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


Jacob Emerick said...

Oh man, so jealous of them thimbleberries. They were barely present on Isle Royale. I probably ate a handful over the nine days, managed to visit the island right in between crops.

It's funny how similar a lot of our backpacking thoughts are. I never sleep good for the first few days of being outside... Takes at least two nights before the tent feels right. And the stink factor. I read somewhere that deodorant is pointless while backpacking, only attracts animals, and have been trying to listen to that advice... but dang. At least there's always Lake Superior to jump in :)

DC said...

Jake -- We thought we had missed most of the thimbleberries, but the closer to the lake we got, the more there were. We were certainly past the peak though.

I have a tough time NOT camping near Lake Superior. It's just what I've always done. As you'll see (spoiler!), just like last year, the one day we weren't near the lake turned out to be (comparatively) miserable.

Unknown said...

Hi DC. I wish I would've known you had a blog as good as Jacob's a while ago. I'm a fellow Tech grad who shares the love of the UP that you two have, but unfortunately I'm much less experienced in getting to the cooler, out of the way areas, like the deeper parts of the Huron Mtns (Bald Mtn & McCormick are as deep as I've gotten). That's about to hopefully change this Friday when a MTU (class of '02) buddy of mine who's flying in from Phoenix to make the trip up from Ypsilanti and attempt to recreate Jacob's Mt Homer/Mtn Lake hike from 2012 with me. However, I'm very afraid things have changed for the worse as far as surveillance and property lines go since then (especially with the AAA being paved all the way to that awful mine), and since I know it has been a long while since Jacob has been up the Northwestern (this will be my first venture), I was hoping maybe you had some useful knowledge/advice for me. I've read many of your comments on his blog, and it seems pretty apparent that you're at least as knowledgeable as he is about the area. It might just be because I'm using my phone but I can't seem to find a more direct way to contact you, so if you have time before Friday to hit me up at rjbajema at yahoo dot com, I would appreciate it more than you could understand. I'm so geeked for this trip my heart is almost beating out of my chest like one of those old cartoons. I'm also planning on doing Bald again and camping at the mouth of the Huron Saturday night, so all will not be lost if Mt Homer is a complete no-go, but I've been dreaming of laying eyes on that lake (even if I have to tread lightly just a bit beyond boundaries like Jacob) ever since reading Fred Rydholm's "Superior Heartland" books front to back twice. Thanks for your time and take care.

DC said...

Ryan: Email coming your way.