Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Home sweet home at Kingston Lake.
Home sweet home at Kingston Lake.

This four-day road trip brought us to the Shining Big Sea Water, the setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. I grew up reading The Song of Hiawatha after our family camped in Pipestone, Minnesota and attended their Hiawatha pageant–which added some later confusion because I always believed that the legend had taken place in Minnesota. I mean, I lived on Minnehaha Avenue in St. Paul for a year, for Pete’s sake. We have Minnehaha Falls and Hiawatha Avenue and Lake Nokomis–these locations would seem to point to some relationship with Longfellow’s poem. Turns out the Twin Cities are just misleading.

It wasn’t until I was reading Marlin Bree’s Call of the North Wind that I learned that Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan is the real setting of the tale. My online research revealed the park to be a beautiful coast filled with waterfalls and picturesque rock formations, so we set on a two-person road trip to the land of Hiawatha.

An ominous outset.
An ominous outset.

We spent one day on the road traversing the state of Wisconsin on Hwy 8, then proceeded north on 2 (after a brief misdirection in Escanaba) toward Munising, the western gateway of the National Lakeshore. A good portion of the drive took us through Hiawatha National Forest, which was a gorgeous landscape even in the gray, drippy weather. It seemed like government-protected forests and parks often overlapped each other, with no clear borders.

Prior to arrival, I looked up campgrounds for us to stay and selected Mosquito Beach as a good location, thinking we would be within sight of the big lake. However, upon arriving at the Munising tourist center, we were told that we needed a backwoods pass for Mosquito Beach, and that the park office was already closed so we were unable to obtain one. We had to choose another campground, and fast, because evening was approaching, and weekdays do NOT slow the tourist season in that area, which hits its peak in July and August.

Our guide recommended Bay Furnace Campground, just west of Munising in–get this–Christmas, Michigan. (The first street we passed was actually named Candy Cane Lane.) I wasn’t too interested because the park seemed sort of like it was in the city; although it wasn’t a problem, because it was completely full of vacationers anyway. We had to seek a site elsewhere, and drove east on H-58 through the park itself–but not before stopping at Muldoon’s for a delicious dinner of classic Yooper pasties.

Anxiety started ramping up when we tried for Little Beaver Lake Campground–we had to drive in 3 miles on a rocky gravel road down some pretty steep ravines, all for a campground that had only 6 or 7 sites total that were already filled. We continued on H-58 and decided to follow some signs in to a place called Ross Lake, despite its absence from our map.

Accidental discovery of Ross Lake is unexpectedly gorgeous. View from the bottom of the trail leading to our campsite.
Accidental discovery of Ross Lake is unexpectedly gorgeous. View from the bottom of the trail leading to our campsite.

After another long drive in, we were relieved to find a few open sites and one that was even quite private. All of the campgrounds we stayed in were self-service, which was a new experience for me–we simply paid a day pass fee and a site fee, tucked in an envelope and dropped it in a slot, all on good faith.

If you don’t mind coaxing your drinking water from a ground pump and using latrines instead of flush toilets, the campground was quite comfortable. The rain had finally vanished from the sky and we had a night of fine weather, reading around the fire.

Back to basics at Ross Lake.
Back to basics at Ross Lake.

The goal for our next day was to find a site closer to the lake, so we drove up the road to Twelvemile Beach and Hurricane River Campgrounds–both of which were also full. I would have really liked to get a site at Twelvemile Beach, because it stretched along the sands of Lake Superior itself and just looked like the most airy, spacious, beautiful place to stay. Alas–all full. We wound up duking it out with a biker couple for a site at Kingston Lake, and by duking it out I mean they beat us to the good site and we had to accept second best. But second best was actually really nice; the lake was very serene and private, if somewhat cold and windy.

Sappy pine tree bordering our Kingston Lake site.
Sappy pine tree bordering our Kingston Lake site.

Our major complaint was that our fire ring seemed to be constructed of like two solid feet of concrete, which absorbed all the heat before it could get to us. It was a shivery evening.

After staking our claim, it was time to explore. We went up to an overlook area with a stream cascading down into Lake Superior, and we rummaged for cool rocks on the shore.

Found on the beach near the overlook.
Found on the beach near the overlook.

(But since we are good and honest campers, we did not remove any.) We moved on to the Hurricane River campground, where there was a hiking trail that led to Au Sable Lighthouse. I’d read about Au Sable in Wes Oleszewski’s Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Lighthouses, and I was thrilled to see the place in person.

The trail was set just above a long beach leading up to the point, and trails led down to the rocks, with signs explaining that this area was known as Graveyard Coast.

Wreckage on Graveyard Coast
Wreckage on Graveyard Coast

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The beach was scattered with the remains of several ships that had gone aground on the rocky coast over the decades. Some of the wreckage was easy to spot and some more subtle, but it was all sort of surreal to think that these were once the essential pieces of functioning ships that had been devastated by the lake’s fury.

Au Sable Light Station
Au Sable Light Station

The hike across the sand and rocks was somewhat arduous, but we soon arrived at the Au Sable Lighthouse–unfortunately it was Monday and they do not give tours on Mondays and Tuesdays. We admired from the outside only–but even then, the view was spectacular!

Sable Falls
Sable Falls

We drove into Grand Marais on the east side of the National Lakeshore to look for the agate and history museum, but arrived shortly before closing and were able to see very little. On our way back we stopped at Sable Falls before returning to Kingston Lake for the night.

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