Life Finds a Way // Chapel Rock

Nearly a year ago to the day, we published the 250th The Mountains Are Calling article. The topic that day was Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a largely unknown, underrated wonder of the United States.

I’ve had the fortune to visit the unit twice, both times touring the spectacular cliffs from a Lake Superior boat tour. During my first foray there, I was emotionally overcome by one of the greatest things I have ever encountered, in the tangible world or the metaphorical realms. Whenever I hit low points, this place is one I revisit mentally to reorient myself.

Rereading the original article on Pictured Rocks, I noted, with some sadness, that I had already included Chapel Rock in the rundown of the shore. I momentarily wished I had the prescience to withhold this spot from the previous article, as new ideas are often the toughest part of maintaining this project. But when I thought about the reason this unique location reappeared in my headspace, I realized it certainly warrants an article of its own.

Some of the colored streaks that give Pictured Rocks their name - photo by Craig Blacklock
Resplendent hues - photo by Craig Blacklock

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is today part of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

But it wasn’t always this way.

The sandstone cliffs along the shores are a wonderful example of the ways geological time can play with our minds. Many of the grandiose features of our planet are extraordinarily old. The Grand Canyon’s rocks are as old as 1.84 billion years. The gorge, by contrast, is young, at just 6 million years old. The Appalachian mountains formed approximately 480 million years ago. All these figures are simultaneously uncountably high by human standards and mere babies in the scope of the universe. The towering cliffs of Pictured Rocks might seem to be in the ballpark of these other spots. The sandstone is, indeed, fairly old, forming around 50 million years ago.

But the way they are carved? The National Park Service estimates that Chapel Rock’s features are just 3,800 years old! The history of humanity, for once, easily dates an incredible geologic element. Further, the shaping of the cliffs isn’t even really the work of modern Lake Superior. Which means that mighty Superior – perhaps the beastliest lake on the planet – is one of the world’s youngest major geological formations (as well as the other Great Lakes). Various other lakes covered the region, following the retreat of glaciers around 10,000 years ago. Water levels rose and fell, creating a morphing lakescape. The name of the body that chiseled Chapel Rock is Lake Nipissing, which is sometimes called the Nippissing Great Lakes, since it connected many of the zones that are now distinct.

Chapel Rock - photo by Kyle Stout

The photo above is Chapel Rock as I experienced it.

The tree that lives atop this rock is simply staggering. The white pine is not graced with a soil layer. Instead, a root system reaches out over the gulf to the nourishing earth on the mainland.

Scientists estimate this white pine is over 250 years old!

Chapel rock and its white pine - photo by National Parks Service

When I first spied this tree, a phrase fluttered into my mind: “life finds a way.”

This living entity is two-and-a-half centuries old and it clings to life by a literal thread. Certainly, if natural objects could embody metaphors and cliches, this tree is the paragon. That this pine continues to live is a miracle.

Chapel Rock from the shore - photo by Craig Blacklock

How did this situation come to pass?

Chapel Rock wasn’t always called Chapel Rock. On the maps of early European settlers, one can find the designation La Chapelle: the chapel. In the 20th century, we called the formation Chapel Arch. Until the 1940s, the white pine, approximately the age of the United States, rested on the apex of an incredible structure that appeared like the interior of a chapel. The roof was a gorgeous arch, which soared above empty space. Then, sometime in the 40s, erosion caught up with the arch and it collapsed, leaving the tree and its root system teetering.

Or so the story went. Not that there was any reason to doubt the National Park Service’s history of the rock, but I had never seen imagery of the pre-crumbled feature.

Until today!

The chapel and the pine, pre-collapse - unknown photographer

What a glorious sight.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time sifting through photos of Pictured Rocks, but had never seen this beauty. It arrives via the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore social media pages. Curious, I ran the photo through reverse-search systems and this image seems to be an internet rarity these days: just two websites hosted it, one of which is now kaput; the other had little info on the photograph itself.

When I noticed the confluence of this new (to me) photo and the anniversary of the original article, I took it as a sign that this hearty tree and its rock deserved a full article. 

Seeing it transports me to Lake Superior and the awe I felt when I beheld the tree. Life brings many weary moments with thoughts of giving up on tough tasks. Retreating into comfortable shells when confronted with big and scary things. When I ponder giving in to fatigue, anxiety, or depression, I often think of this tree. This white pine pushes through harsh winters and soldiers on with fewer resources than its compatriots, slinging a lifeline across the void. All in a battle to survive.

In a world where it’s difficult to find the right path, this tree is a literal metaphor for finding a way. Be like this tree.

Further Reading and Exploration

Pictured Rocks – National Park Service

Chapel Rock – National Park Service

Picture Rocks National Lakeshore – Official Social Media Page

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