Sunday, June 16, 2024

Porkies Solo 2024, Day 5: Big Carp to Lake of the Clouds

Last time: A "rest" day at the Big and Little Carps - links to all of my adventures

The Big Carp 4-bunk cabin's beautiful setting

Thursday May 23, 2024: Despite being woken up by animals screaming outside the cabin window in the middle of the night, I slept well and woke for good by 6:30 am. It was a clear morning -- the first and only one of the trip -- and the sun was already rising above the Big Carp river.

As I awoke I realized, for about the 4th day in a row, just how truly stinky I was. It was worse this trip than usual. Probably the jumping jacks I did yesterday didn't help. I was ready for a shower. Luckily, today was my last day in the woods, so I would get my wish. On previous trips, we'd usually arranged for a short hike on the last day, which helps make the trip home a bit smoother. Today was different, since (depending on which map you trust) I had to hike anywhere from 8 to 10 miles -- the full length of the Big Carp River trail -- before escaping the woods and heading to a hotel in Marquette.

First, I dressed and walked out to the shore. The river continued emptying its muddy waters into the lake while I had a pleasant chat with a fisherman from Houghton who was staying with his father in the 6-bunk cabin.

Right next to the Big Carp 4-bunk

Then back to my own cabin, breakfast, packing up, and out the door by 8:30 am. My knee still hurt, but I felt like I was ready for today's challenge. I stopped to stretch one more time before I left.

The Big Carp 4-Bunk cabin had been a good one. It was clean and well-maintained, with a lovely view of the river, plus I could hear the river all the time -- a feature in my opinion. While it lacked the lake view of the 6-Bunk, its setting was close, intimate, and picturesque. This early in the season, I didn't have to deal with a parade of hikers walking right next to its windows, but I could see how that would be a problem at other times, much like the cabins at Lily Pond and Greenstone Falls.

Big Carp waterfall -- one of dozens

I immediately took the wrong trail and ended up... maybe on the Cross trail? There's a whole maze behind the cabin. In any case, I backtracked and found the Big Carp bridge.

My knee gave a few twinges as I climbed high above the river, then a few more when the trail took me right back down to river level. But the morning was clear and cool, and I stopped frequently to rest and stretch my knee, with the excuse that I was taking photos of the dozens of waterfalls along the river. I passed Shining Cloud falls with only a quick look -- it's hard to see from the trail, and there was no way I was going to climb down the steep river bluff to view it up close.

The Big Carp River trail winds through a field of (faded) trout lilies.

The mud began above Shining Cloud falls, where the trail starts to follow a flat area high above the river. At first it wasn't bad, but soon I scrambled down a low bluff and entered the part of the trail I had been most dreading: The Swamp. As far as I can tell, the trail just disappears into a genuine standing-water swamp filled with deep mud holes, laced with fallen trees, and lacking any sign of an actual path. The only thing to do is to pick your way between grassy tufts, along tree trunks, and sometimes just through the water. I've hiked this twice before, and it's always been awful. This time was no better.

The trail supposedly goes straight ahead...

... then through this.

The swamp did seem a little shorter than previous trips, but after I exited the worst of it, the trail remained seriously muddy. At least it was clearly a trail. Soon enough I scrambled down another, bigger bluff and came to the Big Carp River, the site of today's first unbridged river crossing. I stopped for a quick snack and another knee stretch before I crossed.

The river crossing itself was uneventful -- the water was only calf high, and I waded right through in my trail runners. My worries about the river rising too high to cross after the thunderstorms were thankfully unfounded.

After the river crossing came another long muddy stretch. It was mostly flat, but the mud holes had slippery bottoms. Or maybe my shoes were getting caked with mud, giving them less traction. In either case, I had to lean heavily on my hiking poles to keep my balance.

Another feature of the Big Carp River trail at this point is a bunch of small but steep-sided stream crossings. The streams themselves are at most ankle-deep, but they have steep, muddy banks (usually 6-10 feet deep) that I had to descend. These muddy banks were, you guessed it, slippery! As with other downhills, they hurt my knee more than uphills or flat land, so they required even more careful navigation. On one of these descents into a tiny stream valley, one of my feet started to slip right in the middle of the bank. I flailed and started to pivot around my other foot. I tried to plant both of my hiking poles for support, but my arms were turning with the rest of my body, and one arm ended up crossing over the other as I stabbed the ground with my pole. I did manage to stay upright, but in a contorted, twisted position, and my right arm hurt mightily as I pulled a bunch of muscles all at once.

A lovely hillside

I paused to ruefully rub my arm and shoulder and take a few deep breaths, and then I hiked on even more carefully. Very soon I came to the intersection with Correction Line trail, an undistinguished flat spot in the middle of the woods. I turned to follow the Big Carp trail, after which I was on another piece of new trail -- I'd never hiked the tiny (0.1 mile?) segment of the Big Carp trail between the Correction Line intersection and the second unbridged river crossing. In typical Porkies fashion, a sign at the intersection warned "No water next 6 miles". Of course, there was a river crossing just ahead that kind of negated the sign's point. I assume the sign was warning about the long dry stretch after that. It's not as if the sign was any help here, at an intersection in the middle of the woods where there was no water to be filtered anyhow. Why not put the sign at the river?

Along that new 0.1 mile I passed a campsite, BC-6, that featured a heavy steel bar forming the seat for an informal bench. Who in the world would have carted that all the way out here? As soon as I came to the river crossing, I understood: It had been scrapped from the footings of the long-gone bridge that used to span the river here.

The crossing is now unbridged. As always, I walked right into the river, which turned out to be deeper and running faster than I expected. It reached up past my knees, the current pushing strongly on me and forcing me to use my hiking poles to maintain my balance (which in turn tweaked my messed-up arm).

After that, the trail began a slow climb as it followed the base of a long line of cliffs -- an extension of the Escarpment that featured Lafayette and Miscowawbik peaks. My friend Kyle and I had hiked this bit of trail years ago and even bushwhacked along the top of the cliffs. This segment was mostly dry, a noticeable improvement on the last few miles. It was pleasantly shaded by a mix of deciduous trees and hemlocks, lacked rocks, and was as well-maintained as any Porkies trail ever gets.

