Sunday, July 8, 2018

Porcupine Mountains 2018, Day 1: Introduction, Travel, and Tea

Trout Lilies carpet a hillside near Speaker's cabin

In the last few years, Sarah and I have been obsessed with Isle Royale. We made two long backpacking trips there and loved every minute of it. But after giving our hearts away to Isle Royale, we agreed that it was time to return to our first love: The Porcupine Mountains.

Much like the trip that Kyle and I took to the Porkies in 2016, Sarah and I set up base camp in a rustic rental cabin. We did day hikes to see new areas, leaving most of our supplies at the cabin -- a nice change from carrying full packs everywhere.

Other commitments dictated that our backpacking trip had to take place in May. The park is in winter mode until at least May 15, and we planned to arrive on May 18. What is "winter mode"? Well, the Porkies Facebook page periodically posted pictures of an ice-bound South Boundary Road (the only way to access our trailhead) with warnings about how the road was definitely not open, don't even think about trying to drive on it. The boundary road is a solidly packed snowmobile trail all winter, and that extends the ice-melting season by weeks. Just one day before we left -- oh joy -- the county opened the road!

Ferns in the bed of Speaker's creek, and a bridge across the creek.
In that day, we finished packing. With only 3 nights (all in the same cabin) and dayhikes in between, our packs would have to be pretty light, right? Well, when you're staying in a cabin, lots of little extra things start to creep in. Like, say, a few pounds of Hunter's Sausage from Bob's Butcher Block, our favorite purveyor of dried meat products. Or a can of hard cider, to enjoy while overlooking the world's greatest lake. Or every single camera lens we both own (with two camera bodies) so as to take photos in every conceivable way. Or hammocks, to hang up and relax after having to carry all this extra weight.

In the end, we used (and/or consumed) everything we brought. But had we been doing a serious backpacking trip where we'd be carrying our packs for miles every day, we would have cut a lot of the extra items out.

So it was with happy hearts but heavy backpacks that we headed north. We started after a full day of work and made it as far as Sarah's parents (in the eastern UP) where we stopped for the night.

Friday May 18, 2018: We woke up early, said our goodbyes, and headed west -- but not to the Porkies. We veered north in Baraga and made a beeline to Houghton for lunch at the Four Seasons Tea Room, the best little English-style tea room I've ever found (and yes, I've done some looking -- although admittedly none of it happened in England itself). We only get to visit Houghton about once per year, and visiting the tea room is worth a 2 hour detour. With that moral imperative completed, we turned around and headed right back down again.

We made it to the Porkies Visitor Center by 3 pm. We were the only visitors there, and the ranger on duty seemed a little surprised to have anyone come in that day. He bustled around, trying to remember what to do, finally got the correct cabin key out, and forgot to give us our parking permit until I asked about it.

For our base camp, we had selected Speaker's Cabin, a rustic rental cabin that we came to love on our last Porkies trip. Speaker's Cabin is located near the west end of the park, with a 1 mile access trail coming in from a small dirt parking area on South Boundary Road. This made the cabin ideal as a base camp for day hikes -- especially because we could hike out to our car and drive to other trailheads, rather than being forced to stick near the cabin.

We hopped back in the car and drove (almost) alllll the way around the park on the South Boundary Road -- 23 miles, to be exact. We enjoyed the beautiful wildflowers beside the road (marsh marigolds, trillium, and spring beauties), the total lack of anyone else on the road, and the bizarre temperature gradient. The air was a chilly 55 degrees near the lake shore and a toasty 85 degrees inland -- a strong south breeze kept things warm until we were very close to the lake.
Trout lily

We parked in the dirt parking lot at Speaker's trailhead, changed into boots, pulled on our backpacks, and headed into the woods.

Speaker's Trail is a gated 2-track that heads north towards Lake Superior. The trail was broad and clear, at least by backcountry hiking standards. The woods were just barely starting to come alive for spring, with a light green haze of new leaves on some of the trees. The ground was carpeted with the early leaves of spring wildflowers, but no blooms were visible yet in the heavily shaded woods.


After about half of a mile, we crossed a stream on an old wooden vehicle bridge. Just across the bridge we saw an old and abandoned cabin sitting on a hill above a stream. It had "Jacobson" written in faded letters on the side. Before the Porkies became a state park, there were many private "camps" like this located in prime spots (such as the mouth of the Big Carp and, our goal, the mouth of Speaker's Creek). The state bought out most of these landowners, and many of their cabins became rental cabins. Jacobson's, however, is just abandoned with its door hanging loose, soon to succumb to the elements.

Speaker's trail met the Lake Superior trail here, and we turned west onto this trail for the next half mile. The trail became a single track with more descents into ravines than either of us remembered from our previous trips. Trail crews clearly hadn't come this way yet, and we had to make our way up, over, or around fallen trees and broken puncheon bridges. We also had to smush our way through the mud holes that are an unavoidable part of the Lake Superior trail.

At long last (one mile -- seriously, that was all, but that first mile of backpacking always feels like 10) we came to the edge of another ravine. There, glowing in the distance, I could see it -- Speaker's Cabin's... outhouse! The outhouse is located at the top of the same high bluff that we were standing on. Our view of the cabin itself had to wait until we descended into the valley cut by Speaker's Creek.

Speaker's cabin from across Speaker's Creek
We descended the hillside, which was completely covered in another favorite early spring flower: Trout Lilies. We found the cabin very well stocked with firewood, quite possibly left by the last hunters to rent the cabin back in November. Firewood was a good thing, since the predicted lows were around 40 each night of the trip. After quickly unpacking the essentials, we headed back outside to enjoy the view and see what was new since our last visit.

The shoreline had changed dramatically in the last two years. Severe erosion had washed away significant chunks of the bluffs above the beach and creek, leaving ragged edges of grass hanging out over open space. Two new wood fences guarded these edges, one along the bank of Speaker's Creek and another along the shoreline. The fences must have been built at least a year ago, however, because they were both already undermined by the spring floods and were almost ready to fall onto the beach or into the creek.

Fences, about to fall onto the beach.

