On a small point of land north of Ontonagon, MI sits an abandoned lighthouse. Built in the 1890s to help guide traffic from Houghton to Ontonagon along the unmarked coast this lighthouse was in commission for over fifty years before it was snuffed out. In 1984 a fire consumed everything but the brick walls, leaving an empty shell where once one of the grandest and most remote lighthouse of the Great Lakes stood. Today I set out to hike the icy coastline to visit the abandoned lighthouse of Fourteen Mile Point.
The roads north of Ontonagon were slick and slushy with the melting temperatures. I coasted through the turns and kept my speeds reasonable on both paved and dirt surfaces as my small car was pushed and pulled in different directions. It was surprising just how far the road commission had plowed and how bad the roads still were. The handful of homes I passed had huge trucks and/or snowmobiles next to their houses, obviously used to the driving conditions, and I was unprepared.
I had driven out this way once in the summer. Lakeshore Drive ends shortly after crossing Firesteel River with a new housing development continuing up the shoreline. This development, The Shores at Ten Mile Point, was obviously in the vicinity of Ten Mile Point, but I wasn't sure if it extended north of the actual point. I drove on the icy dirt road through the development until it ended at two private drives.
Neither my maps or GPS could tell me just how far I had traveled north. My route was fairly easy anyways; follow the shoreline north until the lighthouse showed up on Fourteen Mile Point. Before leaving the car I paused to listen to breaking waves, almost visible through the barren woods. It was tempting to head straight for the water and look out upon Lake Superior. I didn't know if the beach hike would on sand or ice at this time of year, an unknown that, when combined with the uncertain distance, weighed heavily on me. Shrugging away the worry I headed down one of the private drives instead parallel to the lake, choosing to start with the easy path.
The smaller private drive gave me an easy route over the small Ten Mile Creek and through the thawing woods. I was starting to get hopeful that my entire hike would be this easy when the road suddenly ended with a 'No Trespassing' sign in front of a camper. With a sigh I cut into the woods, circumventing the marked land, and broke out onto a logging road that continued on the far side of the camp. This logging road led off towards the woods and I knew it was time to face the unknowns of Lake Superior's beach. I broke through the brush westwards and stepped out onto a grassy dune, sand stretching away in both directions for miles.
At the time I didn't realize I was already in Ten Mile Bay, which lies between Fourteen Mile and Ten Mile Points. There was another sandy bay south of Ten Mile Point, and there was no good way of knowing which one I stood in now. If I was south of the point than my hike would end up being close to a dozen miles, an unappealing venture along the unfrozen, giving sand. Still, the sandy beach was cool to look at, and I spent some time enjoying the cool breeze and breaking waves before heading north on the shore.
It's hard to say if I prefer walking on a beach to bushwhacking through thick woods. There is no ducking or weaving, no careful placing of feet on a beach. You can stroll leisurely and enjoy your surroundings more. However, sand is not easy to walk on. The dry stuff gave easy and the wetter sections near the breaking waves were on an angle and easily soaks through boots. I did have a third option between these, frozen slabs left over from earlier high waters. Every hundred yards or so I would switch between the options, not truly comfortable with any yet thankful for the chance to enjoy the sounds and open views.
After passing a few small creeks and thoroughly soaking my boots with the small, lapping waves, a welcome change presented itself. Flat slabs of sandstone extended out from the shoreline, replacing the sand and promising easy walking. I was at the north end of Ten Mile Bay, and being able to look ahead and see the terrain I could finally place myself on the map. A few miles of sandstone shoreline and I would reach the lighthouse. Excited I stepped onto the slab and was surprised to feel my footing slip. Kneeling I touched the damp rock. It wasn't icy or green with algae, yet it was smooth and slippery. Then I got it. I was in the Ontonagon County, where the soil itself is red with clay. The rocks were slick with sediments. Carefully I continued on the rock, treating it as if I was walking on ice, and made it across safely. I realized then that the shifting sands were the easy part of this hike and the next few miles of sandstone would be the real challenge. With a sinking feeling I made my way over the next rock, and the one after, knowing that this hike was going to be a tough one.
Shuffling, scooting, at times with a hand on the ground for balance, I slowly made my way along the shore. Not all of the walk was on the slick sandstone. There were a few patches of broken sand or gravel rock that offered a quick reprieve from my awkward pace. The shoreline was uneven, hiding upcoming pieces of my route until I rounded a small point or low-slung tree. One foot in front of the other, one small section of the shore at a time, I continued to make my way north. I passed tiny melt waterfalls and icy slabs, glazed trunks and hidden coves, and the constant challenge kept the tough hike fresh.
Even though I knew I was past Ten Mile Bay it was hard to judge how much farther the lighthouse was. It was until I rounded a small outcropping of sandstone that I could trace the shore's profile onto the topo map. I was close, very close. Taking a moment to rest in the small hidden bay past the outcropping I reviewed what I knew about the lighthouse. I knew it was on the shoreline, probably within a few hundred yards, and I knew it was abandoned. Beyond that I didn't know if it was overgrown, visible from the water, or even how tall it was. I started to get worried that I would pass it unknowingly. I checked my assumed position again and decided to continue forward for another mile before considering circling back onshore to hunt for it.
