Friday, September 23, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Day 1: Rock Harbor to Lane Cove

Last Time: Background, Planning, and Travel

The Isle Royale Queen IV departs Copper Harbor bright and early at 8 am, so we were up and ready to go by 7 am. We jumped in the car and by 7:01 am had arrived at the Queen's parking lot, where a fellow was vigorously directing a long line of cars into tiny slots. Copper Harbor is not a large place.

Across the street at the Queen's dock, we left our packs sitting next to a bench and walked to a nearby tourist shop that was doing a brisk business selling coffee and muffins to other Isle Royale-bound tourists. It was also doing a not-so-brisk business selling the most expensive thimbleberry jam I've ever seen ($16!!).

The Isle Royale Queen IV at dock. Photo taken from in front of our hotel room.
Back at the dock, we people-watched as we enjoyed our coffees. Some hauled huge wheeled luggage behind them, clearly headed to the Rock Harbor Lodge. But most of our fellow travelers had the huge packs, wide-brimmed hats, and trekking poles that marked them as heading for the backcountry. More than a few had shiny new packs, hats, poles, jackets, and everything else. I wondered how they would be feeling in another 12 hours.

It was fascinating to watch the backpackers. Some huddled in quiet groups. Others made sporadic bursts of conversation with those around them: "Have you been to the island before? Nope, us neither." One man in particular held court, sharing his extensive book-learning about the island. This clearly impressed some but annoyed many more, ourselves included -- especially when it became clear that he was staying at the lodge! Sarah whispered to me: "It's about to be Lake of the Clouds all over again". She was referring to an incident at the end of our 2014 Porcupine Mountains trip which nearly involved me snapping the heads off of some tourists who were extremely vocal about the difficulty of walking 100 yards on pavement to see Lake of the Clouds.

Soon, the parking lot attendant appeared in front of the Queen and announced that he was, indeed, our captain -- Captain Don, who would also be helping us load our bags. This man was the truest Yooper I've ever met: A Jack of all trades.

Captain Don instructed us to get in a line and bring our bags up to him. Everyone immediately followed his instructions by forming their own personal line, until he yelled at the mob to get in one line, thankyouverymuch. He then proceeded to pick up our 40 pound packs one-handed as we passed them to him, lifting, twisting, and hoisting them over his head to his helpers on the top deck.

With the bags packed, Captain Don started the next phase: Boarding. Naturally, he would be taking our tickets. He began with a short speech: "Sometimes people get annoyed at this process. But when you have such a beautiful calm day like this, you just have to be happy!" He also commented that today, August 8th, he could feel a bite of fall in the air. I had to agree -- we truly were in the north, and summer was ending.

We formed a line -- yes, one line -- and boarded the ship.

The morning was cool with no breeze and a glass-calm lake, so we immediately headed out to the bow of the ship. With a blast of the horn, we cruised out of the harbor. Behind us, I could see the silhouettes of some of my favorite Keweenaw locations: Brockway mountain, East bluff, and the unnamed outcrop of the greenstone ridge just inland that held some of my favorite hiking memories. The remnants of early-morning fog hid between the steep hillsides and gave the land a magical appearance.

We were soon out on the open water. Sarah and I met two older pastors from southwest Michigan who were traveling to the island for the nth time -- far more serious backpackers than us. They were planning not just to backpack, but to bushwhack part of their trip, an activity that requires special permits and (it seemed) a psychological examination before the Park Service would allow it. I spent a large part of the trip enjoying the beautiful weather and chatting with Pastor Dave about the island, the Keweenaw, his Detroit upbringing, and all sorts of other things. It was just the first of many friendly encounters we would have on this trip.

11:30 am: The Queen threaded a needle between the long, thin, rocky islands that separate Rock Harbor from Lake Superior proper, and we quickly docked at the island's main port of entry. On the dock, we were separated into groups: Lodge guests got a few light instructions, while we backpackers met Ranger Emma, who gave us a much more detailed orientation to the island. This included handing out laminated cards with the seven Leave No Trace principles on them and asking the lucky recipients to explain how they would follow their principle. We got an easy one: "Travel and camp on durable surfaces." How? Stay on the trail! Not that we were planning anything else.

I'm pretty sure this is official National Park Service propaganda.
We were surprised by one bit of advice from Ranger Emma: Don't hang food in bear bags. There are no bears on Isle Royale, but there are plenty of other scavengers (especially foxes and an especially hardy breed of squirrel) that will happily climb right into your pack looking for food. It turns out that most of the trees just don't have branches big enough to support hanging a food bag, and there are no bear poles in the campgrounds. The official National Park Service advice is: Double-bag your food, put it in your pack, and put your pack in your tent vestibule for good measure. These two bear-country campers were more than a bit skeptical.

After the orientation, I headed to the park office to register my itinerary. After impatiently spinning my wheels in line behind someone who clearly hadn't planned ("So how far away is Three Mile campground again?"), I gave our very modest itinerary to a ranger. He didn't ask any questions as he put it in a plastic baggie, told me to keep it visible on my pack, tent, or shelter at all times, and sent me on my way.

Sarah had picked up our packs in the meantime. I found her next to the camp store, where we tightened the last few straps and picked up our packs. We were first heading to Lane Cove, an outpost at the end of a dead-end trail, 7 miles away from Rock Harbor and across the Greenstone ridge. We had heard that it was much quieter and less frequented than other common first-night destinations like Three Mile or Daisy Farm campgrounds.

A very tired looking man sitting on a bench nearby overheard us discussing our itinerary and offered us some advice. He had also gone to Lane Cove at the start of his trip too and told us it was absolutely gorgeous, especially campsite 3. Oh, but "It was really hard hiking up over the ridge. It maxed me outBut you two look a bit healthier than me, so maybe you won't have as much trouble." Great. We thanked him and headed on our way.

We followed the paved (!) trails towards the Tobin Harbor trail, our first trail of the trip. Pretty soon, we were on a wide dirt path running right along the edge of Tobin Harbor. The harbor is a beautiful long slice of water between the narrow rocky fingers of land that form the northeast end of the island. The water was a deep blue-green and was absolutely clear near shore, while tiny rocky islets bursting with evergreens populated the farther reaches. It quickly became our favorite trail.

After about a mile we found a nice place where some roots formed a bench right next to the water. We dropped our packs and enjoyed a lunch of meat sticks, cheese wheels, and peanut butter rice cakes. As we sat eating our food, a couple in a canoe floated by and said hello.

Sarah, Thimbleberry plants, and a mystery boy at Suzy's Cave
A short while after, we came to a trail marker pointing uphill towards Suzy's Cave, a sea cave left from an era when Lake Superior was much higher. We dropped our packs again (so far, this trail was a great way to get back into carrying a 40 pound pack!) and headed uphill. After a steep and rocky initial climb, we quickly ended up on a remarkably flat trail. And even more quickly, we found ourselves stuck behind a trio: a 2-year-old with mom and grandma helping her walk very slowly over every single root and rock. Mom and grandma noticed us behind them, and we joked that we were amazed that the little girl was able to hike on Isle Royale at all. Mom told us that this was actually her second time -- it was a little easier when she was just 6 months old and in a baby carrier. Wow! I would never have thought of bringing such young kids out into the backcountry.

Mom and grandma then turned around and continued helping the 2 year old... while completely blocking the trail. We tried not to lurk too close behind, but it was all but impossible to get around them by bushwhacking through the dense undergrowth. Perhaps 5 minutes later, they finally decided that we should be allowed to pass them, which we did with all haste.

Suzy's Cave was a big rounded rocky outcropping with a small cave hollowed out of it by the waves of ancient Lake Superior. Hiding from the sun inside the cave were Grandpa, Father, and Older Brother, who had apparently run ahead to the cave quite a while ago. We chatted a little, updated them on the progress of the other half of their party, and enjoyed the coolness of the cave. With that, I crawled through the narrow opening to the back side of the cave and met up with Sarah on the other side, and we headed back downhill (passing the 2-year-old and entourage along the way).

With our packs back on, it was only a short way to the junction with the Mt. Franklin trail, which heads across the island roughly north-south. It would be our entrance ramp up the Greenstone Ridge on our way to Lane Cove. Near the junction, we met another multi-generational group. Grandpa and grandson passed us heading back towards Rock Harbor after a day hike up the Mt. Franklin trail. They looked bushed, and grandpa warned us that the trail ahead was extremely tough, but worth it. We thanked them and headed onwards.

We had no trouble at all with the trails so far today, and the Mt. Franklin trail started out just as easy as Tobin Harbor. We began by walking a long and very nice puncheon bridge over a swampy inlet to Tobin Harbor. This was our first encounter with these wonderful bridges, which would turn out to be absolutely standard -- we never met a muddy spot that wasn't thoroughly bridged.

Right after the swampy crossing, we met our first real uphill. The trail headed steeply upwards and broke out onto an open rocky ridge. A thought came unbidden into my head: I've been here before! I'd hiked places just like it for years, back on the mainland. This ridge was just like the Cliffs back in the Keweenaw. The color and texture of the rocks, the shape of the outcrops, the dried grasses, the scraggly trees: It was as if it were 5 years ago, I was still living in the Keweenaw, and I was just out for a day of hiking at the Cliffs.

