Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014, Day 4: Mirror Lake to Lake of the Clouds

Last time: Big Carp to Mirror Lake, uphill all the way. See also a list of all of my backpacking trips.

Mirror lake 2-bunk in the morning

We woke later than usual, stiff but well rested. The tall cliffs and tall pines surrounding the Mirror Lake 2 bunk make it a bit harder for morning light to filter through.

We made tea and walked to the Little Carp River Bridge. This bridge crosses the river and nearby swamps at a long inlet near the west end of Mirror Lake. Sitting on the bridge, sipping hot tea, and chatting in the cool morning is one of my favorite memories of the trip.

Back at the cabin, we made a quick breakfast, packed up, and headed out. Our plan for this final day was to hike the North Mirror Lake trail north to Lake of the Clouds, up the Escarpment, and out into the parking lot where we had left our car.

Inlet on Mirror Lake

The North Mirror Lake trail starts about half a mile away from the two-bunk cabin. We passed the other two cabins (and the world's most amazing latrine), crossed a stream, and found the trailhead. Just up the trail, we met the tall hiker (and his dog) from two days ago, who was wearily sitting on a log at the top of a hill.

This time, we stopped to chat a bit longer. The hiker turned out to be from Illinois, and was in the Porkies for the first time. He said that he was an avid solo backpacker back home, and often did 10 to 15 miles per day. In the Porkies, he was finding 6 to 8 miles per day to be exhausting, and was resting a bit before tackling his final leg.

Yesterday, we both started from near the mouth of the Big Carp River. However, our hiker friend had taken a very different route. While we did 7 miles straight uphill along the Big Carp and Correction Line trails, he had taken the Cross Trail. The guide books universally describe the Cross Trail as "the most lonely trail in the park" (usually followed by "you're more likely to see a moose than a person"), and emphasize that it goes straight through a huge swamp. (He confirmed that this was every bit as fun as it sounds.) It connects to the Little Carp River trail, which eventually makes it to Mirror Lake. This is a much longer route than we had taken -- nearly 11 miles in all -- with the same elevation change, worse mosquitoes, and even more mud. We wished him good luck and headed on our way.

The trail was in remarkably good condition, especially considering what we had seen in previous days. We set a good pace and enjoyed the cool morning air, while a light breeze kept the mosquitoes off. Along the way, we passed through a wide variety of terrain, including a huge swamp (crossed on miraculously dry boardwalks), previously logged forest (it did happen in some parts of the Porkies), old-growth evergreens, and of course the usual selection of hills and valleys.

The North Mirror Lake trail is considered one of the most rugged trails in the park. (Are you tired of hearing that yet? It turns out that we had chosen all of the most rugged trails in the park for our trip.) From its low point at Lake of the Clouds up to its high point near Mirror Lake, it gains over 500 feet. Luckily, we were hiking this section in the "easy" direction -- downhill -- at least until we reached the Escarpment, where we would regain all of our elevation in one brief climb.

The steepest part of the North Mirror Lake trail starts just after a small stream crossing. Over half of a mile, the trail has a grade of 12% -- quite steep, even for the Porkies. A small stream marks the start of the Great Descent, coming out of a series of small swamps. Shortly after crossing the trail, the stream turns and starts to cut out an enormous ravine. This amazingly unnamed stream forms one of the most picturesque gorges in the entire park, cutting through an open forest with steep hills on either side. There are many small waterfalls, as well as a collapsed copper mine shaft. I once spent a long afternoon scrambling up that very ravine, looking for the shaft, but never found it.

Ravine and a tiny waterfall

Today, however, we followed along the trail and didn't test our legs on any tricky rock climbing. We eventually crossed Scott Creek on a small bridge, and headed uphill again. The mosquitoes started to swarm us, getting worse in the lower swampy areas. We hurried on, knowing that the bridge over the Big Carp River at Lake of the Clouds would give us some respite. It soon became obvious that we were close to the very popular Lake of the Clouds area. The trails widened. Muddy areas were covered with well-maintained boardwalks or corduroy.

Each step took us through swarms of mosquitoes. We ramped up the pace, until we were nearly jogging just to stay away from the bugs. Finally, with one last downhill, we sprinted out into the open and saw the bridge at the end of Lake of the Clouds just ahead of us. We walked all the way to the middle of the bridge before taking off our packs, safe from the bugs. We scarfed down the last of our rice cake sandwiches and enjoyed a serenade by some bullfrogs. High above us, we saw few people at the Lake of the Clouds overlook -- the middle of a week in early June is not a popular time to visit a remote state park.

