When I originally planned my Isle Royale trip, I included a side trip to McCormick Wilderness for a few days, never really deciding whether it would be before or after the main two-week event. Storage of food for the second trip, while on the first one became a logistical nightmare, so I quickly abandoned the idea.
The McCormick Wilderness is a small wilderness area in the Ottawa National Forest, covering about 17,000 acres. The property was previously owned by three generations of the McCormick family, descendants of Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the reaping machine. The U.S. Forest Service began managing the property in 1967, when the last remaining heir willed it to the federal government. It is a patchwork of hardwoods and softwoods, with scattered remains of previous human activity, including old abandoned trails, bridges, building foundations and other structures. In addition, the area contains many lakes, ponds and wetlands, including partial headwaters of at least four different major rivers.
View Revisiting McCormick Wilderness in a larger map
Although logged thoroughly until the early 1900’s, the area was managed as a private park until becoming publically owned. Although limited in trail access, a three-mile long old road leads from the main entrance to the old resort site on White Deer Lake. In addition, a portion of the North Country Trail intersects the main trail near the entrance. A myriad of old trails, some still used more than others, penetrate into the tract’s interior. The limited access opportunities probably explain the light use of the property.
Date: September 13, 2011
Length: 2.0 miles
Many years ago, while working in northern Wisconsin as a crew leader on a project studying bird populations, I found myself journeying frequently to the McCormick Wilderness. I quickly fell in love with the place, which reminded me of the Adirondacks, with its similar vegetation, wildlife and human history. With the lack of many maintained hiking trails, the McCormick played a significant role in the genesis of the Bushwhacking Fool, forcing me to explore backcountry area without the luxury of a trail through the forest.
After an uncomfortable ride up from the highway, on a meandering and frost-heaved secondary road following the Peshekee River, the parking lot with its accompanying spacious restroom is a welcome relief, in more ways than one. Forgetting about the interior parking lot, I walk along the gravel road the short distance through a dense coniferous forest to another parking lot, complete with a kiosk containing a plentiful amount of interpretive information about the wilderness area, including a map.
The main trail leads immediately to an extensive bridge over the Peshekee River, with a couple yellow posts restricting unauthorized access by motorized vehicles. Adjacent to the entrance is a boot cleaning station for preventing the transmission of exotic plant parts and seeds. Ironically, exotic plant growth almost completely obscures the entire station, only a sign illustrating its purpose remains visible.
The view from the bridge reveals a river significantly lower than the last time I visited many years ago. Small rocks piled along the shoreline remain visible, encrusted with black slime from being submerged in the water for such a long time. The rocks remain wet, apparently from rain the night before.
Soon after crossing the bridge, the North Country Trail joins the main trail for a brief period to the south before departing soon after, again in the same direction. The trail proceeds along the southern portion of the McCormick, where it finally exists at its eastern border, where it eventually runs through New York State owned forests south of Syracuse.
The main trail follows the old access road, at times gravel-covered in the open, at others a foot trail within an encroaching forest. For the first third of its length, the trail roughly follows the Baraga Creek, often represented as an extensive wetland just off to the north.
The trail is wet, so I must take care with only old Brooks Dyad running shoes on my feet. My poor feet, open sores largely unbandaged, protest with each step, but I push on for a while until the trail crosses a small stream on a log. At this point, about a mile in, I decide to turn back as I need to make good time on the road to be home by tomorrow afternoon.
Before turning to head back, I stand and enjoy the quiet. The trickle of water and the occasional call of a blue jay are the only sounds other than the rush of the wind through the surrounding treetops. I linger, not wanting to return to the fetid smell of my festering hiking clothes in my car, which I must tolerate as I drive the seemingly endless miles toward home.
Digging deeply within the recesses of my moth-ridden mind, I remember the places I went on previous trips here. An unmarked trail leading north to Lower Baraga Lake leaves the main trail only a short distance further. From that lake, I remember bushwhacking to Upper Baraga Lake, Clear Lake and finally Island Lake’s southern shore, before returning to White Deer Lake. The way between these lakes was relatively easy, or at least not as difficult as I clearly remember it.
Finally, given little choice in the matter, I turn around and head back, walking slowly, creeping along the trail toward my awaiting car. In another day, I will return to normal life, with its many annoying activities ranging from traffic jams and hours of mindless suffering in front of a computer. Life on the trail remains much simpler, with achievable daily goals, constant exhilarating exercise and beautiful vistas. Then again, normal life has refrigerators, cable TV dramas and daily showers, so it is not all bad.
As I hike back, I take advantage of the numerous opening to the north, providing extensive views of the wetlands along the Baraga Creek. Stopping several times, I scan the tops of the vegetation with my binoculars, looking for any interesting wildlife. At one point, a large northern harrier flies over the tops of the cattails. I watch the large raptor fly over the wetland repeatedly, just above the vegetation until I finally lose sight of it.
Before I know it, I am back at the bridge spanning the Peshekee River. An elderly man stands on the bridge, looking up river as he crosses. We exchange greetings, but talk little. Apparently, we both were looking for peace and quiet, not the company or conversation of another.
Within a few minutes, I am back to the outer parking lot, with my car waiting. A meandering trip back to the main highway and a full day of driving through Michigan remains before stopping for the night.
It felt good revisiting this place from my past. I wish I could have lingered here longer. Perhaps someday I will get another opportunity to return. Hopefully, with enough time to explore the place more extensively.
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