Lost in those thoughts, I learned another important lesson: It's hard to follow a trail across bare rock. I had to backtrack a few feet and look carefully for cairns marking the trail. We quickly got the hang of this, watching for trampled grass and the reddish-brown stain on the rocks made by the dirt from thousands of hikers' boots. The climb was steep but brief, and from the crest of the low ridge we had one last glimpse of Tobin Harbor's deep blue waters.

The only kind of trail markers you'll ever see on Isle Royale.
Interlude, while Our Heroes Catch Their Breath at the Top of a Strangely Familiar Ridge: Geology of Western Lake Superior. Yes, really. Isle Royale is, in a very real way, just a rocky outcrop that manages to poke its peaks above Lake Superior. It is, in just as real of a way, the mirror image of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Stick with me here: Understanding this little bit of geology is crucial to understanding both why Isle Royale is the way it is, why this ridge looked so familiar, and also why it kicked our butts so badly.

Billions of years ago, an enormous rift formed in the earth's crust in the middle of what would become Lake Superior. Over millions of years, hundreds of volcanic eruptions spewed lava through this rift and out across an extremely wide area. As these lava flows cooled, they formed layers of basalt. At some point, whatever was pushing the lava upwards stopped, and in fact all of the magma underneath the western Lake Superior area drained away, leaving a huge gap beneath the crust. The solidified lava began to collapse into this void, forming a huge bowl-shaped depression that became the western end of Lake Superior. As the bowl formed, it forced the northwest and southeast edges of the flows to tilt upwards, exposing the layered rocks to the surface. The southeastern upturned edges formed a large part of the Keweenaw peninsula -- in fact, the Cliffs are formed by the edges of one particularly enormous lava flow, called the Greenstone flow. The northwestern edges became Isle Royale, and the Greenstone flow also forms the largest and most prominent ridge on the Island -- but the other lava flows form many other parallel ridges.

So the Keweenaw and Isle Royale truly are twins. Because of the way the rocks tilted, the outside edges of the lava flows are extremely steep, while the inner sides (facing towards the center of the rift) are comparatively gentle. On the Keweenaw, the steep face of the Cliffs face southeast, while in Isle Royale, the steep sides face northwest towards Canada. The gentler slopes face each other across Lake Superior. The cliff we had just climbed was the gentle face of one of these low outcrops of basalt.

All of this is a way of saying that, because I had spent 10 years exploring the Keweenaw's rocky ridges, I thought I was prepared for Isle Royale. I know the terrain. I'm familiar with the exposed rocks, the sloping terrain, the many ridges, and the constant up-and-down. I've spent entire days bushwhacking through that kind of terrain. And certainly, standing on top of this ridge, I felt very well prepared for what was coming. Boy was I wrong.

Now, back to our heroes: The trail led us down off the ridge, now running in the valley between this ridge and the next ridge north -- the Greenstone ridge, the Big One that we would have to conquer next. The underbrush got more dense, and soon we started to find the best trail food of all: thimbleberries! Those little raspberry-shaped packets of tartness kept us going for quite a while as the trail bucked us up and down innumerable rocky rises.

We were getting tired -- way more tired than we should have been after just 3-ish miles of trail on familiar terrain. The constant up-and-down, the hot sun, and the total lack of breeze in this low valley were all taking a toll on us. Near a small swamp, we stopped to rest again. Sarah was growing grumpy in the heat and told me to just press on -- she would continue at her own pace. I wasn't happy with that, but it sounded better than staying in the hot valley. So, upward I went. Slowly, very slowly, I did something that I'd done dozens of times before in the Keweenaw: I ascended the Greenstone ridge. Passing from low tree cover to hot, exposed rocky patches, I made it forward about 100 yards at a time before stopping to catch my breath. As we ascended we started to feel occasional light breezes. I've climbed the Cliffs before: Why was this so hard?

An answer occurred to me while resting in a shady patch overlooking a lovely field of grass and low trees: The Cliffs have 2-tracks. Those 2-tracks were cut and blasted through the worst bits of the rock by miners and lumbermen, then worn down and improved over more than 100 years -- making for (relatively) even footing. The rocky single-track hiking trails here on Isle Royale were nothing like the old worn-down mining roads back in the Keweenaw. This was the Cliffs in its raw, untamed form.

Sarah is not impressed at the Greenstone Ridge.
At long last, I topped out at the trail intersection with the legendary Greenstone Ridge trail. The intersection was small and surprisingly humble: No magnificent views, no rocky cliffs, just a few fallen logs for benches and a trail marker. Sitting on one of the log benches was a college-aged backpacker, quietly munching on gorp. I greeted him and flopped down on another log. The other backpacker was Peter, a quiet Michigan Tech student who worked on "the boat" in the summer (I never did figure out which one). On his off days, he backpacked the island. That sounded like a wonderful life to me, and I said as much, to which he quietly nodded.

Sarah finally made it up the last few steps of the trail, flushed from heat and exertion, and flopped down on the bench next to me. We spent some more time chatting with Peter, who offered us the opinion that the Lane Cove trail -- our next leg -- was a bit rough but nothing too bad in dry weather. With that, he headed off down that very trail and quickly disappeared out of sight.

We sat, eating gorp and enjoying the breeze, until we could no longer come up with an excuse to sit still. We heaved on our packs again and headed down the Lane Cove trail -- our final leg of the day.

As I described above in the Geological Interlude -- you did read that, right? -- we were now heading down the steep side of the Greenstone ridge. The long slog of an uphill we had just completed wasn't even the worst. And as we have learned many times, up-climbing is much easier than down-climbing.

The trail very quickly started to lose elevation. It switchbacked relentlessly through deep rocky cuts. Mossy cliffs formed one side of the trail, while steep birch forests dropped off on the other side. The going was slow, especially because the trail was so rocky that we couldn't be sure of our footing. Some parts of the trail were solid bedrock, with just enough dirt and pebbles to keep things interesting. And of course, despite going steeply downhill, the trail still managed to buck us up and down a bit along the way. But hey, at least it was dry -- we would have turned right back around and gone home if it were raining.

We also learned that the Lane Cove trail didn't see quite as much trail maintenance as other, more easily accessible trails. One of the more interesting moments happened on an especially steep segment, where a pair of large birches had fallen directly across the trail. Worse yet, the trees had fallen in the perfectly wrong way. They were neither directly on the ground (easy to step over) nor high enough to duck under while still walking -- we had to take off our packs, shove them downhill, and crab-crawl under the tree.

Sarah crossing the "Roller Coaster Boardwalk"
We finally came to the end of the cliff face, having shed nearly 400 feet in just under half of a mile. But this was not the end of the downhills nor the uphills -- oh no, not at all. We were traveling north across the "grain" of Isle Royale, which meant we had to climb and then descend a nearly constant sequence of low rocky ridges (some of which were actually old lake shores). Between each pair of ridges was a low swamp, crossed by a boardwalk. One of the boardwalks was so long and, uh, varied in its elevation that we called it the "roller coaster".

The swamps were ridiculously picturesque, with tall grasses and late-summer flowers blooming in them. (The only reason I know this is because I noticed it the next day, when we walked back out the same way -- at this point, the only thing keeping us moving were the loaded thimbleberry bushes that we found along the trail, so we paid no attention whatsoever to the scenery.)

At very long last, the trail leveled out for good, although it quickly became much more rocky and root-y as we got closer to the Lake Superior shore. We started to glimpse the cove itself as the trail followed it for a few tenths of a mile. Suddenly, a signpost appeared in the middle of the trail, welcoming us to Lane Cove Campground. We had made it! We survived!!

This was our first experience with an Isle Royale "campground", and it was a pleasant surprise. My mental image had been of a large area with a bunch of sites all crammed in immediately next to each other. The campground was really a collection of 5 very isolated campsites, all located close to the shore but not very close to each other. Each site was large enough to hold 2 or 3 tents.

Following the advice we had received from the exhausted man in Rock Harbor, we headed directly to Site #3. As soon as we crested a low hill, we saw... a tent already set up in it. Oh well. Site #4 was also occupied. Someone had just started setting up in Site #5. Sites #1 and #2 were already double-booked with 2 or more tents in each. So, we had to share. We decided to march into Site #3 and ask to share -- at least we could be assured of a nice view.

As I crested the low hill leading into Site #3 (again), I waved and said loudly: "Do you mind if we share your site?" A middle-aged man and woman, each holding a camera, looked up and grinned. "Sure, come on in!"

Sarah and I dropped our bags off next to a very lovely driftwood log that served as a bench and prepared to do introductions. As I looked up, I saw the man's outstretched arm pointing straight at my chest, while his craggy, unshaved face broke into a huge and slightly wild grin. His other arm pointed at his bicep, where a tattoo of a skier was surrounded by the words "American Birkebeiner". I looked down and realized that I was wearing a t-shirt with the exact same logo. We were both wearing (in our various ways) the logo of one of the legendary ski races of the upper Midwest.

Thus I met (and immediately bonded with) John and his wife Shelly, two fascinating and incredibly friendly backpackers from the eastern end of the UP. They welcomed us to their tent site and never stopped talking or asking questions except when one would spontaneously break off to take a photo of a dragonfly or a cloud. We learned that they were experienced Isle Royale backpackers with a very laid-back outlook on hiking. We chatted with them continuously until we had our tent set up, our clothes changed, and were about to jump directly into Lake Superior to wash off 7 miles worth of dirt, grime, and sweat.

