The Unsurpassed Beauty of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

You almost don’t need words with a landscape like this, but I’m going to provide some anyway so you know what you’re looking at.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is on the south shore of Lake Superior between Munising and Grand Marais. And if you ever find yourself planning a trip to the UP, a Pictured Rocks Cruise or kayaking tour should be on your MUST DO list. There are only a couple features that are visible to the drive-in tourist, more for backpackers and hikers. But the most impressive features of this 43-mile long stretch of sandstone cliffs, arches, and caves cannot be seen unless you are out on the big lake.

Battered by wind and waves, the shoreline varies between sheer cliffs, pockmarked with caves, and idyllic sandy beaches and inviting waterfalls. And every so often, a “picture” in the rocks–a structure or illusion that suggests an object, like finding shapes in the clouds. One of these is Miner’s Castle (below) which you can drive to easily but which, in my mind, is far from the most impressive or exciting.

In addition to the “pictures (which we’ll see a lot more of below) the cliffs are “painted” by minerals dissolved by underground springs and streams of water that then drip down the sides of the sandstone. The color indicates the mineral: white is calcite, orange is iron, gray is dolomite, blues and greens are copper, black is manganese.

The various points have colorful names, such as the arch below, which is called Lover’s Leap. Our guide on the cruise reminded us that it was not such a great name because if you take a flying leap into the lake from this point it is into only about four feet of water. So maybe this is for jilted and suicidal lovers only…

Things can change quickly though. Our guide pointed out a sandbar to us, saying, “If you were to stand on that sandbar where you see the water looks more brown, you would be in water up to about your waist. One step closer to the boat where we are now and you’d be in 65 feet of water.” Superior is beautiful, yes, but dangerous when you don’t know what you’re doing.

Probably not all of the caves on the lakeshore have names, but this one does — Rainbow Cave, for the streaks of minerals on the walls and the turquoise water.

When I took this cruise as a child, this point of land was called Indian Head. Our guide this time around was careful to be PC about it, but its name is certainly no insult. The Native Americans who fished these waters called this rock the Gitchee Manitou, or Great Spirit. They saw themselves in its strong jaw and nose, its sloping brow, and its steadfastness in the storm.

Someday I intend to kayak Pictured Rocks, if only so I can slip into places like this to see how far back those caves go…

Sometimes a single cliff or point is not enough to make a picture, but a series of them is. This is Battleship Row, where five or six points of land at the right angle look like a fleet lined up at port.

The winters are long in the UP and the gales off of this inland sea are powerful enough to sink freighters, as any Gordon Lightfoot fan knows. So I always like to see trees that hang on despite adversity, like this pine gripping the side of this cliff.

Can you see the goblet or vase in the rocks below?

 

How about a set of sturdy bear or elephant legs?

A pirate’s face below a gray tricorn hat? (Barring that, you might at least see a set of very round eyes and a rabbit-like nose perhaps?)

This tight cove is Chapel Cove, and the interesting thing here is better viewed in the second picture.

This is the spot with the most copper coming through, as you can see by the deep teal about halfway up the rocks.

Just beyond Chapel Cove is Chapel Beach and Chapel Falls, both accessible by car and a short walk.

And then the feature which is almost everyone’s favorite: Chapel Rock.

It may not be wholly obvious from that first picture that there is indeed a white pine tree (our state tree) atop the rock. And even if you caught that right away, it may be tough to tell just how it can live on a rock that is almost completely separated from the mainland. The photo below reveals the mystery.

A thick tangle of roots, which had developed at a time when Chapel Rock was still an arch and connected to the rest of the forest, is that tree’s main source of water and nutrients from the soil. Tenacity. You need it to live in such an unforgiving place. Incidentally, in what can be a very difficult and sometimes treacherous trail that forces the hiker to the very edge of unstable cliffs in this stretch of the North Country Trail, the only fences the National Park Service has constructed are those protecting this feature (and Miner’s Castle) from people who might otherwise trample and climb and damage it.

If you take the longer cruise option, you will get to see Spray Falls, which empties into Lake Superior and can only be seen from the water. In late summer during a dry year, this waterfall may not be flowing at all, so go in June.

