Thursday, July 31, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014, Day 2: Buckshot to Big Carp

There are links at the top and bottom of this post leading to other days of this trip, or check out this list all of my backpacking trips.

Last time: Lake of the Clouds to Buckshot Cabin
Inside Buckshot Cabin

I always wake up early when camping. It turns out that this is true even in a cabin. Early Monday morning found us huddled in our sleeping bags, unwilling to touch the cold floor. The sky was gray, the air was cold, but we were cozy.

I finally got up, splashed my face at the lake, and started working on breakfast. The mosquitoes drove me back inside, so I used my MSR PocketRocket to prepare oatmeal, fried sausage, and black tea on top of the wood stove.

We packed up, swept the cottage, and headed out. Our plan for the day was to hike 7 miles of the Superior Trail, ending at the mouth of the Big Carp River. Despite its name, the Superior Trail generally runs too far inland to see the lake, except for a few places where it actually runs on the shoreline.

The first few yards beyond Buckshot were lovely. We hopped across a small stream as the trail wandered through ferns. Quickly, we ran into a mud puddle and carefully worked our way around it. Then another stream. Then, another puddle. Suddenly, the trail opened up ahead of us... or at least, it was probably the trail. From our point of view, it looked like an endless series of mud puddles, muck, and running water. Oh boy.

I activated my super power: "find walking stick".

Yes, there's a trail there... somewhere.

Sarah and I don't have "real" hiking poles. We both look at them as annoyances that take up space, hands, and pack weight when you don't need them. So instead of paying $100+ and an extra pound of pack weight for some fancy adjustable poles, I just search the woods for a good stick whenever we need it. I haven't failed yet. A good solid downed branch is just as reliable as trekking poles, and much easier to cast aside when you're done with it.

The next two and a half hours were an almost continual slog through wet, muddy, goopy, and occasionally stinky trails. Some of the trails were puddles with solid bottoms -- we (eventually) embraced the Leave No Trace ethics and trucked straight through those. But others had been seriously softened by the long melt, turning them into boot-sucking (and nearly boot-removing) pits of quicksand. Often, the trail was completely lost in the middle of a swampy expanse stretching as far as the eye could see in all directions.

The problem wasn't so much the wetness of it all. Occasional boot over-topping led to damp socks, but nothing major. Out waterproofing held. We never actually fell over and rolled around in the mud. Our boots never actually got pulled off. In other words, we avoided the worst case scenarios. The real problem was the sheer difficulty of avoiding all of those worst case scenarios. Both physical effort (hopping from log to log, rock to rock, backtracking, and sometimes just plain bushwhacking) and mental effort (plotting routes around the deepest and muddiest parts and constant vigilance for dangerous spots) made every step difficult. "Leave no trace" is nice and all, but Mother Nature was doing her best to leave her traces all over us.

Every now and then, a stretch of rocky trail had avoided the worst of the melt, or a small hill would rise above the swamp. Most hilariously, we sometimes came across short boardwalks designed to take hikers over swampy stretches -- and without fail, the boardwalks started and ended well within the giant lakes of melt water. Half of the time, the boardwalks were underwater themselves. We saw some stashes of boards left behind by previous repair crews. We had a good chuckle imagining a repair crew looking at the mud in front of us, throwing their hands in the air, and abandoning their supplies to the forest. For nearly 3 miles -- at around 1 mile per hour -- we waded through nothing but muddy swamp. We passed one campsite which was nearly underwater.

Our reprieve finally came near the very aptly named Lone Rock, a large outcrop of bedrock perhaps 100 yards off shore. It's one of the first places where the Lake Superior Trail actually gets close to Lake Superior. We gratefully took our packs off, sat down, and had a snack.

The weather had been gray all day. The sky was starting to look more forbidding, with dark clouds rolling in and a cool breeze blowing off of the lake. None of that bothered us, as we enjoyed the most delicious trail snacks known to hiker-kind. No food which we had ever eaten could compare to those chocolate-covered almonds and salty mini cheese wheels.

Rocks near Lone Rock. But not, in fact, the Lone Rock.

We stiffly stood up from the rocks, strapped on our packs, and headed back into the woods. The trail was still muddy, but nowhere near as bad as the last 3 miles. As the trail made a jog back towards the shore near Lafayette Landing, it narrowed, and tall brush closed in on both sides. It also became rocky and gloriously dry. The shore was now made of slate-like bedrock, and occasionally the trail popped right out and ran along the "beach".

A few drops of rain began to fall. We stopped to put on our rain coats, betting that the rain wouldn't be strong enough to require rain pants as well. As we walked in the very pleasant rain, we passed some ridiculously scenic stretches of trail. The tall hills farther inland began to move closer towards the shore. Deep ravines lined with bright green growth opened up to let small streams escape towards the lake. The trees became taller and older, and everything seemed much better than the mucky trail behind us.

