Crazy and Homey Tales From the Cabins in the Porcupine Mountains

Porcupine Mountains logbooks offer a glimpse into personal park experiences.

By KATIE URBAN

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

A wintry scene is shown from the Mirror Lake Cabin at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. (Dave Braithwaite photo)

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park comprises 60,000 acres of massive trees, rolling mountains, fabled shores, and everlasting memories.

Also known as “the Porkies,” this western Upper Peninsula destination prides itself on the ideals of truly natural, wilderness beauty and keeping Michigan’s largest state park as wild as possible.

Though a good deal of this place is a primitive area, human activity is not absent. In fact, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has tucked 23 rustic backcountry cabins or yurts into this stunning landscape, which are nestled into some truly beautiful spaces.

Upon arrival to an empty cabin, each visitor likely feels the initial excitement at starting a new adventure. The faint smell of woodsmoke soon wafts from the small metal stove that sits in the corner, a neat stack of dry firewood towers to its side. The scuffed wooden floor supports a few sets of bunk beds and a small, well-worn wooden table.

Somewhere in each one of these cabins, there is a beaten-up old book, not the one filled with the brochures and instructions of how to navigate the park, but the one full of the first-hand history of this tiny place surrounded by so much wild. As is the case at state parks across Michigan, the cabin logbook is somewhat of a secret treasure here at the Porcupine Mountains. Each visitor who reserves a stay in one of the cabins has the option to write his or her story.

With 23 cabins and yurts across the span of 76 years, the park has gathered quite a collection of books and stories. Within the pages of these books is the park's history, written by the people who took the time to enjoy it.

50 Year of Logbooks and Stories

Porcupine Mountain Cabins Logbooks
Logbooks from the 23 cabins and yurts at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park provide a wealth of interesting comments from the past three-quarters of a century - Courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources


What do complete strangers write in these books? The answer is not so simple – with so many different ages, personalities, backgrounds, and viewpoints contributing, the content is broad.

A very common theme is the individual adventures – what types of critters scurried by on their hike in, what was packed for a meal, or a little insight about themselves. Most stories are of good times, while others had a bit more traumatizing stay.

One entry from 1992, at the Lily Pond cabin, reads:

“We had three visitors this morning. Three very cute and comical otters were playing by the dam. I took twenty pictures, and they wanted more! So, hopefully, they will come back to meet the next people. The sun is rising over the lake, and it’s a beautiful morning.”

A visitor to the Greenstone Cabin in 1984 wrote:

“My six-month-old fell out of the backpack headfirst when my husband bent over to grab my three-year-old who was falling down the bank. Am I having a good time, you ask?”

Many authors in the Porkies logbooks like to write to the strangers coming in behind them. A lot of times, they give advice from experience learned or knowledge they deem worth sharing. Some authors have burning confessions, honest apologies, or a simple heads-up to the next night's residents.

Some examples of the variety include: 

“The wildflowers are so beautiful; be prudent in picking them. Let enough flowers stay to carry seeds and continue to keep these woods full of nature’s variety.” - Whitetail Cabin, 1991

“Sorry about the burnt popcorn smell. There’s an explanation for that. We burnt the popcorn. Expert backpackers ya’ know.” - Greenstone Cabin, 1984

“We tried some freeze-dried powdered eggs-they’re awful!! Chili-mac is great though.” - Lake of the Clouds Cabin, 2008

“I’m avoiding telling my brother that I lost one of his spoons “tackle.” I’m notorious for decorating trees with spinners and whatnot.” - Greenstone Cabin, 1984

“My sister puked outside, so don’t step in it. Had some marshmallows. Very hot in here especially on the top bunks, so sleep on the bottom. Had a relaxing weekend. Went cross-country skiing a lot, saw a deer, more deer poop than deer, don’t step in that either.” - Whitetail Cabin, 1992

Legendary Tales of Mice and Men

Humans thrive on telling tales. Many myths are started by word-of-mouth stories passed down through generations that are then put down on paper and become legends.

The visitors to the Porkies cabins have crafted several legends over the years.

