Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 2: Speaker's Cabin to Big Carp River

Last time: Presque Isle to Speaker's CabinOr, see this list of all of my backpacking trips.

The cozy Speaker's Cabin

I never sleep well during my first night in the woods. It doesn't matter if I'm in a tent, a hammock, or a cabin -- I need time to adjust. This trend held true for our first night in the Porkies. I woke up in the middle of the night certain that something was in the cabin -- a bear perhaps? An hour later, I was positive that I saw a light flashing around outside, as if a hiker were wandering through our front yard. Neither really happened, but not-really-awake Dave had a hard time believing that.

Despite the weird half-dreams, I felt well rested when I woke up at 8 am. The weather had cooled down significantly overnight, and we found it difficult to convince ourselves to get out of our cozy sleeping bags and into the chilly day.

None of our hiking days were planned to be particularly long or strenuous, so we took it slow and enjoyed our morning at this beautiful place. I boiled water for one of my favorite camping rituals: Hot tea on the shore of Lake Superior. We sat at the Wolf Seat, sipped our hot tea, ate hot oatmeal, and soaked in the astonishingly beautiful view from our cabin. We had not a care in the world. It made me incredibly homesick for my long-past days of living in the UP.

The Last Porcupine Mountains Companion says, authoritatively, "We consider curiosity and sloth worthy excuses for not going as far as originally scheduled. A summer afternoon spent alongside a tumbling creek or frolicking along the shores of Lake Superior is time well accounted for." We took this to heart, but after cutting some firewood, pumping water, writing a short note in the cabin's logbook, packing and repacking our packs, and sweeping out the cabin, we could no longer come up with excuses to linger. So with a sigh, we reluctantly left for the next leg of our journey.

Today's hike was very simple: Continue walking the Superior (aka North Country) Trail eastward until we reached the mouth of the Big Carp River. Waving goodbye to Speaker's Cabin, we climbed the steep bluff carved out by Speaker's Creek and headed east.

Yet another gorgeous view along the Lake Superior Trail. Ho-hum.

The first mile of trail was flat and dry. Young trees surrounded us. The area we were walking in was part of a small section of Lake Superior shoreline that was logged in 1913. A surprisingly large amount of the Porkies lakeshore was logged in the early 1900's, and even 100 year old trees pale in comparison to the towering Hemlocks and shaded understory found in the rest of the park. Luckily, the old growth forest quickly reasserted itself.

After about half of a mile, the aptly named Speaker's Trail split off to the right, where it would hit the Boundary Road in another half mile. The state park is quite narrow at this point, and so we were very close to the Boundary Road. This makes Speaker's Cabin popular with non-backpackers looking for a nice base of operations. Despite all this, we still felt like we were completely alone in an endless forest. For the first 4 miles of the trip, the only other hiker we met was one woman with a small and extremely happy doggie (complete with its own doggie pack).

Near the Speaker's Trail branch, we came across another unusual feature: A private cabin. There are still a few small "inholdings" in this part of the Porkies, where the original landowners (at the time that the state park was formed in the 1940s) kept private ownership. The cabin was tiny, very run-down, and looked like an old hunting camp. It was located on a small rise just above a 2-track trail, probably used as an access road to the cabin. There was no sign that anyone had visited the cabin this year, much less in the last decade.

We faced a few small (and mostly dry) stream crossings, but nothing like the ravines of yesterday. At the bottom of one crossing we stopped for one of my favorite backcountry snacks: rice cake sandwiches. These are, simply, rice cakes with a ton of peanut butter smothered on them, clocking in at 200+ calories in about 1 ounce. Yes, those calories (and fat) are a good thing in the world of backpacking! The rice cakes serve no purpose other than being a crunchy platform for the peanut butter. Being incredibly lightweight is a big bonus, too.

Soon, we started to see a change in the woods. In some areas, older trees had fallen and allowed a bit of light to reach the ground. Hundreds of young maples took advantage of the light, growing in dense knee-high thickets as they tried to out-compete each other.

Beautiful view of a dry creek bed. Another one.

In even more open areas, we found enormous fields of thimbleberries! If you've never eaten these juicy and tart relatives of raspberries, you're missing out. They are delicious and practically make themselves into thimbleberry jam, a local delicacy in the western UP. Without even bothering to take off our packs, we headed off-trail and waded deep into the thimbleberry patches. No ripe thimbleberry escaped us. The tart and juicy fruit refreshed us and gave us a shot of sugar to propel us down the trail.

