Saturday, August 29, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015: Intro, Planning, and Travel

A view from the Superior Trail.

I'll start by saying that my wife is amazing. After last year's muddy ordeal in the Porcupine Mountains, I thought that Sarah would never want to backpack there again. But despite the vast fields of mud that we hiked through, the hordes of mosquitoes and ticks, and the exhaustion of a too-ambitious hiking schedule (straight uphill, all day!), Sarah was ready and willing to backpack the Porkies again this year.

And so, thanks to our joint taste for backcountry adventure, we just returned from 5 days and 4 nights of beautiful, refreshing, exhausting, and wet backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains.

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (or "The Porkies") is Michigan's largest state park, encompassing nearly 60,000 acres of virgin forests, rocky cliffs, and waterfall-filled rivers on the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula (or "UP"). It also happens to be one of my favorite places to be, anywhere. Hiking in the backcountry is my way to get off the grid and enjoy the unbelievable rugged beauty that completely surrounds you in the western Upper Peninsula.

Lake Superior Cabin with Thimbleberries

As with our previous trip, we planned to backpack between the rustic cabins sprinkled throughout the Porcupine Mountains. These cabins have no electricity, no running water, and no flush toilets. But what they do have more than makes up for it: waterfront views of Lake Superior, waterfalls burbling next door, spectacular views of the Milky Way at night, and absolute silence and solitude. All that plus a roof over your head makes for a lovely way to stay in the remote interior of the park. We called this not camping, but "Clarking".

We set our trip for August 2015, hoping that we would find fewer bugs in late summer. When we made these plans in October 2014, we mistakenly thought that we could reserve rustic cabins only 6 months in advance. It turns out that they can be reserved one year in advance, but the Michigan DNR's reservation system is a bit tricky. One evening in early December, I discovered this quite by accident while poking around their website. Much to my dismay, our cabins (and all cabins near them) were already reserved! Luckily, after taking a look at the calendar, we decided that we could move the trip one week later, when more cabins were available. We quickly made those reservations and got all of the cabins that we wanted.

Waterfalls, waterfalls, everywhere!

One curious side effect of cabin-camping is a lack of flexibility. Because the cabins are reserved for a specific night, we couldn't decide on the fly to linger an extra night in an unexpectedly nice campsite, to push on farther (or stop earlier) than expected, or to take a different route. This had come back to bite us last year, when we planned an overly ambitious route.

Learning from last year's exhausting flog of a hike, we built a rest day into the middle of our trip this year. This extended our stay from 4 days to 5 days. We planned ahead to stay an extra night at a centrally located cabin in one of our favorite spots: the mouth of the Big Carp River on Lake Superior. This let us have choices: take day hikes to nearby waterfalls, swim in the lake, or just sit on the beach and relax. We also arranged things so that we hiked mostly new (to us) trails. We didn't break any speed or distance records, but as all of the guidebooks reminded us: that's not the point.

Another new feature this year was the format of our hike. Instead of hiking a loop, we traveled point-to-point. We started at the far west end of the park, at the Presque Isle campground. Following the Lake Superior trail into the heart of the park, we then turned inland and followed the Little Carp River trail out to the boundary of the park -- coming out of the woods nowhere near our starting point. To handle this problem, we planned to use a shuttle service offered by the state park: We would leave our car at our Little Carp River Road endpoint and get shuttled to our Presque Isle starting point.

But much like the cabin rentals, things didn't work out quite as we planned. I called the park in May, only to learn that they discontinued the shuttle service last year due to insurance problems. Uh oh. (Various websites still incorrectly advertise this shuttle service, so be careful if you're thinking of using it!) Our best backup plan was to bring a bike, leave it tied up at the trailhead, and use it to get back to the other end. As time would show, it was very good that we didn't end up having to do this.

We happened to visit my parents just a few days after this setback. They usually make a couple of trips to the UP each year, visiting the same cycle of places in Michigamme, Houghton, and Calumet each time. They mentioned to us that they were thinking of going up in August this year. Later, we mentioned our shuttle trouble, and my father asked "Who will be getting you from one end to the other?" Joking, Sarah said "How about you?" That comment must have caused their plans to crystalize, and before we knew it, my parents were planning a trip through a whole new route along the far western Upper Peninsula, including a brief stop-over to act as our shuttle. We couldn't believe our good luck!

Sarah backpacking along one of the dunes at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area.

After that, everything seemed to fit together. We made few gear updates -- we sampled a new brand of freeze-dried meals (more on that later), bought two Exped inflatable pillows (anything is better than a balled up sweater), and each found a new pair of hiking pants. We did practice hikes around our new home in West Michigan. One of these hikes, at the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness area along the sandy Lake Michigan shore, quickly became my favorite lower Michigan hike ever.

In the week before the trip, I watched the weather carefully. The 7-to-10 day forecasts all showed a rainy pattern during our trip. As the hike came closer, the rain spread out, then disappeared entirely -- except for one day, the 4th day of our trip, when a 50% chance of rain remained through the entire day. We agonized over the possibility of rain for a while. In the end, we packed rain coats and sealed everything in plastic ziplock bags -- but we didn't bring our full set of rain gear.

And finally, just like that -- it was time to leave! We did one last gear check, packed up the bags, and headed north.

