Day 13: McLain State Park, Houghton, Michigan
No sooner had the great glaciers begun melting and retreating back to the northern climes of Canada, about 11,000 years ago, than prehistoric human hunters and gatherers began following the game animals and burgeoning fauna which advanced in the wake of the ice sheets. Besides the well known mastodons and wooly mammoths, there were also seven-foot-tall ground sloths to be had, oversized beavers that weighed almost 500 pounds, and vultures with twelve-foot wingspans. As early as 4000 B.C., another reason early humans came here to the Keweenaw Peninsula was in pursuit of the precious red metal—copper.Few places on earth bear such abundant deposits of copper, and of such purity. Prehistoric peoples here gouged the ore from hillsides and caves, and used crude smelting and forging techniques to make hardened tools and implements. Even elaborate jewelry was fashioned from the malleable metal, and used to barter goods with other early American natives in the region. It is estimated that 1.5 billion pounds of copper were manually excavated and worked by these prehistoric people.
Under clear and sunny skies we break camp and motor up along the north shore, making a brief diversion up the Brockway Mountain Drive, a steep climb along the exposed rocky spine of the peninsula. The 1.6-liter diesel thrums noisily back in the engine bay as we struggle upward, hundreds of feet in four miles, and we finally arrive at the peak of West Bluff. While Vanasazi gratefully pauses to catch her breath, we leap from the cab and take in the sweeping vistas offered by this high point of land. The southern view reveals a descending series of lesser peaks dropping away to the Keweenaw Bay, while to the north we gaze out over the blue expanse of Lake Superior, 700 feet below, great tankers and ore carriers moving slowly along the horizon. Puttering down the other end of the bluff, we quickly descend into the idyllic and charming town of Copper Harbor. With embracing shoreline arms and a long island to form a natural breakwater across the bay, Copper Harbor is a picturesque example of a lake captain’s perfect refuge from the brutal and violent storms that can strike these shores of Superior.
The ancient peoples who first mined copper here on the Keweenaw eventually ceased working and disappeared entirely, and their culture, their methods of early metalworking, their knowledge, were all lost to the mists of time. Among the whites who later moved into this region, stories and legends of the red metal persisted, fueled by the occasional discovery of five-ton boulders of pure copper. But it wasn’t until French fur-trapping voyageurs seeking a safe harbor for their canoes spied La Roche Verte—The Green Rock—that serious modern-age mining began. The vein of nearly pure copper silicate—which can still be seen today—rising from the dark waters of Superior shot up the rocky shoreline and continued into the green forests beyond. With the building of the Soo Locks in 1855, large commercial vessels could now ply the upper lake, making feasible the large-scale extraction of copper; visions of immense wealth danced in the eyes of speculators, and a tent city of eager prospectors sprang up on Porter Island at the mouth of Copper Harbor; the rush was on.
To protect the the miners and other workers from the hordes of ravaging Indians, a military fort was commissioned. As it turned out, the natives were uninterested in the copper, and friendly besides. So the soldiers spent more time keeping the peace between the hard-drinking miners, who grew especially restless when they finally realized what the natives already knew: the copper was really hard to dig up.
Fort Wilkins has had a spotty history, closing two years after it was built in 1844, then being recommissioned again after the Civil War, only to be abandoned for good in the 1870s. As the fort fell into decline hunters, fishermen, and other outdoor enthusiasts surreptitiously slept in its barracks and camped on its grounds, so we figure it will be a nice place to park the Westy and pop our top tonight. Fortunately, this is not only much easier these days but actually encouraged, as evidenced by the Michigan State Park sign at the entrance to the old fort. We purchase our permit and settle into our campsite on the shore of Lake Fanny Hooe.