Cool darkness was beginning to pale with morning light on the McCormick Tract. Slowly I rolled out of my sleeping bag, stretching and shivering slightly as I left its accumulated heat. Without dressing I headed out into the cool air, clad only in boxers and a cheap pair of old wet shoes, and headed over to the shore of White Deer Lake. I was headed to the small island on the lake, the rocky home of the Grand Camp itself.
Swimming over to the island is nothing new, nor is floating over on boats or inflatables, yet I've visited the lake several times without making an attempt. The distance isn't far. The island sits less than a hundred feet from the mainland. I'm just a horrible swimmer and never really pushed myself to do it. This morning, on my last visit to this wilderness area, I was going to push.
I made my way through the dew-damp grass to the old landing for the Good Ship Piffle, the main pull-barge that connected the island. There was once docks here and a line - today there is only leaning cement pilings and rubble. Making sure that my camera was secure in a Ziploc bag (attached to me with a line) I took a tentative step forward into the lake. My foot sank a foot in warm muck. Getting my balance back I took another step, then another. Clouds of brown muck billowed up from below.
There were a few underwater obstacles that impeded my progress. Rocks protuded up from the thick muck, acting like little blockades to step on and over. Sticks made for weird levers that stirred the water in the distance. As I drew close to the island I had to watch carefully to avoid plunging my knee into the old pilings. Honestly, though, it was very easy to cross over. I walked the whole way, water no deeper than my chest. As I emerged from the other side, not quite as chilled as I thought I'd be, I pulled my camera out of the still-dry bag and took stock of my position.
A small path led up and away from the old dock. As this was the main way to and from the island I was surprised not to see more, like the wide, fading remains of a boardwalk. Eh, it has been a good fifty years since anyone actually lived out here and would have maintained such things.
I started up the rocky little path, camera in one hand. A few branches reached out to scratch my bare legs along the way. For a while there was nothing on the path, just large trees and the small path. There was once a lot of cabins on this tiny island - five in all, some of them massive in size - and all of them were clustered on the north end. I'm not sure why they didn't build on this side. Maybe everyone wanted to look up the lake, not back at the close shoreline.
When the woods began to open I stepped out to see the first, and most impressive, cabin remains. Facing east, towards the sunrise and the first swampy gorge I had crossed on my route around the lakes, was the foundation of Chimney Cabin. This was a big one, stately, and the cabin that most people associate with the lost Grand Camp. It had a large chimney (obviously), and wrap-around decks, and was several stories tall. Today there was only cement and pile upon pile of rubble.
With careful steps I worked my way through the foundation, noting the few pines growing in between the piles of rock in the beginning stages of reclamation. It would take a long time for this island to return to normal, though. Brick and cement was piled deep and the rock was gouged to form the base of this cabin. As I neared the corner I noticed the start of a second cabin, angled away from this one. This one had to be Beaver Cabin.
There's not much I could find about Beaver Cabin. I think it was a men's shack, maybe where they would smoke tobacco and skin animals and do other manly things, but I'm not sure. It wasn't large. Compared to the giant neighbor this thing seemed more like an outhouse than a cabin. I worked my way through the thickening growth, past a surprise chimney that probably came from this one, and looked for Birch Cabin.
Instead of solid cement-and-rock foundations, though, all I found was a fantastic view north to the Fortress and a few pillars of cement. Either Birch Cabin was hoisted up off the rock or the foundations were mostly composed of wood. This was another large cabin, mostly used by women, coming close to the scale of Chimney Cabin. And there was little left. I turned and headed along the shoreline.
The next cabin would have the Library, which was nestled in between Birch and Beaver. I could find even less about this building. It wasn't on the shore, though I think the main boat dock would have been a short walk from its door. Today all I could find was dim outlines in the moss. This one was already disappearing.
The dock should be right here, just north of the Library, and I couldn't find anything. There was a patch of bared rock that may have been scoured for a path or wooden foundation. No pilings or cement protuded into the lake here. This dock should have been decently big - even though the boats were kept at the boathouse on the mainland they would have parked here frequently - yet I couldn't find any hint of it.
There was a lot of buildings on the mainland, and a lot of foundations left from them, though I didn't have any interest in exploring them today. All of the workers (or servents, depending on your point of view) lived on the mainland. Food was stored, prepared, and served over there. They even had garages and stables in later years. The foundations from these buildings are far more extensive and easy to find then the ones out here. I had explored some of them on my first visit to the McCormick, some four or five years ago, and wasn't really interested in exploring them today. They weren't part of the Grand Camp, and are not preserved by Richard Hendrickson… They may have been important to the functions of this area but felt auxiliary.
Ahead, two great arms extended into the lake. I couldn't wait to see this. It was rough going along the overgrown shore, pines and undergrowth scratching at my mostly-bare skin, and I pushed forward with a grimace. Soon I stood on the edge of the foundations of the old Living Room Cabin.
This cabin holds a lot of history. It extended into the lake and served as a small boathouse for the island, large enough for maybe one decent-sized craft. The main story, above the water, was magical. This was the home of the old talking-machine, Victor, where stories and music would drift out of the record player and out over the waters of White Deer Lake. In Fred Rydholm's books this ritual was a magical one, when guests would float over the calm, moonlit waters and be serenaded with classical music between white pine shorelines.
I shook myself from the daydream. That was almost a hundred years ago. Now there was just the cement foundation extending into the lake with a huge mound of brick and mortar piled on the shoreline. The foundation was starting to lean dangerously to the side. Another decade and it may collapse altogether.
As I made myself back south along the shoreline, back towards the Chimney Cabin, I found a small piece of metal-coated line. I had almost forgotten about utilities. When the cabins were first built they had no running water or electricity. Over the years these amenities were added. First water was piped in from the mainland from a clear spring to the south. A few metal pipes poked up on the island from this, protruding from their underground homes. Second came the electricity. It must have been a real job to get electricity all the way out here, with the Peshekee Grade a rutted mess and the road in to camp barely driveable. If I was around back then I would have argued against such luxuries. Metal pipes and electric lines would have really marred the landscape, as both were run above ground for much of their length.
Back at the Chimney Cabin I marveled at the front foundation. From my earlier view, looking down at the rubble, everything appeared to be a real mess. This, though, was very artistic. They must have used rocks gathered from throughout the property, maybe even chipped away from the island itself, to form a stately and natural front.
As I slowly climbed back up I noticed two odd metal circles, then realized I was looking at a oil barrel. The rubble below me had to be at least six feet deep to bury a barrel this much. No wonder the forest service had piled everything in here. Hauling it out would have been quite a job, and if you tossed everything in the lake you'd create another island out there. Better to fill the hole and wait for nature to cover everything up.
Now the sun was almost up, shooting bright light through the eastern shoreline. I crept back to the old landing, facing the shoreline, and re-entered the water. The cool lake felt warm by now. When I reached the deepest section, water just over my ribs, I held my nose and dove. I was fully prepared to swim over to the island today and walking felt like cheating. The very least I could do was get dunked. The water felt great, if a bit grimy with the stirred muck, and I exited the lake refreshed and covered with specks of mud.
The rest of the morning passed slowly. After drying and basking in the sun I packed my gear and made breakfast. My camping buddy eventually came down to greet me, steaming coffee in hand. I was glad he didn't come down in the predawn when I was traipsing barely-clad on the island. We chatted and he wandered back up to pack up his gear as well. After a few leisurely hours I began the long walk back to the parking spot through a rather warm fall day. I still had one hike left on the track, one last adventure for the Upper Peninsula, and I had plenty of time left for it.