Except, we actually headed east. One advantage of staying in cabins is that we can bring meat -- aka smelly food -- without worry about bears poking their noses into our packs. Last year, we brought some smoked sausages that didn't survive in the heat past the first day. This year, we were determine to have sausage on our trip. The magic meat that we needed is a lightly fermented and smoked sausage called Landjaeger or "Hunter's Sausage" which can stay edible without refrigeration for weeks -- but without being dry and tough like jerky. None of our local meat stores carried it. Nobody in the UP made it. At last, we located the one store in Michigan -- Kern's Sausages in Frankenmuth -- that made real Landjaeger. One 3 hour detour later, we came out with 8 heavy sticks of dry, spicy, and delicious Landjaeger ready for our packs. Then we headed north for real.

Our trip started with 3 days at Sarah's parents, who live in the eastern Upper Peninsula. August is prime berry-picking time in the UP, and we made full use of it. We spent two full days picking wild blueberries and raspberries along the Lake Superior shore and making jam. On each of those days, we took a little time off to go swimming in Lake Superior -- a lake so big and so cold that only after a full summer was it warm enough for swimming.

On Sunday morning, with all of that difficult relaxation behind us, we repacked the car and headed west towards the Porcupine Mountains.

Full trip map: 19 miles in 5 days (left to right)

To be continued in Day 1: Where's my food?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cottage Startrails

Star trails over the cottage
This is my first attempt at star trails in quite a few years (the last was the not-wholly-successful Stars over the Lift Bridge, and all of the rest are at my Flickr Night and Stars album).

I spent a sunny but cold weekend at the family cottage. During the day, I did some extensive day hikes around Yankee Springs Recreation Area. In the evening, I opened up the cottage after a long winter of being sealed against the elements. At night, I realized that this was the perfect time for star trails -- cold, clear, and without any of the business (and lights!) of summer.

Not too bad for a 4 year break, but the cold weather killed my batteries before I could get the long trails that I like. In addition, the bright lights of the cottage caused some blow-out.

I believe that the top-to-bottom trail is an airplane (you can see when its take-off lights changed to the usual blinkers). The small slash in the middle is a meteorite, crossed by the blurry light reflected off of a moving tree branch.

If you're interested in how I take these, see two of my most popular articles: How to: A gphoto primer and Automating time lapse photos with gphoto.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Gun Lake morning


Looking across Gun Lake, in west Michigan, towards Yankee Springs State Park. This was a cold October morning, and the mist on the lake had just started to burn off.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A night and a day at the Norwich mine

This is the first in (hopefully) a series of posts about my adventures from many years ago, when I lived in the beautiful Copper Country of Michigan. These were originally written for fellow Copper Country explorers and history fans such as myself, and so I've added a little more background information and history. I'll start the series with one of my all time favorite explorations.

The trail back home

The Norwich mine is a vast series of interconnected mines, all sitting atop a rugged and remote bluff in Ontonagon county. The Norwich, and its nearby cousins (with names like "Ohio Trap Rock", "Hilton", "Windsor", and countless others) were all started, lived a brief life, and were abandoned in the mid 1850's, when copper fever was running through the western Upper Peninsula. Only the Norwich lived longer than a few years, limping along in various forms for several decades.

The Norwich lives in a very unfortunate location: West of the Ontonagon river. Something about the geology of the Copper Country cursed the trans-Ontonagon region. Only one truly successful copper mine was ever established west of the Ontonagon, and it most certainly wasn't the Norwich. Of the hundreds of mines, prospects, explorations, and test pits in the far west of the copper range, few brought more than a couple pounds of copper to the surface, and virtually none made a profit.

This rugged, broken landscape of cliffs and ravines is called the "Trap Hills". The Norwich Bluff itself rises 500 feet above its surroundings. With no room for big surface plants like those at Quincy or Calumet & Hecla, the mines left very few signs of their existence... above ground. Without any reason for anyone to return, the houses rotted, the roads grew over, and only the shafts and adits remain to mark the mine sites.

It's this exact remoteness, ruggedness, and nearly complete disappearance that attracts me to mines like the Norwich. That, and a taste for hiking alone in a rocky and beautiful land, put the Norwich square in my sights for exploration.

Now, Norwich Bluff sits squarely in the middle of Ottawa National Forest. In 2010, the Forest Service proposed a "recovery plan" for Norwich, intended to stabilize and secure the many abandoned mine shafts at Norwich (which had been left open for the last 150 years). In particular, the wide open shafts left near the North Country Trail were considered "unsafe" and would be filled or covered. Images of bulldozers and chainsaws flashed across the minds of Copper Country explorers everywhere. While reality wasn't quite so bad, I was eager to see the results of the "rehabilitation". But classes had to get taught, research had to get researched, and other (closer-to-home) exploring had to get done.

At long last, one Friday in early October of 2011, I made a last-minute decision to run off to Norwich, camp overnight, and spend all of Saturday hiking and exploring there. That spur-of-the-moment choice turned into one of my fondest memories of exploring in the UP. I could have spent a week there and not see it all. (Indeed, one of my fellow explorers -- nailhed -- did exactly that.) Here's the story of my night and day at Norwich.

Friday, October 7, 2011: I skipped out of work (that is, grad school) early and headed south on a beautiful fall afternoon. The trip from Houghton south to Ontonagon was uneventful. A small dirt two-track leads from the main road to a Forest Service gate, which bars all but hikers from following the overgrown mining roads which criss-cross the bluff. I parked on the two-track just off of the Norwich Road and walked in, checking out the rest of the road for drivability and scouting for campsites.