After a few miles, we came to the first real ravine of the day. The ravine cut out by Pinkerton Creek is decently deep, at 65 feet (where the trail crosses it). Despite the dry season, Pinkerton Creek was actually running a respectable amount. The trail was covered in slippery muddy patches all up and down the hillside, some fed by small springs. The gorge was ridiculously picturesque, with boulders hiding beneath tall hemlocks. We hopped across the stream bed on scattered rocks and climbed again, steeply, to follow a razorback ridge that would be our high point (in a literal, elevation sort of sense) of the day.

One curious thing about the Lake Superior Trail is that it's rarely in sight of Lake Superior. While the trail parallels the lake shore, it's always at least a few hundred yards inland, sometimes up to a quarter mile. Our walk in the woods was quite lovely, but even at this high point we weren't getting many lake views.

This changed as the trail made a long sweeping turn toward the lake. We arrived at the edge of a high bluff with yet another deep ravine on one side, and a beautiful view of Lake Superior on the other. Below us on the shoreline was a spectacular backcountry campsite. There were also campers, who would probably be slightly annoyed with us gawking at them. We continued down the hill quickly, crossed the wet stream bed, and continued on.

At this point the trail mostly kept to the low-lying lakeshore, with only one last big ravine: The Little Carp River. Unlike the previous ravines, the Little Carp cuts through solid bedrock. The trail crosses the river at a point where this rock forms sheer cliffs of 10 to 20 feet. Luckily for us, the state park long ago built a series of wooden steps leading to a bridge across the river. While the river was pretty, we knew that we would be coming back this way to see it again in a couple of days. After a brief conference, we agreed to push onward, past the pretty waterfalls and inviting wooden benches. After all, it was just one more mile to our real destination of the day: The Big Carp River.

Strangely, that one mile seemed much longer than the previous ones. We crossed no more ravines -- boardwalks covered even the smallest stream crossing or dried-up muddy area. We were also now in thimbleberry central. There were enough ripe berries that we didn't even have to leave the trail to feast on them, and feast we did -- taking frequent breaks along the way.

At long last, we arrive at the mouth of the Big Carp River. Last year, we stayed in the Big Carp 6 bunk, which is right on the river and Lake Superior. This year's cabin, the Lake Superior Cabin, was ironically neither directly on the lake nor on the river. Instead, it is pushed back up against the base of a big bluff. The lake is barely visible from the front windows, but the trees, thick thimbleberry plants, and bluff combine to give the cabin much more privacy than the 6 bunk. Not to oversell it, but these thimbleberry plants were at least as tall as me and completely surrounded the cabin -- earning the Lake Superior Cabin my unofficial nickname of "Thimbleberry Hut".

The Lake Superior Cabin, aka Thimbleberry Hut.

Despite the thimbleberry-induced privacy, the trails were hardly quiet here. The Big Carp is a hub in the Porkies trail system, with the Lake Superior, Big Carp, and Cross trails all meeting there. Along the last mile of trail, we had met far more hikers than we had seen the entire trip so far. Many trails, both official and volunteer, wound through the thick thimbleberry patches near the cabin. As we stood at the cabin door, fumbling with the lock, yet another hiker happily tramped through our "front yard" (the fire pit area), didn't even look twice at us, and headed off on a volunteer trail that he apparently thought was the Lake Superior Trail. Sarah and I looked at each other: This was not OK. While it feels a bit selfish, one of the big allures of a cabin is the promise of having your own private, if temporary, patch of ground in the Porkies.

We killed two birds with one stone by stringing up a clothesline directly across the volunteer trail, and hanging our sweaty hiking clothes on it. It simultaneously acted as a clothesline, privacy screen, and very strong hint that this was not the main trail. It was a very good deterrent, gently (if stinkily) encouraging everyone to reconsider their path.

After we took care of basic chores (filter the water, unpack the sleeping bags and pads, eat the gorp), we settled in to relax. Sarah sat down to stitch (yes, she brought cross-stitching). Never one to waste an opportunity to wander in the woods, I picked up my camera (yes, I brought my full-sized DSLR) and took a walk along the river.

Big Carp River

The mouth of the Big Carp River remains one of my favorite places in the entire Porcupine Mountains. The river itself is practically made of waterfalls -- just like the Presque Isle and Little Carp Rivers. Close to the mouth, a particularly thick band of conglomerate narrows the river down to a gushing rapid, and a wooden bridge lets the Lake Superior Trail pass over it.