Speaker's Cabin itself had been moved a bit since we saw it last. I sat down with the cabin log book and a copy of last year's "Porcupine Mountains Visitor" newsletter (both of which I found in the cabin's cupboards) and read the story: A mother and her young son were staying in Speaker's Cabin in early June 2016 when a remarkable downpour struck overnight. That led to the flash flood, which in turn caved in the bank of the creek -- to within 3 feet of the cabin's wall! The pair spent the rest of the night hiding in the outhouse, enjoying the odor of secondhand gorp and hoping for the best. They made it out ok, and the park closed the cabin for nearly a month. Rangers eventually decided to move the cabin about 10 feet farther away from the stream bank. We could see the stone path that used to lead up to the cabin's door -- and a new one leading up to the new location, with flat stones slowly being added by campers like us.

Speaker's Cabin. Notice the brown patch just to its right where the foundation used to be.

Sadly, another casualty of the erosion one of our favorite parts from our last visit: The Wolf Seat. There used to be some impressive "seats" made from huge flat rocks, placed to overlook the lake. That was all gone, probably buried far below on the beach.

Sarah set up her hammock, tried it out, and then immediately fell asleep -- worn out by full English tea followed by a mile's hike.

I mountain-goated my way down to the shore (erosion had destroyed any obvious path). The lake was roaring with good-sized waves, and I had a hard time collecting silty water from the stirred-up lake. Getting my boots only a little wet, I climbed back up and left the water to settle in a bucket. That chore done, I was ready to explore. The eroding stream bank had exposed an old underground cement pump house, used by the former owners of the cabin (the Greens -- the Speakers, despite the cabin's name, lived across the creek). One side of the pump house had fallen away, exposing several large canisters and various pipes. I spent the better part of half an hour edging back and forth to try to get a clear view, staring intently, and trying to figure out what all this was:

An old pump house, ready to fall into Speaker's Creek
I also wandered up and down the shoreline, which was littered with landslides and fallen trees. I peered into lovely ravines with tiny streams emptying into the lake, giant rocks embedded in the beach, and even a private (not abandoned and very well kept) cabin right on the shoreline. Probably Speaker's trail acted as an access road to it as well. I wonder who the lucky owners are?

This rock shows just how much red clay had slumped down from the shoreline in the spring melt. You can see the red streak where the soil nearly covered it -- but has since been washed away by the lake.

Red clay washing down from the shore.

Back at the cabin, the setting sun was lighting up the hillside with a lovely golden light. But even better than that, it lit up the thousands of trout lilies covering every square inch of the hillside. They love the open understory and dappled light surrounding Speaker's Cabin, and had turned their nodding yellow heads towards the setting sun. I spent the next hour twisting myself into pretzels to photograph these pretty spring ephemerals.

Trout Lily with bretheren

Sunset became even better as some high-level clouds rolled in at just the right time. Because of Speaker's position on a northwest facing shore, the sun set almost directly out across the water.

Sunset from the other side of Speaker's Creek.

On the downside, the clouds meant no (or few) stars tonight. One of my goals for this trip was to photograph the night sky, possibly even the Milky Way. I'd even brought all of my equipment for star trail photos, but tonight would not be that night.

With the air chilling and stomach grumbling, we headed inside for dinner. I made up a fire in the wood stove to keep us warm, and boiled some water for our entirely adequate freeze dried meal du jour, Mountain House Lasagna.

Sarah reading inside Speaker's Cabin -- brrr!

With dinner done, the sun set, and the cold coming, we snuggled into sleeping bags. I spent an hour reading the cabin's log book, including the log from the poor souls who spent the night in the outhouse during the June 2016 storm. At one point I glanced up and saw the moon, nearly full and just about to set, fully visible through the cabin's window. I stepped outside to see it more clearly, and was treated to few stars winking through the thin layer of clouds.

Then I returned to the cozy cabin and was lulled to sleep by Superior's crashing waves.

Next time: Waterfalls, waterfalls, everywhere!

Miles hiked: 1

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

My first time backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains

It's the middle of winter, and the days are still short. I've been spending the dark evenings sorting through old photos, and I came across a few from the first time I went backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains -- in 2012. So, to get in the mood for my spring trip to my favorite mountains, I present this severely overdue trip log.


Mirror Lake living up to its name at sunrise.
2012 was a big year. In May, I graduated with my PhD. In June, the lovely Sarah and I got married. In July, we packed up and moved from Houghton -- where I'd lived for 10 years -- to the Twin Cities for our first "real" jobs.

I had a short teaching job in May and June, but when that was over, there was nothing to do but pack up the apartment and get ready for the big move. With our imminent departure from the Copper Country hanging over me, I wanted to see a few favorite places one last time. There was also a big item left on my bucket list: Go backpacking in the Porkies! Yes, this was the first time -- although it turns out I've kept checking off this bucket list item, year after year ever since then.

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park -- as I've written many times before -- is a huge state park in Michigan's western Upper Peninsula. Rugged, remote, and situated on the shore of Lake Superior, it's a beautiful escape from the rest of the world. By this point in my life, I'd made a number of dayhikes in the Porkies (especially the breathtaking Escarpment Trail), and slept in my tent in several of its campgrounds -- but never alone, and never backpacking. It was time to truly go off the road and into the park all by myself.

After reading Jim Dufresne's guidebook, I chose a quick overnight loop that would take me on a bunch of new trails, focusing on a gem hidden in the hills on the south side of the park: Mirror Lake.

Monday, June 25, 2012: Classes done, grades entered -- woohoo, unemployed until August! On the upside, that meant that I could travel to the Porkies on a Monday, when I was sure nobody else would be there. If you've read my other writings, you know that one of my favorite things about backpacking and hiking is the ability to get far away from everybody.

I kissed my (newly wedded) wife Sarah goodbye and headed south from Houghton. I made a short stop at an old mining location near Rockland that I wanted to explore (more on that elsewhere). I couldn't stay long, because of a then-new policy at the Porkies: All backcountry campers had to talk to a ranger in person in order to check in and get their camping permit.

At the Visitor Center, I received a hasty and somewhat pointed lecture about backcountry etiquette and the Leave No Trace philosophy. I was a little off-put by this until hours later when, after backpacking in to my campsite, I stood staring at the week's worth of styrofoam and plastic containers burned in a fire pit 3 miles into the backcountry. I suddenly felt a great deal of empathy for the rangers who had to deal with this sort of thing.

