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Sylvania Wilderness: Solitude on Snowshoes

By Jim DuFresne

Snowshoeing towards Hay Lake, we paused to catch our breath and in the stillness that surrounded us realized this was as quiet as the world can get. Deep in the woods in the middle of the Sylvania Wilderness, there was no wind and thus no movement. Whatever wasn’t hibernating most likely had fled south for the winter.

And there were no other people.

A snowshoer crosses a lake in the Sylvania Wilderness.

This 20,000-acre, lake-studded tract along the Michigan-Wisconsin border attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year but the vast majority are canoers, anglers and campers who arrive from May through September. In the winter less than 5,000 people visit this slice of the Ottawa National Forest and most of them rarely venture much beyond the north end of Clark Lake.

To traverse Sylvania when the snow is deep and the lakes are frozen may be the only true wilderness experience possible here.

“A definition of solitude is Sylvania in the winter,” said a ranger at the Ottawa National Forest Visitor Center in Watersmeet. “The times I’ve been back in there I’ve never run into another person. I’ve only seen tracks.”

Sylvania is small enough that you can cross the tract in a single day. The 35 lakes that canoers paddle and portage during the summer are ideal avenues for wilderness adventurers in the winter.

The first step for us was to stop at the Ottawa Visitor Center on US-2 near Watersmeet to check ice conditions. The next step was to decide whether to travel by snowshoes or backcountry skis.

Bill Smet, who once owned Vacationland Resort, chose skis when he and his daughter made the traverse. They began at 9 a.m. from their resort on the edge of the tract and were still working their way across when the sun went down.

“The snow was three-quarters up to our hips,” Smet told me. “We ended up breaking trail most the way and ran into darkness the last hour. It’s beautiful back in there but it’s as challenging a place to traverse as any spot in the U.P.”

We chose snowshoes.

We left a car at a plowed parking lot at Clark Lake and then in a second vehicle continued on County Road 535 to the southwest corner of the tract.

A portage trail extends from the county road to Whitefish Lake. With more than three feet of snow covering the ground, it was tough to follow a narrow foot trail but we were betting it’s even harder to miss a 250-acre lake.

We took a compass reading, maintained a southeast course and in less than a mile popped out at the shoreline. It was like entering the Emerald City of Oz. In three steps we went from the dark woods to the frozen surface of an open lake so brilliantly white we needed sunglasses.

Tracks crisscrossed the lake but not a single one was made by humans other than what we were leaving behind. Four intermingled sets of prints made us drop to our hands and knees and study them in fascination.

“I think it’s wolves,” I said.

Trekking across the 1.5-mile wide lake was easy. The challenge was finding the portage on the other side.

Wolf tracks across a frozen lake.

When Sylvania was designated a wilderness in 1987, Federal regulations mandated that all man-made obtrusions, from outhouses to picnic tables, be removed. That also included trail signs marking the portages. In the summer a path through the foliage of the shoreline is easy to spot. In the winter when the leaves and brush are gone, every gap looks like a path into the woods.

It took us almost an hour before locating the old two-track that now serves as a portage trail.

Hay Lake followed Whitefish. Glimmerglass Lake was next and between the two we stopped in a stand of old-growth pines. While waiting for lunch to cook we admired the trees that towered above us, some more than 300 years old.

At the turn-of-the-century, Sylvania was a private fishing and hunting retreat for a group of wealthy families including the Fishers of Fisher Auto Body. In 1967 the U.S. Forest Service purchased the tract and 20 years later it was designated wilderness. There are parts of Sylvania that have never been logged and we were now sipping soup in one of them, getting a glimpse of what Michigan looked like before the first Europeans arrived.

From Glimmerglass Lake we entered Clark Lake, turned north and in less than two hours ended our 10-mile trek by encountering the first people of the day; four hardy campers piling up snow around their tent.

They were impressed that we just walk across Sylvania. I was amazed they were going to spend the night in a tent half-buried in snow.

For more information on Sylvania Wilderness contact the Ottawa Visitor Center (906-358-4724). For accommodations contact Vacationland Resort (906-358-4380).

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