And yes, we did take a swim -- Lane Cove was fantastically warm, despite being part of Lake Superior. The water was crystal clear. It was easy to see straight down to the foot-sized boulders that made up the lake bottom. They were extremely slippery, but I didn't care. I spent nearly half an hour splashing around, washing, and floating while staring at the sky. It was wonderful.

After we were done with the water, hunger finally caught up with us. Hiking 7 hard miles in heat and sun has a way of suppressing your appetite... for a while. We ravenously boiled water for our freeze-dried meal du jour: Mountain House White Bean Chicken Chili. For as delicious as the bag looked, and as salty as it actually tasted, it was remarkably bland. Regardless, we devoured it.

My one photo of the Lane Cove sunset.
We finished the day by watching the sun slowly set behind a long arm of land that formed one side of the cove. The clouds came together to make a perfect show, with rich golds and reds over a calm lake. John and Shelly went wild, taking dozens (if not hundreds) of photos from every conceivable angle. Sarah and I sat and watched in astonishment.

And with that, it was dark. We said good night to the photographers, crawled into our tent, and quickly fell asleep to the sound of loons trilling in the cove.

Next time: Hi ho, hi ho, it's up and over the Greenstone Ridge to Daisy Farm we go!

Miles hiked: 7
Total miles: 7



Trail Reviews (based on our one trip as experienced UP backpackers with 40-pound packs):

Tobin Harbor Trail: As easy as Isle Royale gets. Wide and relatively flat. Few roots and rocks. Runs right along a beautiful harbor.

Mt. Franklin Trail: Medium. Lots of ups and downs over bedrock outcrops. The long uphill to the Greenstone is rough.

Lane Cove Trail (going north - downhill): Medium-hard. Steep switchbacks, would be terrible in bad weather. Many ups and downs, but mostly downhill -- which is especially hard. Near the shore, lots of rocks and roots.



Sunday, September 4, 2016

Isle Royale 2016: Background, Planning & Travel

Sarah looking south from the Greenstone Ridge
Isle Royale kicked our butts. And we can't wait to do it again.

That's the summary of our 6 day backpacking adventure on Isle Royale, Michigan's island national park in the middle of Lake Superior.

Isle Royale is by far the least-visited national park in the United States. It's 200 rugged, rocky, and beautiful square miles that are accessible only by ferries. It's completely closed for 6 months of winter. There are almost no vestments of civilization on the island, except for one "lodge" at the main entry point, Rock Harbor, for which we could have paid huge amounts of money for pretty basic accommodations. But of course, we weren't in it for a hotel. We were in it for the backcountry.

And indeed, rugged, beautiful, and rocky backcountry is what we got. On a scale ranging from nailhed (who got his butt kicked by the island's nasty weather), to Nina (whose many trips always seem to balance beautiful weather and hard work), to Jake (who did 20+ mile days and hiked all of the island's longest trails in 9 days, basically kicking the island's butt), we started out somewhere closer to the nailhed end, and move a tiny bit closer to Jake's end of the scale by the time we were done. Even with our experience hiking in the Copper Country and backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains, Isle Royale was a surprise. The rocky up-and-downs, over ridge after rocky ridge, wore us down on every trail. As a friend said, "The only flat part of the island is the dock!" Nonetheless, we survived, and loved it so much that we're already planning for next year.

Welcome to Isle Royale: Sunset over Lane Cove
Isle Royale is strangely compelling. This trip has stuck in my mind more vividly than any of our previous backpacking trips. There are no boring parts of Isle Royale, much like there are no flat parts. Something about the remoteness of the island, the people we met, and the places we saw is etched in my memory.

There are a number of things that make Isle Royale unique. The island's isolation is spectacular -- not only is it rugged and remote, it's literally completely shut off from the outside world except by boat and (occasionally) sea-plane. But unlike places like the Porcupine Mountains, there are no solitary backcountry campsites on Isle Royale. Instead, there are "campgrounds" (which are really more like concentrated zones of backcountry campsites). You'll never just find a nice campsite along the trail and decide to stop there -- you're on the trail for the duration, until you reach the next designated campground. And of course, this is true for everyone. As a result, anyone you meet is likely to show up at your next destination. We made many new trail friends and saw them them nearly daily.

Many of the campgrounds have several Adirondack-style shelters: Wooden huts with a roof, floor, 3 solid walls, and a screened front. We hoped to snag shelters for most of our nights. This would give us better views, more air, and less danger of being trapped in our tent during bad weather. But, again, we went in the busy season -- there's a lot of competition for campsites, and shelters are even more popular.

Finally, we were surprised to find that the island has very little old-growth forest. It hasn't really been logged -- not in the sense that the gigantic White Pine forests of the Upper Peninsula were destroyed for matchstick wood back in the 1800's. Trees were used by a few mines and small resorts, but more regularly they were burned by large forest fires. Add that to the fact that the soil is very thin -- in most places, there's just bare rock -- and you'll find that trees just don't get a chance to grow very large or very old. The island very much had the feel of the Cliffs on the Keweenaw -- covered in dense brush, scrub, small deciduous trees and smaller clusters of young evergreens.

A storm clears over Moskey Basin

Oh, and one more thing: Isle Royale is also the site of the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose study, the longest continuous predator-prey study in the world. Scientists from Michigan Tech have been studying the interactions of wolves, moose, and their environment for more than 50 years. There is currently a deep and divisive debate about what should happen with the island's dwindling wolf population -- down to just two severely inbred wolves, without much hope for new wolves to come across from the mainland. As a result of the lack of predators, the number of moose on Isle Royale has skyrocketed. Visitors regularly see moose grazing on water plants in lakes and streams -- or even standing in the middle of trails! -- and we hoped we would see some of these huge animals on our trip.

But despite the fun of seeing a gigantic mammal, moose also do a lot of damage to trees and other food sources -- an earlier population explosion is one of the reasons that Balsam Firs, the island's most common evergreen, are just now starting to come back. The future direction of Isle Royale's moose and wolves will be very interesting to watch.

Looks like the Keweenaw in late fall, but it's really Moskey Basin in August
The national park has been on my list for years. Its headquarters on the mainland is in Houghton, where I lived for 10 years. I biked daily past the Ranger III, the National Park Service's huge ferry to the island. Yet, I never took the time to go there.

All that changed at the end of last year's 5-day Porcupine Mountains backpacking trip, when Sarah proclaimed that next year, our big backpacking trip would be to tackle the great Isle Royale adventure. I spent the winter seeking advice: Blogs by friends who have made the trip, Jim DuFresne's handy guidebook (the self-proclaimed "only backcountry guide" for Isle Royale), and online forums. I made itineraries, begged Sarah to let me add a day, made a longer itinerary, added another day, and eventually ended up with what I thought was a pretty modest 6-day, 5-night trek around the eastern end of the island.

So it was that on Sunday, August 8th, we headed north for our biggest backpacking adventure yet.

Sarah and I were together for the first time in a week. Our whole summer had been broken into a week at home, followed by a week of travel to a workshop, a conference, or a wedding -- sometimes individually, sometimes together -- then repeat. We started north early on Sunday and spent the 10+ hour car ride catching up, trading stories, and generally reconnecting and enjoying each other's company.

The trip was uneventful and the weather was lovely. We decided stopped at the Michigan House in Calumet for a late dinner. Despite my strong affinity for their Gipp Burger, I couldn't resist their new homemade brats (with a home-brewed beer, of course). It was one of the best meals I'd had in a long time. It was made even better by knowing it was the last real meal I'd have for nearly a week.

We arrived in Copper Harbor just before sunset and immediately enjoyed a nice Copper Country welcome. The office at the King Copper motel (our home for the night) was closed, but we found a sign taped to the door: "Clark - Room 2 - key on dresser". Sure enough, our room's door was unlocked, and we stepped 50 years back in time into a motel room that had not changed since JFK was president. The dark wood paneling (and matching octagonal side-table), brownish-pink shag carpeting, tiny bathroom, massive CRT TV, hanging lights with ancient shades,  and crank windows spoke of a time when the owners were optimistic about owning a hotel in a far north tourist town with a year-round population of just 100 people.

Nonetheless, the hotel was cheap, clean, and convenient to the docks of the Isle Royale Queen IV, which would ferry us to Isle Royale bright and early tomorrow. We spent half an hour walking along the waterfront and through the town's few streets, enjoying the crisp air and the feeling of being back up north again.

At this point, my pre-trip panic finally kicked in. Our packs were too heavy. Way too heavy -- never mind that we had carefully planned every item, made sure everything did double-duty, and pruned everything we didn't need. I had to get things out of our packs! I hauled the packs into the motel room, tossed them on the floor, and started pulling stuff out. With Sarah's help, I was able to reduce our combined pack weight by somewhere in the area of 1 pound -- total -- by removing some spare batteries and a space blanket.

Somewhat happier, we repacked the bags and curled up to sleep on real mattresses for the last time. Tomorrow, we would sleep on Isle Royale!