 

Another waterfall you can appreciate from the lake is the lovely Bridal Veil Falls…

And just in case the scale of these features has eluded you…see those kayakers?

On the way back to port the boat swung by Grand Island and the East Channel Lighthouse, which opened for service in 1868.

The island is used largely by sportsmen, tourists, and hikers, but there are a few houses on it. The summer residents of these houses have no plumbing and no electricity, and they are the keepers and restorers of the lighthouse, which hasn’t been in service since 1913.

For days when I asked my son what his favorite part of the trip so far had been, he’d say it was the Pictured Rocks Cruise. His answer would change later, but that is another post for another day…

Just trust me and put this on your bucket list.

Returning to Pt. Iroquois

Our first stop on Saturday was to Pt. Iroquois, the site of lighthouse, modest museum, and gift shop today, but significant long before to the Native Americans who lived there.

The following comes from the Pure Michigan pages for Sault Ste Marie area attractions.

 

The area around Sault Saint Marie (“The Soo”), including Whitefish Bay, has been called the “Heartland” of the Chippewa Indians. This tribe is also called Ojibwa, and sometimes refer to themselves as “Anishinabeg,” which is their word for “original people.” The Iroquois lived about 400 miles away, mostly in what is now western New York. In the 1600s these nations were at war, at least in part because of European influence and fur trade competition. The Iroquois often sent expeditions far from their homeland and attempted to control the trade routes leading east from the Great Lakes.
Accounts of an important battle at Point Iroquois in 1662 have been passed down for over 300 years. They tell how an Iroquois war party camped near the point where the lighthouse now stands, and how the Chippewa secretly watched their movements and mounted a surprise attack near dawn. The Iroquois were defeated decisively, and apparently never again ventured this far west.

Click here for more about the light itself.

As you can see, though it is certainly summer weather-wise in the southern Lower Peninsula where I live, it is still spring up in the UP. Many trees are still flowering or just pushing out their leaves and the weather was cool and breezy and marvelously sunny most of the time.

The boy and I climbed the 72 steps up to the top of the lighthouse.

But we spent most of our time on the beach looking at, collecting, and throwing stones.

One of the things I love about Lake Superior are the stony beaches that offer up a kaleidoscope of rocks to admire through the crisp, clear water.

My son and I had been here before, eight years ago…

…but of course he didn’t remember it. The beach was a bit stonier then. And it’s likely that the water is a bit higher now as Superior’s levels are close to the record high at the moment, courtesy of some extremely cold and snowy winters that helped reverse the effects of a few dry years over the Great Lakes Basin.

Lakes — and boys — can change a lot in eight years.

Let the Adventure Begin…

I have long wanted to see more of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula than the eastern end I have been fairly familiar with through a childhood trip, a mission trip with our church’s youth group, and three hiking trips with my sister (you can find out more about the hiking trips by poking around in the earlier years of this blog). And I have been keen on getting my son up there while he is still young so that he can fall in love with it as much as I have. So when it was decided that my husband would be going to Israel for ten days I thought that was the perfect time to plan a road trip. I didn’t want us to be stuck at home for ten days without Daddy, bored and lonesome. Much better to distract ourselves with some of God’s natural wonders — and with some of man’s innovations to navigate and utilize those natural resources.

On his last half-day of school on Friday, we headed north over the Mighty Mac to go exploring…

The first stop on our whirlwind tour of the Upper Peninsula (hereafter referred to as the UP — that’s U-P, not “up”) was Sault Ste. Marie (pronounced Soo-Saint-Marie) to visit the Soo Locks, which allow commercial shipping between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes, and, by extension through the St. Lawrence Seaway, the rest of the world. Here’s where you’ll find them:

Sault Ste. Marie is a rather industrial little town, not “pretty” by most standards, but it has a charm all its own. Growing up in the Bay City area as I did, I tend to like anything to do with boats and shipping. The Saginaw Bay and Saginaw River (which you will find between the Thumb and the rest of the Mitten in the map above) have been important shipping channels for generations. Though downtown Bay City is getting a face lift — the mountains of gravel and big cranes are giving way to new loft housing and a revamped riverfront — the sailboats and freighters and drawbridges are all still there. And now that I’m rather landlocked in the middle of the state, I get a bit of a thrill to see something like this:

That is the Lee A. Tregurtha coming in from the Huron side to pick up iron ore pellets from a Minnesota port on Superior. Huron is the lower of the two lakes, so once this beast gets into the lock, the water level will be raised (powered only by gravity and strategically opened and closed valves) to the Superior level, which takes 22 million gallons of water. Then the doors on the Superior side will be opened and the ship will go on its way.

