Two brothers discover a winter challenge when they ski to McKeever Cabin in the Upper Peninsula—along with the refuge of warm fires, gorgeous landscapes and Blackrocks beer.
Featured in the February 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
In the center of the Upper Peninsula’s Hiawatha National Forest, several miles south of Munising, my brother and I parked our car near the sign to Widewaters Campground, closed for the season, with an abandoned snowplow sitting ominously at the end of the cleared entrance, framed by 8-foot snowbanks. This is where we were told to park. We changed into our cross-country ski boots, added a few extra layers, and set off across the road toward a hidden trail leading to our demise. I mean, cabin. Who knew that awkwardly crossing the road in slippery cross-country ski boots, carrying our skis and poles, with backpacks and a 6-foot-long toboggan loaded with “essentials” would turn out to be the easiest part of the trek?
Our destination was McKeever Cabin—a rustic escape, maintained by the National Forest Service and volunteers, perched above McKeever Lake, and accessible only by ski or snowshoe in the winter. The trail to the cabin is a little over a mile long. With gear and more than two feet of ungroomed snow at the start, it took us about two hours.
After less than five minutes on skis in the knee-deep snow, it was pretty clear what happened. We packed too much stuff, and there was too much fresh snow. I carried a large, old-school backpacking pack—a hand-me-down from my dad. This was its first true voyage on my back. It was completely full, but well designed, and felt relatively light, considering. Being the older brother, I let Nick pull the heavy sled, teetering with our piles of gear—from sleeping bags to food to six-packs of Blackrocks beer. The sled is a wooden toboggan that’s been in the family for a couple of decades. As kids, my brother and I used to sled down a hill that rolled over an old farm lane behind our house. Sometimes our dad would join us for a three-person bobsled-esque tear down the hill, full inertia at work, with my dad laugh-grunting on every bump and bounce. The laugh-grunting sound he made stayed with me in a more literal way than I had hoped, because I was making the exact same sound now.
That sledding was fun. This … this was something else.
The trail to the cabin was marked, occasionally, but to use the term “marked” is a bit insulting to the other actually marked trails nearby. Our trail started out as a numbered seasonal road, completely closed off to motorized vehicles when snow is present, but most importantly, not regularly groomed for skiing, despite it being the recommended mode of transportation. The signs were succinct, stating, “Cabin,” with an arrow pointing in a general direction. The signs only seemed to appear when we were just becoming certain we had gone the wrong way. Getting the sled going from a standstill was extremely difficult on skis, with the deep snow absorbing and grasping it like quicksand, so taking breaks proved to be about as hard as not taking breaks. Nick opted to push forward whenever possible. This was grueling on the heart, but much better for the mind, as we started to find a rhythm. Once we left the National Forest road, we finally crossed into stretches of an actual trail system that had been packed down or groomed earlier in the day. It was still difficult, but at least it started to make sense.
When we arrived at the little log cabin effortlessly perched on a ridge overlooking frozen McKeever Lake, we saw that firewood was stacked nicely in the box inside. Lighting a fire was an easy, and necessary, first step. We were both pretty cold from the trip, but simultaneously overheated, so we had to strip down a layer. It didn’t take long for the warmth in the cabin to even out, and we finally felt the fruits of our labor.
Thankfully, Nick waited until we got nice and settled in our cozy, warm cabin before he showed any signs of maybe needing to go to a hospital. He was just suffering from bad dehydration and exhaustion, and he might’ve thrown up once, or three times, but the effects wore off after some hydration and a good night of sleep. On my end, I felt amazing once we got settled. If anything, I was rejuvenated from the fresh air and simplicity. It was an emotional cleansing from our immersion in nature and a feeling of accomplishment.
After getting the lay of the cabin, which didn’t take long, we managed to crack a couple beers and step outside onto the deck. Massive white pines stood tall on a ridge to the north. We’ll walk underneath them on a hike the next day. The silence was cut only by icy snow falling on the branches above us. The only other sound we heard regularly was what we thought to be a ranger off in the distance having issues with an old chainsaw.
McKeever Cabin really is a magical place to just be.
That first night, as Nick sat by the fire groaning through the last bits of muscle pain and nausea, I enjoyed a pleasant moment of rare mental clarity. To have an adventure like this only a few hours’ drive from Traverse City is remarkable. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is unequivocally a wild and beautiful sanctuary sitting atop our mitten. I didn’t think about work. I didn’t want to pick up my phone. No signal, no Wi-Fi, no power, no problem. I didn’t think about the future or the past. McKeever Cabin proved to be the exact right kind of adventure. Not impossible, but not too easy. It put me in the right place, body and mind, in a way that other typical getaways just don’t.
