Porcupine Mountains, September 2012

Day 5



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Iopened my eyes and looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was 8:00 a.m. on the last day of our trip. The first thought to materialize in my groggy mind was our much-anticipated hike out to the Fourteen Mile Point Lighthouse. Coming in at a very close second was the same thing that had been lurking in the back of my mind for the last couple days—my hobbled vehicle.

Getting ready for the day in the comfort and warmth of a motel was a bit odd, and I would prefer to have spent the last night out in the woods breathing the crisp, clean, northern air, but I will be the first to admit that last night’s shower was welcomed and refreshing. We packed our belongings, loaded two day packs with essentials such as water bottles, fleece shirts, first aid supplies, cameras, snacks, maps, and cell phones, made a final sweep of the room for stray items, and headed out.

The auto shop was a little over a mile away and breathing became much more relaxed as I rolled into the parking lot without further complications. Upon entering the shop, I explained to the manager what had happened and asked if he would be able to help. He explained that he already had several repair jobs in front of me so it would be a while before he could inspect the damage. Ken and I wandered around the shop for about 30 minutes before the manager tracked me down to say that he had just freed up a bay. I don’t know if his employees were able to crank out the other jobs that quickly, or if he just realized that we were not going to leave until it was fixed. Either way, it didn’t matter to me.

One of the mechanics positioned my car on the lift, raised it into the air, and walked underneath to look for the break. A minute or so later he approached Ken and me and said, “I’m not gonna be able to weld that for you.” We attempted to reason with him and explain that we were just looking for a couple strategically placed spot welds, not an award-winning bead. He finally relented and said he would have his manager look at it.

When the manager appeared, we explained what we were hoping to get. Without much enthusiasm, he said he could do what we wanted, but in no uncertain terms would he sign his name to the job and he wanted payment in cash. I agreed to his request. About one minute later the crackling and bright blue flashes of light ceased. I handed over a $20 bill to the manager and thanked him for his time and effort.

We were grateful to have found someone to perform this quick fix. As it turned out, one of the straps was almost completely severed from rubbing against the rough metal and the other one had stretched enough to allow the two pieces to separate about one-quarter of an inch; they definitely would not have held the pieces together much longer.

Before heading out on this all-day adventure we needed to secure some breakfast. We made our way back to downtown Ontonagon and located Syl's Café at the west end of the main drag. Last night the motel clerk stated that Roxy's was the place to go if we were in the mood for burgers, but for the overall best sit-down meals, Syl's was the place to eat. The building was average in size, but the service and food were exceptional. After a hearty breakfast we returned to our cars with full stomachs and an appetite for exploration that was eager to be satisfied.

Even with the car repaired, we still felt it best not to drive it far from civilization, on the off chance that the repair didn’t hold. I parked my car in the lot of a local business, grabbed my daypack, and jumped into Derek’s car.

By the 1880s, Michigan’s copper mining and lumber industries had become booming segments of the Upper Peninsula’s economy. Lake Superior provided an obvious and efficient method for transporting the raw products as well as the materials and people who supported the industries. A lighthouse was built in Ontonagon in the mid 1860s, however, there was a 42-mile stretch of Superior coastline between Ontonagon and the Portage Lake Ship Canal in Hancock, Michigan that remained beaconless. In order to safeguard the passage of the increasing maritime traffic, the Lighthouse Board chose Fourteen Mile Point as the location for an intermediate light. The board appeared before Congress and presented its case for the new light. Congress eventually approved the request and authorized $20,000 for its construction.

On May 10, 1894, a ship arrived at Fourteen Mile Point. On-board was 450 tons of supplies for the construction of the new lighthouse. Over the following four days, 30 workers labored to off-load the materials and work officially began on May 14, 1894. Over the next five months, the workers constructed the lighthouse, a home for the Second Assistant Keeper, a barn, a boathouse, and an oil storage building. The inaugural lighting occurred on October 15, 1894 and the Fourteen Mile Point Lighthouse served the region for just over half of a century. After 51 years of service, the light was abandoned as a navigational aid, due mostly to the increased use of modern guidance technology. On April 3, 1945, the Fourteen Mile Point Lighthouse shined over Lake Superior for the last time.