One example is the tale of a large mouse in the Buckshot Cabin. He was fitted with the name “Grizzly Mouse, the Good Ole’ Buckshot Bear,” and he terrorized the cabin in the late 1970s.

Many visitors wrote of sightings or of hearing the mouse rustling in the night. Others shared advice on how to outwit him to thwart his plans of stealing food or precious supplies.

“Have taken good advice of past dwellers to Buckshot. Put food under pails and pots. ‘grizzly’ won’t get your food. Then he will get discouraged and leave.” - Buckshot Cabin 1977

“Doug told Steve the legend of the little log house. And the ferocious field varmint, named Grizzly the mouse. We slept through the night with both terror and fright. Because Grizzly the mouse had threatened to bite.” - Buckshot Cabin 1978

Poetic Justice of the Wilderness

A 1973 landscape drawing contributed to the Mirror Lake Eight-bunk Cabin logbook at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is shown. - Courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources


Cabin users have expressed themselves in ways other than storytelling, including poetry, music, and art. Here’s a sample from the Greenstone Cabin in 1986:


“We stayed in this wilderness camp,

Without rain, we didn’t get damp.

Saw no bears, it doesn’t matter,

Ate lots of food, we all got fatter.

We love it in the porcupine mountains,

too bad there aren’t more fresh-water fountains.”


A Mirror Lake two-bunk cabin visitor offered this from 1992:


“I feel fine, talkin’ bout peace of mind, I’m gonna take my time, livin’ the good life …”

Social Shaming That Is Never Deleted 

1977 drawing from the Section 17 Cabin at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is shown. - Courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources


Another theme running through the guest logbooks is people yelling at previous cabin renters about being slobs, critiquing each other on their backpacking methods, or long entries that highlight very many rules that are broken (dogs in cabins, cutting down trees, too many people, etc.)

These complaints, perhaps a precursor to today’s social media posts, date back in the logbooks as far as the 1960s.

A Place You Don't Want to Leave.

People from all over the world come to stay in the park’s little cabins in the woods. They come for many reasons: solitude, adventure, or building bonds with family or friends.

For most cabin users, through the years, there seems to be a common denominator. No matter if they were staying for a week or a single night, that empty room with a bed and a stove becomes a home.

And just like home, one is sad to go, but many leave behind the promise of return because they’ve fallen in love with this wild, adventurous place.

A visitor to the Buckshot Cabin in 1977 summed it up nicely:

“I finally feel at ease with the world. Free from tension and anxiety. Free from all worldly pressures I must face in my everyday struggle. Yes, I have found my place; a place where I can belong. But why must I leave and when can I return?”

For more information on Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, its cabins and yurts, trails, and more, visit Michigan.gov/Porkies.

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Work Underway to Restore Historic Sawmill at Belle Isle Park

Belle Isle Sawmill

By KATHLEEN LAVEY - Michigan Department of Natural Resources

For decades, City of Detroit foresters industriously labored away in a quaint sawmill within Belle Isle Park, giving trees from streets and parks new life as usable wood after they were removed for road widening or death from disease, pests, or storms.

 

Shut down more than 40 years ago, the sawmill sat quiet and mostly forgotten, until 2014, when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources began managing the 982-acre island in the Detroit River as the state’s 102nd state park. 

Now, the 80-year-old sawmill building is getting a new life of its own. 

Since autumn 2020, workers have carefully restored its roof, replacing rotted boards with tongue-and-groove Douglas fir planks cut to match the originals as closely as possible. Rotted beams are being replaced, and shingles are next.

The work is the first phase of a coordinated effort to renew the sawmill building. The restored site will serve as a hub for interpreting a unique aspect of Detroit’s history related to urban trees and forestry.

The sawmill’s second act will be to engage visitors in learning about the practice and benefits of urban forestry today, specifically the importance of trees and forests in our communities. Trees provide products and services and improve our quality of life. 

Since last operating in the mid-1980s, the mill has sat largely forgotten, its huge, circular saw blade rusted in place as weather and abandonment took their toll on the rest of the building.

