Thursday, October 1, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 3: Big Carp Waterfalls

Last time: Speaker's Cabin to Big Carp

Sarah is tired of your artsy-fartsy photography. Time for BREAKFAST!
We awoke a little after sunrise to find the day cool, bright, and beautiful. The only sign of last night's rain was a heavy dew on the thimbleberries... and the fact that the laundry we had left hanging outside was completely soaked. We left it up to dry again in the beautiful morning sun.

We made the usual oatmeal and tea for breakfast. Around 8 am, according to my timestamps, Sarah got tired of me taking artsy photos of our steaming-hot tea and determined that only a photobomb would stop me. She was correct.

Today was our rest day, and we were determined to enjoy it to the max. We scheduled this break on our 3rd day precisely because by last year's 3rd day, we were exhausted and miserable and still hiking 8 miles uphill. Our plans were very simple:

Sit on the beach
Sit on the beach
Hike upstream to see waterfalls
Take bath under a waterfall
Take photos of waterfalls
Nap next to waterfalls
Take more photos of waterfalls    
Swim in Lake Superior
Take photos of stars
Swim under the stars

Sarah is a bit of a fish, if you haven't guessed.

But before any of that, we had to hike up Kilimanjaro. As with Speaker's Cabin, the Lake Superior Cabin's outhouse was way, way, way up a hill behind the cabin. This makes sense: It keeps any, uh, seepage from the outhouse far away from fresh water sources. This reasoning was not popular among the contrarians in the cabin's log book, who universally condemned the difficult climb (especially in the middle of the night). One even claimed to be an expert in soil engineering, which amused us quite a lot (however, that same person also condemned anyone who was wearing, eating, or sleeping in anything not 100% found in nature, so who knows what was going on with him).

Behold, Kilimanjaro of the Porkies!
I know what you're thinking: He's going on about the outhouse for another paragraph? Yes, yes I am. When you're backpacking for most of a week, your priorities change a little bit. Remember my detailed description of the Hiking Stench Cycle from Day 2? Ahem... back on point: Unlike Speaker's Cabin, the Lake Superior Cabin has a wonderful "composting" outhouse, a type becoming very popular in the Porkies. I waxed potty-etical about the one at Mirror Lake at length last year. Their main feature is that they hardly stink at all. Many of the older style outhouses in high-traffic areas of the Porkies backcountry are being replaced by these "palace potties", and all I can say is Hallelujah!

After a quick lunch, we lightly packed one pack with water and snacks and headed upstream to see the waterfalls. The Big Carp River trail follows the river closely, although it frequently does so from the top of a high bluff. Luckily for us, most of the waterfalls are within easy reach of the trail.

As I've said many times about many Porkies rivers, the Big Carp River is practically made of waterfalls. The river drops about 200 feet in its last mile before the lake, so there's quite a bit to see. However, those 200 feet don't happen all at once. You can't walk 10 feet without a small drop, a slide, or at least some picturesque rapids, but there are very few large waterfalls.

Unnamed Waterfall #1
I had saved my camera batteries for this part of the adventure. More specifically, I had saved both of the batteries that I brought. Waterfalls look best when photographed with a slow shutter speed, which in turn means that the camera has to use more energy to collect light from the longer exposure. As a result, photographing waterfalls destroys battery life. My camera can last for weeks taking normal photos, or about 3 hours taking waterfall photos. Luckily, 3 hours was enough for today.

Early on, we came across a long slide of a waterfall that was mostly bare rock due to the low late-summer water levels. I hopped around the rocks contorting myself into bizarre poses to get a good angle. Meanwhile, Sarah sat back on the warm rocks and read.

This is exactly how the Big Carp River looks for its first mile and a half, minus the Sarah.
As we continued upstream, we met with a huge variety of small drops, rapids and slides, all framed by gorgeous old-growth hemlocks in an open forest. I photographed them all, and some of the photos actually turned out. I've found over the years that the experience of viewing a waterfall can never be matched in a photo -- the movement of the water, the sound, the whisper of the breeze, the feeling of the sun are all impossible to capture. Nonetheless, I tried my darndest, but my memories are dearer than the photos.

Along the way we met a steady stream of hikers -- far more than we had yet met in the trip. The Big Carp River trail is a major thoroughfare in the park, connecting to all of the most popular destinations: the mouth of the Big Carp; Mirror Lake, and Lake of the Clouds. Groups of 2's, 3's, and 4's with the occasional solo backpacker headed both ways along the trail as we stopped by waterfall after waterfall. I chatted with most of them, but many were in a hurry to get somewhere else. One mentioned that his weather radio indicated rain shows and possible thunderstorms tonight. Another was hurrying east, hoping to snag a prime campsite near a large waterfall.

We too were heading towards that waterfall, Shining Cloud falls, which is one of the largest drops in the park. It's the highlight of the lower Carp River, about 1.25 miles above the river mouth.

Unnamed Waterfall #1, another angle

When we hiked the Big Carp River trail on our 2014 adventure, we followed the exact route we were taking today. But on that hot day, after two long muddy slogs on the previous days, we were exhausted and uninterested in the waterfalls. Even one of the biggest waterfalls around wasn't enough to get us to stop -- and I didn't take any photos along the river. So our trip today was all about making up for our missed opportunities of last year. Practically none of the trail looked familiar, a sign of just how exhausted I had been last time around.

The way up to Shining Cloud seemed to stretch on for a remarkably long time. Our frequent stops and starts probably didn't help, plus the fact that it was almost impossible to separate the waterfalls out into discrete units. Any two hikers trying to count waterfalls would easily come up with two different double-digit numbers on just this one stretch of river.

We eventually started to think that we might have missed Shining Cloud falls entirely. Or maybe we had just seen Bathtub falls -- the one other named drop on this river. We couldn't exactly remember. There were enough larger drops that perhaps one of them was Shining Cloud. Shortly afterwards, the trail headed up a high bluff away from the river. We decided to try bushwhacking along the river bank, but were quickly squeezed right to the edge of the river bank, which was suddenly sheer and rocky. We backtracked and headed uphill instead.

Unnamed slide close-up

Along the high river bluff, we could barely even see the river below. The trail climbed steadily, until it suddenly reached a high and open head of land with an overlook of a truly spectacular waterfall.  This had to be Shining Cloud Falls: There was no comparison with any other waterfall on the lower Big Carp -- a true high drop, not just a slide or rapids.

Scrubby growth below the overlook screened a full view of the falls, which consists of an upper drop that splits into two lower drops. The photo below only shows the right-hand side of the lower drop -- the left is barely visible off to the side, and the upper drop is completely invisible. The pool below the waterfall looked huge, cool, and inviting.

I ran ahead to try to find a way down to river level. The trail continued to rise high above the river, but deep ravines started to appear heading down to the river. The first one had an obvious volunteer trail heading straight down, and so I too headed straight down. The ravine was steep and covered densely with pine needles covering sandy earth -- neither of which are known for being good for keeping your footing on a slope.  After skittering around some large pines, the trail reached the edge of a steep drop-off, and turned to follow a narrow rocky ledge down towards the river. I took a couple of steps along the ledge, but there was no way I would be able to keep my footing and balance and carry a camera. Boo -- that trail led straight down to the big pool at the waterfall's base!

Just the lower right drop of Shining Cloud falls
Repeating the mantra that "up-climbing is easier than down-climbing", I panted my way up the hillside and tried the next ravine over. This time a volunteer trail lead to a very nice flat area within about 20 vertical feet of the river. I took my one good photo of the waterfall from here (the one above), but as you can see, even this was only a partial view. The trail continued downward from the flat area, but again, I found myself on an impossible-to-follow rocky ledge. Perhaps if I felt more like doing some free-climbing, I could make it down to the river -- but not today. (Sarah, who was watching from high above at the lookout, later admitted that she expected to either see me hopping along the rocks at the waterfall's base or floating downstream.)

That's the point where I gave up on getting down to river level, and instead returned, panting and sweaty, to Sarah at the high overlook.

With no more big waterfalls above Shining Clouds, we turned around and headed back. Sarah hoofed it back to the potty-palace, while I took my time, chatted with fellow hikers, and tried photographing some of the trickier waterfalls a second time. The pleasantly sunny-but-cool day was perfect. It was a bit too cool to swim in any of the pools at the bases of the waterfalls, but we always had Superior to swim in.

An actual drop! ... but still unnamed
Indeed, when we were both back, Sarah was ready for yet another bath in Lake Superior. By this time, a cool breeze had sprung up and a few clouds were starting to roll in. This lead to lake swells that were heavier than in previous days, so after splashing around a little I decided to sit on the shore and read. Sarah had a grand time splashing around, but eventually came in after nearly being swept off of the "sitting rock". Nonetheless, she had gone swimming in Lake Superior for 5 days in a row, certainly some sort of personal record.

Clouds started rolling in and added to the stiff lake breeze that chased us back to the cabin. Things were starting to look stormy.

We ate a quick freeze-dried dinner (Backpacker's Pantry Risotto -- totally acceptable, which is about the highest praise I can offer any freeze-dried meals -- and a nice break from our usual Mountain House options) and settled in for the night as the thick clouds brought on an early dusk.

The early dusk turned to early pitch-black night, and rain started to fall in huge drops. There would be no staring at a campfire, no sunset on the beach, and no stargazing tonight. Another wash for some of my favorite camping activities. Instead, we sat inside reading (or, if you're Sarah, cross-stitching) by the glow of our headlamps. I made several rounds of hot tea to chase away the chill.

Sarah stitching
Before going to bed, we took some time to set up our usual anti-mouse measures. If you want to have real fun in the backcountry, try leaving out anything edible (or even vaguely smelly) in a Porkies cabin. The resident mice are very familiar with human food, and they will chew straight through your bag and leave you with a huge mess.

According to the cabin log, the Lake Superior Cabin has an especially bad mouse problem -- more mice than usual, and more bold than their brethren at other cabins. Past sufferers reported that the mice entered the cabin through a crack under the door and would go so far as to climb up our sleeping bags if we didn't prepare properly. Luckily, there seemed to be a consensus that the mice could be stopped by two simple measures: Good food handling and careful use of the mouse-stopping board.

Proper food handling is important for all backpacking, and it extends nicely to cabins. We always take all food out of our packs and hide it under upturned pots and pans, as well as hanging our packs from pegs on the wall.

But the Lake Superior Cabin's mouse-stopping board was a new one. Some past tenants had kindly left an inch thick board, carefully labeled with its name and a diagram of how to use it (edited by some later bored campers to say "mouse-stomping board" with a rather more gruesome illustration). The cabin log also included detailed instructions of how to set up the board so as to stop mice from entering the cabin. We carefully slid the board into the corner of the door frame, blocking the small crack under the door, and added flat beach cobbles along the rest of the crack to discourage extra-adventuresome (or extra thin?) mice.

We never did have any mice problems, but the testimony of fellow campers convinced us that it was worth the effort to keep the place sealed up tight.

Eventually, we crawled in to our sleeping bags. I read a bit longer, and then turned over to sleep. The rain continued unabated outside. I lay awake, anxious about tomorrow's 7 mile hike, which we would likely have to do in this very rain. That naturally lead to thoughts about how this was our last night at the Big Carp. The Porkies are one of my favorite places in the UP, and last year the Big Carp became my favorite place in the Porkies. This year cemented it even more, and my heart ached a little just thinking about leaving this quiet and beautiful place. Even though we would still be in the woods for another night, I could feel that we were past the hump -- we were on the downswing of our backpacking adventure.

I tossed and turned, never able to sleep for more than a few minutes as I listened to the steady, heavy rain.

Miles hiked: 2.5
Total miles: 9.5

To be continued in Part 4: You call that a waterfall?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 2: Speaker's Cabin to Big Carp River

Last time: Presque Isle to Speaker's Cabin

The cozy Speaker's Cabin
I never sleep well during my first night in the woods. It doesn't matter if I'm in a tent, a hammock, or a cabin -- I need time to adjust. This trend held true for our first night in the Porkies. I woke up in the middle of the night certain that something was in the cabin -- a bear perhaps? An hour late, was positive that I saw a light flashing around outside, as if a hiker were wandering through our front yard. Neither really happened, but not-really-awake Dave had a hard time believing that.

Despite the weird half-dreams, I felt well rested when I woke up at 8 am. The weather had cooled down significantly overnight, and we found it difficult to convince ourselves to get out of our cozy sleeping bags and into the chilly day.

None of our hiking days were planned to be particularly long or strenuous, so we took it slow and enjoyed our morning at this beautiful place. I boiled water for one of my favorite camping rituals: Hot tea on the shore of Lake Superior. We sat at the Wolf Seat, sipped our hot tea, ate hot oatmeal, and soaked in the astonishingly beautiful view from our cabin. We had not a care in the world. It made me incredibly homesick for my UP days.

The Last Porcupine Mountains Companion says, authoritatively, "We consider curiosity and sloth worthy excuses for not going as far as originally scheduled. A summer afternoon spent alongside a tumbling creek or frolicking along the shores of Lake Superior is time well accounted for." We took this to heart, but after cutting some firewood, pumping water, writing a short note in the cabin's logbook, packing and repacking our packs, and sweeping out the cabin, we could no longer come up with excuses to linger. So with a sigh, we reluctantly left for the next leg of our journey.

Today's hike was very simple: Continue walking the Superior (aka North Country) Trail eastward until we reached the mouth of the Big Carp River. Waving goodbye to Speaker's Cabin, we climbed the steep bluff carved out by Speaker's Creek and headed east.

Yet another gorgeous view along the Lake Superior Trail. Ho-hum.
The first mile of trail was quite flat and dry. Surprisingly young trees surrounded us. The area we were walking in was part of a small section of Lake Superior shoreline that was logged in 1913. A surprising amount of the Porkies lakeshore was logged in the early 1900's, and even 100 year old trees pale in comparison to the towering Hemlocks and shaded understory found in the rest of the park. Luckily, the old growth forest quickly reasserted itself.

After about half of a mile, the aptly named Speaker's Trail split off to the right, where it would hit the Boundary Road in another half mile. The state park is quite narrow at this point, and so we were very close to the Boundary Road. This makes Speaker's Cabin popular with non-backpackers looking for a nice base of operations. Despite all this, we still felt like we were completely alone in an endless forest. For the first 4 miles of the trip, the only other hiker we met was one woman with a small and extremely happy doggie (complete with its own doggie pack).

Near the Speaker's Trail branch, we came across another unusual feature: A private cabin. There are still a few small "inholdings" in this part of the Porkies, where the original landowners (at the time that the state park was formed in the 1940s) were allowed to maintain private ownership. The cabin was tiny, very run-down, and looked like an old hunting camp. It was located on a small rise just above a 2-track trail, probably used as an access road to the cabin. There was no sign that anyone had visited the cabin this year, much less in the last decade.

We faced a few small (and mostly dry) stream crossings, but nothing like the ravines of yesterday. At the bottom of one crossing we stopped for one of my favorite backcountry snacks: rice cake sandwiches. These are, simply, rice cakes with a ton of peanut butter smothered on them, clocking in at 200+ calories in about 1 ounce. Yes, those calories (and fat) are a good thing in the world of backpacking! The rice cakes serve no purpose other than being a crunchy platform for the peanut butter. Being incredibly lightweight is a big bonus, too.

Soon, we started to see a change in the woods. In some areas, older trees had fallen and allowed a bit of light to reach the ground. Hundreds of young maples took advantage of the light, growing in dense knee-high thickets as they tried to out-compete each other.

Beautiful view of a dry creek bed. Another one.
In even more open areas, we found enormous fields of thimbleberries! If you've never eaten these juicy and tart relatives of raspberries, you're missing out. They are delicious and practically make themselves into thimbleberry jam, a local delicacy in the western UP. Without even bothering to take off our packs, we headed off-trail and waded deep into the thimbleberry patches. No ripe thimbleberry escaped us. The tart and juicy fruit refreshed us and gave us a shot of sugar to propel us down the trail.

After a few miles, we came to the first real ravine of the day. The ravine cut out by Pinkerton Creek is decently deep, at 65 feet deep (where the trail crosses it). Despite the dry season, Pinkerton Creek was actually running a respectable amount. The trail was covered in slippery muddy patches all up and down the hillside, some fed by small springs. The gorge was ridiculously picturesque, with boulders hiding beneath tall hemlocks. We hopped across the stream bed on scattered rocks and climbed again, steeply, to follow a razorback ridge that would be our high point (in a literal, elevation sort of sense) of the day.

One curious thing about the Lake Superior Trail is that it's rarely in sight of Lake Superior. While the trail parallels the lake shore, it's always at least a few hundred yards inland, sometimes up to a quarter mile. While our walk in the woods was quite lovely, even at this high point we weren't getting many lake views.

This changed as the trail made a long sweeping turn towards the lake. We arrived at the edge of a high bluff with yet another deep ravine on one side, and a beautiful view of Lake Superior on the other. Below us on the shoreline was a spectacular backcountry campsite. There were also campers, who would probably be slightly annoyed with us gawking at them. We continued down the hill quickly, crossed the wet stream bed, and continued on.

