Tuesday, June 7, 2011
A hundred-year-old cabin on the shores of a pristine lake in the boreal forest of Northern Minnesota? It might sound like the height of luxury, and beyond the reach of most of us. Let me complete the picture by adding that the cabin has mice, but neither bathroom nor running water—there’s a creaky hand-pump fifty yards away. It’s heated by wood. The “rustic” furniture is only marginally comfortable. And did I mention that you have to walk almost two miles through the woods to get to the place?
My hat goes off to those backpackers who cram five days worth of equipment and supplies into a pack and set off up the Superior Hiking Trail. We had trouble getting a week-end worth of supplies—no tent, no foam pads, no cooking equipment required—into our packs. Just sleeping bags, clothes, and food. And then there were the books, of course. A thick terrycloth towel? Yes, we brought one. A cribbage board? Why not? The hooch was strictly measured and limited: six ounces of Calvados per night, divided more or less equally by two.
The cabin does have a modern two-burner stove and a little fridge (with ice). The building itself was originally part of a logging camp that was later sold to a group of Duluth businessmen, back when cars had cranks and fighter-pilots flew bi-planes. Some of the buildings fell down eventually and the state of Minnesota bought the rest of them. There are four cabins left, along with a variety of sheds and a single large lodge that anyone who trudges in can hold a picnic in.
Each of the private cabins comes with a canoe, and there are fishing rods lined up in one of the sheds. No lures or bait, however. That took me by surprise. Though I haven’t fished in thirty years, there are two Rapalas sitting right here—one gold, one silver—in the front drawer of my desk. They’re made of balsa wood: I think I could have borne the weight. I ended up fishing from shore with a bobber, using raw chicken or slices of andouille sausage for bait. Hard to explain, I had no luck.
Cabin B, which we reserved about a year ago after spending a night in cabin D, is by all accounts the best of the lot. It’s located beyond the others are the end of the trail, making it the most private by far, and it’s also the only one that sits right on the lake.
Micmac Lake is only five feet deep in many places, but it’s surrounded by lofty hills and sheer cliffs that in Minnesota might almost be mistaken for little mountains. There are swamps at either end—always fun to explore. On our second night we paddled a circuit around the lake’s shoreline in half an hour, spotting a deer in the distance at one point and later surprising a huge beaver who was sunning himself on the shore a few feet from our passing canoe. He waddled down the grassy embankment and eased himself onto the water, paddled a few feet from shore, then took a dive, slapping his tail—twice! On the east side of the lake fifteen turkey vultures were soaring and diving together in the evening light. They looked almost majestic.
The first night it dropped below fifty, and we had a fire blazing in the cast iron stove. The next morning broke bright and sunny, and we were on the hiking trails by 8:30. Ovenbirds and black-throated green warblers were singing away by the hundreds. Though we never spotted either of those species on the hike, we did get a very good look at a handsome magnolia warbler, a red-eyed vireo, and a least flycatcher.
The trail we took circles around Mic Mac Lake through the hilly terrain, joins the Superior Hiking Trail for a while, diverges north to swing around Nipisiquit Lake, crosses Mosquito Creek, and ends up back at the hunting camp. It took us three hours, and was unspeakably pleasant from beginning to end. The leaves are not entirely “out” yet, and we could see ample chunks of sky. The trailsides were an unending succession of starflowers, clintonia blossoms, sarsaparilla, emerging ferns, bedstraw, and forget-me-nots. The temperature? A delectable 65 degrees would be my guess.
We took a spur at one point out to Raven Rock, an exposed piece of rock that offers a spectacular view out across the hills to Lake Superior. The air was so clear that with binoculars we could see the channels separating the Apostle Islands, maybe 60 miles away.
During our hike back to the car Sunday morning, we stashed our packs in the woods at one point and took one final side-trip up to Mount Baldy. Another sunny morning, another great view across the hills to the sea.