Friday, September 7, 2018

North Country Trail 2018 Day 1: Muskallonge to Lake Superior State Forest Campground

There goes the trail: This photo is all you need to know about my backpacking trip.

In earliest spring of 2018 -- when snowdrops were just starting to poke up through the crusty snow -- The Lovely Sarah and her parents got a unique invitation. They were invited to come to Marquette to witness a college friend's ordination as a priest.

The ordination was in early June. I didn't know the future priest at all, but I did know that I was trying to complete the North Country Trail Association's "Hike 50" challenge -- that is, to hike 50 miles on the NCT in 2018. I'd tried the "Hike 100" challenge in the past and failed miserably, not because I couldn't do 100 miles in a year, but because most of my hiking miles weren't on the North Country Trail. But, I thought, with a glint in my eye, the North Country Trail runs for miles along the south shore of Lake Superior, right on the way to Marquette. Plus, early June is practically guaranteed to be bug-free and chilly along the Superior shoreline. I prefer both of those situations, and so everything had lined up perfectly for a solo backpacking trip.

Friday, June 1, 2018: So it was that I came to be standing alone on the side of the road just outside Muskallonge State Park, near the Lake Superior shore north of Newberry. I was glad for my raincoat, gloves, and winter hat as the cold wind blew off of Lake Superior, twirled through the spring mist that lay on Muskallonge Lake, and slammed straight into me.

We had driven up to Newberry -- staying overnight at Mackinaw City, followed by breakfast at Java Joe's in St. Ignace -- and picked up Sarah's father that morning. They dropped me off at the state park and headed straight towards the ordination. My planned hike was a point-to-point hike west along the Lake Superior shoreline, and they would pick me up tomorrow at the went end of my trail.

I had some trouble finding the NCT trailhead at Muskallonge. The trail runs right through the park, and I certainly saw blue blazes all over the place -- arranged in no apparent order. I walked back and forth for a while, even entertaining the possibility that Muskallonge Lake could have flooded over some of the trail. After the fact, I found this map and realized that the trail made a very odd zig-zag within the park that accounted for some of the weirdness:

The trail's odd passage through Muskallonge State Park.
I finally gave up and followed the main road out of the park to the west, which eventually crosses the trail where it exits the park. Here at least I was sure of what I should do. The trail crossed the road and cut a clear swath north into the forest (you can see this on the far left of the map above). It bumped up and down pine-covered sand dunes until, after one last big uphill, I could see blue sky and hear the roar of the lake.

There goes the trail.
I crested the hill and almost marched directly into the lake, as the trail sailed straight off the edge of a high bluff that had collapsed onto the beach below.

Can you find the trail? It's visible in this photo!
The trail should have made a sharp left to follow the shore, but the bluff was severely eroded and the trail completely gone -- over the edge and into the lake. I peered into the dense undergrowth where the trail should be and saw, distantly, a short bit of trail reappearing from the bluff face. I bushwhacked around the fallen portion and was barely able to make it to the trail, which then immediately fell down into the lake again. There was more dense underbrush beyond it, and no more trail to be seen. I gave up, returned to the clear trail that I'd come in on, and pondered what to do.

There's a trail down there somewhere.

My maps showed that, to the west, the trail eventually came pretty close to the road. I walked back to the road and followed it west, hoping to cut in towards the trail after a little distance. I soon started seeing occasional faded blue blazes along the road -- had the trail once been routed this way? Soon, there was no doubt -- a blue-blazed cut through the trees headed straight for the lake and its eroded bluff again. I cautiously followed the trail.

This time, the trail stayed up on the bluff -- barely. The trail never strayed more than a few yards from the edge, giving me nonstop panoramic views of a stormy Lake Superior as I hiked west. It occasionally dropped into the lake again, forcing me to bushwhack inland for a few yards, but the underbrush was less dense here. Even when the trail was on firm ground, it was often obscured by fallen trees. It looked like a severe storm had come through during the winter, and trail crews hadn't made it out to clean things up yet. (In this part of the UP, "trail crews" probably consist of one or two dedicated retirees who haul their own chainsaw and gas for miles on foot. So, it's hard to actually complain... much.) In some places, large numbers of trees had fallen right off the cliff and were even leaning on it, with their dead branches waving just above my head.

