The Fortress of White Deer Lake
The straps cut deep into my shoulders. I was carrying a very heavy pack, filled with food, warm clothes, and extra supplies, much more than my usual haul. This was no simple in-and-out camping trip. My destination was White Deer Lake of the McCormick Tract and cold temperatures and rain were in the forecast.
As I walked over the wet bridge I couldn't help but peer down at the Peshekee River underneath. It was swollen from a wet autumn, the dying vegetation changing color around the deep, dark waters. While the bridge is relatively new the footings are ancient, huge pillars of rock cemented together that once supported vehicles driving up to the now-gone cabins. I crossed the bridge humbly, thankful of the easy passing of the deep waters and thinking of past travelers.
For the most part my trail would be an easy one. The old road up to White Deer Lake is now overgrown but a footpath remains, one that is easy to keep track of and follow. The first mile is wide and gravelly, with little to no impeding vegetation, and I quickly strode northwards. I had less than three hours of daylight to get to my camping site and, as usual, there were a few distractions along the way.
I tried to keep focus on the path and my pace, pushing forward under my heavy load. It wasn't easy with all the fantastical late-fall scenes around me. To the left was Baraga Creek, a wide, swampy stretch of water with dead grass and bright pines surrounding dark-brown water. Rising to the right were huge outcroppings, fifty, a hundred feet tall, pressing down on me with tons of exposed rock through the bare branches. When I finally bumped into Camp 11 Creek I began to breathe a bit easier. I wasn't making bad time so far and I was about a third of the way there. A few short minutes after a clumsy crossing of the creek and I dropped my pack to the ground, anxious to give my shoulders and back a break.
There are only three 'designated' trails on the McCormick, though none of them are marked or have any signs along their length. One leads from the Peshekee Grade to White Deer Lake, the one I had walked in on so far. A fork breaks off this path and connects over to Lower Baraga Lake, a short branch that I assume water folk are the most interested in. The last trail is way up near the Yellow Dog Plains and leads to the falls on the north side, a hike I had tackled some five years ago. Right now I stood on the fork to Lower Baraga Lake and, leaving my gear behind, trotted up the narrow footpath.
My plan was, unsurprisingly, ambitious. I hoped to follow the path to the lower lake, follow the lakeshore north, and then cut off to the upper lake a few hundred yards to the northeast. As I headed down the path I was surprised to see a large amount of trash along the trail, near the fork. It was all rusted and old, narrow tires and cast iron pieces, and I wondered if this was a dump for the long-gone landowners. That didn't fit with my knowledge of them, though. Shrugging off the mystery I continued trotting down the path.
Drizzle picked up along the walk. From the beginning of my hike there had been a shifting precipitation, at times more fog than anything else, but now it began to pick up to an honest rain and quickly soaked through my outer layers. I tried not to notice. The woods were pretty and bare, the path narrow and unobtrusive through the dying undergrowth. Soft sounds of flowing water drifted in from my left, a more active Baraga Creek flowing nearby, no traffic or other noises around to drown away the delicate gurgles. Outside of the wet the hike was perfect.
Eventually I came out onto the wide, swampy outlet of Lower Baraga Lake. A breeze was stirring up the waters under the cloudy sky, rippling the dark forest reflections. I pressed on, following the trail along the eastern shoreline, occasionally jumping over swampy sections and pushing through low brush. I knew the trail would go as far as the mid-point in the lake, though I suspected it would go further. When I got to a small campsite on a narrow spur I paused and looked around. There was a small fire ring and open views north up the lake. I checked my bearings and time. I was still hundreds of yards away from the mid-point, even farther from Upper Baraga Lake, and I was now running low on time. There wouldn't be time to go any farther.
With a sigh I turned and trotted back to my gear. I had briefly considered camping near here this evening, which would have given me plenty of time to explore the two Baraga Lakes today and continue to White Deer Lake in the morning, an idea that I now wished I would have followed through on. I made it back to my rain-soaked gear in short order and, re-shouldering the load, set back on the trail to White Deer Lake. I had less than two hours before nightfall.
