Wintertime at Rocking Chair Lakes
A few years had passed since I was last on Mulligan Plains. After all, as much as I enjoy wandering the wild valley sandwiched between lakes and highlands, there is only so much to see. I've visited Silver Lake Basin four times, the falls on Mulligan Creek three, camped on Rocking Chair Lakes twice, and ventured along the cliffs on either side more times than I care to count. Familiarity built over the years does have its benefts, though. When a few Upper Peninsula locals pinged me about a snowshoe trip I knew just where to suggest.
Jim had not been to many spots north of the Dead River Storage Basin and I didn't want to make the snaking drive up 573 after a long morning of driving so we met in Ishpeming about an hour after sunrise. A brief introduction with the two other Marquette men and we were off in Jim's small car. Small talk filled the tough drive (it had snowed the night before, leaving a thick layer of powder on the unplowed county road) and before long we were unpacking our gear at Buick's Corner near the base of plains.
The road was plowed - err, bulldozed - beyond this corner, over Mulligan Creek, and presumably all the way to Silver Lake Basin. There was no room for parking on the side, though, and the two roads that shoot north up the plains were covered in feet of unplowed snow. We had driven up, hoping to take the western of the two roads up to a driveway and cut out miles of hiking, and instead were forced to make a daring ten-plus-point turn just to get back to Red Road.
From Buick Corner to the eastern road was a boring mile. Along the way I pointed out the track that 'leads' up to Lake 8 and explained a bit about Mulligan Creek's bridge (they recently replaced the bridge-on-a-bridge with a cement stronghold). Once we got past the bridge, though, I immediately got confused. I had only taken the eastern road twice, both times in a warmer, greener time of year, and the thick snow covered up any hint of a track. We picked a break in the trees, strapped on snowshoes, and headed up the plains.
We weren't the first ones to come up this road. If you can call the eastern track a road. Its quite overgrown, used more by four-wheelers and snowmobilers than cars or trucks. Even the ATVs can't make it along the entire way as the swampy forest has reclaimed the old track a few miles in. Anyways, buried under a thick covering of last night's snow a few snowmobiles had packed down a trail that roughly followed the track. I led for the first bit, doing my best to keep on their pack, but after a few clumsy stumbles someone else took over.
After some open areas the road began to swing close to Mulligan Creek and the cliffs to the east. The tall cliffs that soar up with stubborn rock outcroppings and are topped with towering pines, that is. I tried to remember the last time I was up there, which spots offered which views. It was hard to tell the difference from down here. When I told my companions that I had been up there, on top of all that rock, they looked at me incredously. Between the steep rock and winter's frozen grasp of the area the thought of being on top of the cliffs seemed all but impossible.
Our road narrowed and we lost the snowmobiles. Between the encroaching trees and overhanging branches we had ventured beyond how far a vehicle, off-road or not, could go. There was still a packed path, though. It could have been from a previous winter traveler or just the way the open cut in the forest let the sun in. Thanks to the buried packed trail and Jim leading, who was the only one of our group wearing traditional shoes, I had an easy trek.
The cabin and clearing showed up with little warning. I was happy to see them. We weren't trespassing: this was the cabin at the base of Rocking Chair Lakes, whose driveway offers a shortcut from the western road (if the road is not buried in feet of snow). We passed the cabin and headed up the narrow trail that leads to the beaver dam. This narrow trail is normally a hassle of a walk, with huge stagnant pools of water forcing long detours through the thick brush. Thanks to the snow and ice it was an easy stroll, though it was a bit difficult to keep track of. A wide, snowy bridge (I normally cross on a beaver dam, it was hard to tell if the bridge was that or something new) carried us across Mulligan Creek. Now all we had to do was find the footpath that leads up a cut in the cliffs.
Up until now we had been following two-tracks, old roads, and four-wheeler trails. This footpath was a bit more difficult. It isn't well-marked or well-traveled. I've even lost track of it during the summer when you can make out trod earth through the undergrowth. With several feet of snow laying on that earth it was going to be tough to follow it up to the lakes.
A tiny creek that flows out of the lakes above proved to be the first obstacle. The water was flowing today, even though we were well below freezing, and the banks were piled too high on each side to attempt stepping across. One at a time we tried crossing a snow-laden fallen tree. Three out of the four of us fell through. No one got wet, though, so we continued on.
Next we had to find a way back south along the base of the cliff, hemmed in my Mulligan Creek to our right. This section of the path bucks up and down a bit, avoiding the lowland brush, and was completely hidden by the smothering white blanket. I took over the lead, plowing through thigh-deep snow (it was far too powdery for our snowshoes to be effective), and quickly exhausted myself. Thankfully we started to bump into erratic pink trail markers that helped to validate our direction.
