Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Munising to Grand Island, Michigan
Standing at the water’s edge, gazing out onto the broad expanse of Lake Superior, my brother and I take in the sweeping vista of the bay. A light chop ruffles the lake, and small breakers spend themselves on the sand here at Miner’s Beach.
But the wind is directly out of the north, and we know the water is cold this late in the season. We haul the last of our gear down from the parking area, agree full immersion-wear is in order, and launch our kayaks onto the slate-gray surface of Superior. We swing eastward and cruise along the high, rocky headlands of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, known by old-time Great Lakes sailors as the “Graveyard Coast”.
One hundred and forty years ago, ship traffic on Superior was at an all-time high. The simultaneous discovery of copper deposits on the Keweenaw Peninsula and iron in the Marquette Range had sparked mining booms that continued for decades. The tools, equipment, and men necessary to fuel the burgeoning mining industry all arrived by Great Lakes sailing schooner. Hauling supplies in from eastern ports, and returning with raw ore and cast-iron ‘pigs’ from the mines and blast furnaces of Houghton, Marquette, and nearby Munising, many schooners sailed along this rocky southern shore of Superior, heavy-laden with their cargoes. And so many of those ships were lost in fog, struck unseen reefs, or were thrown up here against the towering cliffs by violent north gales that this dangerous stretch of shoreline came to be known by its macabre moniker. My brother, James, and I are mindful of this reputation as we angle along the cliffs and make our way eastward.
About an hour after launching, the wind shifts to the northeast and gains strength. Though entranced by the namesake ‘painted’ cliffs and the numerous sea caves, we must admire them from afar today, as we find ourselves distracted and kept offshore by the conditions. The wind drives waves onto the sheer rock faces and into the caves, which boom and echo with the force. Clapotis—waves reflected back off the cliffs to form chaotic and spiky water—makes the paddling difficult near shore, so we angle out, tuck down, and make our way along beyond the surf zone.
By mid-afternoon we finally round Grand Portal Point and swing into a sandy bay with the idyllic name of Chapel Beach. We land the kayaks in dumping surf and pull up on the sand beach, then begin lugging our camping gear up the dunes to our site in the woods.
It is remarkably sheltered here, with only the whispering treetops to remind us of the wind we struggled against all day on the lake. After rigging a clothesline to dry our wet paddling gear, we settle in and enjoy dinner as the sun sets behind the cliffs on Lake Superior.
Space is a bit limited, so I am glad to have my brand new, compact bivouac shelter; only $19.99 at Gander Mountain! As I pitch it, the thin fiberglass poles creaking under the strain, I realize just how compact it really is: there is barely room inside for my sleeping bag, and only a tiny vestibule for gear under the thin fly. That night, lying supine with my arms folded regally across my chest like a mummified pharoah reposed for eternity in his tomb, the nylon walls closing in on me from all sides, I wish I’d spent $24.99 for the larger model with enough room to roll over in …
I gratefully emerge from my claustrophobic crypt to an eerie silence pervading the cool morning air. I hurry to the ledge overlooking the beach to find glass-calm conditions on Superior. The water laps gently at the sand, and undulates in barely perceptible swells out to the horizon with a liquid calmness I have never seen on this lake before. It is with a barely-contained sense of anticipation that we make a quick breakfast, break camp, and launch onto the placid, blue-green water.
We swing west today, and although we are backtracking, it is like exploring an entirely different stretch of shore. Without the waves of yesterday threatening to drive us onto the rocks, we are free to poke our kayaks into every sea cave and beneath each rocky overhanging arch. We glide along the namesake ‘pictured rocks’, the towering two-hundred-foot cliffs ‘painted’ by the weathered and oxidized minerals leaching from the layered stone. Despite the calm conditions—or perhaps because of them—it seems to take us twice as long to cover the same mere six miles as yesterday, as we pause here and there to take photos or to simply gaze in wonder at the sculpted cliffs.
