Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Day 2: Lane Cove to Daisy Farm

Last time: Rock Harbor, up and over the Greenstone to Lane Cove

Greenstone Ridge trail, our special challenge for the day. Photo by Sarah.

I woke around 6 am, when the first blush of sunrise was starting to lighten the sky. A quick jaunt to the outhouse convinced me that the mosquitoes were earlier risers than me, and that I should hide out in the tent for a while longer. Then, it began to rain. Clearly, I was meant to sleep in today!

When Sarah and I crawled out of the tent again at 7 am, the rain had stopped and we saw that Shelly and John were already packed up and about to head out. We wished them well and set about making our traditional camping breakfast of hot tea and oatmeal. We packed up camp somewhat slowly, after the unexpectedly hard workout we had done yesterday.

We paused briefly to find hiking sticks on our way out, which was easy (especially since it's my superpower to find them any time, anywhere). Shortly after we left Lane Cove, a couple who had also camped there caught up to us and headed past, walking at a fast clip with their fancy-pants hiking poles. Who needs that when you've got a stick!

The hike back out of Lane Cove was beautiful in the morning light. I quickly outpaced Sarah (she claims that I was "running", which I can assure you was definitely not the case!) (She adds: "YES YOU WERE."). After a few stops, we agreed that I would go ahead at my own pace, and we would meet up at Mt. Franklin for a break.

I raced on ahead, but kept stopping to admire the beauty of the swamps that lay between the ridges. The morning sunlight, a light mist, and the dew on the plants all made for a gorgeous picture. I had barely even noticed all this beauty yesterday. Plus, I was keeping a sharp eye out for moose. Despite these frequent stops, I never paused to take my camera out of my backpack, and so I have no photos from that part of the hike. Now I really wish I did, though.

Sooner than I expected, the strenuous climb up the cliff face started. Upclimbing isn't nearly bad as downclimbing, especially because upclimbing doesn't require any finesse -- for better or for worse, it's all muscle. As a result, I was a bit winded by the time I reached the fallen trees. I removed my pack and crab-crawled under the trees again, then stashed it against a tree at the next bend in the switchbacks. I grabbed some gorp and went back to sit on the fallen trees while waiting for Sarah. As I did so, a huge crashing sound came from the trail above me. I swung my head around just in time to see... my pack, rolling slowly but inexorably down the trail towards me.

I ran up the trail with a speed I didn't know I could still muster, but luckily the pack stopped after just a few tumbles. Reseating the pack securely between two trees, I went back and met Sarah at the fallen trees, where we rested and enjoyed some gorp.

We then parted ways again. The last part of the uphill seemed to stretch on forever. However, I thoroughly enjoyed following the narrow trail through deep, dark, and cool cuts between the rocky faces, with ferns and moss draping over the bedrock cliffs. I topped out at a fern-bordered path that quickly led to the junction with the Greenstone Ridge Trail.

At the junction I ran into the speedy couple who had passed us earlier. They were deeply engrossed in doing something with the woman's foot, but stopped to chat as I rested for a moment. Apparently her foot already had blisters which required moleskins, and his knee was hurting badly after the steep uphill. "Where are you headed?" I asked, hoping the answer was "3 Mile campground", about 2 miles downhill. Nope -- they were headed to McCargoe Cove, another 20 miles from this very trail junction. I mention this here only in case their relatives are wondering what happened to them and happen to be reading this blog.

Greenstone Ridge trail
I wished them good luck -- and I really meant it! -- and turned onto the Greenstone Ridge trail, not wanting to waste any time here when Mt. Franklin was a mere 3/10 of a mile away. The trail was straightforward, and after about 3/10 of a mile I came out into a grassy clearing with some rocky bluffs looking towards the Canadian shore. The views from the bluffs weren't that great. They were partly masked by trees, but I could see a reasonable amount of the lake and the "Sleeping Giant" on the Canadian shore -- and the breeze was fantastic. Just to be sure, I dropped my pack and headed down the trail a few yards. It disappeared downwards into a forest, so I headed back: This must be Mt. Franklin!

I pushed my way through the low brush to the cliffs, surprised at how few paths a place as well-known as Mt. Franklin had out to the views -- not to mention the fallen logs across the paths! But, I wasn't about to complain: The wind cooled me as I sat on the edge of the cliff, eating gorp and enjoying being 40 pounds lighter for a little while.

Sarah joined me a few minutes later. She had also met the McCargoe Cove hikers and shared my skepticism. We made our lunch (rice cakes with peanut butter -- the best trail food ever), looked at the map, and generally relaxed. After a while, I took out the small weather radio that we had brought and discovered that I could pull in the Marquette National Weather Service radio broadcast as clear as day up on this high ridge. The Marquette NWS office broadcasts a weather forecast for Isle Royale every half hour, and we were able to pick up an extended forecast. Things looked questionable: Thunderstorms tonight, rain tomorrow night, and a solid day of rain after that, with a questionable following day as well.

