Riding With the Snomads

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Sunday, Jan.16,2011 – Nine Snomads, Dick Woodruff, Russ Demers, Vince Cytaki, Matt Baxter, Don Delcourt, Keith & Kevin Kish, Carl Schiele and myself arrived at the Red Fox Inn, Gwinn, MI, our home port for the 6th Western UP/ Kee Ride.

The following morning, the nine of us took off on a day trip to the south.  Headed down Trail 33, Russ had an idea to run the trail south through Arnold and check out the Ford River, perhaps riding the Ford to La Branche. The trail to Arnold was spectacular, a trail condition rating somewhat better then excellent.

Continuing south of Arnold, just before the Ford River, we encountered two Gray Wolves observing our approach. Slowing down they seemed not to be intimidated by us but rather more observant and possibly, with an eye for a troll luncheon. Unlike other wolves I’ve encountered, these two did not immediately dart off back into the woods but instead, crossed the trail in front of us and watched us approached within less than 100 feet before they ran off to the right. As our group continued, another wolf approached from the left side to greet my sweep rider, Russ. It too stopped and eyed Russ over as Russ approached even closer to the third wolf then the other two.

The gray or grey wolf (Canis lupus) are magnificent looking animals to see in the wild and travel in an average pack consisting of 5–11 animals; 1–2 adults, 3–6 juveniles and 1–3 yearlings though exceptionally large packs consisting of 42 wolves are known. We definitely got a good look at three adults of the pack, with the third one possibly being the Alpha dude as he seemed much bolder than the first two.

Shortly after the wolf encounter we stopped at the Ford River and decided not to run the river as we weren’t sure of the ice conditions nor where we would end up. We continued south on Trail 33 but a reroute begin taking us to the west, away from La Branche. We reached Trail 16 further west than I planned, so we continued west on 16 into Felch for lunch at Solberg’s Bar & Grill. Solberg’s didn’t look like much from the outside but once inside we were impressed with the friendly and prompt service and good food.

Leaving Felch we continued west on Trail 16, thinking of going to Crystal Falls but the snow was thinning out and we were beginning to kick up stones, so we turned north on Trail 5. Arriving at the junction of Trail 5 North and Trail 32 East, we took a feeder trail, west to Silver Lake for gas. After refueling we headed back to the Trail 5/32 junction to take 32 back to Gwinn. At that point, unbeknownst to me, my sweep rider, Marshall Dillon (Russ) told Chester (Vince) he was going to roadride, south, back to the junction and Chester became my sweep. Meanwhile, I had decided to take a boon docking short cut, straight east, on an unplowed, untraveled, tight, two track, to a Trail 32 junction, two miles north of the 5/32 junction Marshall Dillon was going to meet us at. About a mile into the shortcut we encountered a fallen tree blocking our path and after removing a 5 foot section of it, we continued.

Arriving at Trail 32, I learned Russ was no longer with us but had also taken a “shortcut” and was waiting for us two miles back. Stopping a couple of sleds coming from that direction, confirmed this conclusion so I high tailed it back to bring the Marshall back into our fold. I arrived at the junction to find Russ NOT there, returned to the group, knowing Russ had to pass this way and sure enough, within a few minutes he came sheepishly riding up.

Once again back in high snow country, we continued the 50 miles across Trail 32 back to our basecamp. After some fine dining at the Tailwinds Grill & Bar, Don Delcourt used his charm on the Motel receptionist to secure us a free conference room for socializing and euchre.

By Tuesday morning the remaining 5 Snomads, Brian Crabtree, Al Cumpf, Bill Green, Dave Lofthouse, and Dave Gabriel had arrived, bringing the total number of riders to 14 but we immediately lost one.

Carl Schiele was experiencing extremely limiting, back muscle spasms and the Mondays’ ride seemed not to have worked to his benefit. He was not comfortable about taking off on a five day saddlebag ride, as the spasms seemed not to be abating. After discussing several options, Carl, the trooper he is, volunteered to drive my tow vehicle and trailer, following our journey as a chase unit and carrying all our saddlebags.

