Thursday, November 5, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 5: Section 17 to Little Carp River trailhead

Last Time: Big Carp to Section 17 Cabin

I woke in that dark hour just before the first light of dawn appears. Wait -- I mean, in that dark hour just after the light of dawn tries to appears, only to be completely snuffed out by tall hemlocks, high ridges, and a good thick layer of clouds. Here on the inland side of the Porkies, not much light crept in through our cabin's windows. And this morning, we could still hear plenty of rain falling on the cabin's metal roof.

Rainy river
It was obvious that the rain wasn't going to let up. Neither of us felt even slightly hungry. All we wanted was to be done with the rain -- which meant that first, we had to hike through it. So, we decided to forget breakfast and make a run for it. The end of our trail was just 1 mile away at the Little Carp River road, and even in the heaviest downpour, we would be back in our car soon.

With that decision made, we packed everything up into plastic bags, put on rain gear and pack covers, and headed out into the dreary and wet world. I looked back at the Section 17 cabin with a twinge of sadness -- my few hours here yesterday in the sun hinted that this was a fantastic location. I'd have to come back some time.

The trail was everything we could have hoped for, if what we hoped for was a steady rain, dreary skies, and slippery rocky slopes. The woods were beautiful in the wet and misty air. The trail stuck close to the river, passing a long sequence of unnamed rapids and named falls which were quite picturesque. The river was running pretty well from the recent rains, and some of the waterfalls were flowing better than we could ever have hoped this late in the summer.

The rain made the trail feel unusually long. At long last, we crossed a swamp on some raised walkways and found the side trail that lead to the Little Carp River Road trailhead. Shortly afterwards, we crossed a surprisingly large bridge (designed to accomodate rangers driving work trucks in the off-season) which spat us out at a large metal gate. We made it! ... almost. The parking lot where we left the car 5 days ago was another quarter mile down the dirt road. That quarter mile was, of course, all uphill, in the rain. We trudged and complained, but we made it.

Textured water on the Little Carp
We left our walking sticks leaning against a sign, tossed our rain-covered packs in the back of the car, climbed in, and heaved enormous sighs. They were sighs of relief, but also of sadness -- our great adventure was at an end, we had survived, but now we were heading back into the real world.

We were mostly silent on the drive to the visitor's center. When we arrived, we took in our laptops to check our email on the center's free wifi, and immediately regretted doing so. To escape the electronic deluge, I wandered around the extremely small gift shop and found exactly what I wanted: A copy of the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion!

This little book kept me company through many rainy nights in the cabins, and I had wanted my own copy ever since I first laid eyes on it last year. While older editions are available in some libraries and bookstores, the heavily updated "Last" edition seems like it was distributed only to the Porkies cabins and visitor's center. I snapped up a copy and have been enjoying it ever since. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the Porkies. Its trail guides aren't as thorough as Jim Dufresne's excellent guidebook, but the detailed history, flora and fauna guides, advice, warnings, and just plain fascinating insights into the life of a Porkies ranger are worth their weight in gold. But of course, it's hard to make use of the book to plan a trip if you have to go to the Porkies to get it.

The Keweenaw's Great Sand Bay on a windy day
We finally got out on the road to Houghton. We checked in at a hotel, scaring the desk clerk with our greasy appearances, and headed straight to the shower. After two showers each, we felt human enough to be seen in "civilization" again. For the rest of the afternoon, we toured around the Keweenaw, seeing our favorite sights and pausing occasionally to eat at favorite restaurants. No hamburger has ever tasted so good as the Gipp Burger I ate the Michigan House in Calumet. All around, we thoroughly enjoyed being in the Copper Country again.

The next day, we visited friends in town briefly, had brunch at the lovely Four Seasons Tea Room, and then we were on the road again. We made it home that night, after 9 hours on the road.

Despite all of the rain, we both agree that this was our best UP backpacking adventure yet. The Lake Superior swims, the (mostly) great weather during the days, the (almost always) great trail conditions, and the fantastic number of waterfalls all made this trip a memorable one. For me, the hike divided into two parts -- the unbelievable solitude at the start (Speaker's Cabin with its own private cobble beach) and end (Section 17, guarded by hills on all sides), and the surprisingly busy crossroads of the Big Carp in between. Since the solitude and distance from civilization are my favorite parts of backpacking, the quiet bookends to the hike left me truly satisfied with the trip.

On the drive home, we started talking through the possibilities for the next year -- perhaps something in the east side of the park, where the last few trails that we'd never visited awaited us? Revisit the east end of the Lake Superior trail in dryer conditions? Hike the entire Escarpment? No, Sarah said, I know what we should do next year:

Isle Royale!

See you there.

Summary statistics:
Daily mileage: 2.5, 5.5, 2.5, 7.3, 1.0
Total miles hiked: 17.8
Animals seen: A family of mergansers, and not much else.
Waterfalls seen: Approximately 7⨉10^6, plus or minus 5%.