Fringed Polygala, I think.

Now that I had things straightened out and had trail tread consistently underfoot, I thoroughly enjoyed the hike. The cold weather was no problem -- working hard with a full pack on my back kept me warm. It was much better than trying to stay cool on a hot and humid summer hike.

As I settled into hiking mode, I started to notice more and more of the world around me. Spring was truly just beginning along Michigan's northernmost coast. Only a few hardy wildflowers were blooming, like this one -- I think it's the vivid purple Fringed Polygala. Right next next to the shore, not even blueberries had blossoms on them yet.

A few miles down the trail, I was walking along and minding my own business when suddenly, something enormous and hairy reared up directly in front of me! Wait... no, something small and feathery made an enormous fluttering exit from my path and quacked its way into the distance. I looked around, heart still in overdrive, and found the duck's nest, right on the ground and right next to the trail.

Good luck, kids, 'cause you're on your own!
The trail soon merged with a sandy 2-track that rollercoastered its way through the near-shore ridges and swales. This section of trail was marked as a "road walk" on the NCT maps, although that hardly seemed fair -- the 2-tracks were overgrown and remote. The only vehicle I could even plausibly meet out here would be a 4x4 -- if that.

Suddenly, the trail made a sharp turn and plunged into a wide marshy area. I heard the sound of running water and realized that I'd reached the Blind Sucker River, the one real water crossing of my trip. The river was wide and marshy here. I didn't have a very good plan for this -- sandals in my backpack if I really needed them, but the cold weather and mucky river bottom made wading across the last thing I wanted to do.

I backtracked and soon found a way to reach a more solid-looking part of the river bank. The river ran right through the rocky Lake Superior beach, which narrowed the river's channel and made its bottom more solid. What's more, luck was with me: An old tree trunk had fallen right across the river and it looked totally possible to walk across it.

You think this doesn't look too bad? Try it with 30 pounds hanging off your back!

I wasn't about to just heel-toe it across the narrow trunk with a 30 pound pack on my back, however. I cast around until I found two good sturdy sticks. I unbuckled my pack's hip belt and sternum strap just in case I fell off the log -- the narrow river channel made the river deeper and faster, and the last thing I wanted was 30 pounds holding me down in the rapid river.

I carefully edged my way out on the log, using the sticks to keep my stability. It was just a few short steps, but I was glad to reach the other side. I left the sticks nearby, just in case someone else (or even I) had to cross back over.

The intended crossing. Notice the conveniently blazed tree stump.
The river enters the lake at a steep angle, leaving a narrow spit of sandy, rocky shoreline between the lake and the river. The trail followed this spit, and as I walked along, I saw the intended crossing. What do you think?

The trail ascends a ridge.

The trail quickly rose up onto a razorback ridge. The ridge was often just a few yards wide, and it was the only thing that separated the river from the lake. This added a new and picturesque dimension, as the views alternated between the lush river bottomland and the stormy lake, and sometimes both at once.

Blind Sucker River on the inland side of the ridge.

For the next several miles, I ate up the miles along this narrow ridge. The shoreline bluff slowly descended until it was easy to jump right onto the beach whenever I wanted.

At this point, I met my first and only fellow hiker of the entire trip -- a middle-aged woman came around a bend, heading the opposite direction. She had no daypack, no visible water source -- but she was leaning on a crutch. She paused just long enough to say "maybe a mile" to my greeting and question, "Am I close to the Lake Superior campground?" (my goal for the night), and then continued on.

Lake Superior panorama from the trail (click to enlarge)

The trail eventually met a well maintained dirt road that paralleled the lake. This was a continuation of the road where Sarah and my father-in-law had dropped me off earlier today. A sign pointed me towards the Blind Sucker campgrounds, which were a mile or so south of the road. They were my alternate camping spot, in case my real goal -- the Lake Superior State Forest campground -- was full. The trail continued through a well-used section of shoreline with many parked trucks and couples wandering along the beach.