Dividing into two groups with Bill Green leading the second group, we left out at 8:30AM with temps in the low 20’s. We would both lunch at the Thunder Bay Inn in Big Bay and end the day at the Ojibwa Casino & Resort in Baraga. My route was east on Trail 8 to Sundell Rd. then north to Laughing Whitefish Falls.

Laughing Whitefish Falls is a long and tall slide and is one of the tallest waterfalls in Michigan, 100 feet. The cold weather had pretty much frozen up the falls but the ride, on the footpath, back to the falls is always a slow, winding, tight enjoyable ride. Riding back to Sundell Road, after the falls visit, we continued north on Peter White Road, another unplowed seasonal, trail breaking two track with just vague impressions of travel with a small stream crossing thrown in, led us to Trail 417, just east of Lakenland.

Stopping at Lakenland, we enjoyed a self-guided tour down a sculpture trail of over 100 sculptures. Everything in the park is singularly built by Tom Lakenen himself. Lakenen displays an impressive range of sculpting styles and methods in his park: you’ll find sculptures that are clever, scary, political, cartoony, intentionally kitschy… and sometimes all of these things at once. Tom is a self-admitted ex-alcoholic and has been quoted as saying that Lakenenland is his way of “creating all of the things [he] saw when he was drinking.”

Ray Williams at Lakenenland

Leaving the sculpture park, we followed the trail west along the Lake Superior shoreline to Marquette and to the top of Mt. Mesnard and its’ 1100 ft overlook of Marquette and Lake Superior.

It was almost lunchtime and we still had over 30 mile to go to meet up with Bill Green’s group for lunch. Bill had left Gwinn and went up Trail 8 to the Crossroads for breakfast and continued north on Trail 8 and 14 into Big Bay. Trying to make up some time I hopped on County Road 510, northwest of Marquette connected back on Trail 14 a few miles south of Big Bay. Three miles from Big Bay, we passed a Yamaha Attack and a helmet abandoned on the trail and a quarter mile further, its’ Wisconsin owner. He and his companion had left Marquette and run out of gas. His companion was 10 miles further, down the trail and waiting for him to bring gas. I sent the group on into town while Marshall Dillon and I returned the Wisconsin Kid to his sled and siphoning gas from Russ’s sled got him on his way.

After gassing up Russ and I were shortly reunited with our group and the Greenies at the Thunder Bay Inn. The historic Thunder Bay Inn was built in 1910 by the lumber barons of the time. It was originally used as a warehouse, general store, office and barbershop for the lumber companies that were the mainstay of the economy in the Upper Peninsula at the turn of the century. In 1940, Henry Ford purchased the Inn, along with most of the town, and renovated it to serve as a vacation retreat for himself and his executives. Rooms were upgraded, sinks and more bathrooms were added, and a private dining room was built to accommodate the auto baron.

The Hotel was also the 1959 setting for some scenes in the classic film, “Anatomy of a Murder”. The novel and movie were based on a true incident, which took place in Big Bay. The present day restaurant/pub was built onto the hotel for the filming of the movie. It sported a pink paint job to make the room look better in black and white on the movie screen. In 1986 the hotel was restored to the old-era look and feel. It was then renamed the Thunder Bay Inn, the fictional name of the hotel in the novel and movie.

Bill’s group was just finishing their lunch and we both planned the same route to Baraga, Trail 14, the AAA Trail. We left 45 minutes after Bill’s group and headed out of town passing the infamous Lumberjack Tavern where the 1952 actual murder of bar owner, Barney Quill, took place as depicted in the movie. To be brief, it seems an Army officer’s wife was allegedly mistreated and taken advantage of by Mr. Quill. Upon learning of the transgression, Army Lt. Fred Manion walked into the tavern and shot Barney dead on the barroom floor. Rent the movie, it’s a great American classic starring James Steward, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and is directed by Otto Preminger.