Our final route: Pink, Green, Orange, Blue, Purple.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 4: Big Carp to Section 17

Last time: Rest day and waterfalling along the Big Carp River

A mist in the distance
I woke suddenly in that dark hour just before the first light of dawn appears. I was awakened by the lack of sound: The rain had stopped.

All night I had tossed and turned, always waking to hear the rain pelting on Lake Superior Cabin's metal roof. I couldn't shake the feeling that yesterday -- a beautiful and perfect day -- was our last chance to hike the 8+ miles out of the park in good weather. Now it seemed that the downpour had stopped -- a true blessing. I rolled over and finally got to sleep.

Just before we started our trip, rain was a possibility in the forecast, but only for half of a day at most. We were more or less prepared for it. We packed good rain coats and pack covers, although we left rain pants home to lighten the load a bit (on the theory that Porkies trails are relatively underbrush-free, so pants would only be useful in the most torrential downpour).

About an hour after sunrise, we were drinking tea and eating oatmeal to the beach, where we sat on a driftwood log and enjoyed the beautiful morning.  The sky was bright blue with a few puffy clouds, but the lake surf was still running high and the wind was blowing hard.

The distant points of land along the coastline to the west were surprisingly hazy. As we squinted at them, the wind suddenly became downright cold, and a thick fog started to roll in. Within 10 minutes  the blue sky had completely disappeared under a thick bank of fog, and a cold mist reduced visibility to just yards. A thin but cold rain started to fall. We dashed for the cabin, confused and disheartened. Just when the day looked perfect for hiking, would we be chased away by yet another round of rain?

Today's unavoidable 7.3 mile hike to Section 17 cabin would be almost entirely along the Little Carp River. Our trail would take us directly in the direction from which the weather had come. Would that let us get out of the weather faster, or just ensure our misery? We reviewed our options:
  • Option 1: Wait for a while and hope that the weather cleared. 7.3 miles would take us 3-ish hours, so we were in no hurry to leave. We could bide our time and see.
  • Option 2: Change our plans and take the Cross Trail, a little-used trail that started right by our cabin. This would reduce our mileage to about 5 miles, giving us less time out in the rain, while still leading directly to the Section 17 cabin. However, the Cross Trail is universally described as "swampy in the best circumstances, and impassable in the worst". That didn't sound like fun, especially after repeated rains.
  • Option 3: Exit the Porkies entirely. If we were willing to brave the rain, we could make it to our car in just over 8 miles and have a hot shower tonight. Much to my shame, that option sounded best to me.
After much debate (and a feeling that leaving early would be the worst possible outcome), we decided on Option 1. After all, the wall of clouds and rain had appeared almost out of nowhere -- it could disappear just as quickly.

To pass the time, we packed and repacked our packs, making sure we were ready to go on a moment's notice. When that stopped being a reasonable pastime, Sarah started stitching and I wrote in the cabin's log book. The log book is a fun feature of the cabins -- a little link between all of the other lucky souls who stayed in the cabin. We usually left logs that were short and to the point, but without anything better to do I wrote a very long entry filled with advice for future campers. My main point addressed a disturbing trend in previous entries: Refusal to eat thimbleberries, because they were mysterious "red berries".

Red berries get a bad rap. The vast majority of bright red berries in Michigan are perfectly safe: Strawberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, bunchberries, wild cherries, wild cranberries, wintergreen, and of course thimbleberries.  Get back here! Don't go around eating unknown wild plants just because some blog told you it was OK! But thimbleberries look just like overgrown raspberries -- anyone being overly cautious around them is missing out on a delicious treat.

I wrote at length about the uses of thimbleberries, how to make jam, and then wandered off to topics like the mouse-stopping board and why it's worth going up the Big Carp to see waterfalls. I passed a very pleasant half hour writing advice that future campers will probably ignore completely. But, it passed the time.

Technically called "God Light". For obvious reasons.
Every 10 or 15 minutes, I put on my rain coat and dashed out to the Big Carp bridge to get a broad look at the sky. At long last, on one of these trips, I could see blue sky off to the south! As I waited, the rain stopped just as quickly as it started, the wind warmed, and rays of sunlight started to poke through the clouds. Sure enough, a faint rainbow appeared to the north. I ran around the river like a fool, trying to capture the beams of light that cut through the mist.

A group staying in the Big Carp 6 bunk, across the river, chose that moment to make their move. A large group of kids of various ages with two parents headed out en masse, marching past me on the bridge. The man who I assume was their father stopped to chat. He gave his two cents that the weather would hold, and that we should make our move right now as well. I paused just long enough to take a photo of the beautiful light before running back to the cabin with all of this good news.