Very soon, I entered the Lake Superior State Forest campground, snuggled between the shoreline and road. This campground is cut from the same mold as the rest of Michigan's many state forest campgrounds. A dirt road leads past well spaced sites, with a short loop for a turnaround at the end. Every site has a fire ring and a picnic table, and nothing else. There are a couple of outhouses, a hand pump for water, and a self-registration station.

I noticed how cold many of the sites were, with the chilly lake breeze blowing right across their tent pads. I kept walking until I found site 16, in the loop at the end of the road, with a nice high hill blocking it from the breeze. I dropped my pack, hoofed it back to the self-registration station, and filled out my registration form. That and $15 got me a night in the campground. After a few minutes of chit-chat with a maintenance guy who was cleaning up sites after the long winter, I headed back to site 16.

Site #16 with my tent staked out against the wind.

There were few other people set up in the campground, and we were all well-spaced-out from each other. That was fine by me -- I was out here to enjoy nature and silence, not generators and cow-shaped strings of lights.

I sat down at my newly acquired site and looked around. It was a lovely place, surrounded by trees and still within earshot of Lake Superior. As I sat quietly, a deer cautiously appeared out of the woods and nosed around the next site over. I silently communed with nature, until a truck hauling a giant trailer blasted past on the road, which was just a few hundred feet beyond the end of the loop. The deer bolted, and I got up to set up my tent.

Just over the ridge towards Lake Superior.

With camp set up, I set out to explore my surroundings. Even after a good long hike -- 7 miles today -- I rarely feel like just sitting down and doing nothing. With Lake Superior just a few dozen feet away, I couldn't stay put. A short path up and over the hill popped me out at a wide beach that was buried under piles and piles of driftwood. The same storm that had blown down so many trees along the trail must have left trees floating in the lake too, because the beach was absolutely covered with huge weather-worn driftwood.

Driftwood-covered beach

In the distance, east along the beach, I spotted an odd construction. As I picked my way closer, I saw that there was some sort of teepee or pyramid made of driftwood. Even closer, I realized that I was looking at a giant driftwood tiki hut, complete with benches, back rests, and a roof. Somebody (or many somebodies?) had put in quite a bit of work to construct this lovely (and remarkably stable) hut. I examined it from every side before deciding that it was structurally sound. Inside, I relaxed on a remarkably comfortable bench -- and realized just how much my legs and feet were screaming at me.

My stomach was starting to grumble, and with no waiter appearing to bring me an appetizer and cocktail, I headed back to my site to make my own. The cocktail was hot tea to chase away the cold. Dinner was freeze-dried "Chili Mac with Beef", A Mountain House meal that I'd been storing away for a solo trip (because Sarah was disgusted by the very thought of it). She had a point: the chili mac had an unnaturally bright red color that stained everything it came in contact with, including me. I washed out the bag it came in and saved it, to help me make breakfast the next morning. Try as I might, I couldn't get the bright red color out of the bag. I resigned myself to a breakfast of bright red oatmeal.

After dinner, I enjoyed one of the luxuries that my $15 camping fee purchased: I went to a trash can and threw away my trash. After that, I went to a hand pump and pumped myself a full supply of cold, fresh well water -- no filtering required. Those two alone made the camping fee completely worth it.

The temperature had never been particularly warm today, and as the sun headed toward the horizon things were only getting colder. I made another cup of tea, grabbed my Kindle, and headed out to the beach to enjoy the last few minutes of daylight. I sat with my back against a driftwood log, warming in one of the last rays of daylight, and read a few chapters. The sunset itself was merely OK, but relaxing on a beach next to the roar of Superior was well worth it.

Sunset over Lake Superior

After that, I took care of my last few camp chores. The main one was setting up my bear bag. For this trip, I'd purchased a new Ursack, a bear-proof bag that could be tied directly to a tree without having to go through the whole ordeal of finding a good branch to hang it from. I put all of my food inside the smell-proof liner bag, tied the opening tightly shut per the instructions, and tied the whole bag around a smallish tree a way from my campsite.

After a hard day of work followed by a hard afternoon of relaxation, I was ready for sleep. I climbed into my sleeping bag and curled up for the kind of rest that only comes after a day of backpacking.

