By Kevin Koch
Growling thunder and a darkening sky to the west put a quick retreat to our second day’s hike on the Escarpment Trail in the Porcupine Mountains. The rush lay in contrast to the leisurely lunch my wife and I had enjoyed on an outcrop 500 feet above the Lake of the Clouds a few minutes earlier.
The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park offers a dose of both urgency and calm as it stretches 60,000 acres along the south shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan. The primacy of the present moment quickly dissipates into the eons here.
Known colloquially as the Porkies, the range rises 1000 to 1600 feet above Lake Superior, forming parallel ridges a mile or so inland. The parallel ridges are separated by glacial lakes, marshes, and old-growth, virgin forest. From a fire tower at the crest of the Summit Trail, the highest point in the Porkies, the ridges undulate from peak to peak, forming a silhouette against the horizon that supposedly reminded early inhabitants of the hunched-up back of a porcupine.
Dianne and I spent most of our hiking time on the Escarpment Trail, whose sheer basalt cliffs drop precipitously into the Lake of the Clouds. It was a clear day on our first hike, so the lake reflected the deep blue of the seemingly-near sky instead.
The escarpment—the term meaning a long, steep-sloped ridge—was formed a billion years ago when the earth’s crust began to pull apart in this region, forming the Midcontinent Rift. Volcanic magma rushed in to fill the void. Uplifted 40,000 million years ago, the escarpment layers were later scoured by glaciers. As we hiked along the ridge, we could still see scratch marks left on the exposed bedrock by the grinding glaciers.
The Porkies are home to over 30,000 acres of old growth virgin forest, including the largest stand of hardwood west of the Adirondacks. Towering eastern hemlocks—100-foot-tall, short-needled pines—shade large sections of the forest floor, preventing other trees from getting established and resulting in a “clean” understory from which the hemlock trunks arise like cathedral columns.
Human habitation came early to the Porkies, with archaeological evidence dating back 8000 years. The Ojibwe were the last indigenous peoples of the region. The initial Euro-American appearance was quick, furious, and destructive. Large swaths along Lake Superior were logged until the remaining old-growth forest was preserved when the Porkies were declared a wilderness park in 1945.
Copper mining blew through the region like a wildfire as well. Although intermittent mining dates back thousands of years, the mid-1840s saw a short-lived copper mining rush. We hiked the Union Mine Trail through the bottomlands where interpretive signs point out the eroding evidence of an 1846 company mining community. In October 1846 a miner named William Spaulding wrote home that “everything seems to prosper at this location; we are not only turning out copper, but children. Mrs. Shin gave birth to a whopping baby boy today.”
The boom ended quickly. The tone of Spaulding’s February 1847 message home foreshadowed the gloom that would soon overtake the mining community: “A man by the name of Baily was found frozen to death 4 miles from the mouth of the Iron River.” The Union Mine was abandoned later in 1847 due to slumping copper prices. It was reopened briefly in the 1860s and early 1900s, but each time closed quickly due to the vagaries of the market and limited ore deposits.
The Union Mine trail led us past several mostly disappeared shafts as well some small waterfalls. Indeed, one of the biggest draws to the Porcupine Mountains—and to the Upper Peninsula in general—are the innumerable cascades. The topography of the region creates a small “continental divide,” with waters south of the park embarking on a leisurely 2300-mile path to the Gulf of Mexico while waters from the Porkies plummet the few short miles to Lake Superior with great urgency.
Our campsite was near the Presque Isle River. Here the wooded Presque River Trail edges alongside numerous jagged waterfalls and bouldered rapids. Further downstream, the river tumbles through a basalt valley, pounding through narrow draws and doubling back on itself to carve out “potholes” in the black rock.
Finally the Presque Isle River eases out into Lake Superior. Our introduction to the mouth of the river came at sunset. We caught the lake in summer calm as it drew the sun down into its belly.
Lake Superior is, of course, the largest of the Great Lakes, but with depths reaching to 1330 feet, it could hold the waters of the four other lakes combined. The most northerly of the lakes as well, its waters are bone-aching cold. I swam briefly along the shoreline, hugging the top six inches as much as possible to float along a thin, sun-warmed layer.
The deep, clear Superior waters can turn urgent quickly, though, with November gales notoriously welling up to pull down yet another forlorn shipwreck.
Both urgency and calm vie for the upper hand in the Porcupine Mountains. Adrenaline pumps in proximity to a rushing waterfall while a quiet lunch on a basalt cliff outcrop above the Lake of the Clouds soberly reminds you of the power of the ages.
But in a small corner of the Porkies—in a section added later and not subject to the park’s environmental protections—new exploratory drillings for copper mining erupted in the winter of 2017, accompanied by the usual voices pitting jobs against preservation.
Is there an urgency here? Is there a long view?