I knew the AAA Trail had some major reroutes, due to logging operations, but somehow I missed Trail 14 and left the area on Trail 5, traveling west. I was OK with the westward direction thinking that the Trail 14 reroute was still ahead, off of 5. After a while Trail 5 turned south then west again then south for good. At that point we were so far along I decided to continue down Trail 5 to Trail 8 then head west. Trail 5, was absolutely awesome, excellent base, groomed, with fresh powder. We all enjoyed the smooth twisty trail down to Champion.

Turning west onto Trail 8 was a different story. The snow was adequate but the grooming left a lot to be desired. Trail 8 parallels M28 West on a rugged, rocky, scenic path that passes Michigamme, Three Lakes and Nestoria to where it then turns north, away from M28 for some fast road riding along old US41. Trail 8 connected to 15 north and into Baraga. It was a little after 7 and we had added 180 miles to our odometers, it was good to see my SUV and trailer in the parking lot with my bathing suit and pajamas in it. It had been a long day and we were to lose another rider for the next days ride.

Tuesday’s ride had taken a toll on Vince (Ironman) Cytaki’s leg. He had been in a bone shattering motorcycle mishap, the prior Spring, that required surgery and pins to hold it all together. His leg was complaining. The following morning he decided load up his Yamaha and join Carl for the ride to Copper Harbor.

After an early breakfast we were off to another 8:30AM start, temps in the low 20’s with great snow depth. We started out as one group but would split up later. I wanted to take Baraga Plains Road (old Trail 159 which has been closed for two years) south and after five miles of road riding, I managed to get on it. It was snow covered and had little use, which provided a great ride to Trail 8/15 and its’ roller coaster ride. Cinematographer, Matt Baxter, set up his camera shoot a ways down the trail to catch us all flying over the rollers. A short, off trail shortcut over to Trail 109, took us to the Sturgeon River Wilderness Area and the Bear’s Den Overlook. The overlook sits high up on a steep bank, looking down and out across the Sturgeon River Gorge onto a sea of treetops and the Sturgeon River.

Firesteel BridgeContinuing through the Wilderness Area we intersected with Trail 12 and flew west to Trail 3, the Bill Nichols Trail with its’ three Firesteel Bridges. These bridges are perhaps the most impressive snowmobile bridges in the state.  Originally constructed as railroad trestles, the old railroad bridges have been converted to recreational use.  New railings and decks were placed on top of the railroad ties with much of the construction work being done by local snowmobile clubs under the DNR’s snowmobile grant program. The Firesteel Bridges move more than 46,000 snowmobiles and 4,000 ORV’s per year, high over two branches of the Firesteel River.

We rode northeast up Trail 3 through Twin Lakes, South Range into Houghton/Hancock.

It’s an incredible view riding into Houghton from the South, you ride in high on a ridge, following and looking down at the Portage Waterway and the city of Hancock across the water (ice). You descend into Houghton, next to the waterway, and ride through a marina, a park and over the famous Portage Lake Lift Bridge. The bridge opened in June 1960 with four lanes of traffic on the top level and a railroad crossing on the lower level. It was the worlds heaviest aerial lift bridge. Snowmobiles now cross over on the lower level with snow being dumped and groomed on the trail portion.


Old Locomotive in Hancock

Following Trail 3 east to Dollar Bay we stopped for lunch at Quincy’s. It was another 100 mile run before lunch on fast smooth trails. While at Quincy’s, I called Carl, our chase driver, to have him join us at Quincy’s. He was already in Eagle Harbor and said he’d see us at our day’s destination, The Pines in Copper Harbor.



