Look at a map, and you’ll see it’s an intriguing parcel of land, virtually devoid of towns and roads. What the Huron Mountains do have, however, includes washboard peaks and valleys, virgin white pine forests, hundreds of lakes, the headwaters of a half-dozen classic wilderness rivers, dazzling waterfalls, far more wildlife than people, and utter silence. Even by U.P. standards, it’s a rugged, remarkable place.
The preservation wasn’t the result of happy accident; beginning around the 1880s, the Huron Mountains became the wilderness retreat of choice for several millionaire industrialists. Cyrus McCormick, head of the lucrative farm implement company that would become International Harvester, amassed a huge wilderness estate around White Deer Lake, now part of the Ottawa National Forest’s McCormick Tract Wilderness Area. Frederick Miller of Miller Brewing owned his piece of wilderness at Craig Lake, now a wilderness state park. Dozens of others owned “camps” at the Huron Mountain Club, an organization so exclusive, even Henry Ford was turned downed for membership when he first applied. The members easily had enough clout to stop construction of a road that was to link L’Anse with Big Bay—County Road 550 abruptly ends west of Big Bay at a gate and security guard house.
Today, the 25,000-acre enclave is shared mostly by the descendants of those original members, who quietly protect and preserve this spectacular landholding. Though locals grumble about the lack of access onto the property (remember, trespassing is considered a right here), no one can argue that the Huron Mountain Club has proved to be an exceptional steward of the land. It kept away the loggers, the miners, and the developers, leaving what some consider the most magnificent wilderness remaining in the state, maybe even all of the Midwest. Within its boundaries lie towering virgin pines, blue-ribbon trout streams, pristine lakes, and waterfalls that don’t even appear on maps. If the club should ever come up for sale, government officials admit (albeit off the record) that they would clamor to turn it into a state or national park.
In the meantime, the rest of us have to be content simply knowing that such wonderful natural beauty is there, and lovingly protected. Besides, there’s plenty of Huron Mountain wilderness open to the public—more than enough to go around for those who are fortunate and smart enough to explore this special place.
Big Bay Area
Many people approach the Huron Mountains from the east, where County Road 550 climbs 30 miles out of Marquette to the tiny town of Big Bay, population 270. Sited above Lake Independence and within minutes of Lake Superior, Big Bay is a scrappy little place, where residents take pride in their simple life on the fringes of wilderness. The town has swung from prosperity to near-ghost-town status more than once, first as a bustling logging outpost, then one of Henry Ford’s company towns, home to busy sawmills. More recently, residents joke about how the local bank, well aware of the town’s volatile economy, was loath to loan money to Big Bay businesses; while the town’s 20 businesses are thriving, the bank closed down. Folks now frequent Big Bay for its Huron Mountains access, Lake Superior harbor, Lake Independence fishing, and unique lodgings.
Once the private wilderness retreat of Cyrus McCormick, whose father invented the reaping machine, this 27-square-mile tract of wilderness was willed to the U.S. Forest Service by the McCormick family in 1967. Today, it remains in pristine wilderness condition—remote, undeveloped, and largely unused. In other words, perfect for backcountry hiking and camping. No-trace camping is permitted throughout the wilderness area. For more information, contact the Ottawa National Forest Ranger District (4810 E. M‑28, Kenton, 906/852-3500, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily).
To access the McCormick Tract, follow U.S. 41/M‑28 west from Marquette about 50 miles to Champion. Just after you cross the Peshekee River, follow the first paved road north. This is County Road 607, also called the Peshekee Grade or the Huron Bay Grade. In about 10 miles, you’ll see a sign for Arfelin Lake; take the next road to your right and watch for a sign and small parking area.
Once you’ve arrived, you’ll be pretty much on your own to explore this rugged terrain of high hills, rivers, muskeg, and bedrock outcroppings. Don’t expect marked and maintained hiking trails. This tract is wild, so with the exception of a well-worn path to White Deer Lake (where the McCormicks’ lodge once stood), you’ll mostly be traveling cross-country. A compass and topo map are absolute necessities. Wildlife sightings can be excellent—the state’s largest moose herd roams here, which in turn has attracted predators like the elusive gray wolf. You’re not likely to see a wolf, but may be treated to its hollow wail at your camp some evening.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Michigan.