I cavorted all about these rocks -- yes, cavorted, in a manly backcountry adventurer-photographer-mathematician fashion -- taking pictures of the rocks, waterfalls, water, sky, plants, and anything else I could find. I was like a kid in a candy shop, all memories of weary backpacking lost along the beautiful river. Did I mention that I brought two lenses with me on the trip? The camera plus lenses and filters together accounted for nearly 3 pounds of pack weight. But I'm a sucker for photographing the Porkies, so it was completely worth it.

Sill life: Ultrawide lens with centuries-old white pine

After I returned to the cabin, Sarah convinced me -- without any difficulty at all -- that we should go swimming again. The swim was a bit tougher than on previous days, because (and I would never believe this if I didn't experience it myself) the Big Carp River was colder than Lake Superior. The surf was also a bit higher, a fact that we enjoyed to the fullest as we sat on a rock and let the waves wash all the way over us.

This brings me to another point: Every backpacking trip I've ever been on has followed a schedule roughly like this:
  • Day 1: Hike hard, get sweaty, feel slightly icky.
  • Day 2, morning: Wake up feeling like the most disgusting, stinky, greasy, unpleasant person on earth. Hate self.
  • Day 2, rest of day: Gradually get used to the smell, feel like a completely normal person.
  • Days 3, 4, etc.: Cavort about the woods without a care in the world.
  • Final day: Walk out of the woods, wonder why people are fainting everywhere I go, take two showers and unexpectedly feel like I'm back in civilization.
Getting to swim in Lake Superior completely reset the clock. 4 days of swimming in Superior: Check!

After drying off (hanging the clothes on our trail-blocking clothesline, of course), we ate a freeze-dried dinner and headed out to the beach to watch the sunset. A breeze was kicking up, bringing clouds with it across the lake. Sadly, the clouds were too thick for a good sunset, but it was better than our gray-out from last night.

We decided not to have a fire tonight, knowing that we could make one on our (hopefully less windy) rest day tomorrow. Instead, we sat inside the cabin, reading and stitching by the light of our headlamps. It was, again, fantastic.

Not a bad sunset -- but the only one we would see all trip.

The wind continued to pick up and temperatures dropped down into the mid 50's. Long after dark, we finally crawled into our sleeping bags and slept the sleep of sleepy backpackers.

In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of steady rainfall on the roof.

Miles hiked: 5.5
Total miles: 7.0

To be continued in Part 3: Waterfalling on the Big Carp

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 1: Presque Isle to Speaker's Cabin

Last time: Intro, Planning, and TravelSee also a list of all of my backpacking trips.

Speaker's Cabin hiding behind Speaker's Creek

Our first day in the Porkies -- Sunday, August 16th -- began far away, on the east end of the UP. The Upper Peninsula is really a tremendous swath of land, and today we would see much of it: 5 hours and 250 miles from east to west, covering all but the most extreme points of the UP.

We started early and made it as far as Marquette before stopping for coffee. Being a Sunday during the summer, we met long caravans of tourist traffic heading back downstate after a weekend visit to the north. A surprising number of them were motorcycles, which made more sense once we saw signs welcoming the "Michigan HOG Rally" in Marquette.

Our plan was to reach the Porkies and meet my parents by 2 pm. By the time we reached Ontonagon (the last town of any size before the Porkies), it was well past lunch time, and we needed a quick meal. Thus began the Great Lunch Hunt of 2015. We struck out in Ontonagon, finding nothing open -- not even a McDonald's, which we both incorrectly remembered as existing just outside of town. After driving around the tiny downtown for a few minutes, we decided to push on westward and hope to find a snack in Silver City (a wide spot in the road that has the honor of being the last named location before the Porkies). Silver City had exactly zero food as well -- even the one gas station had closed since the last time I was there. Our last hope was to find a bag of peanuts or chips at the "Porcupine Mountains Outpost", a small concession store run by the State Park. Even this was a wash -- unless we wanted to eat s'mores for lunch. The Outpost is clearly missing a huge chance to make money on half-starved hikers emerging from the woods, sick and tired of gorp and freeze-dried pasta.

At this point we were running out of time, patience, and (if we didn't get food soon) consciousness. In desperation, we turned back towards Ontonagon, hoping that we wouldn't have to dig into our camping meals. Near Silver City, just over a rise in the road, a small trailer appeared, with brightly colored "FOOD!" banners surrounding it in a suspiciously halo-like fashion. Lo and behold, the one and (extremely) lonely Porcupine Mountains food truck had just opened in someone's driveway, and the operator was more than willing to sell us a hot dog. Clearly, this was operated by someone who knew how to fill a niche.

