Adventures in da Huron “Mountains”

IMG_0839So the first time I tried to find my way from “Wayne’s World” to L’Anse the Back Way, following logging trails through the Huron Mountains, it was 1918 and I was driving my Model T….

Wait. No I wasn’t.  Let’s start over.

It was June and I was on a week-long pilgrimage of writing and therapeutic seclusion. This year, instead of taking in the usual retreat near Traverse City with two dozen other Peninsula Writers, I had beat a solitary retreat to the U.P. “camp” of my cousin Wayne, appropriately known as “Wayne’s World.” I was driving a 2002 Saturn Vue. Four banger with a 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive, and a sissy suspension.

The directions were clear: go to the U.P. and turn west. At Lake Michigamme on US-41 I was to go north on County 607—Huron Bay Drive—for 8-1/2  miles, then turn left and go to the end of the road. This was Up North, and the “road” was one-lane dirt that quickly degraded into a two-track kidney-buster that ended abruptly, a mile later, at the back door of Wayne’s World.IMG_1968

Wayne’s camp sits above the shores of Lake Arfelin (literally, according to local legend, the “Lake where Art Fell In”.) Wayne’s World, once I got over the initial shock of seeing fiberglass insulation batting for a ceiling, was luxurious by camp standards: three bedrooms, electricity, color TV, DVD, VCR, hot water for the shower, and the ubiquitous sauna in a separate cabin down by the lake. Lake water pumped into a holding tank on stilts above the cabin provides pressure for a flush toilet. Not quite the Ritz—I had to go down to the sauna house and plug in the pump till the tank was full—but it was free, and remote from civilization, at least on weekdays. Just what the patient needed. And the sauna house made the perfect daily writing refuge.

After three days of seclusion in Wayne’s World, I set out to check out what passes for civilization in the Upper Peninsula—which, as it turns out, is quite civilized—starting with L’Anse.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking over my county maps, I decided I could go north from Wayne’s World into the wilderness and come in the back side of L’Anse, saving me many miles and the brutality of Huron Bay Drive (declared by one Yooper as “de roughest road in da Yoo-Pee”) just to get back to highway 41. I knew northbound Huron Bay Drive would peter out into little old logging trails, probably in worse shape than the trail leading back to Wayne’s World. There were no towns on that corner of the map; no lakes, no campgrounds, no significant landmarks. Just wild North Country and desolate trails, marked with wimpy red dotted lines that meandered aimlessly across the pages.

I was looking for adventure. I planned to work my way around to the north side of Mount Arvon: on the map an impressive-looking hill of some 1850 feet, the highest point in all of Michigan. I hoped to be able to drive to the top of it for a look around. Hiking was not likely judging from the local mosquitoes (hardly distinguishable from the Japanese Kamikaze planes in size and determination). From Arvon Lookout I hoped to work my way west and eventually wind up in L’Anse, followed by a visit to Houghton, home of Michigan Technological University and the Cyberia Cafe.

vueStarting out at 7:40am with a hot coffee in my cup holder, I bounced my way from camp to Huron Bay Drive and turned left. Following the county map, I headed north for some 13 miles, checking off miles and intersections and picturesque bridges and compass headings and knowing pretty much exactly where I was. I met one lone pickup on the way and once glimpsed a couple of heavy excavation trucks parked off on a side road. I figured on hitting a slightly better road on the southwest side of the hill, turning left, then working my right around the base.

That’s where things fell apart. Intersections and side trails popped up where none were indicated on the map. The improved road I anticipated failed to materialize. A rougher road appeared in its stead. Where I expected to find a simple Y in the road, I found an intersection of five divergent trails. I picked a promising one and followed it until it split a couple more times. I began to think seriously about the vast expanse of wilderness I was in. I doubted the reliability of my county map. I wished I had better maps, and dividers for more accurate scaling.

I thought a lot about GPS. Which I did not own….

Especially when I took a 90 degree turn and saw that the heading on my Saturn’s compass didn’t change in response. I’d been warned that the iron lodes in the U.P. could do that, sometimes luring inexperienced hunters to starvation and death in the deep woods. I took a few wild guesses, madeda UP a few more turns, started to follow a loose gravel trail up a mildly promising incline until it split two or three more times. I looked at my water bottle and the single lone granola bar I’d brought along for a road snack. My travel mug of coffee was long empty. Ravenous mosquitoes were battering the Saturn’s windows and plastic body panels like a hailstorm, trying to pull me from my car and rip my throat out. Just stepping outside for a moment to relieve myself was a death defying act of foolishness.

I wondered just how lost I dared to get.

Not very. I soon suffered a Crisis of Confidence and did an Agonizin’ Reappraisal. I didn’t panic. I still had lots of daylight. I also had a cell phone, but it only worked way back at US 41, certainly not at Wayne’s World or Points North. But I had been examining the trails to be sure the tire tracks were fairly recent, and not more than a decade old. Still, I was not reassured. My warm fuzzy sense of adventure was quickly turning sour on me. I turned around and backtracked, trying in vain to recognize the several bridges I’d crossed and dozens (hundreds?) of turns I’d made. And the multitude of forgettable landmarks that I had tried unsuccessfully to burn into my memory for just this eventuality: a lone, decades old beer carton; a dull rock… or six; a couple of protruding branches among the millions that strove to assault my car; the abandoned lumber trucks. But now, coming from the other direction, navigating by dead reckoning, everything was reflected in a dark mirror and totally unfamiliar. Were those trucks supposed to be on the left or the right?

I got out alive. In all I had probably gone north no more than 15 miles, and the same number back, but by the time I returned to my starting point near Wayne’s World I had blown more than two precious hours. And I still had to endure the suspension-busting torture test that was Huron Bay Drive. And I’d never even glimpsed Arvon Lookout, to my knowledge, or any other hill of note.


So much for the Huron “Mountains.”

A couple years later I actually made that backroads journey to L’Anse successfully in an unassuming Volkswagen Jetta diesel. With a GPS. But that was when the “suspension-busting” reputation of Huron Bay Drive reared its ugly head.


And if you think this was a long trip, you should ride with Alice Louise and Beth in Deathe & Taxes–check out the tab above.




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