Thursday, October 1, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 3: Big Carp Waterfalls

Last time: Speaker's Cabin to Big CarpOr, see this list of all of my backpacking trips.

Sarah is tired of your artsy-fartsy photography. Time for BREAKFAST!

We awoke a little after sunrise to find the day cool, bright, and beautiful. The only sign of last night's rain was a heavy dew on the thimbleberries... and the fact that the laundry we had left hanging outside was completely soaked. We left it up to dry again in the beautiful morning sun.

We made our usual oatmeal and tea for breakfast. Around 8 am, according to my timestamps, Sarah got tired of me taking artsy photos of our steaming-hot tea and determined that only a photobomb would stop me. She was correct.

Today was our rest day, and we were determined to enjoy it to the max. We scheduled this break on our 3rd day precisely because by last year's 3rd day, we were exhausted and miserable and still hiking 8 miles uphill. Our plans were very simple:

Sit on the beach
Sit on the beach
Hike upstream to see waterfalls
Take bath under a waterfall
Take photos of waterfalls
Nap next to waterfalls
Take more photos of waterfalls    
Swim in Lake Superior
Take photos of stars
Swim under the stars

Sarah is a bit of a fish, if you haven't guessed.

But before any of that, we had to hike up Kilimanjaro. As with Speaker's Cabin, the Lake Superior Cabin's outhouse was way, way, way up a hill behind the cabin. This makes sense: It keeps any, uh, seepage from the outhouse far away from fresh water sources. This reasoning was not popular among the contrarians in the cabin's log book, who universally condemned the difficult climb (especially in the middle of the night). One even claimed to be an expert in soil engineering, which amused us quite a lot (however, that same person also condemned anyone who was wearing, eating, or sleeping in anything not 100% found in nature, so who knows what was going on with him).

Behold, Kilimanjaro of the Porkies!

I know what you're thinking: He's going on about the outhouse for another paragraph? Yes, yes I am. When you're backpacking for most of a week, your priorities change a little bit. Remember my detailed description of the Hiking Stench Cycle from Day 2? Ahem... back on point: Unlike Speaker's Cabin, the Lake Superior Cabin has a wonderful "composting" outhouse, a type becoming very popular in the Porkies. I waxed potty-etical about the one at Mirror Lake at length last year. Their main feature is that they hardly stink at all. Many of the older style outhouses in high-traffic areas of the Porkies backcountry are being replaced by these "palace potties," and all I can say is Hallelujah!

After a quick lunch, we lightly packed one backpack with water and snacks and headed upstream to see the waterfalls. The Big Carp River trail follows the river closely, although it frequently does so from the top of a high bluff. Luckily for us, most of the waterfalls are within easy reach of the trail.

As I've said many times about many Porkies rivers, the Big Carp River is practically made of waterfalls. The river drops about 200 feet in its last mile before the lake, so there's quite a bit to see. However, those 200 feet don't happen all at once. You can't walk 10 feet without a small drop, a slide, or at least some picturesque rapids, but there are very few large waterfalls.

Unnamed Waterfall #1

I had saved my camera batteries for this part of the adventure. More specifically, I had saved both of the batteries that I brought. Waterfalls look best when photographed with a slow shutter speed, which in turn means that the camera has to use more energy to collect light from the longer exposure. In short, photographing waterfalls destroys battery life. My camera can last for weeks taking normal photos, or about 3 hours taking waterfall photos. Luckily, 3 hours was enough for today.

Early on, we came across a long slide of a waterfall that was mostly bare rock due to the low late-summer water levels. I hopped around the rocks contorting myself into bizarre poses to get a good angle. Meanwhile, Sarah sat back on the warm rocks and read.

This is exactly how the Big Carp River looks for its first mile and a half, (usually) minus the Sarah.

As we continued upstream, we met with a huge variety of small drops, rapids and slides, all framed by gorgeous old-growth hemlocks in an open forest. I photographed them all, and some of the photos actually turned out. I've found over the years that the experience of viewing a waterfall can never be matched in a photo -- the movement of the water, the sound, the whisper of the breeze, the feeling of the sun are all impossible to capture. Nonetheless, I tried my darnedest, but my memories are dearer than the photos.

