Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Porcupine Mountains Solo April 2022, Day 2: Presque Isle and Black River Waterfalls

Last time:  Union Mine waterfallsAll backpacking posts

You can find links to all of my hiking and backpacking trips in the adventure index.

One of the Presque Isle waterfalls, although heaven knows which one

Saturday April 23, 2022: I slept well, snuggled into my incredibly cozy camping quilt. The night was colder than predicted, and my brain kept waking me up to tend the wood stove fire. Occasional rainstorms sped through, pitter-pattering on my yurt's roof. Lake Superior absolutely roared all night long, with white caps crashing against the shore. As one log book entry put it, "some people pay hundreds of dollars for a white noise generator as good as Lake Superior."

I finally awoke to this view -- not one that most campers would be excited about. I have no idea why these curtains are in the yurt:

Aaaaaah, a bear! (Actually an ad for "Yukon Thunder" soap in curtain form.)

The woodstove was cold and the morning was chilly. I restarted the fire from embers (zero matches!) and got the yurt warmed up in no time. On-and-off rain continued as the wind gusted and Lake Superior attacked the shore. I took my time enjoying breakfast (mush, I mean, oatmeal), reading, and generally having a lazy morning.

When things looked dry enough, I headed out on the day's adventure: more waterfalls! This time my target was the many waterfalls on the Presque Isle River, at the opposite end of the park. Because the park's roads were still locked in with ice and snow, I took the long way around (compare to the usual South Boundary Road route in red):

The long way to the west side of the park

As I drove, the sun unexpectedly came out. Wisps of fog and mist streamed across the road as the rain and sun encountered frozen ground and snow.

An hour later, I arrived at the gated and locked entrance to the Presque Isle campground. I was far from the only person to have the idea to visit the Presque Isle waterfalls today -- I parked behind a line of 4 or 5 other cars. The road to the campground itself was still covered in several inches of ice and snow.

I wore rain pants and a rain coat along with my day pack. The most recent weather forecast called for a gray but warm day with occasional rain, clearing up in the afternoon. It was already getting sunny, but I decided not to chance it.

Presque Isle River Rapids

I've seen the Presque Isle waterfalls before, but the West River trail is always a pleasant walk. The river was roaring with spring melt, as thousands upon thousands of gallons of water roared over every rapid and waterfall. I spent lots of time taking photos, but like yesterday, the unexpectedly sunny sky gave me trouble. It also warmed me up, until I eventually had to take off all of my rain gear.

Part of yet another waterfall on the Presque Isle river

I eventually reached the suspension bridge to the "almost" island that gives Presque Isle its name. Here I did something new: I walked the island down toward the river mouth, which was surprisingly quiet and calm. Not a soul was around, and I could scarcely believe that the lazy river that emptied into the lake was the same as the roaring torrent just a few hundred yards upstream.

The "dry" side of the river

I sat down on a convenient patch of grass and ate my usual camping lunch -- rice cakes with peanut butter -- while I watched the river flow past. It was immensely enjoyable: quiet, solitary, and beautiful. In retrospect, it was the best part of the day.

The "island" in the middle of the Presque Isle river's mouth divides the river in two. Most times of the year, the east branch of the river is totally dry, and you can walk across the riverbed in peace. Today, this "dry" side of the river was running high, a sure sign of just how much melt water was pouring down from the highlands. I eventually got up from my quiet patch of grass and hiked upstream, until I came to a waterfall I had never seen before. In most times of the year, this is bare and dry rock:

Not dry this time!

I climbed carefully down to a ledge near the waterfall and tried to take photos of the rushing water. Today, the waterfall was running so hard that I couldn't keep the camera lens dry -- which is why you get the blurry photo! As I sat down here, a family I'd been playing leapfrog with all day appeared, featuring a 2-ish year old who proceeded to throw a stick directly at me. The parents, staring at the waterfall, didn't seem to notice nor care.

Normally, hikers cross over to the east side of the river by walking across the dry riverbed. That wasn't possible this time, so I backtracked along the west bank, enjoying the waterfalls a second time.

View from the Presque Isle suspension bridge


By the time I got back to the car, there were still many hours of daylight left -- so many that it felt silly to drive back and sit in my yurt. So, I decided to check out one of my "stretch" goals for the trip: the waterfalls along the Black River, which I had never before seen. The Black River runs roughly parallel to the Presque Isle river, just a few miles west of the park.

A few miles as the crow flies, that is. No drivable roads head directly west to the Black River and the Black River Scenic Byway that runs along it (although the North Country Trail makes a nice beeline that way). Once again I ended up taking the loooooong way around:

Crow-flying distance from start to finish: About 5 miles.

The whole route took nearly an hour on the road, but the trip took much longer than that in total. That's because waterfall after waterfall pours down the Black River, and I stopped at (almost) every one. The National Forest Service has done a nice job of building up each of the waterfall areas with a parking area, a quarter-mile of trail, and an enormous flight of steps down to the river.

I ooh'd and aah'd at almost every waterfalls (I accidentally blasted right past Great Conglomerate falls). However, each waterfall's parking area was closed for the winter, so cars had to find their own ways to park wherever was clear. Sometimes I had to walk an extra mile, other times I just had to try not to fall down an icy flight of stairs.

Sandstone Falls on the Black River

I was perfectly nice. Well, mostly. Certainly the scenery was beautiful, the woods deep, the rocks dramatic, the rivers roaring. Nothing to complain about, right?

The problem was... well, there were two problems. First, much like everything else in the western UP, the Black River was absolutely filled with the meltwater from a long, hard, and snowy winter. This sounds like a good thing: Water is what makes waterfalls waterfalls, right? More falling water = more waterfall. That's true, but often the best part of waterfalls is not about the amount of water, but what the water looks like.

