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