A few hours later, I woke up, chilled through to the bone despite the fact that I was wearing all of my layers (including a hat). I realized my error quickly: One reason that this site was so well protected from the lake breeze was that it was lower than the other sites nearby. Well, the lake breeze had died off after sunset, and the cold night air had settled into the little hollow where my tent was pitched. I had set up my tent in a refrigerator.

I did a burst of sit-ups, still in my bag, to generate some extra heat. When that started working, I quickly zipped the bag right up tight around me, leaving only my nose and mouth exposed. It was going to be a long, cold night.

Next time: The long and winding trail to Grand Marais

Miles hiked: 7

7 miles, from the campground on the right (Muskallonge) to the campground on the far left (Lake Superior)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Porcupine Mountains 2018, Day 3: Overlook Trail and Union Spring

Last time: Waterfall Extravaganza
New bridge over a restored streambed with tiny Crosscut Cabin in the background

Sunday, May 20, 2018: We woke up around 8:30, thoroughly rested, with the sun already shining high. The cold morning called for hot tea and oatmeal -- but of course, that's all we brought for breakfast anyhow.

We set a pretty general goal for today: to visit the east end of the park and hike a few new-to-us trails. Which trails? We had enough options to fill at least 4 days, so we punted and decided to choose whatever we felt like hiking when we got to the east end. After hiking out and driving east, we decided to start with one of my must-see choices: the Overlook Trail. This is a 3.6 mile loop that climbs up the side of one of the "mountains" (specifically, the Porkies downhill ski hill, an outpost of the Escarpment) and is supposed to give excellent views of the park.

The Government Peak trailhead was oddly crowded, and we were lucky to get a parking spot. Nonetheless, we saw nobody as we huffed and puffed our way up the steep start of the Government Peak trail. The Overlook Trail begins a short distance up this trail, which is also where the Escarpment Trail starts. We paused at the top of the steep uphill, where I reflected on what the Escarpment really is: a giant freaking hill that has outlasted the glaciers and Lake Superior's waves. Don't mess with it.

I had read that the Overlook trail is best hiked counterclockwise, although I didn't know why. The trail meets the Government Peak trail twice, so we passed the barely-marked first intersection and trucked on to the 2nd intersection, which would set us on a counterclockwise path.

The Overlook trail begins in a beautiful old-growth Hemlock forest with a deeply shaded and open understory. We hiked a long, slow uphill that gradually took us up to the shoulders of the Porkies ski hill. We twisted ourselves into pretzels taking photos of wildflowers and skirted around a surprising number of blown down trees.

Dutchman's Breeches

Soon we came to an odd area -- a small square clearing on the downhill side of the trail. It was probably intended to be an overlook, except that whoever had cleared the square had completely forgotten to clear out the tall and dense stand of trees a few steps farther downhill that were completely blocking the view. There was nothing to be seen except tree trunks. I suppose clearing the tiny overlook is probably a good job for summer interns.

The uphill trail got uphillier, and I suddenly noticed just how warm the day had become. This was quite different from yesterday's flat and cool hikes. As we turned a bend in the trail, we saw a bunch surrounded by a halo-like glow... all in front of a real overlook. We flopped onto the bench and ate Clif bars (the only time they ever taste good) while enjoying a fantastic view. A vast panorama was spread out before us: The Escarpment curving into the distance, with the Big Carp River right in the middle and just a hint of Lake of the Clouds around the corner. This was West Vista, and a darn good resting spot it is. A tiny bird and a noisy squirrel chased around the bushes, a light breeze caressed us, and the Clif bars... well, they filled us up at least.

West Vista view

Feeling a bit sorry that we had to leave this beautiful place, we packed up and headed out again. As we did, another day hiker arrived and took our spot on the bench. We nodded and exchanged grunts that said, in universal hiker code, "I feel your pain".

The trail quickly turned downhill, then downhill even more. Our options were to shuffle downhill extremely slowly and carefully -- or else to be flung downhill extremely quickly and painfully. We soon realized why we were advised to hike the trail in this direction: Climbing up this ridiculously steep bit of path would probably make most hikers turn around and head right back the way they came! Unfortunately, as so often happens, my photos completely failed to capture the madness of this trail section.

