Yet Another Beach Stroll

Along the Keweenaw the big lake encounters one of four basic types of topography along the shore. The most common is one dominated by large rocky outcroppings consisting of basalt (either Copper Harbor Conglomerate or Portage Lake Volcanic). Second is the cobblestone variety, consisting of a beach of small to medium sized loose stones (Commonly referred to as an Agate Beach). The third is the rare sand variety, with varying amounts of gravel mixed in for good measure. The last type is the most dramatic of them all – the towering sheer cliffs found near Jacobsville and Freda. These cliffs are commonly sandstone, of either the Jacobsville or Freda variety.

Today we’re adding a fifth category to that list. Here along the shore at Gay stands a line of soaring cliffs a good 10-15 feet in height. The could technically be considered yet another sandstone variety, but this sandstone was formed by man and not nature. It is stamp sand, compacted by its own weight into a brittle rock much like sandstone. These cliffs are the remnants of the Mohawk and Wolverine Mines – now a permanent part of the Keweenaw(ian) landscape.

These cliffs stretch for close to a mile, decreasing in height as they make their way south from the mills. As we walked along the dark gray beach at their base we were joined by dozens of small birds (swallows we think) that were emerging out of the cliff face itself. On closer inspection we could see that these birds had dug holes into the brittle cliff face, and were using them as nests. Apparently stamp sands were not the barren and lifeless landscape we were led to believe. Here those sands had managed to create habitat for at least one species of animal.

We have been to these sands before and knew what to expect as we walked along their length. Our first find would be an old wooden launder, used to help deposit those sands out here on the beach. Though fallen apart, the wood it was built from looked almost new and hardly as rotten and worn as you would expect century old wood to appear. This was an early launder, buried half-way up the stamp sand cliff. It was most likely abandoned early, and allowed to be buried by the subsequent sands dumped on top of it. It was those sands that had protected the wood for all these years.

Continuing on our next find was a few old concrete footings, most likely for yet another old launder that existed here. Originally these were probably set into the sands themselves, but over the years the wave and wind action from the big lake has wrestled them free.

At the end of the cliffs sat the remains of the most recent launder – a large concrete variety that resembled a box. During our last visit the old luander was hanging a few feet off the edge of the cliff above like a industrial diving board. But since then that hanging section had succumbed to gravity and was now lying on its side down on the beach.

Looking up at the cliff we could see the rest of the old launder, now sitting up flush against the cliff face. Interestingly we could make out a line of what looked like dirt sandwiched between the stamp sand. The mill must have laid that layer of dirt down first to support the launder. This would seem to suggest that this launder was added much later in the mill’s life – at some point near the mill’s half-life by the looks of it.

But we couldn’t fin out much more from down here on the beach, so we began our climb up to the top to check it out from there….

Show More

Related Articles


  1. Interesting about the compacted Gay stamp sands forming low cliffs. I’ve never seen that phenomanon but would like to visit it sometime.

    My best hike along the coast was west from Horseshoe Harbor towards Copper Harbor which was on the broad smooth outcrop of the Great Conglomerate (Copper Harbor Conglomerate). I walked a long ways exploring very interesting little coves and bays and back channels formed in the dip and strike of the strata in places. I was looking for Petit Marais, but concluded that it had been destroyed by wave action and erosion.

  2. I saw similar bird nest holes in the stamp sands at Copper Falls back in the mid 80’s. I don’t remember if we ever figured out what kind of birds were making the nests.

  3. Dale…
    Thats interesting, since I don’t recall any cliffs being formed in the sands there. Where the holes down along where the river cuts through the sands – along the valley walls? I had assumed the birds nested in the Gay cliffs because there their nests would be protected from predators. But at Copper Falls I wouldn’t think they would have the same protection.

    As far as the type of bird I guessed. They looked like swallows, and considering as a species they tend to like using man-made structures for nesting I thought these man-made cliffs weren’t much of a stretch.