Another view of the Big Carp river

Like I've mentioned in previous posts, most days on this trip I had some particular goal -- a new bit of trail to hike, a new cabin to stay in, something new to me in the park. Today, one of those goals was to complete the entire Big Carp River trail in one go (thereby also covering the last tenth of a mile of the trail that I'd somehow missed). But as part of that, I wanted to find some of the abandoned copper mines scattered along the base of these cliffs.

When I lived in Houghton, I used to spend most of my weekends exploring old mine sites, something that has gone by the wayside now that I live 9 hours away. But as it turns out, my old mine-hunting skills haven't completely disappeared. I first noticed a suspicious looking pile of rocks just about a mile up from the river. I'd found this before on my previous trip -- it was indeed a rock pile from the old Lafayette mine, leading up to nothing in particular. The "adit" (horizontal mine tunnel) at the end of the rock pile had long since collapsed, leaving just boulders at the base of the cliffs.

I knew there should be more mines along here (the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion claims four of them), so I kept my eye tuned towards the cliff base. Unfortunately that was several hundred yards off-trail, which made it a bit hard to see anything useful. Plus, my knee twinged worse and worse each time I stepped off the trail, and it really complained if I tried to climb on any uneven rock piles and then make steep descents back off of them.

I was nearly to Miscowawbik peak at the east end of this line of cliffs before I saw a hint of another mine site. I wasn't even sure -- after more than 150 years, a manmade pile of mine rock looks an awful lot like  a mossy pile of scree -- but I decided that it was worth it. This was my last chance to find a mine before climbing the Escarpment and returning to Lake of the Clouds.

Hey hey everybody! Like my grill?

Once I winced my way up the steep pile of rocks, I knew I'd made the right choice. All of the signs were there (be grateful I'm not spelling out the technical details here). As I came closer to the cliff base, the payoff appeared: An actual mine shaft! It was "gated" with a grid of rebar jammed into the rock, a way to allow bats to enter and exit while keeping pesky humans out of the collapsing, water-filled hole in the ground. The overall effect was as if the cliff was grinning -- and it had braces. It was immensely satisfying to find this shaft. Now if only I could have found the two others supposedly in this area. Maybe I will need to devote another trip just to that goal.

Back on the trail, I passed below the towering cliffs of Miscowawbik peak and started climbing the switchbacks that ascend the west end of the Escarpment proper. I topped out at a spectacular bedrock overlook and immediately plopped down on a convenient bit of rock to rest and eat lunch. The view was fantastic, looking back over Lafayette and Miscowawbik peaks, the Big Carp River valley, the interior highlands, and even a hint of Lake Superior in the distance. I'd come a long way today and seen all of it.

Looking back towards Lafayette (left) and Miscowawbik (right) peaks,
with Lake Superior in the distance

Early in the day I had put on my headnet to ward off bugs, but they were so rare in the cool morning that I often pulled the net up onto my hat and left it attached there, away from my face. Up here on the sunny and warm Escarpment, the bugs were bad. I quickly pulled the net back down and left it there for the rest of the trip. I even ate lunch by pushing bits of food up under the net.

After 20 or 30 minutes, I was ready to move along. Up here, the Big Carp River trail zig-zags from the clear, rocky edge of the Escarpment and into the scrubby trees that cover its more forested interior. Then it heads back to the cliff's edge again to pass another spectacular viewpoint. Wash, rinse, repeat. Each viewpoint brought Lake of the Clouds closer. I stopped at every overlook, also taking the time to stretch and rest my knee. When the trail enters the trees, it often descends sharply and then climbs back up again, aggravating my knee even more. Despite all the beauty, the knee pain began to make the trail drag. The one upside was that my tender arm and shoulder muscles seemed to have repaired themselves in record time.

Lake of the Clouds nestled between the Escarpment and the interior highlands

I trudged my way through the last few miles of unending beauty and climbed the last few steps to the boardwalk at Lake of the Clouds. This is where I realized that, up until now, I hadn't seen another person on the trail all day. I had been entirely on my own for the last five-and-a-half hours, covering... how much distance? According to my GPS, 8.6 miles (including my mistake back at the beginning of the trail, plus two off-trail excursions), much less than the 9.6 miles reported by park maps. That makes my walking speed 1.5 mph, slower than usual and definitely reflecting how tenderly I had to treat my knee at times.

I hadn't met anybody on the trail today, until suddenly I met everybody. Or at least, it sure felt like it after the solitude of the last few days. Several groups of tourists were walking around the boardwalks and overlooks. These sparse "crowds" made the boardwalks feel positively cosmopolitan after how empty the woods were. I noted with approval that the groups were all wearing bug nets this time -- those nets were even more necessary here than they had been earlier on the Escarpment. 

I passed an older couple attempting to take a selfie along the boardwalk, then turned around to offer to take the photo for them. They reciprocated, which is how I learned that they were from California but were visiting friends in the Twin Cities, and now touring around the scenic sites of Lake Superior for the first time. They said that their friends had given them bug nets (which they were wearing). They had thought "nah, there's no way we could need those", but now they were extremely glad they had brought them.

Selfie at the Lake of the Clouds overlook. Zoom in to see the bugs.

I limped my way along the wooden boardwalks, with my knee now screaming at me on every flat step. I tossed my bag into my car, jumped in, and finally took off my head net. I was done!

I drove back to the Visitor Center, dropped off my keys, and headed east. Normally on a trip like this, I might try to get to my in-laws house on the east end of the UP, or even all the way home. But with such a long hike today, I instead stopped for the night in Marquette.

After the traditional two showers and a fresh set of clothes, I got a burger and fries from Lakers, the new brick-and-mortar restaurant operated by the owners of the Burger Bus. I took them down to the waterfront, where Sarah and I happened to be online at the same time -- she in the morning (Korean time), me in the evening. I spent a beautiful evening catching up with her, eating my delicious food, and enjoying the waterfront views. I ended the meal by picking up a hot fudge sundae from a shop on 3rd Street, a perfect end to the day and the trip.