The last leg of our trip was straight uphill. Just past the turnoff for the Lake of the Clouds cabin, the trail takes a sharp turn upwards. A series of switchbacks (the only switchbacks of the entire trip!) leads up a cut in the face of the Escarpment. At the top, a wooden bench awaits the hearty few who choose to hike that direction. When we stumbled to the bench, we collapsed in relief -- we had made it!

... Except, we hadn't. Because the trail leads up a cut in the cliff face, it tops out at a low point. There were quite a few more steps left before we reached the top -- actual wooden steps, on a well maintained trail -- but it required just a little more effort than we had expected. We arrived at the real top, next to the Lake of the Clouds overlook, exhausted and somewhat ornery.

OK, actually it was just me who was ornery. The Lake of the Clouds overlook is very built up -- well-paved roads lead to a large parking lot, where wide boardwalks make their way to a walled-in overlook. It is extremely easy to get to one of the most stunning views in the UP. And yet, when we arrived at the top of the trail, near the overlook, there were tourists. I don't mean just people who tour around to see the sights -- I mean tourists who arrive in a 50 foot RV, reluctantly tear themselves away from their satellite TV, and haul out a 5-gallon McDonald's pop while complaining about walking a slight uphill. Having to work so hard (4 days!) to get here made me lose all sympathy for anyone who was unhappy merely because they had to mosey along 300 yards of paved trail to get to the beauty.

I should make it clear that visiting the Porkies is something which everyone should do. Visiting such a rugged and beautiful place is a great experience. Everyone is welcome there -- and the remoteness and solitude is good for the soul. So really, I shouldn't complain. But, I did.

Grumpily, we walked the last few yards to our car. We left our trusty walking sticks leaning against a rock and climbed into the car, groaning at our aching backs. Then we headed straight for the pop machine in the Visitor's center, to share the world's best Cherry Coke. I might be a hypocrite -- but I earned it!

The Cliffs in the Keweenaw, my other favorite hiking location.

I drove the 1.5 hours to Houghton, while Sarah napped in the passenger's seat. We stayed in our favorite little town for two days. Sarah helped a friend with wedding preparations, while I -- of course -- went hiking.

In total, the trip was wonderful. For all of the complaining I've done in these blog posts -- mud, mosquitoes, hills, and tourists -- I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. Staying in the Big Carp 6 bunk right on Lake Superior was one of the highlights of my backpacking life so far. The solitude, silence, and remoteness scratch an itch for me like nothing else. I would do it again in a heartbeat -- and hopefully next year, I will! [Spoiler: We did.]

See you next time!

Final summary:

Miles hiked: 3.75
Grand total miles: 21.0

Some other interesting trip statistics:

Elevation change (lowest to highest): 1065ft
Total elevation increase (adding up all the uphills): 2314ft
Total time: 3 days, 19.5 hours
Number of large non-human mammals seen: 1 (of the creepy-ass variety)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Porcupine Mountains 2014, Day 3: Big Carp to Mirror Lake

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: Buckshot to Big Carp, via the swamp.

Driftwood on the Big Carp beach

Day 3 started beautifully. We ate our early morning breakfast of tea and freeze-dried scramble wraps on the sunny beach, wearing fleeces to keep off the cool lake breeze. I spent an inordinate amount of time photographing neat driftwood as we took one last walk along the shore. It was hard to leave.

We were stiff and achey from yesterday's travails, but quickly worked it off as we hiked away from the lakeshore. Back up the steep hillside, we returned to the junction of the Lake Superior and Big Carp River trails, and this time turned south on the Big Carp branch. As we would note many times today, Porkies trails don't have switchbacks. To cross even the biggest hills, they go straight up and then straight down.

Our plan was to follow Big Carp until its junction with the Correction Line Trail, which would take us east to Mirror Lake and our final cabin. What we had not considered was that this required going from Lake Superior (the lowest point in the park) to Mirror Lake (one of the highest inland lakes in Michigan). Today would be uphill the whole way. As the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion said about our selected route, "...these are some of the most difficult trails in the park."

