Unfinished business: skis and a sanctuary/Out There

With these words, I begin my second year as an outdoors columnist.

Last year at this time, I was riding my mountain bike on muddy railroad grades and musing about the sound of spring runoff. This March, the railroad grades are buried under at least two feet of well-packed snow, so bicycle-borne introspection is not in the cards. Instead, I want to attend to some unfinished business from the first year of Out There.

First, I’ve wanted to write about the Black Creek Nature Sanctuary since I started writing this column. Black Creek is a nature sanctuary, perhaps a lesser known one, maintained by the Michigan Nature Association. It is located at the southwest corner of Keweenaw County, with a trailhead near the northern terminus of Sedar Bay Road.

Secondly, this column is ostensibly about the “silent sports” – non-motorized outdoor activity, preferably of the sort that elevates the heart rate. So I feel somewhat negligent having gone through most of this winter without writing anything at all about nordic skiing.

So Sunday, I threw a pair of cross-country skis in the back of my pickup and headed down Sedar Bay Road.

It turns out it wasn’t so wise trying to combine nordic skiing and Black Creek Nature Sanctuary on the same trip. Snowshoes would have been much better for the narrow, winding trails and varied terrain at Black Creek. I carried my skis more than I wore them while I was in the sanctuary.

But the same varied terrain and minimalist trail tread that confounded my skiing efforts contribute greatly to Black Creek’s appeal. The trail starts out traversing a field vegetated with scrub trees before winding through sand dunes and birch groves, past beaver ponds and through pine woods. It is a 1.6-mile hike, punctuated by small but often abrupt changes in topography, from point A to point B on the sanctuary trail map.

At point B, the trail begins a loop that closely follows the windings of Hill Creek. Through gaps in the snow cover, I could see water rushing over downed tree trunks, resting on the creek’s stony bed. In the summer time, a tailings wash is visible beyond the creek’s far bank.

Point B is also where the muffled roar of Lake Superior begins to be heard. The trail follows Hill Creek until it meets with Black Creek right before the sanctuary’s namesake flows into Lake Superior.

This is where I finally put the skis to good use, making northeastward tracks along the Superior shoreline from the mouth of Black Creek to the mouth of the Gratiot River. Waves crashed through gaps in the shoreline ice. A bald eagle flew overhead. Ravens held themselves in mid-air, before tilting their wings to catch the wind and soaring inland over the tree tops.

When I got back to the mouth of Black Creek, I followed the rest of the loop trail, much of which is a sidehill tread on Black Creek’s steep bank, before meeting up once again with the 1.6 mile trail back to the trailhead.

The snow in winter obscures some of the diverse features of Black Creek Nature Sanctuary – the beaver ponds, the dunes, the tailings wash – but the place is no less beautiful because of this. It is a worthwhile hike in any season.