Snowshoeing the U.P.'s McCormick Outback

By noon we reach the southern shore of White Deer Lake, and break for lunch. The crumbling foundation of a horse shed is all we see to indicate the woodland kingdom that McCormick and Bentley built here in the first decade of the 20th century. The eight-building crew-camp was here on this mainland spot where I now sit watching St. John eat a torpedo sub and Foye a No. 16 from Togo's in Marquette. They keep a kind of sitcom banter. "We have a love hate relationship," St. John says. "I love to hate him."

The main compound of five buildings – men's lodge (Beaver Cabin), women's lodge (Birch Cabin), library, boat house (Living Room Cabin), and living lodge (Chimney Cabin) – was on an island a hundred yards offshore. During winter a skeleton crew of perhaps five manned the compound, but in summer, when visitors arrived, the crew expanded to more than a dozen. They shuttled guests to the island and back on a raft called the Good Ship Piffel, kept the linens clean, served elaborate dinners, led hikes down the Bentley Trail and elsewhere, ran fishing trips, kept the firewood perfectly cut and stacked and much more. Indeed, at the camp, perfection coexisted equally with rusticity. "There was a guy who had to stack a woodpile three times because it had to be just right," Rydholm says. Such rustic perfection also applied to the Bentley Trail. Crews had to maintain it so women could walk the middle with their parasols and not hit any branches. Midway through our lunch, two men snowshoe through, heading our direction. They're just out for a day hike and they invite us to their camp.

"We have a big canvas tent with a woodstove, gets pretty nice; stop by for some wine," one says. A McCormick place convention? We appreciate the offer but doubt we'll have time. They move on.

The sun shines bright, but temps remain on the cool side, about 10 degrees, and a wind blows from the north. We watch as the two men head off across the untracked face of White Deer Lake. It's a sublime winter scene. When we chill, we pull on our packs, grab our poles and follow their tracks, grateful for the work they've done for us.

The weather presents an evolving show. Light snow crystallizes from a blue sky. Then giant flakes pelt us in the face – a squall blowing in from Lake superior 25 miles north. Then back to sunshine, all in about 30 minutes. We see a rocky promontory rising from the northwestern shore. "That's called the Fortress, and on top is a picnic spot the McCormicks used," Foye says. The lake we're on was called Fortress Lake until 1906, when an albino whitetail deer began hanging around the area. The lake and the camp became namesakes, White Deer Lake. We continue on in the footsteps of the two men who passed by at lunch, and are now out of sight.

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