As we made our way slowly downhill, the day hiker appeared above us, stepped lightly past us, and continued on into the distance, never to be seen again. Maybe not everyone found this downhill quite so tricky.

The trail eventually leveled out -- in fact it got so level that water collected in the trail's tread, and we had to wade through some mighty muddy stretches. I had flashbacks to our 2014 trip when the trails were made of mud, but truly these weren't (quite) that bad.

After one last down-and-up through the lovely valley of Cuyahoga creek, we popped back out onto Government Peak trail and made our way back to the car, tired but with a feeling of accomplishment. We drove to the Union Bay campground's public picnic area (right on the Superior shoreline) and enjoyed a real lunch of peanut butter-covered rice cakes and meat sticks.

As we ate, we discussed options for our next stop. Perhaps an off-trail waterfall hike along the Union River? A direct hike to Trap Falls? Kyle and I had done both of those two years ago. We chose something genuinely new instead: Union Spring, the second largest spring in Michigan. Part of the promise of the Union Spring Trail was that it was extremely flat and as easy as it gets in the Porkies. While we weren't ready to quit for the day, we were feeling more than a little tired from scaling Mt. Skihill.

We drove a short way down South Boundary Road, parked at the Union Spring trailhead, and started the hike, which was indeed remarkably easy. In fact the trail was a well-tended gravel 2-track, complete with ditching and cement bridges over the streams. We strolled slowly through the gently rolling second-growth forest, enjoying the luxuriously well-tended trail. We soon learned the reason for the well-tended road, as we passed a parking area for the Porkies' ski trail system. In the winter, the gates that had blocked this trail would be opened, this road would be plowed, and all skiing and snowshoeing would start from this point -- on a trail system that is completely separate from the usual hiking trails. After the parking area, our trail was marked only with ski trail maps.

We quickly came to a large trail intersection labeled "Crosscut". The ski map posted there was utterly useless for finding the spring (I guess there's not much demand to see it in the winter). We stood in front of the two branches of the trail, looked down each one, looked at each other, and chose the most likely looking branch. The trail soon crossed through an old impoundment -- a drained pond that is a relic of a long gone fish restoration program. I recalled reading about this in a trail guide, which gave me confidence that we'd chosen correctly. We repeated the branch-and-guess process several more times as the trail started to get more overgrown.

The impoundment -- notice the old tree stumps that were once covered by water

Wading along a wet, grassy, overgrown trail, we reached another uncertain branch and decided to turn left, where a ski sign warned us that it was ungroomed. Risking a trek through ungroomed snow in mid-May can indeed be a thing in the UP, but luckily not this year. Not 20 paces down the "ungroomed" trail, we found... a beaver dam! The dam was clearly in active use and blocked up a section of marshy river that we had been following the whole way. The trail went right across the top of the dam, but we did not. We must have made a wrong turn -- not really a surprise. To add to the fun, I found a tick crawling around on my pants, the first of the season. I sent it flying with a vicious flick.

We turned around and backtracked all the way to the first branch, and took the other trail. Just around the first bend, we found a restored section of the impoundment, with the teeny tiny Crosscut Cabin sitting next to it. Once a "contact station" for summer visitors, the cabin later served as a warming hut for skiers, and now is a rentable 2-person cabin. It's so tiny that I can't imagine how you could do anything other than sleep in it, but that is the primary function of a cabin. As a vestige of its former lives, Crosscut still has windows with tiny sliding glass access panes for exchanging money, should the cabin inhabitants feel the need.

A brand new wooden bridge crossed a freshly rip-rapped streambed that led directly back to the (drained) impoundment. I now understood the bizarrely overbuilt road we had walked in on: It had been built up for trucks bringing in supplies and rocks for this restored area.

We spotted a sign just beyond the bridge, in front of a dense and forbidding forest: "Union Spring -- 0.6 miles". We made it a few steps into the trees -- and into the first of the mud holes -- when Sarah turned around. It had been a long day and we'd gone at least 2 extra miles out of our way -- she couldn't handle a nasty, muddy trail on top of that. She headed back to Crosscut and told me to enjoy the trail on my own.

I trucked it out of there as fast as I could. The trail was a solid single track of mud. This was by far the worst trail I'd seen this trip, with deep mudholes and even standing water in places. A curious combination of modern puncheon bridges and old-fashioned corduroy crossed some of the mud, and disappeared right underneath other puddles.

Union Spring and its floating dock

Soon enough, a small sign pointed down a spur to the spring. The spring was actually a small pond with a rich teal color. I walked out onto the floating dock and watched water bubble in sandy clouds from about 6 feet below me. I was not terribly impressed -- while this is Michigan's 2nd largest spring, the largest one (Kitch-iti-kipi in Palm's Book State Park) is enormously more, uh, enormous. I stayed on the dock long enough to get a jolt of energy from some gorp, then turned right around and marched back out of there.

Back at Crosscut, I found Sarah sitting on a bench and nearly screamed as I found another tick crawling on me. Flick -- it was off to haunt somebody else's skin.

Our walk out was long and slow, but at least it was easy and flat. Our tired feet and legs didn't let us forget they were there, though. We drove "home" to Speaker's trailhead and slowly hiked the mile in. As soon as we arrived, Sarah flopped into her hammock. I had failed to set up my hammock earlier, a choice that I deeply regretted. As soon as my hammock was up, I too flopped.

The impoundment, bridge, and restored stream from Crosscut Cabin

As I laid in the hammock, staring at the blue sky, enjoying the sun and the breeze coming off the lake, I counted up the day's miles. Although each individual segment of trail we'd hiked was fairly short, we'd done a lot of segments today! Counting the mile we had to hike in and out from our cabin, the 3.6 miles along the Overlook trail, and 4 miles to Union Spring (plus 2 extra miles of detour), we'd done 11.6 miles today, nearly a record for us. No wonder we were tired!

As the sun lowered and the breeze sprang up, we started to feel a chill. Stiffly climbing out of the hammocks, we hobbled into the cabin. I started a fire in the wood stove and then got dinner going -- freeze dried, as usual. We shared the meal and a can of hard cider that I'd packed in as a surprise. It was a lovely and low-key way to end a very full day.

Except that the day wasn't quite over yet, at least for me. Sarah curled up to read, and I headed out to finish an important job: taking photos of the stars. I'd scouted out a location down by the bank of the creek and planned out a composition that would include stars, the creek, and Lake Superior. I'd tried to set up for photos each night, only to be stymied by clouds. Tonight was perfectly clear and calm. It was much too light out still, and astronomical twilight didn't end (leaving the sky totally dark) until nearly midnight. But it's hard to compose photos in the dark, so I set up the camera, carefully composed the photo, and headed back to the cabin. I read and tended the fire until about 11:15, when I decided the sky was dark enough to get started. My camera has a built-in time lapse feature, meaning that I could leave it unattended, automagically taking a photo every 30 seconds until the battery ran out.

I climbed back up the bank of the stream, billy-goat style, in complete darkness -- the camera pointed towards me, and I didn't dare ruin a photo by turning on my head lamp. I curled up in bed, read for a bit, and then fell asleep. I woke two hours later, feeling like I'd slept many more. Somewhat confused and disoriented, I was totally convinced that I'd left the camera shooting for so long that my battery was long dead. I billy-goated my way back down to the stream with my headlamp on, only to find that the camera was still happily clicking along. I'd ruined the last photo with my headlamp, so I had to stop it then anyhow. Nonetheless, after three nights of trying, my photo of stars rotating through the night sky over the reflective surface of Speaker's Creek turned out pretty well:

Stars  (and a satellite) over Speaker's Creek and Lake Superior

That's the north star (Polaris) at the center of the circles. Neat, eh?

I went back to bed and slept the kind of sleep I only ever sleep while camping.

Miles hiked: 11.6

Monday, May 21, 2018: We woke up around 8 am after a deep and wonderful sleep. We enjoyed our last breakfast while gazing out over the lake. After packing up and moving some fresh firewood inside, we couldn't delay our departure any longer. One mile later we were at the car and headed south.

