It was -7 F as I blasted down beautiful snowy roads with massive snow banks into the night. I tracked my progress on GPS. As the miles passed the road got more and more narrow. The snowflakes sparkled and flowed around the vehicle by like stars in hyperspace. I got more excited as I closed on the highpoint still in the wilderness ahead. Little did I know this was the complete wrong way. While skiing Michigan’s highest point wasn’t steep, it came with its share of challenges.
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a snowy wonderland full of potential adventures. Most people know the area for great snowmobiling, I was in search of places to do backcountry skiing.
T’was a cold January a few years ago when I took to the land of great lakes to find myself some short steep lines and powder, along with the highest peak of the state of Michigan. Part of the Skiing States highpoints project involved detailed study of snowfall maps across the nation. Lake effect snow on the north shores of the U.P. of Michigan seemed to be the real bright spot of the Midwest. While Minnesota had the best mountains – blocky steep peaks of taconite, it seemed Michigan had the best snow.
“Michigan is a real bright spot on the map for great snowfall.”
Failed Attempt to Ski the Porkies:
Coming from the west I was optimistic I could get some great turns in the beautiful Porcupine Mountains of NW Michigan. This range has two main features for backcountry skiers. The first feature is a hut system with trails through the higher hills of the little range. The second feature is a rocky ridge with nice balds above a series of lakes. This spot looked like it could be the most picturesque spot in Michigan.
Big snow off the big lake:
It’s not uncommon to get 300” winters in the peaks here, that is a snowfall equivalent to much of Colorado high spots. It was a good season so far and I drove on long tiring snow-covered roads across the state dreaming of cutting some powder turns in the chutes near the balds of the peaks. Driving along the lakeshore was intense, crazy snow and ice blew across the tiny road. When I arrived close to the ski area I sadly discovered that the road was closed, making the approach too long to be practical for the limited time I had. The weather was also quite dreadful.
I know there used to be a core group of telemark skiers who would hit the Porcupine Mountains I heard that group disbanded, too bad. If I lived in Chicago or Wisconsin I’d definitely be getting up to the Porcupine mountains on some of my weekend trips. Most of the skiing in the area is centered around the ski area next to the wilderness. Ski runs take you down to the lake with over 600 vertical feet. It’s totally possible do a tour and then finish the day with runs at the ski area to get in a full day.
Photo: a view of the beautiful escarpment trail at Lake of the Clouds. This ridge in winter would be a find tour and would have been the target of the day.
Stuck in the wilderness:
I reached the snow blasted town of L’anse, Michigan in the afternoon. There was no beta anywhere online skiing, even snowshoeing Mt. Arvon (Michigan’s highest “peak”). I asked a tourist office, all they did was talk about snowmobiles, there are tons of snowmobile trails through the region so it was obvious I would be skiing on them for part of this, however doing 30 miles was not realistic under human power. I had 3 maps at my disposal and decided to probe the wilderness by seeing how far I could get to the mountain using forest roads from the west.
It was -7 F as I blasted down beautiful snowy roads with massive snow banks into the darkness. I tracked my progress on GPS. As the miles passed the road got more and more narrow. The snowflakes sparkled and flowed around the vehicle by like stars in hyperspace. I got more excited as I noticed considerable miles being eaten away between me and the peak in the heart of this block of wilderness. After 12 miles the plowing stopped and there was a fresh powdery 10” of snow on the road. Not too bad, its light and fluffy. I continued on, then on a slight uphill it stopped. Wheels spun. Game over, and still too far from the peak. It was time to suit up, whip out the heavy shovel and traction screens. It took two hours to get the car back to the plowed road due to totally crummy tires. I tried another side road which was well-traveled by lumber machines. Still no luck as the road was not on the maps and headed off north instead of west.
The Mental Challenge of Mt. Arvon:
On day 2 I tried the other approach from the north. No one had published any info on skiing or snowshoeing the peak, but I had a map of the network of forest roads.
No one had published any data on skiing or snowshoeing the peak which made getting there by human-powered means difficult. There was no straightforward way to get to the peak.
I parked at a lonely quarry on the edge of the wild at 0 degrees F and skinned in on soft untracked snow. The miles rolled away as I gained only gradual elevation. At one point I met a few snowmobilers doing a long tour of U.P., they found it bazaar to encounter me this far in here and thought I was lost or something. They offered to give me a ride, I said no I’m fine, the peak has to be done properly, even if it means a slog.
After the few humans I saw that day left I noticed how late it was. I began to feel the deafening silence of the wilderness. I was a warm tiny human surrounded by an immense cold wilderness. My heart fluttered and panic set in as I realized there was no fast way out of here, I was completely alone. I’m not sure why this panic even started, there was no immediate danger. Normally when I’m far in on full-sized mountains I can always turn around and glide out, gravity’s heavenly hand carries me back to civilization. Here all the slogging I’d done would have to be repeated. I regained control of my mind again and was able to gain enough calm to keep going.
I had my eye on the north slope of Arvon which offered the most promise for some steeper turns. When I finally snaked up roads to its flat featureless summit area I realized that due to the distance and time I’d be better off gliding down packed snowmobile trails to gain distance than trying to hash out a new line in deep snow on terrain that may be too low angle. It was a real bummer to run out of daylight, I’d really wanted to explore that slope. I guess someone else will have to go find out what that slope is really like, perhaps pound some powder laps on it if it’s good.
I turned around and the only motivation was return to the car. I was only able to ski with any speed at one point during a ravine. All the other downhills were not steep enough, the air was so cold that ice crystals acted with friction on my wide Verdict ski bottoms. With proper skis for this terrain things would have been different, far more efficient. I’m sure someone has cross-country skied up here before with good gear and done it fast, but so far no one has published their experiences, anyway, it was too late, I was up here with my heavy AT gear hoping to get at least some turns in to no avail.
Peak name/s: Mount Arvon
Land: MeadWestvaco Company land – a paper company
Range: Huron Mountains
Vertical: 1079′ (starting elevation 900′ from the north side quarry)
Fauna of note: wolf, moose, feral swine
Conservation threats: Since the land is private there is a possibility in the distant future of the company selling off assets to private developers after it is fully logged. there are no urgent threats.
Original owners: Lake Superior band of the Chippewa Indians. Currently the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community is active in the area, although doesn’t manage this land.
There are no active avalanche resources in Michigan, however there are chutes, road cuts and other small open slopes which could slide. Areas like the Sleeping Bear Dunes certainly pose avalanche danger, like with anywhere else it is the skier’s responsibility to be aware and make decisions.
Michigan backcountry skiing:
There are plenty of cool steeper slopes on small peaks in Michigan where you can do laps. I think there is a lot to explore if you are willing to take a chance and just go see. On Youtube you can find a few local made videos of skiing short woods runs and even a video on “snowcat skiing”.
The most popular video on skiing in Michigan by far is the TGR video on skiing on the massive jump built on Copper Peak. The video has plenty of aerials done in good weather which show not just the jump but surrounding peaks with a good amount of vertical. Looks like there is plenty of powder lines through hardwood forests in the region, and unlike Minnesota there is a good amount of local-made videos. So far though I have not seen any high production value projects showing the Michigan backcountry.
The Michigan episode of Skiing States is still in production.
Other people’s videos:
Check out the mountains of Michigan from aerial shots of the ski jump on this TGR video, I’m more interested in the wild terrain than the focus of this video, however they got some great shots during good snowcover, which is hard to find for Michigan of it’s backcountry.
You can catch my ski journey for Skiing States project in Michigan on YouTube when it comes out this winter. Subscribe to the Youtube channel or Facebook to keep in touch or make comments about this article.