Suddenly, I heard a heavy "thunk". Running ahead, I found a big pickup truck with its nose in the ditch and its rear wheels right off of the road. The sheepish-looking driver and passenger were just getting out and surveying the damage. Apparently my car parked on the shoulder had faked them into thinking that it was solid all along the road, and they drove right into the ditch. After some false starts, two of us jumped up on the tailgate to add some weight and the truck managed to get out with minimal damage. The two men pulled out and left me alone at the bluff again.

I took a short walk along the base of the bluffs to see what I could see. To the west, I followed a trail which leads up to the location of the Norwich's adit, a horizontal opening drilled into the face of the cliff. While the adit has been long since covered over, I could feel cool air still blowing out of it.

Norwich bluff at sunset
Heading east past the gate, I followed an overgrown two-track down to the Norwich Cemetery, the only remnants of the town which once served the mine. A few monuments in the cemetery still remain. The scenery along the way was gorgeous. A cluster of aspens near my campsite were lit up by the setting sun, making a dramatic scene with the bluff in the background.

The forest service road was dry, but it was filled with prints from the last week's rains. There were plenty of boot prints, but also some deer... and either a large coyote, or a small wolf. At that moment, I had my first second thoughts about my spontaneous camping plan. As things turned out, I was in no danger of any animals being out and about that night.

It was a pretty windy day, so I decided to set up camp at a small flat patch near the gate, in the shadow of the bluff. Naturally, as soon as I had pitched my tent and anchored it thoroughly against the northwest winds... everything shifted, and the winds began to race out of the south. In fact, all night winds raced up along the Ontonagon River flats and smashed into the Norwich Bluff face, trying to toss my tent into the bluff in the process.

I never sleep well alone in a tent, and the ridiculous noise of the wind didn't help. As the tent shook and shimmied around me, I was startled by every creak and crack from the trees. I eventually started covering my ears with spare clothes, my sleeping bag hood, and even a backpack, before falling asleep some time after 2 am.

Saturday, October 8th: I had planned to get up with the sun (a lazy 8 am), but my late and sleepless night delayed me until 10. I made breakfast, packed up camp, and sorted out the essentials into a daypack.

I started my hike in a dramatic fashion: Climbing straight up the bluff. A large rock slide comes off the bluff face, made mostly from poor rock dumped by the Norwich while in search of copper-bearing rock. (The sheer volume of poor rock hints at how successful they were.) I tackled this rock slide with energy, hoping to find the Norwich B shaft just above it. The climb was tough, but I was rewarded with spectacular views along the way.

Norwich road from above

The entire countryside was filled with yellow aspens and green pines. The Ontonagon river ran right through the middle. Gorgeous.

Sure enough, B shaft was right where I expected, sitting wide open at a cut in the rock face. The B Shaft was Norwich's main shaft, and connected to the (closed up) adit far below. A huge chunk of rock sat in front of it, the result of a botched attempt to fill the shaft. A frayed nylon rope descended down into the dark hole, left by some more adventurous -- or more crazy -- visitors. My fear of falling back off the cliff was perfectly balanced with my fear of falling into the shaft, which is truly a spectacular hole in the ground. I pondered how difficult it must have been to begin the shaft, up there on the sheer cliff face, before moving carefully up the cliff. After climbing to a convenient rock at the top, I sat, resting and enjoying the view. Also, I tried not to get blown off the bluff by the strong winds which continued from the previous night.

After a rest, I headed straight north into the forested interior of the bluff, knowing that the Norwich "A" shaft was nearby. I found it with no trouble -- seemingly dug out beneath a giant boulder (really an outcrop of the bluff). It was covered by a metal bat cage, but is otherwise sitting out as if waiting for miners to return. Someone had left a plastic water bottle in the cage. Grr!

The Elusive A Shaft in its native habitat.
At that point, some pink tape caught my eye, dangling from a nearby tree, and another past that. Following these, I ended up on a faint trail which must have been the nearly overgrown Norwich Mine Interpretive Trail (which is itself a branch of the North Country Trail, which runs through the area). The trail headed north away from the bluff face, running along a deep gorge. I decided to stay on the trail, and see where it brought me.

I had brought with me a GPS and a small, hand-drawn map. The map was copied from Joseph Papineau's fascinating and heavily en-colon-ed book, The Norwich Mine: An Historical Journey Across Time, Or, A Dream of Copper Riches Lost: 150 Years, West of the Ontonagon, 1841-1991: A Timeless History of One Copper Mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The included a sketch of the roads, ruins, settlements, streams, dams, and other features which had once existed around Norwich. As I would find, it was extremely not-to-scale, but it still proved quite useful.

The trail brought me past many small pits and trenches, and finally to the North Country trail. The trails met up right at what seemed to be a small earthen dam, presumably used by one of the many mines nearby. The North Country trail continued east along a high ridge.

The Norwich Bluff is really a series of high parallel ridges, separated by deep valleys. On each ridge and in each valley, the Norwich and its cousins "gophered" for copper, digging uncounted numbers of trenches, pits, shafts, and adits. Throughout the day, I tried to keep track of which ridge I was on -- the first being the steep cliff face of the bluff itself. I believed that I was probably on the second ridge.

While it was a lovely hike, there wasn't much to see until I came across a sign giving directions to quite a few locations. This was a major intersection in the North Country Trail -- as major as you can get in the middle of the Trap Hills, at any rate -- and I thought through my options carefully while trying to identify my location on a map. In the end, I followed an arrow east towards Front Run Creek, which cuts a deep gorge as it runs towards the Ontonagon River. After a long descent, I came down into the creek valley, where several trails branched off -- one north up the creek (seemingly unlabeled), one down the creek and out of the bluff, another to the west into the valley between the first two ridge lines, and yet another (the main NCT branch) heading east towards the high bluffs on the other side of the creek.