This was our first time "backpacking" in the Porkies for a couple of years (really, this was more slackpacking). I would say that "I didn't realize how much I missed the Porkies", but that's not true -- I realized it fully, well before we ever came back. Isle Royale is fantastic, and I can't wait to go back -- but the Porkies are really my first backpacking love.

This trip was, as I said, more "slackpacking" -- we only carried full packs on the first and last day, bringing a daypack each other time. This method of staying at a central point and doing interesting hikes from there has really started to appeal to me. Something about age? Blatant laziness? Maybe. But both Sarah and I are more interested about the places we can see, rather than how long our hikes are, or how great our gear is. Staying in a cozy cabin on Lake Superior is one of life's greatest pleasures for both of us, and this trip showed us how to do that while still seeing interesting places.

Of course, in the end, everyone should do whatever they want. If your thing is to hike 20 miles every day with a 40 pound pack -- awesome! Do that. I'll be sitting here, sipping a cider and relaxing in my hammock.

Oh, and just under 2 weeks later, I headed out for another backpacking adventure where I did break my personal daily mileage record. I'll be writing that one up soon. See you then!

    Miles hiked: 1
    Total miles: 19.6

    Sunday, July 22, 2018

    Porcupine Mountains 2018, Day 2: Presque Isle and the Little Carp River

    Last time: Tea and hiking

    Detail of Manabezho Falls

    Saturday, May 19, 2018: I woke up at 9:30 am after 10 straight hours of deep, restful sleep. Nothing puts me to sleep -- and keeps me that way -- quite like a cold dark night with Lake Superior's waves crashing just feet away from my bed.

    After a quick breakfast (the usual -- oatmeal, but with freeze-dried blueberries to substitute for the fresh berries that we would usually pick fresh during an August trip) we packed a daypack and headed out for a day of adventures.

    The sky was thickly clouded, the air was cool, and a brisk breeze came off the lake. These were perfect conditions for our big goal of the day: to photograph waterfalls on the Presque Isle River at the west end of the park. We could have hiked 2 miles along the lake shore to reach the river, but instead we chose the option that would give us more flexibility later: We walked a lovely mile back to our car and drive to Presque Isle.

    The Lovely Sarah hiking out to the road

    The Presque Isle River is the largest river in the Porkies, although unlike the Big and Little Carp Rivers, it flows in from the south and has only a few miles within the park itself. It is also (as with most Porkies rivers) practically made of waterfalls. The west side of the river is heavily built up with boardwalks and a large suspension bridge overlooking Manabezho falls. The east bank has a more rugged trail that runs for much of its length along a high bluff, with only occasional river views.
    Manabezho Falls

    Before we could hike the trails, we had to get through the crowd. For a day very early in the season, there sure were a lot of guys with enormous cameras and tripods the size of... well, themselves, slowly moseying they way along the boardwalks. I guess everyone saw the perfectly gray sky and decided to come out to photograph waterfalls. (Gray days are great for waterfall photos -- too much sun casts shadows that make it hard to photograph running water, while the lack of sun makes it easier to take longer exposures to give the water that lovely "milky" look you see in most of my photos here.)

    We tromped right past 3 photographers who had set up on the suspension bridge, probably ruining their carefully composed waterfall photos as our footsteps shook the bridge.

    The east bank trail started with a steep uphill that got the blood flowing nicely, after which we were high above the river and could barely see it. The trail came back down the hill to river level now and then, but always went right back up again. We took our time composing photos and generally enjoying ourselves. We saw few other hikers -- it seems they all stayed on the bridge with their tripods.
    Fallen trees lined up above a waterfall

    We ate a quick lunch (peanut butter on rice cakes, a meat stick, and gorp for dessert) at a bench overlooking a lovely waterfall -- name unknown, probably not named at all. Soon after we reached the South Boundary Road. Our trail crossed the river on the road and started right up again on the other side of the river, here picking up the North Country Trail. Woohoo, I got to add another mile to my 50 mile challenge!