We stop for lunch at Mosquito Beach (fortunately a misnomer today), then continue past Miner’s Beach and cruise below the picturesque Miner’s Castle. Almost exactly five months ago to the day, one of the unique stone turrets of Miner’s Castle broke apart and fell into Lake Superior, forever altering a local landmark and reminding all that nature is a forever-changing force. And warning paddlers to steer clear of potential rockfalls.
We head southwest along the tall cliffs and as we come around a point we hear the distinctive cry of an eagle high atop the stone wall, followed by another from straight ahead. Glancing forward, we see another eagle headed directly toward us, winging low above the water. As the great bird looms closer and closer, her sheer majesty paralyzing my camera hand, we see that she has a large lake trout clutched in her talons, still wriggling to break free.
Only twenty feet above the water, she flies just abeam of us and banks to turn behind our sterns. Struggling with her heavy prey, she climbs and finally lands on a rock ledge halfway up the cliff. The first eagle now becomes even more excited, watching her from high atop the cliff, crying and pumping his wings. Judging by his lack of white markings, he appears to be a hungry juvenile and is eager to be served, but his mother evidently feels he is old enough to come down to get his dinner. Soon enough, he’ll need to know how to feed himself. She decides to start without him and begins ripping the fish apart, and his demanding cries seem to take on a slightly forlorn quality before he finally flaps down to join her.
Just off the next bulge in the shoreline, we check our compasses, swing out, and head west-northwest. Our charts show a few campsites on the eastern shore of Grand Island, only about a mile and a half distant, and we buckle down for the crossing.
Near the middle of the passage we can make out indistinct human forms moving on the shoreline, suggesting the campsites are occupied. So we alter our course northward and paddle up along the thumb of Trout Point for another mile or so and find a lovely secluded site nestled into a rocky cove on the northwest tip of the point.
Making camp, we eat dinner and then hang our bear bags on the provided pole. That night we stretch out on the broad flat rocks, still warm from the day’s sun, to watch a brilliant Milky Way churn around the dark sky overhead, and listen to the gentle lapping of the water at our feet. We tip back a couple of lukewarm Newcastle Brown Ales and enjoy the kind of conversation that can only be shared by two brothers far from home.
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As I sit on the same rocky shoreline early the next morning, the sun still low behind the island, a flotilla of red-breasted mergansers paddles past, chattering amongst themselves as they search the water’s edge for bits of breakfast. Soon James and I enjoy our own morning meal, break camp, and hit the water in good conditions. We take our time backtracking south again along the east shore of Grand Island, exploring a few large sea caves, their walls ‘painted’ like those of the Pictured Rocks on the mainland. A south wind kicks up, blowing about ten knots, but the waves do not build.
As most of the highly sought mineral deposits in the region lay along the southern shore of Lake Superior, the early ships that carried them sailed along this coast. Though the shortest route to eastern markets, this passage often subjected these ‘coasters’ to the notorious northerly winds that sometimes screamed across the lake’s surface, and offered few safe harbors between the long stretches of treacherous, rocky shore. Munising’s large bay, additionally protected by the hulk of Grand Island at its mouth, was a refuge of safety for any laker captain eager to pull his ship from the teeth of a Superior storm.
Unfortunately, many such respites were sought under the worst of conditions; high winds and tall waves, fog obscuring landmarks, perhaps a bilge filling with water. Add to this the local hazards like hidden reefs and sheer cliffs, and one can see why there have been over five hundred major losses on Lake Superior, many of them here. We paddle around the south end of Wick Point and into Murray Bay. There are a handful of shipwrecks in this shallow harbor, including that of the two-masted schooner, the Bermuda, the ship that sank twice. In October of 1870, she left Marquette loaded with nearly 500 tons of ore, but was soon overtaken at Grand Marais by strong gales and began taking on water. The captain limped her back to Munising Bay where he tied her up to several trees on the shore. But her holds continued to fill with water and she finally sank below the waves, pulling several large trees with her and drowning three crewmen.
An inauspicious thirteen years later, a certain Capt. Higgins used his wrecking tug to hoist the Bermuda up off the lake bottom and tow her here into Murray Bay, intending to restore or salvage her. But the rigging slipped and she once again went down, where she still slumbers today in about 25 feet of water, sometimes visible from the surface. Though we glide over the submerged timbers and steam boilers of several other wrecks, we cannot see the Bermuda under the overcast skies.