At this point the trail mostly kept to the low-lying lakeshore, with only one last big ravine: The Little Carp River. Unlike the previous ravines, the Little Carp is actually cut through solid bedrock. The trail crosses the river at a point where this rock forms sheer cliffs of 10 to 20 feet. Luckily for us, the state park long ago built a series of wooden steps leading to a bridge across the river. While the river was pretty, we knew that we would be coming back this way to see it again in a couple of days. After a brief conference, we agreed to push onward, past the pretty waterfalls and inviting wooden benches. After all, it was just one more mile to our real destination of the day: The Big Carp River.

Strangely, that one mile seemed much longer than the previous ones. We crossed no more ravines -- boardwalks covered even the smallest stream crossing or dried-up muddy area. We were also now in thimbleberry central. There were enough ripe berries that we didn't even have to leave the trail to feast on them, and feast we did -- taking frequent breaks along the way. Nonetheless, the mile seemed to stretch on and on.

At long last, we arrive at the mouth of the Big Carp River. Last year, we stayed in the Big Carp 6 bunk, which is right on the river and Lake Superior. This year's cabin, the Lake Superior Cabin, was ironically neither directly on the lake nor on the river. Instead, it is pushed back up against the base of a big bluff. The lake is barely visible from the front windows, but the trees, thick thimbleberry plants, and bluff combine to give the cabin much more privacy than the 6 bunk. Not to oversell it, but these thimbleberry plants were at least as tall as me and completely surrounded the cabin -- earning the Lake Superior Cabin my unofficial nickname of "Thimbleberry Hut".

The Lake Superior Cabin, aka Thimbleberry Hut.
Despite the thimbleberry-induced privacy, the trails were hardly quiet here. The Big Carp is a hub in the Porkies trail system, with the Lake Superior, Big Carp, and Cross trails all meeting there. Along the last mile of trail, we had met far more hikers than we had seen the entire trip so far. Many trails, both official and volunteer, wound through the thick thimbleberry patches near the cabin. As we stood at the cabin door, fumbling with the lock, yet another hiker happily tramped through our "front yard" (the fire pit area), didn't even look twice at us, and headed off on a volunteer trail that he apparently thought was the Lake Superior Trail. Sarah and I looked at each other: This was not OK. While it feels a bit selfish, one of the big allures of a cabin is the promise of having your own private, if temporary, patch of ground in the Porkies.

We killed two birds with one stone by stringing up a clothesline directly across the volunteer trail, and hanging our sweaty hiking clothes on it. It simultaneously acted as a clothesline, privacy screen, and very strong hint that this was not the main trail. It was a very good deterrent, gently (if stinkily) encouraging everyone to reconsider their path.

After we took care of basic chores (pump the water, unpack the sleeping bags and pads, eat the gorp), we settled in to relax. Sarah sat down to stitch (yes, she brought cross-stitching). Never one to waste an opportunity to wander in the woods, I picked up my camera (yes, I brought my full-sized DSLR) and took a walk along the river.

Big Carp River
The mouth of the Big Carp River remains one of my favorite places in the entire Porcupine Mountains. The river itself is practically made of waterfalls -- just like the Presque Isle and Little Carp Rivers. Close to the mouth, a particularly thick band of conglomerate narrows the river down to a gushing rapid, and a wooden bridge lets the Lake Superior Trail pass over it.

I cavorted all about these rocks -- yes, cavorted, in a manly backcountry adventurer-photographer-mathematician fashion -- taking pictures of the rocks, waterfalls, water, sky, plants, and anything else I could find. I was like a kid in a candy shop, all memories of weary backpacking lost along the beautiful river. Did I mention that I brought two lenses with me on the trip? The camera plus lenses and filters together accounted for nearly 3 pounds of pack weight. But I'm a sucker for photographing the Porkies, so it was completely worth it.

Sill life: Ultrawide lens with centuries-old white pine
After I returned to the cabin, Sarah convinced me -- without any difficulty at all -- that we should go swimming again. The swim was a bit tougher than on previous days, because (and I would never believe this if I didn't experience it myself) the Big Carp River was colder than Lake Superior. The surf was also a bit higher, a fact that we enjoyed to the fullest as we sat on a rock and let the waves wash all the way over us.

