Friday, December 12, 2014

A night and a day at the Norwich mine

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

The trail back home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norwich road from above

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newly barred stope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Two views from Elmo's Tower




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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

Inlet on Mirror Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next time!

Final summary:

Miles hiked: 3.75
Grand total miles: 21.0

Some other interesting trip statistics:

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


Friday, August 8, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miles hiked: 7.25
Total miles: 17.25


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014, Day 2: Buckshot to Big Carp

Last time: Lake of the Clouds to Buckshot Cabin
Inside Buckshot Cabin
I always wake up early when camping. It turns out that this is true even in a cabin. Early Monday morning found us huddled in our sleeping bags, unwilling to touch the cold floor. The sky was gray, the air was cold, but we were cozy.

I finally got up, washed up at the lake, and started working on breakfast. The mosquitoes drove me back inside, so I used my MSR PocketRocket to prepare oatmeal, fried sausage, and black tea on top of the wood stove.

We packed up, swept the cottage, and headed out. Our plan for the day was to hike 7 miles of the Superior Trail, ending at the mouth of the Big Carp River. Despite its name, the Superior Trail generally runs too far inland to see the lake, except for a few places where it actually runs on the shoreline.

The first few yards beyond Buckshot were lovely. We hopped across a small stream as the trail wandered through ferns. Quickly, we ran into a mud puddle and carefully worked our way around it. Then another stream. Then, another puddle. Suddenly, the trail opened up ahead of us... or at least, it was probably the trail. From our point of view, it looked like an endless series of mud puddles, muck, and running water. Oh boy.

I activated my super power: "find walking stick".

Yes, there's a trail there... somewhere.
Sarah and I don't have "real" hiking poles. We both look at them as annoyances which take up space, hands, and pack weight when you don't need them. So instead of paying $100+ and an extra pound of pack weight for some fancy adjustable poles, I just search the woods for a good stick whenever we need it. I haven't failed yet. A good solid downed branch is just as reliable as trekking poles, and much easier to cast aside when you're done with it.

The next two and a half hours were an almost continual slog through wet, muddy, goopy, and occasionally stinky trails. Some of the trails were puddles with solid bottoms -- we (eventually) trucked straight through those. But others had been seriously softened by the long melt, turning them into boot-sucking (and nearly boot-removing) pits of quicksand. Often, the trail was completely lost in the middle of a swampy expanse stretching as far as the eye could see in all directions.

The problem wasn't so much the wetness of it all. Occasional boot over-topping lead to damp socks, but nothing major. Out waterproofing held. We never actually fell over and rolled around in the mud. Our boots never actually got pulled off. In other words, we avoided the worst case scenarios. The real problem was the sheer difficulty of avoiding all of those worst case scenarios. Both physical effort (hopping from log to log, rock to rock, backtracking, and sometimes just plain bushwhacking) and mental effort (plotting routes around the deepest and muddiest parts and constant vigilance for dangerous spots) made every step difficult. "Leave no trace" is nice and all, but Mother Nature was doing her best to leave traces all over us.

Every now and then, a stretch of rocky trail had avoided the worst of the melt, or a small hill would rise above the swamp. Most hilariously, we sometimes came across short boardwalks designed to take hikers over swampy stretches -- and without fail, the boardwalks started and ended well within the giant lakes of melt water. Half of the time, the boardwalks were underwater themselves. We saw some stashes of 2-by-4's left behind by previous repair crews. We had a good chuckle imagining a repair crew looking at the mud in front of us, throwing their hands in the air, and abandoning their supplies to the forest. For nearly 3 miles -- at around 1 mile per hour -- we waded through nothing but muddy swamp. We passed one campsite which was nearly underwater itself.

Our reprieve finally came near Lone Rock. Lone Rock is very aptly named -- a large outcrop of bedrock perhaps 100 yards off shore. It's one of the first places where the Lake Superior Trail actually gets close to Lake Superior. We gratefully took our packs off, sat down, and had a snack.