Ahead, we heard voices -- the first people we had met all day. Around a bend in the trail came another couple, who we would later describe as the "Trail Yuppies". They looked like they had just stepped out of a glossy REI advertisement. They were about our age, fit, and athletic. Both wore shiny brand new clothes, coats, and packs without a touch of mud or dirt on them -- including their gaiters. They both wore bug nets (which were completely unnecessary in the cool rainy weather) and carried collapsable trekking poles. The man had a small GPS attached to his pack strap. They looked happy, fresh, and excited to be out on the trail -- and completely out of place in the muddy, wet, rainy Porkies!

We exchanged pleasantries and chatted about trail conditions. They had come in from the boundary road and were headed towards one of the nearly-underwater campsites along the Lake Superior trail. They told us that it was quite muddy up ahead, but that the trail would clear up after running up on a high ridge. We warned them that more mud was ahead for them as well, and then said our goodbyes.

Unsurprisingly, we got the much better end of the deal. Other than a few muddy uphills and some small stream crossings (unbridged but easy to jump), the trail ahead was beautiful. We started to enter a more rugged part of the park, with high ridges, deep ravines, and more old growth forest. The Lake Superior shore is the only part of the Porkies that was ever extensively logged, and it's easy to see when you hike in and out of those areas. We ate Clif bars and took it easy as we followed the last few miles of trail.

We soon made a steep climb to the top of the promised high ridge, ending up inside an old growth Hemlock forest. The combination of light rain, mist, and brilliant green spring undergrowth gave it a mystical appearance. The top of the ridge was struck through with deep ravines, and for once, there were actually small bridges built over them. By "bridges", I mean two square-cut logs placed next to each other without supports of any kind. The logs were hand hewn and looked much older than the small boardwalks in other parts of the park.

We were just wondering how much farther the cabin could possibly be when we came to a trail intersection with the Big Carp River Trail. We would take this branch the next day. The Lake Superior Trail headed down an extremely steep hillside as it entered the river valley and quickly bottomed out right next to the Big Carp River. There, right next to the river, was the Big Carp River 6 Bunk Cabin -- our home for the night.

The mouth of the Big Carp River, as the rain cleared.

The Big Carp 6 bunk was by far my favorite cabin of the trip. It's located right at the mouth of the Big Carp River where it enters Lake Superior. The cabin is within sight and hearing range of the river, the lake, and several small waterfalls, with a deep river gorge and beautiful old-growth forest just behind it. If I were stranded at the Big Carp 6 bunk (with a decent food supply, of course!), I wouldn't try too hard to get out. No, let's upgrade that: You'd have to bring a tranquilizer dart and handcuffs to take me away!

Despite the beauty, we were exhausted. We set up our bed rolls, set our shoes and socks out to dry, and plopped down at the table to enjoy another snack of trail mix, mini-cheese wheels, and landjager. After 7 hard miles, chocolate-covered almonds tasted like mana from heaven. Sarah laid down for a nap, but I was too intrigued by our beautiful surroundings. I headed out to examine the countryside.

The Big Carp 6 is right next to the bridge that carries the Lake Superior Trail across the Big Carp River. (This is the one which was washed away in the spring melt -- and was re-built within the last week!) There are three major park trails which meet near the Big Carp as well. All together, it's a scenic but high-traffic spot. As I wandered out of the cabin, I ran into the 3rd fellow hiker of the day -- a tall, gaunt, bearded hiker wearing a bug net and flannel. The hiker was guarded by his vicious very friendly beagle who was wearing his own tiny doggy backpack.

Big Carp 6 bunk and the bridge

"Hi! Is this the way the blue trail goes?" was his introduction. "Er, do you mean the Lake Superior trail?" I asked, a bit confused. "I don't know names, just the one with the blue blazes." Every trail in the Porkies has blue blazes. He didn't seem to understand, but we did have a brief and pleasant conversation. He had started at M-107 earlier today, past Buckshot, totaling 10 miles of mud and hills today alone. I pointed him in the direction of the Lake Superior trail, and he and his short, waddling canine companion headed across the bridge and started to look for a good site to sling a hammock.

In the meantime, the rain had cleared and a front came through, bringing sunlight and warmer air. I headed across the bridge and hopped across rocks, taking pictures of the mini waterfalls and examining damage from the spring's flooding. The bridge still looked tenuous at best. It crossed the river at a narrow point, with bedrock forming the footings. Two short platforms were built into the bedrock, with a long main span crossing between them. The platform was only attached by a couple of angle braces, as if the park just planned for the river to destroy it again next year. (Several years later, the park indeed gave up on this location and moved the bridge nearly a quarter mile upstream to a more protected location.)