There was so much water running down the waterfalls that they had almost no definition or shape. The rocks that give the waterfalls form, the eddies and rapids that give them interest--they were all hidden under thousands upon thousands of gallons of rushing whitewater, spray, and foam. The sheer volume was impressive (and loud!), of course, but there's really only so many ways for a few zillion gallons of water to rush over a ledge.

Rainbow Falls on the Black River


When I got home several days later, I looked up photos of the waterfalls in other times of years, and they were much more interesting than what I saw. More than once I said "oh, that's what the waterfall is supposed to look like!" Fall would be a perfect season to view the Black River waterfalls; early spring is not.

The second problem was more about the format of the trip. In the end, the day's waterfall visits got more than a little repetitive: Drive a couple of miles, find the next access road, figure out how to park without getting stuck in the snow, hike in to the real parking lot, hike down 100 steep steps to a viewing platform, spend a few minutes seeing yet another roaring waterfall, and then reverse all of the steps.

I was getting tired at this point, but I also just didn't enjoy the repetition. Unlike yesterday's wonderful hike to the Union River, today's hike was broken up into many short segments, punctuated by short drives. I should have realized this long ago, but I really prefer one long hike to many small ones. Spend some time on my feet, get to really see a place from the ground, get into "nature" mode. It's just not fun to stop and start constantly, switching my mind between the details of driving and the joy of hiking. That's what the Black River waterfalls had me doing, and it did not do the trick for me.

There's quite a large drop-off between foreground and distance


I finally made it all the way to the end of the road -- Black River Harbor, once the site of a struggling fishing village, now the site of a nicely maintained park. A wedding party clung to each other in the increasing windy day. I briefly walked around the park, checked out a suspension bridge across the river (to me it looked just like the one at Presque Isle), and then I got back in the car to undo the entire trip.

I did do one very un-camping thing: I stopped at the Burger King in Ironwood for a good old fashioned greasy dinner. After just one day of camping, it was still amazing.

As I started the long drive home (of course, it was the looooooong way), the sprinkles and wind turned into downpours and blasts. Thunder, lightening, wind gusts, and even more fog and mist! The weather only added to my discontented mood. I drove slowly along M-28 until I finally outran the nasty weather.

Waterfall detail


I stopped by Headquarters to top up my water supply, which is when the torrential rain caught up with me again. At least I had a rain coat with me. It must have been a narrow line of storms, because shortly after the torrential rain caught up with me -- in fact, just after I'd finally filled up my water pack -- the storm blew past and left just a light mist.

I parked back at Union Bay and walked across the campground, pondering how I enjoyed Friday's waterfall hike so much more than today's. As I did, I noticed two things:

First, most of the shelf ice and icebergs that were present yesterday were gone. Blown out to sea or melted away (or both)? Either way, the spring melt continued unabated.

Second, a group of birds feeding on the ground flew up in front of me, leaving this strange birdie to forage on its own:

Mystery bird

Any clue what it is? It was almost like a white version of a Goldfinch, but larger. My best bet is some sort of albino or mutant.

The evening continued windy with occasional rain showers blowing through. I had expected today to be gray but dry, so once again the forecast was... imprecise. I spent most of the evening indoors, except for a brief burst of hauling and splitting more firewood between showers.

The night was warm enough that I didn't light a fire. I fell asleep to the howling wind and roaring waves crashing against the shore. Even a less-than-stellar day that ended in a cozy yurt next to Lake Superior was still pretty good by any standards.

View through the yurt's roof window

Next time: Snowshoes and sunburn - All backpacking posts

Miles hiked: 6 (3.1 at Presque Isle, 2.1 along Black River, and 0.8 back and forth to the car)

Total miles: 12.9

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Porcupine Mountains Solo April 2022, Day 1: Intro and Union Mine Waterfalls

This is the first of 3 posts about my solo visit to the Porcupine Mountains in April 2022.

More coming soon! Until then, check out my full list of adventure posts.

An unnamed Porcupine Mountains waterfall on the Little Union River

In "real life," I'm a math professor. I teach for a living. But in Winter semester of 2022, I got an opportunity that only comes around once every 7 or 8 years: A semester without teaching. As part of this "sabbatical," my entire job was to sit down and write a book about teaching. This meant that I could truly set my own schedule. The Lovely Sarah (who sadly did not have a sabbatical) encouraged me to make the most of this flexible semester, especially by taking trips that I might not otherwise be able to do.

The first trip was a "writing retreat" to the Keweenaw in late February. I spent half of my time writing, and the other half snowshoeing (and the third half coughing). More on that later, perhaps.

My second trip -- the one I'm writing about here -- happened near the end of Winter semester, late April 2022. Right around final exam week, I decided I'd rather be anywhere else. So I reserved the Union Bay East yurt at the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park -- my favorite bit of wilderness anywhere -- and headed north for a Spring adventure.

An early Spring adventure, that is. Previously I'd visited the Porkies in mid-Spring: Once with Kyle, and once with Sarah (and a late spring visit just last year). We'd gotten lucky on each of those trips, which turned out sunny and dry. I knew that I was rolling the dice with an April trip to the UP. The winter of 2021-22 turned out to be one of the snowiest in recent years -- over 300 inches in the western UP! -- and spring was long and cold. During the winter, the roads around the Porkies are snowmobile trails, and they get so packed down that it takes months for them to melt and open to vehicles again. Some years the weather warms quickly and the roads open early, but not this year. By the time I left for the UP, not even a single mile of the 25-mile South Boundary Road was clear enough to drive on. The forecast continued to call for cold, rain, and possibly even snow.

An unnamed rapid on the Union River

Thursday April 21, 2022: So it was that I headed north with the full expectation that I'd be stuck indoors most of the time. Oh well, a weekend stuck next to beautiful Lake Superior wouldn't be so bad, especially since my yurt had a wood stove.

I stayed the night with my parents-in-law in Newberry. Everything there had melted except their snow piles, but what piles they were! My parents-in-law expressed a bit of concern: Did I really know what I was getting into?