Then there was the climb. A few hundred feet at best, straight up a narrow break in the cliffs, Its fairly easy to follow without a trail, with nasty outcroppings edging the fifty foot gap. I gratefully relinquished the lead spot, sore from breaking the trail below, and followed a zig-zag trail up, pausing frequently to catch my breath. Poor Jim, who had had a great time on the flat lands with his traditional shoes, was having a heck of a time climbing the hill with no crampons. Together we lumbered up while the other two seemed to easily shoot straight up the climb.
Once we finally crested the top the woods closed quickly around us, small pines that seem to cluster at the top of the gap. We pushed through and made it to the campsite and the lake beyond. It was eery.
Like I mentioned before, this was not my first visit to Rocking Chair Lakes. I had climbed these cliffs before, camped upon the shoreline, and explored the outcroppings surrounding both of the lakes. Still, standing on the edge of the frozen lake was weird. Snow smothered everything, covering the lake like a heavy blanket and smoothing out the craggy outcroppings. I had a hard time translating what I remembered from many a summertime hikes to the scene in front of me.
Note: I have been up here in the winter (Cliffs of Mulligan), but that was four or so years ago. Plus I lost the photos from that trip. Plus I have a bad memory.
Our group conversed on the shoreline. Jim wanted to see a view. That made sense seeing as how we just climbed a few hundred feet. I laid out three options. We could head over to the western shore of the north lake, a short distance and minimal climb. Or we could head over to the western shore of the south lake, climbing another hundred feet, and get a slightly better view. Or we could climb the spur in front of us. It was the hardest of the three so I tried to downplay the benefits. Didn't work. We headed across the frozen lake to the snowy spur.
We tackled the spur from the south, zig-zagging a slow course up the hill. It was painfully slow. The snow was deep and the slope sharp. Without poles we were forced to grasp uselessly at the snow or, if we were lucky, a long-dead stump. It took a long time and more than a few pauses before we finally reached the top. We had to cut back west, down from the top a bit, before the trees opened up and we could see the view below. And, just as I semi-remembered, the view did not disappoint.
Below us was the lake, a large white blank of space. Directly across was the outlet, a small crack in the cliff that gave life to that tiny outflow creek we had crossed. Beyond the lake and trees was Mulligan Plains, though the only sections we could see through the breaks was jarring clear-cut. Far to the north was a few splotches of cliff, way up by Stager Lake and Mulligan Falls, and we could almost make out Silver Lake Basin off to the southwest. I had a lot of fun pointing out all of these locals and more to my fellow hikers, who were all new to this neck of the woods.
After some more small talk and gazing out over the view we had another short debate. To the northeast, over several nasty rises and deep woods, lay Island Lake. To the south was an even taller outcropping, one that has a great view of the distant Silver Lake. We could also explore the cliffs above the plains, just on the other side of the lake. And I was exhausted. After a bit of chatting we decided to simply head back down and call it good for today.
We wandered back down the spur, each of us choosing our own route. I got to learn the delicate art of snowshoe-sledding. You squat down on your haunches, lean back, and try to slide down without falling over. As you tumble downhill an indecent amount of snow gets shoveled into the back of your pants. It's more fun than it sounds. Kind of.
When we met up on the lake it was a slow trudge back across to the campsite, through the gap, and then down to the plains. It was much easier this time around, following a beaten path (and going downhill). There were some jokes about our earlier haphazard crossing of the outflow followed by a more somber crossing of Mulligan Creek. We still had a long walk back to the car, even if it was over flat land.
Instead of following our original route in, along the overgrown eastern track, I suggested taking the driveway to the western road. Sure, we wouldn't be on our packed route, but there were no branches to duck under or trees to weave through. I got lucky. The western road, while covered in a nice thick blanket of fresh snow, was hardpacked by snowmobiles. After a few minutes of walking I was able to unstrap my snowshoes and just walked normally. That western road might as well as been a groomed trail.
The walk back was slow and a bit boring after our adventures to the east. Much of this road had scars of traffic and logging along it, a stark contrast to the wild woods and swamps. As we marched back south my mind wandered, as it usually does on such stretches, and I considered revisiting Mulligan Plains. There were still some spots to explore, to the north and east, and this trip had been a lot of fun. Bringing new hikers to an area I enjoy so much (even if I almost got us lost on the way in) was a nice change to my normal solo trips. There very well may be be more return trips to this land in the near future.