This spot used to be solely rapids and had to be bypassed on land, which limited what you could ship. Native Americans and French voyageurs and fur traders had to lift their canoes and boats out of the water and carry them to the next lake. Now 7,000 boats and ships pass through the locks each year carrying an average of 80 million tons of cargo.

The long elevated bridge you can see in the next photo is the bridge to Canada, and there are also locks on the Canadian side.

Being so close to Canada, you may see signs like this on local businesses:

Growing up on the east side of the state, we regularly used Canadian coins interchangeably with American coins when they showed up in our pockets. No one ever questioned it. Then when I moved to the west side of the state in college and tried to use a Canadian quarter, the clerk treated me like I was a criminal trying to pull one over on her. She didn’t even know what she was looking at. I was quite taken aback.

But then, Michigan is a very large state, as my son and I found out! More about our adventures in the coming weeks, but in the meantime click here for more interesting facts about the Soo Locks, along with a good aerial shot.

One Small Taste of Coming U.P. Delights

My son and I have just gotten back from an epic trip around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I have more than 500 photos to wade through and edit, and I’ll be sharing them in this space over the coming days (maybe weeks!) so stick around!

John King Books Is My Graceland

On Saturday, my sister and I took our first trip to John King Books in Detroit.

It was everything you want in a giant used bookstore housed in an old factory.

Full of charm and mystery.

And beautiful books.

I wanted to take all of these home with me. But I had given myself a budget. In a place like this, you kind of have to.

I brought home this book to read before, during, and after my upcoming trip to the Upper Peninsula.

I built my growing collection of fantastically lovely volumes of poetry printed in the 1800s.

I found Byron last year in a Lansing antique shop, and he is now joined by Burns and Longfellow.

I added yet another green-bound classic to my stacks (green, it seems, was the favorite color of these 1930s printings).

And I found a curiosity or two. This is a copy of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow written in shorthand.

I have a book that teaches you how to write shorthand from my grandmother’s library and this slim volume will go along with it (uh oh…I sense another collection coming into being).

The last book I found — the one that busted my budget and ended my shopping day — is something I’ll tell you about tomorrow…

 

Great Lakes Infographic Love

Who doesn’t love a good infographic? Wonder which of the Great Lakes is the longest or deepest or highest? Or how far you would travel by ship from the westernmost point of Lake Superior down the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic? Wonder no more:

Click on the graphic to see it bigger. And if you’re looking for Lake Michigan, it’s combined with Lake Huron as they really function as one body of water despite their separation by the Lower Peninsula.

Lake Superior Stones: A Collector’s Lament

I love rocks. I like looking at them, feeling them, collecting them, putting them in jars.

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But here’s the problem with being a rock collector at a National Park–you can’t collect the rocks.

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All these lovely rocks and you have to leave them be.

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And anyway, when you’re backpacking, you can’t really start socking away a bunch of rocks in your pack. Every ounce counts.

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So while I would have liked to bring home a bunch of stone souvenirs, I mostly left them alone and took pictures (though I have to admit, I brought a few little ones home…they were tiny, really…no one will miss them).

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I generally like stones for how they look and I don’t get deep into their composition, rarity, or how they formed (although, that does interest me).

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And there are people far better qualified to identify all of these beauties than I.

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I can tell you that I saw sedimentary rocks, like sandstone and the great conglomerate above.

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And that I saw igneous rocks, like strips of granite, through metamorphic rocks, like gneiss, which you can see in a couple of these photos. And I wonder just how that granite found its way in there.

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And I saw this great little scene of erosion and shaping by the waves and wind on the beach, like Pictured Rocks in miniature.

But I left them all there. For your trip.