This brings me to another point: Every backpacking trip I've ever been on has followed a schedule roughly like this:
  • Day 1: Hike hard, get sweaty, feel slightly icky.
  • Day 2, morning: Wake up feeling like the most disgusting, stinky, greasy, unpleasant person on earth. Hate self.
  • Day 2, rest of day: Gradually get used to the smell, feel like a completely normal person.
  • Days 3, 4, etc.: Cavort about the woods without a care in the world.
  • Final day: Walk out of the woods, wonder why people are fainting everywhere I go, take two showers and unexpectedly feel like I'm back in civilization.
Getting to swim in Lake Superior completely reset the clock. 4 days of swimming in Superior: Check!

After drying off (hanging the clothes on our trail-blocking clothesline, of course), we ate a freeze-dried dinner and headed out to the beach to watch the sunset. A breeze was kicking up, bringing clouds with it across the lake. Sadly, the clouds were too thick for a good sunset, but it was better than our gray-out from last night.

We decided not to have a fire tonight, knowing that we could make one on our (hopefully less windy) rest day tomorrow. Instead, we sat inside the cabin, reading and stitching by the light of our headlamps. It was, again, fantastic.

Not a bad sunset -- but the only one we would see all trip.
The wind continued to pick up and temperatures dropped down into the mid 50's. Long after dark, we finally crawled into our sleeping bags and slept the sleep of sleepy backpackers.

In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of steady rainfall on the roof.

Miles hiked: 5.5
Total miles: 7.0

To be continued in Part 3: Waterfalling on the Big Carp

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 1: Presque Isle to Speaker's Cabin

Last time: Intro, Planning, and Travel

Speaker's Cabin hiding behind Speaker's Creek

Our first day in the Porkies -- Sunday, August 16th -- began far away, on the east end of the UP. The Upper Peninsula is really a tremendous swath of land, and today we would see much of it: 5 hours and 250 miles from east to west, covering all but the most extreme points of the UP.

We started early and made it as far as Marquette before stopping for coffee. Being a Sunday during the summer, we met long caravans of tourist traffic heading back downstate after a weekend visit to the north. A surprising number of them were motorcycles, which made much more sense once we saw signs welcoming the "Michigan HOG Rally" in Marquette.

Our plan was to reach the Porkies and meet my parents by 2 pm. By the time we reached Ontonagon (the last town of any size before the Porkies), it was well past lunch time, and we needed a quick meal. Thus began the Great Lunch Hunt of 2015. We struck out in Ontonagon, finding nothing open -- not even a McDonald's, which we both incorrectly remembered as existing just outside of town. After driving around the tiny downtown for a few minutes, we decided to push on westward and hope to find a snack in Silver City (a wide spot in the road that has the honor of being the last named location before the Porkies). Silver City had exactly zero food as well -- even the one gas station had closed since the last time I was there. Our last hope was to find a bag of peanuts or chips at the "Porcupine Mountains Outpost", a small store run by the State Park. Even this was a wash -- unless we wanted to eat s'mores for lunch. The Outpost is clearly missing a huge chance to make money on half-starved hikers emerging from the woods, sick and tired of gorp and freeze-dried pasta.

At this point we were running out of time, patience, and (if we didn't get food soon) consciousness. In desperation, we turned back towards Ontonagon, hoping that we wouldn't have to dig into our camping meals. Near Silver City, a small trailer appeared just over a rise in the road, with brightly colored "FOOD!" banners surrounding it in a suspiciously halo-like fashion. Lo and behold, the one and (extremely) lonely Porcupine Mountains food truck had just opened in someone's driveway, and the operator was more than willing to sell us a hot dog. Clearly, this was operated by someone who knew how to fill a niche.

The Lovely Sarah pausing for a pre-trip rest at Presque Isle

We pulled in to the Visitor's Center exactly at 2:00 and picked up our cabin keys. From last year's experience, we knew to check for missing key -- or extra ones! With that done, we quickly met up with my parents and caravanned 15 miles around the park's boundary road to the Little Carp River road parking lot, where we would walk out of the woods in 5 days. We piled in to the back of my parents' car, sharing the seat with 60+ pounds of packs, hats and boots. After a short but rather uncomfortable drive, we arrived at the Presque Isle campground, the westernmost point of the park, and our starting point for the day.