Our 30 mile, 6 day tour of the east end of Isle Royale. Note: This is just a small fraction of the east end of the island.
Next time: The Lane Cove trail, or: up again, down again, up again, down again, up again...

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Porcupine Mountains 2016, Day 2: Bushwhacking the Escarpment

Last time: Waterfalls!

Looking back at Lake of the Clouds from the Big Carp River trail
Tuesday, May 17, 7:30 am, Union Bay West yurt: I woke to see the sun already shining in a clear blue sky. I unzipped my sleeping bag, moved one toe out, and immediately curled right back up again. It was cold!

A few minutes later, I convinced myself to get out of bed for real. I tossed on my winter jacket, hat, and gloves, and stepped outside to find a hard frost still lingering in the shade. It had gotten all the way down to 26 degrees last night. Luckily hot tea and oatmeal are just about perfect for a clear, cold morning, and that's exactly what we had.

Today, we would tackle my original inspiration for the trip: A long hike along the Escarpment ridge, exploring old mines and bushwhacking to the highest points. I couldn't wait to get started.

Topo map showing the Escarpment (ridge on the right) and the ridge from Lafayette Peak to Miscowabic Peak (left). This map shows an older routing of the Big Carp River trail that has since been rerouted closer to the peaks.
Side note -- the Escarpment: We parked at the Lake of the Clouds overlook, our starting point for the day. The overlook lies midway along the Escarpment ridge, a 300 foot tall ridge line that runs roughly east-west through much of the Porkies. The main part of the Escarpment is about 6 miles long, but there are outposts that extend for some distance both east and west. Like many ridges in the Copper Country, the Escarpment has a relatively gentle slope towards Lake Superior and a very steep "front" (facing south). Lake of the Clouds lies in the shadow of these sheer south-facing cliffs.

The Lake of the Clouds overlook is also the endpoint of two of my favorite trails. First is the Escarpment trail, which travels 4 miles of the east end of the Escarpment, with nearly nonstop beautiful views of Lake of the Clouds and the interior of the Porkies. The second is the Big Carp River trail, which heads west from Lake of the Clouds and doesn't stop until it hits Lake Superior. We've hiked half of this trail before -- the far west end, nearest the lake -- and enjoyed its many waterfalls and beautiful old-growth stands of white pines.

I had never hiked the east end of the Big Carp River trail. It runs high above the Big Carp River valley along the edge of the Escarpment. While it eventually drops down off of the Escarpment, and then skirts around the base of Miscowabic and Lafayette Peaks -- both really just outposts of the Escarpment ridge.
So today's real goal was: Hike the portion of the Big Carp River trail that I hadn't hiked before (along and below the Escarpment, up until the trail crosses the actual Big Carp River), then turn around and head up -- into the hills, where there are no trails! -- and see what views could be found at the top of the peaks.

Along the Escarpment, with the Big Carp River valley below
9:00 am, Lake of the Clouds Overlook: With our daypacks at the ready, we headed down the lovely paved trail to the overlook. The view was as spectacular as ever, and we spent a while taking photos -- the exact same view you'll see on every postcard of the Porkies, and the exact same view we've both photographed many times before -- but why not? It's still gorgeous. We also spent a while reading the interpretive signs about the wildlife, geology, and history of the Escarpment.

With our Required Tourist Activities completed, we headed down a set of wooden steps and started into the real wilderness. In fact, there was a convenient sign about 20 yards down the Big Carp River trail: "Entering Wilderness Area". Good to know.

As it had been on Sunday, the trail was dry, rocky, and lead us to many beautiful overlooks. The general trend of the trail was to spend about a quarter mile running just inside the trees away from the edge of the Escarpment, and then to climb slightly uphill and pop out at an overlook along the cliff's edge. The first of these stopped us cold, and we spent a while taking photos of the cliff and Lake of the Clouds, still visible back where we had come from. The second worked the same way. By the third overlook, we started to realize that this was a bit of a theme. We stopped at every overlook, but eventually stopped taking photos -- well, unless there was a really good reason, of course.

One of those good reasons appeared just after we walked up to a particularly large open area on the edge of the cliff. As we dropped our packs and sat down to rest for a moment, a medium-sized bird appeared, almost floating in front of us. It was a falcon, riding thermals over the Big Carp River valley and hovering just beyond the cliff face. As we watched, the falcon slowly glided back towards Lake of the Clouds, occasionally circling lazily high above the trees below (and directly in line with the trees at the top of the cliff). Kyle pulled out his big lens -- a 200mm beast that accounted for at least half of his pack weight -- and started tracking it. The falcon made another long slow glide past us, when we noticed that there were two birds, apparently hunting together. For 10 or 15 minutes, we sat in awe, watching the graceful birds hover at eye level (or something just below us), moving with calm grace.

Looking ahead towards Miscowabic Peak (foreground) and Lafayette Peak (middle distance) from the west end of the Escarpment.
We finally convinced ourselves to continue. Lake of the Clouds slowly disappeared into the distance, but we could always hear the Big Carp River bubbling away far below us. After about 3 miles, we reached a wide, rocky, open area that marked the end of the trail's run along the top of the Escarpment. Beyond this point, it would switchback down the end of the cliff, then run along the base of several high peaks. We sat down on a flat ledge of rock, rested our feet, and had a snack.

After a long rest (and some time on my part spent carefully edging towards the sheer drop-off to take photographs of blueberry blossoms, choke cherries, and other items that live dangerously close to the edge of the Escarpment -- a maneuver that Kyle would take absolutely no part in), we put our boots and packs back on and continued on our way. The trail quickly started down a long series of switchbacks on the west end of the Escarpment. The sunny bare rock of the Escarpment's top disappeared as we descended into a cool and deeply shaded hemlock forest. The trail ran in a wide saddle between the main Escarpment (to the east) and the high bluffs of Miscowabic Peak (an outpost of the Escarpment) on the west. Huge boulders sat piled at the base of Miscowabic, with smaller pieces of scree below them. A deep layer of needles and forest debris covered the ground in all directions.

We found ourselves playing leap-frog with a pair of power-walking backpackers. We would hike quickly for a few minutes, pass them, then they would pass us when we stopped for a long pause to photograph the rocks and shadows, and the ferns and trout lilies growing in the mottled sunlight in the forest understory.

Trout Lily in the shade of hemlocks
The trail headed west along the base of the long extension of the Escarpment that begins (on the east end) with Miscowabic Peak -- its name comes from the Ojibway word for "Copper". While Miscowabic "Peak" is a high point, it's really part of a ridge that runs several miles west before ending at Lafayette peak in the west. Lafayette is named for a mining company that did a bit of "gophering" (as the old miners called it) around its base, never finding much of anything. As we approached Lafayette Peak, my spidey senses started tingling: Mine sign! I caught a hint of an overgrown trench and rock pile near the base of the cliffs. Quickly running off the trail, I climbed the pile and followed the trench all the way to the base of the cliff, where I found the unmistakeable signs of a collapsed mine tunnel running into the base of the cliff. I later discovered that there were several other such "adits" along the base of the cliff, some closed with bat cages, but we didn't see any of those.

This little side trip scratched a big itch for me: mine hunting. I used to regularly spend my weekends (and evenings, often) hunting for abandoned mines and ruins when I lived in the Copper Country. My old mine-hunting colleagues claimed that I had "spidey senses" that could detect mines, since I could sometimes walk off into the woods almost at random and find a mine. I spent entire days off-trail, developing a great love for the dense wilderness and extreme beauty of the Copper Country.

As we continued, the trail took a wide swing south towards the Big Carp River, heading gradually downhill and becoming more muddy as it did so. It eventually spat us off of a low bluff and into the river's flood plain. We again ran into the leapfrogging hikers, who had decided to set up camp at a backcountry site next to the river. We found a sandy spot along the bank, took off our shoes and socks, and soaked our feet in the ice-cold river as we ate some gorp and meat sticks.

After a nice long rest in the sun -- almost a nap -- we packed up and headed back the way we came from, towards Lafayette Peak. The next step was the biggest one of the day: Bushwhacking the Peaks.

With my GPS as a guide, I chose to leave the trail at a point that would lead us up the long sloping west end of Lafayette Peak. The understory was largely clear, with only a few blowdowns and small maples blocking our way. The ground was covered in a thick layer of leaves -- no rocky bluffs for us here! We kept a steady pace, pausing at flat spots and re-adjusting to make sure we were always headed towards the peak.

With some huffing and puffing, we made it to the top -- maybe. Near the top, Lafayette Peak was less of a "peak" and more of  a rounded, wooded hill. The face of the cliff on Lafayette's south side was a few dozen yards downhill, with quite a few trees between us and it. We made our way down to the edge and caught a few glimpses of a nice view over the Big Carp River valley, but overall the views were disappointing. Nonetheless, we had made it to the trackless peak of one of the Porcupine Mountains -- that alone felt like an accomplishment! (Topo maps put the elevation of Lafayette Peak's top at about 1335 feet -- hardly a mountain, but pretty good for Michigan.)

We agreed to continue along the ridge line, making our way generally eastward. A small saddle sat between us and what appeared to be a second, unnamed "peak". Above the saddle, we saw something new: a dense undergrowth of maple saplings completely covering the high point. Something -- possibly a windstorm -- had felled some large trees, which let in enough light for a new batch of young trees to take root. The saplings were an extremely uniform height (about 6 feet) and completely blocked our path. We pushed around to the south, where the undergrowth was less dense (but still slowed us down quite a bit). There were no particular views from this peak, either.