Exiting the small bay and rounding a few more bends I realized that I had nothing to worry about. A lonely brick building with a small smokestack lay ahead of me, right on the shoreline, obviously part of the lighthouse's ruins. I rushed ahead on Fourteen Mile Point, drawing closer to the old fog signal building. The one structure that remains intact, this building's foundation is right on the water's edge. I circled it slowly, marveling at the excellent condition, before turning my attention on the lighthouse.
I stepped close to the lighthouse, peering into the high windows. The square tower loomed over the broken walls and small pines grew through the floor. The metal cage that once housed a light on high was rusty but looked solid. The layout of the lighthouse was a bit confusing, with the main building being divided in half by a solid wall. There was a door in the middle that was bricked up long ago. I guess that this building once housed two separate families; perhaps they got in a heated argument and decided to block each other out. Only the western half seemed to have access to the tower.
There were other buildings besides the fog signal and lighthouse. A small brick shed, which may have been a very sturdy outhouse, and several wooden buildings surrounded the area. None were in good shape. I took a close look at one that may have been a barn or house that was located right behind the lighthouse. The floor had alarming holes and warps, bending up several feet in the middle, but that didn't stop previous visitors from marking up the walls with names and promises of eternal love. The foundation was also giving way, making me wonder how many more years this building would be left standing.
Circling back to the lighthouse I took another look inside. It was shocking how much growth was springing up inside the brick walls. Small pines were reaching five to ten feet already with a few other saplings scattered around. Outside of a few scattered bricks, what appeared to be a stove, and a gaping hole that may have been a cellar, the forest was taking over the building. The floor must have been raised judging by the door height, and today's ground floor would have been yesterday's crawl space.
I finished my perimeter of the area, finding a few old foundations and overgrown sidewalk paths connecting different buildings, and started to prepare for my return. I did notice a fire ring, a tempting reason to return in the summer. There was one last thing I wanted to check out. I had seen some pictures looking northeast, up the coast to Wolf Point and beyond, and was hoping to catch the same view. Down to the shoreline I went on the path that must have led to the now-gone dock, making my way further west on the point. There was nothing to see. Around the next bend was another quarter mile of shoreline that blocked the view beyond. I wasn't about to re-tackle the slick sandstone for a vew of Wolf Point, so I turned about and started backtracking.
As tempting as it was to retrace my path on the shoreline I decided to be smarter this time. There were no roads or paths leading directly to the lighthouse but there were a few two-tracks that got close. I followed the shoreline for about a quarter mile before heading inland, weaving through the brush and around swampy sections on a slight diagonal leading away from the lake. I was still within eyesight of the water when a gunshot reverberated through the woods. It was a rifle, maybe a mile away. Confused, I stopped and thought. Deer season was over - why would anyone be shooting a rifle? Suddenly I realized that I was close to an Indian reservation. I doubt that they have to follow the same rules or seasons as other hunters. Scrambling a bit I pushed my way back to the shoreline, resigned for another slippery shamble back to my car.
After another half mile on the shore I decided to try the woods again. There were no more gunshots and the slick rocks were beyond aggravating. Pushing and weaving I tackled the thick brush on a similar angle, this time hitting an old grade after a couple hundred yards. Thankful for the level ground I strode along the narrow path, possibly the remains of a logging road or railroad track, before breaking out a wide, maintained dirt road.
I knew it was all downhill from here. This was the second private drive on the end of the housing development where my car was parked. Relaxing a bit I let me mind wander as my legs picked up the pace. The lighthouse on Fourteen Mile Point was for sale. Ignoring the ridiculous price tag, what would Katie and I do if we could buy the land? Most of the buildings would probably need to be knocked down. We'd try hard to preserve the lighthouse, though. It might take a few years, but the brick walls could be strengthened, interior walls insulated and drywalled, strong copper or steel roof put on… Yeah, it would be possible. If an old brick building couldn't be modernized to withstand the cold winters we could always build an independent caretaker's house and just maintain the lighthouse for summer use. To get the circular staircase up again, maybe a telescope or a light up in that tower again, would be amazing. A boat and few snowmobiles could be our main transportation unless we could work out a deal with the county to build a road all the way out here, preferably from Misery Bay so we'd have easier access to Houghton.
Rounding the last bend in the road I saw my car ahead, snapping me from daydreams. As I drove away I thought about my route in. Parking in a new housing development is not a great way to approach the lighthouse. My original plan was to came in from the northeast, from Misery Bay down, which would have been easily three times as long of a hike, over two wide rivers, and past a multitude of camps. Another path could be made from the land, driving along the logging roads extended west from the Twin Lakes, and would involve a hefty bushwhack through unforgiving woods. I do plan on tackling Wolf Point and Misery Bay at some point in the future, if only to see if the northeast route would be viable for future visits to the abandoned lighthouse.