Presque Isle is a large rustic campground, situated in a corner between Lake Superior and the Presque Isle river. A series of boardwalks leads down into the river gorge, where a long suspension bridge allows pedestrians to view beautiful waterfalls. We strapped on our packs, slapped on our hats, and laid down some tracks to the suspension bridge. After some pre-trip selfies with my parents, we turned our separate ways -- my parents back to the car, and us towards the woods.

But first, we had to cross the presque isle. "Presque Isle" is French for "almost an island", which is a very reasonable description of the place where we stepped off the suspension bridge. What appears to be a tree-covered island between two branches of the river is in fact separated from the mainland only by a dry riverbed. The dry branch of the river is only filled in the spring melt, if ever. The riverbed cuts through tilted layers of Nonesuch shale which is one of the most interesting rock layers in upper Michigan. (Warning: geek-out ahead.) No, really. When Ed Less discovered an outcrop of copper in the Little Iron River in 1865 he never thought that he'd discovered the lode that would hold the richest copper mine in Michigan but that it wouldn't be... ok, perhaps I'll save that for Copper Country Explorer.

And now, some beautiful Nonesuch shale in a dry riverbed, with a tiny Sarah in the distance.
Blog returns in 3, 2, 1, ...

Sarah and I spent quite a while taking photos down by the river. The Presque Isle river, like many in the Porkies, is practically made of waterfalls, and it's incredibly easy to walk up the rocky riverbed and stand right next to some falls -- often unnamed. In his excellent Porcupine Mountains State Park Guidebook, Jim DuFresne acknowledges something that we would run into time and time again on this trip: "Any one of these waterfalls would be the centerpiece of a state park in the lower peninsula, but in the Porkies many of them don't even have names."

Between us, we managed to spend half an hour taking photos of the waterfalls, the rocks, the river bed, the trees, and each other.

An unnamed waterfall on the Presque Isle River.

At last, we put our packs back on and headed into the woods for real. The west end of the Lake Superior Trail is located at a small intersection on the east side of the river. At this point, the North Country trail joins the Lake Superior trail, after making its way north along the waterfall-filled river. Hiking another segment of the beautiful North Country Trail was one of my "bonus" goals for this trip. This segment of the trail begins in old-growth forest with level ground, although there were a surprisingly large number of recent blowdowns across the trail. Dried mud holes and muddy footprints frozen in dry earth showed that the trail was recently up to its muddy old tricks, but for us the trails were thankfully dry.

Knowing that the trail was supposed to get rugged and fast, I activated my trusty superpower: Find Walking Stick. It's not at all difficult to find good walking sticks among the downed branches in the Porkies, and we had no trouble this time. For this reason, neither Sarah nor I bother with expensive trekking poles. Let's do a quick comparison:

Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking PolesWooden Stick
MaterialsCarbon fiberCarbon. In wood form.
Weight18 oz, all day, every day0 oz, after you throw it away when it gets too heavy
Cost$159.95 + S&HFree! Plus free shipping; it already fell off the tree.
Additional usesTent poles? Maybe?Firewood, bear repellant, backwoods sword fight gear

As you can see, sticks clearly win. (Side note: Yes, I am aware that my tongue is stuck somewhere around my cheek here. As I write this, I am eagerly awaiting news from fellow backpacker and bushwhacking enthusiast Jacob Emerick, who will be shortly returning from more than a week on Isle Royale while carrying a brand new pair of trekking poles. Odds are currently running 2:1 in favor of "boot puncture" and 3:1 on "face plant following boot-lace snag".)

I found the walking sticks just in time, as the trail suddenly seemed to fall off the edge of a cliff. Literally peering over the edge, we saw that we were at the edge of a very steep, very deep ravine. Looking at topographic maps after the fact, I am faced with the incredible truth that this ravine is formed by an unnamed seasonal stream and was completely dry at the time. In its season, it must be quite spectacular. From my GPS logs, the ravine is a mere 50 feet deep. But in our defense, the steepest part of the ravine had a 30% grade, which is plenty steep for anyone with 30+ pounds on their backs. And as the old adage goes, "Upclimbing is easier than downclimbing" -- that is, climbing up requires endurance but not much more. Climbing down a steep hill requires skill and delicacy in order to avoid tumbling the whole way down.