This set the tone for the rest of our bushwhack: A gentle saddle, followed by a peak crowned with dense undergrowth (and surrounded by only slightly less dense undergrowth). We quickly discovered that if we tried to avoid the undergrowth by heading too far south, we would be pushed onto steeper and steeper terrain, dangerously close to the cliff face. At the same time, bugs were a big problem in the sun-exposed southern slopes and in the saddles, forcing us to keep our bug nets on. We eventually found that, by cheating to the north, we could pick up fresh breezes from Lake Superior and avoid the bugs as well. The going was tough and slow, and we were making at most 1 mile per hour -- often much less.

After each peak, we stopped to discuss our options. The constant up-and-down was wearing on both of us (a lesson that I did not fully learn, as evidenced by my August adventures on Isle Royale -- but more about that in a future post!). Each saddle offered the possibility of escape by climbing south down a (relatively) low point in the cliff face. However, the saddles were never that low, and we would be forced to do some serious down-climbing to get to the cliff base. As we were both quite aware, up-climbing is much easier than down-climbing. If we headed back to the west and down the way we had first climbed up, we would be doubly backtracking. To the north our maps showed equally dense forest and (joy!) swamps. So our only other option was to push on along the ridge line to the east.

Kyle advocated heading downhill, while I became more and more stubborn in my insistence on bushwhacking the whole way to Miscowabic Peak at the east end. My stubbornness came in large part from my joy at experiencing a good bushwhack, something that I rarely get to do downstate. Bushwhacking these peaks was an accomplishment that scratched an itch. In my Copper Country exploring days, I learned to revel in the knowledge that I've gone somewhere that (almost) nobody has ever gone -- the most remote of the remote, the places where even badass backcountry backpackers don't set foot. Plus, the cliffs on the south face of Miscowabic Peak looked impressive from below. I knew that if I could find my way to the top of those cliffs, a spectacular view would wait me -- a view that few people had ever seen.

So onwards we continued. After we passed Lafayette Peak, the second high point had no name on the map, so Kyle suggested that I name it. Thus I claimed Dave Peak for, well, Dave. The third high point became Kyle Peak. After the fourth (and final unnamed) high point, we stopped to sit on a fallen tree in the cool shade at the bottom of the saddle. We ate some gorp and decided to follow the grand tradition of explorers everywhere: We named the 4th high point "Sarah and Amy Peak", after our wives.

Finally, we were ready to tackle the last (and tallest) peak: Miscowabic Peak, with an elevation of 1433 feet (and an ascent of about 140 feet above the bottom of the last saddle, with a slope of 20% through dense maple saplings). The peak itself was as uninspiring as the rest, but I quickly headed downhill towards the cliff face. With a final burst of bushwhacking, I suddenly came out into something new: A wide, two-level flat slab of solid bedrock leading directly to the cliff face. A deep cut into the cliff formed the west edge of the slab, while dense brush blocked the east edge.

The Miscowabic Peak overlook
The views were glorious. We had unobstructed views across the entire Big Carp River valley. We snapped photos and sat quietly enjoying the views as we caught our breaths and enjoyed some gorp.

After that, there was nowhere to go but down. Our maps suggested that we could bushwhack down the gentler north side of the Peak. By curving around to the east, we would reconnect with the Big Carp River trail right where it bottoms out below the switchbacks. This proved to be correct, although descending the back of Miscowabic Peak proved interesting in unexpected ways. As we descended, the old growth hemlocks returned with a vengeance. The hemlocks kept away the dense undergrowth, but unlike the inland side of the cliffs, the ground was extremely uneven. For centuries, giant hemlocks had fallen in storms, leaving a huge hole where there roots had once been, and a giant mound where their roots now pointed skyward. This resulted in an extremely bumpy forest floor that had us constantly circling around hills, holes, and fallen giants.

At long last, we noticed an long, narrow, even strip of land running in front of us: The Big Carp River trail. We gratefully rejoined the trail and immediately starting uphill on the switchbacks, regaining all of the elevation that we had just lost.

After a rest and snack at the top, the rest of our hike was a long, slow trudge back towards Lake of the Clouds. The views were just as gorgeous (and even easier to see, now that we were pointing towards the lake), but we were completely bushed from our multi-mile bushwhack along Lafayette, Dave, Kyle, Sarah & Amy, and Miscowabic Peaks. It felt great.

6:00 pm, Lake of the Clouds Overlook: We finally reached the car about 8 hours after we had started the 11 mile hike. An average speed of 1.375 miles per hour isn't exactly the fastest hike I've ever done, but that's not the point -- we had accomplished something enjoyable, challenging, and exciting.

Along the way back to the yurt, we saw something interesting along the way and had to stop. That something was the Meads mine, an adit (horizontal tunnel) entering the back of the Escarpment from right next to the road. Up until about a year ago, it was possible to walk quite a way into the cliff through this tunnel, right up to a cement wall that held back a huge amount of water, slowly draining along the floor and into a drain that lead under the road. The mine had been recently closed with a bat grate that allowed bats to enter, while keeping humans (and the mysterious causes of White Nose Syndrome, a huge danger to bat populations in the northern US) out.

We spent quite a while enjoying the cool air flowing out of the mine, then walking across the road to see where all the water drained. The answer was a lovely pool lined with mine rock, clearly created by some New Deal agency. We were also able to walk out on the mine's huge rock pile, which felt just like walking on a level path -- the cliff drops off so quickly towards Lake Superior that all of the pile's massive bulk lies below the road level.

We finally got back into the car and headed back to the yurt.

7:30 pm, Union Bay West Yurt: Over another cook fire, we made another dinner of Tonka Pies, followed by a delicious dessert of more Tonka Pies, this time filled with blueberry pie filling. We washed it all down with a shared blueberry cider.

After cleaning up, we rushed down to the beach just as the sun was heading towards the horizon. The lake was much calmer tonight, and the sky was filled with high wispy clouds, the kind that make for beautiful sunsets. We were joined by several campers and the inhabitants of the East yurt, all waiting for the sunset. Sure enough, the sky gave us what we wanted. We spent every minute we had photographing the sunset, until the sun was completely below the horizon.

Sunset by the Union Bay West Yurt

With the sun thoroughly set, we found ourselves in another clear and cold night with the nearly-full moon showing high above. We started one more fire in the wood stove to keep us warm.

Wednesday, May 18: After another cold night, we woke early, ate more oatmeal, packed up, wrote in the cabin log book (including the newly named peaks of the Escarpment) and headed downstate. We reconnected with Sarah in Kalkaska near dinner time. As Kyle and I walked through town to meet up with Sarah, we noticed an ice-cream stand -- and nothing sounded more absolutely amazing after a couple of days of oatmeal and gorp than a nice big ice cream cone. We wanted nothing more but ice cream for dinner. Could we do that? Yes, we decided, we could. Why? Kyle had the answer: Because we're adults, that's why!

We actually had a quick real meal, but then Sarah joined us on our quest for the most delicious ice cream we've had in a long time. Bushwhacking does that to you -- it's great!

Miles hiked: About 11, (2.5 bushwhacking)
Total miles: About 18 (3.5 were bushwhacking)
One-match fires started using instructions in the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion: 5

Hiking trip, day 2: Our path out (red), bushwhacking (blue), and return (where blue meets red and to the east). The green circle is the Miscowabic Peak overlook.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Porcupine Mountains 2016, Day 1: Union River Waterfalls and Trap Falls

Last time: Introduction, Planning, and Travel

Think this waterfall is pretty? You'll be tired of waterfall photos by the time you're done reading this post!
Monday, May 16, 6:30 am, Union Bay West yurt: I woke up with the rays of the sun just starting to shine in through the yurt's plastic window. The sun was visible through the trees, just starting to rise over Lake Superior. I glanced over to the other bed and saw Kyle similarly looking out at the sunrise. Then, as if by unanimous agreement, we both rolled over and went back to sleep.

Monday, May 16, 7:30 am, the yurt again: I woke up with the rays of the sun fully shining in through the yurt's plastic window, and directly into my eyes. We both got up, put on some extra clothes, and made a breakfast of instant oatmeal and hot tea. We needed the hot food: The wood stove had certainly helped us stay warm last night, but as the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion promised, the yurt had still cooled down considerably by the middle of the night. It stayed that way straight through the 38-degree morning.

We took our oatmeal and tea down a narrow rocky path to the beach, where a gorgeous morning was busy unfolding. The winds were light, the lake was calm (or as calm as Lake Superior ever gets), and the sky was cloudless and bright. The beach itself was made of a combination of cobbles and giant slabs of red sandstone that provided good seats for us and our food.

After cleaning up our dishes, we returned to the beach to explore a bit before heading out on the day's main adventure. Off to the west, we saw a point of land that looked rocky and interesting, so we decided to check it out. The walk along the beach turned out to be surprisingly challenging. The rocky beach got steeper and steeper as we walked, with some spots getting up to 45 degrees. In places huge knots of driftwood blocked the way, which we duly noted as a possible firewood source. But after perhaps 15 minutes of scrambling, we reached the rocky point of land, which was clearly cut from the same cloth (er, rock) as the rest of the beach -- it just hadn't decomposed into cobbles yet.