I headed north up the creek bed and quickly found myself in the "Miner's Cut". Living on top of a 500 foot high bluff, the Norwich had unending troubles trying to ship copper out to the rest of the world. The Miner's Cut was one attempt at making a passable road to the outside world. About 100 yard up the creek, the trail began to run between steep rock walls, partially cut by the stream. The cut had been artificially widened and deepened, resulting in the spectacular feeling of a pass through mountains. I don't think that the photo really does it justice, but it's a spot worth visiting:

Miner's cut
I continued onwards and quickly came to Forest Road 642, which is an overgrown grassy two-track. It's about as fancy as the roads get in the Trap Hills, though. Following the road back west, I came to a branch trail leading to the fire tower.

Norwich Bluff, being one of the highest spots in the area, was a natural site for a fire tower in the early 20th century. Of course, the tower has long since been torn down. In the meantime, trees have grown up, leaving only cement footings and not much of a view.

Just down the branch, however, was a mysteriously well preserved shaft. It was fenced with nice new logs and a bat cage. It looked as if the winds of the night before had taken their toll, and dropped an entire tree onto the nice new fence:

Norwich "firetower" shaft
My path took me back to the many-arrowed trail sign, and I re-followed the trail down to Front Run Creek. This time I took the southwest branch which led into the valley between the first and second ridgelines of the Norwich Bluff. My plan was to head in towards an old stamp mill site, but I was about to be seriously sidetracked.

As I walked along, I started to see depressions off to my left. The ridge just south of the trail was literally riddled with old shafts, but these had suffered an unfortunate fate. They had previously been guarded by old wooden fences, maintained by locals with an interest in preserving the area themselves. As part of the Forest Service's plan, those fences have all been removed now, and a number of the shafts were closed up with foam. However, not all of them were filled -- for example, this series of scary-looking stope holes which are merely covered with dodgy-looking bat grills, which you could easily walk right over:

Newly barred stope

At this point, a bit of a sideline... and a rant. This area was the first place where the capping and covering at Norwich became really obvious to me. It was clear that most of the shafts in this area had previously been open and surrounded by the old wooden fences. In fact, all around I could see the small rock bases which had held the fence posts in place. Most of the time, these bases were the best way to find the shafts. The old fence posts and cross-bars had been cut off and tossed into the forest willy-nilly. They were all over the place, even where there were no obvious shafts -- as if the Forest Service had had a caber tossing competition with the remnants of the fences. Given the amount of "respect for nature" which was indicated in the paperwork and planning, it was especially strange.

Wherever the shafts had been filled, they must have been filled in at bedrock level. In the months since the plan had been completed, they had become covered over with leaves and now looked just like the usual depressions around filled-in shafts -- except for those fence post bases surrounding them. However, the shafts were in no way more safe. Without the fences, it's incredibly easy to stumble onto caving ground or fall right into a shaft -- with a bat grating 2 or 3 or 10 feet down into the ground. It was easy to see how you could stumble onto those stope holes, and the ground on either side consisted mostly of rotten rock, ready to collapse into the mine. I would guess that the entire location is less safe for most purposes, and a lot of history has disappeared.

OK, back to my story. At this point, I was entering a cut in the ridgeline which lead into a small valley, where I believed that the Hamilton mine had once had a small stamp mill. A stamp mill was a building which processed the copper-bearing rock produced by these mines. All stamp mills worked effectively the same way: By smashing the living daylights out of the rock, until it crumbled apart and released the tiny copper fragments trapped inside. The Hamilton mine was a very old mine indeed, and used very old stamp technology: Big heavy iron blocks, called stamp heads, that were repeatedly dropped onto the rocks. (This is effectively the original stamp technology. More modern mines used steam-powered stamps and even rollers.)

There was a small flat area to the left which looked like a shaft (but turns out to have been blasted away to make room for a trapper's cabin). There was a lot of metal scattered around, including a heavy iron stamp head, marked with its maker's name! I was definitely in the right place. Following the trail further, I came to a cut where a seasonal stream tumbled down the cliff face. Looking up from the bottom of the cliffs that evening, I saw that I had been close to one of the most spectacular lookouts along the entire bluff, but I didn't climb up to it at the time.

So far, I hadn't seen any stamp sands -- the coarse sandy remnants of crushed rock, left by a stamp mill. In fact, the valley seemed to be filled with low swampy growth and tag alders, making for a dense bushwhacking nightmare if I went off trail. The trail looped around the valley and, contrary to my map, continued on west towards the Norwich A and B shafts again -- apparently I had found the other end of the long-abandoned Norwich Mine Interpretive Loop of the North Country Trail. I turned north again to try my luck bushwhacking back to the Valley of the Shafts, as I had mentally named it. As I rounded a small head of land -- what was that? Ruins! In fact, the only ruins that I would see all day. I had managed to stumble upon the Hamilton mine's stamp mill without even trying.

There isn't much there besides some a few threaded rods poking out of very old stone foundations and another stamp head. Those buggers are so heavy that even scrappers didn't find them worth carrying down the long trail out of the bluff. I also found a small field of stamp sand with nothing growing out of it -- a surreal reminder of the distant past, surrounded by the high cliffs of the Norwich Bluff.

