Thursday, October 22, 2015

Porcupine Mountains 2015, Day 4: Big Carp to Section 17

Last time: Rest day and waterfalling along the Big Carp RiverHere is a list of all of my backpacking trips.

A mist in the distance

I woke suddenly in that dark hour just before the first light of dawn appears. I was awakened by the lack of sound: The rain had stopped.

All night I had tossed and turned, always waking to hear the rain pelting on Lake Superior Cabin's metal roof. I couldn't shake the feeling that yesterday -- a beautiful and perfect day -- was our last chance to hike the 8+ miles out of the park in good weather. Now it seemed that the downpour had stopped -- a true blessing. I rolled over and finally got to sleep.

Just before we started our trip, rain was a possibility in the forecast, but only for half of a day at most. We were more or less prepared for it. We packed good rain coats and pack covers, although we left rain pants home to lighten the load a bit (on the theory that Porkies trails are relatively underbrush-free, so pants would only be useful in the most torrential downpour).

About an hour after sunrise, we were drinking tea and eating oatmeal to the beach, where we sat on a driftwood log and enjoyed the beautiful morning.  The sky was bright blue with a few puffy clouds, but the lake surf was still running high and the wind was blowing hard.

The distant points of land along the coastline to the west were surprisingly hazy. As we squinted at them, the wind suddenly became downright cold, and a thick fog started to roll in. Within 10 minutes  the blue sky had completely disappeared under a thick bank of fog, and a cold mist reduced visibility to just yards. A thin but cold rain started to fall. We dashed for the cabin, confused and disheartened. Just when the day looked perfect for hiking, would we be chased away by yet another round of rain?

Today's unavoidable 7.3 mile hike to Section 17 cabin would be almost entirely along the Little Carp River. Our trail would take us directly in the direction from which the weather had come. Would that let us get out of the weather faster, or just ensure our misery? We reviewed our options:
  • Option 1: Wait for a while and hope that the weather cleared. 7.3 miles would take us 3-ish hours, so we were in no hurry to leave. We could bide our time and see.
  • Option 2: Change our plans and take the Cross Trail, a little-used trail that started right by our cabin. This would reduce our mileage to about 5 miles, giving us less time out in the rain, while still leading directly to the Section 17 cabin. However, the Cross Trail is universally described as "swampy in the best circumstances, and impassable in the worst". That didn't sound like fun, especially after repeated rains.
  • Option 3: Exit the Porkies entirely. If we were willing to brave the rain, we could make it to our car in just over 8 miles and have a hot shower tonight. Much to my shame, that option sounded best to me.
After much debate (and a feeling that leaving early would be the worst possible outcome), we decided on Option 1. After all, the wall of clouds and rain had appeared almost out of nowhere -- it could disappear just as quickly.

To pass the time, we packed and repacked our packs, making sure we were ready to go on a moment's notice. When that stopped being a reasonable pastime, Sarah started stitching and I wrote in the cabin's log book. The log book is a fun feature of the cabins -- a little link between all of the other lucky souls who stayed in the cabin. We usually left logs that were short and to the point, but without anything better to do I wrote a very long entry filled with advice for future campers. My main point addressed a disturbing trend in previous entries: Refusal to eat thimbleberries, because they were mysterious "red berries".

Red berries get a bad rap. The vast majority of bright red berries in Michigan are perfectly safe: Strawberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, bunchberries, wild cherries, wild cranberries, wintergreen, and of course thimbleberries.  Get back here! Don't go around eating unknown wild plants just because some blog told you it was OK! Thimbleberries look just like overgrown raspberries -- anyone being overly cautious around them is missing out on a delicious treat.

I wrote at length about the uses of thimbleberries, how to make jam, and then wandered off to topics like the mouse-stopping board and why it's worth going up the Big Carp to see waterfalls. I passed a very pleasant half hour writing advice that future campers will probably ignore completely. But, it passed the time.

Technically called "God Light". For obvious reasons.

Every 10 or 15 minutes, I put on my rain coat and dashed out to the Big Carp bridge to get a broad look at the sky. At long last, on one of these trips, I could see blue sky off to the south! As I waited, the rain stopped just as quickly as it started, the wind warmed, and rays of sunlight started to poke through the clouds. Sure enough, a faint rainbow appeared to the north.

A group staying in the Big Carp 6 bunk, across the river, chose that moment to make their move. A large group of kids of various ages with two parents headed out en masse, marching past me on the bridge. The man who I assume was their father stopped to chat. He gave his two cents that the weather would hold, and that we should make our move right now as well. I paused just long enough to take a photo of the beautiful light before running back to the cabin with all of this good news.

