Throwback 1978 | Porcupine Mountains Crusade

Ben East, a member of the Michigan Conservation Hall of Fame and legendary outdoor writer for Outdoor Life, wrote this account of the extraordinary effort to preserve what is now the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. It is an excellent example of the writing that earned Ben East the acclaim he enjoyed, as well as the determination required in any era to achieve conservation success on the ground. The Porkies are still much as East described them almost 40 years ago; the photos included in this article were taken just this past fall. - Drew YoungeDyke, Editor

It happened on about the third or fourth cast. Bud Dick was standing on a shelf of rock that sloped down and vanished in the dark water of the pool. Above him the river came frothing and raging in through a short steep chute. Fifty yards below it spilled out again in a three-foot drop. The pool itself was foam-laced, currentless save for the slow eddying of the trapped water, an ideal spot for big rainbows to lie and rest and feed, husbanding their strength for the next lap up the untamed, mill-race river. 

Bud was using a small spinner with a single hook that trailed a fat pinkish dew worm as big as a small snake. He laid the rig out in the deep water in the center of the pool, let it settle close to bottom, started to drag it back across the current. I could see his line tremble as the spinner began to revolve. 

There was no warning. The fish took worm, spinner and all, the way a mountain lion puts his claws into a mule deer’s neck. Bud’s rod bent like a reed in a gale, and he retaliated instinctively to the sudden savage tug of the strike. The next thing I saw was a heavy-bodied, silvery trout exploding out of the pool like a lightning bolt in reverse, etched for a split second against a dark water-cone of his own making – and then there was hell to pay all over the place. 

That trout had come in, likely only two or three days before, out of the cold green depths of Lake Superior. He was a spring-run rainbow with a full head of steam, and he knew exactly what to do when he felt a steel barb bed itself in his bony jaw! 

He did it. He took line away from Bud so fast the reel whined. He charged across the pool and at the far side he came out of the water again, flailing and corkscrewing. When that maneuver failed to free the hook, ,he raced for the drop at the tail of the pool, cleared its lip in a clean, curving jump, crashed down into the welter and kept going for the next pool below. 

Lucky for Bud, the shelf of rock where he stood provided something close to a footpath. It was narrow, and slippery in places, but better than no path at all. Bud felt his way along, surrendering more line, avoiding brush, fighting the fish with a high rod and after two or three heart-stopping minutes that seemed 1- times that long, he wheedled the rainbow into deep water once more. 

They fought it out there, a slugging match to make the breath stick in your throat, and the trout lost. He swung in close to shore, trounced and rolling on the leader. Bud’s dad reached out from an overhanging log with the net, and the show was over. 

We moved upstream a couple of pools after that and I put across a deal of my own with a carp River rainbow. Mine went only 16 inches, but he knew how to use what he had and he had a lot for a fish that size!

After that it was time to go back to our camp at the mouth of the river and cook supper. We didn’t want any more trout that evening, anyway. 

“We’ve hit it on the nose,” Bud’s father, Ray Dick, said jubilantly as we picked our way down through the big timer beside the roaring staircase of the Carp. “Tomorrow we’ll show you what this river is like when the run is at its peak.”

It turned out he was right, too. The spawning migration of the big Lake Superior rainbows was in full swing, and for the next couple of days we had the kind of sport that fishermen dream about all their lives without often getting to see their dreams fulfilled. 

That was my first trip into the heart of the Porcupine Mountains, there on the south shore of Superior a few miles east of the Wisconsin-Michigan border. I had done a little prowling around their edges and I knew they were the highest and most picturesque mountain range, north of the Ohio, between the Black Hills of Dakota and Adirondacks of New York. I knew, too, that they were a beautiful region, still covered for the most part with virgin forest. But up to now I had not even dreamed what they were really like. 

That was my first meeting, too, with Ray Dick, who in the next few years was to accomplish close to the impossible in a one-man campaign to save this wild, unspoiled country from ax and fire and ruin. 

There were five in our fishing party, Ray and Bud, Ed Johnson, Walt Speaker and I. We sat around a dying fire that night and watched the round, yellow, full moon of May com up over the trees, square in the notch where the river broke down out of the hills. The surf of Lake Superior rolled in and sighed on the rocky beach in front of our camp, the Carp chuckled and blustered through its last stretch of rapids only a few steps away. And just as the moon rose clear of the trees a brush wolf howled somewhere back I the ridges. 

“How do you like it?” Ray Dick asked me. 

“I’ve never had a place hit me quite so hard,” I admitted. “How far are we from the nearest road?”

“What’s the matter,” Speaker asked with a chuckle, “homesick?”

I shook my head. “Just curious.”

Ray picked up a stick and began to trace a crude map on the ground. “You’ve seen Lake of the Clouds,” he began.

 

I had. That’s a gem of a mountain lake if ever one was laid down outdoors. It lies at the eastern rim of the Porcupines, cradled in a deep, sheer-walled valley, guarded by ancient pines, locked in on all sides by tumbled ridges. A road ended only half a mile away, and the lake had long been a scenic mecca for visitors. To a handful of bass fishermen who knew what its waters held, it was a favorite fishing spot as well. 

Mullet had abounded in it originally, and because the first explorers and settlers in the region confused the mullet with carp, they had named it Carp Lake. The Carp River, on which we were camped, flowed out of it and got its name the same way. There had never been a true carp in those faroff waters, of course, and somebody finally got around to changing the name to Lake of the Clouds, which certainly fitted it better. 

“We’re about eight miles from Lake of the Clouds, as the crow flies,” Ray went on. “Maybe half again that far if you follow the river. There’s no road this side of the lake. The other way, to the west, it’s six miles to the mouth of the Presque Isle, where we stopped this morning on the way down here. There’s no road there yet, but Gogebic County is building one. They’re only a few miles away. They’ll be at the mouth in another year or two. That will still leave a strip of country 12 or 15 miles long.”

He paused in his map drawing to jerk a thumb back in the direction where the coyote had howled. “Mirror Lake is over that way six or eight miles. We’ll take you in there some day and show you brook trout fishing that will knock your hat off. Up to now you have to go beyond Mirror Lake to find even a logging road. There’s about 50,000 acres in here, all told, that’s still the way the lord made it! A chunk the size of two townships. Not a foot of road, hardly a trail. If you want to see it you walk, or come in by boat the way we did today. It’s never seen an ax, never been burned. The United States Forest Service says it’s the biggest stand of virgin hardwood left in the country!”

I knew what the other four men around the fire were thinking. “And it’s bound to be logged,” I said slowly.

Ray blazed up. “It’s bound to be logged unless we prevent it!” he shot back. “If we let that happen, it will be the biggest crime the State of Michigan has committed in your lifetime or mine. This is all we’ve got left. The pine is gone, and in 20 years the hardwood cut will be finished. This is the last big block that’s primitive and untouched. We’ve got to save it. Can you imagine what this place will look like 20 years from tonight, when they’ve finished cutting and pulled out, if we don’t?”

I didn’t need much imagination to answer that one. We had 10 million acres of cutover and burned-over land in Michigan that supplied the answer ready made. Wisconsin and Minnesota had as many more, and I had seen the bulk of them. 

I sat for a minute, listening to the noises of the river, thinking of all its lonely miles without even a deer hunting camp on its banks, watching the moon riding clear and high above the big timber, hearing the wind in the hemlocks up on the ridge. I knew all right what it would look like when the logging crews had finished their job. But I didn’t know what to do about it.

“Do you really think it can be helped?” I asked finally. “It never has been up to now, you know, not in this part of the country.”

Ray leaned closer across the fire. “It’s got to be helped” he said flatly. 

He started to talk then, telling of the fight he had been making, almost single-handed, in the hope of keeping the loggers out of these valleys along the Carp and the Little Carp and the Presque Isle. Now and then Ed Johnson or Walt Speaker put in a word. 

“Once it’s cut over, the whole area will go back to the state for delinquent taxes,” Johnson predicted. “It will be a hundred years then before it will be worth anything again, and it will never come back to what it is now.”

“We know what we need to do,” Ray said, picking up the conversation again. “Our job is to persuade the United States or the State of Michigan to come in and buy the whole 50,000 acres before it’s too late, and keep it the way it is! A few of us have been preaching that for years, but we’re not making much headway.”

A produce dealer in the town of Ironwood, 30 miles west of the mountains, Ray was also secretary of the local chamber of commerce, a job that carried no pay and not much in the way of thanks. But at least it had given him a chance to crusade for the preservation of this beloved wilderness, where he head hunted and fished for years and where he had built a small cabin (that was never locked) here at the mouth of the Carp where we were camped.

He had talked to everybody who would listen. He had gone to other businessmen in the community, he had written countless letters, he had pestered state and local officials and political leaders. For the most part, they agreed with him, but there their interest seemed to fade out. 

A local congressman, Frank Hook, had gone so far as to introduce a bill in Congress proposing to set aside $10 million to purchase the Porcupine wilderness and add it to the Ottawa National Forest which already took in a big share of three cutover counties in the Upper Peninsula. But the bill had bogged down, and nobody believed it had much chance of passing. 

“Too much money,” Ray explained, “and anyway, Congress is against appropriating funds to buy forest land in individual states. They say it would set a bad example. So we go on getting nowhere, and we haven’t much time left. Logging crews are nibbling at the edges right now. They’ll be coming in as fast as they can build truck roads and bridges. Five years from tonight will be too late as far as a lot of this is concerned.”

I chewed on the problem for a minute or two. As outdoor writer for a group of Michigan newspapers, I had seen a couple of somewhat similar campaigns carried to a successful conclusion, including one that culminated in the establishment of the Isle Royale National Park in upper Lake Superior.

“What you need is outside help,” I suggested. “There are a lot of folks around the country who love this kind of place as much as you and I do. Some of ‘em have influence. If you could get them into your fight, you might win.”

“We realize that,” Ray agreed, “but how do we go about it?”

There was another long, thoughtful pause. Then somebody came up with a suggestion. “Why not organize a Save-the-Porcupines Association, nationwide?”

“Sure,” another chimed in. “Invite anybody, anywhere, to join who wants to see this country kept the way it is.”

I could kinda see the idea catching on in Ray Dick, starting to burn like the lightning of a slow fuse on a powder keg. None of us guessed it at the time, but what we were witnessing that night was the turning point in the long and uphill battle to keep the wilderness of the Porcupines untouched. 

We sat around the fire for hours, talking, swapping ideas, whittling out plans, taking inventory of the groups and individuals that could be counted on to help. When we went to our bags, long after midnight, Ray Dick was ready to move into an arena much bigger than the local community for the next round of his scrap. 

A fight of that kind is in many ways a shadow match. You can’t climb into the ring and slug it out with a flesh-and-blood opponent. You are pitted against indifference, lack of public interest, official apathy. The only fighter who has a chance of winning is the sort who can tolerate delays and setbacks, keep punching and refuse to accept defeat. Ray Dick was exactly that sort. 

His first step was to carry out the suggestion of organizing a national Save-the-Porcupines Association. He started with local people. Ed Johnson, the Ironwood newspaperman who had sat beside the fire that spring night at the mouth of the Carp, was chosen president. Ray kept for himself the work-horse job of secretary. The letters he wrote before the campaign was finished ran well into the thousands. 

Then, as we had foreseen when the plan was born, the pleas to preserve the biggest tract of virgin hardwood left in the country began to fire the imagination and win the support of conservationists everywhere. 

Members joined from a dozen states, as far away as Georgia and Kansas, California and New York. The membership list read like a “Who’s Who of American Conservationists.” It included such prominent names as those of Vice President Henry Wallace; Chase S. Osborn, former Governor of Michigan; Aldo Leopold of the University of Wisconsin; Newton B. Drury, director of the National Park Service; William Allen White, renowned Kansas editor; Willard Van Name of the American Museum of Natural History; Jay Price, regional forester of the United States Forest Service, and Mrs. Edward LaBudde of the Women’s Conservation League of America. 

Conservation groups from coast to coast offered their help. The Wisconsin Conservation League, with 200,000 members, threw its weight into the fight, as did the Izaak Walton League of America, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Forestry Association, the Federated Garden Clubs of America, the Emergency Conservation Committee, the National Parks Association, the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the Upper Peninsula Development Bureau, the Northern Michigan Sportsman’s Association and other influential outfits. 

Money started to come in in sums adequate to finance the battle. Ray Dick himself, all but knocked off his feet by the country-wide response, gathered his forces and drove ahead harder than ever. 

The Hook bill was still before Congress, pigeon-holed in a committee. The association bombarded Washington with letters and resolutions asking action. 

Writers and photographers loosed a flood of publicity. Stories and pictures of the Porcupine wilderness appeared in newspapers in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Boston, Cleveland and other cities and in national magazines. An exciting description of the wild beauty of the region even made its way into the Congressional Record. Sportsmen in cities a thousand miles distant came to know almost as much about the Porcupines as they knew about their favorite rabbit swales, 10 miles from home. 

At the same time those who were leading the fight, doubtful that Congress could be talked into a local deal of such size, turned their attention to Michigan officials, urging the state to act if and when it finally became apparent that Washington did not intend to. 

World War II came on, and the attention of the nation, even of its conservationists, was diverted to other problems. Less and less thought went to saving our natural wealth, more and more to using it to buy the victory we had to have. But Ray Dick wouldn’t give up. He still refused to stand by and see the wilderness he loved converted into a denuded, fire-blackened wasteland. Peace would come back some day, he argued, and when that happened, the country was going to need places like the Porcupines again, need ‘em for their wilderness and beauty, their forests and fish and game. And across the country members of the association that he had fathered and spark-plugged never stopped preaching the same doctrine. 

