The Shipwreck Coast refers to the Lake Superior Shoreline in the upper peninsula of Michigan between Marquette and Whitefish Point, and includes the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It gets its name from a long and storied history of shipwrecks; Lake Superior is well known for sudden storms and dangerous reefs. The most famous shipwreck to occur in this area was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald which sank off the coast in 1975 and was later immortalized in song by Gordon Lightfoot.
Over 80 miles of the North Country Trail (and numerous side trails) follows the shoreline through this area. As I began to research the trail for a possible trip, conversations with the NCTA Shoreline Chapter revealed that this was beautiful country, but that blowdowns and trail obstruction might be a problem due to recent storms. I was also advised about active populations of black bear, cougar, gray wolf, and coyotes in the area, as well as some feral pigs that were apparently quite fierce. That clinched it for me. Because I had a very limited time to complete the journey, I decided to do it in SUL style, aiming for a 4 lb pack weight just for the challenge. Actual base pack weight ended up being 4 lb 4 oz as I couldn’t bring myself to leave behind my fishing gear.
On May 16th, I woke at 2 am and made the drive to the UP. I parked my car at the Munising Falls parking lot and was picked up there by a friend’s father who had volunteered to shuttle me to the other end of the trail. Conversation was awkward at first, as it frequently is when an introvert meets a complete stranger for a two and a half hour car ride, but talk soon turned to the impending likelihood of my being disemboweled by a cougar or eaten by a wolf pack and the mood quickly lightened. The ride went quickly and I learned a great deal about the area and its history. Many miles of dirt roads later, we arrived at my destination, the mouth of the Two-Hearted River, Earnest Hemmingway’s old stomping grounds. It was now noon.
Crossing the wooden bridge over the river.
The sky was a deep blue with no clouds to be seen. Temperatures were in the low 40s with 20 mph winds blowing off the lake and I quickly threw on my windshirt to keep warm. The trail headed off over a beautiful sandy and rocky beach and it was hard to believe I wasn’t on the ocean. I did notice that the air lacked a briny smell though.
The trail soon entered the woods running alongside the beach, though I continued to have panoramic lake views for a while.
A little deeper into the woods, blowdowns became a frequent occurrence. Some were easy to climb over or under, while others were extensive enough to require rerouting.
If you look closely, you'll see the second blaze right by the fallen evergreen obscuring the path.
As the trail approached the shoreline again, I stopped briefly to enjoy the scenery. Lunch was powdered hummus on some awesome whole grain falafel chips I had found at a food co-op near home. I prepared the hummus with extra olive oil for a calorie boost.
Continuing on, I soon lost the trail. I was not particularly worried about navigation though. As long as I kept the shoreline to my right, I’d at least be heading in the right direction. I bushwacked through the woods within eyesight (or earsight- the crashing waves were audible for some distance) of the shoreline until I finally ran across the blue blazes again.
Where is the freaking trail?
Snacking on Tanka bites as I walked. These are worth trying if you haven’t already. They’re made by the Lakota from buffalo and cranberry, using minimal processing and no nitrates. Absolutely delicious and lacking the saltiness of standard jerky.
I caught my first glimpse of Muskellunge Lake at about 4 pm, having covered about 13.5 miles by this time. I was feeling good and making great time. Unfortunately, the trail was closed in this area due to a collapsed bluff. I filled my water bottle at the Muskellunge Lake Campground and roadwalked for about a mile before finally being able to rejoin the trail.
Large blowdowns continued to be a frequent obstacle through this section.
About 3 miles later, I reached the Blind Sucker River, running right alongside the shoreline. Ordinarily, I would have just rushed across without stopping, but it was late in the day and cold, and I had no spare clothes to change into. I decided to take off my pants, shoes, and socks, happy that the trail had thus far been deserted.
The trail past the Blind Sucker River was crisscrossed with coyote tracks (and lots of hair-filled faeces). edit- did you know the american spelling of this word is considered profanity??