Nature has long since reclaimed any roads or paths that once used to lead out to the lighthouse. Now the only way to reach it is by anchoring a boat offshore or by a long walk along the coastline. The 118-year old structure sits 14 miles east of Ontonagon on a rocky point of land between Ten Mile Bay and Sleeping Bay in Ontonagon County. For us, the journey would begin almost six miles away to the west near the mouth of the Firesteel River.

After a nearly 25-minute drive from downtown, we arrived at our starting place. We stumbled upon a narrow path on the west side of the river that meandered through the trees and thick underbrush and down to the sandy beach. We followed the river over to the point where it spills into Lake Superior. At that point, the river had narrowed considerably from its much greater width up near the bridge. There was a definite current, as was evident from the rippled sand on the river's bed, but it was plenty slow enough for us to make our way safely across. We removed our boots and socks and waded through the knee-deep water to the other side. A large, sun-bleached log near the shore provided a sturdy seat for us as we dried our feet and put on our boots again.

When I looked out to the east, I thought to myself, “This is going to be a great day!” Sunlight was abundant in the cloudless, blue sky and the wide, sandy beach stretched out in front of us for as far as we could see. To our left we heard the slow, rhythmic lapping of the waves, and to our right was an unbroken line of thick, green trees. As we pushed eastward, we attempted to stay very close to the waterline because the wet sand created a firm surface under our feet and made walking easy. Unfortunately, being that close also meant that a rogue wave would periodically sneak up, too quickly to react to, and would deposit a large amount of water inside one of our boots. Often, those mishaps were followed by a groan from the unsuspecting “victim”, and some hardy laughter from the two of us who were lucky enough to have seen it coming and managed to get out of the way.

Within the first couple tenths of a mile we discovered large slabs of rock in the water near the shore. They appeared frequently between here and the lighthouse and often times they would overrun the shore, forcing us to walk across them. The interesting thing about those slabs was the variations in their color, shape, and texture. Sometimes the rocks were a solid hue and other times they were a mix of colors, either haphazardly mixed together or in the form of swirling patterns like a marbled cake. One type of rock that we encountered several times was mostly reddish in color with a grayish-turquoise swirled throughout. Some of the rocks were smooth, others had grooves running across their surfaces in oddly-straight lines, as if they had been saw-cut, some were composed of multiple, stepped layers, others looked like pieces of shale—thin, flat, and smooth with sharp edges and jagged points. Still, others looked like large, thick steps, the kind that you would see in a landscaped yard. The variety was astonishing.

The sandy beach continued for roughly 1.5 miles before it abruptly disappeared and was replaced by rock. The next 1.6 miles alternated between sections of giant rock slabs, fields of boulders the size of basketballs, fist-sized rocks, and thin, flat, jagged pieces of rock that were sticking up at all different angles. Each transition presented its own unique challenges.

The slabs, when they were dry, were actually a welcomed sight because travel was easier on their flat surfaces than it was on the other types of rocks. If, however, they were even the slightest bit wet, they became as slick as ice, requiring constant attention to the placement of every step. Why were they so slippery? Well, apparently, the constant moisture provided the perfect breeding ground for the growth of algae and slime and the perilous stuff covered every square inch of the rock’s surface.

The boulders and smaller rocks were usually not as slippery as the slabs, possibly because the water never had a chance to sit on their surfaces and incubate growth. However, stepping on a continual procession of rounded rocks twisted and turned our feet in every direction, causing our ankles and the soles of our feet to become tired and sore. The flat jagged sheets of rock were constantly shifting under our weight or breaking as we placed our feet. None of us sustained any injuries, but I think each of us fell at least once or twice.