Au Sable Point Lighthouse, the Graveyard Coast, and Hurricane River

On Saturday, my sister and I packed up and made the three-ish mile hike to our next campsite, Au Sable Point East. I say three-ish because it really seems to me that some desk jockey at the National Parks Service (NPS) looked at a map of Pictured Rocks, estimated that the width of his thumb was, “Eh, more or less about a mile,” and then did that tongue-out, one-eye-closed sort of “guesstimating” you do when you just want to get something checked off your to-do list. Next time we are there, Alison and I plan to bring one of those fancy runner’s watches that records everything you do and actually measure the real distance.

But I digress.

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After lurching down an endless hill (“Ah, now this feels more like Pictured Rocks!”) we found the campsite and were quite happy that it was a.) very close to Lake Superior for water and scenery needs; b.) situated in an idyllic looking little area populated by pines and the cutest little baby fir trees you’ve ever seen; and c.) not far from both the lighthouse and the mouth of the Hurricane River (as we were both marvelously fond of the Mosquito River on our last trip and were looking forward to hearing and seeing another river).

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We had neighbors at this site, but everyone was pleasantly quiet and industrious and no one seemed to be there to make new friends. (Alison and I come from some painfully solitary German stock on our father’s side and are never really looking to meet anyone. Ever.)

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We happily strolled along the beach and examined rocks until we were chased away by biting black flies (“Ah, now this feels more like the U.P.!”) and then thought we’d check out the lighthouse.

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I have a friend who “collects” lighthouses, but to me they are just one of those things you look at and go, “Hm, that’s cool,” and then move on to more important things, like marking how prevalent wild blueberries are in these parts or how fascinating that rock is over there. (Aside: Did you know that Michigan has at least 116 functional lighthouses–plus more that are no longer in service–more than any other state in the nation?)

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Alison and I took the “steps” down to the beach to search out the remains of shipwrecks that are visible between the Hurricane River and the lighthouse, part of the Graveyard Coast, a very shallow area of the lake that has claimed several vessels over the years and prompted the building of the lighthouse in the first place. Despite the flies and the heat and my growing blisters, it was a beautiful walk and it struck me once again how many hundreds of miles of gorgeous beach there are on Lake Superior and how little it is really used for recreation. I think that’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But when you think of crowded beaches downstate, it’s really quite incredible.

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Now, above the beach and in the woods a little bit, between the lighthouse and Hurricane River, there is a bizarrely wide footpath (wide enough for a truck, and there were tire tracks on it). I can only assume that the lighthouse staff uses that path as a road to reach the light station. It also happens to be more welcoming for the people who might use the drive-in campground at Hurricane River rather than the backcountry sites that pepper the North Country Trail that runs through the park. You know, larger families with small children, the elderly, and the less-in-shape-than-even-me. In fact we met a large older gentleman with a cane and his wife coming down a real set of stairs (rather than just posts strung together with cables and flung down a sandy hill) to go see the shipwrecks and I thought to myself how odd it was to see someone like that hiking. Then we came to Hurricane River and it all made sense.

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We first knew something strange was going on when we saw an RV. Just the night before I felt like I was the only person in the park, so devoid of human activity were the tops of the dunes. Then we saw another RV. And another. And coolers. And bottles of ketchup and mustard. Then we smelled meat grilling. I finally looked at the map and saw that this was one of two drive-in campgrounds in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. A small part of me, for a very, very short moment, was incensed. But then I started thinking about bringing my son up here sometime before he’s big enough to hike with a pack on his back. And I understood completely. This would be the way to experience a piece of this place if you could not (or were not inclined to) carry your house and food on your back to and fro.

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Except for the RVs and the grills and the coolers, Hurricane River reminded us a bit of the Mosquito River in that it was refreshingly frigid and the water ran over shelves of sandstone that you could walk across (carefully). We took a seat on a log in the river, cooled our achy feet, and had a snack. Then, being the curmudgeon I am, I started removing evidence of human activity from the river (in the form of little dams of rocks that a sweet little child no doubt made but which I, ardent naturalist and generally ornery person, didn’t think should be there altering the course of the water and messing up my photos).

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I know. I’m a rotten killjoy. I also systematically destroy those “cairns” everyone seems to be so fond of making on Michigan’s shorelines. I don’t understand why people simply must leave their mark on the natural world and I resent them ruining my landscape photographs. There. I said it.