    Geometry and chaos
    My first thought on setting foot on this trail was... what an incredible smell we've found. The carcass of a not-too-recently dead deer greeted us from right next to the trail. We skirted it and continued on. The west river trail runs right next to the river and gave us a lot more to see than the east river trail. We continued our slow way, photographing everything from tiny rapids to thundering falls.

    A long boardwalk led us down a steep bluff to Nawadaha falls, but ended well before we could get a good view. I shimmied out under the railing and waltzed out onto the exposed rocks of the riverbed. What a perfect spot for photos!

    Nawadaha falls

    I wasn't the only one out here today, and I ended up trading spots with another photographer who had also slithered under the railing and was geeking out at the beautifully sculpted rocks, the sharply contrasting water, and the feathery mist. We carefully waltzed around each other, trying to stay out of each other's shots, then nonchalantly trading places and pretending that we weren't taking exactly the same photos.

    Manabezho's more interesting side

    We continued along the riverbank to Manido, then Manabezho falls. When we couldn't justify any more time spent along the river (quite a high bar to pass -- it took us 4 hours to walk 2 miles!), we headed back to the car. Both of us felt great, so we decided to take advantage of the flexibility that the car gave us -- we blasted right past Speaker's trailhead and continued all the way to the Little Carp River trailhead.

    Twice in past years we had hiked the stretch of the Little Carp River Trail that runs near this trailhead. Both times we walked past a large handful of waterfalls (Overlooked and Greenstone being the only two that have names). But neither time had we been able to stop and smell the, er, falling water. Once the trail had been busy and the weather hot, the next time it was raining and we were miserably just trying to get to our car. This time, we'd see the waterfalls and enjoy them!

    The day was turning much windier, and a few cold raindrops splattered on the windshield as we parked. The temperature had dropped into the high 40's by this point, so we bundled up with our fleeces and rain coats and headed down the steep hill towards the river. After passing a family returning to their car with two extremely squirrely small boys, we were completely alone -- we didn't see another person for the rest of the day.

    (One side of) Overlooked falls. This photo overlooks the other side.
    The road soon crossed a wooden bridge over the Little Carp. The Little Carp might be my favorite river in the park. It runs through some of the most lovely, evergreen-shaded, and downright rugged parts of the park. It is almost always a rich red color, a combination of the river's tannin-rich waters and the pinkish bedrock it runs over. The Little Carp River trail climbs hills shaded by hemlocks while staying within earshot of the burbling river. It's magical.

    We spent a few more hours slowly cavorting about the river, photographing Overlooked and Greenstone falls (and many others in between), wandering out onto spits and outcrops of rock, and enjoying the serenity and solitude of the river.

    Greenstone falls

    We spent most of our time trying to take handheld long exposures of the river, which gives that fetching "creamy" look to the waterfalls. It takes some practice and a lot of attempts. Sure enough, and soon enough, both of our camera's batteries were dead from the long exposures. We hiked back to the car, cranked up the heat, and headed back down the road to Speaker's trailhead.

    The hike back in to the cabin was cold but uneventful. We built a fire in the woodstove right away to start heating up our cold limbs. After some hot tea, we boiled up tonight's freeze dried dinner: chicken noodle soup with dumplings, a favorite old standby.

    Late evening hillside
    The gray sky started to clear up shortly before sunset, leaving only a light haze high overhead. The late evening light lit up the hillsides around the cabin with a spectacular glow. I wandered around with my camera in hand, constantly finding ordinary scenes turned into the magical. Especially lovely was the trail that leads up the steep hill to the outhouse. In this light, it looked far more beautiful -- and less smelly -- than at high noon.

    This trail leads to the outhouse.
    As the sun dropped below the horizon, I sat along the shore and enjoyed the breathtakingly beautiful stars and the sound of the surprisingly calm lake. Because of the light haze, I decided not to attempt star photos tonight. Maybe tomorrow?

    Sunset over Speaker's creek, Lake Superior, and oh yeah, a sunset too

    Next time: A little too much hiking

    Miles hiked: 6
    Total miles: 7

    Pink: Speaker's Trail. Green: Presque Isle waterfall route. Blue: Little Carp.

    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