Grand Island N.R.A. & Beaver Lake
July 2011

Day 1



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Getting out of bed at 2 a.m. was a little rough, but it was the price we'd chosen to pay for cramming 7 hours of travel time, a ferry ride and hiking into the first day of our backpacking trip. This trip was going to be different from all our previous hikes because we would be traversing new trails, and we would be doing so with two additional people - something we had never done before. Initially, our trip to Isle Royale the previous year was to have included two co-workers, Gabe and Derek, however, attempting to combine four work and family schedules into one time frame just didn't work out. You could say this trip had been in the making for over a year so we were all anxious to begin the journey.

Ken picked me up at 2:30 a.m. and by 2:55 a.m. we were in Derek's driveway waiting for Gabe to arrive. When Gabe showed up five minutes later we loaded all our gear into the bed of his pickup, hitched up the trailer carrying two kayaks and a canoe, and were on the road 10 minutes later, en route to the cleaner air and soul-quieting solitude of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Destination: Grand Island.

Around 7:45 a.m. the looming 552-foot towers of the Mackinac Bridge [#1, #2] came into view. The bridge safely carried us over the cold, sapphire blue water 200 feet below and deposited us on the southern shore of the Upper Peninsula, a mostly untamed, densely-forested land that exudes beauty and ruggedness almost everywhere you look. The Mackinac Bridge is a five-mile long suspension bridge connecting Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas which are separated by the 120 foot-deep waters of the Straights of Mackinac. In terms of total suspension, the bridge is still the third longest in the world and is a majestic, well-known landmark for Michiganders. I always look forward to the crossing because, for me, the bridge not only symbolizes the "official" immersion point into Michigan's untamed wilderness, but it is also part of our family history because my wife's grandfather was one of the many contractors who worked on the bridge during its construction in the mid 1950's.

By 10:00 a.m. we had arrived in the city of Munising where we made two quick stops; one at Glen's Market so Derek could pick up a couple more breakfast items for the trip and the second at Hardees for some lunch. With hamburgers in hand we drove three or four miles west of town to the Grand Island Ferry Service and ate our lunch at the picnic tables overlooking Munising Bay and Grand Island. The sky was a beaming with sunshine and there were a few white clouds silently gliding by overhead; it was shaping up to be a great day.

With lunch behind us we unloaded all our gear, did a little last-minute repacking and headed for the dock. Several minutes later the ferry arrived and when the captain had finished tying off at the dock, he greeted us and allowed us to board. The ferry actually was just a small pontoon boat but it was more than adequate to get us to the island, and before we knew it we were chugging across the water toward Grand Island. According to my GPS the distance between the boat dock and William's Landing was only .53 miles so it's no wonder why the ride was so quick - about 2 minutes.

Shortly after we arrived we ran into a couple friendly park employees who seemed rather eager to talk. We spoke for a few minutes and attempted to glean as much trail beta from them as we could. They then offered to take a pre-trip group photo for us before wishing us well and returning to their jobs. A water spigot near one of the park buildings provided a quick fill up for our water bottles before we put eager feet to the trail.

There are several unimproved roads and bike paths that crisscross Grand Island, however, there are two main hiking/biking trails that ring its entire perimeter - the West Rim Trail and the East Rim Trail. Pre-trip planning revealed that the West Rim Trail, which is where we started our hike, is considered the more scenic of the two trails, and as we discovered over the next couple days, the information was correct.

The trail was level and grassy and wide enough to accommodate several hikers side by side without any problems, which made for an easy start to our hike. Within a few minutes we passed a mother and young daughter jogging in the opposite direction, and not long after that, just about the point where the trail came out of a curve to head north, we happened upon a wooden-planked boardwalk leading down to Merchandise Beach where we stopped to take a few photos. The view from the beach was very nice. By looking to the south and west we were able to see mainland, and out in the northwest were two small islands. The closest, Williams Island, was about 1.8 miles out and the second, Wood Island, was roughly 4 miles away.

