Up at 7:00, I break camp to prepare for a 9:00 am departure from Isle Royale aboard the Ranger III. Pack loaded, I walk to the Rock Harbor dock where the Ranger III is moored. Small watercraft are being hoisted to the upper deck as I stroll to the back of the park store where a pack scale is hanging from an eave. Let’s see how much stuff I’ve been lugging around this island for the past week: without any food or water I position the pack, the red scale marker descends settling at 38 pounds. Being in shape is one thing but carrying 45 pounds around all day is another. Something I need to work on for future trips. I swing around the marina to the restaurant where a tiny red and blue mailbox is fastened atop a metal pole. I opened the slot and dropped off my eight postcards. I’m anxious to see how long it takes a card to get home (for the record, it was only a few days). By the way, the gift shop next door sells postage stamps along with postcards.
Back at the dock platform overlooking Rock Harbor, a large placard is attached to a railing. It depicts a map of the view along with landmarks and a list of facts. Very interesting and informative. Only the sign is misplaced! It should be on the rail 90° clockwise for proper orientation. I walk a few yards and enter the park headquarters offices where I speak with two rangers. I mention how the sign is facing the wrong way and they look at me like deer in headlights – no clue what I’m talking about. I guess they never took the trouble to read the sign right outside their door nor had anyone else ever mentioned the error. I board the ship and depart right at 9:00 under partly cloudy calm conditions. I can’t imagine anyone suffering from seasickness across the 60 mile run this day: Lake Superior is smooth as a pool table. A few miles west of Houghton a light drizzle placed hundreds of short-lived expanding circles atop still water, though the wake of the Ranger III soon obliterated their existence. Once docked, I strap the backpack to my Tiger and set back to Julies Motor Inn for a proper bed and shower. Then back to town for a haircut and a carryout order of beef stroganoff with egg noodles which I took to Keweenaw Brewing.
Thursday morning greets me with cool cloudy overcast, strong winds, and a forecast high of only 50. I went to the motel office to chat with Julie and grab a cup of coffee. Once loaded I set off north over the Houghton / Hancock bridge then continued on MI 26 east along the canal, pass through Lake Linden to the small town of Gay. I first rode though Gay about 20 years ago while snowmobiling. A thousand miles of groomed snowmobile trails crisscross the Upper Peninsula and it’s possible to go most anywhere aboard a sled. A few of my friends and I would rent a single width, garage sized storage unit in Gwinn, Michigan each winter and store our trailer and sleds there. On one especially cold trip, the lock to the storage unit froze, so we used a propane torch to melt the ice embedded in the keyhole. I stupidly touched the lock with my Thinsulate lined snowmobile gloves and instantly burned a small hole through the nylon shell. Damn! But the Thinsulate was not damaged so I’d be able to carry on without any discomfort. The ride took us to Gay and a small tavern, (Gay Bar) where we decided to stop and warm ourselves. The bar is in an old building complete with water radiator convection heat. A portly gruff Flannel Master barkeep took our orders. I placed my gloves on a radiator to get them nice and toasty when she provided a stern warning how the radiators were really hot and that I’d most likely burn my gloves if left there. Uhh, yeah, sure. I once owned an old farmhouse with similar heat and there’s no way it’ll melt synthetic clothing. After we ate, we prepared to leave and I gathered my gloves. Noting the hole I accidentally placed at the storage unit, I cried out, “My glove’s burned!” Well… the fireplug started cackling like a hen and repeatedly admonished with, “I told ya so!!!” She’s probably still telling the tale of that dumb guy who didn’t take her advice and paid the price. But things aren’t always as they seem, are they?
Continuing north along the Lake Superior shore, the sky has brightened to bluest blues. Asphalt slicing through forest, swaying limbs provide shelter from gusty winds and cloak most lake glimpses. Scattered patches of colorful wildflowers soak in the sun. Arriving at Lac La Belle, a small waterfall set within Haven Falls Park provides an opportunity to stretch my legs. Then on to Bear Belly Bar & Grill at the Lac La Belle Lodge for a bite where I park atop their gravel lot. Resembling a log cabin, the dinning room looks over the small lake and summer residences with seasonal piers tucked along shore. The waitress informs me they have a new item on the menu which happens to be a U.P. culinary specialty; a Cudighi is a sandwich with a spicy sausage patty buried under a layer of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. A fancy selection of craft brews rounded out lunch. East of Lac La Belle, the road opens along Bete Grise Bay before it dead ends at a narrow channel where the Mendota Lighthouse (now privately held) poses for snapshots across the waterway.
I backtrack to Lac La Belle then head north where I meet US 41. Turning east, I enjoy this terrific road, rolling through heavily forested land. I pass through touristy Copper Harbor to the end of the pavement where a sign marks the end (or beginning, depending on your perspective) of US 41. Why doesn’t anyone ride this? I see report after report of the Mother Road (US 66) but frankly, US 41 looks like a better route. Spanning from Miami, Florida to Copper Harbor, Michigan this highway passes through far more interesting landscapes.
A mile back west and just east of Copper Harbor is Fort Wilkins State Park . Established as a fort in 1844 to provide protection to copper miners from the local Native American Chippewa, the fort was mostly unused. The Chippewa proved peaceful and the miners were largely law abiding. The war with Mexico drew the garrison away and the structures were abandoned in 1846. The fort and surrounding land was declared a state park in 1923. Fort Wilkins State Park rests on 700 acres offering numerous cabins and 159 camping sites divided into two separate loops. I entered the east loop and chose site #60 with a decent amount of privacy from other campers. Not that much was needed: the campground was almost empty. The $24 fee provides WiFi and a nice shower house. Once I had camp set, I rode a short distance to the restored Fort Wilkins grounds. I enter where a long row of log buildings served as quarters for enlisted married men. A young man and woman, dressed as a soldier and his wife, are sitting at the doorstep of the furthest quarters and as I approach offer a simple, “How’s it goin’?” The man replies, “We are well, sir. Thank you for asking. The winter was severe and we feared our provisions might be exhausted. Thank God we had an early thaw.” Say what? Sometimes the wheels in my head turn slowly but it dawned on me these two were role playing for visitors. I soon joined the illusion and had a fun time talking as if it were 1845. Life was harsh for our young private and wife: there were no roads this far north and the harbor would freeze each winter, effectively cutting the fort from the outside world. A walk of the surrounding buildings showed them all to be beautifully restored.
I then went to Copper Harbor and Brickstone Brewing for a couple of pints. As I’m sipping my ale, a man and his wife enter and sit beside me. They’re locals and the gentleman spends some of his time gathering copper slag strewn along the shoulders of the roads. He drops a pile on the bar and challenges me: bend a piece of slag with my bare hands and it’s mine, otherwise I owe him a beer. Hey, I’m a tough guy (and a sucker) so I accept his proposition. Try as I might, the metal would not yield. As he’s enjoying his free beer I believe his wife must have taken him aside because a short time later, he gave me the whole pile of copper resting on the bar. Thanks! It makes for an interesting souvenir and I hope to one day fabricate a small art sculpture from the remnants. Back at the campground I fire up the Brunton Raptor for a pint of chicken soup and a tin of sardines. Forecast says it may go below freezing tonight. I’m no meteorologist but I highly doubt the prediction: I’m practically surrounded by Lake Superior’s 36° surface water and only three days from the summer solstice. I say it doesn’t get below 40. My down sleeping bag has me snug either way.