After lunch, both groups were going to Gay, High Rock Point, then Copper Harbor. Bill’s group was taking the longer route, Trail 3 north to Trail 122 east to Gay, then Trail 124 back to 3 and on to High Rock Point. I had another route planned. Leaving Quincy’s, we turned east to Dollar Bay and followed a little known, lightly traveled local trail, through Dollar Bay and across the east arm of Portage Lake. We entered Dreamland and picked up the local trail again behind the bar. The trail is loaded with deer and is mostly one sled wide. We found it had been groomed recently and was in excellent condition. The trail goes north and connects to the South Gay Trail (122) and into Gay.

Gay is mostly a ghost town now having been named after it’s founder Joseph E. Gay. Gay was the president of the Wolverine Copper Company and Mohawk Mining Company. The Mohawk Mining Company built a stamp mill in the community in 1898. The residual stamp Stamp Sand fields in Gay, MIsand dumped into Lake Superior increased the town’s area greatly. Today, only the large smokestack and the ruins from the stamp mill still remain. The only remaining business is a bar, which is called appropriately, The Gay Bar.

Gay is locally celebrated for its annual 4th of July parade. The “Gay Parade” as it is referred to locally, attracts up to 8 times its population. Up until 1998, the 4th of July celebrations culminated in a ceremonious lighting of the smokestack. Old tires and diesel fuel produced thick black smoke that could be seen for miles out in Lake Superior. This activity was halted due to pollution concerns……..HELLLOOOOOO!

The South Gay Trail enters Gay over tens of acres of the dumped stamp sand which forms a high cliff right up to Lake Superior’s edge. It also creates a huge snowmobile playground with deep snow, rolling hills, and no stumps, boulders or trees to worry about.

After some picture taking and a visit inside the Gay Bar we had again, fallen behind. I had to make up some time. Trail 133, north out of Gay is a twisting, time consuming trail so I decided to road ride up the Gay La Belle Road and eliminate much of Trail 133. At a point up the road, where I had to connect to the trail, I had to hop over a snow bank and lead the group over a two track that was covered with three feet of snow and had not even the vaguest impressions of travel. This was a no stopping ride that felt like you were on a waverunner instead of a snowmobile. After about 100 yards, I saw the road split and a quick glance at my GPS showed me to take the left fork, which finally dumped me onto Trail 133.


High Rock Point

It was then a groomed ride out to High Rock Point.  On the five mile trail, out to the point, the Green group passed us in the opposite direction.  After a short visit to the point, we rode into Copper Harbor, Michigan’s northern most community, 1990 miles north of Miami. Again our chase driver, Carl and shotgun Vince greeted our arrival and after dinner at the Mariner, we settled into our nights lodging, The Pines Motel.

After a Thursday morning breakfast, we prepared to head out. Vince’s leg was feeling better so he unloaded his sled to ride. On the other hand, Don Delcourt’s sled had a punctured front airbag, which greatly compromised his steering and was causing premature and excessive hyfax wear.  Don elected to load up his sled and ride with Carl for the rest of the trip.

Our ride for the day was pretty much a direct travel day from Copper Harbor to Lake-of-the-Clouds to Bergland, so we decided to stay in one group. We left via Trail 3, which took us up Brockway Mountain Drive, a nine mile scenic route that runs atop the spine of Brockway Mountain. It rises 735 feet above lake level and on a clear day you can see Isle Royale, 56 miles away. This was not a clear day however, as the snow begin to fall. As we continued west and south toward our lunch destination, Henry’s Never Inn, in Rockland, the snowfall increased to near whiteout conditions and again we were running behind schedule. The snowfall continued with temps in the low teens. We stopped for a break, a few miles north of Twin Lakes where Trail 3 crosses the highway, M26. The snowfall had set us back enough we decided to have lunch in Twin Lakes at the Parkview. During our stop I saw our chase unit go by so I called Carl and advised him of our lunch plans. Soon we were together in the spacious dining room, enjoying lunch together.