Hamilton stamp mill -- the only ruins I found all day
Nearby, there were even more shafts, pits, and trenches in the hillside. I headed back down the trail, intending to return all the way back to Front Run Creek. Along the way, I noticed a rather large earthen dam off to my left (north), which must have dammed the small seasonal stream which ran through the valley. It was hard to imagine how this was ever effective -- although given the lack of success of these mines, perhaps it never was.

At the same time, to my right (south), I noticed even more poor rock pouring down the ridge line. Climbing the ridge and finding the source of the rock required quite a bit of effort. Along the way, I passed a filled-in adit. At the top, sure enough, there was another barred-up shaft, and a series of filled shafts running along the ridge. Wow, this was almost getting to be monotonous -- was there any place that wasn't dug out up here? What, exactly, was holding up the ground that I was standing on?

I finally headed back down to Front Run creek, and this time took the North Country Trail to the east, up the other side of the creek's valley. The trail headed right over an even larger earthen dam which must have once dammed up Front Run Creek, undoubtably built by the Norwich or one of its relative, in one of the many attempts to make the mine pay.

The trail up the side of the valley was very steep and covered with wind-fallen trees, but no mines that I could see. I hoped to make my way to the old Windsor mine along the eastern extension of this bluff. After perhaps half a mile, I came to an excellent lookout, and took the chance to lay back and take a power nap in the sun. It was awesome.

After the nap, time was getting tight, so I abandoned my plan to find the Windsor shafts and headed back down to Front Run creek (which had turned into my base of operations, it seems). At long last, I headed down the creek towards the bottom of the bluffs. Along the way, I noticed some funny looking clearings below the trail. Climbing down, I found two barred-up adits, both with lovely rock walls and gates built out front. No, not a "keep out" kind of gate -- a little wooden gate like you might put on your garden. These were much older than the Forest Service's restoration, and must have been built by the Norwich's old caretakers.

The adits were clearly draining their mines still, as I nearly lost a boot in the muck in front of one of them! These adits ran beneath the trail (formerly a mine road) and were only visible with careful observation.

Welcome to my adit. Make sure you close the gate behind you!
I continued down the steep trail, reached the bottom and headed west back towards the gate and my camp. Taking stock of my provisions, I noticed that I was nearly out of water. I had packed 3 liters just for today, which is usually more than enough for one person, even on a hot day and working hard. Clearly I'd been working harder than I thought! It was about 3:30, and I had been hiking for only around 5 hours.

After a detour to visit a fellow explorer, get a glass of water, and check out the Bergland historical museum, I headed back north towards Houghton. I was exhausted, my legs ached, and I still felt dehydrated, but boy did my soul feel good. Norwich is a wonderful site, and even now -- after all of the Forest Service "improvements" -- it is still a magical place to visit. I highly recommend it to anyone who might be in the area. I plan on returning as soon as possible to explore even more.

Advice for explorers: If you plan on going to the Norwich, channel your inner Boy Scout and be prepared. I used two maps (one from Papineau's book, one of my own drawing), a compass, and a GPS extensively. If you plan to go off trail -- or even just try to follow one of the less maintained trails -- you can easily get lost. Even the best maintained trails are faint at best, and most maps are horribly out-of-scale. I also used a full day's worth of water in 5 hours. The climb up the rock slide was incredibly dangerous, and in retrospect was not the smartest way to do things. My GPS reports the slope as 70%. Do that ridiculous climb at your own risk.

Above all else, know how to read the ground around a mine site. With the "improvements", it's easier than ever to walk onto dangerous ground. If you're not proficient at identifying shafts, adits, subsidence, and the signs of caving ground, don't even think about going off-trail. Help is not close at hand.

Thanks for reading this far. If you have a Norwich story too, feel free to post it in the comments.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Two views from Elmo's Tower




After the joy of writing my Porcupine Mountains 2014 backpacking trip series, I think it's time to return to your (ir)regularly scheduled photo blog.

Just after the Porkies trip, the Lovely Sarah and I headed up to Houghton for a few days. She helped a friend prepare for her wedding, while I hiked!

I took a side trip to Elmo's Tower, one of the more curious locations along the Cliffs. This tower was built -- by hand! -- by the late Elmo Negro, at a beautiful rock outcrop along the Cliffs. It's just above the Phoenix mine, and overlooks the Eagle River gap. Driving along US-41, it's a clear landmark. The tower has no function other than to be a pleasant place to enjoy a day (and have a barbecue). A quick google search will find a lot more photos and history.

I took two photos from that location. The top one shows Elmo's Tower itself, looking east. The second one shows the view west, back towards the Cliff Mine. This is a view I've often tried to capture, and this time I might have gotten it right -- maybe!

Please be respectful of this beautiful place! The tower itself is off limits. Please do not vandalize it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014, Day 4: Mirror Lake to Lake of the Clouds

Last time: Big Carp to Mirror Lake, uphill all the way.


Mirror lake 2-bunk in the morning
We woke later than usual, stiff but well rested. The tall cliffs and tall pines surrounding the Mirror Lake 2 bunk make it a bit harder for morning light to filter through.

We made tea and walked to the Little Carp River Bridge. This bridge crosses the river and nearby swamps at a long inlet near the west end of Mirror Lake. Sitting on the bridge, sipping hot tea, and chatting in the cool morning is one of my favorite memories of the trip.

Back at the cabin, we made a quick breakfast, packed up, and headed out. Our plan for this final day was to hike the North Mirror Lake trail north to Lake of the Clouds, up the Escarpment, and out into the parking lot where we had left our car.