The weather had been gray all day. The sky was starting to look more forbidding, with dark clouds rolling in and a cool breeze blowing off of the lake. None of that bothered us, as we enjoyed the most delicious trail snacks known to man. No food which we had ever eaten could compare to those chocolate-covered almonds and salty mini cheese wheels.

Rocks near Lone Rock. But not, in fact, the Lone Rock.
We stiffly stood up from the rocks, strapped on our packs, and headed back into the woods. The trail was still muddy, but nowhere near as bad as the last 3 miles. As the trail made a jog back towards the shore near Lafayette Landing, it narrowed, and tall brush closed in on both sides. It also became rocky and gloriously dry. The shore was now made of slate bedrock, and occasionally the trail popped right out and ran along the "beach".

A few drops of rain began to fall. We stopped to put on our rain coats, betting that the rain wouldn't be strong enough to require rain pants as well. As we walked in the very pleasant rain, we passed some ridiculously scenic stretches of trail. The tall hills farther inland moved to move closer towards the shore. Deep ravines lined with bright green growth opened up to let small streams escape towards the lake. The trees became taller and older, and everything seemed much better than the mucky trail behind us.

Ahead, we heard voices -- the first people we had met all day. Around a bend in the trail came another couple, who we would later describe as the "Trail Yuppies". They looked like they had just stepped out of a glossy REI advertisement. They were about our age, fit, and athletic. Both wore shiny brand new clothes, coats, and packs without a touch of mud or dirt on them -- including their gaiters. They both wore bug nets (which were completely unnecessary in the cool rainy weather) and carried collapsable trekking poles. The man had a small GPS attached to his pack strap. They looked happy, fresh, and excited to be out on the trail -- and completely out of place in the muddy, wet, rainy Porkies!

We exchanged pleasantries and chatted about trail conditions. They had come in from the boundary road and were headed towards one of the nearly-underwater campsites along the Lake Superior trail. They told us that it was quite muddy up ahead, but that the trail would clear up after running up on a high ridge. We warned them that more mud was ahead for them as well, and then said our goodbyes.

Unsurprisingly, we got the much better end of the deal. Other than a few muddy uphills and some small stream crossings (unbridged but easy to jump), the trail ahead was beautiful. We started to enter a more rugged part of the park, with high ridges, deep ravines, and more old growth forest. (The Lake Superior shore is the only part of the Porkies which was ever extensively logged, and it's easy to see when you hike in and out of those areas.) We ate Clif bars and took it easy as we followed the last few miles of trail.

Shortly before we reached the mouth of the Big Carp River, we made a very steep climb to the top of a high ridge, ending up inside an old growth white pine forest. The combination of light rain, mist, and brilliant green spring undergrowth gave it a mystical appearance. The top of the ridge was struck through with deep ravines, and for once, there were actually small bridges built over them. By "bridges", I mean two square-cut logs placed next to each other without supports of any kind. The logs were hand hewn and looked much older than the small 2x4 boardwalks in other parts of the park.

We were just wondering how much farther the cabin could possibly be when we came to a trail intersection with the Big Carp River Trail. We would take this branch the next day. The Lake Superior Trail headed down an extremely steep hillside and quickly bottomed out right next to the Big Carp River, and with it, the Big Carp River 6 Bunk Cabin -- our home for the night.

The mouth of the Big Carp River, as the rain cleared.

The Big Carp 6 bunk was by far my favorite cabin of the trip. It's located right at the mouth of the Big Carp River where it enters Lake Superior. The cabin is within sight and hearing range of the river, the lake, and several small waterfalls, with a deep river gorge and beautiful old-growth forest just behind it. If I were stranded at the Big Carp 6 bunk (with a decent food supply, of course!), I wouldn't try too hard to get out. No, let's upgrade that: You'd have to bring a tranquilizer dart and handcuffs to take me away!

Despite the beauty, we were exhausted. We set up our bed rolls, set our shoes and socks out to dry, and plopped down at the table to enjoy another snack of trail mix, mini-cheese wheels, and landjager. After 7 hard miles, chocolate-covered almonds tasted like mana from heaven. Sarah laid down for a nap, but I was too intrigued by our beautiful surroundings. I headed out to examine the countryside.