We spent quite a while playing around with a small stream that entered the lake between two big arms of rock, jumping from boulder to boulder, and generally being silly and having fun on a beautiful lakeshore on a beautiful morning. But bigger adventure was waiting for us, and so we eventually headed back to the yurt, packed our daypacks, filled up with water (at the running water faucet on the bath house just 5 minutes away in the campground. Oh, the luxury!), and jumped in the car.

Water wheel waterfall
9:30 am: Union Mine Interpretive Trailhead: Our first day's adventure was to be waterfalls. Before I begin a blow-by-blow account of the dozen or more waterfalls we actually found (and photographed), let me include my absolute favorite quote from another Porkies guide book, Jim Dufresne's Porcupine Mountains State Park Guidebook: "Downstate [Porkies waterfalls] would be the centerpiece of a state park, but here they are so commonplace they are unnamed and left off the park maps." This is exactly true: The waterfalls I describe below have no names, aren't on maps, and aren't even in the areas of the park where most people go to find waterfalls.

Nonetheless, they are gorgeous, especially because of the long-lost quality of their spectacular old-growth settings. How did we know to go looking for them? The Last Porcupine Mountains Companion, of course! (Are you tired of hearing about that book yet? Don't be. Buy a copy. It's worth it.) The Companion's chapter on waterfalls recommends a loop along the Big and Little Union Rivers consisting of a somewhat indeterminate number of waterfalls (but at least a dozen, give or take a rapids).

To follow the loop, we began at the trailhead for the Union Mine Interpretive trail. This is a short trail on the far east end of the park that winds through the lands of the former Union Mine, which (like all Porcupine Mountains mines) completely failed to produce meaningful amounts of copper. We parked at the trailhead, just a few miles down the South Boundary Road from the park headquarters, strapped on our daypacks, and descended the well-worn trail into a small river gorge lined with tall hemlocks.

We quickly ran into a problem that would plague us all day: There are too many picturesque photos to take. You could spend all day just trying to photograph one waterfall, much less complete a loop covering more than a dozen waterfalls, along with gorges and old-growth forests. The very first waterfall stopped us cold for nearly half an hour.

This first waterfall wasn't even that spectacular (compared to ones we would find later), but it was historically interesting. The Union "River", as with most UP rivers, is really a moderately large stream with a rocky bed, at most 1 foot deep in most places. It babbles along until suddenly dropping over a small (3 foot) drop. The waterfall had an odd shape: Half looked like normal drop over a small rock ledge, while the other half was clearly man-made and cut deep into the original stream bed. An interpretive sign nearby informed us that this deep cut was in fact the original site of the Union Mine's water wheel, which provided power for the mine. A mostly collapsed shaft was located right across the river, clearly visible.

We spent a while photographing the waterfall, the gorge, the trees, and the bubbling stream, all in mottled morning light filtered through the dense canopy. We even headed downstream to where the river crossed under the South Boundary Road, crossed the stream, and bushwhacked our way back up to the waterfall and its associated mine shaft (which was covered by a grate).

Long slide and tree-covered hillside
On the other side of the road, the river immediately dropped into deep gorge along a long slide (a part of the river where water slides down bedrock on an angle, without ever dropping over an edge) with occasional boulders strewn throughout it. The river was still surrounded by tall old-growth hemlocks that deeply shaded the gorge, and heavy carpets of moss covered many of the boulders. We spent quite a while monkey-ing up and down the sides of the gorge, hopping from rock to rock in the stream, and twisting ourselves into awkward positions to get just the right composition.  The combination of shade and filtered light made the scenery unbelievably beautiful, while simultaneously making photography a big challenge -- cameras have trouble with scenes containing such a wide range of brightness levels. But, we had all day, and it was a real pleasure to be able to take all the time I wanted to set up a photo and get it just right.

After a few more short jogs down the trail, interspersed with gorge-climbing and photo-composing, I found myself ahead of Kyle (who was still photographing one of the previous slides). I sat down on a wooden bench on a high point along the river bank and pulled lunch out of my pack. Today's lunch was very simple: rice cakes with peanut butter, meat sticks, and gorp. Kyle joined me shortly, and we spent a while enjoying the cool air and light breeze as we ate lunch. In fact, the air was remarkably cool -- we only ever had a high of 50 degrees that day, cool even for a UP spring day -- but that made it much easier to climb all over the waterfalls.

We continued past slides, small drops, rapids, and even (occasionally) a flat stretch of river -- but more often than not, the river was truly made of waterfalls. The trail soon turned away from the river, up a short hill, and then unexpectedly ran into a wide cleared area with a well-worn trail running through it. A handy interpretive sign told us that this was the old Nonesuch road, which was the one and only way into the Porkies for most of the mining years and early 20th century. It was now a ski trail. We turned left onto this ski trail, taking us away from the Union Mine trail and towards the remains of an old outpost campground. The road lead us through a large cleared area -- the old campground -- and crossed the river on a very old stone bridge. The river was completely different here: Flat, sandy, with low banks filled with grasses and marsh marigolds growing in clusters.

We continued downstream by following another old road, this one marked by a faint paper sign saying "Artist Cabin". The road climbed to a high bluff above the river, populated by ancient hemlocks that almost completely shaded out all undergrowth. When the trail turned away from the river, we continued cross-country to a high head of land above the fork where the Union and Little Union Rivers meet -- our next waypoint.

Carefully making our way down the hill, we found ourselves in a fern-covered flood plain, also conveniently filled with fallen tree limbs. Stumbling toward the Little Union, we discovered that the grass looked greener -- or at least the bushwhacking looked easier -- on the far side. Luckily, the "Little" Union was even smaller and shallower than the "Big" Union, and we were able to cross by leaping from rock to rock. A few hundred yards upstream, this turned out to have been a poor choice, and so we crossed right back over to our original side, this time using a fallen tree's trunk. We would repeat this 4 or 5 more times before the trip was done.

Kyle photographing the Little Union River's first set of waterfalls

The Little Union was quite flat near the fork and even had a sandy bottom in some places, but as we walked upstream, the banks began to climb above us again. Soon we could hear the rush of a distant waterfall, the first that we'd seen since before the bridge. Around a small bend in the river, a fantastic view opened up before us: A deep, shaded, tree-lined gorge in the river with three beautiful waterfalls line up, one after another.

Thus began the most spectacular set of waterfalls of the whole day. The "Little" Union river quickly showed us that it could hold its own against its big brother.

We spent another half hour at these waterfalls, hopping across rocks, edging along rocky ledges, walking across fallen trees in order to get just the right angle. These waterfalls were much more, well, waterfalls than the previous ones. The falls had some actual drops, not just slides, and they came quickly -- one right above the other.

The deep gorge closed in around us, shading the stream and leaving almost no space to walk next to the river -- we had to climb the banks right next to the waterfalls. At one point, the north bank lowered to an easy climb. Scrambling up the bank, we saw a cabin rising above us. Unlike most Porkies rental cabins, this one looked like it had multiple rooms, a covered porch, and a second level -- or at least a loft. A few large piles of split wood sat outside, covered with tarps. Several smaller outbuildings sat around the flat area above the river, with another large hillside rising behind them. This was the Porcupine Mountains Artist in Residence cabin, part of a program run by the Friends of the Porkies. The cabin honored a legendary local photographer, Dan Urbanski, who had lived in nearby Silver City, but lived, breathed, and (beautifully photographed) the Porkies better than I could ever hope to.

We wandered around the cabin briefly, but weren't sure whether an artist might, in fact, be in residence. Continuing back up the river, we encountered another series of gorgeous waterfalls. These ultimately culminated in a long narrow flume that the water rushed through, a beautiful capstone to this first series of waterfalls on the Little Union.

The long slide above the Hall of Waterfalls
Except, of course, the waterfalls weren't over. Just past the cabin, a small car bridge crossed the river. at a flat spot. Beyond that, we found perhaps the most beautiful setting for a waterfall on the entire river. A narrow drop, perhaps 15 feet tall, plunged into a deep pool that was completely surrounded by high mossy rock walls. The waterfall and its pool were dark, moody, and astonishingly gorgeous -- and none of my attempts at photographing it even come close to showing its real beauty. Luckily, I'll remember it -- but if you want to see it, you'll have to find your own way there.

Above the waterfall, the gorge grew even deeper. We quickly reconnected with the Union Mine Trail, which had taken a shorter route that avoided the best waterfalls. A long rail fence kept us away from the edge of the extremely deep gorge, and another fence kept us from falling into a very old and very vertical mine shaft. As we continued climbing above the river, there were places where we could barely see the river rushing below.

Finally, the river turned a sharp corner, and the last waterfall was in front of us: An enormous slide that must have been at least 75 feet tall. The water reaching the bottom made a sudden right turn to rush down the deep gorge. We spent a while attempting to photograph the slide, but it was basically impossible -- a beautiful sight in person, but far beyond our abilities to make it show up in a photograph.

The trail quickly climbed up to the road, crossed it, and made a short detour into new growth forest before ending at the parking lot again. Our grand total distance was about 2 miles over 5 hours. Slow, but worth it.