Inlet on Mirror Lake

The North Mirror Lake trail starts about half a mile away from the two-bunk cabin. We passed the other two cabins (and the world's most amazing latrine), crossed a stream, and found ourselves at the trailhead. Just up the trail, we met the tall hiker (and his dog) from two days ago, who was wearily sitting on a log at the top of a hill.

This time, we stopped to chat a bit longer. The hiker turned out to be from Illinois, and was in the Porkies for the first time. He said that he was an avid solo backpacker back home, and often did 10 to 15 miles per day. In the Porkies, he was finding 6 to 8 miles per day to be exhausting, and was resting a bit before tackling his final leg.

Yesterday, we had both started from near the mouth of the Big Carp River. However, our hiker friend had taken a very different route. While we did 7 miles straight uphill along the Big Carp and Correction Line trails, he had taken the Cross Trail. The guide books universally describe the Cross Trail as "the most lonely trail in the park" (usually followed by "you're more likely to see a moose than a person"), and emphasize that it goes straight through a huge swamp. (He confirmed that this was every bit as fun as it sounds.) It connects to the Little Carp River trail, which eventually makes it to Mirror Lake. This is a much longer route than we had taken -- nearly 11 miles in all -- with the same elevation change and worse mosquitoes. We wished him good luck and headed on our way.

The trail was in remarkably good condition, especially considering what we had seen in previous days. We set a good pace and enjoyed the cool morning air, while a light breeze kept the mosquitoes off. Along the way, we passed through a wide variety of terrain, including a huge swamp (crossed on miraculously dry boardwalks), previously logged forest (it did happen in some parts of the Porkies), old-growth pines, and of course the usual selection of hills and valleys.

The North Mirror Lake trail is considered one of the most rugged trails in the park. (Are you tired of hearing that yet? It turns out that we had chosen all of the most rugged trails in the park for our trip.) From its low point at Lake of the Clouds up to its high point near Mirror Lake, it gains over 500 feet. Luckily, we were hiking this section in the "easy" direction -- downhill -- at least until we reached the Escarpment, where we would regain all of our elevation in one brief climb.

The steepest part of the North Mirror Lake trail starts just after a small stream crossing. Over half of a mile, the trail has a grade of 12% -- quite steep, even for the Porkies. The stream which marks the start of the Great Descent comes out of a series of small swamps. Shortly after crossing the trail, the stream turns and starts to cut out an enormous ravine. This amazingly unnamed stream forms one of the most picturesque gorges in the entire park, cutting through an open pine forest with steep hills on either side. There are many small waterfalls, as well as a collapsed copper mine shaft. I once spent a long afternoon scrambling up that very ravine, looking for the shaft, but never found it.

Ravine and a tiny waterfall
Today, however, we followed along the trail and didn't test our legs on any tricky rock climbing. We eventually crossed Scott Creek on a small bridge, and headed uphill again. The mosquitoes started to swarm us, getting worse in the lower swampy areas. We hurried on, knowing that the bridge over the Big Carp River at Lake of the Clouds would give us some respite.

As we headed on, it became obvious that we were close to the very popular Lake of the Clouds area. The trails widened. Muddy areas were covered with well-maintained boardwalks or corduroy. Each step took us through swarms of mosquitoes. We ramped up the pace, until we were nearly jogging just to stay away from the bugs. Finally, with one last downhill, we sprinted out into the open and found ourselves on the bridge at the end of Lake of the Clouds.

We walked all the way to the middle of the bridge before taking off our packs, safe from the bugs. We scarfed down the last of our rice cake sandwiches and enjoyed a serenade by some bullfrogs. High above us, we saw few people at the Lake of the Clouds overlook -- the middle of a week in early June is not a popular time to visit a remote state park.

The last leg of our trip was straight uphill. Just past the turnoff for the Lake of the Clouds cabin, the trail takes a sharp turn upwards. A series of switchbacks leads up a cut in the face of the Escarpment. At the top, a wooden bench awaits the hearty few who choose to hike that direction. When we stumbled to the bench, we collapsed in relief -- we had made it!

... Except, we hadn't. Because the trail leads up a cut in the cliff face, it tops out at a low point. There were quite a few more steps left before we reached the top -- actual wooden steps, on a well maintained trail -- but it required just a little more effort than we had expected. We arrived at the real top, next to the Lake of the Clouds overlook, exhausted and somewhat ornery.

OK, actually it was just me who was ornery. The Lake of the Clouds overlook is very built up -- well-paved roads lead to a large parking lot, where wide wooden boardwalks make their way to a walled-in overlook. It is extremely easy to get to one of the most stunning views in the UP. And yet, when we arrived at the top of the trail, near the overlook, there were tourists. I don't mean just people who tour around to see the sights -- I mean tourists who arrive in a 50 foot RV, reluctantly tear themselves away from their satellite TV, and haul out a 5-gallon McDonald's pop while complaining about walking a slight uphill. Having to work so hard (4 days!) to get here made me lose all sympathy for anyone who was unhappy merely because they had to mosey along 300 yards of paved trail to get to the beauty.

I should make it clear that visiting the Porkies is something which everyone should do. Visiting such a rugged and beautiful place is a great experience. Everyone is welcome there -- and the remoteness and solitude is good for the soul. So really, I shouldn't complain. But, I did.

Grumpily, we walked the last few yards to our car. We left our trusty walking sticks leaning against a rock and climbed into the car, groaning at our aching backs. Then we headed straight for the pop machine in the Visitor's center, to share the world's best Cherry Coke. I might be a hypocrite -- but I earned it!

