On the Beach

2020 October 18

Back on September 14, 2019, we went down to the beach at Jacobsville, at the south entry of the Portage Canal[1]. There is a breakwall there with with a lighthouse at the end of it, that you can walk out on.


The beach is pretty nice, flat and sandy. There is vaguely reddish sand, clear water, driftwood,




. . . waaaait a minute. Corpses?!


Yyyyyep. It’s dead all right. Looks like it used to be a deer[2]. All the hair was rubbed away, probably by being tumbled around in the waves for an extended period. The ears are gone too, but it is still recognizable.


“OK”, you say, “but why is it so nearly intact? Why didn’t it rot, or get eaten by scavengers?” These are excellent questions. I think the main reason is that it was in the lake for a long time, and Lake Superior is (a) seriously lacking in creatures that can eat a deer carcass, and (b) about the temperature of a fairly cold refrigerator even at the best of times. Basically, the deer probably got into the lake sometime in the winter or early spring, and ended up basically freezer-burned and partially pickled before it could decompose. And now it is in the process of getting buried in the sand on the beach. If it finally got buried deeply enough, it might even stay there undisturbed for a long time, potentially even getting fossilized in a sandstone deposit. While this isn’t an ideal fossilization environment, it could happen.

But now, the big question is, “how did it end up in the lake?” Well, while it could have walked out on the ice and fallen through, or been carried out in a river, there is something quite nearby that is a more likely candidate.

Just down the shore about a mile, the beach abruptly transitions to something very different: A sandstone cliff, about 30 feet tall.


This is an outcropping of the Jacobsville Sandstone [3]. Sandstone is sand cemented together by calcium minerals like calcite or gypsum, and is easily eroded by water which dissolves and weakens the cement. As a result, the base of the cliff wears away until the upper portion shears off and falls into the water. The sandstone then gets disintegrated into sand and washes down to the beach at Jacobsville, where the breakwater traps it and produces that nice, sandy beach.

This means that stuff is constantly caving in from the top, and it is pretty treacherous with a long drop to the lake below.


So, most likely what happened is that the deer got too close to the cliff edge (probably sometime in the spring). It either slipped off the edge or had the piece of ledge it was standing on break off, and fell to its death. It then tumbled around in the frigid water until internal decomposition stopped and the skin got so leathery that nothing would eat it. It then washed up at the beach for us to find many months later.

So, anyway, here it is. Yes, it is a bit gruesome, but Halloween is coming up pretty quick, after all.

[1] The Portage Canal cuts completely across the Keweenaw Peninsula, and it passes within about half a mile of our house (we can see it from our upstairs window). Originally, this consisted of a lake (Portage Lake) and some low swampy areas to the southeast and northwest extending all the way to Lake Superior on both sides. During the copper mining and heavy logging days, this was dredged out to make a shipping canal. Initially, the canal was mainly just for shipping things out of the docks at Houghton, Hancock, Dollar Bay, Chassell, and from the connection to Torch Lake. By extending it through to the northwest, it also made a short-cut for shipping from Duluth to get to locks at Sault Ste. Marie without sailing way out into the lake. When I first came to Houghton in 1980, there were still the occasional iron ore carriers from Duluth coming through the canal, particularly when the weather was bad out on the big lake. Since then, the smaller ore carriers have been retired and the big ones are too big to fit through the canal. So, now almost all the boat traffic on the canal is recreational boating. I understand it is great for sailing, because the wind generally blows along the length of the canal and it is a good 20 miles end to end.

[2] It used to be a white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, which is really the only large wild hoofed mammal in the area other than moose (and moose don’t look anything like this, even if they are scrubbed hairless and partially mummified on the beach).

[3] The Jacobsville Sandstone underlies a large part of the eastern side of the Keweenaw Peninsula and runs under much of Lake Superior, extending all the way to Ontario. It has a particularly noted outcropping down near Munising, as one of the formations that make up the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It is an attractive red sandstone with white spots and banding, that quarries easily and can be readily cut into building stone. Jacobsville used to be the site of a number of sandstone quarries, and the stone was both used for building locally, and shipped as far as New York.

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