Tuesday, July 26, 2016

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

Last time: Introduction, Planning, and Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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