Trying to hide my nervousness I glanced around at the snowy trees and hills around us. Emily and I were driving up M-26 towards Atlantic Mine, one of the most notorious stretches of winter roads this side of the Mackinaw. Sputtering snow and strong winds cut down our visibility and kept our conversations short and simple. Once we reached Atlantic Mine we still had to head west, along Obenhoff and Covered Drive, to reach the small town of Freda.
By the time we made it to our destination we were both worn and anxious about the approaching sunset. Neither one of us were excited for the drive back in the dark or the howling winds whipping off of Lake Superior. Hesitantly we left the warm interior of her truck, donning extra layers against the frigid air, and crept over to the edge of the cliff. It was a scene from the Arctic. The sun, hazed by clouds far above, gave us no warmth. Distant landmarks were lost quickly by the snowy air. Drifts of white piled up high and obscured everything in swooping curves. Getting to the cliffs would be tough.
These ice cliffs are fairly well-known. Between Redridge and Freda along a mile or so of shoreline are tall, crumbling cliffs of sandstone that drop down suddenly into the lake. There are a few interesting features here - five stamp mills lay in ruins with their sands strewn below, several creeks cut deep ruts in the highlands - but it is the the ice formations that form in the winter from seeping ground water that most people know about. A small part of me was hoping to walk the full length between the towns today, taking full advantage of the thick shore ice, though the sharp winds and coming dark conspired against that plan.
Getting down to the base was no small feat. There is a path, a very steep path made of hard-packed dirt, which had turned into a verifiable bobsled slide over the snow. We slid and swung down, reaching the old mill with sore butts. Another eight-foot drop waited for us below, a steep plunge down to water level, and then we were nestled behind tall drifts. After being up in the wind it was eerily still trapped between walls of snow and ice.
The cliffs lay to the east. A wide trail was stomped into the ice and snow in that direction though today's winds had blurred out most sections. It didn't take long to reach the cliffs. Five minutes of tromping on the intermittent trail the sandstone reared up, ice clinging to the face. The height was shocking.
As we meandered east the shore came in and out, forming small points and coves. The first point was covered in ice. It flowed down like a waterfall frozen, piling up in a slow-motion crash down. At some points the water came out stained, coloring entire sheets, though most of the formations were milky white. The scene was beautiful, the globs and icicles morphing together to create a fake front over the sandstone cliffs.
Not all of the sandstone was covered, though. Plenty remained exposed, especially the points. It was interesting to see just how much erosion was taking place at the exposed walls. Small chunks of rock littered the ground here, roughing up the otherwise slippery walk.
As Emily and I walked on and on we passed by sandstone caves that were coated in ice and around tall ice volcanoes. Eventually we bumped into another group out on the ice, all geared up with snowshoes and ski goggles (we had skipped out on our snowshoes for this hike) who recommended checking out one of the caves some three or four coves ahead. It had a hole in it. Interested we continued on, looking forward to the hole-through-the-ice, and found it in short order. The hole was at an angle making it impossible to tell if there was water at the bottom or not. Still, the cave was big and deep, making it a cool spot to stray into.
After the cave I convinced Emily to continue on a short while longer. I had accepted that walking to Redridge was too far for today but was still considering cutting off the shore by Beacon Hill. There is a small creek here, one that would give us egress from the icy lake and winds, though it would mean pushing through a few hundred yards of deep snow and along a semi-active road. We reached a point and peered forward. The creek was still out of sight. Emily put her foot down and I had little room to protest. We headed back.
Our walk back was rushed. Sure, for some sections of our hike drifts had protected us from the western winds. Now, as the sun was setting in the hazy distance, we faced the wind head-on and froze. When we finally reached the mill and had to climb up the snow-slide our faces were numb and limbs a bit sluggish. I stubbornly headed up the same path, jumping from one small hold to the next. Emily took a long, roundabout path and had to wait for several minutes as I lumbered up.
We drove in the growing dark and made it back to Houghton just as the street lights were flipping on. I was a bit bummed for not planning for the long drive here or the side trek at Courtney Lake appropriately, both factors that squeezed our visit to Freda short. Still, with the frigid temperatures and winds I'm not sure how enjoyable the whole distance would have been. At least we got to see a good chunk of the cliffs and made it out of there before nightfall. Now it was time for a warm meal before the long drive back down M-26.