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The renowned arch at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which you can walk under this winter, thanks to such frosty weather.
A few years ago, a friend of mine, Steve Largent, allowed us to run a photo like the one above in Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Steve's picture showed this arch in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and his wife was standing in that majestic opening. I thought, I need to go there and be in a picture like that. But with global warming underway, the ice doesn't form under the arch every year. But this year, as cold settled over Northern Michigan and never let up, I figured I had a chance. I suggested to my two winter getaway pals from Minnesota that this winter we head to Pictured Rocks and take advantage of the frozen shore. Who knows when we'll have another opportunity, I said.
Just found this lying on the ground.
So that's what we did. We rented a small cabin in the one-store town of Melstrand, right near the trailhead, and proceeded to have one of the best four-day winter vacations of our lives. I'm sharing the itinerary (and some pics) here to inspire northern travels for you.
Tim, Dean and I met at Valley Spur cross-country ski trails and launched our vacay with a few hours of skiing. Valley Spur, just outside of Munising, is without doubt one of the Midwest's premier trail systems, and if you XC ski at all, you owe it to yourself to give it a spin. The people take great pride in trail grooming and the architecture of the trail is outstanding. Great, fun stuff.
We headed to our cabin in Melstrand. The place is run by the Melstrand General Store and they have three options. Ours was not fancy, but it was perfect for us. Warm, not drafty at all, fully equipped kitchen, four beds, one bath. $65/night. They also have a nice looking three-bedroom, two-bath home for $100 a night. (Price is not a typo. Reserve at: 906.452.6100.)
Skiing got a little tricky sometimes, so we had to walk occasionally, but mostly we skied. Some call those jagged slices of ice Ice Sharks.
We got up, had a rudimentary breakfast of instant oatmeal and headed for the trail to Mosquito Beach, which hits the shore just a few minutes travel from the big arch. We were on XC skis, but snowshoes would be good too. (I'd recommend snowshoes if you are not a good XC skier). The trail is not well traveled in winter, and we had a hard time following it, since there were no blue markers on the trees (at least none that we saw). So, upshot is we lost the trail and just had to follow the compass / map to the shore. Luckily this is not a problem, because basically you can't really miss the biggest lake on the planet. The other thing that made it easy is the Mosquito River empties at the beach there too, so when we hit the stream, we just followed it down to the lake.
Cool ice formations hanging from the roof of a cave not far from the big arch.
My friend Steve cautioned me that no matter how massive the ice appeared, you still have to be prepared in case somebody crashes through. This advice fits with my own safety-engineer sensibility, so I carried a large pack with a full change of clothes—long underwear pants and shirt, snow pants, down coat—wrapped in a plastic garbage bag and I carried a strong rope with a loop tied at the end and a camp stove with fuel to heat water if things got wet. We never needed any of it, but it was just nice knowing we had it along. The pack was big but light, so not really a problem. I'd strongly suggest you do the same, even though the odds of needing it this winter are pretty slim given the ice pack. As the saying goes, no such thing as safe ice.
So ... that day, Saturday, was one of the peak outdoor days of our lives. Blue sky above. No wind, completely still. High of maybe 15. And the ice formations were just magnificent. I was loving that I was living out something I'd envisioned, walking through the arch on ice. Tim and Dean, coming from Minnesota, weren't really aware of how crazy amazing the Pictured Rocks shore is, so they were practically dumbfounded by the beauty of the rock and the ice formations.
An ice-shrouded cave near the big arch.
We could have followed our trail back out and it would have been a great day. I might suggest that approach for most people. But my friends are good skiers and fit, so we decided to make a big loop instead. We traced the shore northeast to Chapel Beach and headed out on that trail. All in all, with the meandering and wowing and picture taking and whatnot, taking the longer route meant we were coming out at night with headlamps. But the trail to Chapel Beach is well traveled, so we just clicked into trail mode and kicked out the last four miles to the car. As we were skiing out, a gibbous moon cast enough light to make tree shadows in the snow, and the sky stayed clear and starry, and it was just a glorious way to end a glorious day. We traveled maybe 12 miles that day. But if you were to go in and out on the Mosquito Beach trail, it would be more like 6 or 8. You can check the maps and figure it out. (If you are on snowshoes, I think I'd suggest the out-and-back on Mosquito Beach trail, because 12 miles on snowshoes is a long haul.)
Grand Portal Point, looking all majestic and stuff.
That night, Tim pan-seared a couple of pork loins that were marinated in bourbon and apple juice and he heated up vegetables that he'd roasted at home. Was great.
Tim with that endless Lake Superior horizon behind him.
For breakfast, Dean made omelets with smoked salmon and wild rice—a true Minnesota North Shore concoction—and we went to Miner's Castle area. You can just park at the shore there, which we did, and skied over to check out the shore of Grand Island, which is draped in massive ice formations.
The shore of Grand Island, which ice climbers were loving up this day.
Then we skied back to the mainland shore and traced the cliffs northeast to the Miner's Castle itself. A light snow blew in and shrouded the shore in white haze. The effect made a dramatic counterpoint to the sun of the day prior and I really enjoyed the shoreline in that different mood.
So, out and back to the island and skiing along its shore and whatnot was maybe a mile and a half and then it was about 4 miles down to Miner's Castle, so another 8 miles roundtrip, making it about 10 miles for the day. That night we ate at the Bear Trap restaurant, a sledder place about 5 miles from our cabin in Melstrand. The food was good and now that you can't smoke in restaurants, even sledder restaurants aren't smoky. We watched Olympic ski jumping and figure skating on the TV.
Ice daggers under Miner's Castle Rock overhang.
On our last day we called a friend who lives near Munising, Aaron Peterson (he writes and shoots occasionally for Traverse Magazine and also shoots outdoor videos), and asked him for a suggestion. He said to head over to Rock River Canyon, a wilderness area west of Munising, and just snowshoe around in the backcountry off trail. So that's what we did. We first stopped by the park headquarters, which is also headquarters for the national forest and Rock Canyon Wilderness, and we picked up a map of the canyon area. And that's how we ended it. Just wandered around on snowshoes for a few hours, kicking around in three or more feet of snow. The snow had set up pretty well, so snowshoes were just perfect, great flotation. No grand overlooks or ice formations where we were (I understand there are some further up the river), but nice to wander around among the giant hemlocks and cedars down in the bottom of the canyon.
So there ya go. It's ready for you to have a lifetime experience too. Hope you get up to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and enjoy it before the ice melts.—Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine.