Michigan’s surprising wilderness.
Yes, there are mountains in Michigan.
They rise out of the great freshwater sea of Lake Superior, along the rugged north coast of the state’s Upper Peninsula. There are two main ranges. The finer scenery – so it is said – is in the Huron Mountains, which begin a dozen miles or so west of Marquette. Unfortunately, only a few people ever see that scenery, as the entire range is owned by a consortium of downstate millionaires called the Huron Mountain Club, and they rarely let anyone else in. Fortunately for the rest of us, though, there remain, west of Ontanogan, the Porcupine Mountains – the Porkies, as they are affectionately known to Michiganders. And nearly 60,000 acres of the Porkies are in public hands, as the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
The Porkies are not high – their highest point, Summit Peak, doesn’t quite reach 2000 feet – but they shouldn’t be dismissed as mere hills. They tower over the surrounding landscape. The continental glacier ground over them and withdrew, leaving behind polished rock, scattered lakes and wetlands, and tall cliffs. Small rivers rush, not meander, down their slopes, to be lost in the vast waters of Superior, 1400 feet below. More than half the park is old-growth forest, forming the largest stand of old growth between the Rocky Mountains and the Adirondacks. If they were located among the great mountains of the West, they would still deserve a visit. Here in the mountain-poor Midwest, they are a treasure.
I have been to the Porkies three times. The first time was in the summer of 1983 during research for my 1986 book, The Late, Great Lakes. Chemist Rod Badger and I hiked part of the Escarpment Trail, visited the Lake of the Clouds Overlook, and took a quick gander at the falls and rapids of the Presque Isle River. It was a rushed visit, but it was enough to whet my appetite: so I came back four years later, with Melody and our two then-teenage daughters. That time we managed to get off the Escarpment and hike a couple of miles in toward the center of the park on the North Mirror Lake Trail, but we didn’t reach Mirror Lake.
It wasn’t until August of 1998, on the research trip for my second Great Lakes book (Great Lakes Journey), that Melody and I finally made it to the mirror in the center of the Porkies, hiking down from Summit Peak via the Beaver Creek trail and then up the wetland-strewn valley of the Little Carp River to the lake. The weather was damp and gray, but it didn’t seem to matter. It didn’t matter, either, that there were a couple of rustic cabins by the lake (the park rents those to backpackers), or that the canoe tethered to a tree by one of the cabins was made of aluminum. Or that the highest of the peaks that surrounded us was lower than my house in Oregon. We were beside Mirror Lake, in the heart of the Porcupine Mountains, and for those few moments, all I wanted was exactly what I had.