The Cliffs in the Keweenaw, my other favorite hiking location.
I drove the 1.5 hours to Houghton, while Sarah napped in the passenger's seat. We stayed in our favorite little town for two days. Sarah helped a friend with wedding preparations, while I -- of course -- went hiking.

In total, the trip was wonderful. For all of the complaining I've done in these blog posts -- mud, mosquitoes, hills, and tourists -- I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. Staying in the Big Carp 6 bunk right on Lake Superior was one of the hilights of my backpacking life so far. The solitude, silence, and remoteness scratch an itch for me like nothing else. I would do it again in a heartbeat -- and hopefully next year, I will!

See you next time!

Final summary:

Miles hiked: 3.75
Grand total miles: 21.0

Some other interesting trip statistics:

Elevation change (lowest to highest): 1065ft
Total elevation increase (adding up all the uphills): 2314ft
Total time: 3 days, 19.5 hours
Number of large non-human mammals seen: 1 (of the creepy-ass variety)


Friday, August 8, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014, Day 3: Big Carp to Mirror Lake

Last time: Buckshot to Big Carp, via the swamp.


Driftwood on the Big Carp beach
Day 3 started beautifully. We ate our early morning breakfast of tea and freeze-dried scramble wraps on the sunny beach, wearing fleeces to keep off the cool lake breeze. I spent an inordinate amount of time photographing neat driftwood as we took one last walk along the shore. It was very hard to leave.

We were stiff and achey from yesterday's travails, but quickly worked it off as we hiked away from the lakeshore. Back up the steep hillside, we returned to the junction of the Lake Superior and Big Carp River trails, and this time took the Big Carp branch. As we would note many times today, the Big Carp and Correction Line trails don't have switchbacks. To cross even the biggest hills, they go straight up and then straight down.

Our plan was to follow Big Carp until its junction with the Correction Line Trail, which would take us east to Mirror Lake and our final cabin. What we had not considered was that this required going from Lake Superior (the lowest point in the park) to Mirror Lake (one of the highest inland lakes in Michigan). Today would be uphill the whole way. As the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion said about our selected route, "...these are some of the most difficult trails in the park."

The Big Carp River trail follows the river closely for its first few miles. But the trail doesn't actually follow the river bank -- the river sits in a very deep gorge, while the trail generally rides high above it in a beautiful old-growth white pine forest. The trail does occasionally come down to river level, letting you view some of the nearly unending series of waterfalls along this ridiculously picturesque river. We saw several waterfalls from high above, including the biggest, Shining Cloud Falls. The views were too distant and too obstructed to take a good photo, so I left my heavy camera in my pack and just enjoyed the view in person. That set the tone for the day -- I ended up taking very few photos, as you will (not) see in this post.

The old-growth forest is not only beautiful, it's also extremely clear of undergrowth. The huge pines shade out everything else, leaving the forest floor remarkably clear. We sometimes wandered off trail unintentionally, as the carpet of pine needles hid the main way.

The trail eventually headed away from the river, and the farther away we went, the worse the bugs got. We stopped frequently to touch up our bug spray. We brought a can of 40% DEET spray, with a tiny container of 100% DEET waiting in my pack for the right moment.

In addition, the farther away from the high river bluff, the swampier things got. We were back to mud, the likes of which we hadn't seen since... yesterday. You may think that I'm overselling the "swamp" thing, but consider the following joyous scene:


The Big Carp River trail actually runs somewhat diagonally across this image, top left to bottom right. We spent around 20 minutes winding our way through this mix of standing water, mud, and mosquitoes.

Shortly after the swamp, we came down another big hill and arrived back at the Big Carp, for the one true river crossing of our trip. We had worried about this, especially with the huge spring runoff. Now that we were at the river, it was clear that we were fine -- the river is wide, but shallow with a gravel bottom.

On the river bank, we switched to closed-toed sandals. I crossed first. The water was cold, of course, but nowhere near as cold as Lake Superior. At its deepest, the river was up to my knees. When we were both across, we rested for a little while on a fallen tree, listening to the rumble of the river and enjoying the beautiful weather.

The lovely Sarah crossing the Big Carp River
The trail headed uphill, again following a high river bluff as the river became much smaller and choked with brush. The spring melts had worn away much of the banks, sometimes taking the trail with it. We occasionally had to bushwhack away from the river just to avoid falling in.

It wasn't long before we found the remarkably small and barely marked junction with the Correction Line trail. We headed east along Correction Line, which was described by all of the books I've read as a connector trail -- not one of the main trails of the park. True to form, the trail was muddy and wandered through gloriously beautiful primeval forest. Y'know, the usual.

The day was warming up quickly, and the sun was shining strongly down on us. The trail headed slowly but surely uphill as we marched into the interior of the park. The center of the Porkies is extremely rugged and about 1000 feet higher than Lake Superior's level. Mirror Lake, our destination for the night, is right in the heart of this central highland, surrounded by even higher peaks and ridges. It quickly became apparent that we were going to have to work hard for the rest of the day.

About 1 mile along the Correction Trail, we decided that we needed to stop for a real break. We re-re-re-applied our bug spray and dug out a minimal lunch. Breakfast had stuck with both of us for a long time today -- unpleasantly so, leaving each of us without an appetite and me with a slight feeling of nausea.

