My little Saturn bounced and shuttered as I pressed down Cliff Drive. Gritting my teeth I pushed faster, steadily approaching the breckneck speed of 45 mph, doing my best to avoid the bumps and pot holes on the rough road. I was behind schedule after a few detours near Copper City and didn't know if I'd have enough time to explore Cliff Range of the Keweenaw.
This wasn't my first time on Cliff Range. Back in the winter of 2008-09 I wandered up the steep climb, frustrated by the winter's efficient hiding of my precious waterfalls. I didn't know much about the mines, just followed snowshoe paths through the woods and along the ridge, and came away a bit disappointed. The cliffs are tall, sure, but there's not much to see. Hills block any view south to Keweenaw Bay and there's no north-facing outcropping. All I found was rock and snow. I left the cliffs and forgot about them for five years.
Today I came with a plan. I wouldn't merely scale at a single location and look around: I would start near Ojibway and follow the ridgeline all the way to the mines, exploring multiple heights, angles, and maybe catch a few views of Lake Superior along the way. That was the plan. And then I ran out of time.
With a few short hours of daylight left I pulled off on the shoulder near the ruins of Cliffton and quickly set off across the trickles of Eagle River. If I was on a schedule I'd aim for the good stuff, the old mine set in the cliff itself. The land was alien and weird, bare patches of poor rock stretching into meager green wetland growth. I trotted quickly over the loose rock, entering in evening shadows before I was halfway to the woods.
Trails were easy to find, blazed with tape and well-trod. First I wandered west and south, stepping over huge cedar roots, and then the ruins showed up. That didn't take long. Dark rock grew from the needle-covered ground in crumbling walls and sharp angles. And then the smokestack. Good grief, a rock smokestrack.
The smokestack was impressive, towering up like the trunk of a giant, lightning-struck pine. I circled it slowly, gazing up. It's hard to find smokestacks in the Keweenaw - I can only think of a half-dozen at most - and I'm pretty sure that they're all brick or metal. A stone smokestack seemed so ancient compared to any of those, which given the age of this mine makes sense. They were pulling ore out of this area long before many other spots.
There were more ruins further to the north but the cliffs called to me. I couldn't walk this close to a tempting climb without attempting a scale. A narrow footpath wound up between the rocks and I followed, gaining elevation and losing breath. It took less than ten minutes to reach the top of the cliffs and find… a campsite. At the end of a four-wheeler trail. Well, that takes a lot of sport out of it.
Shaking off the presence of an atv trail I headed over to the nearest outcropping, excited to see what kind of view the climb had granted me. It wasn't terrible. The poor rock and my car seemed so far away, turned micro by the deceptive distance. Beyond that, though, there wasn't much. Distant rises of green could have been Horace Greeley or Gratiot Mountain or just unnamed hills. No blue of Lake Superior showed itself.
Hoping for more I set off to the southwest, following the ridgeline as it rose and curved. The trail was easy to follow, a well-defined footpath that sometimes cut through the woods yet managed to hit just about every good outcropping. There was only one time right away that I decided to cut off trail in hopes to gain a different vantage, a decision I soon regretted when I waded into a rugged, thorny, and unstable patch of cliff. The views steadily got better, though Lake Superior never really showed itself in the distance.
The atv trail also made a reappearance, coming up from the woods to open out on a rather large outcropping like an unwelcome guest. I'm not sure where it came from. It must connect with some of the trails to the north, either running down the slope towards 5 Mile Point Road or looping around on one of the breaks of Cliff Ridge. I guess its nice to have an easier way up here for those unable to make that steep climb. Just wish they would take their empty beer cans back down with them.
After the trail disappeared back into the woods I decided to stay close to the ridge, keeping it a comfortable couple of yards to my left, and bushwhacked along. A very small part of me was still considering hiking all the way down to the general Ojibway area, maybe two miles to the south. I could always walk along Cliff Drive in the dark and set up my tent… somewhere. The plan was to camp on Copper Falls Bluff and watch the sunset over Cat Harbor. That sounded like too much fun to pass up.
When I came out of the saddle I came upon a narrow view down to the swamps below. The shadows stretched long now, almost touching Cliff Drive. I was almost at a cut in the ridge that would really complicate my forward progress. I gazed down at the swamp, a completely unwelcome sight, and wondered how difficult it would be to cross that in the dark if I couldn't make it to a track.
The ridge was dying so I headed inland, looking for a way forward. Logging blocked my way. Piles of brush lay under thick grass waiting to bruise and tangle my legs. At least there was thimbleberries scattered throughout the grass. I stumbled and cursed, munching on the sour berries by the handful, looking and sounding like a cross black bear. Eh, it was probably time to head back.
It took almost a half hour to get out of the overgrown logging area and refind the atv track. The track led me back up ridge and to the campsite. Begrudgingly I acknowledged its usefulness to me this evening and took off down the ridge. I didn't exactly follow my original path, though.
Next to the narrow paths up the cliff was a huge pile of poor rock that almost reached the top of the cliffs. A huge pile of rock that made for an excellent slide down. I recklessly half-ran, half-slid down the pile, dust and clatter leaving a long trail behind me. That, that was fun. And possibly very stupid.
There is a lot more to Cliff Ridge. There's a well-known cemetery to the north, more ruins above the ridge, an old town to the east, and plenty more cliffs to the south. And, once again, I barely touched the surface. At least I got to eat some thimbleberries. I got in my car and continued north to Copper Falls, leaving behind many hours of exploring on my way to a most unforgettable sunset from the bluff.