Morning sun shone bright over the trailhead to Bare Bluff. It was early, mere hours since the sunrise, yet there already was another vehicle sitting here. The chance I would run into these hikers was low. The first part of today's hike may be along the main trail but I had an ambitious side trek planned.
Walking along the wide track-turned-trail was easy going. A wide footpath carved from numerous past visitors kept the undergrowth from creeping up on the open ground. It didn't take long to pass by the first turn off for the trail, the gradual climb up Bare Bluff, or the second turn off from the return loop. I stuck to the old track. The narrowing footpath and plentiful stands of thimbleberries kept me company as I continued east and south past the main trails of the preserve.
My path dropped down in elevation as I neared Lake Superior. Soon the footpath faded away into the undergrowth, lost as past visitors either lost interest in the berries or realized that they missed the main trail, and I began to wade through the undergrowth of old logging land. Tall grass and thick brush complicated my route. I was a mere few hundred yards from the lake, a very difficult and gnarly few hundred yards.
I had climbed Bare Bluff last spring. It was a great hike with excellent views that I really enjoyed. Some weeks afterwards though I noticed that there was a second, smaller bluff below, right next to shoreline. This smaller bluff is the one that kayakers usually photograph from below, with sea stacks and caves and all sorts of good stuff. It nagged at me that I had hiked the main bluff and totally skipped out the more remote one, so today I was on my way there, hacking through overgrown scrub.
The first thing I wanted to do was check out the top of the bluffs, which was difficult to pinpoint on the maps. I wandered around through the forest, looking for a good outbreak to signify the edge of the cliff. Downed trees and thick summer growth made the going tough. When I finally found a good break I realized that my route had taken me too far downhill. Just to my right was an obvious rock cliff. I needed to head back west and gain back some height.
Climbing was surprisingly tough, a combination of undergrowth and scrub hiding the loose rocks underfoot. Using small vegetation and tree trunks I hauled myself up the slope. There was hints of a trail scattered here and there, though it was hard to tell if it was animal or manmade. Either way it was too broken up to keep to consistently. In a few short minutes I was on top of the open cliff and was greeted with an interesting view back at my initial route.
Reaching out from the steep bluffs was a thin, narrow stretch into the lake. The top was sharp and barely had enough soil for a few trees to cling to. On my side the bluff caved outwards towards it, like a big scoop, which explained why there was hardly any view when I first came out of the relatively flat forest.
Making a mental note of the sharp stretch and caved sides I turned and continued west. The cliffs continued to climb quickly and in a few more minutes I came out upon another, more impressive, view of the lake below. This bluff may be dangerously overgrown and remote but it has some very scenic spots.
Lake Superior felt so close even as it lay some two hundred feet below, its blue-blue waters sparkling like an island dream. Some spots, like the shore south of Bete Gris and the coves around Montreal Falls, were visible and more intimate from this height. Bare Bluff is more prominent, its just that that down here these spots felt closer. Beyond faded away into the haze of the day. The Huron Mountains may be visible, as well as Keweenaw Point and the shore by Rabbit Island, but not today.
Hoping to see a bit more of the western view I trudged further up the cliff. Not much opened up, though. There was quite a bit of curve to overcome before I would be able to make out the white beaches of Bete Gris or Lac la Belle, and I'm pretty sure that the cliff dies out before then. With one last nausea-inducing gaze down the edge of the bluffs I started to head back to the sharp protusion.
The cliff tops were only half of my hike today. I really wanted to walk the shoreline down here, the rocky shore under the bluff. Thanks to the narrow ridge and the scoops on either side I'd have an easy hike down through thick woods. Thick woods beats sheer rock drops any day.
Heading down the slope was slow, with more than a few scrambles over decaying deadfall, and it took a long time to reach the lake. I was not sure what to expect down here. The last time I hiked a long distance along the Keweenaw shore it had alternated between cobble beaches and rocky blocks, the latter of which involving a bit of rock-hopping to traverse. When I reached the water's edge I realized that there would be no strolls over a beach or easy rock-hopping here. This shore was going to be tough.
Loose rock from the bluffs above tumbled down towards a sheer rock drop into Lake Superior. A scrappy forest grew over the loose rock, a forest filled with downed trees and undergrowth. So walking the shoreline would involve crawling, hacking, and swinging along a steep slope of loose rock, and if I slid down I'd go over a ten foot or more rock drop into the lake. Excellent.
Trying to convince myself that maybe the going would get easier as I headed west I pushed forward. After all, there was beaches ahead, maybe a half mile away. All I had to do was walk a half mile. On flat land that's a ten minute journey. How bad could it be?
After some scratching and tearing bushwhacking I made it to a large flat chunk that reached out into the lake. I hopped over to the clear grassy section. This was better than a sixty-degree angle. From here I could look back up, beyond the lower cliffs, and get a view all the way up to Bare Bluff proper. Tiny little specks were up there, at least two other hikers. They were maybe a quarter mile away and six hundred feet above me and had much cooler views to check out than a sweating denim-clad dot on the shoreline. I took a quick photo and continued west along the shoreline.
For a short time the going eased up as I walked below the 'scoop'. Than it got harder again. I was making painfully slow progress along the shore. The treacherous ground underfoot forced me to plan a route, test sections, and then either dash across to a solid resting place or circle back and replan. Ten, twenty, up to forty feet of crumbling rock piles split up the leaning forest in areas, rock that loosened and cascading down to Lake Superior after my passage.
After an hour of double backs, sliding dashes, and spider crawls I paused and checked on my route. I had traveled a maybe four hundred yards from my descent point. Ouch. On the bright side, I was halfway to where I thought the beaches started up. However, to reach the beaches I'd have to round the steepest section of shoreline, right below the cliffs. Maybe, maybe the shoreline wasn't worth the effort.
And then it finally happened. As I huddled under a sheer outcropping, surrounded on each side by pine needles over coarse rock, I started a small avalanche. With a shaky arm I reached out and grabbed what looked like a solid handhold. As soon as I put some weight on the rock it gave. I swung back under my outcropping to keep from sliding down as the rock tumbled down. And then more rock tumbled down, from higher up on slope. It wasn't a lot, maybe a few square yards, but it would have been enough to carry me over the lip and hurt me quite a bit on the landing. Grasping onto the sheer little outcropping I stared as my route forward briefly disappeared into dust and noise.
Done done done. The infamous sea stack was nearby, and the beaches a few hundred yards away, and I was done. I backtracked a bit and then shot straight up the slope with the fresh legs of a mountain goat. I don't mind rock, and I don't mind tough trails, but this was a bit much. It took maybe five minutes to scale the lower bluff, much shorter than it had descending.
I wasn't too far away from where I first ran into the bluff, having cut an angle on my climb to avoid the steep rock cliffs. Making it back to the two-track and trail was easy, and soon I was munching on thimbleberries while walking on a wide footpath again. The bluffs had been cool to find, an alternate and wilder view than the main Bare Bluff… that shoreline is ridiculous, though. Better to be enjoyed by kayak or boat. I swung back into my car, dusty and bruised, and hoped that the next shoreline hike would be an easier one.