While a tawny coyote patrols the shore, we make camp at a site on Muskrat Point, and James soon has a pot of rice and veggies boiling on the stove. I return from the beach to find him shooing away a persistent predator; a campsite chipmunk dashes out from various hiding places to snatch bits of our food supplies and to burrow into PFD pockets for the trail mix stashed there.
As I lean on the low log bench to grab a photo of our diminutive intruder, the rotten wood gives way and dumps the hissing stove to the ground, along with the nearly-ready pot of food. As we both stare at our much-anticipated dinner slowly oozing into the pine needles and forest duff, I can hear my hungry brother’s teeth grinding.
“Sorry …” I mutter, and after helping me to thoroughly clean up the sodden mess, he goes away to tinker with his tent guylines while I start a new pot of pasta. Afterwards, over our belated meal, he is easily placated with a bottle of Newcastle.
Unlike the previous campsites, there is no bear pole here so we spend an inordinate amount of time chucking rocks and rope at one another over various tree limbs, as we try to rig a decent bear bag to discourage midnight visits from the local bruins. But what about the buttery aroma of Garlic-Herb-and-Broccoli Rice now permeating the very soil of our campsite, mere feet from where our heads will soon lie?
The NOAA weather radio predicts high winds for our return to the mainland tomorrow, so we hit the sack early to get a timely start in the morning. But we each sleep with one ear cocked tonight …
Gratefully, I awaken to find myself still alive. We prepare breakfast, break camp, and load the kayaks.
The native Ojibwa called this place “Kitchi Miniss”, or “Great Island”, and the name forms the root of the nearby city of Munising. These original settlers cultivated crops on the southern portions of Grand Island, hunted and fished all around it, and harvested maple sugar in the early spring. Although voyageurs and other travellers passed through and camped here, the first white settlers were Abraham Williams and his family, who were invited by the local Ojibwa chief to build a trading post and a farm here. Williams also exchanged his blacksmithing skills for food and goods from the natives, and operated a fuel-wood station on Williams Point.
In 1873, upon Williams’ death, most of the Ojibwa left the island for reservations, and the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company purchased most of the island in 1896. It was stocked with deer, moose, elk, and even antelope, and used for many years primarily as a hunting resort for the company’s employees. Now a designated National Recreation Area, and part of the Hiawatha National Forest, Grand Island is an offshore gem of paddling, hiking, and camping.
We hit the water and, true to the NOAA forecast, round the point to face a strong 25-knot south wind. With only three miles of fetch in the lee of the Munising mainland, the waves haven’t been whipped up yet, but the stiff wind slows our progress. We tuck down and dig in, our loaded boats nosing into the wind until we round Wick Point and swing southeast. We take the wind and the short waves broadside for another mile or so until we reach the Grand Island East Channel lighthouse, then strike out due east for the mile-wide crossing to Sand Point on the mainland.
First entering service in 1868, the Grand Island lighthouse was unusual in its use of a timber frame and wooden clapboard siding; most Great Lakes lighthouses of this era were constructed of the more durable stone or brick, to survive the harsh elements here. But this cheaper construction resulted in seemingly endless maintenance and numerous improvements over the years, and in 1908 a set of range lights was installed in nearby Munising, making the Grand Island light obsolete. It was abandoned and left to fend for itself.
Once in the lee of the cliffs of the Pictured Rocks, we are sheltered from the strong winds, and we pause to catch our breath and have a mid-morning snack while afloat. There are more sea caves and painted walls here, and it is only another couple miles back up along the coast to our landing on Miner’s Beach.
In only a few short paddling days, we’ve been humbled by ancient, towering painted cliffs, inspired by the flight of the eagle, and terrorized by a ravenous chipmunk. Most importantly though, Lake Superior has seen fit to spare us an eternity in the vast underwater tomb of her “Graveyard Coast”. With a couple of sweep strokes, we come about and whistle eastward.
Jeffrey Lee paddles and writes in the Upper Great Lakes region.
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