I drove the long winding way around the park on South Boundary Road and pulled in to the Summit Peak parking area. I'd never been to Summit Peak -- the highest point in the Porkies -- and there's an observation tower at its top. This is definitely one of the more built-up areas of the park, which you can tell by the fact that the parking area is paved, and there's a well-maintained wooden walkway all the way up the side of the "mountain". I didn't even break a sweat heading up. At one of the landings, I paused to enjoy the view over the interior of the park. A couple heading down asked if I wanted my photo taken -- of course I did! -- and so we have this lovely portrait of younger Dave:

Backpacking glamor pose
The observation tower at the peak itself is wooden, with stairs leading up to a small platform at the top. The view is fine, if you like wide, slightly bumpy expanses of trees -- nothing nearly as awe-inspiring as Lake of the Clouds. Lake Superior is just a distant blue haze. So I looked around, failed to take any photos, and headed back down again.

I moved my car a little way back down Summit Peak Road to the smaller (and unpaved) parking area at the South Mirror Lake trailhead. I did one last check on the backpack, strapped it on, and headed down the trail. I was on an adventure!

The path started out wide and grassy -- an old truck route into the heart of the park. The park's trail guide said something about how the "first uphill will test your legs". Sure enough, there was a long, slow uphill... that caused me no trouble at all. Not that there weren't problems: I was using my Osprey Atmos backpack, one of their older designs with a highly arched back panel that really did keep my back (relatively) dry. But the arch also put an outsized amount of force on my upper back and started to rub my shoulders painfully.

Soon the path narrowed and became a traditional single-track winding through deeply shaded, and deeply pretty, groves of hemlocks. The trail also became quite muddy. And as soon as there was mud... there were mosquitoes. I stopped to apply spray, which did exactly nothing to stop them. I picked up the pace. Eventually, I gave in and started doing a sort of modern dance: Hit the side of my neck... hit my opposite shoulder... flail at mosquitoes in front of my face... repeat.

For the entire trail, I met not a single other person (thankfully, after the mosquito dance had started). The woods had an almost spooky silence -- no wind, no rustling leaves, no nothing -- just quiet. I arrived at the turnoff for the backcountry campsites on the south side of Mirror Lake by 5:30 pm and found exactly nobody there. There are advantages to backpacking on a weekday in June.

Lovely tent pad
I had my pick of the tent sites. I chose one near the lake, in the shade of tall pines, backed by a large outcrop of rock. It was gorgeous. It was also as far away from the styrofoam-and-plastic filled fire pit as I could get. That trash was a guaranteed bear magnet -- no need to tempt fate.

After I rolled out my pad and sleeping bag, I filtered some water by balancing precariously on a rock in the muddy shallows of the lake. Add to that my continuing mosquito dance, and it was miraculous that I didn't dunk myself in the lake. I then carefully hung my entire pack from the supplied bear pole, doing a sort of dance while I tried to lift the 20 pound pack on the end of the supplied 10 foot pole. I hadn't figured out the art of the bear bag yet.

With the basics taken care of, I headed out to explore. My campsite was located in a corner of land on the south side of Mirror Lake. I continued north and quickly came to a long board bridge across a long, narrow inlet of the lake. This was the Little Carp River, which passes through Mirror Lake on its way towards Lake Superior.

Bridge over the Little Carp River
The boardwalk showed me picturesque views of the log-choked Little Carp and the outlet of Mirror Lake. It also showed me that mosquitoes could actually bit through existing mosquito bites. I continued quickly on to the other side, trying not to fall into the water as I revisited my mosquito jig. Shortly beyond the bridge, I passed a sign for the Little Carp River trail, which I would follow on the return trip tomorrow.

I continued on the Mirror Lake trail and, after a short jaunt to the east, I found a sign for the Mirror Lake 2-bunk cabin. This was another of my reasons for coming here: I'd heard that the Porkies had rental cabins, and I wanted to check them out. The path to the cabin led away from the lake, up to a secluded hollow between hills and beneath tall hemlocks. I carefully approached the cabin, lest there be renters in residence (the 2-bunk is known as the "love shack"). But, it was a Monday in June -- nothing to see here. The cabin was small, cute, and definitely something I wanted to stay in. (A few years later, Sarah and I would indeed stay in the 2 bunk cabin, and I would hit my head repeatedly on its ultra-low ceiling.)

Back on the main trail, I checked out the 4 bunk and 8 bunk cabins as well -- both built right on the trail but unoccupied. I wandered as far as a backcountry site on the northeast corner of the lake -- located in a muddy hole that I was glad I hadn't decided to camp in -- and then headed back to my own tent site.

For dinner, I had brought one of these new-fangled freeze dried meals, which I'd never tried before. This one was some kind of buffalo chicken filling that had to be put in tortilla wraps. I set up my kitchen far away from my tent -- another nod to camping alone in bear country -- and set about boiling water.

Once the chicken filling was ready, I discovered that I didn't quite have enough hands to do everything that I needed to do. I filled up my lone tortilla, then sat it down on a log while I walked a couple of steps to pick up my water bottle. When I turned around, there was one of the Porkies finest: A tiny red squirrel gnawing away at my tortilla! I ran at it, shouting, until it casually scampered up a tree and sat on a branch, scolding me. I looked at the damage -- several small holes gnawed right through the tortilla. I could go hungry, or share my meal with the squirrel -- so I ate with the little bugger.

Looking over the edge of the bridge into the Little Carp River

After dinner, I went back to the bridge to enjoy the evening. The mosquito population was only growing, so after taking a few photos I promptly evacuated the area -- all the way back into my tent.

I wadded up a shirt to use as a pillow and read by the slowly diminishing daylight. It was just past the longest day of the year, and the sky stayed visibly light well after 10 pm -- there was still a distant glow in the sky at 11 pm. I started to go a bit stir-crazy being stuck in the tent, but if I so much as poked my head outside, I lost a pint of blood.

I eventually rolled over and tried to sleep. Every little sound tweaked my nerves -- even my friend the red squirrel sounded like a bear from the blind setting of my tent. Then, the frogs started. An entire colony of frogs started chirping in the swampy waters near the bridge. They effectively drowned out all "bear" sounds, but their high-pitched singing bored straight into my head (with occasional harmony provided by bullfrogs). I tossed and turned all night, always accompanied by the music of the frogs. I slept fitfully for whole minutes at a time, if even that much.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012: Sunrise was about 6 am, and I was out of the tent and making breakfast  shortly afterwards. Mirror Lake earned its name as the sun came up over the tree line, with a light mist hanging just above the lake's perfectly placid surface. I took my chances and found that the bridge-squitoes were mostly asleep, so I enjoyed my oatmeal and tea while sitting and watching this glorious view:

Mist on Mirror Lake

I packed quickly, dodging newly awakened mosquitoes, and paused only to take a few photos of the glorious morning that was opening up all around me.

With my pack on my back, I headed across the bridge and hung a quick left onto the Little Carp River trail. The trail starts by following the river fairly closely, which also means that it was filled with mosquitoes now coming to life after a cool night. I power-walked, opening up my stride as much as I could with a backpack on my hips. I eventually out-ran the mosquitoes -- or more accurately, I left a trail of fat and happy mosquitoes behind me along the trail.

The trail soon climbed a small bluff above the river. The forest here was filled with tall old-growth hemlocks. Their dense shade left an open understory. The pine-scented air was cool and pleasant and the golden sunlight filtered through the tall canopy. I passed a lovely campsite next to the river and immediately vowed to return and camp there (I haven't... yet!).

Another beautiful scene. Ho hum.
A few miles later, the trail dropped down off the ridge and started to run through lower, muddier ground. The river was off to the side somewhere, but I could no longer see (or hear) it through the denser undergrowth. I passed the trail intersection for the Beaver Creek trail, a cut-off that would have taken me quickly back up to Summit Peak. I had decided to take a longer but more scenic route.

Soon, I came out into a sunny, marshy, grassy patch. A long bridge took me out over Lily Pond, a well-named wide area along the path of the Little Carp. There was a bench built right in to the middle of the bridge -- a fantastic way to escape from (most of) the mosquitoes. I sat back, soaked up the sun, and enjoyed the view of the large and picturesque beaver pond that interrupts the Little Carp. I also enjoyed a Clif bar -- a rare event that can only occur after some seriously hard work.

Lily Pond with beaver dam, from the bridge-bench
At the far end of the bridge I discovered the Lily Pond cabin, another of the park's rustic rental cabins, which was built right next to the trail. I wandered around it (nobody was home), admiring at the huge bank of windows that looked right out over Lily Pond itself. Another spot for the "maybe some day" list.

A little ways beyond Lily Pond, I met the junction with the fairly well-named Lily Pond trail. This trail is an east-west trail that leads into the park from the Summit Peak road. It also carries the North Country Trail, letting me knock off another short section of my favorite National Scenic Trail. The Little Carp River trail turned west, heading towards a rocky stretch that Sarah and I would hike in the rain several years later.

The Lily Pond trail wound east through a surprisingly deciduous forest. The land was lower, more muddy, and hot, all of which brought out even more bugs. Despite my pleasant rest at the pond, I was starting to feel overheated and sweaty. But with the mosquitoes chasing me, I double-timed it all the way to the trailhead. I popped out at Summit Peak Road by 10 am.

I was still about a quarter of a mile down the road from my car, a hot and tiring road walk that I (for some reason) hadn't counted on. When I made it back to the car, I dropped my back and plopped down in the seat, exhausted but triumphant. I had survived a backpacking trip in the Porkies!

Ravine along the North Mirror Lake trail

10 minutes later... I wasn't done yet, however. Part of my goal for the trip was to find some of the abandoned copper mines in the Porcupine Mountains area. On my trip out from Summit Peak, I stopped by the White Pine Extension mine (a field of rock with a little bit of barbed wire). My next stop was the Lake of the Clouds, where I climbed down the escarpment on the North Mirror Lake trail and hiked the spur trail to the Lake of the Clouds campsites. Again, I failed to find anything interesting (I later learned that I was just a few tenths of a mile away from some semi-interesting diggings, but I hadn't gone far enough). I followed the North Mirror Lake trail uphill and explored the deep gorge that runs next to it. I briefly convinced myself that some of the rocks strewn about by the spring melt were rock piles from mines, but I was wrong. Again, I found nothing. On the way back, I poked my head down the spur to the Lake of the Clouds cabin -- another lovely cabin in a gorgeous setting -- then hiked back up the Escarpment.

I returned to my car and headed east out of the Porkies. My very last side trip was to the old White Pine mine. No, not the new White Pine mine, which was the most productive copper mine in Michigan's history -- I mean the old one which thwarted dozens of investors, who collectively sank a fortune into its pits.

The main draw of the old White Pine were these "ball mills", which (once upon a time) freed up copper-bearing rock by grinding the rock with heavy ball bearings. They somehow escaped the World War II scrap drives, and now here they sit, rusting, right where they were abandoned:

Ball Mills at the old White Pine

And with that, my Porkies backpacking adventure was over. It was brief, intense, mosquito-filled, and wonderful. I had the backpacking bug already, but I had it even worse after this trip. Just a few years later, we'd be back for a much longer trip including cabin camping.

But for now, I turned my car back north towards Houghton, where the only thing remaining to do was to pack up all of our belongings into boxes, Tetris them into a U-Haul, and head south for yet another adventure -- to the Twin Cities. But of course... I'd be back!

Blue: Monday, Green: Tuesday


Distance hiked:
Day 1: 3.0 miles
Day 2: 5.5 miles

Animals seen: One very persistent squirrel, and a few million mosquitoes.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Snowshoeing and Cabin Camping at Wilderness State Park, Winter 2017

Snow and cedars on the Old South Boundary Trail
Sarah and I are university teachers, which means that the middle of December is a busy time of year: the end of fall semester. For pretty much every day between Thanksgiving and the middle of December, our waking hours are taken up by writing exams; meeting with students; grading papers and exams; calculating and recording grades; and responding to emails about those grades.

Last year, I had a great idea: Once all of the exams were marked and the final grades recorded, I headed north to hide away from the world at Wilderness State Park, at the tip of Michigan's lower peninsula. Wilderness has rustic rental cabins that require snowshoeing 2 or more miles just to reach them -- an ideal way to escape from the world for a little while, decompress, and calm down my twitching grading hand.

In 2016, I was caught by surprise at how big the park is, and I ended up spending all of my time only in the west side of the park (you can read about it in my trip report). So for 2017, my choice was the Nebo cabin on the east side of the park -- and also the only cabin in the park not on the Lake Michigan shore.

Late in November, the lovely Sarah gave me a lovely surprise: She wanted to come with me this time! While Sarah is an excellent backpacking companion, I never thought that she'd want to snowshoe miles to stay in a cabin with no running water, no electricity, and only a wood stove for heat, all in the middle of winter. Nonetheless, she too was feeling the end-of-semester stress and looked forward to a few days of quiet reading and no email.

The last two weeks of school were a blur -- we didn't have any days off, even on the weekends. But at last all of the exams were graded, the last-minute homeworks checked, final grades entered, and -- at the very last minute, on Friday night -- the bags packed. So it began.

Saturday, December 16, 2017: After a hearty breakfast, we headed north for Wilderness. As we traveled north, temperatures dropped from the mid 20's down to the low teens. Lake effect snow kicked in around Gaylord, as it always does, but the roads weren't too bad.

We exited I-75 just before the Mackinac Bridge. 10 miles west on barely plowed roads brought us to the Wilderness State Park headquarters. Nobody was there, but the rangers had kindly left an envelope labeled "Clark - Nebo" clipped to a board outside the main door. The envelope contained the cabin key as well as a park map and informational pamphlet.

We backtracked to the Nebo trailhead, near the east edge of the park, and parked in the plowed parking area. After quickly packing up the last of our items, we strapped on snowshoes, hitched up backpacks, and headed out.

Getting into and out of the car in 15 degree weather is hard on the glasses.

The Nebo trail heads directly south, away from Lake Michigan. In summer, it is wide enough to be a 2-track that allowed campers to drive right up to the cabin. In winter, it is a wide and clear trail with a handful of ski and boot prints in 6 inches of fluffy snow.

Although the trail was mostly flat, we took our time -- 30 pounds of packs plus winter gear and snowshoes does not make for a fast hike. Plus, it was a wonderful day for a wander through the woods: The air was crisp and cool (20 at the highest), but the sun peeked out through puffy clouds while birds chirped in the trees. The Nebo trail took us through cedar swamps, red pine groves, and some occasional scrub and birch.

On the Nebo trail.

There are a lot of trails on the east side of the park, with a numbered post and map at every intersection. We made out way from post to post, ranging from 1 mile (the last stretch to the cabin) down to 0.08 miles (about 400 feet) between two closely spaced trail intersections. Along the way, we noticed other wood posts marking out distances along a 10k route that we were apparently following backwards. For a short stretch, we also followed the familiar blue blazes of the North Country Trail, which runs through the park.

Closing in on 2 miles, I spotted a building around a small bend. It slowly came into view. Its homely wooden lines became clearer. It was... an outhouse!

Nebo outhouse. Cabin is uphill to the left, not shown.
Up a short but steep hill behind the outhouse was the real Nebo cabin. But yes, the cabin's outhouse was directly trailside -- perhaps for easier access by hikers, without disturbing cabin renters? Every other cabin's outhouse is private, rather than shared with hikers.

The Nebo cabin is located in a very bumpy part of the park -- some sort of glacial feature. It's located at the top of a small hill, surrounded by tall pines and many other hills. As with the other cabins, it is log construction. A picnic table sat outside, reminding us of warmer summer months, with a hand pump in front of it. Out back was a large wood bin, which we would shortly be turning into heat via the cabin's wood stove.

Nebo cabin with wood bin in the back

Inside, the cabin was quite similar to Wilderness's Station Point cabin that I stayed in last year -- so similar, in fact, that I forgot to take any interior pictures! So instead, I bring you this photo from the archives -- just pretend the uppermost window isn't there.

Station Point cabin, but basically Nebo too

Our first goal was to start a fire in the wood stove. The stove was the "long metal box" type, with a solid metal door and no glass front -- meaning that the fire wouldn't shed light into the cabin at all. The stove sat on a cement pad, with a large stone wall behind it. I would guess that the cabin was built with a fireplace, which was filled in (hence the stones) and replaced with this stove. This part of the cabin had a significant difference from Station Point: Because of the filled in fireplace, there are no windows on the stove side of the cabin. This makes the Nebo cabin even darker yet.

We were successful in lighting the stove, although we had to hunt outside for larger kindling. We brought in a large supply of down and dead branches to start thawing.

While we got the fire burning hot and fast, it took a long time for the cabin to warm up even slightly. To warm myself up, I went back outside into the freezing weather and tramped around the forest surrounding the cabin. There were volunteer trails leading every which way, and I followed as many of them as I could through the tall pines and open understory. The sheer bumpiness of the terrain amazed me -- I couldn't go 100 yards without finding a steep uphill or downhill.

Downhill from the cabin and a little farther along the main trail, I found this interesting device:

Pen for bad children? Unfinished horse corral?
Reading in the cabin's log book later, I learned the solution to the mystery: The corral provides porcupine protection for your car. Apparently porcupines will sometimes gnaw on a car's brake lines, and this pen (with its closable, weighted doors) is designed to keep them out.

Night came on quickly in the forest. We were almost at the winter solstice, leaving us with only 9 hours of light per day. The temperature plunged down to 10 degrees, but the wood stove had started to make a difference in the cabin. We assisted it with hot tea and freeze-dried chicken and dumplings, eaten by the light of our headlamps.

When the sky was thoroughly dark, I stepped outside to look for stars. I had brought a new lightweight tripod to (hopefully) take some star photos, but it was not to be. A thin layer of clouds reflected light from Mackinaw City, letting only the brightest stars show through. Nonetheless, I enjoyed standing in the dark and silent woods, staring up past the tall trees and into the sky... at least, until my hands started to freeze and I hurried back to the pleasantly warm cabin.

The sky directly overhead, minus most stars.

We curled up on bunk beds with headlamps and read for several hours. I climbed down occasionally to tend the fire. The cabin was downright hot at this point -- well on its way to becoming a backwoods sauna. I had been hanging out on a top bunk, but the heat got to be too much for me. I moved my pad and sleeping bag down to the bottom. I also turned the stove's air control down to the minimum, but we had warmed things up too well. I sweatily fell asleep with my sleeping bag open, only to wake up three or four hours later, chilled from the burned-down fire. As one of my favorite guidebooks says,

"Avoid the rookie mistake of loading the stove up with wood before going to bed, thinking that it will simmer nicely until morning. What a loaded stove will do is produce a short-lived blast of heat that will clear the top bunks and sweat everyone out of their sleeping bags."

I guess I was that rookie.

Sunday, December 17, 2017: I woke up after sunrise, after 10 hours of sleep. I was amazed, but the deep darkness in the woods made it easy to sleep for so long.

Breakfast was our usual tea and oatmeal, which was goopy and unpleasant -- more than usual, at least. My plan for the day was an epic (or at least, pretty good) snowshoe hike around the east end of the park. Sarah came with me on a provisional basis, with the understanding that she would eventually head back for a day of snuggled up reading in the warm cabin rather than sharing the full epic hike.

We headed south on the Nebo trail and quickly came across the park's lone trailside warming shelter.

The beefiest trailside shelter I've ever seen.
The shelter, like almost everything in the park (including our cabin) was CCC construction from the 1930's. With its huge wooden beams, the shelter was like a severely overbuilt version of the shelters on Isle Royale (or are they underbuilt?). The biggest difference is a massive stone fireplace in front of it.

After a brief rest at the shelter, we came to a major intersection where most of the longer trails on the east side of the park meet. I briefly investigated the options. From my earlier research, I thought that two of these trails were open to snowmobiles, but there were no tracks visible anywhere (and no evidence of old ones). Moreover, one of the trails had an old "bridge out" sign near the intersection, making me doubt that snowmobiles use them any more. Sure enough, looking at maps now, it's clear that the Old East Boundary and O'Neal Lake trails are now hiking trails in an expanded part of the park. There's even a backcountry campsite on the O'Neal Lake trail. Perhaps I'll have to investigate those on another visit.

Sarah turned back for her day of cozy reading, and I was on my own on the "Old South Boundary Trail". It looked for all the world like an old railroad bed (which it very well might have been) -- wide, straight, gently graded, and making its way directly through every swamp and hill in its way.

The trail was often lined with cedars and other evergreens, although it also ran through a long frozen swamp. Occasionally there were clusters of fancy grasses growing along the trail -- native or not? I don't know.

In the swamps, The extremely cold temperatures overnight had formed beautiful frost patterns on the frozen water, and occasional hoar frost appeared on the low-growing grasses.

Is this a native grass we don't see much of anymore, or an escapee?

I kept meeting posts with distance markings for a 10k route, counting down towards some eventual starting point. Several kilometers (and several miles) down the Old South Boundary Trail, I came to another major intersection. I sat on a convenient bench and ate "lunch". After skimping on breakfast, I was ravenous. I scarfed down two rice cakes with peanut butter, a couple of meat sticks, and a decent amount of gorp.

For the entire trail so far, I'd been following the same boot prints (not snowshoes) that we'd seen on our way in yesterday. The previous visitors made life easier for me, but I longer for some fresh powder to break trail in. I poked my head briefly to the west on the Sturgeon Bay trail, which I had (over-ambitiously) planned to hike last year. It was completely untouched, except for a lone deer who must have wandered this way recently. I enjoyed the brief romp through the powder, but turned around to continue on my loop.

My way lay north, on the Swamp Line trail. This was also the North Country Trail, which came up from the south. Swamp Line was more of the same lovely evergreen-bordered trail, wide enough to be a 2-track. The boot prints continued this way, along with a variety of deer tracks, all winding their way around a surprisingly large number of blowdowns. The park's website claims that this route is groomed for skiers -- I highly doubt they'll be grooming it any time soon unless someone with a chainsaw and a snowmobile makes their way down the Swamp Line.

Snow on pine


True to its name, the Swamp Line trail ran along the edge of (and sometimes directly through) a large swamp. I was deep in the wilderness part of Wilderness State Park, but I soon started to see evidence of humanity again. Rotting wooden retaining walls in a swamp spoke of some former draining project, and nearby a series of posts ran into the woods, strung with fallen cable. I passed an odd opening in the trees, which turned out to be a heavily overgrown road. I tried bushwhacking my way in through the dense undergrowth to see why anyone had ever built a road here, but I couldn't make it more than a few dozen yards.

I finally passed the last (that is, first) marker in the 10k route that I'd been inadvertently following -- it was the "Wilderness 10k run". Shortly beyond that I found a sign telling me that I'd been in the "Big Stone Creek Wilderness Area". Beyond that sign, I found a North Country Trail trailhead kiosk with a log book. I was the first person to log a trip that month.

I followed the North Country Trail on a winding route though one of the more built-up areas of the park. It wound along the shore of "Canada Goose Pond". The huge swamp that supplied the pond with water was starkly beautiful under the gray sky that had been following me all day:

Swamp beyond Canada Goose Pond
The trail crossed the pond's inlets over three bridges, two of which were this funky log construction:

Funky log bridges
It looked like the log bridges could have been original CCC construction. The middle of the three bridges was brand new.

At the pond's dam, I pondered this complicated sign for a while (this was just the lower half):



I turned east (continuing to follow the North Country Trail) onto the Red Pine trail. This turned out to be the prettiest trail yet. Rather than the dense and monotonous cedars I'd seen so far, the Red Pine trail wound through a grove of... you guessed it... red pines! The pines left an open understory, showing me the surprisingly hilly and gnarly terrain in the northeast corner of the park. It looked like a glacier had gotten stuck and had trouble getting started again: razorback ridges covered in pines wove on curving paths, with random piles of sandy soil rising 20 or 30 feet out of swamps. The trail bucked up and down and around a surprising number of blowdowns.

I rested my (now rather tired) legs on a convenient bench at the top of one of the random mounds and snacked on gorp. Within a mile or so, the Red Pine trail ended at the Nebo trail -- at one of the intersection markers we'd followed in yesterday.

Club Moss on the Red Pine trail

By this point I was dragging. The bumpy Red Pine trail had done a number on my already tired legs. But rather than heading back to the cabin, I turned north for one last detour. On our way in, I had seen a sign for the Hemlock trail which wound up to "Mt. Nebo" and an old fire tower. You can bet I wasn't going to let that go by without checking it out!

The Hemlock trail was narrow and beautiful, surrounded by, well, pine trees (mostly not hemlocks, however). It ascended steadily until it suddenly popped me out at the top of a tall glacial hill -- Mt. Nebo. Cement footings were the only sign of the fire tower that once stood here, and the views were mostly blocked by trees. Nonetheless, it was a lovely spot, and a the foundations made for a good place to sit and rest.

Fire tower foundations
The Hemlock trail made a short loop, and rather than going back the way I'd come up, I decided to keep following the trail and see if I could find these elusive hemlocks. The far side of the trail was incredibly steep. I had trouble keeping upright! Mt. Nebo was the last outpost of the long line of hill, and its steep side rose straight up from the edge of a low swampy area. I quickly lost all of the elevation that I'd gradually gained. In the flats around the base of the hill, there were indeed scattered tall hemlocks which made me a bit wistful for the Porcupine Mountains.

I trudged through the flats and finally met up with the Nebo trail. Turning south, I slowly hauled myself down the final 1.5 miles back to the cabin, for a grand total of 8 miles of snowshoe adventure.

I took off my snowshoes and stumbled into the toasty cabin. Sarah had a great afternoon carting in firewood from the wood bin, reading, and relaxing. I took off my coat, gloves, and hat and collapsed on my bunk.

Once I had recovered, we had Fettuccine Alfredo for dinner, freeze-dried of course. It was delicious, made more so my by epic snowshoe hike. We topped it off with a luxury: A can of hard cider carted in from the outside world.

By this time it was dark again (which is to say, it was after 5 pm). The sky was thickly clouded, so there would be no night photos again. Instead, I stayed inside and read by the light of my Kindle. I also tended the stove more carefully, keeping us warm but not sweltering. I was no longer a rookie.

Old leaves

Monday, December 18, 2017:
We woke up after sunrise -- another 10 hour night of sleep! I had let the fire burn down overnight, but the temperature had also risen up to near 30. I only had to build a small fire in the stove.

Breakfast was freeze-dried granola and blueberries with milk, an oddball freeze-dried meal from our back-stock. The blueberries were like little crunchy fruit-flavored cocoa-puffs, and they turned the milk a purple-blue color. The whole thing was sickeningly sweet. Oh well, you can't win them all.

We were both ready to go. The isolation and removal from the world had done its job: We were relaxed, well-rested, and ready to head home. We packed up, swept out the cabin, sealed up the stove, and locked the door.

We strapped on our snowshoes and headed up the trail... for about 20 steps. Without any snowfall and with warmer air moving in, the snow was densely packed and sticky. It was easier to move without snowshoes than with them!

We reached the car quickly on foot and headed south through a light fog. We celebrated our return to civilization with burgers at Spike's Keg o' Nails -- yes, really -- in Grayling.

Old fence (?) in the woods
My second visit to Wilderness was a lovely break from the world, which is exactly what I wanted it to be. Nebo cabin was a very pleasant place to stay, nestled in the trees on top of a glacial hill -- but it felt odd not to be camping on the shore of a great lake (which we almost always do at other parks). My long day hike showed me that the park is nothing if not consistent -- long, wide trails lined with cedars, running through swamps. I am still impressed at how big the park is, and there are yet more trails to explore. We will definitely be back.

Total distance: 12 miles (with a lot of duplicated trails)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 7: Rock Harbor, Houghton, and Home

Last time: Return to Rock Harbor

Sunrise over Rock Harbor, from the America Dock
Tuesday, August 8: We woke up dark and early in the Pee Hut at Rock Harbor Campground, and got out of it as fast as possible. Not even stopping to eat breakfast, we got dressed and marched down towards the waterfront. Sarah took a turn in the coin-operated shower, while I took her camera and headed to the America dock (my battery was dead from overuse in the Minong Mine).

The sky was still mostly dark and the moon was far above the horizon when I made it to the dock. I watched the moon slowly drop behind the islets in a peaceful Rock Harbor. I was completely alone on the dock, and nobody else was even moving along the waterfront.

Moon setting over Rock Harbor

When Sarah's 5 minute shower was over, we met up again for breakfast. There was no way we were going to force down another meal of oatmeal when the Greenstone Grill was so close. The "two eggs, any style" turned out to involve not only eggs but also potatoes, bacon, and toast, and they all sat very nicely with a hot coffee after a week of mush and tea.

We saw some familiar faces in the Grill: The three men from Grand Haven were (again) eating at the same time as us, and were (again) loudly planning the restaurants they would eat at and the beds they would sleep in after they departed for the mainland later today.

We had more than 6 hours before the Queen's boarding time, and I was eager to make use of every minute of it. In particular, I wanted to take a day hike and see some new trail. We've stayed in Rock Harbor 3 times, but we've never hiked the section of the Rock Harbor Trail that runs between Rock Harbor and 3 Mile campground (we detoured around it last year and took the Tobin Harbor Trail instead). With breakfast done and no desire to stay in the Pee Hut, the time was ripe.

The sky was low and cloudy, so we wore rain coats. The Rock Harbor trail was wet and slippery from rains overnight, but we were more than compensated by the wild raspberries, blueberries, and even some strawberries along the trail.

Half a mile down the trail, the rain came back with a vengeance. We briefly huddled under a tree that provided almost no shelter, at which point Sarah decided to turn around. I didn't mind the rain, so I forged onward. I enjoyed the rugged trail, which wound its way up, down, and between rock outcrops along the shoreline.

At one point, I stepped aside to let past a group of 4 hikers coming from 3 Mile campground. Despite the steady rain, they were jolly and greeted me happily. As they passed, they left a strong whiff of pot behind them -- so that explained the good vibes!

The rain turned up another notch, and then another, until I had to call it quits too. I turned around, but not before taking pictures looking both ways along the trail:



When I made it back to the Pee Hut, I found Sarah sitting outside on the picnic table, under the shelter's overhang. As we sat outside, attempting to read while we huddled against the side of the shelter (unwilling to enter it unnecessarily), a familiar couple appeared on the trail -- the pair from McCargoe who had inspired me with their folding chairs. They marched through the rain with a wet and bedraggled look, clearly trying to find a shelter. We waved at them and offered the Pee Hut, with a fair warning about its name. They gratefully took it over, and we packed up the few belongings that were still sitting out and prepared to leave. We chatted for a few minutes first -- getting the name of the folding chairs, of course -- and learned that they were from Saginaw, and had come all the way from Three Mile Campground in the morning's rain.

With our shelter given away and a few hours left before the Queen left, we made our way down to the visitor's center. We looked at the books, posters, and other knick-knacks. As we did so, my thoughts unexpectedly returned to the unprepared hiker we had met at East Chickenbone. I tried to broach the question to a ranger, who essentially said "We can't stop people from going hiking just because they seem unprepared." Call me crazy, but that might actually be a great idea, especially given what we had heard about the "Hatchet Lake Incident" last night.

You can get anything you want, at the Isle Royale Visitor Center.

With the visitor's center thoroughly perused, we went back outside and found a bench near the waterfront. We sat reading and watching a mama Merganser teaching her tiny fluffy children how to dive. A bit later, I looked up and saw a river otter swimming right up towards the dock. I pulled out Sarah's camera, ready to catch it when it appeared... but it didn't, right up until it did appear by running up onto land. It glanced around, saw me and the many others nearby who were suddenly very interested in it, and made a sudden (and rather awkward) dash inland.

A few minutes later, as I came out of the nearby bathroom building, the otter popped right out of the woods behind me and made another mad dash, hiding in a hole underneath the Greenstone Grill's basement. When it rains, it pours (wildlife, at least).

If there's one thing I learned from my repeated otter encounters on this trip, it's that they are nowhere near as elegant (nor cute) when they're on land. They run around with a sort of scrunched-up, hunch-backed hop that screams "I'd rather be swimming!"

Sarah on the Indian Portage Trail -- because I didn't take any more photos once we got on the boat!
The Queen soon arrived and unloaded a crowd of eager new campers. We watched their orientation, waited a discrete interval, and headed towards the dock to get ready for our departure. The dock was already hopping by the time we arrived. No matter how beautiful Isle Royale is, after a week of sleeping on the ground, there's nothing like the idea of a soft bed waiting for you on the mainland.

Captain Ben appeared and started whipping the general mass of passengers into a slightly more organized line. The three men from Grand Haven were just ahead of us, chomping at the bit. When they reached the boat, the leader of their gang handed Captain Ben their return ticket. He took one look and said "This is for tomorrow. Today's August 8. You're a day early." They deflated as the captain told them to get out of line and stand off to the side -- "We have a full ship so I doubt I can fit you on today."

I double-checked our ticket again as I handed it to Captain Ben. Ours was for the right day, thank goodness. We handed our bags to another sailor and passed by the forlorn-looking Grand Haven crew.

The boat trip was uneventful (at least after we'd departed -- no, they didn't make it on). The lake was remarkably calm, and I finished reading Diary of an Isle Royale Schoolteacher in the first hour of the ride. I sat for the rest of the ride in quiet melancholy. It was hard to see the island receding into the distance, after a wonderful week of backpacking.

After a long, long ride, we turned into Copper Harbor and cruised past the Harbor Haus, whose waitstaff ran out to give us a good ol' kick-line. We waved; the Queen honked. Off the boat, we packed our bags into the car and headed south by way of M-26 and Cliff Drive, two favorite Copper Country Cruises. I cruised slowly, enjoying the views of the Cliffs, the Lake Superior Shore, and so many of my favorite places to explore in the days when I had lived here.

We stayed in Hancock at the Ramada, a wholly adequate hotel. The first order of business was showers! I won right of first wash, since Sarah had taken a 5-minute coin-operated shower in Rock Harbor. As usual, I scrubbed twice and felt clean in a way I didn't even realize I had been missing.

Sunrise on Chickenbone Lake
While I showered, Sarah set our evening plans in motion: Beer and Pizza. We just barely acquired a delicious pizza from the Studio before they closed for the night (at 8 pm -- Hancock is not a party town in the summer). We were so hungry that we ate it in our room before heading to the Keweenaw Brewing Company, where we enjoyed an evening of quiet conversation, beer, and peanuts (it closed at 10 pm).

Then, we slept as best we could in the strangely soft, fluffy bed. After a week of sleeping with only inch-thick pads between me and the ground, I didn't quite know how to handle a nice bed.

Wednesday, August 9: The next morning, we got up bright and early and arrived at the last of our essential food stops -- the Four Seasons Tea Room in Houghton -- just in time for their opening at 11 am. We had a lovely lunch in a comfortable English tea room setting, then strapped ourselves into the car for the uneventful 9 hour drive home.

Oh yeah, I went for the bad pun.

Some final reflections: 
Despite what you might think from my complaints about boaters and noisy teenagers, this trip was wonderful. We didn't hike as far as we did last year, but we saw more than enough beautiful and memorable spots on the island to make up for it. This trip was far more relaxing -- and less ache-inducing -- than any of our previous backpacking trips. We had new experiences (seeing 4.5 moose comes quickly to mind) and met new people (both wonderful and annoying).

We experimented with using day hikes as a central part of a backpacking adventure, and it succeeded wildly. Rather than constantly trudging from place to place with 30+ pounds on our backs, we were able to make quick jaunts off to new and interesting places and, y'know, enjoy them! Perhaps we're getting soft, but I like to think we're figuring out how to make the most of our limited backpacking time each year.

Using the Voyageur as a ferry also worked well and let us see some new parts of the island that we would never have seen otherwise, especially Chippewa Harbor. For repeat visitors, I highly recommend considering something like this. First time visitors don't need a ferry -- there's already so much to see within hiking distance of Rock Harbor!

On a different note, we met some truly amazing hikers who could pound out 12, 15, or even 20 miles and still have energy left to do a somersault into the lake at the end of the day. We hiked, at the longest, 8 miles -- and that was just one day. At times, both Sarah and I felt not just humbled by this difference, but almost ashamed -- like our ferry-riding, day-hiking, shelter-sleeping, wine-toting selves weren't worthy to be on the same island as such hardy folks.

Of course, I know that's not the case. As the old phrase goes, "Hike your own hike" (or "Everyone hikes their own trail") -- a hiking-specific version of my favorite general life advice, "Everyone should just chill out". We didn't actually let it get us down (we were too busy relaxing like the bad-asses we are). Not everyone enjoys grinding out 15 miles every day and sleeping under a tarp. But you too might find yourself feeling a little sub-par -- just remember: Hike your own hike! (On a related note: On the way to the island, there's always that one guy who has to impress everyone with his knowledge of the island, his plans to hike 30 miles every day, and how there's no possible way he would ever stay at the lodge because it's not part of the "wilderness ethos". Don't be that guy.)

One last thing: Gravity water filters are amazing. I will never go back to a hand pump again.

What's next? I have a few trips lined up for the coming year, to places new and old. Stay tuned!

Miles hiked: 2 miles (dayhike).
Final miles hiked: 10.6 trail + 14.5 dayhike = 25.1 miles, every one of them new to us.
Final moose sighted: 4.5
Total days on the island: 7, and on nary a one did we miss civilization (much).

You can also return to the Introduction at the beginning of this series.

Our final hiking map.