Once Upon a Time in a Forest, Far, Far Away
Snowshoeing with Jim Joque,
Like the opening of the fairytale in Shrek 2 where Prince Charming says, “Once upon a time in a kingdom, far, far away,” I will take you to “Once upon a time in a forest, far, far away” in central Upper Michigan where few people go in winter. A location seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a wilderness area that takes you from the hustle and bustle of city life to quietness, serenity and isolation that will sooth the soul.
Bruno’s Run and McKeever Hills trails sit in the heart of the Hiawatha National Forest of the Upper Peninsula, and are located in such a remote area that they offer the day hiker, snowshoer and cross-country skier the backcountry experience of being in the wilderness far removed from civilization. While in reality, the trailheads are only about 14 miles south from the town of Munising. These trails offer magnificent scenery and are worth exploring in this far, faraway forest.
Once upon a time not too long ago – actually this past January – three friends (Tom Link, Tom Clark and Richard Cox) and I traveled from Wisconsin, through my home town of Escanaba, and headed east via U.S. Highway 2 (US-2), turning left near Nahma Junction onto Forest Highway 13 (FH-13).
In the Shrek episode, Donkey kept saying, “Are we there yet?” until Shrek and Princess Fiona were fed up with him. On our drive up FH-13, I kept saying, “Are we there yet?” Considering it is a lengthy drive, I think my friends were fed up with me, too.
It was 22 miles from US-2 to the trailhead where we parked our vehicle, not only to access the trails, but to access Forest Road 2163 (FR-2163) in order to hike to our 3-day home-away-from-home at McKeever Cabin. To reach the cabin, we had to snowshoe for one-mile along FR-2163 and then another 1,000 feet along a singletrack trail. The forest road to the cabin is not plowed in winter. But the trailhead on FH-13 is nicely plowed.
Our quartet put on backpacks loaded with essentials, including a winter sleeping bag, pillow, extra winter clothing and other personal items. On a plastic sled, we pulled a cooler with needed food and beverages, gas stove, gas lantern, and cooking and dining gear.
Rented from the National Forest Service, this one-room rustic cabin sits on a small knoll surrounded by trees and has a short path leading down to the west shore of 132-acre McKeever Lake, now frozen over, of course. The cabin is “rustic,” meaning that there is no electricity, no indoor plumbing and no amenities. Inside is a woodburning stove (with firewood provided), two sets of bunk beds with mattress pads, and a wood table with four stools. That’s all, folks.
Located on the short trail down to the lake is a hand pump providing potable drinking water. The pump is operative year round. We brought a container for carrying water. We also brought in a gallon of water just in case the pump had failed, which, of course, was working just fine.
And located just off trail near the cabin is a major necessity – an outhouse with a pit toilet. The Forest Service says to be sure and bring along your own toilet paper. So we did, or we would have had to use snowballs.
When reserving McKeever Cabin (or Tom’s Cabin, located a few miles south on Tom’s Lake) through the National Recreation Reservation System, a reservation number is provided, and an entry code is given for getting into the cabin. The cost of the cabin was $45 a night, plus a $10 transaction fee. If interested in renting a cabin, simply call 877-444-6777 or go online to www.recreation.gov.
Near the cabin is the McKeever Hills Cross-Country Ski Trail. Several years ago, Tom Link and I did ski the intermediate 3 ½-mile circular A trail. But in order to access Bruno’s Run on this trip, the four of us snowshoed to the side of the ski tracks on segment C – which is considered to be for advanced skiers. And we could see why, since it was challenging enough for us snowshoers, too. On our hike around Wedge Lake, we encountered several very steep hills that took a lot of energy to climb and careful footing to descend. McKeever Hills Ski Trail has three segments, A, B and C, each with different levels of difficulty and totaling a little over 7 miles.
Bruno’s Run is designated as a snowshoeing and hiking trail that provides a winter wonderland this time of year. The 9-mile loop is considered “easy” to “moderate” hiking and passes by several small lakes, along a river, over rolling hills, through valleys and upon some overlooks. Although my friends and I hiked a short segment of Bruno’s Run this season, I have visited and snowshoed along some of this delightful and isolated trail in the past. The trail is accessible from FH-13 at Moccasin Lake, about 2 miles north of where our group parked this season. The McKeever Hills trailhead is less than a mile south of the snowshoeing trailhead on FH-13.
Snowshoeing from Bruno’s Run trailhead at Moccasin Lake, going east for about a mile, brings you to the north end of Pete’s Lake and Pete’s Lake Campground. Heading west from the trailhead for nearly 1¾ miles, the trail goes through a dense stand of hemlocks called the “Hemlock Cathedral,” passes by Fish Lake, and crosses a stream near Widewaters Campground. If heading further south, the trail follows the Indian River to FH-13.
Heading out from where we were staying at McKeever’s Cabin along the ski trail for three-quarters of a mile, the trail reaches Bruno’s Run. To the west, a short distance, is a nice stretch that runs along Wedge Lake and proceeds around the small Dipper Lake. If going east, Bruno’s Run crosses a small footbridge over Deer Creek and then heads north along a segment of McKeever Lake. Further north is the larger Grassy Lake with a scenic overlook along the northeast shore. For maps with both trails and lakes, Google the Hiawatha National Forest Service’s “McKeever Hills Cross Country Ski Trail” and “Bruno’s Run Hiking Trail.”
Wherever snowshoeing along Bruno’s Run or McKeever Hills trails, the scenery is very picturesque and “north-woodsy.” We encountered a mixed forest with lots of balsam, red and white pine, hemlock and a mix of deciduous trees. One beautiful stretch near Wedge Lake had a huge stand of towering hemlocks that captivated our interest.
The Hiawatha National Forest – home to the two trails and McKeever Cabin – is made up of the East and West Units and includes six federally designated wildernesses. Both units of Hiawatha combined are also known as Great Lakes National Forest and include over 37,000 acres of mixed conifer and deciduous forested land, wetlands, inland lakes, rivers and streams. It bumps up against three great lake shores including lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron. And, wildlife abounds in all of this wonderful protected land.
The Hiawatha National Forest was my playground during my youth, having spent time camping, fishing, canoeing and hiking, as well as attending Boy Scout camp there. It forged so many memories, contributing to my fascination and appreciation for the outdoors that I hold so special today.
Like any good fairy tale, all stories come to a conclusion. Our adventure snowshoeing on the trails and our winter stay at McKeever’s Cabin came to an end. We filled our backpacks and loaded the sled, put on our snowshoes and hiked the roughly 1-mile trail back to our vehicle. We also packed out our trash, since there is no trash service at the cabin. It is a “pack it in, pack it out” system.
The long drive down Hwy. 13, on U.S.-2 through Escanaba (including a pasty stop for lunch), and back to Wisconsin gave us time to reflect on our enjoyable, yet challenging, three-day adventure in a forest far, far away. And, we all lived happily ever after.