Mount Houghton in the Winter
Near the southeastern end of the Keweenaw Ridge a series of named peaks rise up, one last push towards the sky before Lake Superior swallows up the land. Mount Horace Greeley is the highest point in Keweenaw County but is on private property, with an old Air Force base perched on its peak. Mt Bohemia is a well-known ski resort near Lac la Belle with a peak elevation around 1450. I've heard that Bohemia is not too strict about visitors in the summer, but with an active ski resort it is inaccessible this time of year for hikers like me. My goal for today, Mount Houghton, is about the same height as Bohemia but is far enough off the beaten path from year-round access. With several feet of snow underfoot and sunlight dying overhead Logan and I left my car near Smith's Fisheries Road and headed towards the mountain.
There are two dirt roads that branch off of Lac la Belle road before it turns south towards Bete Gris and a sweeping white sand beach. One of these, Smith's Fisheries, leads east to Bare Bluff and Montreal Falls. I've tackled this road a few times in normal vehicles without too much trouble, although it has the typical potholes and washouts you can expect on a UP logging road. The other road heads north and is one that I haven't tempted before. Even though this unknown north-running road promised a more direct route I took Smith's Fisheries eastwards. There were snowmobile tracks to follow, and it was familiar.
My breathing quickly became labored. They sky was clear and the sun's warmth was leaving quickly along my uphill trek. Even with the snowmobile tracks packing down a path some of my steps broke through the crust, plunging me down past my knees. Logan, on the other hand, love the packed snow, and thanks to his huge paws he bounded effortlessly up and down the path, impatient for me to catch up. After cresting the first hill of the road I checked my topographic map. There was a swamp to the northeast that drained down a shallow valley between us and Mount Houghton. If I left the road now and tackled the valley on an angle I would lose minimal elevation. Taking a deep draw of cold air that crackled in my lungs I stepped off the road into the forest's soft snow, quickly sinking thigh deep in the fluff.
There are a few obvious tricks to walking in the snow without snowshoes. Deer paths are a godsend, though they tend to wind unpredictably and disperse randomly. Pine and cedar trees that can catch snow on branches have less snow underneath, at times exposing brown grass under their span. Even though it lengthened my path I tried to make my hike as easy as possible, veering off on animal paths and avoiding open areas as we headed down and over the shallow valley.
Once we passed the valley I bumped into the first open path, most likely left from logging years ago. There was no reason to stay on the path, with the snow piled high on the open ground and no snowmobiles packing a trail, so I cut across and continued northwards. Logan didn't care either way. He had given up his erratic play, preferring to follow my tracks over sinking in the fluff. After more steady trudging through the snow I finally caught my first view of Mount Houghton rising before me through the trees. The distance was completely disheartening.
I was unsure of how long we had been in the woods, but I had hoped to be closer by now. An open, south-facing slope, covered in snow, looked so far away and impossibly high, towering above the brown trees below. Never one to turn back I buckled down and headed into the flat lands extending from the mountain's south face, pushing myself to move faster before it got too dark out.
It was actually only a half mile to the mountain, even though it looked and felt farther. Slowly the ground started to rise around me. A small cut in the south face gave us a path up, a path with hip-deep snow but mild elevations. One white puff after another I made it up, refusing to stop for a break. I quickly gained over 150 feet of elevation before taking my first rest. Tired from the rapid climb and deepening snow I leaned against a tree, recomposing myself and planning out the final push, while Logan sat and wondered why we had stopped so soon. Lazy dog.
Mount Houghton still had another few hundred feet of elevation before the peak. Thanks to the our southern approach and the bare trees the snow cover was starting to thin out, but I knew we had a long ways to go yet. Our route turned east now, up the last peak, and I slowed myself to a steady pace. One sinking step in front of another, an occasional glance south to check the view. Lake Superior started showing up above the tree tops, with some ice cover inside of Bete Gris Bay. Not allowing myself any rests I continued climbing, controlling my pace to a steady haul up the eastern face, until we came out on the open slope I had first glimpsed earlier.
The peak was open enough to offer some good views south to Lake Superior, east along the Keweenaw ridge, and west towards Lac la Belle. It steepened quickly to the south and I made sure that Logan didn't venture too far in that direction. Exposed to wind and sun the snow here was shallow and easy to walk along, more crunchy ice than anything, and the low trees glinted with icy branches. We slowly made our way east along the peak's ridge while I took pictures of the view below, both thankful and cautiously aware of the setting sun's glow over the area.
Curious if there were any other views to be had I continued east past the open ridge. I got one glimpse northwards through the trees of a few ridges in the distance, but nothing as clear as the main south-facing ridge. Logan and I circled back west, curving a bit to the north, checking as many angles as possible before heading back to the car and warmth.
We didn't find any more good views but we did bump into a snowmobile trail. Ignoring the disappointment of finding recent human intrusion in such a remote location we headed down the hill. Logan knew we were done in that weird, uncanny way that dogs have (we weren't retracing our path, something I know he's smart enough to sense) and bounded excitedly ahead on the trail, slipping and sliding on the packed now. The sun was now close to the horizon, casting orange and red hues over the white powder.
From our path up I knew that this broken trail would not lead back to the car. I'm guessing that it was an extension from the Mandan trails to the north but figured we should follow it as long as possible. It took us down off the peak, along the flat west shoulder within a few hundred yards of our difficult route up, and veered north once we were completely off the mountain. Logan and I exchanged looks here. We both knew that we had to break through the virgin snow again to return to the car. He politely let me go first, letting me break the trail for him again.
While the forest was darkening I wasn't worried. I knew this road would lead us right back to my car with only a few branches heading east from logging activity, one of which we had passed on the way up. The temperature was cooling quickly and my layers, which had seemed so warm on the trip up, was not enough to keep me shivering in the night air. I tried to ignored this and enjoy the clash between the quiet woods and violent colors, checking on Logan from time to time to make sure he was still okay with the cooling forest.
We made it to the car fine, well after the sun's light left the sky but before too many stars came out. I treated Logan to a burger on the drive back, one of our traditions on long evening hikes. Overall Mount Houghton was a good climb, even if it had been more than a little challenging. I'm not sure if I'll return here in the summer, but it has definitely peaked my interest in the Keweenaw shoreline. There may be another trip in this area further to the east, stretching away from the familiar Montreal Falls to the more remote Keystone Bay and beyond.