With our sticks firmly in hand, we slowly made our way down the rutted trail. We used all of the tricks in the book: grabbing at roots and rocks and pieces of grass, making controlled slides down slippery spots, and occasionally sliding right down on our rear ends. Our only saving grace was the blessed dryness of the trail. At the bottom, we crossed the dry and rocky stream bed and immediately started scrambling, hand-over-hand, up the other side of the narrow gorge.

After pausing to rest the top, we continued on. Moments later... there was another deep gorge! We tackled this one with gusto and wariness and made it up the opposite side, panting. Again, the bottom was dry.

The bridge over Speaker's Creek. Almost everything on the far bank and hillside is thimbleberry plants.

Luckily, this was our last big stream crossing for the day. One last short downhill dropped us at the end of a wooden bridge across a pretty stream. Next to the stream was a sign with an arrow pointing towards Speaker's Cabin, our home for the night. We clomped happily across the bridge, down a short spur trail, and found an incredibly cute little cabin sitting on a low bluff between Speaker's Creek and Lake Superior.

The forest on either side of the stream was thickly carpeted with thimbleberry plants. Sadly, there weren't many thimbleberries to be seen (we were probably a week past their prime), but those few that had made it through were quickly eaten. The cabin itself is a single room with two bunk beds, a wood stove, a small table, and some cabinets over a counter. Outside, there was a corrugated metal fire pit surrounded by makeshift seats of driftwood. A collection of ragged blue tarps was stretched out next to it, weighted down by many rocks and tree limbs. Nearby were a carefully arranged collection of huge flat shore stones, arranged into two low seats that faced the lake. We nicknamed one of these the "Wolf Seat", for reasons that I hope are obvious:

Wolf Seat overlooking Lake Superior

Beyond the fire pit and wolf seat was a short but steep drop-off to a narrow cobble beach. Running along the edge of the cabin and fire pit area was Speaker's Creek itself, surprisingly stagnant and filled with pond scum. As I climbed down to the beach to filter some water, I learned the reason: A combination of driftwood and cobbles had completely blocked the mouth of the creek, which was now backed up into a stagnant lagoon. Lake Superior must have been in a nasty mood when she blocked up the creek mouth, as not even an old channel was visible in the beach.

We also discovered the cabin's outhouse, located up a steep hillside near the cabin. The necessity for a good invigorating mountain climb in order to reach the outhouse turned out to be something of a theme for the trip. Near the outhouse was a surprising amount of rusted junk -- old sinks, counters, and mysterious twisted metal.

Later, a copy of the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion left in the cabin shed some illumination on our two mysteries. The Companion is by far my favorite Porkies-related book, and sadly the "Last" edition can only be purchased at the park store. The book revealed that Speaker's Cabin was named for a husband and wife who made this area their permanent home. However, the cabin that we were staying in was actually located across the stream from the Speakers' original home. Our cabin was instead built on the site of a complex of buildings owned by a different couple, the Greens. The junk up by the outhouse was probably the remnants of their very remote and very hard life. The blue tarps were covering the remains of an underground pump house used by the Greens.

These rocks are technically blocking Speaker's Creek.

After we had unpacked and scaled the outhouse mountain, the next step was obvious: Swim! The temperature was in the 80's even by the lake, we were sweaty from our whole 2.5 miles of hiking, and Mother Superior looked mighty inviting. We had brought swimsuits for exactly this reason. For the third day in a row, we bathed in gloriously warm Lake Superior waters. The bottom of the lake in this area is made of medium-sized cobbles which make for rather treacherous walking, so we eventually found a large rock a few yards from shore and sat on top of it. The waves washed gently over us as we relaxed for what seemed like hours (but was probably 30 minutes at most).

After drying off, we made freeze-dried fajita wraps and enjoyed them from the Wolf Seat. Afterwards, we started a fire in the fire pit and sat, enjoying the beauty and silence. As dusk settled, a bank of clouds rolled in while a breeze kicked up. Sarah eventually went in to read and sleep, while I continued to tend the fire until quite late. I can spend hours staring silently at a camp fire's embers, something I'm sure makes my cave-man ancestors proud. Sadly, the clouds completely covered the sky, and there were no stars to see.

I finally pulled myself away from the fire, doused the embers, and tip-toed into the cabin to sleep.

Miles hiked: 2.5
Total miles: 2.5

Next time: Day 2: Curiosity and Sloth

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)

Next time: 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.