It continued to get colder and at 6:30 pm, I hunkered down in a hollow sheltered from the wind to make some dinner alongside the trail. Because I hadn’t brought any bear protection for my food, my strategy for this section was to avoid cooking near camp, to avoid camping near water sources, game trails, or frequently used areas, and to seal my food relatively well. I was also relying on the fact that bears were hunted in this area and tended to avoid contact with people.
Sock as potholder, hat as cozy
Dinner was a spicy chicken with vermicelli. The chicken was kind of hard and not fully rehydrated, but the pasta was delicious and filling. In good spirits, I continued on.
At around 7 pm, the trail briefly followed a dirt road and I saw this sign. I was totally buzzed! That had been my starting point early this afternoon, and I still had daylight left to burn (actual trail distance was only about 20 miles according to my calculations later). I continued on until about 9 pm, finally stopping for the night in the woods not too far from the shoreline.
As part of my SUL challenge, I had left behind my insulation layer, planning to stay warm by walking or being in my bag. I found a spot to pitch my tarp sheltered from the winds by hills on either side and gathered some fallen sticks to use for tarp poles and stakes. I pitched the tarp low to block wind and minimize convective heat losses.
My meals were sealed in individual ziplock bags and these were stored in a couple of gallon size ziplocks along with pot, stove, and spoon. Once my pack was empty, I threw both of these in my pack liner and knotted it, hoping to minimize food smells as much as possible. I placed this bundle near the front of the tarp, prepared to defend it (or at least make a lot of noise) should marauders try to steal it in the night.
Lacking any spare clothing to use as a pillow, I decided to use my sneakers. This was surprisingly not as comfortable as you might expect.
Distance Traveled: 25 miles
Temperatures dropped to 30 degrees F overnight and I woke several times from the cold. My trusty nano puff would really have been nice right then. I found that I was colder when I slept on my back because my cutdown foam pad was insufficient for the freezing temperature, but I was able to mitigate this by sleeping on my side and minimizing surface area in contact with the ground. Overall, it was not a particularly comfortable night.
I decided to get up at 5 am, but cold as it had been in my bag, I was still reluctant to leave it. It was much colder outside. I broke camp within 10 minutes and started walking. Breakfast would have to wait until I warmed up a little bit.
Socks as gloves.
It was very cold out and my toes felt like they were rattling around in my shoes. My hands were frozen, and when conditions permitted (ie not likely to trip), I stuffed them down my pants to warm them. I had experimented with pockets (palms would warm but backs and knuckles still frozen) and armpits (pack straps in the way) but neither produced the desired results, so pants it was going to be, dignity be d*mned.
I didn’t stop until I approached the town of Grand Marais. By now, my toes were warm, but hands were still stiff from the cold. I found a secluded beach and boiled up some water for breakfast.
Soon, I had a steaming cup of coffee warming my hands and core. While waiting for my breakfast to rehydrate, I used my bag as a shawl to keep warm.
Breakfast was an egg, potato, sausage, and veggie skillet served on flour tortillas. Topped with a little olive oil, this was just what I needed. I ate quickly and packed up my gear. Before leaving, I added some water to some dehydrated refried bean mix in preparation for lunch. Now warm all over, I strolled into the town of Grand Marais, looking forward to the next leg of the trip through Pictured Rocks.
Grand Marais was a quaint little town, clearly well loved and cared for by its inhabitants. There were many white, painted houses with manicured lawns and the occasional picket fence. I had learned on the ride the day before that the town was so small that most grades in the elementary school had only 2-4 students. I walked through the town and up Coastguard Point (a rocky peninsula protruding into the bay), only to learn that the ranger station was closed. I had hoped to buy a backcountry permit there which I would need for Pictured Rocks. Backtracking, I began to search for the trail. Trail blazes had disappeared as I entered town.
Searching through Woodland Park, I found a wooden staircase with an NCT trail connector blaze on it. The staircase lead down to the beach, so I followed the shore for a while, but couldn’t find any evidence of the trail through this area.