We had rode 90 miles Twin Lakes, at less than desired speeds, and still had 66 miles to get to Bergland. Adding the Lake-of-the-Clouds to the itinerary would have been a bit much so we decided to ride there the next morning and just head for our days destination, the Lake Gogebic Motel in Bergland.

Just out side Bergland, I wanted to run over Timberline Sports, the local Ski-Doo dealer, as I had a burned out headlamp. I sent the group on to the Motel while Matt, Dick Woodruff and myself rode over to the dealer. Walking in we met John Newman there, he too was on a Western U.P. ride and was having an issue with his sled. I had my headlamp changed and we left. After checking into the motel we all had dinner at Antonio’s and discussed the next day’s plans.

Friday morning, the temp was near zero, with a high of 5 expected for the day. 

Temp -4

At breakfast, Carl & Don, our chase unit drivers, decided they would high tail it for Gwinn and head home after dropping our bags off at the Three Lakes Motel, our evening’s destination. It was a big convenience, having them haul our bags around and meeting up with us each evening, so we said our goodbyes and parted company.

From Bergland we hopped on Lake Gogebic for a fast, cold ride following the north shore and making landfall at the Hoop ‘N” Holler Tavern. Catching Trail 102 we headed west then north to South Boundary Road, Trail 11.

Prior to reaching Trail 11, Vince ran off the trail and got grounded out in three feet of snow. Dick Woodruff had a sled to sled snow bungee and he hooked it up from Vince’s front right ski to Dick’s rear bumper. With Vince standing beside his sled, preparing to give it some throttle, the bungee stretched out, as Dick took off, and Vince’s sled literally disappeared from his throttle hand, launching out of the snow like a rocket and causing Vince to fall over, into the snow, before he knew what happened. With everyone back on the trail we turned east on Trail 11. I was perfectly groomed and wide enough to create a berm dividing the trail. Dave Gabriel turned on his helmet cam and led while videotaping a spectacular ride up the road. Reaching the entrance, to the 8 mile run up to the Lake-of-the-Clouds overlook, we separated into two groups. One rode up to the overlook, the other headed for the warmth of the restaurant in Silver City.

From the overlook, one looks down at the lake from a dramatic rocky ridge. The lake is situated in the Big Carp River Valley between two ridges and surrounded by virgin wilderness. It is fed from the east end by the Carp River inlet and the outflow from the western end is the Carp River, which empties into Lake Superior. It is truly one of Michigan’s most famous and spectacular views.

Leaving Silver City, we rode straight south down Trail 1, stopped for gas in White Pine and continued south to catch Trail 8 near Bergland. Matt’s gauge cluster was acting up and his clutch was squealing a little, so once again we split up with Matt, Dick, Bill and myself going back to the Ski-Doo dealer and Russ taking the rest of the group on to Bruce’s Crossing where we would have lunch.

After an advisement on the gauge cluster and a clutch adjustment, we too, were on our way to Bruce’s Crossing. It was smooth, fast and cold twenty miles to Bruce’s and we caught up with Russ’s group at the diner. Russ took off for an Agate Falls visit and we again, caught up with him. The bridge over the falls is similar to the Firesteel Bridges as it offers an impressive view of Agate Falls, a picturesque 40 foot waterfall near highway 28 and a short, off trail ride, takes you down under the bridge and to the banks of the river. There are almost 200 named waterfalls in the Upper Peninsula and the frozen winters offer an unsurpassed beautiful and unique view of these waterfalls.

Once again together, the 12 remaining Snomads moved on through Sidnaw and continued on Trail 8, skirting the perimeter of the Sturgeon Valley Wilderness Area to Nestoria and our rooms for the night in Three Lakes. Our bags were waiting for us in the lobby and after checking in we walked over to Stump’s Tavern for our evening meal.

