MICHIGAN:THE WILDERNESS Ah, wilderness. The cry is familiar, although generally it's reserved for unfamiliar scenes of grazing deer and endless distances filled with solitary silence. Remote places in the earth, as yet untouched by mechanical monsters. Beautiful places to see, if you have six weeks, an all-terrain vehicle, and the legs of a goat. But what if you're an outdoor dilettante? Is there any way to satisfy your urge to get to nature in a hurry? Can you find, close at hand, pieces of land covered with forest, thick silence, and the feeling that you have left civilization somewhere around the corner? To find out, the Monitor sent a writer to a string of random places in the Midwest. Qualifications for these sites were that they be within a day or two drive from at least one metropolis, that they have a special ambience or physical characteristic to recommend them, that they would be remembered by people who visited them, and that they would momentarily wrap one up in that peculiar mixture of sylvan sound and wispy silence that says you've entered a place apart. As it turned out, the hunting was easy. The five places covered in the following articles are only a few among many that can be easily reached by anyone living in this region. In addition, the entire country is peppered with such finds. Which is why we offer this series . . . as an incentive to Monitor readers to not only visit these places, but to find their own little ``wilderness'' next door.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Mich.
It may not seem inviting to subject yourself and your vehicle to six miles of corrugated earthen road that threatens to jiggle the bolts off your car frame and forces you to drive at less than 4 miles an hour. But it is smart. Wildness smart. Peaceful-silence smart. Wrap-yourself-in-wooded-stillness smart.
Because up Miners Castle Road here in the early morning of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, you can make your way along a densely wooded path leading away from a ranger station and rustic eatery to a rock promontory called Miners Castle.
This park is a slice of preserved forest and lakeshore along the northern midriff of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, bordered by Munising on the west and Grand Marais on the east, and circumnavigated by state road H58. Miners Castle is a dot on the National Park Service map that attracts people to the southwestern corner of the park.
But what you really want to see, more than the promontory castle, is the view, which stretches out from the multihued cliffs that give this place its name.
There are two things that remain in memory, from a morning visit, far more prominently than the castle itself: the utter tranquillity of this place, and the mingling of colors in the fairy-tale currents of Lake Superior. On other days, at any time of year, fierce storms can come brewing out of the north and rip across Lake Superior, turning this place into a boiling seascape and lashing Miners Castle with furious waves.
This morning, however, Miners Castle is a particularly unbattered sandstone rock formation rising out of emerald green waters first in concentric circles of random umbers and soft reds, then into a serene gray. It is lapped by gentle waves below and enfolded in silence at its peak. Beyond it, Lake Superior stretches like some unruffled sea into the endless distance.
After a while, a boat comes plying the waters below, crammed with sightseers, loudspeaker descriptions barking over the cool waters, and sending definite signals that taking the overland route is the wise choice.
Miners Castle lies a fifth of the way upshore along the lakeside edge of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and is a good jumping-off point for exploring the park's 40 miles of shoreline and its narrow but variegated interior, which only stretches three miles inland at its maximum width.
It is wedged in between the Hiawatha Lake National Forest and Lake Superior State Forest on the south, and the bowed belly of the Great Lake itself -- a swath of carefully preserved green residue left over from the logging frenzy of the late 1800s.
You won't find much history. (Except for the sweep of logging that fed the Great Plains settlement from 1870 through 1900, this part of the country was not contested by man.) You will find some wonderful, not particularly arduous, hiking.
What you've got here is a rich mixture of pine-hemlock-spruce-fir forest, swimmerless beaches (the water's just too cold), 50- to 200-foot cliffs, sand dunes, waterfalls, and free campsites -- all made accessible through old logging roads and trails, on which, National Park Service literature advises, it is wise to ``make some noise as you hike to let a bear know of your presence.''
To ply these trails comfortably, you have to do several smart things like bringing warm, rainproof clothing in all but the dead of summer, as weather is changeable and abrupt here. From April through July, and maybe later, you'll need quantities of insect repellent, as the little buggers seem to come out in hungry force at that time of year. In winter, the cross-country skiing is said to be wonderful.
On such a hike in the early afternoon one day in August, we found our way back down the rutted hard-scrabble Miners Castle Road -- which is scheduled to be paved, starting in August -- to the trail that leads eastward toward Miners Falls and the filtered sunlight of the deep woods.
It's quite possible to walk a little way off into the forest cover to brood awhile under the silent trees and watch the ever-rushing Miners River.
This river leads back to Miners Falls, a narrow, dramatic cascade that plummets in lonely splendor over soft, water-sculptured rocks. I liked the way the water had dug pockets in the wet stone, and how it rushes through the mosaic of stones at the base of the falls. From near the edge of the falls, I could look over the top of the forest to the distant Lake Superior.
If you make your way east and north into the rest of the park, you will encounter fishing at places like Beaver Lake and a far more spectacular falls at the northern end of the park: Sable Falls. Other points of interest along the way are: Chapel Basin, with falls, rocks, and beaches; Twelve-Mile Beach, offering white sand, pebbles, and picnicking; Log Slide; Munising Falls; and the Au Sable Light Station, which has been flashing across these waters for 111 years.
The descent into evening here leaves you searching for a place to curl up and sleep.
We opted to leave the park and make our way south into the adjacent Hiawatha National Forest, which meant driving miles into the forest on dirt roads to Island Lake Campground. No electricity, no running water; just trees and lake and camping.
And in the end of day coolness, we go (all covered with insect repellent, and spraying ourselves as we go) down by the lake, which is dimly shimmering under a thin blanket of mist.
As we sit there, a russet color comes over the trees on the far shore. Darkness falls. And, with it, endless quiet.