The Big Carp 6 is right next to the bridge which carries the Lake Superior Trail across the Big Carp River. (This is the one which was washed away in the spring melt -- and re-built within the last week!) There are three major park trails which meet near the Big Carp as well. All together, it's a very scenic spot, but also high traffic. As I wandered out of the cabin, I ran into the 3rd fellow hiker of the day -- a tall, gaunt, bearded hiker wearing a bug net and flannel. The hiker was guarded by his vicious very friendly beagle who was wearing his own tiny doggy backpack.

Big Carp 6 bunk and the bridge

"Hi! Is this the way the blue trail goes?" was his introduction. "Er, do you mean the Lake Superior trail?" I asked, a bit confused. "I don't know names, just the one with the blue blazes." Every trail in the Porkies has blue blazes. He didn't seem to understand, but we did have a brief and pleasant conversation. He had started at M-107 earlier today, past Buckshot, totaling 10 miles of mud and hills today alone. I pointed him in the direction of the Lake Superior trail, and he and his short, waddling canine headed across the bridge and started to look for a good site to sling a hammock.

In the meantime, the rain had cleared and a front came through, bringing sunlight and warmer air. I headed across the bridge and hopped across rocks, taking pictures of the mini waterfalls and examining damage from the spring's flooding. The bridge still looked tenuous at best. It crossed the river at a narrow point, with bedrock forming the footings. Two short platforms were built into the bedrock, with a long main span crossing between them. The platform was only attached by a couple of angle braces, as if the park just planned for the river to destroy it again next year.

Big Carp, little waterfall
Wandering back to the cabin, I looked around for some entertainment while Sarah napped. That entertainment was provided by a copy of "The Last Porcupine Mountains Companion" that I found in a cupboard. The authors were former park rangers who had extremely detailed knowledge of the park, and who donated a copy for every cabin in the park. It's an amazing book which is also amazingly hard to find -- I had never heard of it before coming. I planned our trip using Jim Dufresne's very good trail guide, which gives practically step-by-step accounts of every trail. The Companion does only a little of this, instead focusing on the history, geology, and even politics of the park. It also has the most detailed run-down of copper mines in the Porkies that I've ever seen.

It turns out that, until the late 1940's, this part of the park was owned by several private landholders who were instrumental in the push to form a state park. They donated their lands and cabins to be part of the park, and we were staying in one of their cabins. I later found a small carving in the rock by the riverbank which claimed to be from the 1920's, likely by someone associated with the cabin.

Once Sarah was awake, we prepared dinner and ate while sitting on the bridge. We took a short walk on the cobble beach, and took a look at the two nearby cabins on the other side of the river. We were originally planning to stay in the Lake Superior Cabin, which is hidden in the woods back from the beach. The Big Carp 4 Bunk is even farther back, on the high banks of the river. Both looked lovely, but nothing could match the amazing views of the Big Carp 6 bunk.

Big Carp river near the lake shore
As the sky darkened, we came back and started a camp fire. Or, at least we tried. There was a huge supply of firewood at the fire ring, but most of it had gotten drenched by the rain. With some dry paper and kindling from inside the cabin, we carefully started a fire... which immediately went out. With some more paper, more kindling, and more careful arrangement, the next fire lasted for nearly a minute. I'll spare you the repetition of the next half hour, but we eventually realized that, besides the rain, the pit was so deep that the fire couldn't get air. We eventually found a left-behind cutting board in the cabin which I used as an improvised bellows. With enough air, we finally built a beautiful blaze. Not willing to try again, I kept fanning the flames until I started to get blisters on my hands.

We sat around staring into the fire and enjoying a beautiful clear-sky sunset. I heard a distant bark from the mystery hiker's campsite. I regretted not inviting him to join us at our fire -- the hours can be very lonely to pass on a cold night when you're alone in the woods.

Once the sky was dark, we crawled into our sleeping bags and slept the deep, restful sleep that follows a day of hard work in the beautiful wilderness.