“During the DNR’s transition to managing Belle Isle, there was a process for identifying the nature and infrastructure resources present. At that time, we realized this old sawmill existed,” said Kevin Sayers, urban forestry program manager for the DNR’s Forest Resources Division. “To this profession, restoring this sawmill is restoring a fundamental piece of forestry and forest history.”

Preservation of an Urban Sawmill

Belle Isle Sawmill Interior
The sawmill on Detroit’s Belle Isle Park seemed to be an odd but interesting artifact.

However, it turns out the City of Detroit had a bit of a progressive streak during the early 20th century related to utilizing urban street and park trees for wood products.

An old, silent Detroit News newsreel video documents this mill's early existence and demonstrates one of the earliest examples in the United States of urban wood utilization or repurposing city trees after they’ve been cut down. 

Joe Aiken is an arborist and president of the Arboriculture Society of Michigan Foundation and Historical Society. He and others have collected historical materials regarding arboriculture and urban forestry to establish an urban forestry museum. 

The Belle Isle sawmill building may be the perfect place for that.

“It was like finding a Christmas present under the tree that you forgot about,” Aiken said. “The sawmill has probably been in that specific spot since 1900 or 1905, maybe. They built this building in 1937.” 

Aiken said he believes the last wood milled at the site was used to build platforms and other structures for an event at the old Cobo Hall, now the TCF (Bank) Center. Other wood was used for various purposes, such as park benches, city buildings, and fuel for wood-burning stoves and furnaces.

Sayers and Aiken are excited about the possibilities of having a historical and working sawmill in a thriving urban park that sees millions of visitors each year. 

“This is a place where we can show how valuable trees are in an urban setting,” Aiken said. “There is really no other place in the world that I can find that will be focused on this agenda, and having it in Michigan at a state park is an opportunity.”

Restoration of the Sawmill is Part of A Long-Range Plan

Belle Isle Sawmill Roof

The work to bring the building and the sawmill back to life will take time. It’s happening in phases as funding becomes available and a long-term plan is laid out.

The structural beam repairs, new roof, masonry work, gutters, and downspouts comprise the first phase, a $200,000-plus project funded jointly by the DNR’s Forest Resources and Parks and Recreation divisions, as well as the ASMF, Michigan Forestry Association, and the Belle Isle Conservancy (acting as project fiduciary for the DNR).

The second phase of restoration work, which planners hope will take place this year, will make the building entirely weather-tight with new windows, doors, and exterior paint. 

After that, work will move inside, including electrical updates and new interior doors. Later phases include refurbishing the sawing equipment, exterior landscape, and, finally, opening to the public. 

For various reasons, Sayers said sawing demonstrations will likely take place using a portable sawmill outside the building, at least initially. 

“The site could be great for highlighting and interpreting the history and then demonstrating the current equipment and practices using a portable sawmill,” he said.

Not the Only Sawmill Managed by the MDNR

DNR staffers do have some experience with the type of sawmill on Belle Isle. It’s an electric version of the same model as the steam-powered mill used for demonstrations at Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling in Otsego County. That park includes exhibits, displays, and events centered around Michigan’s logging era.

Amanda Treadwell, the urban field planner for the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, applauded the teamwork that has helped launch the restoration efforts.

“Parks and forestry were able to team up together to fix the roof before it deteriorated to a point where it wouldn’t have been salvageable,” she said. 

She rated the project’s coolness factor as “11 out of 10.” 

“It allows for educational programming and resources for school kids to come onto the island and learn about environmental careers, what the DNR does in urban areas, forestry practices in urban areas,” she said. “It’s a great connection between the outdoors and urban ecology and forestry.”

Aiken said his organization has various artifacts to display that will help tell the story of urban forestry, including climbing ropes and saddles used by urban foresters, insect and disease management, and more.

“The goal would be an interpretive center very similar to what Hartwick Pines does,” he said.

Check out more information on Belle Isle Park. To learn more about forestry in Michigan, see Michigan.gov/Forestry.

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Zingarella at the Bad Axe (Huron Community) Fair in Bad Axe 1912

We ran across this unique picture postcard on Facebook. Due credit to Barry Holdship, who collects old photographs of the Upper Thumb.  

