We gear up in a darkness just beginning to ease. The process is simple at this point, just snap on snowshoes, pull on our packs and grab our poles. Foye checks his truck's thermometer, -10 Fahrenheit. Father Al's offer to break trail is especially appreciated now, as we feel the drag of 60-pound packs on our shoulders and look at a foot of fresh snow on the trail.
We launch, and with each 100 yards the day brightens. Soon the sky glows with thin peach-hued clouds against a powder blue backdrop. We snowshoe along past giant pines loaded with fresh snow. I pause to push a pole into the snow – a good four feet on the level.
Snowflakes hang in the air, but they don't seem to fall from clouds, rather they simply crystallize from midair; suddenly there's a snowflake where before there was none. Foye, a former chemist with BASF who holds 19 patents, explains that that is exactly what happens when temps drop to zero around here.
Foye is the leader of our tribe, having done several trips into the McCormick Wilderness in winter and summer. He first heard of the McCormick about 10 years ago when he was a Boy Scout leader; a scout mother mentioned it. Always on the lookout for new places to take the troop, he was intrigued with the thought of a vast forest studded with lakes, but was surprised at how little information he could find.
For starters, it was odd he'd never heard anybody speak of the McCormick Wilderness, even though he'd spent 23 years of his life in Marquette. And when he looked for background information, at first he could only find a skimpy publication from the United States Forest Service, which owns it. But then he found a copy of Superior Heartland, by Fred Rydholm. Rydholm's 850-page love note to U.P. life devotes significant portions to the McCormick compound, and specifically the Bentley Trail.
In the early decades of the 1900's, the trail we now walk was the main access to the McCormick camp, shepherding visitors and provisions. It remains as wide as a two-track and has kept its gentle grade. But cold can make everything difficult, and after a mile, the McCormick Wilderness claims one of our guys. Father Al suddenly feels nauseated. He stops, leans on his poles, looks pale. He rests for a bit then gives it another go, but after a couple of hundred yards he says he has to turn back. We bid him adieu and watch him walk slowly away. "Maybe we should send somebody with him," I suggest.
"He'll be okay," Foye says.
Months later when I check in with Foye, he tells me it turned out that Father Al was dropping quickly into hypothermia and had already developed frost bite on his feet – one of which turned black on the bottom before healing. Though Father Al grew up Yooper, he underestimated the conditions here and dressed too light.
We continue on, and the nature show does likewise. Every stump is topped with a 3-foot-high top hat of snow. Snow covers every pond in great pillowing blankets. At one point when ducking under a slanting tree, I tip over and wallow like a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit trying to get up, but can't until I take off my pack.