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The wind blows harder as we near the north end of the island. The cooler air chills the sweat on my back as we snake our way through the scrub and trees, reminiscing about childhood days when a bike was your trusty steed, and your sole occupation was cruising your neighborhood and asking other kids, “Wanna ride bikes?” Jon and I agree we’ll ride bikes more, make time to come to more places like this. Then the edge of the earth disappears, our jaws drop midsentence, and we stop, hands frozen on our handlebars, feet planted on the bedrock, awestruck. An infinite span of sky and water spreads before us. We’ve made it to the top of the island’s Northeast Point, a jagged, sheared-off rock face that towers hundreds of feet over the crashing surf. We toss our bikes to the dirt and run, then tiptoe, toward the ragged edge. We lie side by side on our bellies, inching forward on the lichen-mottled rock to peer over. The sandstone rock is laid bare below us, raw and weathered and sharp all at once. The roots of the few scraggly but tenacious pines along the walls hang onto anything they can to keep from plummeting into the frothy wrath below. We scoot backward and, in a ceremony befitting the scene, unwrap the sandwiches we’ve toted, certain we are in the world’s most spectacular picnic spot.
After that, it’s all downhill. Without us even realizing it, the trail’s coursed downward, spilling us out at the north shore beach, which seems almost a mirage, a tranquil oasis hugged between two monstrous cliffs that knife out of the water on either side. To our right is the cliff from whence we came. To our left is North Point, and on top of it, the North Light, a lighthouse privately owned and closed to the public.
To continue our loop down the west side of the island, we have to cross North Light Creek. The bridge over it is crumbling, and a sign cautions us not to, but the creek is small and the bridge low, so we head over without incident. In minutes we’re huffing it up toward the western edge, where stunning cliffs of Precambrian Jacobsville—deep red and white quartz sandstone used in the construction of several buildings throughout the Midwest during the late 1800’s—await. Eager to see them, I pedal faster. Then to my left, I see a skinny trail almost eclipsed by drooping branches. Jon stops to pull out the map. This sliver opening leads to the island’s interior trails—a quicker route back to our camp. I look at my watch. Already 6 p.m. And we still have to gather wood for tonight’s campfire. My enthusiasm for Precambrian Jacobsville fizzles in favor of flames. We take the shortcut.
Our gamble pays us back tenfold in beauty. The trail curves through a tranquil woods, home to the island’s deer, rabbit, grouse and black bear. Where the path veers straight south, parallel with Echo Lake Creek, I keep an eye out for some of the thousands of Scotch pine planted by William Mather, president of the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. The company logged the island during the early 1900’s and Mather lived somewhere near the creek and brought several non-native species to the island: roses, lilacs, phlox, peonies, apple, plum, cherry trees and more. With the dense foliage around me I truly can’t see the forest for the trees, so I bring my eyes back to the trail and head toward the island’s secret centerpiece, Echo Lake.
When we reach the lake’s weedy shore, we take a quick break to bask in the fading sunlight. The water is still except for the occasional ripple from a hungry bass, but the forest around us buzzes and titters in anticipation of dusk. I traipse across fallen logs and rocks, and discover an overturned wooden rowboat hidden behind the cattails. We peer underneath and all around. No oars. No choice but to saddle up and ride homeward.
Although the trail widens and the trees around us spread themselves thinner along this last leg of the trail, the canopy remains dense. The golden light grows faint and purple. I linger in the twilight, stopping to fashion my fleece vest around my handlebars, creating a makeshift carrier for fire-worthy wood I find on the way. Then I pedal slowly, picking up thick branches as I roll, inhaling the musk of the humid air as I near Murray Bay.
Tomorrow, I think, we’ll bike to the island cemetery to see the old gravestones of early island inhabitants. Maybe we’ll head up the eastern edge to see the Jacobsville formations. Or maybe we’ll just park our bikes, dig our toes into our patch of sand and watch the sun sparkle on the water.
Access to Grand Island is by private watercraft (no jet skis permitted) or the passenger ferry, which leaves from the mainland’s Powell Point and is located on M-28, about 4 miles west of downtown Munising’s blinking light. Unloading—no docking—happens at the island’s Murray Landing; private boats may be pulled ashore in designated areas or moored in the island’s bays. Labor Day through October 9, the ferry makes three trips to and from the island at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Contact the Grand Island Ferry Service at 906-387-3503.
You can bike and hike the island’s unpaved roads and trails or jump aboard the ALTRAN bus, which makes a daily 2 1⁄2 hour narrated tour of the island. Buses are wheelchair accessible.
There are designated campsites at Murray Bay and Trout Bay. Murray Bay and Juniper Flats also offer group camping sites for groups of 7-25 people, plus there are 15 additional sites along the rim trail and thumb. Fire rings and latrines are provided at most sites, and drinking water is available in the vicinity of the Murray Bay and Juniper Flats sites. For more information, contact the Hiawatha National Forest Visitor Information Center at 906-387-3700.
Black bears inhabit the island, so food must be hung or placed in bear bins provided at designated campsites, and day visitors should never leave snacks unattended. The weather on Lake Superior is often unpredictable, so be prepared to spend an extra night if foul weather develops.
In the waters near Grand Island, 30 ships have gone down—most during November storms between 1860 and 1929. Though half of the ships are still missing, the clear, cold waters have preserved the found ones well. Want to peer in the water without getting wet? Take a glass-bottom boat tour. A two-hour, narrated cruise takes you over three shipwrecks on Lake Superior’s floor, as well as by the East Channel Lighthouse and rock formations of Grand Island. Reservations recommended, 906-387-4477.