Michigan: it’s always an adventure, even if not always of the kind you expect. Then again, if it weren’t unexpected, would it be adventure? I dozed as the plane taxied to the end of the runway and made ready to take off. It’d been a short night: the day before, we climbed pillar after pillar along Superior's shore until the sun set, skiing back on the frozen lake by the light of the full moon. Once we’d eaten and checked into a motel near the Marquette airport, it was nearly midnight. A few hours’ sleep before Mein Herz Brennt playing on the phone intruded on my dreams, telling me it was time to get up.
An announcement caused me to snap my lolling head upright: “This is your captain speaking. Currently MSP isn’t accepting any flights. We’re going back to the gate.” I peered through the porthole at the monochrome scene outside: snowy ground, black evergreens, a few flakes drifting down from a grey sky. But apparently the weather was less benign in Minneapolis, which was being hammered by its biggest winter storm yet. In the end, it took more than an extra twenty-four hours and driving to another airport before I managed to escape the UP.
Still, not all of my adventures at this year’s Michigan Ice Fest involved planes and automobiles. There was climbing, too. There was the pillar Jon and I chose to warm up on our first day after the fest. Like most of the climbs cascading from the soft, eroded sandstone cliffs of Grand Island, it stood free from the rock wall - but it was a fat, massive affair. Halfway up, Jon swung and the curtain groaned, cracked and settled. A car-sized dagger a few bodylengths to his left broke off and exploded on the snow-covered beach. A second’s silence; the curtain remained standing. “I’m downclimbing!” Jon shouted down.
Later in the afternoon, we stood beneath a slender column of yellow ice. From a chair-sized base, it fanned out as it rose to connect with an ice roof fifteen metres up. It was my lead. I walked around it, examined it for fractures, gave it a tentative whack. “I dunno, Jon, the ice seems to be under a lot of tension today.” Swallowing my pride, I suggested we climb around and throw down a toprope.
Daylight was fading by the time we rounded the southwest corner of the island and the lights of Munising came into view. After twenty kilometres of skiing, a few more of stumbling on foot over jumbled pack ice and a few pitches of ice, it was beginning to feel like a proper day of climbing. I still had some food left but didn’t feel like stopping and digging it out of the pack. Better to put the head down and push on to dinner. Then to bed, so we could do it all over tomorrow.
"And then the whole damn thing settled with me on it!" Jon relives the excitement of five minutes earlier.
The UP's version of the Weeping Wall on Grand Island's west coast. Photo: Jon Jugenheimer.
Waves from a storm a few days earlier cracked and pushed the pack ice around, creating an awkward jumble.
I'm not sure which looked more ominous: the skinny pillar or the stormy sky.
As the sun dips toward the horizon, we head back to mainland.
Another day, another pillar. Photo: Jon Jugenheimer.
Softly, softly, catchee monkey! Photo: Jon Jugenheimer.
As the sun sets on a rare flawless day on the lake, we ski along the shore to tick off one last climb.
Dairyland, the ultimate UP classic.
From the base of the climb, Lake Superior stretches to the horizon.