Burger and Ore Dock in Marquette

This is about when I realized that I hadn't had any food fantasies on this trip. Normally by the second day of a backpacking trip, I'm having nearly intrusive thoughts about hamburgers, onion rings, pizza, a coke... you get the idea. This time, that never happened. Almost certainly it's for the same reason that I didn't feel cold, except for last night -- when I hadn't eaten enough calories. Indeed, some nights my 2-serving freeze-dried meal left me overly full. In general, I was much better fed on this trip than on previous ones, which helped both keep me warm, and keep me from daydreaming about food. Certainly a lesson learned for future trips.

Nonetheless, the burger and fries were everything I could have hoped for: They weren't freeze-dried.

Big Carp River from far above

Final thoughts: Hmmm... what to say about this trip? It was a strange one, and quite different from previous May backpacking trips. As I hinted way back at the start, the last day of this trip was quite good, which has helped me think back fondly on the whole trip. I almost wrote "fantastic" in that last sentence, because the Big Carp River trail really is wonderful, and the weather couldn't have been better on that last day -- but the mud and my injured knee took a little of the shine off that otherwise excellent day.

While the trip was bookended by nice days, in between I had three days of miserable weather: gray, dreary, rainy, even thunderstorm-y. I didn't see a good sunset, and only one decent sunrise, on the whole trip. I barely saw blue sky at all, and don't even ask about nighttime stars. Even clouds can be interesting, but not when they're a solid undifferentiated mass in the sky. In many past trips, we've lucked out with a week or more of amazing weather. Not this time. Adding to the disappointment, spring came early this year in the UP (after a record mild winter), which means that I missed many of the best wildflowers. I'm used to May including fields of trout lilies, but this year they were mostly gone by the time I arrived.

All of this contributed to my general feeling of "blah" during many of the days. This got better throughout the trip, but it took a long time and never fully went away.

One of the few wildflowers I saw: columbine, usually a June-blooming flower in the UP

Bugs: While I wore a head net daily on this trip, I've certainly experienced worse bugs. Almost nothing bit me during the trip, there were few mosquitoes and no black flies. There were just lots and lots of gnats, flies, and other non-biting insects that really, really wanted to get up in my face. Not surprising for late May, but also not fun.

Trails: The motivating goal for this trip was to hike the Cross trail. I'm proud to say that I did it, and I've now hiked all of the trails in the park (ok, ok, except a few ski trails) -- but I won't be hiking the Cross trail again. It's wet, muddy, unmaintained, and hard to follow. It's not even like the trail is difficult because of tricky terrain -- it's remarkably flat and boring -- it's just a real slog through a swamp. It truly lives up to its (bad) reputation and is no fun at all. The Little Carp River trail essentially connects the same points and is better in every way except for being longer -- but that length just gives you more time to appreciate the sheer beauty of the Little Carp River. The Little Carp River trail is easily one of the best trails in the park. Go that way unless, like me, you want to be able to say you've done the Cross trail.

Little Carp waterfall. You won't see anything like this on the Cross trail.

The Big Carp River trail is as lovely (and muddy) as ever, but it's totally worth it. The first and final thirds of the trail are spectacular -- the first third, near the mouth of the river, is a trek next to constant waterfalls. The last third, below and then above the Escarpment, has dense ancient forests and incredible views. The middle... is a muddy slog. But it's worth the trouble for the start and end. The Big Carp River trail as a whole shows off the best (and worst!) the park has to offer.

Cabins: The only new-to-me cabin on this trip was the Big Carp 4 bunk, which was an unexpectedly nice cabin. I hadn't expected to enjoy it for two reasons: First, because it's far away from the lake and doesn't have a view; second, because the trail runs right next to it. As it turns out, while the cabin doesn't have a lake view, it does have a wonderful river view, and it's in a lovely and intimate setting. The trail could be a real problem in busier seasons, but the combination of a slow season and bad weather meant that I wasn't bothered at all by hikers outside my windows. Besides the 4 bunk, I enjoyed returns to the Mirror Lake 2-bunk (secluded, dark) and Lily Pond (spectacular setting, also right on the trail).

This slug climbed allllll the way up on this fern just for lunch.

One final detail: After I got home, I started putting alternating cold and heat on my knee. It quickly improved and I'm 100% better now. It just needed some TLC that I couldn't provide in the woods. It was frustrating, but I've learned a few things from the experience about how to prepare for a trip. One of those lessons is "take it easy". (Haha, no, never mind.)

In the end, I'm glad I completed this trip, as bad as some parts were. The lovely end justified the sometimes miserable means.

Miles hiked: 8.6

Total miles: 29.6

The full loop: Pink --> Green --> Orange --> Blue --> Yellow

Here's a link back to the first post of this series, and a list of all of my hiking adventures.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Porkies Solo 2024, Day 4: Rest at Big Carp

Last time: Slogging through the Cross trail -- Links to all of my adventures.

Churned up lake with clearing skies

Wednesday May 22, 2024: I slept hard after being kept up late by the thunderstorms. I woke briefly in the early morning, rolled over, and didn't wake again until 10:30 am.

Out the window, I could see puffy white clouds zipping past in front of a bright blue sky. The weather had changed tremendously overnight, with the rain and thunderstorms leaving, replaced by what looked to be a beautiful day.

My first thought -- inspired by last night's anxiety-inducing storms -- was to check out the river. It had risen noticeably overnight and was flowing rapidly, but it was nowhere near flooding. What was noticeable was its color -- the river had turned a chocolatey brown, probably from the clay that forms much of its banks.

The newly installed (by mother nature) Big Carp Bridge

I continued out on a morning walk around the Big Carp river mouth area, wincing at my still-sore knee. It hadn't improved overnight, and every downhill step I made with my left leg gave me a shot of pain.

Lake Superior was churned up and choppy, with a strong north wind still blowing. The lake was the same chocolate-brown as the river for the first few hundred yards out from shore. There was a distinct cut-off where the lake turned a deep blue-green.

It was so late that I skipped over breakfast and went straight to lunch -- rice cakes and a meat stick. As I did, I sat to think about what I should do. My painful knee worried me, and I wondered how I'd hurt it. It's not like yesterday's hike was especially long or difficult compared to others I'd done. During the pandemic, Sarah and I started walking a lot -- 3 or more miles every day. We'd discovered on our first backpacking trip in 2021 that we were much better prepared for backpacking than we'd ever been before. Since then, my prep for backpacking has mainly been doing a lot of walking, every day, sometimes with a loaded backpack. But I realized that this year, I'd gotten a bit lax. While I still walked 3 or more miles per day, I hadn't done many practice hike on rough trails. I'd also failed to add in leg exercises like squats. Together, my knee muscles probably weren't as strong as they needed to be. That brought me to today.