As we were eating, we heard voices up ahead -- the first people we had seen all day. A pair of older women came around the bend. One had a small CamelBak and seemed quite confident, if not happy, about wandering in the woods. The other had no visible pack, fanny pack, or even a water bottle, and did not seem nearly as happy. They paused to chat, although only the more confident hiker spoke to us. We were astonished to learn that they had come all the way from Lake of the Clouds via the North Mirror Lake trail -- at least 5 miles -- on a "day hike". The North Mirror Lake trail is one of the toughest trails in the park when hiked in that direction, and they had at least 5 more equally tough miles before making it back home. 10 rugged miles is a major day hike in the Porkies, and the two did not seem particularly well prepared for it. They were not very interested in smalltalk and headed onwards before we were done with our break.

We continued onwards in the now hot and humid day. At one point, Sarah's water pack dried up, but I revived it by removing a kink in her supply tube. Our trail now became steeply uphill, sometimes going straight up very tall outcrops. We had to pause for breath every 20 to 30 paces. Suddenly, Sarah's water pack was dry again, this time for real. Her smaller 2 Liter pack was no match for the unexpectedly difficult terrain and hot weather. We shared my water supply for the rest of the hike, nursing it carefully.

Topographic map of our trip on Day 3. Click to enlarge and enjoy the terrain (elevations are in meters).
By this time, we were within a mile of Mirror Lake. The trail winds around the base of beautiful sheer cliffs with pines growing all along their ridges. This was my favorite sort of terrain, but I barely noticed. The exhausting hike was forcing us to focus only on making the next step. The park started to throw more obstacles in our way: Huge trees fallen across the path without a clear way around them. This was the first (and only) time during the trip when I truly didn't enjoy the hike. The last half mile seemed to last forever, until we began a steep downhill, descending directly towards Mirror Lake. We had at last arrived! ... Except that we hadn't. We had reached the Little Carp River trail, but the Mirror Lake 2-bunk cabin was another quarter mile away. At least it was an easy walk.

There are three cabins near Mirror Lake: 2, 4, and 8 bunks. The 8 bunk cabin is the original rental cabin in the park, designed to be a hunting lodge in the earliest years of the park. The 4 bunk and 8 bunk cabins are both right on the lake, with the trail running directly through their "front yards". For this reason, we had decided to go with the much cozier and more private 2 bunk cabin, nick-named the "love shack". Ever since I scouted it out on my solo backpacking trip in June 2012, I had wanted to stay in the Mirror Lake 2-bunk cabin. The setting is beautiful: Far back from the lake, nestled in a cut between two large hills. A long trail leads up to it from the lake, giving it a sense of absolute privacy. It's also called the "Love Shack" because it is tiny. It started life as a single room ranger cabin, and was expanded at some point with a second room, barely large enough to fit a wood stove and table.

We opened the door, took off our packs, and collapsed at the table. We pulled out the trail mix, but neither of us had a desire to eat any of it. Our hot, exhausting, dehydrating day had taken all hunger out of us. Instead, we climbed into the bunks and took a nap. The top bunk of the "Love Shack" is so close to the ceiling that I couldn't even turn over without running into a roof beam (even climbing up to the bunk without hitting my head was a challenge!).

An hour later, I got up and found Sarah still snoring away. Remembering our water situation, I realized that we would have a harder time getting water here. Sure, we were near Mirror Lake -- but it is (in technical terms) really mucky and filled with gunk. I hauled a huge cookpot out from the cabin's cupboard, walked to the shore, stepped precariously out on a log, and filled up the crockpot with dirty lake water. I lugged it up to the cabin and set it on the porch to settle, separating some water out into smaller pots and adding chlorine tablets for purification.

Some more driftwood, since I didn't
take many photos on Day 3...
With Sarah still asleep, I read the log book. We had heard that mice are a problem in the cabins, and this log book was filled with campers' encounters with the tiny rodents. Apparently, this cabin housed a particularly pesky little bugger. After learning the hard way, past visitors advised keeping all food under a pot or pan with weights on top. Inspecting our trail mix baggies, I already found a few tiny holes chewed into them! I quickly moved all of our food into a pile and covered it with a large pot, weighed down by other pots and pans.

Sarah eventually woke up, and we took a walk to the bathroom. Now, bear with me here. I know that you don't want to hear about the outhouses. But this was no ordinary wilderness potty. Mirror Lake is a very high traffic area (at least as far as the Porkies go), and so the State Park has built a truly amazing outhouse between the 4 and 8 bunk cabins. For one thing, there is no pit in the ground. This outhouse is "composting" meaning that it's basically built on top of a giant compost bin which is partly open to the air. Ridiculously smelly? No, it's the best smelling outhouse I've ever been in. After 3 days on the trail, it's like a little luxury palace in the middle of the backcountry. We took turns admiring it and generally not roughing it in the middle of the Porkies. I highly recommend checking out the Mirror Lake Palace-Potty if you're ever nearby.

We walked back to the cabin, still stiff and exhausted. We paused, briefly, to enjoy the gorgeous landscape near the cabin -- open woods under towering pines and high cliffs. It was silent and dim. We ate a small dinner, sipped some water, and crawled in to bed without so much as building a fire in the fire ring, nor taking the canoe (comes with the cabin!) out for a spin. We drifted off to sleep as... what was that sound?! A loud scratching woke us up. Just as I was drifting off again, it came back, louder than ever. I put on my headlamp and shone it around, catching the infamous mouse as he poked his head out from behind the wood stove's heat shield. I double-checked our mouse-proofing, put a few more things in buckets and under pans, said some stern words about bothering us in the mouse's direction, and climbed back in to bed.

We slept the sleep of people who've been hiking for 2 days longer than they're used to.

Miles hiked: 7.25
Total miles: 17.25