Seeing, a state of mind at Craig Lake State Park

The waters of a creek lazily meander toward Craig Lake at the Craig Lake State Park in Baraga County.

By Scot Stewart

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”  
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

True wilderness is difficult to describe and even more difficult to find. How big does it have to be? How far do you have to go to get to it and escape the whirl of mankind? What signs of human activity can be there and still have wilderness? There are fifteen official federal wilderness areas in Michigan and a part of the Porcupine Mountains State Park is a designated wilderness. However, there are other areas managed to preserve the integrity of the land and its inhabitants that the state does not recognize as true wilderness. These places are managed by the state to retain the character of a remote near-wilderness area.
Craig Lake State Park is such a place. Developed as the first primitive state park for camping, hiking, skiing fishing, trapping and hunting with just a limited amount of development, it offers a unique way to enjoy the character of a place with a greater sense wildness.
The road to the park helps establish the feeling of leaving the rest of the world behind. Nearly seven and a half miles long, groomed gravel turns to sand and rock with not so gentle reminders of the work of the glacier that steam-rolled through the area eleven and a half thousand years ago, leaving rocks and boulders of all sizes behind, many in the road itself. New ones seem to pop up just in the few hours or days between the drive in and the time you leave, especially in spring as the frost leaves the ground.
The road seems to change from a narrow two-lane to a single, wide stretch, allowing for speeds barely above single digits. But that is O.K. There is much to see along the way. Visitors may be greeted by a bald eagle minutes after starting north off U.S. 41 west of Michigamme. A dark, delicate stream parallels the east side of the road for a time, dropping carefully over several small granite descents. In late summer, patches of bright pink fireweed line portions of the road only to be replaced with goldenrod and flamboyant sprays of joe-pie-weed.
The geology of the landscape is more polished than the McCormick Wilderness eleven miles to the northeast with smaller hills and fewer rock outcrops. Wetlands jump out everywhere. Pocket swamps lined with thick carpets of lime-green sphagnum moss where wood and green frogs hunt, ponds dabbled with water lilies and sedge meadows concealing small creeks.
The road passes in and out of privately owned lands and portions of the state park, through stands of red and sugar maple, aspen, balsam fir and white spruce, and occasionally a gigantic white pine or two. The woods around Craig Lake are young. The canopy is thick. There are giant, aged white pine stumps standing as reminders of the ancient forest that once stood there, but today’s woods are dark too.

A couple of glacial erratics lie next to one another in the forest.

In winter the land is bare, but the snow leaves far more clues of the mammalian inhabitants – wolves, snowshoe hares, pine marten, bobcats, weasels, white-tailed deer, red squirrels and moose. In the mid-1980’s 59 moose were captured in Ontario, transported up the Peshekee Grade to the east and released. This is one of their strongholds in the Upper Peninsula south of Isle Royale and moose tracks, if not the moose themselves, are seen frequently.
The land was once owned by Fred Miller, the owner of Miller Brewery of Wisconsin. He named three of the six lakes, Clair, Teddy and Craig for his children and another, High Life, was named for one of his products. He built two cabins on Craig Lake and visited often with family or friends to fish and enjoy the remoteness of the area. Following his death in a 1954 airplane clash, the land was sold to the state, in 1956. Today the park contains 8459 acres, just over 13 square miles. Craig Lake State Park consists of land previously owned by the state and the Miller Property and now some additional acreage has been tacked on to the park. By the time visitors arrive at the Craig Lake parking area they feel like they have truly left civilization behind. There are lots of signs, two cabins, two yurts, a boat ramp, some picnic tables and fire pits plus a couple of boardwalks, but beyond these features, there is hardly any development.
Craig Lake has no offices, visitor centers, power lines, street lights, ice machines, dump stations or dumpsters. Not even a paved parking area. It is a truly unique park in the state. There are plenty of visitors to the park both in summer and winter, but most are there on day trips, frequently from Van Riper State Park in the summer and from skiers and snowmobilers in the winter. The park also contains another attraction, 7.5 miles of the North Country Trail.
The lakes offer great fishing, including walleye and muskies. Fishing is artificial bait only, with catch and release for small and large-mouth bass, northern pike and muskie. Walleyes must be at least 13 inches to keep. Panfish follow state size and limit regulations. Motorized boats are allowed on Keewaydin Lake only, where there is a boat launch.
The rest are designated for canoes and kayaks with short portages connecting Clair, Craig and Crooked lakes. The park is open to hunting all small game and deer in respective seasons.

A Keewaydin Lake yurt is one of the few signs of civilization at Craig Lake State Park.