2:30 pm, Government Peak trailhead: We weren't ready to quit yet -- not with so much daylight remaining! We agreed to use the remainder of our afternoon in pursuit of one more waterfall: Trap Falls, on the upper reaches of the Big Carp river. To find it, we traveled back past the yurt and up towards Lake of the Clouds, stopping at the Government Peak trailhead.

The Government Peak trail begins along M-107 near Lake Superior and heads directly inland and uphill. The famous Escarpment Trail branches off of it early on, while the main trail continues southwards, climbing up a long, steep hill (the eroded remnants of the escarpment). The trail was surprisingly muddy in places -- the first mud we'd seen yet, although nowhere near as bad as my 2014 Porkies Trip. We skirted around a few mud holes, while enjoying well-built puncheon bridges over perfectly dry areas. Go figure.

After the trail topped out, it ran through an area of beautiful mixed old growth -- towering hemlocks and white pines, but also ancient oaks and maples. We soon came to a wide stream spanned by a  wooden bridge. The end of the bridge nearest us had been nearly washed out in the spring floods, and the steps at our end were slumping into a deep but dry channel near the river bank. On the bridge, we could see a large wetland spreading out to the east -- swamps that separate the Big Carp River (which runs west through Lake of the Clouds and out to Lake Superior, with many waterfalls in its last few miles) from the "Carp River Inlet", the upper reaches of the Big Carp which drain an area of highlands in the interior of the park. The wetlands were quiet and peaceful. A light (but chilly) breeze rustled grasses growing around the borders of the wetland, while an early spring sun shone down on them. A large beaver dam seemed to be doing absolutely nothing to hold back the water, which flowed quietly under the bridge and down through the wide and grassy banks of the river.

Another long slide, ho-hum.
Beyond the bridge, the land became more rocky as we crossed geological borders that marked our entrance into the interior highlands of the park. The trail crossed long, low ridges covered with huge white pines. The rocky ground was covered with a deep layer of pine needles the softened everything (and kept out most of the undergrowth). This felt every bit as ancient and remote as the west end of the park, where I had spent much more time.

By this time we were essentially walking along the upper reaches of the Big Carp River, aka the "Big Carp inlet". We found several gorgeous camp sites set right by the river, and stopped to enjoy (well, ok, eat) a Clif bar at one of them. It is, I believe, an uncontested fact that Clif bars never actually taste good -- they just sound like a good idea when you're worn down after many miles of hiking. Nonetheless, the bars did the trick, and we got up with a renewed sense of purpose and vigor. Or, at least, a little bit more energy.

The trail began to rise along a low bluff, with the river sparkling in the late afternoon sun below. In places the walls of the river were sheer rock, which reflected perfectly in the surprisingly flat water of the river. There were only a few rapids along this part of the river -- essentially nothing worth calling a waterfall -- and it was surprisingly calm in most places.

After a short while, we reached a sign for a trail intersection. Across an unbridged river crossing, the Union Spring trail continued. We considered checking out this spring -- supposedly the second largest in Michigan (after the Big Spring, Kitch-iti-kipi, at the mysteriously named Palms Book State Park near Manistique). But the unbridged crossing and the extra 4 miles it would add to our trip made us give up that idea.

Continuing straight ahead, we quickly started to hear a waterfall. Around a small bend in the river, we caught our first sight of Trap Falls, "one of the most memorable waterfalls in the Porkies" (so sayeth the Companion). Indeed, Trap Falls was memorable, not least because it was the only waterfall of any size at all along this stretch of the river -- it almost came as a surprise (if we hadn't just hiked 2 miles for the specific purpose of finding it).

Because Trap Falls occurs in a relatively flat portion of river, it really stands out from the rest of the river -- a sudden drop ending in a deep, wide pool. On a warmer day, it would have been a perfect place to cool off with a swim. Instead, we sat on a convenient bench, enjoyed the view, and then headed out to photograph the waterfall. There was a small island just downriver, with many fallen trees snagged around it. We used those trees (and a few convenient boulders) as stepping stones and makeshift tripods, cavorted about the edges of the pool, and generally had a grand time photographing the waterfall.

Trap Falls
We eventually had no choice but to turn around and head back. We considered continuing on the Government Peak trail to Government Peak itself, but that would have added another 6 miles (round trip) to our hike, and it was already growing late. Instead, we made our way back through the beautiful woods, a bit tired but very happy with a day well spent.

6:00 pm: Union Bay West Yurt: As soon as we were back "home", we went to the beach and collected driftwood for a camp fire. The driftwood made excellent (if fast-burning) firewood. The park also had cut up a fallen birch tree and left the logs at the parking area, probably intended for winter campers to heat the cabins. We carried a few of the smaller logs back to the camp site and set about chopping them up into firewood. Well, we tried to cut it up -- while the yurt came supplied with an axe, we quickly discovered that there was no maul and no wedge. After a few swings of the axe, Kyle discovered that the logs were extremely green and absolutely refused to split. A few hilarious (but harmless) mishaps later, we gave up on the logs entirely and used them instead as seats (yes, there were that big).

We made a driftwood fire in the fire pit and proceeded to enjoy a dinner of "Tonka Pies" (as Kyle's family calls them), by shoving pie irons filled with bread, cheese, and other fillings into hot coals. They were delicious and satisfying, as only camping food can be after a long day of hiking. The hot pies and warm fire were especially good tonight, as the sun started to set and temperatures plunged towards freezing.

Speaking of sunset: After a quick cleanup, we grabbed our cameras and ran down the cobble beach towards the rocky "point" that we had explored in the morning. The wind had blown in some big waves, and it looked like there might be good clouds for a sunset as well. The rocks at the point looked to be the perfect place to take sunset photos.

We made it to the point with a little time to spare, but the sunset was a dud. There's an optimal amount of clouds for a sunset -- not too many, not too few, and just the right altitude. We did not have those conditions tonight (although the question of how to predict a good sunset brought up the topic of SunsetWX, which is a pretty nifty website that has created a model that predicts sunset quality across the US). Luckily, we did have some fun photographing the huge waves crashing into the huge rock walls

We stumbled slowly back to the yurt, cursing the fact that we hadn't remembered to bring headlamps. Luckily, the nearly full moon rose in the cold, clear sky and helped us find our way back (while simultaneously halting all hopes of good star gazing --  the bright moon blotted out most of the dimmer stars).

Back at the yurt, we started another one-match wood-stove fire (those Porcupine Mountains Companion instructions are fantastic!) and snuggled into our sleeping bags for a clear and chilly night's sleep.

Miles hiked: About 7 miles, one of them mostly bushwhacking.

Hiking trips, Day 1. Green is the Union River Mine trail and bushwhack, blue is the Government Peak trail to Trap Falls. The red star marks the Union Bay West yurt.
Next time: Bushwhacking the Escarpment






Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Porcupine Mountains 2016: Introduction

Kyle with unnamed falls on the Little Union River

The Porcupine Mountains are 90 square miles of my favorite hiking places on earth. More precisely, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the far western Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a vast swath of protected virgin forests of great beauty, and a haven for backpackers like The Lovely Sarah and me. The "Porkies" include all of my favorite parts of the UP: Rugged, remote, beautiful, silent -- and of course, mine ruins.

Just over a month ago, I spent three days exploring new bits of the Porkies. It was a fantastic visit, and somewhat different from the two previous trips that Sarah and I have made. Let's start at the very beginning...

November 2015. Way back in fall of 2015, weddings started to pop up on our calendar for spring 2016. Two were on back-to-back weekends in May, and Sarah's cousins started to plan a "girls getaway" for the week between them. As a non-girl (and hence non-invitee) I saw a perfect opportunity to get away for a solo trip to the Porkies.

My idea was simple: See parts of the Porkies that I've never seen before. A solo trip meant that I could plan hikes that Sarah wasn't interested in -- especially bushwhacking through the backcountry, and long pauses for photography. This opened some very enticing doors.

I dug into planning with zeal. Planning is half the fun, and really increases my enjoyment of a trip. The first item on my list was to follow the Big Carp River west along the Escarpment. The Escarpment, as its name suggests, is a tall ridge that runs through the Porkies just inland from Lake Superior. The Escarpment trail, east of Lake of the Clouds, is one of the most famous hikes in Michigan. But the Big Carp River trail west of Lake of the Clouds was untouched territory for me. In particular, I planned to climb the ridge and bushwhack to the top of two of the remote outposts of the Escarpment ridge: Lafayette and Miscowaubik Peaks. These were the sites of copper mining attempts in the 1850's, and I expected to find old shafts, adits, and ruins. After all, exploring old mine sites (and photographing them) is one of my favorite UP pastimes.

After a bit of investigating, I added a second item: Bushwhacking on the Union and Little Union Rivers. How could I pass up two rivers that are reputed to be made of waterfalls?

The "girls getaway" never came together, but my Porkies trip stayed on the calendar. The "solo" part changed when I invited my old friend Kyle to join me. Kyle and I explored the UP together for several years while I was in grad school, and he's not afraid of a good bushwhack. He is also a skilled photographer who helped encourage my interest in photography (when I'd mostly forgotten it since my 4H years).