Miles hiked: 7*
Total miles: 10

*I'm pretty sure that mud counts triple, so we were at least at 13 miles, probably more. Really.


Next time: Part 3: It's all uphill from here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014, Day 1: Lake of the Clouds to Buckshot Cabin


Sarah reading on the shore near Buckshot Cabin
Last time: Intro and Planning.

Sarah's last day of school was Friday, June 6th. Friday evening and most of Saturday was spent frantically packing up Sarah's classroom and the last of her school materials. Finally, the day was here: Bright and early on Sunday morning, we packed up the car and headed north!

The trip from St. Paul to the Porkies takes about 6 hours. Our plan was to arrive in the afternoon, register at the ranger station, hike a short 3 miles to our first cabin, and relax for the rest of the evening.

Start of trip selfie
The trip took a bit longer than expected, because we had to make a special detour to Louie's Finer Meats in Cumberland, Wisconsin. Part of our meal plans called for summer sausage and landjager (a type of jerky) as well as cheese. This combination could only scream "Wisconsin" louder if it involved beer and perhaps a Packers jersey. We wandered around in awe of the countless number of variations on prepackaged meat and cheese... and wondered why they were "finer" and not, say, "finest". What's going on there, Louie?

Back on the road, we made it into Michigan before stopping for lunch at an out-of-the-way diner in Ironwood. We made it to the Porkies by 5 pm, pulling in to the park headquarters to pick up our keys. Because we were arriving relatively late, the park staff left our keys and paperwork in an envelope on a bulletin board at the park headquarters.  We pulled in just after another group was leaving for the Visitor's Center, concerned because they couldn't find the keys to their cabin.

When we inspected our packet, sure enough, we had an extra key. As much as we might have liked to stay a night at the highly-in-demand Lake of the Clouds cabin, we thought that the true renters might not be so happy. We raced over to the Visitor's Center to try to give them their key, only to discover that it wasn't their cabin either. We never did settle that mystery.

Green spring woods
With everything prepared, we drove down M-107 to the Lake of the Clouds parking lot. We parked at the overlook, which was very close to the end of our last day's hike. We would have to hike an extra half mile to get to our first trailhead, but we figured we'd be more willing to do that on the first day than on the last.

After one last gear check, we backtracked along M-107, but this time with 30-pound packs on our backs. Half a mile later, we were at the Lake Superior trailhead and ready to truly start our adventure. The sky was clear, the air was cool, and the mosquitoes were thick.

The first few miles of the Lake Superior Trail, beginning at M-107, are almost entirely downhill. The trail begins in a beautiful pine forest, clear of undergrowth. Quickly, it starts to follow several ridges which come down off of the Escarpment. There are a few beautiful overlooks along the way, some with benches which we thoroughly enjoyed -- not only to rest, but to touch up our bug spray.

A hint of things to come
The trail also has to come down off of each of those ridges. Due to the late spring and heavy snowfall, there was a lot of water running along the trails and down these ridges. Between ridges, the trail was often rocky and uneven. But one long stretch was different -- long, open, and extremely muddy. Seasonal streams and springs were doing their best to obliterate the trail, cutting deep swaths along it or across it, leaving the whole trail a muddy mess. We hoped that it was a fluke. As we would find out the next day, we were very wrong.

A few miles late, we came down almost to the lake shore and very quickly ran across Buckshot Cabin, our home for the night. Buckshot is built in the narrow flat area between the Escarpment and the lake shore. This area is filled with ferns, birch, and low brush. A fire pit, some makeshift benches (made from fallen logs), and an axe waited in front of the cabin. After some fumbling with the lock, we made our way inside, far more achey and tired than we should have been after a mere 3 miles. Clearly, our city practice hikes hadn't trained us for the real trails!

Buckshot Cabin from Lake Superior
Buckshot is a beautiful cabin. The inside is cedar and pine, with a wood burning stove and four bunks. It smells exactly like a cabin should -- a combination of cedar, wood smoke, and age. Cabinets contain a surprising variety of cookwear and other items left behind by past visitors -- a roll of toilet paper, matchbooks, a pack of cards, pens and pencils, and of course the cabin log book.