Friday April 22, 2022: On Earth Day 2022, I woke up early, enjoyed a lovely breakfast with my parents-in-law, and headed west towards the Porkies. The drive was easy and I made great time, stopping only to grab another coffee and a donut at the Huron Mountain Bakery in Marquette.

I arrived at the park by early afternoon and checked in at Headquarters. The Visitor Center is only open May 15 - October 14, so campers have to stop by the much less grand HQ building to check in during the long, long winter.

My yurt was located right next door to the Union Bay campground, but the campground was also closed for the season. I parked at the muddy Folk School parking lot, right outside the locked gates to the campground. I hefted on my backpack (yes, I packed for backpacking) and walked across the campground, which was also soggy with melt water. 

Union Bay East yurt. The green box is the "chuckwagon" (a bear-proof storage box).

The yurt was just as expected: a big round tent-like thing perched on a bluff just above the Greatest Lake. It was my first time at the Union Bay East yurt, and I was welcomed with a gray sky and a cool breeze.

Yurt interior with skylight (it's a plastic bubble)

I quickly set up the basics and was back outside as quickly as possible. I still had daylight left, and it wasn't raining too much -- why waste it?

I parked just outside of Headquarters, in front of the barricades and signs warning that South Boundary Road was closed to vehicles. A couple was just heading up the road on mountain bikes, one of them with a trailer attached.

I put my own gear together: A daypack (yes, I brought a daypack in addition to my backpack!) filled with a camera, lenses, and everything I would need in case I had to spend a night in the woods. I wore a light raincoat, rain pants, and of course snowshoes! I was wearing winter boots and decided carry the snowshoes for now, since the road looked walkable at the start. I also brought along a sub that I'd bought in L'Anse but never eaten, chewing it quickly as I headed south along the icy snowmobile trail that is South Boundary Road.

 
Starting out clear... ... 1 mile later, getting icy...

The Porcupine Mountains climb higher and higher as you move south from the lake towards the interior highlands. As a result, the farther you get from Lake Superior, the more snow there is. Sound Boundary road follows exactly this path. Near Lake Superior it was remarkably clear, with only snowy shoulders. But as I walked away from the lake (always south, always uphill), it became more and more snowy and icy.

... 3+ inches of ice with snow on top (and a bonus deer).

Around the first bend, I found a ski trail crossing and quickly checked it out. The trail was snowy, slushy, and muddy where water flowed underneath the snow. I kept postholing -- my feet breaking through the snow and into the mud -- so I stomped back out to the road and continued walking.

At this point, I made a strange decision that (in retrospect) I can't explain at all. I set my snowshoes by the side of the road and left them, to be picked up later. Somehow thinking that I wouldn't need them -- even after the ski trail experience!

A little farther up the road, I caught up with the mountain bikers, who had stopped and were unpacking gear from their mini bike trailer. We chatted pleasantly for a while, while they switched from riding bikes to hauling sleds, complete with snowshoes strapped on top. They were heading in to a nearby cabin. "We're glampers" one told me, contrary to all evidence. I wished them luck and continued on to my goal, the Union Mine trail.

I soon found where the trail crossed the road, and popped down to check out the Union River. This is where I finally realized my snowshoe mistake. The snow was still a foot or two deep, mushy and wet. Snowshoes would work wonders -- but I was at least a mile away from my snowshoes, and I didn't want to walk two miles (back and forth) to get them. Oh well -- I forged onward, slipping, sliding, and sometimes sinking up to my knees.

The Union Mine's "waterwheel" waterfall

The Union River was as beautiful as ever, shaded by tall hemlocks and gushing over an endless series of rapids and slides. I had indeed hit things at just about the peak of the melt. Out came my Serious Camera, and I started getting back into photography mode.

This is where I first noticed the huge temperature difference between the road (warm!) and anywhere down near the river (cold!). It made sense -- could air sinks -- but I've rarely felt such a pronounced difference.

I crossed to the other side of the road and continued following the Union Mine interpretive trail, postholing the whole way. The trail follows the Union River for a while, and that river is basically made of waterfalls through here. They were roaring.

The Union Mine trail turns away from the river eventually and then rejoins the Little Union River near an old mine shaft. One of the largest waterfalls in the Porkies runs through a deep gorge here, although in most seasons it is just a trickle. It wasn't a trickle today, and I spent quite a while enjoying (and photographing) it.

A waterfall that barely exists for most of the year

In every blog post I write about Porkies waterfalls, I'm obligated to quote Jim Dufresne's excellent Porkies guidebook:

"Downstate [Porkies waterfalls] would be the centerpiece of a state park, but here they are so commonplace they are unnamed and left off the park maps."

None of the waterfalls I saw today had names, and especially not this beautiful and quite large seasonal waterfall.

Here I turned off-trail, following the Little Union River downstream to Dan's Cabin. This is the luxurious backwoods accommodation for Porkies Artists-in-Residence, named in honor of the late Porkies photographer (and founder of the Friends of the Porkies) Dan Urbanski. The cabin sits just next to the "hall of waterfalls" on the Little Union River that thoroughly enchanted me when I visited with Kyle, and captured me again on this much snowier visit.

Dan's Cabin

At this point, an oddly bad thing happened: The sun came out! While that was lovely and pleasant and all, it was actually a problem for photographing waterfalls: Too much sunlight makes it hard to take a long exposure, which gives that wonderful milky blur to the water. I wandered around a while and finally gave up. I left by following a ski trail out to the road.

I returned the way I'd come, heading downhill back towards Lake Superior. I crossed a different branch of the Union Mine trail and popped in quickly to check out yet another of the Porkies' biggest waterfalls, which was also roaring (and is also little more than a trickle in the summer).