From Merchandise Beach the trail headed due north, closely paralleling the sandstone cliff edges. The exposed faces of the cliffs were often composed of horizontally layered bands of brown and dark brown rock. Some cliffs were dangerous, sheer drops to the water below, while others had a gentler, more concave appearance, although, just as hazardous if someone were to stray too close to the edge. The foliage was not very thick along this stretch of trail so we often were able to see Lake Superior out to the west, and periodically along the way we were rewarded with sweeping panoramic views of the surroundings through larger clearings in the trees.

Grand Island is almost magnetic in its attraction of mountain bikers to its trails, and along the way we encountered quite a few people enjoying that sport. One such couple was an elderly husband and wife who had made the drive north from Indianapolis to bike around the island. We spoke with them for a short time during one of our breaks before continuing on with our northerly trek. We passed Water Fall Beach around 2:20 p.m. and from a high-perched overlook deck we noticed a boyfriend and girlfriend soaking up copious amounts of warm sunshine on their beach towels down near the water's edge.

After passing Waterfall Beach we cruised by two of Mather Beach's campsites, Hardwood and Hemlock, and soon thereafter were standing in front of the third, Game Fence. With roughly four miles behind us and two hours elapsed since the beginning of the hike we now had a decision to make. Before starting the hike we were not sure exactly where we would be stopping for the night. We would either make the first day a short, easy hike and stay at one of the three campsites here near Mather Beach, or we would push on, cover roughly 10 miles, and stay near the north end of the island. Well, the Mather Beach area, with its long, inviting stretch of warm sand and cool Superior water beckoned us to stay right where we were. There was no need for us to debate what to do next. We all agreed this was would be our home for the night.

The Game Fence campsite sat about 150 feet off the east side of the trail and was actually fairly open for being in the middle of the woods. There was a lightly-travelled trail near the "southeast" part of the site that led to a bear pole, a bear box and the very rustic lavatory, which basically was just a seat on top of a pit, out in the open, right in the middle of the woods. Well, there actually was a scant bit of privacy, as long as you consider privacy a small, single section of wooden slat fence directly behind the "facilities". The mosquitos were fairly plentiful here, so after setting up camp we changed clothes and wandered down to the beach which was reached via a wooden staircase only several hundred feet south of our campsite.

As we neared the sandy expanse of shoreline we saw and heard quite a few young people further up the beach from us, closer to what appeared to be two private residences set up on the cliff. We walked south a short distance to a small rock outcrop that extended out into the lake. We climbed up and over the rocks and found ourselves staring at our own private, unoccupied beach area. The noise emanating from the north was now far enough away for us to be able to enjoy these peaceful surroundings.

Lake Superior is well-known for its cold, if not frigid, temperatures. Even during the peak of the summer heat, the surface water may never reach more than 55 degrees. In fact, people who unexpectedly find themselves imersed in the lake, due to a shipwreck or by simply falling overboard, are faced with a real life and death struggle. The water is so cold that hypothermia can set in very quickly, and if not rescued soon, the unlucky person stands a good chance of succumbing to the elements. We cautiously stepped into the lake, expecting nothing more than shockingly cold water, but to our amazement, it was pretty tolerable. We waded out a ways, took a deep breath and just dove completely under. It was a bit cold at first but we quickly became acclimated to the temperature. The water was fairly shallow for quite a way out so that probably helped keep the water a bit warmer than glacial melt. The other factor that most likely helped warm the water was the giant rocky slab under our feet. A large section of dark sandstone covered much of this area so I'm sure that went a long way toward absorbing the sun's rays, and in turn, warming the water. As we swam we would pass through alternating pockets of warm water and cold water. The weird thing was that the change was instantaneous, not gradual as I would have expected. One second we would be in cool water and literally the next step we would be standing in water that was probably 5-10 degrees warmer. And, if we moved a foot or two in any direction we would once again be in cooler water. These pockets were scattered all around the area where we were swimming, almost like God had taken a poker and stabbed small columns of bath water into the cold lake. We stayed at the beach for a couple hours before heading back to the campsite.