We conferred while laying on the remarkably warm and sunny rocks: Our current plan put us in Moskey Basin for a rest day during the fully rainy day. We decided it would be better to risk a day stuck in a shelter, than to change our plans and possibly be caught hiking in a full-day rainstorm.

After a wonderful rest, we hitched our packs back on and headed down the trail. The trail dipped down into a forest and then quickly -- not 100 yards from where we had rested -- it pushed right back up into an opening with huge rocky cliffs overlooking the most amazingly clear view of Lake Superior and Canada. In front of it all was a small sign: "Mt. Franklin". Ah.

However, there were already several large (and loud) groups hanging out in all of the best viewing spots, so we regretfully continued onward. Next time, perhaps.

Soon, the trail came out from the trees and ascended a rocky hill to a high point, covered in dry grass, low shrubs, and late-summer wildflowers. The views toward the south were astonishing, and I spent quite a bit of time taking photos here.

Sarah on the Greenstone, overlooking Moskey Basin and Conglomerate Bay
After that, the trail stayed almost entirely out in the open. The Greenstone Ridge trail was hot, sunny, and very exposed. The breeze which had felt so refreshing on "fake Mt. Franklin" (as I now thought of it) started to get a bit too stiff. Together with the direct sun, it dried me out. The trail was a solid ribbon of bedrock, visible where the grass and low juniper bushes had been worn away by incessant foot traffic. Occasionally it would dip down into a low spot, where incredibly thick deciduous shrubs reached up over my head. In these places the trail was so narrow that the shrubs constantly grabbed at my arms, legs, and pack. I used my walking stick as a path clearing device, pushing away the bigger branches and protecting my face from the rest.

The trail consisted of a number of large climbs and descents over rocky mounds, each with smaller ups and downs on top of it. This got rather tiring after a while. There was never a flat spot, but there were almost constant dramatic views to either north or south (but rarely both at once).

Soon, the fire tower on Mt. Ojibway -- our next waypoint -- peeked up over the distant edge of a hill. The trail started to open up into exposed rocky hills with few trees. Occasionally it also wound through low juniper and blueberry bushes -- in fact, enough blueberries started to show up that I frequently stopped to grab entire handfuls. They were sweet, delicious, and kept me going.

The constant up-and-down wore me down, but the glowing beacon of the Mt. Ojibway tower helped me keep moving. After what seemed like an endless series of hot hills, I finally arrived at the base of the tower. I dropped the pack, grabbed my camera, and... waited at the bottom. A family consisting of two saintly parents and a swarm of children with an endless amount of energy were climbing the tower.

The family finally made it down, picked up their tiny daypacks, and headed down the hill towards Daisy Farm. The view from the top -- and the breeze -- was spectacular. I could see across the island, and up and down the Greenstone both ways. And then... Sarah appeared.

Hot and extremely grumpy, Sarah harrumphed her way up the last hill and collapsed at the base of the tower. She had not had a good hike since I saw her last. The heat, the hills, the wind... everything conspired to make a miserable Greenstone hike for Sarah. She was completely wiped out, and her feet were seriously hurting her due to a twisted sock seam. We sat quietly (with boots off) for a while, but I couldn't convince her that a view from the tower would help.

We did agree, however, that it was getting late in the afternoon, and that as a result I would head downhill with all due haste in order to secure us a shelter at Daisy Farm. We probably didn't speak quite as formally as that, but you get the idea. I ruefully shouldered my pack, noticing that the pack's belt was really digging into my hips, and started the process of heading back down the Greenstone Ridge for the 2nd time in the last 24 hours.

Looking west along the Greenstone Ridge from the Ojibway tower
While this was the "easy" side of the Greenstone, that didn't keep it from being the same rocky up-and-down that had been eating away at my legs all day. The trail was solid bedrock for most of the downhill, until I hit a low point that quickly became swampy. After a few hundred yards with dense underbrush lining either side of the trail, I suddenly found myself on... another uphill!

This unhappy surprise is apparently called Ransom Hill, named after the Ransom Mine that was once drilled into its slopes. The steep rocky climb was an unexpected and disheartening experience. I had to stop frequently to rest for a few seconds as I climbed its steep and rocky side. As I passed along the top of the hill, my famous "spidey senses" started tingling (famous, that is, among the 3 or 4 other Copper Country explorers that I regularly spent time with, for my ability to apparently walk into the woods at random and find old mine ruins). Through the dense pine forest at the top of the hill, I could see signs of old trenches, pits, and other mine signs.