We set up our air pads on top of the rock-hard bunks and started to poke around outside the cabin. The last inhabitants (possibly as long ago as last fall) had left a good stock of kindling and firewood. We walked down a short path to the lakeshore and our breath was taken away. The shore of Lake Superior is always rocky and rugged, but here there was nothing to break the view. Rocks, trees, and gentle waves spread out as far as we could see.

I pumped some fresh water from the lake, noticing as I did that the mouth of our Platypus reservoirs was much too small to fit properly with the nozzle of our old MSR pump. At the same time, our pump wasn't giving anywhere near the throughput which it should have. Hm.

With our chores done and a fair amount of northern daylight left, we settled in to relax. Sarah read a book on the shore, while I wandered up and down the rocks, looking for interesting nooks and crannies. Mini waterfalls tumbled over the rocks, hinting at the huge spring runoff. The shore quickly became overgrown and impassable to the west, so I headed east, back towards the point marked "Buckshot Landing" on the Porkies park maps.

Shore near Buckshot Landing
Not far east was an open area near shore. Inside it were all of the classic signs of a well-established campsite: rocks carefully arranged in fire rings and bench shapes. There was also a fallen metal pole which looked exactly like the bear poles at campsites all around the park. The park doesn't allow camping within 1/4 mile of cabins, and this was well within that radius -- it was probably abandoned when Buckshot became a rental cabin. I almost planted my foot in a giant pile of pretty fresh bear scat, possibly hinting at another reason why the site was abandoned. I hurried back out to the shore and climbed up a large ridge to see what I could see and, uh, get some fresh air.

Once the sun got low, we made dinner (freeze dried) and ate it on the shore, watching the sun slowly set. We decided to call the combination of cabins and luxurious foods not camping, but rather... Clarking.

Back at the cabin, we cut some wood, collected some more kindling, and got a fire started. The fire felt good in the cool lake breeze. As the sun started to set, Sarah suddenly whispered, "Look!" Between us and the lake, a deer -- a doe -- was wandering through the ferns, foraging as she went. We sat silently, enthralled at being so close to the wildlife. The deer wandered past our site slowly, and just as she was about to wander off beyond the cabin... she turned around and walked back. Every now and then, she looked up from munching on ferns and looked directly at us.

As we watched, the doe started to come closer than we were comfortable with -- she was clearly tame. Other campers in the cabin must have fed her, or left enough scraps that she had lost her fear. After a few minutes, I got up and started to make noise and hit some sticks together -- to no effect whatsoever. The doe just stared at me! After some louder shouting, the deer moved around to the other side of the cabin, out of sight. We nervously went back to the fire, watching closely to see if she returned. Sure enough, she was just making circles, coming slightly closer from time to time, looking for a handout.

Delilah stares into your soul... and is not pleased at what she finds.
We finally put out the fire and went into the cabin, a bit disturbed by the strange deer. We passed a bit of time by reading the cabin's log book. One enterprising camper had made an index to the book, including numerous entries concerning "Delilah the Creepy-Ass Deer". Sure enough, we weren't the first ones to meet (and be weirded out by) this strange deer.

We crawled in to our sleeping bags in the steadily cooling air, glad to be inside, and quickly fell asleep.

Miles hiked: 3.



Next time: Day 2: The Lake Superior Trail, or, Where did I pack those swampers?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014: Intro and Planning

We didn't know it then, but November 2013 was the start of one of the longest, coldest, and snowiest winters in Twin Cities history. As the first flakes were falling, (the lovely) Sarah and I started to dream of a summer getaway.

Mouth of the Big Carp River
There was no doubt that we would go to the UP. Sarah and I both lived in the UP for many years (she's a native Yooper, I'm just an adopted Yooper) -- the UP is in our blood. It took a bit of work, but I convinced Sarah that a backpacking trip to the Porcupine Mountains was just what the doctor ordered. The "Porkies" (Michigan's Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park) is a remote and beautiful part of Michigan. It is one of the largest untouched wilderness areas in the Midwest -- primeval forest filled with towering pines which have never been logged. While it has been millions of years since the Porkies were truly mountains, their rocky cliffs, deep ravines, and steep hills are still some of the roughest and wildest terrain in all of Michigan.