We finally shouldered our packs, locked up, and headed out on the last long leg of our trip at 11 am, with a clear blue sky overhead and downright warm breeze blowing from the south. Our raincoats were packed but easily accessible.

For the first segment of today's hike, we backtracked along 1 mile of Lake Superior Trail between the Big and Little Carp rivers. The first time we went over this segment, we were pleasantly surprised at the dryness of the trail. Today, my boots started to sink in the muck before we were even out of sight of the cabin. Three nights of rain were too much for the Lake Superior Trail: It had converted back to its soggy, muddy, boot-suckingly soft old ways.

It seemed like everyone had decided to make a run for it at the same time, so we found ourselves frequently stepping off into the wet bushes to let another group by. We even met the woman and doggie from our 2nd day, apparently retracing their route along the Lake Superior Trail.

Lunch on the Little Carp River bridge (looking south)
Despite the muddy trail, we made good time to the Little Carp River. We stopped at the big bridge over the river and enjoy a lunch of rice cakes and peanut butter. The sun shone so brightly on the water that we had to avert our eyes, and photos were almost impossible. It was, if anything, humid and hot, a big change from the rest of the trip.

From here on out, we were on new trails. The Little Carp River starts at its junction with the Lake Superior Trail and heads southeast, never more than a few yards from the Little Carp River. It passes close to a trailhead at the southern edge of the park, then turns northeast and heads in to the heart of the park, ending at Mirror Lake. Widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful trails in an already gorgeous park, the northwest end of the Little Carp River trail also picks up the North Country Trail. The trail wandered through dark stands of old-growth hemlock and danced around the edges of huge thimbleberry patches, all with the bubbling river within ear-shot and eye-sight.

The Little Carp river is very much like the Big Carp, but smaller, so I suppose it's well named. It was filled with tiny waterfalls and rapids, all of them ridiculously scenic and framed by the huge trees on either bank.

Walking along the Little Carp River trail
Our first landmark after the bridge was Traders Falls. A small wooden sign pointed us towards an informal campsite along the edge of the river, where the water bubbled along between small rocks. We walked out onto the river -- literally, onto rocks in midstream, hardly even having to pause to look at our footing -- and paused. We turned our heads upstream, then downstream, then we looked at each other. There was no waterfall. The rocks we were standing on formed a tiny set of rapids, but hardly anything worth noticing -- much like the Big Carp, this was what all of the lower Little Carp looked like.

My best guess is that Traders Falls was named not because it's a waterfall of any size, but rather because there was some old trader's cabin nearby, and that part of the river picked up the name by association. I didn't see any signs of a cabin, but it's the only theory I have.

Not long afterwards, we came to our first unbridged river crossing of the day. The trail crossed the river at a very shallow point, and we were able to walk across on small rocks without even needing to change into sandals. We then started down a section of the river that I nick-named the "Tree Alley". This was a surprisingly straight section of river, filled with boulders, slides, and small rapids. There was a heavy canopy of trees that nearly formed a tunnel over the river. It was a classic wilderness view, and one that I was completely unsuccessful trying to capture with my camera. At the end of Tree Alley, we passed Trapper's falls, which is a long slide that is much more worthy of a name than that Trader business.

Shortly afterwards, we came to the second (and last) unbridged river crossing of the day. This one was just tough enough to force us to change into sandals for the portage. That also gave us a good excuse to take a break. As we rested on the far bank, an unpleasantly familiar cool wind started to blow, and dark clouds began covering the sun. What had turned into a beautiful and sunny day very quickly turned right back into what it was in the morning. Just as it had done twice in the morning, the weather again changed completely in less than 10 minutes.

Crossing the Little Carp
We jumped up to start moving, just as rain drops started to fall. Optimistically, we chose to believe that the rain was just passing through. In the dense Porkies forest, we could barely feel any sprinkles, so why not? Our optimism didn't last, however. The light rain became a little heavier, and a little steadier. Soon we could feel the rain even through the thick canopy. We managed to pull out our raincoats and quickly put them on just as the sky opened up and let out a true drenching downpour.

After that, the going was long, slow, and wet. Rain coats might keep rain off of you, but they also hold in heat and sweat (even the so-called "breathable" coats, which are the worst kind of false advertising -- the kind that soaks you in the backcountry!). We spent most of our time staring at the trail about 2 feet ahead of us and watching for slippery roots. Seeing that we were in the middle of an old-growth forest, there were a few of those around.

Along the way, we met the first hikers we had yet seen on the Little Carp River trail. This group had started at the Little Carp River road and was just beginning their backpacking trip towards the Big Carp. The group looked to be two older couples in shiny hiking gear and ponchos. One of them told us that the weather called for "scattered showers" for the rest of the day, and that things should clear soon. We wished them well, and slogged onwards.