Other visitors come to camp; the park was developed for backpackers. Check-in is do-it-yourself with a drop pipe for fees. There are three primitive sites just down the hill 1/5 mile from the parking area of Craig Lake, but the rest of the sites are walk-in, including two rustic cabins located nearly two miles from the parking area on Craig Lake. The cabins are the same ones built by Miller and are open mid-May until mid-October. One sleeps six, the other 16. Camping is rustic, with all sites available on a first-come-first-serve basis for $15 per night. Yurts are available on Keewaydin and Teddy Lakes year-round, accessible by auto or truck, but by snowshoeing, skiing or snowmobiling only during the winter months.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”
–Henry David Thoreau

Hiking trails connect four of the park’s lakes – Clair, Teddy, Craig and Crooked. With the North Country Trail tying in, there are connections to the areas east and west of the Park. One of the most popular trails is a loop around Craig Lake. It’s a bit over seven miles long and can be hiked in about four hours. But others may find it nearly impossible to do it that quickly, if at all.
The trail around much of the Craig Lake is a former road and is an easy hike. There are, however, millions of discoveries to make and contemplate along the way. With no phone reception and few sounds of motorized vehicles, a visitor can feel that “town” at its concerns are far behind; one can let those worries slip away.
The park allows the opportunity to stop and examine the myriad of small wonders along the trails and in the woods beyond. Some of the trees are festooned in large khaki green lichens. In late summer, warm rains trigger a torrent of mushrooms. The birhgt reds and oranges of Scarlet Waxy Caps and Russula mushrooms brighten up all the greens of mosses and club mosses. American toads hop through their shadows, looking for insects and other invertebrates. Back in the woods, giant four-foot-tall cinnamon ferns, smaller woodsia, shield, sensitive and interrupted ferns are everywhere.
So are the glacial erratics, boulders pushed along by the ebb and flow of glacial ice during the last of the life of the Wisconsin Glaciation Episode. The word erratics come from a Latin word meaning “wander.” They got their name, because they were dragged along in the ice and dropped off in totally random places, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles from their original homes. These landmarks help glaciologists understand the movement of the glaciers by looking at the paths the erratics followed. Some are worn and rounded after traveling great distances, others sharp-edged from shorter trips. Many have gathered a covering of lichens and mosses, because they no longer roll in the glacial ice. They can be more than five feet tall.

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
–Henry David Thoreau

A walk down one of the trails may lead to the discovery not of simple objects, animals, and plants, but ones filled with complexities. A blue feather may have been left by a jay. A first look may reveal the cerulean beauty of that single feather, but a closer examination reveals that the blue all but disappears when the feather is viewed from a slightly different angle. Blue jay feathers are not blue. They do not absorb all the wavelengths of light except blue. The cells on the surface of the feather’s barbs contain a brown pigment, melanin. Melanin is actually brown in color, but its crystals have the ability to scatter the blue waves in specific directions and absorb the other colors’ wavelengths, so from certain angles the feather looks blue, while from others it looks steely gray-black. The color change is noticeable only if a few moments are taken to see it, not just look at it.
On a day when the cumulous clouds float aimlessly across a cobalt sky like the fluffy aspen seeds on a warm, dry day, the reflections on the lakes are gorgeous swirls of color, like the mixing of two or three colors of paint in the same can. When the wind picks up sending the water into small riffles, the small crests drag sparkles of diamonds across their edges briefly before being swallowed back into the lake. The changes can go on for hours, but it requires standing or sitting and watching the wind do its work as the clouds sail on to change the patterns. It is worth making time to watch; the show is mesmerizing in its simplicity and its beautiful interplay of water and light.

A close-up view of a blue jay feather reveals that the feather isn’t actually blue.

There are no 200 foot cliffs in Craig Lake, no brightly colored rock formations, no spring, no great waterfalls, no acres of old growth pines. There is only a clean, wild landscape, with few signs of anything but natural beauty. In all of that lies millions of small wonders. Green frogs hide in the grass along the trail. Disturbed, they dive, sometimes head first in the sphagnum moss in the wetlands. Near the creeks are white-faced meadowhawks, small, gorgeous, crimson dragonflies with white patches below their eyes and black triangle patterns down the sides of their abdomens. They zip up and down in the afternoon breezes, landing on the top of a flower head or the side of a horizontal blade of grass often returning to the same favored spot. In winter, moose or pine marten tracks in the snow can tell the story of a day’s travels through the park, quiet and disturbed by no one.
Uncovering the stories behind each tiny vignette requires only time, patience and a keen eye. Nothing more. The other state parks, the national wildlife areas, the federal wilderness areas have similar stories to tell, but at Craig Lake they are maybe a little easier to see and break down. Multi-tasking is not necessary. One’s full attention can be given to details. They are everywhere, and given the proper time, those details can be considered in new and deeper ways. As more thought is given to observations made, there is also the chance to consider how these small, beautiful pixels of the natural world fit together and fashion the park, and the unfathomable world. It is a chance to see the world and the complexity of its simplicities and possibly make some real sense of the life that surrounds us and each visitor’s place in it.

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