  4. Ex,

    That’s the normal translation of Petit Marais I believe, but in this case it refers to a “mara” (pond? water body?). It’s a small rock-bound circular basin or harbor of refuge connected to the lake thru a small break or fault in the the rock a canoe could pass thru. It was used by early canoe travelers along the rocky coast east of Coppper Harbour. It was written up once or twice years ago and seemed like a really cool place to visit. But from what I found wave erosion seemed to have wrecked it. Houghton’s or Burt’s field map shows it. Somewhere I have those later articles. There was also an early copper dig near there mentioned in St. John’s book, just shallow pits. The coastline is exceedingly wild and beautiful along there plus there is a deposit of ancient stromatolite, a billion year old life form along the base of the outcrop backslope.

    I’d guess those birds were cliff swallows. I’ve seem them nest like that in gravel pits, etc.

  5. There is a pretty steep “cliff” along parts of Owl creek, where it runs through the Copper Falls sands. That’s not too far from where it comes out of the adit. It’s not as compacted as the Gay sands appear, but I could see it being possible for birds to make holes in there.

  6. Let’s see how well memory serves… The bird holes would have been on the north/west side of the road. It probably was where the creek had cut through the sands. I recall the “cliff” being maybe six or eight feet high, but there were dozens if not hundreds of bird holes along it. At the time I didn’t know as much about Copper Falls as I do now, so I’m not sure I can place it with respect to known landmarks. I was only on that side of the road once, most of the time we spent on the east/south side of the road where the poor rock piles and the Owl Creek valley are. I do recall that we found some ruins near the sands that day. There was a bit of a natural hill to the east edge of the area, and there were some sort of ruins there. I remember wood beams and iron bolts and other stuff sticking out of the hill and water seeping through all of it, not enough to be considered a stream but enough that when it gathered together it made a good sized trickle. This may or may not have been the end of the adit. I don’t recall seeing an adit opening per se, but it may have been covered at the time. At the time we assumed it was some sort of mill ruin. The sands with the bird holes would have been north/west of this “ruin”.

  7. Actually, before that launder was lying the ground, it was at an angle leaning up against the cliff. I slid down the inside of it around this time last year and it was like a water slide into the beach below. I wish I had a pic… There’s something cool about large structures in disarray… But i guess you knew that.

  8. Just a note to all – I had some technical issues on the blog and had to turn off some spam monitoring software. Because of this some of your comments (like yours Adam, my apologies) might get caught up in moderation. So if you comment doesn’t post right away, I’ll get to it as soon as I can and let it through.

    Adam, when were you at the sands? When I was there the first time that launder piece was still attached and hanging out over the edge. There was another piece out in the water (which is now further out in the water). It would seem that the cliffs are being pushed back (along with the beach as well). After a few decades the launder might be all gone.

    1. Late October 2013 the same section was still leaning up against the cliff. (I took pictures but can’t find where I filed them) This past Memorial Day weekend I took pictures of the same section which is now down laying on the beach. I have a picture showing at least three other sections that can be seen under the water and another of the concrete footings extending out into the lake. I also have pictures showing another wooden launder? just to the Northeast of the concrete launder that has been exposed this year. The cliff has really receded this past winter/spring. How can I load/attach those pictures?

  9. Hello,

    We are about to travel to the Keweenaw and could you provide precise directions to the sites pictured here, both the sandstone cliffs and the stamp sand cliffs? We hope to include these sites in our hiking plans.



  10. I was at the sands last year late September on my pilgrimage to Advance-Tek Body Shop, retrieving my Taurus whose abilities I overestimated on the Keweenaw two-tracks.

    George, the Gay Beach is located just east of Gay against the Keweenaw Bay. You can find it easily on GoogleMaps. I’m assuming I can post its whereabouts since its not really hidden and the ATV trail goes right through it… but feel free to delete this post if that was a secret or something, explorer.

  11. Adam…

    Why kind of tyrannical moderator do you take me as? (Oh yea…)

    If I didn’t want anyone to know I would of blocked George’s question in the first place. (I’m sneaky that way) But your right, the ATV trail goes right along the sands and the entrance (at least on the north side of the mill) is not posted. There’s just a sign warning not to remove sand. As far as I know the sands are township property (much like the breakers) since they’re “man-made”.

    It funny, I had to take my truck into Advance Tech years ago after someone ran a stop sign along US41 and tore off our rear drive train. While the truck was being fixed they loaned us a Taurus. Coincidence? Probably.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *