On the summit

Eagle Mountain, 2,301ft

Date climbed: 6:35pm 8/5/11

Eric, Matthew, and Keith Gilbertson
4 state highpoints
1800 miles driving
8 miles hiking
2.2-day window of opportunity
3 Gilbertsons
State highpoints completed to date: 46

Most any serious mountain has an accepted climbing season – generally in the spring when crevasses still have thick enough snow bridges to bear weight and the weather is starting to get warm and pleasant. The climbing season for Denali is generally April – June, and for Everest is generally in ~May before the monsoons start. The climbing season for Charles Mound, the highest mountain in Illinois, happens to be only the first full weekends of June, July, August, and September. As serious mountaineers, we chose to climb Charles Mound in season, on the first full weekend in August. But we also had other unfinished state-highpoint business in the area in the form of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin – so a full mountaineering weekend was in store.

Minnesota – Eagle Mountain 2301 ft

Entering Superior National Forest

The journey started at 9:30am Friday morning in a rental car in the small town of Montevideo, in western Minnesota. We had climbed Harney Peak, South Dakota and White Butte, North Dakota the previous weekend and had spent the week visiting relatives in Pennsylvania and then Minnesota. After a big breakfast at the best restaurant in town – Valentino’s – our dad took the wheel and we started heading up nort (that’s how you pronounce it with a Minnesotan accent). According to Google it would be 7.5 hours driving to get to Eagle Mountain, way up in the northeastern tip of the state almost on the Canadian border. It would take a few hours to hike, and then another few hours of driving to get where we needed to be in Wisconsin that night for the whole plan to work out. So there was no time for fooling around.

The view from Whale Lake. Matthew: “Most people think that’s Eagle Mountain, but it’s actually not. Eagle Mtn is actually to my right, outside of the photo and hidden by trees.”

We cruised up to Duluth no problem, but then got hit with a double whammy of road construction plus weekend traffic from “The Cities” (that’s the Twin Cities – Minneapolis and Saint Paul). Luckily it eased up once we got a little farther north on Lake Superior. We drove through Two Harbors, Beaver Bay, and finally to Lutsen where we turned inland on gravel logging roads. We had a few minutes of torrential rain, but luckily it was short-lived and we arrived dry at the trailhead at 4:45pm. Somehow we had managed to beat Google despite the traffic delays.

Matthew and I had heard legends of the voracious mosquitoes in northern Minnesota, and came prepared with full body cover and head nets. But, when we got out of the car we hardly noticed any bugs. Maybe we’d just been expecting a more north-of-the-arctic-circle mosquito level like we’d experienced last summer, but we certainly didn’t complain.

We started hiking at 5pm and had the trail all to ourselves. Not surprisingly for Minnesota the trail was

Matthew treating some water to drink on the way

flat most of the way, winding around lakes and over swamps on boardwalks. The bugs got a little more voracious near the swamps but the bite rate was only about 3/minute at the worst. At 2 miles we reached Whale Lake and the view of a hill that most online pictures claimed was eagle mountain. We quickly debunked that myth with a careful inspection of our topo map. So if you ever do a Google image search for Eagle Mountain, remember it’s actually the local maximum behind the trees to the left of the one in the pictures.

The trail finally started climbing after we rounded Whale Lake, and we reached the summit by 6:15pm. There was no mistaking this one – a huge 2’x2’ aluminum sign marked the 2301ft summit, and even gave the full history of the surveying of the mountain. We got some jumping and juggling pictures, ate a few wild blueberries, and then headed back down. There was a view on the way back and I couldn’t see a single sign of civilization. There’s true wilderness in northern Minnesota, and I bet you could get pretty far from any other people if you climbed Eagle Mountain in the winter.

The summit

We managed to beat the rain back to the car, and immediately started heading back south. Now came the dilemma – we needed to hit Michigan, Wisconsin, then Illinois and get back to Minneapolis by 3pm Sunday to catch our flight. Unfortunately Charles Mound is on private property and the landowners only open it up these certain weekends, but we weren’t sure what times of day it was opened (or whether the property was gated). If we assumed it was open 9am-5pm, then we basically had to get there by 5pm Saturday, since there wouldn’t be enough time to hit it Sunday morning and make it all the way back to Minneapolis. But Charles Mound was a 16-hour drive from Eagle Mountain (not including hiking time for Michigan and Wisconsin), and it was already 8pm Friday night. That sounded like a good plan to not sleep at all. So we unanimously decided to bet that Charles Mound opened before 9am, and just plan to get there Sunday morning.

With sleep back in the equation, I picked out a nice-looking national forest just outside Ino, Wisconsin, and we drove there that night, finding a good stealth camping spot by midnight.

Hiking back down

Michigan, Mt Arvon 1979.238 ft

We were up and out of camp by 7am and soon across the border into Michigan. This highpoint, Mt Arvon, would prove a bit more difficult to find. It was guarded by a maze of logging roads outside of L’Anse, but supposedly the best route was marked with blue signs the whole way. However, we found what looked like a more direct route on google earth satellite photos, and decided to try our luck. At L’anse we pulled off onto gravel roads, and plunged into the forest. We hit intersections every few minutes, and navigator Matthew would always point us on the right road. After about 20 minutes Matthew worriedly announced,
“Uh oh – there’s a stream ahead that intersects our road. I hope there’s a bridge…”

We rounded the corner and slammed on the brakes. There was a stream all right, and the road went right through it. Any high-clearance vehicle could have made it, but not our poor little rental car. Our gamble had not paid off, and we reluctantly turned around back to L’anse. We were on a tight schedule and couldn’t afford any more delays, so this time we followed the official route. It was indeed well-marked with blue signs and we reached the dead-end marking the trailhead at 11:30am. Actually there was a big barricade over the road, but a 4-wheeler-size path cut through the woods around it. We figured we could probably drive to the summit in a Jeep, but again not in this car. So we got out and started hiking.

It was only about a half mile to the top, and we actually did see a jeep parked half-way up. Apparently the road was even too rough for the jeep. We passed a woman walking down with her dog, and then reached the summit at noon. Michigan is actually pretty proud of this mountain – there were several benches, a picnic table, and a super-sturdy metal summit register attached to a tree. We found a little concrete summit marker next to the tree, and it was mysteriously very wet while the ground everywhere else was dry. Could the dog have peed on it? Or someone emptied a water bottle on it?

I read the summit register and someone had signed in that morning, claiming this was his 39th highpoint and that he had “pied” on the summit of each one. I suspect he meant “peed” on the summits, and we must have just missed him. We were impressed by him summiting 39 highpoints (that had been us just a few months ago, though this one was now #44 for us), but not by his summit ritual. I mean, almost any mountaineer pees on or near most summits they attain, if only because that’s where they naturally take a break anyways. A much better summit ritual is to juggle five objects – rocks/snowballs/sticks – on the summit (that’s what I do).

After checking out a little man-made view nearby we soon headed back down and set our sights on Timm’s Hill, Wisconsin.

Wisconsin, Timms Hill 1951 ft

It was easy navigating back out the logging roads and we were soon heading south on the open highway. We drove through the metropolises of Eagle River, St Germain, and Tomahawk without incident, but when we turned west with only an hour to go before Timm’s Hill the weather started deteriorating. The sky turned dark and we were suddenly hammered with torrential rain. This might have been okay for any other mountain, but Timm’s Hill was different.

We had read that there was a 60-ft tall metal fire tower on the summit with a ladder on the outside. A cable ran up alongside the ladder and if you had a harness you could clip in for protection in case you fell. We had come fully-prepared with harnesses and slings to climb this tower. However, it didn’t sound too safe now to be climbing a slippery ladder 60ft above the ground on the tallest metal object in the whole state during a lightning storm.

We pulled in to the trailhead around 5pm and it was still raining. We could still hit the top of the hill without climbing the tower, so we left the harnesses in the car and started walking up in our rainjackets (well, Matthew went without a shirt). It was only a quarter mile to the top, and as a consolation prize there was actually a second, shorter fire tower that had a staircase and still offered a view above the trees. It even stopped raining just as we got to the top.

We juggled and jumped back at the bottom of the tower, and then got back in the car to dry off. 45 highpoints down and one more left on this trip.

Illinois, Charles Mound 1235 ft

From Timm’s Hill it was a 5-hour drive to Charles Mound, and we decided we wanted to be there at 8am Sunday morning. Unfortunately there aren’t any national forests to camp at in northwestern Illinois, and it looked like it was going to rain all night anyways, so we made the call to stay in a hotel that night. We made it to Dodgeville by 10pm and found a nice super 8 with a continental breakfast.

The next morning it was raining hard as we pulled out at 7am (good thing we weren’t in our tent of questionable waterproofness). We timed the drive perfectly and made it to the town of Scales Mound (at the base of Charles Mound) at 8am on the dot. Now first it’s important to know a little history of the Gilbertsons and Charles Mound. Back in the summer of 2005 we had stopped by Charles Mound on our way back home from Minnesota, not knowing about the restrictive climbing season. We got to the turnoff from the main highway onto the owners land, but didn’t dare go any farther because of the multiple “No Trespassing” signs. Only after doing careful research back home did we realize that the highpoint was actually open on four specific weekends in the summer, but no other times. We vowed to return some day, and this was the day.

This time, knowing the mountain was officially open, we drove past the “No Trespassing” signs for about half a mile until we came to some old barns in the woods. Here we saw a sign instructing highpointers to park their car and continue on foot. We were at the right spot for sure!
We walked about a quarter mile up the road into the woods and finally came to the official summit sign. At last! And there was even a nice view to all the surrounding corn fields and cattle pastures. We checked out the summit register and there were at least 20 sign-ins from just yesterday, though we were the first that day. It turns out nothing would have prevented us from going up there at midnight the previous night, though the owners house was pretty close by and we were glad not to have offended them at all.

With 46 state highpoints safely in the bag we strolled back down to the car and headed back north. We got to Minneapolis with plenty of time to spare for our flights. We’re hoping to finish the remaining four state highpoints – ID, UT, TX, HI – in the next few months.

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