The Lovely Sarah pausing for a pre-trip rest at Presque Isle

We pulled in to the Visitor's Center exactly at 2:00 and picked up our cabin keys. From last year's experience, we knew to check for missing key -- or extra ones! With that done, we quickly met up with my parents and caravanned 15 miles around the park's boundary to the Little Carp River road parking lot, where we would walk out of the woods in 5 days. We piled in to the back of my parents' car, sharing the seat with 60+ pounds of packs, hats and boots. After a short but rather uncomfortable drive, we arrived at the Presque Isle campground: the westernmost point of the park, and our starting point.

Presque Isle is a large rustic campground, situated in a corner between Lake Superior and the Presque Isle river. A series of boardwalks leads down into the river gorge, where a long suspension bridge allows pedestrians to view beautiful waterfalls. We strapped on our packs, slapped on our hats, and laid down some tracks to the suspension bridge. After some pre-trip selfies with my parents, we turned our separate ways -- my parents back to the car, and us towards the woods.

But first, we had to cross the presque isle. "Presque Isle" is French for "almost an island", which is a very reasonable description of the place where we stepped off the suspension bridge. What appears to be a tree-covered island between two branches of the river is in fact separated from the mainland only by a dry riverbed. The dry branch of the river is only filled in the spring melt, if ever. The riverbed cuts through tilted layers of Nonesuch shale which is one of the most interesting rock layers in upper Michigan. (Warning: geek-out ahead.) No, really. When Ed Less discovered an outcrop of copper in the Little Iron River in 1865 he never thought that he'd discovered the lode that would hold the richest copper mine in Michigan but that it wouldn't be... ok, perhaps I'll save that for Copper Country Explorer.

And now, some beautiful Nonesuch shale in a dry riverbed, with a tiny Sarah in the distance.
Blog returns in 3, 2, 1, ...

Sarah and I spent quite a while taking photos down by the river. The Presque Isle river, like many in the Porkies, is practically made of waterfalls, and it's incredibly easy to walk up the rocky riverbed and stand right next to some falls -- often unnamed. In his excellent Porcupine Mountains State Park Guidebook, Jim DuFresne acknowledges something that we would run into time and time again on this trip: "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."

Between us, we managed to spend half an hour taking photos of the waterfalls, the rocks, the river bed, the trees, and each other.

An unnamed waterfall on the Presque Isle River.

At last, we put our packs back on and headed into the woods for real. The west end of the Lake Superior Trail is located at a small intersection on the far side of the river. At this point, the North Country trail joins the Lake Superior trail, after making its way north along the waterfall-filled river. Hiking another segment of the beautiful North Country Trail was one of my "bonus" goals for this trip. This segment of the trail begins in old-growth forest with level ground, although there were a surprisingly large number of recent blowdowns across the trail. Dried mud holes and footprints frozen in the earth showed that the trail had been up to its muddy old tricks, but for us the trails remained thankfully dry.

Knowing that the trail was supposed to get a bit more rugged, I activated my trusty superpower: Find Walking Stick. It's not at all difficult to find good walking sticks among the downed branches in the Porkies, and we had no trouble this time. For this reason, neither Sarah nor I bother with expensive trekking poles. Let's do a quick comparison:

Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking PolesWooden Stick
MaterialsCarbon fiberFibers of carbon, aka wood
Weight18 oz, all day, every day0 oz, after you throw it away when it gets too heavy
Cost$159.95 + S&HFree! Plus free shipping; it already fell off the tree.
Additional usesTent poles? Maybe?Firewood, bear repellant, backwoods sword fight gear

As you can see, sticks clearly win. (Side note: Yes, I am aware that my tongue is stuck somewhere around my cheek here. As I write this, I am eagerly awaiting news from fellow backpacker and bushwhacking enthusiast Jacob Emerick, who will be shortly returning from more than a week on Isle Royale while carrying a brand new pair of trekking poles. Odds are currently running 2:1 in favor of "boot puncture" and 3:1 on "face plant following boot-lace snag".)

I found the walking sticks just in time, as the trail suddenly seemed to fall off the edge of a cliff. Literally peering over the edge, we saw that we were at the edge of a very steep, very deep ravine. Looking at topographic maps and my GPS logs after the fact, I am faced with the incredible truth that the ravine is a mere 50 feet deep. But in our defense, the steepest part of the ravine had a 30% grade, which is plenty steep for anyone with 30+ pounds on their backs. It is formed by an unnamed seasonal stream and was completely dry at the time. In its season, it must be quite spectacular.

