I’m not sure when I first learned of the Pictured Rocks. I’m quite sure I didn’t know it was in Michigan. Michigan, was, to me, the land of auto-makers, industrial plants and a burned-out Detroit. But I do remember seeing a picture of the magnificent sandstone cliffs at some point in my life and longing to see them in person. This would have been long before I discovered backpacking but after I had taken up hiking. The thought of sleeping on top of these beautiful cliffs would have never crossed my mind.
Last year I took a Pictured Rocks cruise, and I was reminded of how enamored I had been of those cliffs so many years ago. But, now I wanted to sleep on that hallowed ground. I longed to be immersed in the lushness of its landscape and feel its heartbeat under my feet. I vowed I would go there. Had I been able to take my dog I probably would have done it in an instant, but the park doesn’t allow pets.
I haven’t been ready to backpack alone yet. It’s coming, but I’m still a little wary of being by myself in bear country with my limited experience. My search for trips came up empty-handed until I walked into Wanderlust Outfitters this spring. I signed up on the spot and counted the months and then days until last Friday.
Our little tribe traveled by van to Grand Marais where we embarked on a magical weekend filled with big and small surprises. Strangers at first, we got to know each other walking single-file through a mountain-like setting with sandstone cliffs, gurgling streams and small waterfalls. With almost 40 pounds on my back, I immediately realized this was going to be physically challenging. The easy paths of Louisiana would not prepare me for climbing up rocks and boulders and man-made stairs with all of my belongings on my back. My knees scolded me.
After stopping by a peaceful lake, we arrived on the shore of Lake Superior. We dropped our packs and instinctively gave each other space to take in the big water of Gitche Gumee. Shoes came off and toes reached into the crystal clear startling cold water of the northland. I spotted a canoe coming round the far-off cliffs. I saw young women gathering water on the beach and gazing upon the shore with dreams as steadfast and broad as mine. One of them turned to me, I gazed into her ancient eyes and recognized myself. “This place,” she whispered,” is sacred ground.”
We spent the first night in pouring rain, and I hoped that this would be an anomaly. My little tent kept me and my friend Abby dry overnight, but we begrudgingly dragged ourselves out into the rain for coffee and breakfast. It stopped almost immediately, and gratefully that was the last rain we saw for the weekend.
Our first night camping….
Saturday was a magnificent 11-mile-hike on top of cliffs, pristine natural beaches and sandstone outcroppings. It was also a day of bonding. Hiking, for some reason, has a way of tieing people together. Spans of silent trudging are interspersed with meaningful chatter. By the end of Saturday, our little band of travelers had become fast friends. We’d endured the rain, backpacks full of wet belongings, sore feet, amazing and glorious scenery, aching knees and a unique and changing outdoor experience. Even if we came again, we would never duplicate this experience.
Our group ranged in age from 19 – 69. A doctor, a cross-country coach, a Buddhist, a yoga teacher, a Chamber of Commerce communications director, a vagabond climber and backcountry guide, an organic farmer and other interesting people with diverse backgrounds made up our tribe. I learned about custom-made hiking boots that fit your feet like a glove, and I learned how to set up my tent on the beach in a windstorm. I learned how to fire-roast a banana, cook with a pocket rocket, train to climb Kilimanjaro and prepare for the pilgrimage to El Camino de Santiago.
The sandstone beach near Mosquito River. We camped there the second night.
Most of all, I learned up close and personal about Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I’m much more prepared now to plan my own trip. We spent much of our time on the magnificent cliffs, but there is much more inland I’d like to explore. The U.P. is rugged and remote. Even the popular beaches were not crowded. You have to hike your ass several miles to get to them, so most people are not going to do it. And the U.P. is a long drive for most of the country. It was 7-9 hours for us, and we live in Michigan! You don’t get to Pictured Rocks by accident. It’s a choice.
The young woman that met me at the beach showed up everywhere. She led me up stairs so steep I had to kneel to drag myself up. She stood on cliffs unreachable to me and smiled as she looked over Gitche Gumee. She built a warm fire on a sandstone beach and walked with me as I searched for stones. I saw her swimming in the frigid waters in the heat of the day. She encouraged me when my feet hurt at the end of a long day. But most of all, she inspired me to live my life. “This place,” she said, “is sacred. You are sacred. Keep walking… keep dreaming … keep being you.”