Is the Daredevil Zingarella in Coney Island or Bad Axe?

The daredevil Zingarella postcard is inscribed with Bad Axe Fair 1912 on the bottom. Doing some research, we found this image listed on eBay, but it is denoted as being from Coney Island Amusement Park in New York in1909. In the distance, we can see a tall domed building. If it was taken in Bad Axe, then I assume that to be the Huron County Courthouse. The tallest structure in town. 

Sideshows at the Bad Axe Fair

We have found little information on the performer Zingarella. The stunt appears to be that the girl walks a ball down the steep circular ramp while waving a flag. I'm sure that a piece of chilling music accompanies the act. 

The Huron Community Fair took place September 17 - 20, 1912. If this was a postcard of the fair, it was likely taken by J. G. McDonald studios.  McDonald's studios were known for taking many postcard shots of subjects in Michigan's Thumb during the heyday of sending postcards in the early 1900s. 

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When Michigan Was Still A Wilderness - 1841 Michigan Map

 An Early Map of Michigan Shorty After Statehood


The 1841 Michigan Map by H. S. Tanner is a unique print. Printed a few years after Michigan became a state this map shows many counties that no longer exist or have changed. 

This rare map has an inset showing the western part of the Upper Peninsula and a travel table for Detroit Steam Boat Routes. 

Michigan Was Still A Wild Wilderness

This early map of Michigan, (Michigan was made a state in 1837),  shows little expansion north of the lower two rows of counties with only several recognized cities or towns: Benton, Coltrellville, Corunna, Flint, Grand Haven, Grand Rapids, Hastings, Howell, Mason Centre (not yet Lansing), McDougalville, Mt. Clemons, Niles, Palmer, Pontiac, Portland, Remco, Saginaw, Saugatuck, Tomia Center, Utica, and Vermontville. At the tip of the Thumb, Huron county had no towns or cities marked or listed.




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Discovering Michigan’s Mountain Bike Trails

By BRAD PARSONS - Michigan Department of Natural Resources


Backcountry Trail Riding in Michigan - Mountain Biking



Michigan's non-motorized trails system has more than 3,000 miles dedicated to paved, gravel, and off-road single-track trails for bicyclists to enjoy 365 days a year. These public trails are situated in every region of Michigan at state parks, recreation areas, pathways, forests, and rail trails.

Michigan's natural terrain, along with varied seasons and access to public trails, provides a unique experience for all cyclists. As a Michigan Department of Natural Resources videographer, I have the privilege to help document and promote this recreation activity across the state. What I've learned is that nonmotorized bicycle trails can dramatically influence personal connection to the outdoors, build communities, and strengthen local economies.

About a year ago, in August 2019, I was assigned to film a promotional action video of the Waterloo State Recreation Area's DTE Energy Foundation mountain bike trail system in Chelsea, Michigan. At that time, my knowledge of mountain biking was minimal. I didn’t even own a bicycle.

What is Mountain Biking

A mountain biker enjoys one of Michigan’s flow trails.- Mountain Biking


So, what is mountain biking? It’s best described as riding a bicycle off-road, on trails specifically designed for bicycle use, over varied terrain. Two common types of mountain bike trails are flow and cross-country (or backcountry).

The DTE trail is classified as a flow trail – built with a special machine that carved berms, hills, and unique features into the pre-existing natural terrain on public land. 

Backcountry mountain bike trails feature existing natural terrain, including roots, rocks, and other obstacles found in the forest. These trails can sometimes be more technically challenging. Both types of trails are available on Michigan public land. 

A scene from 2019’s Global Fat Bike Day at Sleepy Hollow State Park in Clinton County - Mountain Biking


While I was capturing video clips of mountain bikers at the DTE trail, one rider decided to stop and introduce himself. It was Jason Aric Jones, creator of the trail. My encounter with Jason was inspiring. He encouraged me to bring a bicycle with me the next time I visited the trail. In response to this experience, I went to my local bike shop three days later and purchased my first mountain bike.

