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

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