The muddy Big Carp from the newly installed (by humans) Big Carp Bridge

This was my day off, a day of rest, but my knee was injured and I knew that I should take it easy today. That's why I decided the best course of action was to hike upstream to check out the waterfalls along the Big Carp river, and especially try to find my way down to the gem of this area, Shining Cloud falls. Right? Right. If you know me, you know that I don't do a good job of "resting" or "relaxing", especially when I have a whole day off at a beautiful place like the mouth of the Big Carp River.

I packed up a day pack and headed across the river. I spent some time along this lowest reach of the river, playing around with my camera (aka phone, although one I specifically bought for its fancy cameras). Then I climbed the steep hillside leading up to the junction of the Lake Superior and Big Carp River trail and... ooh, that hurt too.

Mini-waterfall near the mouth of the Big Carp

I continued until I reached a big downhill, where I realized I wasn't going to make it any farther today on this knee, and there was definitely no way I'd be making the steep, tricky descent down to Shining Cloud falls. Plus, this was exactly the route I'd be taking tomorrow on my way out of the park -- so why retread the same trail? I should have thought of that before. I turned around and slowly made my way back to the cabin, favoring my left leg.

I sat inside the cabin for a while, then moved to sit outside the cabin and read on a bench. I tried limping my way to the shore and looked at the brown water. I stretched my knees and imagined that the left one felt a bit better.

So I hatched another plan, an even better place for a day hike: the mouth of the Little Carp River. It was nearby (just over a mile), along very flat trails, and there were lovely waterfalls there that I wouldn't otherwise see on this trip. A win all around!

Little Carp river

I will admit: This actually worked pretty well. My knee was OK on flat ground, and the Lake Superior Trail between the Big and Little Carp Rivers is nothing but flat. The hike was beautiful, often in view of the lake with its striking combination of muddy water near shore and deep teal beyond. The sky was a mix of clear blue with puffy clouds racing in the brisk breeze. The lake was getting choppier with whitecaps as the wind increased.

The trail itself, like much of the Lake Superior Trail, was basically mud. Last night's rains didn't help, but the trail also runs at the base of tall shoreline bluffs, right in the middle of their drainages, so it's pretty much always wet. Indeed, in many places, the trail was a stream, where a drainage found the trail's tread to be a convenient temporary path. Luckily I didn't care about the wetness, since my lightweight trail runners are perfectly happy to get soaked and dry out quickly. I did have some trouble keeping my footing on the slippery mud, but hiking poles helped with that.

I passed several campsites, all with fantastical structures of driftwood built up by years of hikers looking to protect themselves from Lake Superior's nasty winds. Several of them appeared to be flooded after last night's storms. At another point, I came across a fairly large fish -- I don't know what kind -- just laying next to the trail. Did a fisherman drop it? I don't know.

I reached the Little Carp bridge, which crosses the river between two rocky cliffs. I dropped my pack on the bench at the top of the bridge and carefully lowered myself down some of the rocks (ouch!) into the humid, cool shade of the river. I sat on a ledge and spent the next half hour relaxing, watching the waterfalls, taking photos, and enjoying the beautiful scenery. Bugs were almost nonexistent, thanks to the north wind and corresponding cooler air. There were no spawning fish, unlike three years ago when they'd been piling up to climb the waterfalls.

Little Carp bridge with waterfalls

Eventually I myself climbed back up, picked up my pack, and reversed course. My knee was OK on the flat trail, but I could still feel twinges every now and then. It had been a lovely day trip to a special place.

Back at the cabin, I unpacked and decided to spend some quality time reading the log book outside on a bench. There were no entries yet from 2024, although the cabin had been open for a week (most are available starting May 15th). I doubted that I was the first person to stay this year, but again, people must have not left logs.

Watercolor (?) and Ecuadorean log. Sadly I didn't take photos of the surveys.

Reading log books is one of the joys of staying in a cabin -- you can get useful info, but you also get jokes, philosophy, sketches, stories, and, in this log book, a bunch of surveys written by 10 year old kids ("Would you rather sleep on... the ground? a bunk? a real bed?"). There was a full page written in Spanish by an exchange student from Ecuador, and I was pleased that my long-disused Spanish was still good enough to follow it. Other highlights included quite good bits of artwork done with watercolors (that somebody packed in?!) and highlighter pens, and the usual collection of griping and sniping about people who leave behind too much junk, or not enough firewood. Plus gems like this:

Short and sweet

I sat on the bench, enjoying the log book, and didn't notice how the sun had dropped low behind the hills, and how cool the wind blowing off the lake was. Then some sprinkles started to fall out of the now-gray sky. That brought me back to reality, and I suddenly realized that I was deeply chilled and shivering. Thus began Operation Warm Dave Up: I moved into the cabin and put on a few more layers, but that didn't help a whole lot. I boiled some water and made decaffeinated tea, which was nice but also not enough. I moved on to doing jumping jacks in the cabin, which helped only briefly. At that point, I climbed into bed with my 0 degree quilt and shivered under it for a while, trying to take a nap.

As I laid shivvering in bed, I thought about how cold I often get on other camping trips, and how that hadn't happened yet on this trip -- until now. I also thought about how I'd skipped breakfast today. Then everything suddenly clicked in my brain: Calories! Calories are literally a unit of heat. I'd been eating more calories than usual on this trip, especially because I was eating freeze-dried dinners meant for two people. But today I'd skimped, and I was paying for it now.

Another view down the Little Carp river, from its bridge

I got up and grabbed some gorp and a meat stick. Then I boiled water for dinner and made good old Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings. I also (not so wisely) opened the can of beer that I had backpacked in with me all this way. Together, the food and extra calories finally warmed me up. Lesson learned... and I'll be packing more calories on future spring trips.