The downhill side of Ransom Hill seemed to be an eternal gradual downhill. I was trucking it downhill, striding as far as I could in my haste to make it to Daisy Farm before all of the shelters were taken up. I suddenly came upon the family with the young boys who had been running around the fire tower and almost ran them over as they sat resting in the middle of the trail.

All of a sudden, I saw wooden structures in the trees ahead -- shelters! I was at Daisy Farm. And once again, I was surprised: Just like Lane Cove, Daisy Farm is more a large collection of semi-isolated campsites than it is a traditional campground. Even the shelters are fairly separated, with pines or huge thickets of thimbleberry bushes separating the shelters.

A metal campground map on a post stood at a trail intersection between the two shelters. Looking quickly left and right, I realized that both of the shelters were unoccupied. I wasted no time in hanging our camping permit on the door handle of Shelter #22. I dropped my pack but continued to follow the trail, looking to see if we could find a shelter with a nicer view. The Mt. Ojibway trail enters the campground from behind, and so our shelter was pretty far from Lake Superior.

Daisy Farm truly is a maze of trails, laid out (more or less) in a large outer ring with many criss-crossing inner trails. I found my way to the lake and was disappointed to find that even the shelters right on the lake had their view blocked by high brush and scrubby trees, with the Rock Harbor trail running right through their front yards. I did find a remarkable number of unoccupied shelters, however, and quickly realized that (today, at least) my rush was unnecessary.

As I passed Shelter #13, I head a loud "hello there!" and turned to see John and Shelly hanging up laundry in front of the shelter. They had been there for several hours, but had had a similarly rough trek across the Greenstone. We agreed to meet up again later once Sarah and I had settled in.

With that, I decided it was better to stick with Shelter #22 and do camp chores instead. I started by taking our foldable bucket down to the shore to collect some water for filtering. As I sat at the picnic table in front of the shelter (what luxury!), mindlessly pumping the handle approximately 85 times per liter (so sayeth REI), I looked around our new home.

The shelter itself was a classic Adirondack style, constructed of wood painted brown. The ceiling was high enough to stand up near the front of the shelter, but only 3 or 4 feet above floor level near the back. Three walls were solid wood, while the entire front was made of screens. All of the walls had tons of narrow boards nailed to them to allow campers to hang wet clothes and gear. One side of the shelter was completely blocked off from the next shelter by a huge thicket of thimbleberries. The rear was nearly built into the sloping end of Ransom Hill, while the remaining side had spindly red pines between it and the Mt. Ojibway trail. The front, with the picnic table, was open to a cross trail.

Clouds over a fantastic swimming spot
As I sat pumping water and pondering how lovely it was to sit down, Sarah stumbled down the trail. I jumped up and yelled to catch her attention and waved her over to our new home. She collapsed at the picnic table and began slurping down water from one of our spare Platypuses -- she had run out of water shortly after leaving Ojibway and was hot, ornery, and dehydrated.

We vegged out gloriously, and Sarah told me the story of her trip after I had left her at Mt. Ojibway. She had sat in the shade beneath the tower with her boots off, letting her painful feet cool down. As she waited, two Eagle Scouts from Wisconsin hiked up the trail from the west. They were extremely enthusiastic and managed to convince her to climb the tower with them -- which is where all of my good photos came from. They also shared some advice, such as "This tower is way better than Lookout Louise!" and "Belle Isle is the best campground for kayakers." She took note for future trips.

After rehydrating, snacking, and generally enjoying the lack of packs on our backs, we decided it was time to do something with the wonderfully long northern afternoon. That, undoubtedly, would be swimming in Lake Superior (after all, we had to try to outdo Sarah's record from last year of swimming in Lake Superior for 5 days in a row!) We changed into swimsuits and walked down to the lakeshore.

Daisy Farm has a large cement dock that goes far out into Rock Harbor. One side protects a beautiful sandy beach and a rocky lake bed that were absolutely perfect for swimming. The day was warm and beautiful, with a perfectly clear blue sky. The water was a little choppy -- the breeze that had blasted us up on the Greenstone was blowing across the lake as well. Being more exposed to Lake Superior, the water was colder than Lane Cove, but that didn't stop us from taking a good long bath in the lake. It felt great to clean up. After washing, I spent much of my swim just floating on my back and staring at the sky. After the water got a bit too cold for us, we climbed out and sat on the dock.

Daisy Farm Selfie
The dock and beach also turned out to be the social center of Daisy Farm campground. Daisy Farm is a hub for the Isle Royale trail system, and all of the trails that enter Daisy Farm lead straight to the dock. Backpackers came in, especially from Three Mile and Rock Harbor, and immediately dropped their packs at the dock to rest. Hikers coming down the Greenstone showed up at the dock while looking for a (now scarce) shelter. Boaters arriving in small fishing boats and enormous lake cruisers tied up and had a beer. Groups that had been separated on the trail hung out at the dock, waiting to reconnect while enjoying the rest.