We dispensed with 30 pound backpacks and instead planned day hikes from one central location. To make the day hikes possible, I decided to rent one of the rustic cabins within the state park. Sarah and I have used cabins for our last two backpacking trips, and they are a fantastic way to see the park. They're little more than a roof over your head, rock-hard bunks to sleep on, and a woodstove for heat -- but they provide peace of mind and a nice way to keep your food safe from wildlife.

I had originally hoped to snag the highly-in-demand Lake of the Clouds cabin, but it was already taken when I made my reservations (6 months in advance!). Instead, I decided to roll the dice on a yurt: A giant round tent, and (apparently) the future of Porkies housing. The state park has four yurts, all built within the last 10 years or so. I reserved the Union Bay West Yurt, located right on the shores of Lake Superior. Unlike many of the other cabins we've stayed it, this yurt is within convenient walking distance of a parking area -- making it easier to drive to trailheads.

Finally, the Porkies trip was also a new gear shakedown. Sarah and I are heading to Isle Royale for 7 days this August, and we have some new gear to make life a bit easier. My REI dividend went to head nets (to protect against mosquitoes), a collapsible water bucket, and a lightweight weather radio. Watch for gear reviews later.

Trap Falls on the Big Carp River
Sunday May 15 2016, 7:00 am. The great Porkies adventure of 2016 began just after the first family wedding of 2016. When Sarah and I woke on Sunday morning at the wedding hotel, we looked out the window, and saw... snow?? Sure enough, we'd had a dusting of late-season snow -- in southern Michigan.

Braving the totally un-icy roads, we headed to a coffee shop just north of Lansing for our rendezvous with Kyle. We arrived early, which gave us time to order some coffee -- or at least to stare helplessly at the cash register, while the lone employee on order duty took a looooong smoke break. Once we finally squeezed life-giving caffeine from the turnip that is Tim Hortons of Dewitt Michigan, I unloaded my backpack and other gear from the car and Sarah headed home. I sat outside, sipping coffee and enjoying the cool morning.

As I waited, an older man walked out of the coffee shop and asked "Are you a backpacker?" He turned out to be a member of the West Michigan Chapter of the North Country Trail Association -- the association that maintains and promotes the 4600 mile long North Country National Scenic Trail that runs (almost) through my own back yard. We had a fun chat about the trail, backpacking, and the role of the North Country Trail Association in the Porkies (we had followed most of it on last year's backpacking adventure). Kyle pulled in right about then and got to meet him as well (unfortunately, I've completely forgotten his name). If you cart around a big enough backpack, it seems that people are exceptionally friendly to you.

As we headed north, we drove between snow squalls and blue skies. At one rest stop in the northern lower peninsula, we pulled in as a squall started -- and left, less than 10 minutes later, with enough snow to cover the grass! Once we crossed the Mackinac Bridge and headed west, the snow died out, the skies cleared, and the temperature rose. Just what you'd expect from the northlands.

In what has become a backpacking tradition, we stopped to obtain Meat Sticks. This year's winner in the Meat Stick Purchase Lottery was Gustafson's Smoked Fish in Epoufette, a wide spot in the road along US 2 in the UP. We also purchased some turkey jerky and stashed it in the cooler, right next to delicious root beer and other camping-food-making supplies that we could never take on a real backpacking trip.

Hours later, after a quick but delicious dinner at the Hilltop Restaurant in L'Anse, (famous for their cinnamon rolls which are the size of a baby's head -- and dinner rolls to match) we set out on the last leg of our trip.


Us, outside the yurt. Photo by Kyle, with help from his magical tripod.

Sunday, 6:10 pm: Union Bay Campground. We finally arrived in the Porkies a little after 6 pm, after about 10 hours on the road. In past years, if we arrived this late, the rangers would have tacked an envelope containing our cabin keys and permits onto a bulletin board outside the park headquarters. Starting today, the day we were arriving, that policy changed: All incoming renters are required to meet with a ranger in person. The keys have been changed to number codes and permits wouldn't be written out until... well, until we didn't know what. My best guess is that the park is reacting to a few too many tourists who don't do their research before renting a Porkies cabin. There has undoubtedly been trouble with renters who thought that the cabins were, well, modern and expected to be able to wheel their 50-gallon beer cooler down the nice paved trail to the cabins.

The nearest ranger was at the Union Bay contact station, and our arrival forced him to scramble for the paperwork -- we were literally the first registrees under the new policy. After completely failing to find the right form, he used a marker to scratch out a makeshift permit on scratch paper and handed it to us, along with the key code for our Yurt. As two raging math nerds, neither Kyle nor I had any trouble remembering the code: 314. (wait for it...)

(To prove our level of math nerdiness, we later calculated the total number of possible key combinations for the locks. There are only 5 buttons, numbered 1 -- 5, key codes are 3 digits long, and the numbers can't be repeated. It turns out that there are only 60 different key codes possible under this system -- few enough to let you get in to any cabin you'd like, in an emergency.)

We drove across the mostly empty campground, parked at a small gravel pad, and walked about 100 yards in to the Union Bay West Yurt. (Ok, in this case, you could wheel your beer cooler down the trail to the rental. But most of them aren't quite so easy!) Along the way, we passed the Union Bay East Yurt, located just that much closer to the camp ground. A college-aged couple were sitting happily on the picnic table outside the yurt, and hailed us as we walked by. After a brief chat, it turned out that the couple -- Burley and Amy -- had just gotten engaged. There are certainly worse places to propose than on the shores of Lake Superior. We congratulated them and left them to their happy glow.

The West yurt was a bit different from the cabins I'd stayed in before: The walls were canvas, round and hung over a grid of wooden supports. The canvas roof angled up to a round central skylight with a crank to open it for ventilation.  There were two windows made of transparent plastic, with bug screens and canvas rolls to act as storm windows. Instead of the usual counter and cupboards, there was a metal "chuckwagon box" with a bear-proof handle outside the front door.

But beside those oddities, the rest of the yurt felt just like any other Porkies cabin. The floor was made of rough-cut boards. Two bunk beds sat on either side of a woodstove, with an axe, saw, and some kindling behind it. Pegs for drying clothes were mounted on the walls and a table with heavy wooden chairs sat next to the door.

Looking back towards Lake of the Clouds from the Big Carp River trail

Sunday, 7:00 pm: Lake of the Clouds. After bringing in our gear and examining the yurt for a while, we looked at each other and said "Let's go out on the trails!" Yes, really -- sunset wasn't until after 9:00, and we weren't about to be in the heart of God's Country and not use every minute.

We drove up to the Lake of the Clouds overlook and, well, looked over it. It was, as always, a beautiful view from hundreds of feet above the lake. Sunday evening in mid-May is a pretty slow time for UP tourism, but we were surprisingly not alone. A handful of other people were enjoying the view and there were a number of vehicles in the parking lot, most likely other backpackers.

My real goal was to check out the Big Carp River trail conditions. The ranger at Union Bay warned us that the trails were "mud holes", but I wanted to see that for myself. From the overlook, we headed west down a set of wooden steps and found ourselves on perfectly dry, rocky ground: the Big Carp River trail. The trail wound through spring woods with trees just starting to leaf out, turned uphill and popped us out at a gorgeous overlook of the Big Carp River valley and Lake of the Clouds. We found no mud and, better yet, no bugs. Signs looked good for some easy hiking conditions.

Sunday, 9:00 pm: Back at the Yurt. As the sun began to sink low, we headed back to the yurt and entertained ourselves by reading the log books. Every rental cabin has a log book for visitors to record their thoughts, adventures, and (most often) Cribbage scores. There were two log books in the yurt (one had just recently filled up), and we took turns reading amusing stories from them. We read about people swimming in Superior in all times of year, successful and unsuccessful attempts to avoid bad weather, epic cribbage games, plagues of black flies, wolf attacks (followed by the skeptical comments of quite a few later campers), and a hipster couple celebrating 4/20 in grand fashion (plus more than one snarky follow-up comment). Quite a few people stayed in the yurt over the winter (it's only a short hike from the road, even with snow), which started me day-dreaming for next year. Snowshoeing through fresh powder while sleeping next to Lake Superior? Sign me up!

At last, it got dark -- and cold (we later learned that the temperature was near freezing that night). After toughing it out in our sleeping bags for a few minutes, we decided to fire up the woodstove -- something that neither of us had ever done before. Luckily, my favorite Porkies guidebook, the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion, has a section devoted solely to the art of lighting and tending a woodstove. With the book close at hand (but not too close), we carefully scraped out a trench in the ashes, placed a medium log on either side, piled kindling in between and placed thumb-sized sticks on top. With a single match, our kindling burned brightly and quickly caught the smaller sticks. After perhaps 30 minutes of following the kindly and somewhat tongue-in-cheek instructions ("Avoid the rookie mistake of loading the stove up with wood before going to bed, thinking that it will simmer nicely until morning. What a loaded stove will do is produce a short-lived blast of heat that will clear the top bunks and sweat everyone out of their sleeping bags."), we had a good fire with lots of hot coals.

As I laid in my sleeping bag, the chugging of air through the vent control was a surprisingly reassuring sound. Together with gentle waves on Superior, it lulled me to sleep while the star-filled sky showed darkly through the skylight.

Sunset, literally feet from the yurt.

Next time: Waterfalls, Waterfalls, everywhere!