Along the way we met a steady stream of hikers -- far more than we had yet met in the trip. The Big Carp River trail is a major thoroughfare in the park, connecting to all of the most popular destinations: the mouth of the Big Carp; Mirror Lake, and Lake of the Clouds. Groups of 2's, 3's, and 4's with the occasional solo backpacker headed both ways along the trail as we stopped by waterfall after waterfall. I chatted with most of them, but many were in a hurry to get somewhere else. One mentioned that his weather radio indicated rain shows and possible thunderstorms tonight. Another was hurrying east, hoping to snag a prime campsite near a large waterfall.

We too were heading towards that waterfall, Shining Cloud falls, which is one of the largest drops in the park. It's the highlight of the lower Carp River, about 1.25 miles above the river mouth.

Unnamed Waterfall #1, another angle

When we hiked the Big Carp River trail on our 2014 adventure, we followed the exact route we were taking today. But on that hot day, after two long muddy slogs on the previous days, we were exhausted and uninterested in the waterfalls. Even one of the biggest waterfalls around wasn't enough to get us to stop -- and I didn't take any photos along the river. So our trip today was all about making up for last year's missed opportunities. Practically none of the trail looked familiar, a sign of just how exhausted I had been last time around.

The way up to Shining Cloud seemed to stretch on for a remarkably long time. Meanwhile, any two hikers trying to count waterfalls would easily come up with two different double-digit numbers on just this one stretch of river.

We eventually started to think that we might have missed Shining Cloud falls entirely. Or maybe we had just seen Bathtub falls -- the one other named drop on this river. We couldn't exactly remember. There were enough larger drops that perhaps one of them was Shining Cloud. Shortly afterwards, the trail headed up a high bluff away from the river. We decided to try bushwhacking along the river bank, but were quickly squeezed right to the edge of the river bank, which was suddenly sheer and rocky.

Unnamed slide close-up

Heading along the high river bluff instead, we could barely even see the river below. The trail climbed steadily, until it suddenly reached a high and open head of land with an overlook of a spectacular waterfall.  This had to be Shining Cloud Falls: There was no comparison with any other waterfall on the lower Big Carp -- a true high drop, not just a slide or rapids.

Scrubby growth below the overlook screened a full view of the falls, and the photo below only shows part of it. The pool below the waterfall looked huge, cool, and inviting.

I ran ahead to try to find a way down to river level. The trail continued to rise high above the river, but deep ravines started to cut down towards the river. The first one had an obvious volunteer trail heading straight down, and so I too headed straight down. The path had a dense covering of pine needles over sandy earth -- neither of which are known for being good for keeping your footing on a slope. After skittering around some large pines, the trail reached the edge of a steep drop-off, and turned to follow a narrow rocky ledge down towards the river. I took a couple of steps along the ledge, but there was no way I would be able to keep my footing and balance and carry a camera. Boo -- that trail led straight down to the big pool at the waterfall's base!

Just part of Shining Cloud falls

Repeating the mantra that "up-climbing is easier than down-climbing", I panted my way up the hillside and tried the next ravine over. This time a volunteer trail lead to a very nice flat area within about 20 vertical feet of the river. I took my one good photo of the waterfall from here (the one above), but as you can see, even this was only a partial view. The trail continued downward from the flat area, but again, I found myself on an impossible-to-follow rocky ledge. Perhaps if I felt more like doing some free-climbing, I could make it down to the river -- but not today. (Sarah, who was watching from high above at the lookout, later admitted that she expected to either see me hopping along the rocks at the waterfall's base or floating downstream.)

That's the point where I gave up on getting down to river level, and instead returned, panting and sweaty, to Sarah at the high overlook.

With no more big waterfalls above Shining Clouds, we turned around and headed back. Sarah hoofed it back to the potty-palace, while I took my time, chatted with fellow hikers, and tried photographing some of the trickier waterfalls a second time. The pleasantly sunny-but-cool day was perfect. It was a bit too cool to swim in any of the pools at the bases of the waterfalls, but we always had Superior.