Another huge waterfall that is usually just a trickle

Back on the road, I trudged along, quite tired from all of the snow slogging. A deer watched me warily, and I noticed some tracks that were either from a very large dog--or a wolf!

I eventually made it back to my much-missed snowshoes, which I picked up and trudged back to my car. My final mileage to, from, and along the 1-mile Union Mine interpretive trail was 5.7 miles. Nonetheless, the hike satisfied me in a very specific way: A long, tough hike to get to a beautiful place that is inaccessible by any other means, and plenty of time enjoying that place. This was an excellent beginning to my Porkies visit, and I'd barely been here for half of a day!

I drove back to Headquarters and took advantage of a wonderful feature: Free potable water! I filled up my water filter's "clean" bag from the always-available faucet just outside the main entrance. Four free liters, no filtering required.

Back at Union Bay campground, I parked and walked in again. I met a father and son trudging out, heavily laden with gear and food. They had been staying at the Union Bay West yurt -- my neighbors -- but were leaving early. They offered me their well-dried firewood, knowing that cool weather was coming. I thanked them for the offer and continued on. Nobody else would be in the West yurt all weekend.

Detail of yet another waterfall

With plenty of daylight left, and with nicely warm temperatures for the moment, I settled in at the yurt's picnic table and read the cabin's log books. There was a brand new log book, just a few days old. The most recent visitors to the yurt were three students from Michigan Tech who had visited the Porkies as part of an Ecology class. That's a class I'd have liked to take! There was also an older log book, fully filled, that stretched all the way back to 2018. I ate dinner as I read (freeze-dried lasagna -- adequate, if not amazing) and enjoyed stories of camping trips long past. Perhaps because the yurt is so close to a modern campground and parking lot, the logs lacked many of the tales of struggle and poor planning that feature in so many many backcountry cabin logbooks.

After dinner, I hauled in some fresh firewood. The park provides wood for heating the cabins that are open in the winter. The wood was fairly wet, despite the large tarp covering the pile. The logs were split, but still much too large to be useful in the wood stove. I spent some re-splitting the wood with the yurt's axe, and then hauled in a large pile that would need several days to dry.

The yurt's fire pit, on the other hand, was disgusting. Someone had left an enormous amount of unburned napkins or paper, which had gotten wet and soggy. There was also a partly burned plastic bag and styrofoam meat tray (they never burn! stop trying!) and some mysterious food remnants. Maybe a lobster shell?

What not to do with a fire pit. Click to enlarge, if you dare.

I vowed to clean out the fire pit before I left. For now, I left it: When you don't have regular running water and soap, you think really hard before getting your hands that messy.

At one point, just for the heck of it, I turned on my cell phone. Magically, I had one tiny bar of service! (I've never had cell service anywhere in the Porkies, except for a few occasional high points like Government Peak.) Apparently this stretch of Lake Superior shoreline catches some distant tower's signal. I checked in with Sarah, who was preparing for the next day's final exams, and then went right back into airplane mode. Why waste Porkies time on doomscrolling?

Evening slowly slid in. It was hard to tell, with the uniformly gray sky. There was no sunset to speak of. The wind slowly increased and the waves roared against the rocky shore.

The temperature remained moderate, but I knew it would be cool tonight. I moved inside and got a small fire started in the wood stove -- one match! (The detailed instructions in the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion have served me quite well over the years.) I fed it logs slowly all evening while I sat and read on my Kindle.

Inside the yurt: Two bunks, a wood stove, and a table.

Eventually I snuggled in to my bed: A highly insulated air mattress (the yurt's mattresses were as rock-hard as ever) and a 0-degree camping quilt. Together with the small bit of heat from the wood stove, I was as snug as a backpacker could hope to be.

Next time: Day 2 - Too many waterfalls!

Miles hiked: 6.9 (including 1.2 miles just back and forth to the car)

Total miles: 6.9

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Porkies Solo 2021, Day 4: Escarpment and home

All backpacking posts - Last time: A day of many adventures.

You can find links to all of the days of this trip at the bottom of my post. Links to all of my hiking and backpacking trips are in the adventure index.

Lake of the Clouds

Thursday August 12, 2021: Although yesterday had been breezy and pleasant, the wind dropped off around sunset. That left me to toss and turn through a hot and stagnant night. For some reason, as I rolled over half-awake, I kept worrying about bears (despite the fact that I was in a cabin!). That even kept me from getting up and going outside to enjoy the remarkably clear night sky.

Nonetheless, I still woke up at 6:30 am, ready to enjoy the sunrise. In fact, this was the first time this entire trip that I could actually see the sun rise!

Looking at the West end of Lake of the Clouds

I made a cup of tea, picked up my Serious Camera, and wandered all of a dozen yards from the front door of the cabin down to the shore of Lake of the Clouds. What a beautiful setting! I had a panoramic view of the Escarpment to the east, the interior highlands to the south, and the Carp River valley to the west, all framing the placid waters of Lake of the Clouds. The sky was just starting to glow in the east, behind the Escarpment. I sat on the overturned rowboat and enjoyed the world around me as I sipped my tea.

As the glow of the rising sun slowly intensified, a family of trumpeter swans chose the perfect moment to cruise past on their morning tour of the lake:

Trumpeter swan parade

The sky was mostly cloud-free, which is a problem for sunrises and sunsets. A few well-placed clouds can really catch the light and turn it brilliant colors. That didn't happen, but the lake was still its usual gorgeous self as the sun rose, shining directly along the lake's length.

I spent nearly an hour sitting along the shore, enjoying the scenery, taking photos, and watching the swans tour the rest of the lake.

Sunrise over the Escarpment

Eventually, I went back inside for a quick breakfast of mush and a second round of tea. As I ate, I wrote in the log and philosophized about my solo trip. Today was the last day of the trip, and I had just a short hike to do before meeting up with Sarah.