Meanwhile in the outside world, the rain had settled in as the sun set -- a cold rain, paired with that chilly north wind. I was feeling better and enjoying a pleasant warm glow, and I wanted to keep that going. So for the first time all trip, I actually built a fire in the woodstove. Between bouts of rain, I ran outside with an axe (the only functional cutting mechanism in the whole cabin) and split some of the larger logs to use in the fire, which also kept me nice and warm. I was a bit skimpy while feeding thefire -- with all the rain, I wasn't able to bring in any actually dry wood -- so the fire limped along for most of the evening, but it did take the edge off the chilly cabin air.

Once I was convinced that I could stay warm, I crawled in to bed. It was still quite early, but the rain and dense gray clouds led to a lack of light made it feel later than it was. I was probably asleep by 9:30 pm.

View from my bunk

A few hours later, I briefly turned over, looked out the window, and realized that the rain and clouds had cleared and left the nearly full moon shining in. As I sleepily enjoyed the view, I was jolted more awake by the scream of some woodland critter -- probably a raccoon -- scouting around the cabin. It took me a while to get back to sleep.

Miles hiked: 3.6 (all dayhikes)

Total miles: 21.0 miles

Today's dayhikes in blue

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Porkies Solo 2024, Day 3: Lily Pond to Big Carp and the Cross Trail

Last time: Gray times at Lily Pond (link to all of my adventures).

Big Carp River with fresh spring leaves

Tuesday May 21, 2024: I woke up around midnight with my head flat on my sleeping pad. My inflatable pillow was fully deflated. Uh oh. Luckily I could bundle up some unused clothes to make a serviceable, if smelly, pillow.

This resulted in, you guessed it, another night of fitful sleep. Lily Pond cabin creaked and moaned in the overnight wind and rain, but at least there were no mice.

The night was warmer than expected. I never did use the woodstove, and so the next visitors found a large stock of dry wood and a nice kindling setup in the stove. As I woke up and made some tea, I enjoyed hearing the return of the trumpeter swans (car horns!) and the distant croaking of sandhill cranes.

Lily Pond, still gray and foggy

I was awake and moving by 6:30 am, driven by a combination of excitement and anxiety for a big day of hiking. Today, I'd tackle the original goal of this trip: the notorious Cross trail.

I was packed and on my way by 8:30 am. Today, unlike most days, I used a GPS app on my phone to record my track. The distances on Porkies maps and trail signs are notoriously bad, sometimes giving literally impossible values. I was curious to see the actual length of the Cross Trail, which was listed on most maps as 4.5 miles.

But first, I had to hike a few more miles of the Little Carp River trail just to reach the Cross Trail. The sky was still a solid gray with no sign of improvement. Vegetation along the trail was soaked from overnight rain. As I walked, occasional rain showers pattered down on me, likely from wind rustling the wet tree leaves. There was some mud on the trail, but nothing terrible.

I waded across the Little Carp River on the first unbridged crossing of the trip. Once I'd crossed, I stopped at the nearby campsites (LC-3 and LC-4) to put on rain pants, mainly to keep the wet foliage from soaking my hiking pants.

Jack-in-the-pulpit along the trail

The hike was quite pretty, in the way that misty air can make fresh spring forests appear intense and mysterious. I was feeling better today, enjoying the hiking and more excited for the adventure than I'd felt all trip.

I soon turned onto the spur trail leading to the Little Carp River road trailhead. I took the spur both because I'd never hiked it before (I'd never done the 3rd side of the triangle of trails that connect the trailhead with the main trail) and because I was hopeful that there was a trash can at the trailhead. Yes, I was a bit obsessed with getting rid of trash weight this trip -- my backpack, despite being fairly light, also seemed to be weighing on me.

This spur had once been part of a logging road that was used after a huge wind storm in the 1950s. The wind knocked down many huge old trees, and the park, not yet being a designated wilderness, allowed loggers to harvest the remnants. The rest of the road is now a very faint trail used by hunters. It crosses the river on a surprisingly large bridge, possibly a remnant of the logging days.

There was no trash can at the end of the spur, so I dropped my pack and continued up the Little Carp River road to the parking area (the road follows, appropriately, "Blowdown creek"). Along the way, I met a fresh-faced backpacker heading out for his first day on the trail. We exchanged pleasantries and I wished him well -- he was the first and only other person I saw on the trail that day.

There was indeed a trash can at the parking area, so I dropped my approximately 4 ounces of trash, at the cost of just about 1 extra mile of trail distance. Win! (?) On the way back, I took the side trail to Overlooked falls, telling myself that this more than made up for the extra distance. It was, actually, worth it.

One of the few bridges on the Little Carp River trail

I strapped my pack back on and headed out on the trail again. After another mile on the Little Carp River trial -- one of the prettier miles in the Porkies, and also a rugged one that comes as a surprise for many new hikers -- I finally came to the intersection with the Cross trail. Here it was, the motivation for this entire trip.

Side note: The Cross trail. The Cross trail is a little-used connector trail that links the Little Carp River Road trailhead area to the Big Carp River's mouth. It is reputed to be rarely traveled, poorly marked, swampy, muddy, and buggy. As the guidebooks say, "you're more likely to see wildlife than another human." It's also more or less unnecessary: The Little Carp River trail makes the same connection, and while it is longer, it's also easier, more scenic, and much better maintained. I'd always taken the Little Carp River trail in the past, and enjoyed it, but today my goal was to finally hike the very last of the park's main trails.

Back to our hero, who has just set foot on the fearsome Cross trail. The Cross trail started out as a nice walk through evergreens, but it was clear just how little the trail was used. The trail's tread itself was harder to follow than most in the Porkies, with more duff, sticks, and general cruft covering it than I'm used to. It would have been easy to lose track of the trail entirely if I wasn't watching carefully for blazes on the trees, which weren't marked quite as often as I would have liked. Somebody had gone through within the past year or so and added orange flagging tape at a few key points, for which I was quite thankful.

Soon the mud started. This was actually a good thing, because somebody else -- just one person -- must have hiked the trail in the opposite direction that very morning, leaving a clear set of footprints. When I wasn't sure where to go, I checked for footprints and squished in that direction.

Once, while checking for footprints, I looked down and found this instead:

Bear track, with my footprint for scale

Yep, that's a bear track. But compare it to my footprint -- that's a tiny bear track, most likely from a cub. That immediately raised all kinds of really important questions, like "where's the cub?" and even more urgently, "where's the mother?" I took a careful look around me and saw nothing at all, but to be extra careful I started talking to myself and even singing silly made-up songs like "hey there bear, I'm right here!" (while making "bear" and "hear" rhyme, of course).