While both of us have gone on extended backpacking trips before (and we hike and snowshoe frequently), we had never gone on a real backpacking trip together. We both enjoy hiking and car camping, but Sarah is not a big fan of sleeping in a tent far away from the car. If the weather is miserable, tents can start to feel like prisons. Inspired by Nina's Porcupine Mountains hiking trip, we decided to rent rustic cabins within the park. These cabins mostly started life as ranger cabins or hunting camps, and can now be rented for a reasonable nightly rate. They are located throughout the park, usually near some of the most picturesque waterfalls, lakes, and rivers. The cabins have no running water and no electricity -- nothing more than four walls, a roof, and a few bunk beds with rock-hard mattresses. But having a roof over your head and no need to worry about bears poking their noses into your packs makes for a lot of peace of mind.

We chose a 4 day loop which would take us along Lake Superior and the Big Carp river, to Mirror Lake, past Lake of the Clouds, and up the huge Escarpment. We would hike past overlooks and waterfalls, ford a river, see massive old-growth pines, and walk on some of the toughest trails in the park. Little did we know that some of the trails would be even more difficult due to the lateness of the spring.

Buckshot Cabin
I reserved the cabins as early as the Michigan DNR would allow -- November 1st for a June hiking date. After our initial excitement, the trip faded into the background as the school year continued on its hectic way. At the same time, other things were in the works. Sarah's school scheduled major renovations which would require teachers to completely pack up and move their rooms at the end of school. Between us, we planned to teach at 9 weeks worth of summer programs. Multiple friends got engaged and scheduled summer weddings. Snow days raised the possibility of a longer school year. Most excitingly, both Sarah and I both found jobs at a university back home in Michigan -- and with that came the need to find a new apartment, pack up our old place, and move. Suddenly, our summer was 100% accounted for. The Porkies trip would end up being our only vacation together!

We started to seriously prepare for the trip in March. Thinking about and planning the trip far in advance really increased the enjoyment for us, giving us something to look forward to. Living within easy reach of three REIs is a luxury which we've thoroughly enjoyed, and we took full advantage to update and round out our somewhat mismatched gear. Because we were staying in cabins, we had the luxury of bringing foods which we would never bring into bear country otherwise. We intended to bring summer sausage, landjager (somewhat like jerky), and various cheeses on the trip. Besides that, we mostly planned freeze-dried meals and, of course, gorp. (The particular kind of gorp was the subject of much discussion: Peanuts, raisins, and chocolate -- or just bring chocolate and leave the rest behind?)

Sarah crossing the Big Carp River
The winter was even harder up north than it was for us in the Twin Cities. In mid May, about a month before the trip, I heard the bridge over the mouth of the Big Carp river -- a key link getting us to one of our cabins -- was washed away in the melt! The long winter and heavy snowfall lead to a huge spring melt. Apparently this happens every few years (two years in a row, this time) and the bridge takes a few weeks to be rebuilt. Not willing to risk being stuck on the wrong side of the river from our lodging, I called up the DNR hotline and spoke with a helpful (if somewhat confused) operator who gladly changed us to the Big Carp 6 bunk cabin -- on the "right" side of the river. The poor operator kept asking if I realized that we could not drive to these cabins, and in fact that it was a 4+ mile hike on rough trails from the nearest road. I had to wonder what past problems lead to the large number of disclaimers.

We were still a bit worried about our planned route, which still required us to cross the Big Carp River without a bridge (farther upstream), but we figured that we would cross that river when we came to it.

Finally, the school year came to an end, the last few exams were graded and we finished our last practice hike around the neighborhood. The car and backpacks wer packed, and we were ready to head out.
Full map of our hike: 21 miles in 4 days

Next time: Day 1: In which our heroes bravely drive a long way and meet Delilah the Creepy-Ass Deer