Saturday morning was clear and really cold, below zero, our breakfast awaited us 20 frozen miles to the east at Francois in Champion, the nearest restaurant. We headed out in 3 groups of 4 with Bill Green leading the first group. Russ Demers and three others were soon ready and I waited for the final four, myself along with Keith and Kevin Kish and Dick Woodruff. Kevin totally smoked his belt trying to get his frozen Polaris moving and shortly down the trail had to stop and install his spare belt. The trail from Three Lakes to just past Michigamme is a hilly, rocky, powerline trail with sudden and unexpected turns. I came upon one particular sudden, right hand turn, at the top of a hill and barely managed to execute the turn but noticed a major disturbance, in the snow, where some unwary snowmobiler, apparently had not been as skillful as I in executing the turn.

Actually, Kevin Kish, who was behind me, flew over the top of the same hill and knowing he couldn’t make the turn, begin a Hail Mary and plowed right on through, unscathed, only to prove the power of prayer.

A couple of miles from Francois, Russ’s group was stopped and the first thing I noticed was that Russ looked like Jack Frost on steroids. His mustache had icicles hanging down and he was covered with a light coating of snow. The second thing I noticed was his sled was missing a windshield, mirror, wind deflector and ski loop which I then noticed was all bunged to the back of his sled. He informed me he missed a turn and rolled his sled. I immediately identified the disturbance along the trail, 10 miles back, with what he was talking about. He was not hurt though, just professionally embarrassed. While having breakfast at Francois, a local, at the diner, went home to get a drill and some zip ties and before Russ was finished with breakfast, had all the broken parts zip tied and bungeed together, good enough for the ride back to Gwinn. I usually find that no good deed goes unpunished but in Russ’s case, his good deed, helping out the Wisconsin kid, back in Big Bay, was repaid in Champion.

From Champion, we were only 60 miles from Gwinn so we had plenty of time to spare. Russ, Vince, Al and Brian elected to head straight for homeport and trailer home. Bill Green, Matt, Dave Lofthouse and Dave Gabriel headed east on the new Trail 82. Myself with the Kish’s and Dick Woodruff headed south down the new Iron Ore Heritage Trail (82). Trail 82 connected to Trail 5 south then we turned east to Gwinn on Trail 32.

Passing by Lynn’s Corner Café in Gwinn, we saw the four Green group sleds out front with Bill waving in the doorway. We joined them for a bowl of soup and decided to drop our bags at the motel and run east to Eben and visit the ice caves. Keith and Kevin decided not to go, so the six of us set out on a last adventure.

It was again, a fast, smooth, 25 miles across Trail 8 to Eben. The Eben Ices Caves are located just a few miles north of town, within the Rock River Canyon Wilderness Area. The Ice Caves are not true caves at all. They consist of walls or vertical sheets of ice that form across the face of overhanging rock outcrops. Each winter they look a little different, but typically there are openings in the ice that allow you to walk behind the ice walls.

From the parking area, we walked the 1/2 mile back to a small canyon and the rock face that could only be descended by sliding down on your butt with no hope of climbing back out of. Before the slide down we did notice a rope hanging down the more vertical, rock faced side of the canyon and figured that would be our way out. Dick Woodruff, wisely did not take the slide as he could be the remaining survivor of the adventure. After exploring a bit and some picture taking, the two Dave’s and Matt had no trouble scaling up the rock face, using the rope. Next, I scaled up only to be stopped by a large tree root structure that stuck out and needed to be climbed over. With a little from those already at the top, I was pulled to safety. Lastly, it was Bill Green’s turn and he was up to the tree root obstacle when he lost his footing and slid halfway back down the canyon.

After resting a bit and catching his breath, he started up again, behind a young, 20 something girl, wearing tight jeans and an exposed lumbar. The inspiring lead did the trick and Bill also scaled the wall. We walked back to our sleds thinking we had scaled the North face of Everest. Bill checked his life monitor and it said, “Slow down, Bill”.

We rode back west, into the setting sun, not only ending the day, but symbolically ending a 1000 mile adventure of 6 days with spectacular trails and great companions.