We made our breakfast on top of the woodstove; some sausage and eggs. After a night of guzzling all the water we brought, I traversed down the snowy slope to fill up our gallon jugs at the pump. We were advised to bring water with us, in case the pump was frozen. Luckily, it was not, and we’d have plenty of clean water to use for drinking and cooking. After filling the jugs to the brim, hoping at the moment not to have to make another trip down the hill through the deep snow, I heard the strange moaning chainsaw off in the distance. A noise I would’ve ignored in the city intrigued me here. It couldn’t be the same chainsaw person, right? I was curious now. I wouldn’t mind making another trip to the pump.
That morning, rangers on snowmobiles restocked the woodshed, and the shed was now filled high with peace of mind. After making official eye contact through the window, no doubt a routine to make sure all is well, they were off with a friendly wave. Again, this is an adventure, but with just enough amenities.
Fueled up and rested, we somewhat reluctantly found our way back onto the trails. There are about six miles of periodically groomed trails in the area, one of which passes directly behind the cabin and connects with the entire system. If we hadn’t been a bit burned out on skiing, it would’ve been a much bigger part of our trip. Instead, we opted for some casual skiing and snowshoe hiking.
We crossed over a creek that feeds McKeever Lake, connecting frozen ponds with flowing water underneath. There are a series of ponds and creeks that connect the other lakes to the north and west, including the smaller Kimble Lake and the larger Pete’s Lake. Beyond the ponds, and hovering over the opening to Kimble Lake, we could see that white pine grove visible from the cabin’s deck. We hiked up to the ridge and stood within the towering pines. A few skiers skated by as we stood just off the trail, our heads tilted up. They now enjoyed the luxurious corduroy trails, since a groomer had made its way around in the morning. Who knows what they thought of us, if anything. Tiny woodpeckers searched for food on some leaning cedars nearby. This is why you come to a place like McKeever Cabin: Because you stop, and you listen, and then you see. And that’s really all you’re supposed to do.
Even a smoldering, nearly dead fire leftover from breakfast had the cabin roasting. After hiking, some cold water from the pump hit the spot, and we took off a few layers to breathe. Have you ever opened up the windows to let frigidly cold air in while sitting in a dry heat? It’s amazing, even if only for a minute.
For lunch, it was venison sausage, cheese and crackers. The sausage came from a good friend’s very first deer harvest. Later, over cards and conversation, we’d sip on whiskey from Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville that had been aged in stout barrels. It was a birthday gift for my brother, given months earlier, and labeled “Not to be opened until inside McKeever Cabin.”
We talked about what we ate and what we drank because we had the time and the clear minds for it. With every bite and every sip, we recognized the privilege of this experience, our friends and our region.
The afternoon was spent reading, relaxing, exploring the frozen lake and repeating. For dinner, we had polenta and homemade pasta sauce. The gear and draw to the outdoors might’ve come from Dad, but cooking good homemade meals no matter where we were—that was all Mom. Packing too much stuff is on both of them.
That evening, the sky cleared up, and the occasional dissonate horn call broke the deep silence. We were now certain it wasn’t a chainsaw. (After some research on the way home, once we got the internet back into our lives, we became convinced that it was an elk calling from across the lake.) I could’ve also been convinced every star in the universe was shining directly above the cabin that evening and glowing over the frozen lake. Sleep came easily, with a very low fire and a cracked window at my feet. We tuned in a small portable radio and landed on a Canadian sports talk station.
The next morning, the packing was a little easier, but the nerves returned. Are we even ready to do this trek again? We set off, the sun was out, and thankfully the groomers had made a pass that morning, so we enjoyed some nice skiing as we crossed through the trail system. Once we got to the National Forest road, it was apparent that the rangers who had brought us the wood took the same route, so we could follow on their packed-down trail. It made a world of difference. I even helped this time with some uphill gear-dragging, to take some of the load off Nick. All of a sudden, as we skied around a slight curve on the snow-covered seasonal road, we could see the end of the trail, marked by bright orange fencing. It came out of nowhere. We thought we had another half hour, maybe an hour to go. It was the last metaphor we needed. The adventure was complete. Until next time, McKeever Cabin.
Chris Loud is the co-founder of The Boardman Review and writes from Traverse City. Follow him @cfloud on Instagram. Nick Loud is the co-founder & creative director of The Boardman Review. He is based in Traverse City. Follow him @nloud on Instagram and check out theboardmanreview.com.
Find this and more articles celebrating Northern Michigan outdoors, like ski weekend fun and warm places for outdoor drinks, in the February 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.