I packed up and bade the Lake of the Clouds cabin a fond farewell. Despite my poor sleep, I loved the cabin and its amazing setting. I was already mentally planning a return visit -- with Sarah!

The hike up the Escarpment was just as invigorating as it was last night. I turned east at the top and started along the Escarpment itself. The Escarpment trail winds in and out of the forest, popping out to breathtaking views of Lake of the Clouds and the upper Big Carp river, and then diving back down into the trees on rocky and cobble-strewn paths.

I've hiked the Escarpment many times, but it had been quite a few years since the last time. It was good to get back on the Escarpment, the premiere Michigan hike (in my not-so-humble opinion), and enjoy its beauty all over again.

Looking back at Lake of the Clouds with the Escarpment

There were a surprising number of hikers out on this early morning. I ended up playing leapfrog with several of them as we all chose different times to stop and enjoy gorgeous views. Oddly, many of them seemed to be walking (or in some cases, carrying) Corgis along the rocky path.

The Escarpment played its rollercoaster game, dodging in and out of the trees. I made my way slowly down the steep descent near the middle. At the bottom, I passed the remains of the Carp Lake mine and paused to examine an old well hidden in the trees. Then back up the other side, even more steeply before popping out into yet another gorgeous view.

I stopped frequently to take photos and enjoy the views. One of the best parts of the Escarpment is that you get to see Lake of the Clouds from so many angles, as you walk along and then beyond it.

Plus, I was making great time and felt no need to rush. In one open area, I turned off my phone's airplane mode and caught one bar of service. I texted Sarah to let her know about my progress.

Upper Big Carp river

I also spent time chatting with hikers and groups, as I had done all of this trip. One couple was originally from Michigan but had moved to Maine. They were back visiting the Porkies for the first time ever. Others were on dayhikes and asked about my backpack, often with a sense of awe: "Did you carry that the whole way?" (By this point, my already lightweight pack felt almost fluffy. I could get used to these short trips...)

Eventually, I left the last overlook over the Upper Big Carp valley and started a long, long descent back to the Government Peak trailhead. In this direction, it was a mildly knee-bending walk through a rocky tunnel of green. Hiking the other direction, this was a long, long uphill that often surprises and demoralizes hikers starting out on the Escarpment. It's the reason that I usually recommend people hike the Escarpment as a there-and-back, starting at Lake of the Clouds and turning around 2 or 3 miles into the trip.

I arrived at the Government Peak trailhead about 15 minutes before our agreed-upon meetup time. I dropped my back, sat at a bench, and enjoyed a brief rest.

The trailhead was, again, packed with cars (on a Thursday! Seriously!). The small gravel parking lot was completely filled, and cars were lined up on both sides of the road. Some of them were outfitter vans that had probably dropped off large number of tourists.

Big Carp, looking towards White Pine


Eventually, I recognized a car that drove past -- Sarah had arrived! She grabbed me in a big hug, which was impressive given the level of funk that I thought I'd accumulated over the last four days. She claimed not to notice. True love.

We caught up as we headed back down the road. The first and most important item was to decide on a place for lunch. After four days in the woods, I was ready for something hearty. The winner was Syl's in Ontonagon, locally famous for its greasy-spoon cuisine.

We sat on Syl's "patio" (a table on the sidewalk) and split a pasty, sandwich, and onion rings. As we ate, we caught up on the past four days. It turned out that Sarah had been at the Lake of the Clouds overlook last night for the meteor storm viewing party! It was a busy event, with few shooting stars but clear views of the sky.

Eventually, we finished up our hearty lunch and headed back to Sarah's parents, where I got my first shower since Tuesday's thunderstorm. It was wonderful.

Carp River panorama

Some final thoughts: This was my first solo trip since my 2019 visit to Isle Royale. As with that trip, I noticed that more people seem willing to talk with solo hikers than with groups. Sarah noticed something similar on her separate trips. Perhaps it's something about how each of us acts when on our own? Or is it just that there is social pressure to avoid interrupting a group?

I enjoyed being able to set my own pace on this solo trip, to investigate things I might not have stopped at otherwise, and to hike some new trails and see some new cabins. Especially on my third day, I did a lot of side trips that involved bushwhacking -- something Sarah has no interest in. In general, I enjoy trips both solo and with Sarah, and this one was a nice mix: Traveling up north together, going our own ways for a few days, and then coming back together for stories and laughs.

The Escarpment trail runs through here

Trails: After this trip, I've hiked almost every trail in the Porkies. Indeed, my goal for the trip was to visit some of the last few trails that I've never been on before.

Lost Lake trail was a curious one. Even though I hiked it in sweltering heat and ended up nearly exhausted with heat, I still enjoyed it. By combining Lost Lake with the northern part of Government Peak trail, you can see a spectacular cross-section of the park. Those two trails together pass through both deciduous and evergreen old growth, along (and across) rivers and waterfalls, and of course over lots of hills. The segments along the Upper Big Carp river are especially worthwhile. I would do that cross-park hike again in a heartbeat.

The west part of Government Peak trail was also new, and uninspiring. It was mostly a mildly bumpy tunnel of green, and Government Peak itself had no view, just steep sides. It might be an interesting route to enjoy fall colors, but otherwise I won't worry about taking it again.

The only major trail remaining on my list is the infamous Cross Trail, a 4.5 mile trail that cuts straight through the middle of a swamp. Some day, maybe...

Lake of the Clouds Cabin windows

Cabins and yurts: This trip also checked off a few new cabins for me.

Lost Creek Yurt was fine but not great. It's set in a second-growth forest, surrounded by trees. Among other things, I strongly prefer cabins on lakes or at least rivers, and the yurt barely even has a stream. I would consider staying there again if I needed to, but I wouldn't go out of my way to re-visit the yurt.