Eventually the rocky terrain gave way to another long stretch of sand; it felt good to walk on flat ground again. Besides the soft texture of the sand, beach travel provided us with a wider field of view. Quite often, as we traversed the rock fields, the beach area was only a few yards wide. In some areas, our path narrowed to only a couple of feet. Other times the only way to move forward without wading through pools of standing water or rolling surf was to climb up on or around wet, rocky ledges. Usually that required careful preplanning for the best places to plant our feet. To maintain our balance and keep a solid footing on these rocky obstacles we had to look for stray branches or clumps of vegetation above our heads. We would then use them as hand holds to prevent us from falling as we side-stepped over slick ledges that were only a foot or two wide.

If you were to look at an aerial map of the Firesteel/Fourteen Mile Point region, it would appear as though there were only two major protrusions of land between our starting location and our destination. However, we quickly realized that was not what it looked like at ground level. It seemed like every half-mile or mile, we would come around a convex area along the shore, hoping to see the lighthouse out in the distance, only to be disappointed by yet another long stretch of shoreline.

After a couple hours of hiking along alternating stretches of lakeshore sand and rocks, I discovered a rather large section of concrete on the shore near the trees. The usually smooth surface was worn away revealing the small, multicolored pieces of gravel and rock that make up the bulk of concrete. The edges appeared worn and rounded; obviously, it had been there for a long time. It was odd to see it laying there among the other rocks—odd because we had not seen anything like it before now and odd because it was the only man-made object we had seen along this entire remote section of lakeshore. I pointed it out to Ken and Derek who were trailing behind me at this point and we speculated about its origin and about how it could have come to rest at this peculiar place. Several yards further to the east, I came upon another piece of weathered concrete. Suddenly, a theory came to mind. What if the concrete had something to do with the lighthouse? It was the only thing that made sense to us.

A couple hundred yards past the last piece of concrete, I looked up and saw the fog signal building and its towering chimney come into view. I turned around and looked for Ken and Derek who were walking behind me. I raised both fists in front of my face, pointed my thumbs towards the sky, and yelled to them, “We made it!” They quickened their paces while I waited for them to catch up. It had been a long, sometimes arduous hike, but we were finally here.

A few more steps down the rocky shoreline and the entire lighthouse came into view. It was a magnificent and imposing structure set back from the water amidst a small clearing in the crowded forest. The building’s lack of a roof and the blackened metal watchroom, atop the centrally located 55-foot tower only added to its eerie and mysterious aura.

A quick scan of the grounds revealed that we were the only people out here. It was now 2:20 p.m. The trip had taken us just a couple of minutes shy of three hours—about two miles per hour—not bad considering the terrain we had just encountered. We allotted ourselves about one hour to explore and take pictures before heading back to the car. After all, we did not want to spend too much time here and be caught walking some of the treacherous shore areas at dusk.

Several buildings remained after all the years of abandonment and exposure—the lighthouse, the fog signal building, an oil storage building, a barn behind the lighthouse, and an outhouse. We parted company and each went our separate ways to explore the various structures.

I began my tour at the fog signal building, which is kitty-corner from the northwest corner of the lighthouse, and worked my way counterclockwise around the property. Of all the structures, this one sat closest to the shore. Actually, the leading edge was almost directly on the beach. Overgrown trees partially obscured the building from view on three of its four sides and a Century 21 real estate sign was secured to one of the trees. Apparently, the lighthouse, all the outbuildings, and the 49-acre plot of land that includes 4,000 feet of prime Lake Superior shoreline have been for sale for several years. And, the asking price? A paltry $5.6 million.

Aside from the lighthouse, the fog signal building was the most important structure on the property. If the sky ever became so choked with fog that passing ships were not able to see the flashes of light from the tower, then this building became the primary source of guidance for ships in transit. The building was rectangular and sat on top of a gray stone base. Orange-colored brick supplied structure for the exterior walls and a rusty, slightly corrugated metal roof capped the building. Straddling the ridgeline of the roof and slightly off-center to the rear was a rather tall, orange brick chimney.

