Snowshoeing the U.P.'s McCormick Outback

Traverse Classics: In Chicago, a venue called McCormick Place commands a high profile in America's great city by the lake. The largest convention space in the nation, each day McCormick Place draws thousands of people who set up their booths, pitch their wares and schmooze like there's no tomorrow. The building is a tribute to Robert R. McCormick, legendary owner of the Chicago Tribune and one of the nation's earliest media moguls.

But what few conventioneers know is there's another expansive McCormick place. A place with anonymity, not fame; peace, not frenzy; nature, not concrete.

Chicago's McCormick Place presents 2.2 million square feet of convention space. But the other McCormick place presents 735 million square feet – 26 square miles – of Huron Mountain wilderness. The McCormick Wilderness, as it's named, was conceived by a cousin of Robert's, Cyrus McCormick II, a man who, along with his friend Cyrus Bentley, likewise erected a Chicago empire, an empire built upon the grain reaper McCormick's father invented, an empire called International Harvester.

This story is about a three-day winter excursion to explore that lesser known McCormick place – now a public tract in Michigan's Upper Peninsula – and a trail, named the Bentley Trail, that traces through its heart. The trail ran through the woods from the McCormick compound north for 37 miles to Henry Ford's place in the Huron Mountain Club. Back in the day, the Huron Mountains were a sort of county-sized country club for some of America's wealthiest industrial kings.

Our mission is to use the magic of snow and solitude to help discover why this hilly domain of forest, swamp, river and lake casts a spell over those who know it. We'll snowshoe to the site where Cyrus McCormick II and Cyrus Bentley built their loggy, butlered island compound in the early 1900's, continue on to our camp on Bulldog Lake, then hike out to a set of waterfalls on the West Branch of the Yellow Dog River that the two men cherished. On our third day we'll snowshoe back to civilization. We'll carry out only what we carried in, unlike Cyrus McCormick II, who shipped a 24-ton boulder from here to Chicago to reside at his wife's grave. It was a boulder she enjoyed sunning herself on.

February 27 arrives, and at 5 a.m. our McCormick amigos are already knocking at the door. Photographer Todd Zawistowski and I are heading out with experienced McCormick Wilderness hiker Tom Foye and his friend, Marquette police detective Gregg St. John. As a gift, they've brought along another pal, Father Al Mott, a young, burly man of the cloth from Sault Ste. Marie who has agreed to break trail until noon, at which point he'll turn back. We shake hands all around and throw packs in our SUV. A light snow drifts down from a darkness that begins where the blue-green glow of parking lot ends.

A 45-minute drive lies ahead, west on M-28 to Michigamme and then north on Peshekee Grade. On the way we pass a stream of headlights from early workers driving into Marquette and the iron mine near Negaunee and Ishpeming. But soon, the traffic thins and it's pretty much just our three vehicles, headlight-lit snow flakes and dark. As we drive, something Foye told me on the phone stays in my mind. I'd asked him about hanging our food to keep it from animals. "Not really a concern because where we are going, it's so harsh, there really are very few animals in winter," he said.

Article Comments