Sarah made a quick run back to the shelter and grabbed our water bottles andKkindles, and we spent the next hour drying off, reading, people-watching, and chatting with our new neighbors. Throughout the whole trip (and in pre-trip research), we had heard one thing over and over: "Daisy Farm is a zoo!" Daisy Farm was too busy, too full, always overflowing, and nobody every went there on purpose -- they were just passing through on their way to somewhere more scenic, more quiet, better.

We felt exactly the opposite. We liked it! Daisy Farm was the only place we stayed that actually felt big enough for the late summer hiking crowds -- indeed, one shelter (located conveniently right next to the outhouses) stayed unoccupied until quite late in the evening. (I wonder why.) Socializing at the dock wasn't exactly traditional backpacking fare for us, but we found it immensely enjoyable. We shared a common experience with everyone there, and frankly, not too many genuine jerks make it that far out into the outback. We enjoyed watching a small herd of kids playing frisbee (and the drama that unfolded when someone missed their catch and let it fly too far off the end of the dock); a boater in a very fancy cruiser that docked and held court with anyone interested in his stuff; a group of boy scouts all doggedly pumping identical Katadyn filters; and a group of three backpackers who seemed to come and go, each looking for the others, meeting in pairs, and then disappearing again before the 3rd could appear.

Our time at Daisy Farm is one of my very favorite memories from a trip that is filled with fantastic experiences. Don't let people scare you away from Daisy Farm.

Clouds and a lone water-filterer
We also watched wildlife: A mama Merganser with (by my count) more than 25 kids led the family on a cruise around the dock around while papa (or another mama?) dealt with stragglers from behind.

Back at the shelter, we started to prepare dinner when John and Shelly stopped by to say hello. Our hiking doppelgängers had left an hour before us and arrived at Daisy Farm two hours before us -- a hint about our respective speeds and breaks. They began their visit with an excited question: "Did you see the moose at Lane Cove??" They had indeed seen a moose right outside Lane Cove campground, browsing in the shallows of the cove. We saw nothing an hour later. Lucky bums! After some further chitchat, they headed home for an early bedtime.

We started dinner: freeze dried Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings. It was spectacularly good, perhaps the best freeze-dried dinner I've had. Despite the hunger that multiple days on rough trails can create, many freeze-dried meals are bland (much like the Chili last night). Something about the Chicken and Dumplings hit the spot.

A second fantastic part of dinner was the result of a last-minute packing decision: A tiny box of wine that we had picked up in Houghton. Today was my birthday, and Sarah had convinced me that we should bring this 350-mL wine box for celebration. I'm not a huge wine aficionado, but this stuff was good. Yum, backcountry wine!

Keeping it classy at Daisy Farm
We took our kindles and (to keep it classy) the boxed wine back down to the dock and read some more. This time, in addition to the normal batch of water-filterers, boaters, and swimmers, we watched as a backpacker pulled a banjo out and started playing it. All I could think was: He must not have come across the Greenstone.

We also noticed a lot of people with gravity filters -- systems that used gravity and two water bags with a filter between them to filter water, with no effort required beyond filling one bag and hanging it on a branch. This looked positively glorious compared to our heavy, hand-cramp-inducing, ceramic filter.

The sky slowly filled with puffy clouds as we sat on the dock again, people-watching and reading. A beautiful sunset was happening somewhere over the Greenstone, but things were pretty good over here too.

As darkness fell, we could no longer avoid going back to our shelter and snuggling in to our sleeping bags. I first checked the weather radio, only to discover that the NWS broadcasts were completely obscured by static. Down at lake level, the signals didn't travel this far. Not too long afterward, a loud crash of thunder heralded a sudden downpour of rain that continued for several hours. Boy, were we glad to be in a shelter... with our clothes hanging outside on a line.

Oh well, that's a problem for future Dave and Sarah. We quickly dozed off into a long and well-deserved sleep.

Next time: The Rocky Road to Moskey

Miles hiked: 7
Total miles: 14

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

Lane Cove Trail (going uphill -- south): Medium-hard. Rocks and roots. One really steep uphill plus crossing a bunch of lower ridge lines. Beautiful swamps and lots of bridges.

Greenstone Ridge Trail (Mt. Franklin -- Mt. Ojibway): Medium. Lots of up-and-downs on bedrock, which is hard on the feet. Very exposed to sun, heat, and wind, except for a few dense thickets. Gorgeous views.

Mt. Ojibway Trail (Mt. Ojibway -- Daisy Farm, going downhill -- south): Medium. Relatively mild descent off the Greenstone. Lots of bedrock. Ransom Hill is an unpleasant surprise near the end.

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.