Still­ness & Soli­tude

Come to Michi­gan’s Por­cu­pine Moun­tains for blaz­ing fall color, pris­tine wa­ter­falls and a break from life’s hec­tic pace.


Come to Michi­gan’s Por­cu­pine Moun­tains for wa­ter­falls, rivers and un­touched forests.

“That’s the Porkies,” Mark, my hus­band, tells us from the helm of our trawler, Mazurka. We were tak­ing our three kids (then ages 4, 2 and 11 months) on a three-week cruise of the largest of the Great Lakes, and had just started our way up the coast of Michi­gan’s Up­per Penin­sula when we en­coun­tered Por­cu­pine Moun­tains Wilder­ness State Park. Our kids mar­veled at the tallest peaks they had ever seen. Lov­ingly nick­named the Porkies, Michi­gan’s largest state park—at 60,000 acres—pro­tects a vir­gin for­est of north­ern hard­woods as well as wa­ter­falls, rivers and some of the high­est peaks in the en­tire Mid­west. The park holds 35,000 acres of old-growth su­gar maple, yel­low birch, Amer­i­can bass­wood and east­ern hem­lock. Its name comes from the Ojibwa In­di­ans, who likened the range’s out­line to that of a wood­land por­cu­pine. We fell in love with the Porkies on that trip and have gone back ev­ery year to ex­plore the area, the park and the moun­tains, and their many sur­pris­ing gifts. The park ex­ists to­day be­cause a for­ward-think­ing group of lo­cal res­i­dents started a move­ment to pro­tect the old-growth for­est back in the 1940s. They saw the value of pre­serv­ing the land for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. With sup­port from con­ser­va­tion­ist Aldo Leopold, the park was of­fi­cially es­tab­lished in 1945. In 1972, it was des­ig­nated the Por­cu­pine Moun­tains Wilder­ness State Park. To­day it is one of the largest stands of old-growth north­ern hard­woods for­est in the Mid­west, if not the en­tire coun­try. Dur­ing au­tumn, the Porkies ex­plode in red, or­ange and yel­low be­neath an un­end­ing sky. These vi­brant col­ors are made even more spec­tac­u­lar by the sweep­ing vis­tas af­forded at look­out points through­out the park. When the kids were a few years older, we took them to see Lake of the Clouds, one of the park’s high­lights. We started out on the Es­carp­ment Trail, which leads deep into the for­est and then climbs out for some spec­tac­u­lar views of the lake. The kids ran ahead and reached the view­ing plat­form be­fore us; Mark and I could hear their squeals of won­der while we were still on the trail. Then we emerged from the trees and saw what the chil­dren saw: a gor­geous blue moun­tain lake nes­tled deep in the for­est. We spent more than an hour on the plat­form and then set off to hike one of the trails nearby. So many things caught our at­ten­tion, and we kept stop­ping as each curve re­vealed yet an­other stun­ning view. At about 2,000 feet above sea level, Sum­mit Peak ob­ser­va­tion tower (the high­est point in the park) gives a panoramic view of the for­est framed by Lake Su­pe­rior. On a clear day, you can see Isle Royale Na­tional Park to the north­east and the Apos­tle Is­lands Na­tional Lakeshore to the north­west. When we de­scend from the high peaks, we jour­ney be­neath

the thick canopy of cen­turies-old trees. The light dims, and shad­ows dap­ple the rocks and mossy earth. We are in an­other world. We al­ways lis­ten for any rustling in the brush around us; the Porkies are well-known for bears, though we’ve never en­coun­tered one on the trail. Maybe it’s be­cause of all the laugh­ing and singing, and the as­ton­ished and ex­cited cries of, “Look at this!” The park’s many wa­ter­falls al­ways elicit shouts of glee. There are more than 90 wa­ter­falls in the park, some re­quir­ing a lengthy hike, some reached by car. Wa­ter­falls and rapids along the Presque Isle River are among the most pop­u­lar in the park and worth spend­ing a day or more ex­plor­ing (you can camp nearby). Man­abezho Falls, the big­gest on the Presque Isle River and the last be­fore the river pours into Lake Su­pe­rior, are gor­geous and al­ways dif­fer­ent, de­pend­ing on the time of year and re­cent rain­fall. Some­times it’s one big cur­tain of cas­cad­ing wa­ter, some­times it breaks into sev­eral nar­row falls. View it from the over­look or from a trail on ei­ther side, or go just a short dis­tance down­river to a sus­pen­sion bridge (it leads to the Presque Isle State Camp­ground) for an­other view of the gorge. One of the rea­sons the Porkies ap­peal to my fam­ily so much is the quiet soli­tude—even dur­ing the park’s most pop­u­lar weeks (high sum­mer and fall color), it never feels crowded. Our chil­dren can re­ally ex­pe­ri­ence the free­dom and joy of ex­plor­ing a wild, an­cient moun­tain wilder­ness. There’s a re­spect and rev­er­ence among peo­ple who visit and care for the park. The land re­mains true to the vi­sion of its early sup­port­ers. Lo­cal res­i­dents help the park through Friends of the Porkies, a non­profit group that hon­ors the con­nec­tion be­tween the nat­u­ral world and cre­ativ­ity. Their folk school of­fers classes in top­ics re­flect­ing the area’s Na­tive Amer­i­can and Scan­di­na­vian her­itage. Ev­ery Au­gust the group holds a renowned mu­sic fes­ti­val of folk and eclec­tic mu­sic, bring­ing both lo­cal and na­tional mu­si­cians to per­form in the moun­tains. About 15 miles from the park, the vil­lage of On­ton­agon pre­serves the his­tory and cul­ture of the Porkies. Founded in 1843 at the mouth of the On­ton­agon River, the vil­lage was once an early ship­ping port for the boom­ing cop­per, lum­ber and fish­ing in­dus­tries of the area. In fact, a 3,708-pound chunk of al­most pure cop­per was found on a branch of the On­ton­agon River, lead­ing to the 19th-cen­tury cop­per rush. (That boul­der is now at the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion.) On­ton­agon and its his­tor­i­cal mu­seum show a town de­voted to the rich nat­u­ral his­tory and beauty of their beloved Por­cu­pine Moun­tains. At the mouth of the river, the On­ton­agon Light­house of­fers a unique tour be­cause noth­ing is off-lim­its—vis­i­tors can study ev­ery de­tail of the light­house and ar­ti­facts of the fam­i­lies who lived there, capped off with views of the har­bor, moun­tains and lake. A day (or more) on the shores of that lake is es­sen­tial to ev­ery Porkies visit. Lake Su­pe­rior’s frigid waves crash the beaches of sug­ary sand for miles. Our kids will brave the cold and spend all day in the wa­ter. We search for drift­wood, agates and even the rem­nants of old ship­wrecks. It’s hard to beat a fi­nal evening camp­fire on the shores of a great lake, at the foot of these mag­i­cal Mid­west­ern moun­tains.

A foot­bridge over the river leads to Lake of the Clouds.

Fallen leaves float be­side ex­posed shale along the Presque Isle River.

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