And as the old adage goes, "Upclimbing is easier than downclimbing" -- that is, climbing up requires endurance but not much more. Climbing down a steep hill requires skill and delicacy in order to avoid wiping out and tumbling, Princess Bride-style, the entire way down. With our sticks firmly in hand, we slowly made our way down the rutted trail. We used all of the tricks in the book: grabbing at roots and rocks and pieces of grass, making controlled slides down slippery spots, and occasionally sliding right down on our rear ends. Our only saving grace was the blessed dryness of the trail. At the bottom, we crossed the dry and rocky stream bed and immediately started scrambling, hand-over-hand, up the other side of the narrow gorge.

After pausing to rest the top, we continued on. Moments later... there was another deep gorge! We tackled this one with gusto and wariness and made it up the opposite side, panting. Again, the bottom was dry.

The bridge over Speaker's Creek. Almost everything on the far bank and hillside is thimbleberry plants.

Luckily, this was our last big stream crossing for the day. One last short downhill dropped us at the end of a wooden bridge across a pretty stream. Next to the stream was a sign with an arrow pointing towards Speaker's Cabin, our home for the night. We clomped happily across the bridge, down a short spur trail, and found an incredibly cute little cabin sitting on a low bluff between Speaker's Creek and Lake Superior.

The forest on either side of the stream was thickly carpeted with thimbleberry plants. Sadly, there weren't many thimbleberries to be seen (we were probably a week past their prime), but we quickly ate those few that had made it through. The cabin itself is a single room with two bunk beds, a wood stove, a small table, and some cabinets over a counter. Outside, there was a corrugated metal fire pit surrounded by makeshift seats of driftwood. A collection of ragged blue tarps was stretched out next to it, weighted down by many rocks and tree limbs. Nearby were a carefully arranged collection of huge flat shore stones, arranged into two low seats that faced the lake. We nicknamed one of these the "Wolf Seat", for reasons that I hope are obvious:

Wolf Seat overlooking Lake Superior

Beyond the fire pit and wolf seat was a short but steep drop-off to a narrow cobble beach. Running along the edge of the cabin and fire pit area was Speaker's Creek itself, unmoving and filled with pond scum. As I climbed down to the beach to filter some water, I learned the reason: A large bar of driftwood, cobbles, and sand had completely blocked the mouth of the creek, which was now backed up into a stagnant lagoon. Lake Superior must have been in a nasty mood when she blocked up the creek mouth, as not even an old channel was visible in the beach.

We also discovered the cabin's outhouse, located up a steep hillside near the cabin. The necessity for a good invigorating mountain climb up to the outhouse turned out to be something of a theme for the trip. Near the outhouse was a surprising amount of rusted junk -- old sinks, counters, and mysterious twisted metal.

Later, a copy of the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion left in the cabin shed some illumination on our two mysteries. The Companion is by far my favorite Porkies-related book, and sadly the "Last" edition can only be purchased at the park store. The book revealed that Speaker's Cabin was named for a husband and wife who made this area their permanent home. However, the cabin that we were staying in was actually located across the stream from the Speakers' original home. Our cabin was instead part of a complex of buildings owned by a different couple, the Greens. The junk up by the outhouse was probably the remnants of their very remote and very hard life. The blue tarps were covering the remains of an underground pump house.

These rocks are technically blocking Speaker's Creek.

After we had unpacked and scaled the outhouse mountain, the next step was obvious: Swim! The temperature was in the 80's even by the lake, we were sweaty from our whole 2.5 miles of hiking, and Mother Superior looked mighty inviting. We had brought swimsuits for exactly this reason. For the third day in a row, we bathed in gloriously warm Lake Superior waters. The bottom of the lake in this area is made of medium-sized cobbles which make for rather treacherous walking, so we eventually found a large rock a few yards from shore and sat on top of it. The waves washed gently over us as we relaxed for what seemed like hours (but was probably 30 minutes at most).

After drying off, we made freeze-dried fajita wraps and enjoyed them from the Wolf Seat. Afterwards, we started a fire in the fire pit and sat, enjoying the beauty and silence. As dusk settled, a bank of clouds rolled in while a breeze kicked up. Sarah eventually went in to read and sleep, while I continued to tend the fire until quite late. I can spend hours staring silently at a camp fire's embers, something I'm sure makes my cave-man ancestors proud. Sadly, the clouds completely covered the sky, and there were no stars to see.

I finally pulled myself away from the fire, doused the embers, and tip-toed into the cabin to sleep.

Miles hiked: 2.5
Total miles: 2.5

Next time: Day 2: Curiosity and Sloth