view was great, nonetheless.

The distance between Summit Peak and the waterfalls on the Presque Isle River is over ten miles. Under normal circumstances we may have had enough daylight left to make the 20-some mile round trip and do some sightseeing, but we weren't working with normal circumstances—we still had an ailing vehicle to nurse out of this remote landscape. Besides, it was about time for dinner and we were famished.

We had managed to reattach the sway bar in the parking lot the day we hit the trail, however, there was one thing left to do. Ken felt we should attempt to secure the bar with a spare nylon strap he was carrying. He figured, and Derek and I agreed, that even the slightest bump in the road would dislodge it again. We felt fortunate to have fixed the issue the first time, but a second incident, especially out here in the dark, would surely have been a disaster. We needed to use the remaining daylight to finalize the repair. The waterfalls, unfortunately, would have to wait for another time.

I chocked one of the tires with the same large rock from a couple of days ago, jacked up the front of the car, and removed the tire. Ken cut the nylon strap in two and handed them to me. I wrapped each piece around a different area of the errant bar and the control arm and cinched them tight before securing them with several knots. We hoped the straps would supply the necessary pressure to hold the bar in place on the stripped bolt until we could make it to an auto shop for a couple beads of weld.

Now came the true test. Would our less-than-ideal fix hold long enough to get us out of here? I inched the car up the gravel road and around potholes at a snail's pace. Even then, we heard some creaking sounds coming from the front of the vehicle. It was nerve-racking to say the least. We breathed a sigh of relief upon finally reaching South Boundary Road, but our ordeal was far from over.

Now, the only thing that made sense was to get the vehicle to a repair shop somewhere in Ontonagon. At a maximum speed of 30-35 m.p.h., sometimes even slower, it took us quite a while to make the 30 or so mile trip into town. Unfortunately, we did not find any auto shops, at least none that were open.

Initially, we were going to spend the night at the Union Bay Campground not far from the park office but the unanticipated car trouble forced us to reevaluate our plan. It didn’t seem wise to make a multiple mile drive back to the Union Bay Campground in the dark with a still badly damaged vehicle. To play it safe, we chose to continue east and search for an inexpensive hotel that, hopefully, was not far from a repair shop.

Unbeknownst to us, there was some type of Federal convention in progress and none of the local motels or hotels had any vacancies. Fortunately, a kind clerk at one of the hotels gave us names and locations of a couple other motels. The Scott's Superior Inn had one room left, and as an added bonus, the owner informed us of a repair shop just over a mile away—we had found a place to stop for the night.

We hauled our gear inside, cleaned up, piled into Derek's car, and drove off in search of Roxey's Bar in downtown Ontonagon for what the motel clerk claimed were “the best hamburgers in town” And how were they, you're wondering? As good as they tasted, I’ll bet they were the best hamburgers in town.

I never imagined we would be spending the night in a motel at any point during our trip, but that didn't detract from the day's activities. We still managed to accomplish everything on our list except for visiting the Panama shipwreck and the waterfalls, and we were thankful that our impromptu, backcountry mechanic work had brought us this close to a more permanent fix. Even though the morning started on a cool note with an overcast sky, the sun eventually appeared and warmed the temperature to probably the mid 50s. During a conversation with the motel clerk we learned that the overnight temperatures for the last several nights had dropped to 28 degrees. No wonder it was so cold the night I slept in my hammock. Brrr!

Final count for the day: Numerous people out sightseeing, several red squirrels, and a lucky German Shepherd taking in the view from the Lake of the Clouds overlook with his owner.

Miles Covered Today: 8.2
Total Trip Miles: 29.0

Day 5

This page last updated on 02-25-2016 @ 11:29 AM