The trail, previously rather flat and easy (at least by Porkies standards) became much steeper and hillier as we passed the miles. We were getting into the central highlands of the park, where long, rounded hills and outcrops were the order of the day. The hills pushed the trail high above the river and, while beautiful and pine-covered, kept away the lovely river views from earlier in the day. In glimpses through the trees, we could see that the river had become sluggish and choked with brush and blowdowns. From high up on a ridge, we could see some fantastic campsites down at river level. An enormously steep hillside sat between the trail and the campsites. We never did find a spur trail leading to the sites.

The rain gradually slackened, until we were able to take our coats back off and walk through only a light mist.

Greenstone Falls
At long last, we passed the intersection with the Cross Trail and quickly found the spur to the Section 17 cabin, our final cabin of the trip. The Section 17 cabin is across the Little Carp River from everything else (including another palace-potty and a second cabin, Greenstone Falls). The State Park built a narrow wooden bridge that leads across the river to the cabin. This was good since we had absolutely no desire to cross the river yet again today, getting even more wet in the process.

The bridge crossed and the steep hill on the other side climbed, we found yet another remote and cute rustic cabin set in the middle of a flat rise high above the river. The cabin backed up against a very steep bluff that rose suddenly 20 feet behind it, and curved around to partly enclose it on the east side as well. Thick thimbleberries encroached on the west side, and the river (back to being made of small waterfalls) audibly fenced in its north side. This was a lovely, and well-guarded, location.

The skies cleared and sun shone down on us as we plopped our bags down on the cabin's picnic table and took stock. We were mostly dry -- the waterproofing on our coats and boots had held. Our packs were waterproof enough -- and we had packed almost everything in plastic bags anyhow. But we had strapped our sleeping pads on the outside of our bags and they were wet around the edges. We inflated them and set them out in the sun to dry, along with our river-crossing sandals.

Sarah, despite her waterproof outer layer, had gotten chilled and didn't feel well. She needed a nap. She curled up in a sleeping bag on one of the cabin's bunk beds, and that's the last I heard from her for several hours. Once again, a long day of hiking into the Porkies' interior took its toll.

I did not suffer from the same exhaustion. This is the story of my hiking life: No matter how exhausted I am, I can't stay put for long. I have to explore. Taking advantage of the sun and perfect temperature, I set out to see what I could see. I started by climbing the bluff behind the cabin, which ran along the river and had yet another high bluff behind it. I found plenty of down firewood on the bluff, which I moved piece by piece into a pile in front of the cabin.

Rock in River. I probably spent 20 minutes setting up this shot and loved every minute of it.
My next stop was the river, with camera in hand. This stretch of the Little Carp River was once again rocky and rapid-y, in contrast with the slow and stagnant stretches around our last crossing. There were several named waterfalls nearby, including Greenstone Falls (which granted its name to the other cabin, directly across the river) and Overlooked Falls, although neither of these were particularly large. The river was as beautiful and rugged as I could have wished. I became completely engrossed in photographing the waterfalls, jumping from rock to rock in the stream, contorting myself into funny shapes to get just the right angle, cavorting across the bridge, and sitting motionless for minutes trying to capture a scene with just the right composition. It felt just like the good old days of waterfalling in the Copper Country. I completely lost track of time.

As I was focusing on the river, the sun disappeared, a thick wall of clouds obscured the sky, and... raindrops started falling on my head! The fell in what was most certainly not a wistful B. J. Thomas sort of way.

This sudden weather change (I think the 5th one, at this point) brought me rudely back to reality. I raced back up to the cabin and threw our pads and sandals into the cabin (waking Sarah up in the process) just as the sky again broke open and unleashed a steady downpour. Drenched again!

Last year, when we stayed "inland" at the Mirror Lake 2 Bunk cabin, we noticed how dark it was in the woods. Without Lake Superior taking up half of the horizon, there was a lot less space for light to make it in through all of the trees. This was equally true at Section 17, and the rain and clouds made the darkness even worse. It was well before sunset, but we were completely stuck in the dark cabin, in the dark woods, under the dark sky.

We made freeze-dried Lasagna for dinner to warm ourselves up, and then followed it up with several rounds of hot tea for the same purpose. Afterwards, with a steady rain still falling, Sarah and I broke out the headlamps (both of whose batteries were quickly dying), cuddled up in sleeping bags, and settled in to read and/or stitch.

The steady rain never let up. As the dark night closed in over the woods and the cabin, we eventually nodded off to sleep.

The Day 4 trail is light blue and starts at the "Lk Superior" cabin. The orange spur is our waterfall trip on Day 3.

Miles hiked: 7.3
Total miles: 16.8

To be continued in Part 5: Out of the woods!

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 later, I 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: "Downstate [Porkies waterfalls] would be the centerpiece of a state park, but here they are so commonplace they are unnamed and left off the park maps."

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?