Anyway

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This is a very nice area to visit. If you are doing a U.P. trip by car and want to get a taste of Lake Superior and Pictured Rocks without a ton of footwork, I recommend parking at various parking lots along the park and taking the short hikes to places like Log Slide, Au Sable Point Light Station, the Graveyard Coast, Miner’s Castle, Miner’s Beach, Miner’s Falls, Sable Falls, and anywhere else you can see (especially the Pictured Rocks boat tours). Combine that with stops at Tahquamenon Falls, Point Iroquois, the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, the Soo Locks, and Wildwood Pasties, and you’ve got yourself a lovely trip. I recommend the first or second week of October if you also want to take a fall color tour to boot.

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We eventually headed back to camp, ate dinner, then hid from the bugs in our tent. I think we were both asleep before sunset that night (36 hours with no caffeine and a lot of walking in direct sunlight kind of saps one’s energy). I was looking forward to a fairly early start the next morning as I anticipated going home to my boys and a nice soapy shower. Little did I know there would be another good reason to get moving quickly on Sunday…

Sunset on Grand Sable Dunes and Waiting for the Northern Lights

After we visited Log Slide on Friday, Alison and I returned to our campsite, had a bite to eat, and then returned to the other world waiting above us to watch the sunset.

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Apparently, we were not the only ones with this idea. We were joined by about 63 million tiny flying bugs of the gnat variety, which frantically whizzed about in clouds all around us. You can spot some of them in the photo above.

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And yet, it was still quiet and peaceful up there. I set off to photograph the dunes in the waning light while Alison plunked down with a book. You can see her in the above photo, way up near the top of the hill.

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The sun slowly sank lower in the sky and lit up the dune grasses and sand in that perfect evening light that photographers so adore.

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And a landscape that had seemed almost stark in the harsh midday sun took on a quality that made you feel that this earth is really a beautiful place indeed.

How often do we go to bed at night having not noticed this? It should strike us daily and yet we are so busy and so insulated from the earth outside and spend so little time with the real world that we miss it regularly.

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Certainly that feeling is easy to come by in a singular landscape such as Grand Sable Dunes. But even your own yard or neighborhood or that corner of your kitchen where the light hits just so, you can see it. If you’re looking.

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Now, I have never been a fan of August. It has always seemed a wasted month of horrid heat, humidity, and boredom. But I’ve recently begun rethinking my stance.

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This past weekend it started to cast a spell over me. (More on this at a later date.)

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Finally, finally, the sun sank below the horizon. My sister headed down the now dark trail, flashlight in hand, leaving me atop the highest point of the dunes, camera firmly affixed to my tripod, to wait for a very different sort of light. I had read on Tuesday that a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) had occurred. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, essentially the sun had released a tremendous amount of energy that was careening through space toward us, the effects of which might be visible on this Friday night.

Still in the dark? I’m talking about the Northern Lights, which for the past few years of increased CME activity (which goes in 11 year cycles) have been spotted all over Michigan, but mostly on Lake Superior. And here I was at Lake Superior on the perfect night in the perfect spot to see them for the first time in my life and, if I was lucky, capture them in pixels so I could smugly share my good fortune with others.

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As the cold wind whipped around me and my surroundings darkened, I actually prayed for the privilege to witness this incredible display of the power of our star and the kind hand of the One who put our planet in such a position that I could both see it and not be harmed by it.

But it was not to be. There may have been lights later that night while I was snoozing or watching a little mouse scurry overhead between the tent and the rain fly, but I was not permitted to see them. I eventually packed up my camera and flicked on my flashlight for the descent to Masse Homestead (made exponentially more difficult by the darkness and more nerve-wracking by the thought that should I encounter a black bear or wolf in the pitch black night, it would have a significant advantage over me despite my being armed).

I was (and am) profoundly disappointed. And yet, the sun continues to shine and produce storms that will cause the Northern Lights to appear at a later date. Someday I hope to see them. In the meantime, this disappointment reminds me that I am not owed beauty. Beauty happens, but it doesn’t happen for my sake. I am like one of those grains of sand on the dune, one of billions of people in the world. My great comfort is that God knows every speck of sand, every one of us, and that He heard my prayer for light that night…and for whatever reason His answer was “Not just yet.”