Singing my little ditties, I continued picking my way along. There were plenty of fallen trees and other obstacles across the muddy trail. Many were old blowdowns, with grass and even small trees growing up where they fell across the trail. There were lots of ways that a volunteer trail might skirt around the obstacles, and sometimes I'd find myself following one option, then having to stop and very carefully consider where the real trail picked back up. In many places the trail was more of a probability distribution than an actual path.

The path goes straight ahead

At some point, the mud became a swamp -- the Memenga swamp -- but it was a gradual thing. There was more standing water and fewer islands of dry land to aim for. More than once I was convinced that I'd completely lost the trail and had to backtrack to previous blaze, at which point I'd inevitably see the next blaze off in the direction I'd already tried. The trail was just mostly lost in the watery maze of grasses, small trees, and mud.

While the swamp dragged on mentally and physically, it actually didn't last as long as I expected. I'd had an unfair mental image of the Cross trail being entirely swamp. I was surprised when, after at most a mile of swamp, the trail climbed back out into a relatively dry mixed hardwood forest.

This forest spread out around me, remarkably clear and open. This was not the rugged, hilly, cliff-edged Porkies that I knew and loved, rather, it was just kind of boring and sloped gently downhill towards the distant Lake Superior. The sky remained gray, but had brightened up a little, and the brief rain showers stopped entirely.

Old blaze on a fallen tree

The trail was on a slow but steady decline -- nothing very steep, just always slightly downhill. Not long after the swamp ended, the streams and washes began. These were similar to the west end of the Lake Superior trail, which crosses many small streams with steep sides (and certainly no bridges). They're annoying at most, but they can start to wear on you when your legs are tired.

At one point I came to yet another wash, not even a particularly deep one. As I'd learned to do today, before I climbed down into it, I looked around to see where the trail climbed back out on the other side -- and I couldn't see the trail anywhere. That's when I noticed a bit of orange flagging tape down at the bottom of the wash. Sure enough, the trail ran right along the bottom of this little seasonal drainage, just wandering between the roots and rocks in the streambed. The trail kept getting deeper below ground level until the wash emptied into a larger stream's valley. I have no clue if that's what the trail was supposed to do, or maybe if the wash had formed from the trail itself, but the orange flagging tape certainly followed the bottom of this little stream.

Looking back up the trail-wash

Besides the washes, there were essentially no landmarks. I stopped to eat a meat stick next to a random tree -- a relatively dry but otherwise undistinguished location. Pretty soon after the Random Tree, I came to the precipitous drop at the edge of the Big Carp's valley. There were a few good viewpoints as the trail followed the edge of the valley, and then the trail also plunged down a steep hillside into the river valley. It followed the river itself for a while longer, passed the "new" (as of several years ago) bridge on which the Lake Superior trail crosses the river, and then dropped me off directly at my home for the next two days: The Big Carp 4-Bunk cabin.

I arrived at about 1 pm -- not bad for the amount of suck I'd just encountered on the Cross trail. I checked my GPS track and learned that the actual length of the Cross trail is 3.8 miles, not the 4.5 miles that appear on park maps and trail signs. So that long, slow slog behind me was actually shorter than I'd expected. Nonetheless, I still felt accomplished. I'd finished the last big trail in the park -- and the most notoriously bad one too -- and I'd survived!

It started raining just as I walked the last few steps up to the cabin, perfect timing that I wish I could claim was intentional.

A bit of mud.

The Big Carp 4-Bunk was the one cabin at the mouth of the Big Carp river that I hadn't stayed in before, and the only new-to-me cabin on this trip. While it has no view of the lake, it is right next to the river, with the trail squeezing between the cabin's big bank of windows and a short, rocky scramble down to the water. Up until a few years ago, the cabin was extremely private since only Cross Trail hikers would pass by it. Nowadays, it's on the main route through the area since the bridge over the Big Carp river was moved a significant distance upstream, and I was a bit worried about how busy the trail would be. The cabin itself is squeezed between the river and a huge hill, on top of which sits the cabin's "Mt. Everest outhouse", as the log book called it.

I set down my pack and took a look around. The cabin was quite nice inside, clearly well tended by the park and its renters. It had a similar arrangement to Buckshot and Lily Pond, with two pairs of bunk beds along the back wall, one perpendicular to the other. Unlike the other cabins, Big Carp 4's right-angled bunks are a bit more private, set up directly next to a pair of walls that screen their occupants and make those two bunks feel almost enclosed. There are also a lot of windows, including big banks of windows on the east (river) and west (hillside) walls, plus miscellaneous other windows facing north and south. Together with the trail's proximity, I suppose all those windows account for the need for more private bunks.

Big Carp 4-bunk interior. "Private" bunks on the right.

There was a decent amount of wood in the "wood shed" corner of the cabin. There was also a stack of screens hiding behind the firewood, which I picked up and started installing in the windows. That let me open the windows and avoid the bugs, but I quickly picked up a chill from the cold air and rain.

I filtered some water from the river and made some hot tea to warm up, while I ate a peanut butter rice cake for a few extra calories. Then I noticed that the (now closed) windows were heavily fogged. I stepped outside into warm, humid air -- completely unlike what it had been just a few minutes before! As I stood there, clouds rushed across the sky, alternating rain showers and brief bursts of clear blue. The breeze swung around wildly, cold from the north, warm and humid from the south. The weather couldn't decide what it wanted to do. I ended up opening and closing the windows several more times, trying to let warmer breezes into the cabin while pushing the cold air out.

Bank of windows looking out on the river (and trail)

Once everything was unpacked, I made several trips in and out of the cabin to check out my surroundings between rain squalls. I collected some wet wood and sat it next to the cabin to (hopefully) dry in the future. I noticed that while there were several blades, and several handles for bow saws, no combination of them actually fit together -- the cabin had no functional saw.

I sat on the bench next to the cabin's fire pit and read some entries in the log book, which was nearly full. As I sat, two bald eagles flew right in front of me, following the river -- it looked like they were chasing each other, or perhaps an adult was teaching a juvenile how to hunt. I walked down to the mouth of the river and enjoyed views up and down the lakeshore. On that trip, I noticed with amusement that at the former site of the bridge (which had frequently been washed out by spring floods), a large log had wedged itself between bedrock outcrops and formed a new and very convenient natural bridge.