I then found myself back at the DTE trail for a follow-up video assignment, recording the trail with a 360-degree video camera mounted to my bike helmet. Long story short, I discovered the joy of mountain biking through a work assignment and inspiration from the amazing community of Michigan bicyclists.

Check out Brad’s 360 DTE Energy Foundation Trail video.

A New Way of Life

The bicycle has transformed my life and given me a new appreciation for Michigan trails and the mountain biking community. Mountain biking in Michigan became an accepted recreation activity in the late 1980s.

Story author Brad Parsons in a still from the DTE Energy Foundation Trail video he produced for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. - - Mountain Biking


A few of Michigan’s top destinations for mountain biking include Copper Harbor and Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, the Chelsea/Pinckney area near Detroit, Augusta, and Rockford in the western Lower Peninsula, and the Traverse City region in the northern Lower Peninsula.

Each of these destinations provides a unique type of terrain and challenges, and they welcome all mountain bikers, regardless of skill level. That is the best part about trails in Michigan – they are approachable for the novice or less-experienced riders. 

Fat Tire Bike in the Snow - Mountain Biking


And when the snow arrives in Michigan, a recent production of fat-tire bicycles enables enthusiasts to experience groomed trails year-round. 

A lot of progress has been made in popularizing the sport during the past 40 years with the help of mountain biking advocacy groups, volunteers, and the holding of special events. Advocacy groups help influence policies and rules and create or introduce new trail systems in partnership with the DNR.

Mountain Biking Organizations

The Michigan Mountain Biking Association, the state’s largest organization dedicated to the pastime, coordinates local and regional groups like the Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association in southeastern Michigan. Members of these groups provide financial support and volunteer their time to maintain mountain bike trails.

Development, management, and maintenance of mountain biking trails on state land is often a partnership between the DNR and mountain biking organizations. The DNR, as the land manager, works to balance the use and preservation of public natural resources, while allowing for great trail opportunities.

A scene from the “Top of the World” multi-use pathway at Little Presque Isle in Marquette County.


Local mountain bike groups perform the majority of on the ground trail work and maintenance of the trails with the help of many dedicated volunteers.

In addition to managing the land, the DNR also works with local groups to permit special events hosted at state parks and recreation areas. These events are vital to communities and to introduce the activity to new users. Mountain biking events also strengthen local economies, especially via increased patronage of bike shops and restaurants.

In my personal experience, local bike shops are the heart of every bicycle community. Not only have I purchased all my bikes through a local shop, but I’ve also learned about maintenance and other important information, like biking safety and etiquette, from friendly staff. If I have a question about anything related to the bicycle, I call my local shop for help.

Bike shops also provide jobs and maintenance services to the community by repairing old bikes that have been in storage for years or with monthly tune-ups for avid cyclists.

In my opinion, bike shops provide a product, service, and knowledge necessary for mountain biking to flourish in every community in Michigan.

I would encourage all bicyclists to get involved with their local biking community via a trail organization, biking events, and bike shops, or to participate in volunteer trail maintenance workdays. Riders should be good trail stewards and not ride when trails are wet after rains or during muddy spring conditions after the ground thaws.

“Riders should ride safely and respectfully when using trails during the COVID-19 restrictions, including spreading out to observe social distancing and being patient with other riders,” said Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division.

Although Michigan is not known for mountainous terrain like the western United States, there is a tremendous wealth of fun to explore while riding a mountain bike in “The Trails State.”

Sept. 20-27 is Michigan Trails Week, a great time to get out and enjoy all of Michigan’s 13,000 miles of state-designated trails. Be sure to participate in the virtual Trails Week Challenge and get entered to win cool outdoor gear and Michigan-branded prizes. For more information, visit Michigan.gov/TrailsWeek.

Story author Brad Parsons, and Michigan Department of Natural Resources videographer, is shown on 2019’s Global Fat Bike Day.


CHECK OUT A DNR MOUNTAIN BIKING VIDEO

To learn more about how to get involved and discover mountain biking, visit Michigan.gov/DNRTrails

Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories in our archive at Michigan.gov/DNRStories. To subscribe to upcoming Showcasing articles, sign up for free email delivery at Michigan.gov/DNR.






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