Sunday, July 6, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014: Intro and Planning

This is the first of 5 separate posts about our June 2014 Porcupine Mountains backpacking trip (one for each day, plus this intro). Check the bottom of this post for a link to each other day, or check on this list all of my backpacking blog posts.

We didn't know it then, but November 2013 was the start of one of the longest, coldest, and snowiest winters in Twin Cities history. As the first flakes were falling, (the lovely) Sarah and I started to dream of a summer getaway.

Mouth of the Big Carp River

There was no doubt that we would go to the UP. Sarah and I both lived in the UP for many years (she's a native Yooper, I'm just an adopted Yooper) -- the UP is in our blood. It took a bit of work, but I convinced Sarah that a backpacking trip to the Porcupine Mountains was just what the doctor ordered. The "Porkies" (Michigan's Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park) is a remote and beautiful part of Michigan. It is one of the largest untouched wilderness areas in the Midwest -- primeval forest filled with towering evergreens that have never been logged. While it has been millions of years since the Porkies were truly mountains, their rocky cliffs, deep ravines, and steep hills are still some of the roughest and wildest terrain in all of Michigan.

While both of us have gone on extended backpacking trips before (and we hike and snowshoe frequently), we had never gone on a backpacking trip together. We both enjoy hiking and car camping, but Sarah is not a big fan of sleeping in a tent far away from the car. If the weather is miserable, tents can start to feel like prisons. Bear hygeine adds extra stress to everything. So, inspired by Nina's Porcupine Mountains hiking trip, we decided to rent rustic cabins within the park. These cabins mostly started life as ranger cabins or hunting camps, and can now be rented for a reasonable nightly rate. They are located throughout the park, usually near some of the most picturesque waterfalls, lakes, and rivers. The cabins have no running water and no electricity -- nothing more than four walls, a roof, and a few bunk beds with rock-hard mattresses. But having a roof over your head and no need to worry about bears poking their noses into your packs makes for a lot of peace of mind.

We chose a 4 day loop which would take us along Lake Superior and the Big Carp river, to Mirror Lake, past Lake of the Clouds, and up the Escarpment. We would hike past overlooks and waterfalls, ford a river, see massive old-growth pines, and walk on some of the toughest trails in the park. Little did we know that some of the trails would be even more difficult due to the lateness of the spring.

Buckshot Cabin

I reserved the cabins as early as the Michigan DNR would allow -- November 1st for a June hiking date. After our initial excitement, the trip faded into the background as the school year continued on its hectic way. At the same time, other things were in the works. Sarah's school scheduled major renovations which would require teachers to completely pack up and move their rooms at the end of school. Between us, we planned to teach at 9 weeks worth of summer programs. Multiple friends got engaged and scheduled summer weddings. Snow days raised the possibility of a longer school year. Most excitingly, both Sarah and I both found jobs at a university back home in Michigan -- and with that came the need to find a new apartment, pack up our old place, and move. Suddenly, our summer was 100% accounted for. The Porkies trip would end up being our only vacation together!

We started to seriously prepare for the trip in March. Thinking about and planning the trip far in advance really increased the enjoyment for us, giving us something to look forward to. Living within easy reach of three REIs was a luxury which we thoroughly enjoyed, and we took full advantage to update and round out our somewhat mismatched gear. Because we were staying in cabins, we had the luxury of bringing foods which we would never bring into bear country otherwise. We intended to bring summer sausage, landjager (somewhat like jerky), and various cheeses on the trip. Besides that, we mostly planned freeze-dried meals and, of course, gorp. (The particular kind of gorp was the subject of much discussion: Peanuts, raisins, and chocolate -- or just bring chocolate and leave the rest behind?)

Sarah crossing the Big Carp River

The winter was even harder up north than it was for us in the Twin Cities. In mid May, about a month before the trip, I heard the bridge over the mouth of the Big Carp river -- a key link getting us to one of our cabins -- was washed away in the melt! The long winter and heavy snowfall led to a huge spring melt. Apparently this happens every few years (two years in a row, this time) and the bridge takes a few weeks to be rebuilt. Not willing to risk being stuck on the wrong side of the river from our lodging, I called up the DNR hotline and spoke with a helpful (if somewhat confused) operator who gladly changed our reservation to the Big Carp 6 bunk cabin -- on the "right" side of the river. The poor operator kept asking if I realized that we could not drive to these cabins, and in fact that it was a 4+ mile hike on rough trails from the nearest road. I had to wonder what past problems led to all of these disclaimers.

We were still a bit worried about our planned route, which still required us to cross the Big Carp River without a bridge (farther upstream), but we figured that we would cross that river when we came to it.

Finally, the school year came to an end, the last few exams were graded and we finished our last practice hike around the neighborhood. The car and backpacks were packed, and we were ready to head out.
Full map of our hike: 21 miles in 4 days

Next time: Day 1: In which our heroes bravely drive a long way and meet Delilah the Creepy-Ass Deer


kjramstack said...

I can't wait to hear the continuation of your trip to the Porkies. My husband and I have been going there almost every fall for the past 8 years. We've been hiking all over the country but it's still one of our favorite places. A few years ago we started staying in the cabins. We always go in mid-late October and have hiked in blizzards and thunderstorms so it's always nice to have a dry place after a long day in the foul weather.

Your comments about the lady on the phone cracks me up. Did you read any of the entries in the Buckshot Cabin journal? So many people have tried to pull rolling coolers down the trail only to have the wheels fall off. An entry in the Little Carp journal talks about a family bringing a port-a-john in because they didn't want to use the stinky outhouse. And the worst part was that they left the thing for the next people to "enjoy". Some people...

DC said...

I agree, the Porkies have some sort of magical hold on us as well! We would have loved to hike in the fall, to avoid crowds (and bugs), but that's out of the question for teachers.

It looks like the Buckshot Cabin log book was pretty new (I think it started last June/July). There were some hilarious entries in it though -- that's coming up in the next installment!

Nina said...

Awesome - I can't wait to read the rest!

Dennis L. Ward said...

There are several different campgrounds nestled in throughout the park. We hiked about 25 miles over three days. I really love the waterfalls.

Thomas Venney said...