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An early autumn hike at Cliff Mine/Out There

September 21, 2012
By Dan Schneider - For the Gazette , The Daily Mining Gazette

I meet up with Splake at his "Brautigan Table" at the Cafe Rosetta in Calumet. We take our coffee to go, start north in Splake's white Ford Ranger.

It is Saturday morning, early September, the first morning when the air can rightly be called crisp. Already there are tinges of color in the maples alongside U.S. Highway 41 and, north of Ahmeek, along Cliff Drive. Before we left the coffee shop, Splake handed me a copy of Clarence J. Monette's "Clifton and the Cliff Mine," which tells some of the history of our destination . . . The Cliffs.

Splake has visited, and written about, the Cliffs often in the 10 years he has lived in the Keweenaw.

"I guess I consider it kind of my religion," Splake says. "People go to church Sunday morning and they seem to get something out of it. I find the same sort of spiritualism, and I don't have the words to really explain it, at the Cliffs."

Splake parks the Ranger at the trailhead, located most of the way up Cliff Drive (something like half a mile southwest of where it reconnects with U.S. Highway 41). This is the trail that most people take to get to an overlook called "Big Rock."

Big Rock is a fitting place for a spiritual experience in the outdoors. The only other place I know of that rewards so little hiking with such an impressive view is Little Mountain outside of L'Anse. Scarcely a mile of hiking, making right turns at each of three forks in the road, is all it takes to get to the Big Rock promontory with its commanding, often awe-inspiring, view of the Keweenaw's topography.

Splake and I take only two right turns this morning, following the wide gravel trail up to the Upper Cliff Mine locations. There is a spiritual aspect, too, in seeing young trees growing out of the cracks in the old concrete foundations, pioneering birches finding purchase on poor rock piles.

A connection, often in a spiritual sense, to outdoor places - the Cliffs, the Porcupine Mountains, wilderness areas in and around Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore - is a theme which appears frequently in Splake's writing.

His most recent book, "only in my dreams" arrived on my doorstep sometime in early August. In it, Splake writes about a trip he took last year to drive the now-paved Adams Trail road, which traverses the wilderness south of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, from Munising to Grand Marais.

"only in my dreams" recounts experiences Splake had in that wilderness while spending his summers living in a Ford Bronco on some land outside Munising, many years before the paving of the Adams Trail. It revisits the awakening of his poet soul by the morning embers of a campfire - a spiritual moment scrawling pictured rocks poetry on the back of his paper breakfast plate.

There is wind in the dry leaves as we head down from the Cliffs, back to the trailhead. But other than that, it's silent out here in the woods.

"After Labor Day weekend, after the end of summer," Splake says, "this place is left to the believers."



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