The Big Carp River trail follows the river closely for its first few miles. But the trail doesn't actually run along the river bank -- the river sits in a deep gorge, while the trail generally rides high above it in a beautiful old-growth hemlock forest. The trail does occasionally come down to river level, letting you view some of the nearly unending series of waterfalls along this ridiculously picturesque river. We saw several waterfalls from high above, including the biggest, Shining Cloud Falls. The views were too distant and too obstructed to take a good photo, so I left my heavy camera in my pack and just enjoyed the view in person. That set the tone for the day -- I ended up taking very few photos, as you will (not) see in this post.

The old-growth forest is not only beautiful, it's also extremely clear of undergrowth. The huge evergreens shade out everything else, leaving the forest floor remarkably clear. We sometimes wandered off trail unintentionally, as the carpet of pine needles hid the main way.

The trail eventually swung away from the river, and the farther away we went, the worse the bugs got. We stopped frequently to touch up our bug spray. We brought a can of 40% DEET spray, with a tiny container of 100% DEET waiting in my pack for the right moment.

The farther away from the high river bluff, the swampier things got. We were back to mud, the likes of which we hadn't seen since... yesterday. You may think that I'm overselling the "swamp" thing, but consider the following joyous scene:

The Big Carp River trail actually runs somewhat diagonally across this image, top left to bottom right. We spent around 20 minutes winding our way through this mix of standing water, mud, and mosquitoes.

Shortly after the swamp, we came down another big hill and arrived back at the Big Carp, for the one true river crossing of our trip. We had worried about this, especially with the huge spring runoff. Now that we were at the river, it was clear that we were fine -- the river is wide, but shallow with a rocky, gravelly bottom.

On the river bank, we switched to closed-toed sandals. I crossed first. The water was cold, of course, but nowhere near as cold as Lake Superior. At its deepest, the river was up to my knees. When we were both across, we rested for a little while on a fallen tree, listening to the rumble of the river and enjoying the beautiful weather.

The lovely Sarah crossing the Big Carp River

The trail headed uphill, again following a high river bluff as the river below became much smaller and choked with brush. The spring melts had worn away much of the banks, sometimes taking the trail with it. We occasionally had to bushwhack away from the river just to avoid falling in.

It wasn't long before we found the remarkably small and barely marked junction with the Correction Line trail. We headed east along Correction Line, which was described by all of the books I've read as a connector trail -- not one of the main trails of the park. True to form, the trail was muddy and wandered through gloriously beautiful primeval forest. Y'know, the usual.

The day was warming up quickly, and the sun was shining strongly down on us. The trail headed slowly but surely uphill as we marched into the interior of the park. The center of the Porkies is extremely rugged and about 1000 feet higher than Lake Superior's level. Mirror Lake, our destination for the night, is right in the heart of this central highland, surrounded by even higher peaks and ridges. It quickly became apparent that we were going to have to work hard for the rest of the day.

About 1 mile along the Correction Line trail, we decided that we needed to stop for a real break. We re-re-re-applied our bug spray and dug out a minimal lunch. Breakfast had stuck with both of us for a long time today -- unpleasantly so, leaving each of us without an appetite and me with a slight feeling of nausea.

As we were eating, we heard voices up ahead -- the first people we had seen all day. A pair of women came around the bend. One had a small CamelBak and seemed quite confident, if not happy, about wandering in the woods. The other had no visible pack, fanny pack, or even a water bottle, and did not seem nearly as confident. They paused to chat, although only the more confident hiker spoke to us, and then only in short statements. We were astonished to learn that they had come all the way from Lake of the Clouds via the North Mirror Lake trail -- at least 5 miles -- on a "day hike". The North Mirror Lake trail is one of the toughest trails in the park when hiked in that direction, and they had at least 5 more equally tough miles before making it back home. 10 rugged miles is a major day hike in the Porkies, perhaps explaining the silent one's attitude. They were not very interested in smalltalk and headed onwards before we were done with our break.

We continued onwards in the now hot, humid, and sunny day. At one point, Sarah's water pack dried up, but I revived it by removing a kink in her supply tube. Our trail now became steeply uphill, sometimes going straight up very tall outcrops. We had to pause for breath every 20 to 30 paces. Suddenly, Sarah's water pack was dry again, this time for real. Her smaller 2 Liter pack was no match for the unexpectedly difficult terrain and hot weather. We shared my water supply for the rest of the hike, nursing it carefully.

Topographic map of our trip on Day 3. Click to enlarge and enjoy the terrain (elevations are in meters).

