Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Porcupine Mountains 2016, Day 2: Bushwhacking the Escarpment

Last time: Waterfalls!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset by the Union Bay West Yurt

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

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

Last time: Introduction, Planning, and Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Porcupine Mountains 2016: Introduction

Kyle with unnamed falls on the Little Union River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset, literally feet from the yurt.

Next time: Waterfalls, Waterfalls, everywhere!




Monday, May 23, 2016

Coming soon: Porcupine Mountains 2016

Waterfalls on the Little Union River. These don't even have names.


I'm back from a spectacular 3-night trip to the Porcupine Mountains. I saw more waterfalls than you can imagine, bushwhacked along high cliffs, saw fields of wildflowers, and made a whole lot of campfires. The full trip report -- with photos! -- is coming soon.

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!