The building used to contain two large whistles capable of sending extremely loud blasts of sound out over the lake. The whistles were powered by two steam engines that were supplied with a constant flow of water from an offshore pump. As I thought about the purpose of the fog signal, I found it somewhat ironic that it was o.k. to stand this close. When this site was still in use, being this close while the signal was in operation would most likely have left me deaf, or at least with permanent hearing issues. The building that once used to emit ear-piercing blasts to passing ships, now sits in eternal silence as the forest slowly reclaims its ground.

The oil storage building is about 80-100 feet off the west entrance of the lighthouse and sits behind the fog signal building; it too, hemmed in by untrimmed grass and trees. To call it a building is a bit of a misnomer, it is probably more accurate to refer to the structure as a shed since it is only about seven to eight feet square. The front of the shed faces north and the walls were built with reddish-colored brick. A rusted steel door frame, sans door, outlined the only opening. Much of the outer layer of the double-wall construction had fallen down, revealing the inner brick portion and excess blobs of mortar that had squeezed out from between the courses of bricks during construction. A large pile of bricks lay on the floor inside. The interior appeared to have a skim coat of cement or plaster applied over the brick because the walls were smooth and white, except for the black graffiti that defaced the walls. On the rear wall, in red, capitalized block lettering were the words, “DANGER. ALCOHOL STORES. DO NOT LIGHT MATCHES.” I’m guessing by the mere fact that the shed is still standing, that everyone throughout the years had heeded this warning.

Directly behind the lighthouse are the remains of a very dilapidated barn. The badly deteriorated foundation has caused the entire floor inside to buckle and warp, making it look like a series of waves frozen in time. The exterior of the building had gray, wooden planks running from the base to the roofline on the north and south sides. On the east and west sides, the planks ended at the red, scalloped, wood shake gables and a darker-colored wood shake roof completed the structure. Glass was missing from all the windows and the interior walls were covered with years’ worth of “True Love” confessions, dates, and “I was here” graffiti.

Ken and I eventually crossed paths near the barn. Derek had already done his exploring and picture taking and was lying in the grass with his head on his daypack, relaxing in the warmth of the afternoon sun. We walked around the exterior, taking pictures from various angles and marveling at what remained after the fire. The fire? Yes, an unfortunate act by some irresponsible people, almost three decades earlier, had destroyed this magnificent building, leaving only the non-combustible shell.

On July 30, 1984, unknown youths made their way out to the lighthouse for a party. Apparently, one or more of the Darwin Awards recipients in the group started a fire on one of the wooden floors inside the lighthouse. As one would expect, the fire grew out of control and eventually, the entire structure was fully involved. A boater out on the lake happened to notice the flames and reported it to the proper authorities. A firefighting team from Ontonagon responded to the scene, but the lack of roads only meant that the fire was able to burn out of control for several hours before the crew managed to reach the site by boat. The building is now a total loss and only the brick skeleton and metal watchroom remain. In the end, a couple reckless people brought down the lighthouse that survived ninety years of the worst weather that northern Michigan and Lake Superior could leverage against it.

Aside from its location and historical significance, the lighthouse is also intriguing from an architectural standpoint. One of its unique features is the double-wall design on all the exterior walls. The two walls provided additional strength for the building and the small air gap between them helped insulate the lighthouse from the weather outside. Other details included arched brickwork over many of the doorways and window openings, different colored accent blocks around the perimeter of the windows and doorways, and notched, multi-stepped courses of brick near the top of the central tower.

We walked around to the west entrance and climbed up inside the cement hallway. Without a roof, there was plenty of light to see where we were walking. After a couple of steps, we were standing on an interior landing. To the south was the main part of the two-story building and to the east was the front tower.