It's impossible to look at a map of Grand Island without noticing Echo Lake. The lake is situated almost in the center of the island and is roughly 1 mile long and .4 mile wide at its widest point. The most interesting fact about the lake is that it's considered the world's largest lake created by a beaver dam. Park employees had informed us that Echo Lake was supposed to be a good lake for bass and pike fishing, but they cautioned us that it was pretty inaccessible. Since we had packed fishing gear we at least wanted to attempt to fish the lake. Derek and Gabe were in relaxation mode and chose to stay behind so Ken and I wandered off on a side trip to find the lake. The trail, mostly a level, soft dirt path, was an easy walk, especially without backpacks, and within a few minutes we arrived at the southwest corner of the lake. A quick glance at the GPS display indicated we had traveled about .9 miles from the Game Fence campsite.

As we approached the water's edge we ran into a young boy and his father and grandfather. Their small boat was sitting on the shore and it appeared as though they were done fishing. The father said they had ventured out a short distance before the wind picked up and peppered the lake with whitecaps, forcing them to return to land. Their short endeavor, however, had paid off because they managed to catch one 27" pike. The water was too shallow here and the snags too plentiful to attempt to fish from where we were standing, so we walked north along the shoreline from our location in search of a more suitable area. We walked about .1 mile during which time our poles and clothes continually became snagged by every manner of low-hanging branches, scrubs and other nuisances. We quickly came to the realization that shore fishing at Echo Lake was not meant to be, at least not in any area visible to us.

The welcoming smell of a fire lingered in the air as we left the trail and approached our campsite. We found Derek already devouring a beef M.R.E. and Gabe was in the middle of cooking his dinner; a home-prepared tinfoil pack containing seasoning and cubed pieces of steak and potatoes. The afternoon was rapidly moving along and our stomachs were beginning to complain, so we fired up our stove and prepared one of our Mountain House meals. Fortunately, smoke from the fire permeated the air around the benches and our tents and helped keep the mosquitoes at bay so we could eat in peace.

After dinner we returned to the beach to filter water and to watch for the mysterious green flash as the sun sank below the Lake Superior horizon. We never saw one. By now the humidity had disappeared, the bugs were gone and a gentle, westerly breeze was washing over the shoreline. A couple large boulders at the water's edge served as seats while we relaxed and talked about the day's events. As the evening wore on the sky took on the appearance of melting rainbow sherbert as orange and raspberry hues mixed together across the darkening horizon.

Back at the camp site, the addition of some dry wood helped to coax the buried embers back into a healthy fire. Dancing flames cast a dim, ever-shifting orange glow on the forest around us as we sat and enjoyed the last few minutes of our first day. The horse flies had been a little pesky while we were swimming and the mosquitoes were rather annoying in camp until later in the evening, but overall it had turned out to be an awesome day. As we waited for the boat to take us to the island, a woman in the office mentioned that someone had recently reported seeing a mother bear and two cubs somewhere on the island, but she didn't think the report was very credible because none of the park employees or seasonal residents had confirmed the sighting. By 10:50 p.m. the flames had consumed all the wood we gathered so we walked back to the trail to check out the night sky. There were thousands of stars overhead and a few whispy clouds floating past, but nothing that appeared as though it would bring rain. When we retired for the night around 11:15 p.m. the only sound to break the stillness of the night was the muffled sound of Lake Superior waves crashing on the shore down at the beach.

Final count for the day: Numerous hikers, bikers and joggers, hundreds of biting bugs, one chipmunk, a small unknown animal that darted across the trail, plenty of blue sky and a lone cormorant making passes over the bay in front of the Grand Island boat dock.

Miles Covered Today: 5.8
Total Trip Miles: 5.8

Day 2


This page last updated on 02-25-2016 @ 11:27 AM