I backtracked to the last (and only) marker and found a trail running behind the staircase. However, this trail was not blazed either (as it turned out, most of Pictured Rocks is unblazed, with wooden signs only at major intersections) and after about a mile it suddenly petered out at an eroded drop back to the beach. I could see deer tracks heading down this gully and I followed.
Trail behind stairs
I went back to my navigational plan of keeping the lake to my right and walked along the beach till I reached the great dunes, but still didn’t see an obvious trail, though I did pass a cool teepee made out of driftwood.
Backtracking yet again, I crossed Sable Creek, where according to my map the trail should have been. Somehow I missed it. I cut back through the park and road walked again till I reached Sable Falls and was finally reunited with the trail. I had lost a lot of time in this area, and it was now about 12:30.
Sable Creek entering Lake Superior
Soon after, I stopped for lunch. Much as I like the idea of snacking on the move, I’ve found that I just don’t like snack or energy bars. Most are just too cloyingly sweet for me. What I do love though is bean burritos and I made these with some chopped ramp (wild leek) bulbs and greens that I had picked up along the trail.
As I ate, this little guy popped up to see what I had. Cute as he was, I knew better than to feed him. Once these guys get habituated to people food, they lose their fear of humans. Next thing you know, they start harassing people and stealing their food. Soon, a hiker gets injured, and the animal gets shot.
The trail led me to the Grand Sable Visitor Center where I was able to buy a backcountry permit. The kindly woman behind the counter asked me where I would be spending the night. “I don’t know”, I replied, “Where will I be in 25 miles?” She showed me a chart with designated campsites and milages, and I picked Chapel Beach, about 26 miles away. It sounded nice, better anyway than Mosquito Beach, the next site on the list. The last thing the woman said as she gave me my permit was, “Put it on your tent pole, and don’t camp any place else”. I thanked her and walked on, starting to do the math in my head. It was now 1:30. I had already covered about 19 miles that day and had about 7 hours of daylight remaining. There was no way I was going to make it to that campsite. I resolved to try though- the challenge was on!
Passing Grand Sable Lake, I could see schools of large trout cruising the shallows. I was tempted to pull out my tenkara rod, but I couldn’t stop. I resolved instead to come back one day to fish.
The trail passed through the woods behind the Grand Dunes. Trillium, spring beauty, trout lilies, and ramps carpeted the forest floor. The day had really warmed up by now, and I was finally able to lose the windshirt.
Soon I came to log slide, a sandy dune that loggers historically used to roll timber down to the lake. People apparently like to throw themselves down this thing, rolling 300 feet or so to the lake below. Signs in the area warned that this was probably a bad idea and rescue would not be forthcoming should you be dumb enough to do so.
Log Slide with many footsteps leading to the edge
The view back toward log slide
Ausable lighthouse in the distance
The nice thing about these outcroppings was that they provided landmarks to gauge my progress. I could always look back and see where I had been, and look forward to see my next destination.
Snacking on fiddleheads
Past the point, I took a side trail to find my first shipwreck. Guess the lighthouse wasn’t working that day. I took some pictures, posing as a survivor in the wreckage, but won’t share these with you as they are kind of silly.
A second wreckage
Still some snow on the ground
I had traveled about 11.5 miles since leaving the Visitor Center and was now cruising a stretch called 12 mile beach. It turned out that this wasn’t just some clever name they had come up with. It reminded me of the Caribbean a little bit and I wished I was sitting down there in a lounge chair drinking a fruity drink with a little umbrella in it.
My feet were really starting to ache now. “Just ignore your feet”, I kept telling myself, clearly not ignoring them for a single second.
Old car, not a road in sight
The trail closely paralleled the shoreline for most of this section, allowing me to watch the sun’s progress as it sank toward the horizon. It also kept me up to date on how much daylight I had left to play with. I had hoped for some spectacular sunsets on this trip, but was afraid that there were not enough clouds in the sky to make that happen.
