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


Jan Clark said...

I enjoyed the history of the area in your blog, Dave. Your descriptive writing let's me feel, a little bit, what it is like to do the hike!

nailhed said...

Huh, maybe I will have to look into a cabin for next time...

Jacob Emerick said...

Great Lunch Hunt of 2015 - oh man, sir, been there. We ended up traveling all the way down to Bruce Crossing to find something a few years ago. It was either that or try our luck with ice fishing!

Oh, and I definitely approve of your wooden stick vs trekking poles comparison. They came in handy during Day 2 and really started to click on Day 4... But spoilers. I'll let you draw your own conclusions as the narrative continues ;)

So, even with all of your mentions of gorges and thick woods, this trip is sounding lovely already. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest, especially how you spent your rest day.

DC said...

Nailhed: Yes, you really should look into the cabins. More expensive, but they have some serious benefits.

Jake: Spoiler: Waterfalls!!