The trail changes quickly after the fork. Once level, gravelled, and wide, it degrades down to a narrow, winding footpath between tall hills. Thanks to the barren late-fall woods, though, I was still able to make out hints of the old road that once ran this length, wide enough for a single car and still, after all these years, level and unrutted. If it wasn't for the trees poking up through it one could still take a car along most of its length.
After the hills there were swamp, a long swamp, and the path was muddy next to it. I slipped and sloshed my way through this, trying unsuccessfully to keep my boots dry. The swamp was pretty, bright colors rising up to my left, though I was more concerned with the unsteady ground than the changing hues.
As I walked I started thinking back, several years back, to my last visit here. Faith, AJ, and I had walked this same trail from the Peshekee Grade to White Deer Lake in the thick of summer. It was wet and rainy then too, bugs and humidity making the air a thick and chunky soup. Parts of that hike were coming back to me now, familiar sights and that-one-confusing-turn-next-to-the-swamp. Back then we had attempted to follow the western shoreline of White Deer towards The Fortress and Bulldog Lake and were turned back by impassable brush and marshy ground. That was today's plan, to attempt the lakeshore again, alone, burdened by a heavy back, and short on time. I tried to ignore the hubris in my plan and pushed forward past the swamp and woods.
A few hundred yards from White Deer Lake I found a fork in the path. I did not remember this fork. The path to the left was narrow, with a tree all but blocking it, yet it pulled at me. I checked my bearings. This could offer a route around the west side of the lake, high enough to avoid the worst of the marshy ground. Hopeful I began to pick my way down the path. A short distance off the trail and I found the wheel and scoop. I took the rotting scene as a good sign.
I continued down the narrow fork, picking out the path with some difficulty. It became apparent that this was actually a road at one time, a narrow and bucking one at best, yet still a road. Did the McCormicks and Bentleys have other roads back here besides the one to White Deer Lake? Or was this a more recent road, maybe fifty years old, that was used by the forest service to access the more remote areas of the park? Whatever the road once was a path followed it now, a path that led around the western shoreline, and I was grateful to avoid the marsh and brush that clogged the routes below.
The road led down through swampy areas, crossing over parallel cedar logs near the softer ground, and around taller hills. There were a few sharp turns that threw me off momentarily, forcing me to circle around and retrace my steps, but it wasn't until the tiny creek that I truly lost the path. I could trace it up to the creek and no further: the seasonal flow and darkening woods simply swallowed up the road and path together. A single hill lay between me and The Fortress, though, and I didn't mind a little bushwhacking. Leaning into the climb I scaled the hill, one last push before the end, and found myself in a thick and darkening forest on top.
Slightly worried I tentatively continued onwards. I wasn't sure what I was looking for now. The woods were too thick to camp in here and the day was gone. Aside from knowing the name and rough location of 'The Fortress' I didn't know if it was an outcropping, shelf, or just a simple rock, or if it would provide a sheltered camping location. White Deer Lake glinted lazily to my right, far below me, and I wandered through the nasty brush trying to ignore the clawing branches.
The woods began to open up a bit closer to the lake with a few potential spots large enough for my tent to fit. I slowed, trying to decide if I should just stop and set up camp and give up my search, and then something poked through the horizon ahead. A dark line, a huge bulge through the trees, blocked out the northern sky. It was The Fortress. I stumbled ahead in excitement, surprised by the size of the rocky mound.
When I was close enough I dropped my gear, rubbing my sore shoulders and stretching my back, before tackling the climb. There was no easy way up the rock, no way I could just stroll up with a full pack, so I wanted to scout out the top before deciding whether or not to camp on top. A bit of scrambling up the damp rock and loose ground and I reached the flat peak. The top of The Fortress was disheartening.
There was a huge fire pit, probably left over from the old days, and around it was scorched earth and trees. It could have been a lightning strike that burned through the ground here, sure, but I would bet that it was a recent careless visitor instead. I circled around, trying to admire the view through the burned pines, trying to ignore the crunching ground underfoot and blackened logs.
After a few minutes I headed back down to my gear. There was no way I was going to camp on top of that, not with the exposed ground and possible overnight rains. I picked some flat earth just south of the barren rock and pitched my tent. I had a long hike planned for tomorrow and, as I settled into my too-thin sleeping bag, I hoped to get a few decent hours of sleep through the cold night ahead.