Saturday, August 29, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015: Intro, Planning, and Travel

A view from the Superior Trail.

I'll start by saying that my wife is amazing. After last year's muddy ordeal in the Porcupine Mountains, I thought that Sarah would never want to backpack there again. But despite the vast fields of mud that we hiked through, the hordes of mosquitoes and ticks, and the exhaustion of a too-ambitious hiking schedule (straight uphill, all day!), Sarah was ready and willing to backpack the Porkies again this year.

And so, thanks to our joint taste for backcountry adventure, we just returned from 5 days and 4 nights of beautiful, refreshing, exhausting, and wet backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains.

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (or "The Porkies") is Michigan's largest state park, encompassing nearly 60,000 acres of virgin forests, rocky cliffs, and waterfall-filled rivers on the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula (or "UP"). It also happens to be one of my favorite places to be, anywhere. Hiking in the backcountry is my way to get off the grid and enjoy the unbelievable rugged beauty that completely surrounds you in the western Upper Peninsula.

Lake Superior Cabin with Thimbleberries

As with our previous trip, we planned to backpack between the rustic cabins sprinkled throughout the Porcupine Mountains. These cabins have no electricity, no running water, and no flush toilets. But what they do have more than makes up for it: waterfront views of Lake Superior, waterfalls burbling next door, spectacular views of the Milky Way at night, and absolute silence and solitude. All that plus a roof over your head makes for a lovely way to stay in the remote interior of the park. We called this not camping, but "Clarking".

We set our trip for August 2015, hoping that we would find fewer bugs in late summer. When we made these plans in October 2014, we mistakenly thought that we could reserve rustic cabins only 6 months in advance. It turns out that they can be reserved one year in advance, but the Michigan DNR's reservation system is a bit tricky. One evening in early December, I discovered this quite by accident while poking around their website. Much to my dismay, our cabins (and all cabins near them) were already reserved! Luckily, after taking a look at the calendar, we decided that we could move the trip one week later, when more cabins were available. We quickly made those reservations and got all of the cabins that we wanted.

Waterfalls, waterfalls, everywhere!

One curious side effect of cabin-camping is a lack of flexibility. Because the cabins are reserved for a specific night, we couldn't decide on the fly to linger an extra night in an unexpectedly nice campsite, to push on farther (or stop earlier) than expected, or to take a different route. This had come back to bite us last year, when we planned an overly ambitious route.

Learning from last year's exhausting flog of a hike, we built a rest day into the middle of our trip this year. This extended our stay from 4 days to 5 days. We planned ahead to stay an extra night at a centrally located cabin in one of our favorite spots: the mouth of the Big Carp River on Lake Superior. This let us have choices: take day hikes to nearby waterfalls, swim in the lake, or just sit on the beach and relax. We also arranged things so that we hiked mostly new (to us) trails. We didn't break any speed or distance records, but as all of the guidebooks reminded us: that's not the point.

Another new feature this year was the format of our hike. Instead of hiking a loop, we traveled point-to-point. We started at the far west end of the park, at the Presque Isle campground. Following the Lake Superior trail into the heart of the park, we then turned inland and followed the Little Carp River trail out to the boundary of the park -- coming out of the woods nowhere near our starting point. To handle this problem, we planned to use a shuttle service offered by the state park: We would leave our car at our Little Carp River Road endpoint and get shuttled to our Presque Isle starting point.

But much like the cabin rentals, things didn't work out quite as we planned. I called the park in May, only to learn that they discontinued the shuttle service last year due to insurance problems. Uh oh. (Various websites still incorrectly advertise this shuttle service, so be careful if you're thinking of using it!) Our best backup plan was to bring a bike, leave it tied up at the trailhead, and use it to get back to the other end. As time would show, it was very good that we didn't end up having to do this.

We happened to visit my parents just a few days after this setback. They usually make a couple of trips to the UP each year, visiting the same cycle of places in Michigamme, Houghton, and Calumet each time. They mentioned to us that they were thinking of going up in August this year. Later, we mentioned our shuttle trouble, and my father asked "Who will be getting you from one end to the other?" Joking, Sarah said "How about you?" That comment must have caused their plans to crystalize, and before we knew it, my parents were planning a trip through a whole new route along the far western Upper Peninsula, including a brief stop-over to act as our shuttle. We couldn't believe our good luck!

Sarah backpacking along one of the dunes at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area.

After that, everything seemed to fit together. We made few gear updates -- we sampled a new brand of freeze-dried meals (more on that later), bought two Exped inflatable pillows (anything is better than a balled up sweater), and each found a new pair of hiking pants. We did practice hikes around our new home in West Michigan. One of these hikes, at the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness area along the sandy Lake Michigan shore, quickly became my favorite lower Michigan hike ever.

In the week before the trip, I watched the weather carefully. The 7-to-10 day forecasts all showed a rainy pattern during our trip. As the hike came closer, the rain spread out, then disappeared entirely -- except for one day, the 4th day of our trip, when a 50% chance of rain remained through the entire day. We agonized over the possibility of rain for a while. In the end, we packed rain coats and sealed everything in plastic ziplock bags -- but we didn't bring our full set of rain gear.

And finally, just like that -- it was time to leave! We did one last gear check, packed up the bags, and headed north.

Except, we actually headed east. One advantage of staying in cabins is that we can bring meat -- aka smelly food -- without worry about bears poking their noses into our packs. Last year, we brought some smoked sausages that didn't survive in the heat past the first day. This year, we were determine to have sausage on our trip. The magic meat that we needed is a lightly fermented and smoked sausage called Landjaeger or "Hunter's Sausage" which can stay edible without refrigeration for weeks -- but without being dry and tough like jerky. None of our local meat stores carried it. Nobody in the UP made it. At last, we located the one store in Michigan -- Kern's Sausages in Frankenmuth -- that made real Landjaeger. One 3 hour detour later, we came out with 8 heavy sticks of dry, spicy, and delicious Landjaeger ready for our packs. Then we headed north for real.

Our trip started with 3 days at Sarah's parents, who live in the eastern Upper Peninsula. August is prime berry-picking time in the UP, and we made full use of it. We spent two full days picking wild blueberries and raspberries along the Lake Superior shore and making jam. On each of those days, we took a little time off to go swimming in Lake Superior -- a lake so big and so cold that only after a full summer was it warm enough for swimming.

On Sunday morning, with all of that difficult relaxation behind us, we repacked the car and headed west towards the Porcupine Mountains.

Full trip map: 19 miles in 5 days (left to right)

Next time: Day 1: Where's my food?