Mirror Lake 4 Bunk was a new cabin in an old familiar location. It is a beautiful true log cabin. Being right on the trail has its plusses and minuses, many of which fit both categories: More people pass by, more chances to socialize, and more distractions and noise. On the other hand, while the cabin is closer to the lake, it barely has a view. The windows mostly point into forest and don't even let much light in. That said, there's a lot more room than the Mirror Lake 2 Bunk, which might be enough to get me to stay in the 4 Bunk again next time I visit.

Lake of the Clouds cabin was the clear winner of the trip. What a gorgeous, bright, beautiful cabin in a gorgeous, bright, and beautiful place! For whatever reason, I didn't have any trouble with unwanted visitors poking their heads down the access trail. So many wrote about that trouble in the log book, but I got lucky. I'll definitely make this cabin the centerpiece of some future trip.

There are now very few cabins remaining in the interior of the park that I haven't stayed in yet: Big Carp 4 Bunk, Mirror Lake 8 Bunk, and the new Cotten Cabin are the only ones I can think of. But, there are quite a few larger and newer cabins around the edge of the east end that I've never visited, and aren't high on my list.

Interior of the Lake of the Clouds cabin

All in all, this was a wonderful trip, despite the heat and storms. I would definitely do it again.

Miles hiked: 4.5, all on trail
Total miles: 27.6

Day 4's hike in blue

You can find links to all of my adventures in the Adventure Index. Here are links to the other posts in this series:

Monday, October 11, 2021

Porkies Solo 2021, Day 3: Mirror Lake to Lake of the Clouds

All backpacking posts - Last time: Bath by Thunderstorm.

You can find links to all of my hiking and backpacking trips in the adventure index.

A ravine from one of today's many adventures

Wednesday August 11, 2021: I slept long and hard in the Mirror Lake 4 Bunk. I woke up well after dawn and found a cool but cloudy morning. I felt great, headache-free, and actually hungry for the first time in days. It turned out that this was perfect, because today would be absolutely filled with excellent adventures! I started with...

The adventure of the lazy morning! I knew today's hike would be short, so I spent a lazy morning enjoying tea and oatmeal on the bench near the fire pit. I read more in the log book and enjoyed a book on my Kindle.

Oh, and I cleaned out the wood stove, too. I opened the stove's door on a whim and discovered that it was filled with foil, empty freeze-dried food packets, styrofoam, and other partially combusted junk. None of these items actually burn, but that doesn't stop people from trying (and conveniently forgetting when it doesn't work). I crammed the scraps into my trash bag, then started sorting through the fire pit for good measure. In the end I had a full trash bag and incredibly dirty hands, but at least things were (on average) a bit cleaner than when I arrived.

I stuffed the trash bag in the side pocket of my pack and walked down to the lake to wash my hands. The clouds were low in the sky and mist hung heavily over the lake. A pair of loons were on patrol, and their haunting calls echoed across the lake.

When I had done all of the cleaning and reading I could manage, I decided it was time to go. I left a note in the log book, swept the floor as thoroughly as can be done in a 70+ year old log cabin, and went to pick up my pack. Right on cue, thunder crashed and a torrential downpour started.

With a shrug, I pulled my Kindle out of my pack and settled in to read some more. I really wasn't in a hurry.

Farewell selfie with cabin, from the Mirror Lake shore

A fast-moving thunderstorm swept through, bringing a reprise of yesterday's heavy rain. The wind whipped through the cabin, and I had to seal up the windows. But just as quickly as it arrived, the storm blew past, leaving the sun to peek through the clouds.

Tentatively, I picked up my pack, strapped it on, and took one last look at the cabin. Mirror Lake 4 bunk had been a nice enough place, and an excellent shelter in a storm. It was a beautiful true log cabin. But in the end, its dim setting, proximity to the trail, but strange lack of view of the lake all conspired to make it not one of my favorites.

It was noon, and today's route was simple: Follow the North Mirror Lake trail downhill all the way from the interior highlands to Lake of the Clouds. My cabin for the night was the super-popular Lake of the Clouds cabin, which was my 3rd new cabin on this trip.

The trails were a bit muddy, but only in the top layer -- after weeks of little rain, the water soaked in quickly. This was nothing like the boot-sucking mud after a good Porkies spring melt.

Wetland boardwalk

I passed through the beautiful wetland again, and paused to enjoy each wildflower along the way. Then it was up a hill, past Government Peak trail, and down a long stretch of green tunnel. I crossed a small stream that drains a swamp, and which also marks two important points in the trail: The start of the steep downhill to Lake of the Clouds, and the start of the enormous ravine that runs just west of the trail for nearly its entire descent.

The enormous downhill is exactly what it sounds like: One extremely long downhill hike over roots and rocks, as you lose almost all elevation between the central highlands and Lake of the Clouds. The entire way down, the trail parallels an enormous ravine cut by a tiny, unnamed tributary of Scott Creek.

I had tried to explore the ravine before on several occasions, but never made it very far. This time, when I reached the bottom of the enormous downhill, I was ready for a rest. And of course, by a "rest", I meant dropping my pack and scrambling back up the ravine.

A picturesque ravine (path to mine shaft hiding on the left)


The adventure in the ravine! At the bottom of the downhill, the ravine becomes a shallow stream bed. I dropped my bright red backpack in an obvious location (to make it easy for rescuers to find -- yes, that was my thought process), pulled out my Big Camera, and turned up the stream. The stream bed was mossy and slick, so I took my time as I enjoyed the views.

A slight digression: In 2015, USA Today hosted a well-publicized competition to determine "America's Best State Park." The Porkies nearly won, beat only by an upstate New York park named Letchworth State Park, the "Grand Canyon of the East." The next year, Sarah and I decided it was worth taking a trip to visit this place, and along the way we visited the 3rd place winner as well: Watkins Glen State Park, also in upstate New York. Letchworth and Watkins Glen were indeed spectacular. The defining feature of both were trails that followed deep canyons, cut by rivers deep into bedrock. Over the years, New Deal agencies and others had built similarly spectacular stone walkways and bridges that wound through the canyons.