On one of these short walks, I realized that my left knee was hurting -- in fact, it hurt a lot. Any downhill step sent a shot of pain through my knee. Today's long, slow downhill hike must have had something to do with it. There was nothing to do but take it easy on the knee and hope it improved on its own.

From that point on, I more or less stayed in the cabin. The suddenly changing weather turned into a steady rain, giving me another reason to stay inside. As I laid about, reading the log book, the rain turned up even harder. Soon I started to hear some rumbles of thunder in the distance. 

Dinner was Chili Mac, a slightly spicy and very red meal that gave me plenty of calories and mild heartburn. As I ate, dusk came early as the clouds built. Then the distant thunderstorms finally crashed in, bringing a torrential downpour along with them.

Storm clouds coming and going

With nothing better to do, I turned in to bed at 9 pm, made a bundle of smelly clothes to substitute for my flat pillow, and read on my Kindle for quite a while. The thunderstorm and downpour continued unabated, with some thunder crashes shaking the whole cabin. I spared a thought for the poor campers caught in their tents in this miserable weather.

I finished reading a book and tried to turn over to go to sleep, but the storms kept me awake. Well, the storms, plus some anxiety about what might happen next. The Porkies and other parts of the western UP have a bit of a history of strong thunderstorms causing extreme floods. In 2018, the Father's Day floods destroyed roads and caused massive damage in the Keweenaw. More than once in the past, rivers in the Porkies have risen by 30 feet after strong storms, stranding campers. A few years earlier, one such storm had caused Speakers Creek to rise so quickly that it started to eat away its bank, undermining Speakers Cabin. The log book in that cabin told the story of a mother and son who spent the night in the cabin's outhouse for fear of the cabin washing away. It didn't, but the cabin had to be moved several feet back from the stream onto a stronger foundation.

With sleep not coming, I started a new book and continued to read late into the night. It wasn't until well after midnight that the thunder quieted down, and the storms settled into merely normal heavy rain. At one point, I made a quick trip out to the "bathroom" in the heavy downpour. On the way back, I quickly shined my headlamp at the river to see if it had risen. It was still within its banks.

With that reassurance, plus the help of a sleeping pill that I'd packed in my first aid kit, I finally dozed off some time after 1 am.

Next time: Taking it easy (no, of course not)

Miles hiked: 7.9 miles

Total miles:  17.4 miles

Today's hike is in orange -- but the distances on this map are pure bunk!

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Porkies Solo 2024, Day 2: Mirror Lake to Lily Pond

Last time: Too many brassicas (link to all of my adventures).

Lily Pond in gray, heavy weather

Monday May 20, 2024: I woke up groggy after a fitful night of sleep. I had woken nearly every hour from a combination of rain on the Mirror Lake 2 bunk cabin's metal roof, squirrels rummaging around in the forest, and other critters large and small outside my window (or so they sounded). My first night in the woods is often liked that, and I could feel the lack of quality sleep.

One thing I didn't hear was mice inside the cabin. While mice love cabins and the food scraps left by messy humans, I've found that putting food in the cupboards and cleaning up after myself makes all the difference.

Yesterday's warm and sunny weather had been replaced by gray skies and cool, humid air after the overnight rain showers.

It was a slow morning. I slowly steeped tea, then slowly made oatmeal (mushy and gray like the weather), slowly packed up, slowly swept out the cabin, slowly wrote an entry in the mostly empty log book, slowly put on my bug net, and slowly walked out the door. I felt like I was moving through molasses, maybe a relic of yesterday's blues or last night's poor sleep.

Today was to be an easy day: Just about 2 miles to the Lily Pond cabin. My original plan for the trip called for me to go as far as the Section 17 cabin (near Greenstone Falls, closer to a 5 mile hike). This would let me start closer to the legendary Cross Trail the next day, which I expected to be slow and difficult. But alas, none of the cabins in that area were available, so I had to go with the beautiful Lily Pond cabin instead.

I headed west from the cabin and took the turn-off for the Little Carp River trail towards Lily Pond. I was now re-hiking this stretch of trail for the first time in 12 years. The trail and woods were thoroughly wet from last night's rain.

Roller coaster boardwalk on the Little Carp River trail

Each day, I had some particular goal or something new to do or see. Yesterday's minor goal was hiking the North Mirror Lake trail in a new direction. Today, I wanted to look for something I once read about in Jim Dufresne's Porkies guidebook: "The [Little Carp River] trail then rounds the base of a 1600-foot high rocky knob that hikers can scramble up for a view of the Mirror Lake area". Scrambling up a remote outcrop for a good view? That sounded right up my alley. I had missed out on finding that knob on my first hike here, 12 years ago, so now I had another chance. This was also why I decided to rewalk the Little Carp River trail, rather than taking a different route that would cover a small spur that I'd never before hiked.

I kept a close look out for likely spots, stopping often to investigate possibilities. While there were plenty of hills, none looked particularly rocky, and none had anything like a volunteer trail running up them. I couldn't see so much as an outcrop. In the end, I passed through again without finding this mysterious overlook.

The Little Carp River trail in this area is pretty flat, so I made good time. I soon reached the turnoff to the Beaver Creek trail, which leads up to Summit Peak's parking area. Having missed out on one goal, I decided to accept a different, smaller goal: Throw away my trash. While I was only carrying one day's worth of trash, every ounce off my back sounded good.

So it was that I turned onto the Beaver Creek trail. It immediately follows a long boardwalk over a swampy, wide part of the Little Carp river. This boardwalk was in rough shape. There were broken and even missing boards. Several boards appeared solid but were loose, ready to turn an unwary hiker's ankle. Several trees had fallen over the boards, forcing me to climb over or around them.

Luckily, the bridge that crosses the river itself was intact, and the trail improved dramatically after that. The weather, however, kept declining. The sky remained an undifferentiated gray, and occasional short rain showers blew through.

Just past the bridge, I met a man whose outfit couldn't have screamed fisherman any louder. He was also carrying a rod and net, which helped I suppose. He asked if he was close to the river. While he was, I encouraged him to walk a bit farther to reach the bridge at Lily Pond, which has a perfect fishing platform built right into the middle of it.