Big Carp, little waterfall

Wandering back to the cabin, I looked around for some entertainment while Sarah napped. That entertainment was provided by a copy of "The Last Porcupine Mountains Companion" that I found in a cupboard. The authors were former park rangers who had extremely detailed knowledge of the park, and every cabin had a copy of their book. It's an amazing book which is also amazingly hard to find -- I had never heard of it before coming. I planned our trip using Jim Dufresne's very good trail guide, which gives practically step-by-step accounts of every trail. The Companion does only a little of this, instead focusing on the history, geology, and even politics of the park. It also has the most detailed run-down of copper mines in the Porkies that I've ever seen.

It turns out that, until the late 1940's, the area around the mouth of the Big Carp river was owned by several private landholders who were instrumental in the push to form a state park. They donated their lands and cabins to be part of the park. We were staying in one of their cabins. I later found a small carving in the rock by the riverbank that claimed to be from the 1920's, likely by someone associated with the cabin.

Once Sarah was awake, we prepared dinner and ate while sitting on the bridge. Our supposedly refrigeration-free landjaeger (meat sticks) was disappointingly looking a bit limp and smelling a bit funny.

After dinner, we took a short walk on the cobble beach, and took a look at the two nearby cabins on the other side of the river. We were originally planning to stay in the Lake Superior Cabin, which is hidden in the woods back from the beach. The Big Carp 4 Bunk is even farther back, on the high banks of the river. Both looked lovely, but nothing could match the amazing views of the Big Carp 6 bunk.

Big Carp river near the lake shore

As the sky darkened, we came back and started a camp fire. Or, at least we tried. There was a huge supply of firewood at the fire ring, but most of it had gotten drenched by the rain. With some dry paper and kindling from inside the cabin, we carefully started a fire... which immediately went out. With some more paper, more kindling, and more careful arrangement, the next fire lasted for nearly a minute. I'll spare you the repetition of the next half hour, but we eventually realized that, besides the rain, the pit was so deep that the fire couldn't get air. We eventually found a left-behind cutting board in the cabin which I used as an improvised bellows. With enough air, we finally built a beautiful blaze. Not willing to try again, I kept fanning the flames until I started to get blisters on my hands.

We sat around staring into the fire and enjoying a beautiful clear-sky sunset. I heard a distant bark from the mystery hiker's campsite. I regretted not inviting him to join us at our fire -- the hours can be very lonely to pass on a cold night when you're alone in the woods.

Once the sky was dark, we crawled into our sleeping bags and slept the deep, restful sleep that follows a day of hard work in the beautiful wilderness.

Miles hiked: 7*
Total miles: 10

*I'm pretty sure that mud counts triple, so we were at least at 13 miles, probably more. Really.

Next time: Part 3: It's all uphill from here.


kjramstack said...

Even in autumn, the trails are ALWAYS muddy in the Porkies. I don't think they ever fully dry out. I love that high ridge in the woods with the deep ravines just to the east of the Big Carp. So peaceful and lush - except for the one time that a helicopter buzzed the shoreline while we were out hiking. What the...?!! We asked the rangers who that might have been thinking it was the coast guard on a rescue mission but the ranger said it was more likely a mining company doing a survey.

DC said...

True, I've never seen fully dry trails (except the Escarpment, of course... mostly). This time was exceptional though -- there's mud, and then there's swamp!

Jacob Emerick said...

Ha, your slogging through the mud sounds like my visit to Pictured Rocks during the spring. Doesn't sound like fun, no fun at all, especially hauling packs. Sounds like you two had a great rest at the end, though - looking forward to reading about the next leg!

DC said...

Jake, I read that story and my feet felt sympathetic misery. The mud was tough, but the places we stopped were pretty amazing.

nailhed said...

Oh wow, you're posting again!
It seems like soooo so long since I was actually backpacking in the Porkies, as opposed to just driving up to Lake of the Clouds overlook haha. But your photo of the Big Carp bridge brings back memories. Last time I was out there was 2001.

LOL "trail yuppies"...i know exactly what you mean. I call them "Pole People"

DC said...

Hah -- yep! I posted all of these, then went dark for an entire semester. Starting a new job (in Michigan again, btw) is exhausting. We just scheduled a 5-day trip back to the Porkies for next summer, so I'll probably post again then, if not sooner. Your new blog has me thinking about posting some of my previous adventures too (mostly from CCF -- which IS alive, btw).

nailhed said...

CCF is still alive?? or am i just banned? haha.
every time i go to it all i get is a blank white screen. Mike said something about there was a glitch and he didnt have the energy to fix it.

anyway, glad to hear youre reading and liking my blog, thanks!