Ravine again

The beauty of the Porkies is quite different from the New York state parks. The Porkies are all about cliffs, lakes, and forests -- they really don't have anything like those canyons. Or so I thought, until I climbed up this ravine. The ravine reminded me exactly of what the canyons of Watkins Glen and Letchworth must have looked like before the WPA and CCC tamed them with walkways and bridges. The high rocky walls were fractured into huge brick-like blocks. Narrow rays of sunlight snuck through the fast-moving clouds and highlighted the moss that covered walls, along with the ferns that grew from every crack. The stream bed was filled with massive boulders covered thick with moss, surrounded by cobbles and tiny burbling waterfalls. The air was cool and humid, filled with the scent of green things.

An unusual feature along the side of the ravine caught my eye: A very regularly shaped wall of rock and debris surrounding a water-filled pit. I realized that this was, almost certainly, the Devon mine -- an extremely short-lived copper mine from the 1840's. I'd actually visited this ravine many years ago to search for this mine, but didn't make it this far. The Devon lasted less than a year -- probably not enough to realize that their shaft would be drowned by the spring floods each year.

Ferns clinging to the ravine wall

The ravine was a magical hidden place in the middle of another magical hidden place. I spent half an hour slowly climbing up the ravine, taking photos, and breathing deeply in the humid air trapped in its tall walls.

Eventually, I found a convenient spot to climb up the side of the ravine -- probably an old access trail to the mine shaft, now basically a goat path. I followed the trail back down to my backpack, where I enjoyed a rice-cake-and-peanut-butter lunch to go with my mellow bushwhacking glow.

The next mile or so of trail was nothing to write home about. I reached my last major waypoint: The bridge across the Big Carp River at the west end of Lake of the Clouds. This is a long bridge across a beautiful place. The Big Carp is grassy and slow here, winding below the tall bulk of the Escarpment. High above, I could see tiny people at the Lake of the Clouds viewing platform.

One of my original goals for this trip was to photograph the sunrise from this very bridge. The wonderful Photographer's Ephemeris showed me that the next morning, the sun would rise just behind the Escarpment, and would be perfectly aligned down the axis of the lake just a few minutes later.

Photographer's Ephemeris showing the sunrise direction and 30 minutes later (yellow lines).

All this ran through my head as I looked east from the bridge and saw this lovely view:

Carp River, looking towards (but not at) Lake of the Clouds


Beautiful, yes, but with no view of the lake at all. I must have forgotten from my previous visits. It sadly did not suit my vision of a spectacular sunrise highlighting the waters of the lake below the towering Escarpment.

Mildly discouraged, I continued across the bridge and followed the maze of trails below the Escarpment until I found the turn-off to the Lake of the Clouds cabin. The cabin's access trail was rather long -- it's not right on the trail like so many others. Around a bend, the cabin came into view, along with its breathtaking view:

Lake of the Clouds cabin


I set down my pack and walked out to the shore, which had a perfect view down the length of the lake. Problem solved: I could take sunrise photos from the comfort of my cabin's front yard tomorrow morning!

The Lake of the Clouds cabin has always been one of the most popular cabins in the park, for good reasons. It has a nearly perfect setting right next to the Porkies' showcase lake. The cabin has the usual huge banks of windows, but unlike the Mirror Lake 4 Bunk, these windows flooded the cabin with afternoon light and a perfect view of the lake. The sky had been in the process of clearing all day, and while the wind kept blowing, the sun was bright and direct.

Mystery board


Inside, the cabin showed some signs of special attention from the park. It had been upgraded with a ceiling and a few other nice touches. A board was attached to the wall, just below a window, with hinges. Chains connected it to the wall above the window, keeping it horizontal -- I can only guess it was a folding writing desk, something that no other cabin, much less most houses, have. There were actual topographic maps for hikers to use, and a full unopened package of firewood that some poor soul had backpacked in from the parking lot, half a mile and several hundred feet above the cabin.

I spent a while reading the log book and resting. This led to... 

The adventure of the treasure hunt for fresh water! Tucked in next to the most recent log was a piece of cardstock with a detailed map showing how to find a fresh water spring on the far side of the lake. The map was meant to help people use the cabin's row boat to avoid the supposedly poor-tasting lake water.

Treasure map for fresh water


I needed water, so it was time to go find this spring! The wind was blowing hard across the lake, and I didn't want to take the cabin's row boat out by myself. Instead, I opted to walk back across the bridge, around the end of the lake, and along the opposite shore. There are several backcountry campsites there, so I followed the trail past them. The map soon took me off trail, following faded pieces of flagging tape tied on tree branches (and no trail whatsoever -- nothing visible to this experienced bushwhacker). The ground was squishy; clearly this was a place with a high water table.

Big Carp Bridge with the Lake of the Clouds overlook high above

A few hundred yards up the hill from Lake of the Clouds, there was the spring! It was covered by a wooden box set into the ground, with a long plastic pipe coming out of it. There was no water coming out of the pipe, so I opened the lid of the box, disturbing several frogs, and carefully scooped some water from its depths. The map had led me perfectly to the spot (metaphorically) marked by "X", which held backpacker's gold: clean(-ish) water.

The spring!


Before I returned to the cabin, I made my way down to the lakeshore and looked across at the cabin, picturesquely nestled between the shore and the towering Escarpment. While the cabin was in a dense area of forest, not far to the east of the cabin was a huge pile of scree flowing down from the Escarpment and reaching all the way to the lake. I made a mental note to check it out later.

Back at the cabin, I filtered the water -- no need to risk an unpleasant stomach bug, even with spring water. I confirmed that it was indeed quite tasty and frog free.