An actual drop! ... but still unnamed

Indeed, when we were both back, Sarah was ready for yet another bath in Lake Superior. By this time, a cool breeze had sprung up and a few clouds were starting to roll in. This led to lake swells that were heavier than in previous days, so after splashing around a little I decided to sit on the shore and read. Sarah had a grand time, but eventually came in after nearly being swept off of the "sitting rock". Nonetheless, she had gone swimming in Lake Superior for 5 days in a row, certainly some sort of personal record.

Clouds started rolling in and added to the stiff lake breeze that chased us back to the cabin. Things were starting to look stormy.

We ate a quick freeze-dried dinner (Backpacker's Pantry Risotto -- totally acceptable, which is about the highest praise I can offer any freeze-dried meals -- and a nice break from our usual Mountain House options) and settled in for the night as the thick clouds brought on an early dusk.

The early dusk turned to early pitch-black night, and rain started to fall in huge drops. There would be no staring at a campfire, no sunset on the beach, and no stargazing tonight. Another wash for some of my favorite camping activities. Instead, we sat inside reading (or, if you're Sarah, cross-stitching) by the glow of our headlamps. I made several rounds of hot tea to chase away the chill.

Sarah stitching

Before going to bed, we took some time to set up our usual anti-mouse measures. If you want to have real fun in the backcountry, try leaving out anything edible (or even vaguely smelly) in a Porkies cabin. The resident mice are very familiar with human food, and they will chew straight through your bag and leave you with a huge mess.

According to the cabin log, the Lake Superior Cabin has an especially bad mouse problem. Past sufferers reported that the mice entered the cabin through a crack under the door and would go so far as to climb up our sleeping bags if we didn't prepare properly. Luckily, there seemed to be a consensus that the mice could be stopped by two simple measures: Proper food storage, and careful use of the mouse-stopping board.

Food storage is easy: Keep food bagged, in your pack, hung on the wall -- or else placed under heavy pots and pans. But, the Lake Superior Cabin's mouse-stopping board was a new one for us. Some past tenants had kindly left an inch thick board, carefully labeled with its name and a diagram of how to use it (edited by some later bored campers to say "mouse-stomping board" with a rather more gruesome illustration). We carefully slid the board into the corner of the door frame, blocking the small crack under the door, and added flat beach cobbles along the rest of the crack to discourage extra-adventuresome (or extra thin?) mice.

We never did have any mice problems, but the testimony of fellow campers convinced us that it was worth the effort to keep the place sealed up tight.

Eventually, we crawled in to our sleeping bags. I read a bit longer, and then turned over to sleep. The rain continued unabated outside. I lay awake, anxious about tomorrow's 7 mile hike, which we would likely have to do in this very rain. That naturally lead to thoughts about how this was our last night at the Big Carp. The Porkies are one of my favorite places in the UP, and last year the Big Carp became my favorite place in the Porkies. This year cemented it even more, and my heart ached a little just thinking about leaving this quiet and beautiful place. Even though we would still be in the woods for another night, I could feel that we were past the hump -- we were on the downswing of our backpacking adventure.

I tossed and turned, never able to sleep for more than a few minutes as I listened to the steady, heavy rain.

Miles hiked: 2.5
Total miles: 9.5

To be continued in Part 4: You call that a waterfall?


nailhed said...

"We eventually started to think that we might have missed Shining Cloud falls entirely."

Heh, I remember having that exact same thought on my first/only backpacking trip into the Porkies in 2001. I didn't get a decent pic of Shining Cloud either.

Jan said...

Another interesting chapter, Dave. You make it easy to imagine what it is like backpacking and camping in the Porkies.

Jacob Emerick said...

"...she had gone swimming in Lake Superior for 5 days in a row" == so much awesome :)

DC said...

@Jacob: So true. I admit I was a bit envious, but I just couldn't bring myself to swim in those waves on the 5th day.