I finally reached the Summit Peak parking lot, newly expanded and repaved over the last year. I gratefully dropped my bag on a bench, then threw out yesterday's trash. I pulled out lunch (a meat stick and a rice cake-and-peanut butter sandwich) and ate them in small pieces, pushed up under my bug net. The bugs still weren't biting, but they also weren't leaving me alone.

Speaking of not leaving me alone, there sure were a lot of chipmunks at Summit Peak. They seemed to spend their lives chasing each other around, then stopping and staring at me from close range, before chasing a bit more, then stopping at even closer range.

So what do you have to offer me, human?

I found that I had one bar of cell service up here on the "mountain", so I sent some quick texts to family, including Sarah (all the way in Korea!). I also checked the latest weather forecast, which showed an increasing chance of rain on each day. Joy. At least the nighttime lows were looking nicer -- around 50, rather than in the low 40's.

At this point, I had a choice: There was one small side trail up here, a spur that goes down from the Summit Peak tower towards the South Mirror Lake trail. I had considered making a loop with this trail, or even just going out and back on it. But as I sat in the gray day with spritzing rain, I decided that I wanted nothing to do with even more steep and rocky hills, especially when I'd just have to immediately retrace my steps. I once again wasn't feeling into this trip. I'd have to cover that one odd side trail some time in the future.

I reversed and headed back down the Beaver Creek trail in light rain. I re-crossed the missing boards and climbed over the fallen trees, then turned back onto the Lily Pond trail. I quickly came to the Lily Pond bridge, and immediately after it, Lily Pond cabin itself.

Summit Peak selfie, featuring bug net and color-un-coordinated hiking gear

This had been one of our very favorite cabins on our 2021 May trip. The cabin is hidden in the trees, but just a few feet outside of its door are spectacular views of the river and pond. Then there's the long bridge across the Little Carp river, with a bench and viewing platform built right into its middle. The river is close enough to the cabin hear it rushing past at all times, even with the windows closed.

I gratefully dropped my pack and started unpacking. I noticed two log books here, too, and this time I was in luck: They were both nearly full! In fact, the newest log book held my May 2021 log on one of its first few pages, and a few blank pages still remained (there must have been a lot of cabin renters who didn't leave a log over the past 3 years!). The other log book was from before that, beginning way back in 2016. I was guaranteed some good reading during my stay.

Log books are sort of the social media of the cabins, giving you both a steady stream of useful info (are the mice in the cabin? Is the wood dry? any wildlife?) and a chance to observe others' good and bad decisions at a safe distance (like the couple who backpacked in a wheeled cooler filled with a week's supply of food).

There is a vigorous debate in the log books about where you should get water at Lily Pond. Many, many entries talk about a mysterious spring on the opposite side of the pond. The log books contained multiple maps attempting to show the best way to find this spring, and many stories of success and failure. Person after person insists that you should take a rowboat across the pond to this magical spring (which some say can't be found at all) to enjoy its perfect waters. Others, like me, trust their water filters and grab water straight from the pond or river itself (plus, you should really filter any water in the Porkies, including water coming out of a mysterious spring). That's exactly what I did next, plus hauling in some firewood. There was no way I was going on another boat adventure after yesterday's experience!

Gray Lily Pond from a bench above the bridge

The day had remained gray, breezy, and occasionally rainy, but I didn't want to stick around the cabin. Once I had unpacked and finished my chores, picked up one of the log books and headed down to the bridge. There I found the fisherman I'd talked to earlier, taking a break on the bench. I learned that his name was John, he was from Brooklyn, and this was his first ever visit to the park. He'd had little luck with fishing, but was enjoying the new-to-him wilderness.

We had a pleasant chat as we both rested, but I didn't end up reading any of the log on the bridge. That's because a steady drizzle set in and chased us both away from the bridge, while low clouds and a distant fog slowly rolled in.

I took the log book back into the cabin and sat at the table, enjoying the stories in it. As I did, I boiled water for my freeze dried meal du jour - Alpine Aire Homestyle Chicken Pot Pie, another new one. It was just OK, although better than yesterday's broccoli-fest. My notes say: "More like pea pot pie" because that seemed to be the main ingredient. On the upside, this was a small 2-serving bag, and it filled me thoroughly with lots of calories that helped me stay warm. 

On past spring trips, I've often felt quite cold while sitting around in Porkies cabins, but that hadn't happened yet this trip. It occurred to me that one reason was probably that I was getting lots more calories than usual. Sarah and I typically share a 2-serving freeze-dried meal for dinner, but now even my single-serving meals had more calories than half of a 2-serving bag. I felt no chill at all.

Lily Pond Cabin's big bank o' windows

More or less trapped in the cabin, I laid back on my bunk to read, and had another small nap -- or maybe just a rest, I wasn't sure. I came awake to hear a huge and brassy ruckus outside the cabin, briefly making me think I was back in the city. Running outside, I was just in time to see two Trumpeter Swans taking off from the pond, their honking sounding remarkably like car horns at a busy intersection.

The drizzle had settled in as a steady rain, the sky was gray, and as a result night was falling early. I prepared some kindling in the woodstove but didn't end up lighting it, since I didn't feel cold enough to burn some of my hard-won wood.

I continued to read the log book and my own book as night set in. Near dusk, I heard loud voices on the bridge, apparently dayhikers trying to decide what to do next. This is one of the disadvantages of Lily Pond cabin -- it's right on the trail.

Their loud voices eventually faded away and were replaced by the patter of rain, the pleasant rush of the river, and spring peepers in the pond.

As I re-read and edited this post, I have to apologize for what must seem to be a very boring trip report. That's because it was: boring, dull, gray, even a bit foggy. Probably the high point of the whole day was meeting fisherman John (how'd he come all the way up here from Brooklyn?). That or the chipmunks. The day matched my mood, which was generally blah and lacking energy. Nonetheless, I promise more interest and excitement tomorrow...

Next time: The Cross Trail!

Miles hiked: 4.5 (2.1 to Lily Pond, plus 1.2 each way to and from Summit Peak)

Total miles:  9.5

Day 2 route in green, including spur up to Summit Peak