The other night, I decided to climb a mountain. Out for a walk with the dog, I drove inland from Lake Superior with no plan other than a whim to go a-wandering in the woods. However, while the snow was gone along the North Shore, there was still plenty on the ground once I got a couple of miles away from the big lake. So I turned around and headed back to the snow-free zone.
That’s when I decided to go mountain climbing. Ok, I wasn’t ascending Everest, just a rocky knob crowned with white pines that is an unnamed local landmark. In other words, it’s a mountain to me.
Although one of my favorite grouse-hunting trails skirts around the north side of this little mountain, a few years had passed since I last climbed to the top. Today the dog and I would give it a shot, if for no other reason than it was snow-free. We hiked in on the hunting trail, passing a beaver pond that was still solid with ice. Although it’s likely the northern lakes will be ice-free by the opener, many remain frozen as May begins..
We left the trail after we passed the pond, skirting around the eastern side of the hill. A straight-up hike wasn’t possible, because sheer rock walls extend around much of the summit. Instead, I busted brush and followed deer trails where I could, angling up the eastern slope. When I paused and looked back, the beaver pond was surprisingly far below me. And I still had a ways to go.
The brush thinned out and the boulders and trees got bigger as I climbed higher. I passed through a small remnant grove of ancient cedars and white pines with trunks more than three feet in diameter—trees whose age is measured in centuries. I wondered why these trees had survived the early logging era. Perhaps because they were so high above the terrain they were left to scatter seeds. One massive white pine ended abruptly where its thick trunk had snapped like a twig in a long-forgotten wind storm.
Even though the grove contained just a few trees, walking beneath them was like passing through a memory of another time. It is humbling to think that throughout most of their existence, woodland caribou walked beneath these pines and cedars. The white-tailed deer walking beneath them today have been in the boreal forest for less than 100 years.
It took but a few steps to pass through the grove, which ended at the crest of the slope. Now I was at the top of the mountain, although I was still a couple of hundred yards from the highest peak. The top was mostly bare rock, grass and brush, due to being exposed to the extremes of weather and perhaps the persistent browsing of deer and moose. Droppings from wintering deer were everywhere.
I walked over to a rocky ledge with a sweeping view of Lake Superior, whose shores were two miles away in distance and hundreds of feet below in elevation. It's a view I've seen from many vantage points in every season and all weather, yet it never becomes routine. In front of me, the lake stretched all the way to the horizon. Looking east, I could see the gray-green hump of Isle Royale. Beneath me, I could make out Highway 61 and some local features, though they were mostly hidden in the forest.
Finally, I turned and continued toward the very top. Grass-covered rock was interspersed with stunted aspen and brush. I saw big and small moose droppings, evidence that a cow and her calf spent time there during the winter. I wasn’t surprised, because moose seek out open hilltops with southern exposure during the winter.
Reaching the top, I looked northward, away from the lake, marveling at how far beneath me was the beaver pond I’d passed earlier. More ancient white pines grew along the edge of the north face, which dropped off a sheer cliff. On a similar hike years ago, I’d found an old mine shaft along the very edge of the cliff. Although I’ve asked around among the locals, I’ve never found anyone who knew of its existence, which suggests it is very old. I looked for it again this time, but was unable to locate it among the brush and blow downs along the top of the cliff.
Now it was time to descend. Instead of retracing my route, I decided to go down the west side, which was closer to where I’d parked, walking along the top edge until it changed from a cliff to a boulder slope. Then I walked a little further until I found a spot where I could safely start down. It was slow going as I angled along the slope, picking the best path among the tumbled, moss-covered rocks. The dog, more sure on his four feet, descended with much less effort than me. Finally, we reached the bottom of the boulder slope and continued down a steep, forested hillside to the truck.
Our little jaunt there and back again took less than two hours and at no point were we more than a mile away from the truck. We accomplished nothing other enjoying a fine view of Lake Superior, but that was enough to justify the hike. They say adventure, like gold, is where you find it. And you know what? They’re right.