By this time, we were within a mile of Mirror Lake. The trail winds around the base of beautiful sheer cliffs with pines growing all along their ridges. This was my favorite sort of terrain, but I barely noticed. The exhausting hike was forcing us to focus only on making the next step. The park started to throw more obstacles in our way: Huge trees fallen across the path without a clear way around them. This was the first (and only) time during the trip when I truly didn't enjoy the hike. The last half mile seemed to last forever, until we began a steep downhill, descending directly towards Mirror Lake. We had at last arrived! ... Except that we hadn't. We had reached the Little Carp River trail, but the Mirror Lake 2-bunk cabin was another quarter mile away. At least it was an easy walk.

There are three cabins near Mirror Lake: 2, 4, and 8 bunks. The 8 bunk cabin is the original rental cabin in the Porkies, designed to be a hunting lodge in the earliest years of the park. The 4 bunk and 8 bunk cabins are both right on the lake, with the trail running directly through their "front yards". For this reason, we had decided to go with the much cozier and more private 2 bunk cabin, nick-named the "love shack". Ever since I scouted it out on my solo backpacking trip in June 2012, I had wanted to stay in the Mirror Lake 2-bunk cabin. The setting is beautiful: Far back from the lake, nestled in a cut between two large hills. A long trail leads up to it from the lake, giving it a sense of absolute privacy. It's also called the "Love Shack" because it is tiny. It started life as a single room ranger cabin, and was expanded at some point with a second room, barely large enough to fit a wood stove and table.

We opened the door, took off our packs, and collapsed at the table. We pulled out the trail mix, but neither of us had a desire to eat any of it. Our hot, exhausting, dehydrating day had taken all hunger out of us. Instead, we climbed into the bunks and took a nap. The top bunk of the "Love Shack" is so close to the ceiling that I couldn't even turn over without running into a roof beam (even climbing up to the bunk without hitting my head was a challenge!).

An hour later, I got up and found Sarah still snoring away. Remembering our water situation, I realized that we would have a harder time getting water here. Sure, we were near Mirror Lake -- but it is (in technical terms) really mucky and filled with gunk. I hauled a huge cookpot out from the cabin's cupboard, walked to the shore, stepped precariously out on a log, and filled up the pot with dirty lake water. I lugged it up to the cabin and set it on the porch to settle, separating some water out into smaller pots and adding chlorine tablets for purification.

Some more driftwood, since I didn't
take many photos on Day 3...

With Sarah still asleep, I read the log book. We had heard that mice are a problem in the cabins, and this log book was filled with campers' encounters with the tiny rodents. Apparently, this cabin housed a particularly pesky little bugger. After learning the hard way, past visitors advised keeping all food under a pot or pan with weights on top. Inspecting our trail mix baggies, I already found a few tiny holes chewed into them! I quickly moved all of our food into a pile and covered it with a large pot, weighed down by other pots and pans.

Sarah eventually woke up, and we took a walk to the bathroom. Now, bear with me here. I know that you don't want to hear about the outhouses. But this was no ordinary wilderness pit. Mirror Lake is a very high traffic area (at least as far as the Porkies go), and so the State Park has built a truly amazing outhouse between the 4 and 8 bunk cabins. For one thing, there is no pit in the ground. This outhouse is "composting" meaning that it's basically built on top of a giant compost bin which is partly open to the air. Ridiculously smelly? No, it's the best smelling outhouse I've ever been in. After 3 days on the trail, it's like a little luxury palace in the middle of the backcountry. We took turns admiring it and generally not roughing it in the middle of the Porkies. I highly recommend checking out the Mirror Lake Palace-Potty if you're ever nearby.

We walked back to the cabin, still stiff and exhausted. We paused, briefly, to enjoy the gorgeous landscape near the cabin -- open woods under towering pines and high cliffs. It was silent and dim. We ate a small dinner (avoiding the now totally inedible landjaeger which was almost rotting in the heat), sipped some water, and crawled in to bed without so much as building a fire in the fire ring, nor taking the canoe (comes with the cabin!) out for a spin. We drifted off to sleep as... what was that sound?! A loud scratching woke us up. Just as I was drifting off again, it came back, louder than ever. I put on my headlamp and shone it around, catching the infamous mouse as he poked his head out from behind the wood stove's heat shield. I double-checked our mouse-proofing, put a few more things in buckets and under pans, said some stern words in the mouse's direction, and climbed back in to bed.

We slept the sleep of people who've been hiking for 2 days longer than they're used to.

Miles hiked: 7.25
Total miles: 17.25