They kept hammering away, harping at their pet idea, not letting the crusade lag. And at last they won a powerful ally in P.J. Hoffmaster, director of the Michigan Department of Conservation. 

It had long been Pete Hoffmaster’s beliefs that one of his department’s foremost obligations to the people of Michigan was to provide them an adequate system of outdoor playgrounds, including parks, public hunting lands and public access sites on lakes and streams. And now he came to the conclusion that the Porcupine Mountain wilderness fitted into such a plan in a very special way. 

He took into account its lakes and streams, its deer and grouse and trout, its possibilities for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and other forms of recreation, and its beauty and primitive characters. There was nothing like it left anywhere in the country. It could serve two purposes. It could be made into a unique roadless park, and it could also become a natural forest museum, preserving for all time a remnant of what Aldo Leopold had fittingly named the Great Uncut. 

So Hoffmaster stepped up beside Ray Dick, to champion the same cause, carrying with him the weight and influence of the seven-man commission that headed and made policy for the Michigan Conservation Department. He made a trip to the Porcupines to see for himself what the loggers were doing along the edges of the wilderness. They were doing plenty, and Hoffmaster didn’t wait any longer. Backed by his commission, he drew up a report on the mountains, their history, their scenic beauty, their value as a recreation area, and the worth of their timber and sent it to Gov. Harry F. Kelly with a recommendation for the purchase of 46,000 acres without further delay, “in order that what happened to our pine may not also happen to the last of our virgin hardwood.”

Pete Hoffmaster died in 1951, but not before he had seen the Porcupines pass safely into state ownership and protection, and the development of the area get under way in accordance with the plans he himself had helped to draft. 

 

The State Planning Commission endorsed his recommendation, and Gov. Kelly was ready to act. By that time he, too, had seen the Porcupines for himself. Invited by Ray Dick to visit them, the Governor, a handicapped veteran of World War I, had gone only as far as the mouth of the Presque Isle, where the river gorge and its virgin timber had been converted into a park by Gogebic County. 

“I’ve seen enough,” Kelly told Dick. “I’m for it.”

He convinced a special session of the Legislature and asked the members to approve the purchase Hoffmaster had recommended and make available a million dollars to carry it out. 

 

There were still obstacles in the way, barriers to hurdle, but victory was in sight at last for those who had fought so long and in the face of such great discouragement to save the Porcupine wilderness. 

In the final round open opposition showed itself for the first time. A Wisconsin lumber company that owned 8,000 acres of the forest and was pushing its logging operations there at top speed, lobbied vigorously to defeat the proposal. But by this time the tide of public opinion was running too strongly to be turned back by private interests. 

The Legislature compromised to the extent of altering the boundaries of the purchase area and eliminating some 3,500 acres of the company’s holdings along the border. But it then proceeded to whoop the proposal through, by a thumping majority of 76 to 10 in the lower house and an even more spectacular vote of 26 to 1 in the Senate. The tireless, patient groundwork that Ray Dick and his associates had laid over a period of many years paid big dividends in those closing hours of the fight in the committee rooms and on the floor of the Legislature. 

Even then, the Wisconsin company held out, refusing to sell at a price the state was willing and able to pay, bringing political influence to bear as far away as Washington in a last-ditch effort to block the deal and go on cutting. But Hoffmaster and his commission wouldn’t be stymied. They went into court, halted the company’s logging operations and condemned its land, buying for $216,000 a tract on which the company had set a price in excess of $1 million. 

 

That ended it. The Porcupine wilderness was safe at last from ax and fire. 

 

It’s up there now, roadless and untouched, just the way it was that spring night when we camped at the mouth of the Carp. A system of trails has been laid out and marked for hikers. Comfortable cabins have been built in a few key spots for campers, hunters and fishermen. Permission to use them can be obtained from the park superintendent at Ontonagon. Ski runs are in operation in winter. That’s about all the development that is contemplated. No roads, now or at any future time. If you want to see it, you have to go on foot. 

 

You can walk the trails this summer, or some great-great-grandson of yours, as yet unborn, can walk ‘em in a hundred years from now, and find the age-old solitude of the wilderness unbroken. The ancient pines will still be standing guard on the ridges that overlook the rivers, the wind will be singing its song in the tops of the big beeches and hemlocks. The forest of the Porcupines is going to continue to be forest and not sawlogs. The people of Michigan own it, and that’s the way they intend to keep it. 

 

It makes a very pleasant ending to the story of Ray Dick and the one-man crusade he started and all the people who came in later and gave him a hand in winning his long fight!

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