Inside the main area, instead of seeing what should have been various walls and rooms, we now saw only one big open area with several trees growing up from what must have been the basement. Across from us and to either side were several openings where windows once used to keep out the elements. We also observed a couple blackened, horizontal grooves that ran the entire perimeter of the structure. At first, we could not figure out their significance, and then it dawned on us that they were the areas where a wood floor or supporting framework must have intersected the walls. Closer inspection revealed charred wood inside the recesses. As a final insult, after years of abandonment, harsh weather, and the fire, many of the walls now have large cracks in them and parts of the building are beginning to deteriorate. Who knows how much longer this old lighthouse will be standing.

The tower room, as we called it, obviously had some type of work done after the fire because it contained a sturdy wooden floor and its layer of gray paint did not appear very weathered. The room was roughly 12 feet square and had two windows overlooking the front of the property and Lake Superior. Above our heads was a second wooden floor with a small opening along the southern wall. A 2”x8” board spanned the opening from above and a couple eyehooks secured a rope ladder to the underside of the wood. Someone had also placed a small step ladder beneath the opening. Ken said, “I know you’ve got to climb that ladder to see what’s up there.” “You know it”, I replied. As I began my ascent on the rickety ladder, Ken stood by and secured the base.

When I reached the top platform, I took hold of the rope ladder, climbed up, and stuck my head through the opening. A crosshatch of metal beams topped with sections of metal plating appeared about 20-25 feet above me. A single section of spiral staircase hung precariously from the only opening. Through the opening, I was able to see one of several round portholes that circled the watchroom where the original cast iron lantern and Fourth Order Fresnel lens used to exist.

Again, someone must have done some extensive work after the fire because there was a makeshift ladder leading from the floor up to the metal staircase. Several tree limbs, six to seven inches in diameter, formed the side supports and the rungs. The ladder leaned up at roughly a 45-degree angle and was attached to two equally sturdy vertical logs that were, in turn, secured to the bottom of the metal stairs. If I could have managed to get myself up to that second floor, I would have climbed up to the metal stairs to take a look, but it was a bit difficult to maneuver up from that rope ladder. Instead, I did the next best thing. Standing on the tips of my toes, with one arm around the swaying rope, I awkwardly raised my camera up through the opening with my free hand and snapped a couple of photos. I would have to be satisfied with the effort because I would not be going any further. When my feet once again touch solid ground, I returned the favor and secured the ladder while Ken made the same trip up to check out the cool sights that were just out of our reach.

It had been about 50 minutes since we arrived which meant it was time to wrap up our visit. We took a couple more pictures and finished off our time here with a group photo in front of the lighthouse.

On the way out, Lake Superior was very calm and only small waves rolled up on the beach. Now, as we were beginning our hike back, the wind was blowing with a bit more force, whitecaps peppered the lake, and the surf broke on the shore with greater intensity. We still had an enjoyable hike back, though, despite the fact that it was equally as long and just as tiring, if not slightly more. Eventually, we arrived back at the car and collapsed inside to rest our weary feet for a few minutes before Derek drove us back to Ontonagon to retrieve my car.

The week had evaporated before our eyes but we managed to cram in a lot of hiking, sightseeing, and exploring. We learned a lot about Michigan history, had some great conversations between ourselves and with park personnel, saw some amazing scenery, and explored a landmark we had dreamed of visiting for many years.

Back at my car, when I exchanged my hiking boots for more comfortable footwear, it finally hit me that our trip had reached its inevitable conclusion. These boots have accompanied me to many locales, carried me over hundreds of scenic miles of trails, seen me through sun-filled days, and kept my feet dry during incessant, driving rains. This may have been the end of one trip, but I knew there would be others. Where and when I did not know, but as I placed those faithful companions in the trunk for the ride home, I wondered where we would be and what we would experience the next time I laced them up and we hit the trail.

Miles Covered Today: 11.0
Total Trip Miles: 40.0


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