The sun finally dipped below the horizon. My feet were beyond bearable and I began to gather some smooth sticks as I walked to use as stakes and tarp poles. I resolved to stop at the next campsite I found. Finally I limped into Beaver Creek. I had failed to reach my target, but I had achieved a personal best that day. There was one other tent in the area, occupants already inside for the night.
I hadn’t been willing to waste daylight cooking on the trail, so now I started a pot of water boiling and rehydrated a hot Italian sausage pasta dish (Hawk Vittles), adding some extra virgin olive oil for taste and calories. Lacking a cozy and not having achieved a full boil, the macaroni didn’t fully rehydrate, but this was still one of the best meals I had. I added some crystal light and Everclear to the extra hot water to make a backpacker’s hot toddy. It sounds cheesy, but it was warming and good, and just what I needed to drift off into oblivion. Temperatures were in the low 40s and I slept warmly through night.
Distance traveled: 40 miles
I woke early and was gone before the tent campers stirred.
Dawn over Lake Superior
Crossing a log bridge over Beaver Creek.
Cave. Someone had spent the night here
I was in for a treat today. The stretch from Beaver Creek to Mosquito Beach was my favorite of the whole trip, with a surprise around every corner. I made slow progress through this section, stopping frequently to take pictures and follow side trails. I quickly learned that every side trail would have a fantastic vista awaiting.
I stopped for breakfast at a sand and rock clearing overlooking Grand Portal Point. Breakfast was eggs with ramps and morels (readily harvested trailside), served again on tortillas. The wild edibles did much to improve the taste of the precooked eggs and hunger did the rest. It was absolutely delicious.
As I finished breakfast, it suddenly started to rain and I quickly finished my coffee. Tarp became poncho again and I headed off down the trail, again confronted by spectacular sights. I decided then that I would come back to this section next winter to see it in icy glory. With the majority of my food gone, my pack felt practically buoyant when I made the effort to notice it.
Grand Portal Point in the distance
Seagull nesting high above crystal waters
Seeing a rocky outcropping at Grand Portal Point, I set my camera’s timer and sprinted for it, but didn’t quite make it.
Good thing, too. Getting closer, I doubted the safety of that maneuver.
Water so clear you could see fish at the bottom
Past Miner’s Castle, the trail became a muddy slogfest, though there was still beauty to be found.
Another woodland critter watched me with beady eyes as I passed, and I deliberately quelled the urge to flee, not wanting to stimulate his prey drive.
My feet were sodden by this point, but I took advantage of every opportunity to get out of the mud when possible.
Finally, I heard cars in the distance, and the next thing I knew, I was at Munising Falls. I had completed my journey in just over 48 hours.
Sodden and muddy but uninjured
Distance Traveled: 22 miles
I stopped at an eclectic local restaurant for dinner. Unable to decide between the two, I ordered a burger and a whole 12 inch pizza. The waitress looked at me in confusion. "Will someone else be joining you?"
As I ate, I reflected back on the trip and how much I had enjoyed it. For me, it was the perfect combination of suffering, accomplishment, natural beauty, and memorable trail moments. I had pushed myself hard but also stopped to clown around and to smell the proverbial roses, to take joy in the effort. I know that the restrictions I had imposed on myself may seem pointless or even foolish to some, and I’ve thought about this a bit. What is the point of going SUL? I think I know the answer, but having tried to spell it out on paper for some time, I'm just going to let my pictures stand on their own. Maybe we'll talk about it someday over a beer.
Post trip comments:
My gear list for this trip is currently attached to my profile, if interested in viewing it.
Pictured Rocks was far and away the best part of this trip, and the hype was totally justified. I generally stay away from places that limit camping to designated campsites, but didn't mind so much in this case, at least for one night. The fact that I was there in the preseason and no one was around probably helped. Coming in to camp late and leaving early also made this restriction less unpleasant. In the end, I would highly recommend this trip, and would happily do it again in a heartbeat. It is easily one of the most beautiful (and unique) areas of Michigan I've seen.