Picturesque log

Not willing to waste any time in this beautiful place, I set right out on my next adventure:

The adventure of the scree piles! I was intrigued by the scree pile east of the cabin, and with a beautiful afternoon still in front of me, I wasted no time in setting out to find it. I started by following the trail to the cabin's outhouse, which went in the right direction. A faint trail continued beyond it, getting fainter quite fast as years worth of adventurers had given up. Soon it was a good ol' Copper Country bushwhack for me, with the bushes getting denser and the terrain getting steeper as the Escarpment and lake pinched together. Eventually I couldn't even make any forward progress. I stumbled my way down to the lake shore -- and at least gravity helped me do that -- and splashed into the lake. There was a narrow, rocky, but shallow area along the shoreline. It required a bit of balance to walk on the cobble-filled lake bed, but in my magical quick-drying shoes I was able to wade the rest of the way to the scree.

The scree pile was like an alien landscape. The scree slopes were made from massive piles of broken  rock that had fallen from the high towers of the Escarpment, hundreds of feet overhead. The chunks formed an enormous pile at the base of the cliffs, a pile that made it nearly all the way to the lake shore. Only a narrow band of "flat" land escaped the rock pile, and that was covered with reindeer lichen and low-growing scrub brush.

The rocks were mostly exposed to the late afternoon sun, with only small patches of evergreens and brush along the lake. The piles were hemmed in by sharp lines of dense forest on the east and west sides -- some different rock must be exposed in just this one part of the Escarpment, making the rock more fragile.
View of the Escarpment with scree pile

Most amazing to me was the trail. A very clear and very old trail wound its way along the bottom of the scree pile, cutting a path through the lichen. It was just a slightly dished area of rock, but clearly different from the rock around it. It ran around obstacles and trees for a few hundred yards. It didn't start anywhere nor end anywhere. It didn't disappear into the woods -- it just faded away on the rocks. It didn't even cross the whole scree pile. What was it for? Was this perhaps an old trail used by miners at the nearby Carp Lake Mine? Hunter's paths? (It would be a foolish deer that would be caught out in this open rock.) Old trails leading from Cloud Peak, the former site of the Lake of the Clouds overlook?

I spent a long while scrambling up and down the rock, enjoying the views, pondering the trail, and eating a few wild raspberries that were attempting to make a living growing from the rock.

Eventually, I waded back along the shore, making the return trip in a fraction of the time of my original bushwhack. It had been quite a satisfying day for adventuring off-trail.

Looking at the lake from the scree pile

When I got back, I was ready for dinner: freeze-dried spaghetti. I ate outside, enjoying the beautiful evening light and reading the log book. The log was filled with more than the usual array of wacky stories. Folks arriving long after dark -- in the winter -- without winter gear. People bringing wheeled suitcases down from the Escarpment. Folks carting in gallons and gallons of pre-filtered water. So many carried-in firewood bundles. The Lake of the Clouds cabin seems easy to get to, if you have no idea where it's located.

And now for the story of my final mini-adventure of the day:

The adventure of the outhouse! Yes, this is a story about going to the bathroom. Stick with me here. After dinner, I felt nature's call. I went to the cabin's outhouse, and immediately went running back out of it, desperately trying not to vomit. It was horrendous. After a long and hot summer filled with daily visitors, the outhouse was nearly overflowing with both second-hand food and flies

That didn't solve my problem. Let's just say that, #1: This was not something I could easily use a tree for, and #2: I wasn't about to dig a cathole in the rocky soil next to the cabin.

But I did know that there were decent bathrooms not that far away, at the ever-popular Lake of the Clouds overlook. They were merely a 3/4 mile hike away... and also 500+ feet above me.

Well, that pretty much made up my mind for me. I quickly packed a day-pack with toilet paper (just in case!), my trash bag (to be disposed in the parking lot trash cans), my camera (for obvious reasons), and my headlamp (because it was already getting dim).

Lake of the Clouds from the overlook


Then I set out on the trail, moving fast. The hike up the Escarpment isn't easy at the best of times, but I was motivated. I passed a groups of parents and bored-looking kids coming down to check out the sunset from the Big Carp bridge. I whizzed up to the Escarpment Trail intersection and then zipped even faster up the steps to the overlook -- all of which felt rather longer than expected. I streamed along the boardwalk. A few late-day tourists looked on as I practically ran into the bathroom building (which, I was happy to find, were unlocked).

The Lake of the Cloud bathrooms are still outhouses, but of the cold-composting variety found at Mirror Lake. Most importantly, they don't smell! What joy.

A few minutes later, I emerged and dumped my overflowing trash bag into the overflowing bear-proof trash can. That was a few pounds gone!

I took my time on the way back. I enjoyed the late-evening light from the overlook and listened to the conversations of late-evening tourists who were astonished at the beauty before them. "I don't know what I expected, but there are just so many trees!" said one man. I too wondered what he was expecting.

Looking across Lake of the Clouds

Sarah and I had seen an advertisement in the Visitor Center for ranger-guided meteorite viewing tonight. It would happen at this very overlook at 10:30 pm tonight. We agreed that we might meet up for it -- but no requirement. After the hassle of climbing up in the light, I decided I wanted nothing to do with hiking back down in the dark. Alas, Sarah would have to stargaze by herself (if she came at all).

As I enjoyed the scenery, a younger couple wearing backpacks chatted about where their campsite was located. That concerned me a bit, since it was already 8:30 pm. As it turned out, their campsite was just a few hundred yards down the trail -- I saw them setting up as I passed by on my way down the Escarpment again. I also passed the parents and bored kids, now looking more sullen than bored, as they climbed their way back up from the Big Carp bridge.

I made it safely back to the cabin with a little daylight to spare, feeling much better all around. I settled in to bed with a book and enjoyed a light evening breeze as I drifted off to sleep.



Miles hiked: 3.8 trail + 4.5 dayhikes (!)
Total miles: 23.1

Day 3's main hike in pink, with many day hikes not shown