At 11 am, we finally shouldered our packs, locked up, and headed out on the last long leg of our trip. There was a clear blue sky overhead and a downright warm breeze blowing from the south. Our raincoats were ready to be used at a moment's notice.

For the first segment of today's hike, we backtracked along 1 mile of Lake Superior Trail between the Big and Little Carp rivers. The first time we went over this segment, we were pleasantly surprised at the dryness of the trail. Today, my boots started to sink in the muck before we were even out of sight of the cabin. Three nights of rain were too much for the Lake Superior Trail: It had converted back to its soggy, muddy, boot-suckingly soft old ways.

It seemed like everyone had decided to make a run for it at the same time, so we found ourselves frequently stepping off into the wet bushes to let another group by. We even met the woman and doggie from our 2nd day, apparently retracing their route along the Lake Superior Trail.

Lunch on the Little Carp River bridge (looking south)

Despite the muddy trail, we made good time to the Little Carp River. We stopped at the big bridge over the river and enjoyed a lunch of rice cakes and peanut butter. The sun shone so brightly on the water that we had to avert our eyes, and photos were almost impossible. It was, if anything, humid and hot, a big change from the rest of the trip.

From here on out, we were on new trails. The Little Carp River starts at its junction with the Lake Superior Trail and heads southeast, never more than a few yards from the Little Carp River. It passes close to a trailhead at the southern edge of the park, then turns northeast and then turns in towards the heart of the park, ending at Mirror Lake. Widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful trails in an already gorgeous park, the northwest end of the Little Carp River trail also picks up the North Country Trail and carries it for many miles.

The Little Carp river is very much like the Big Carp, but smaller, so I suppose it's well named. It was filled with tiny waterfalls and rapids, all of them ridiculously scenic and framed by the huge trees on either bank. The trail wandered through dark stands of old-growth hemlock and danced around the edges of huge thimbleberry patches, all with the bubbling river within ear-shot and eye-sight.

Walking along the Little Carp River trail

Our first landmark after the bridge was Traders Falls. A small wooden sign pointed us towards an informal campsite along the edge of the river, where the water bubbled along between small rocks. We walked out onto the river -- literally, onto rocks in midstream, hardly even having to pause to look at our footing -- and paused. We turned our heads upstream, then downstream, then we looked at each other. There was no waterfall. The rocks we were standing on formed a tiny set of rapids, but hardly anything worth noticing.

My best guess is that Traders Falls was named not because it's a waterfall of any size, but rather because there was some old trader's cabin nearby, and that part of the river picked up the name by association. I didn't see any signs of a cabin, but it's the only theory I have.

Not long afterwards, we came to our first unbridged river crossing of the day. The trail crossed the river at a very shallow point, and we were able to walk across on small rocks without even needing to change into sandals. We then started down a section of the river that I nicknamed the "Tree Alley". This was a surprisingly straight section of river, filled with boulders, slides, and small rapids. There was a heavy canopy of trees that nearly formed a tunnel over the river. It was a classic wilderness view, and one that I was completely unsuccessful trying to capture with my camera. At the end of Tree Alley, we passed Trapper's falls, which is a long slide that is much more worthy of a name than that Trader business.

Shortly afterwards, we came to the second (and last) unbridged river crossing of the day. This one was just tough enough to force us to change into sandals for the crossing. That also gave us a good excuse to take a break. As we rested on the far bank, an unpleasantly familiar cool wind started to blow, and dark clouds began covering the sun. Just as it had done twice in the morning, the weather had again changed completely in less than 10 minutes.

Crossing the Little Carp

We jumped up to start moving, just as rain drops started to fall. Optimistically, we chose to believe that the rain was just passing through. In the dense Porkies forest, we could barely feel any sprinkles, so why not? Our optimism didn't last, however. The light rain became a little heavier, and a little steadier. Soon we could feel the rain even through the thick canopy. We managed to pull out our raincoats and quickly put them on just as the sky opened up and let out a true drenching downpour.

After that, the going was long, slow, and wet. Rain coats might keep rain off of you, but they also hold in heat and sweat (even the so-called "breathable" coats, which are the worst kind of false advertising -- the kind that soaks you in the backcountry!). We spent most of our time staring at the trail about 2 feet ahead of us and watching for slippery roots. Seeing that we were in the middle of an old-growth forest, there were a few of those around.

Along the way, we met the first hikers we had yet seen on the Little Carp River trail. This group had started at the Little Carp River road and was just beginning their backpacking trip towards the Big Carp. The group looked to be two older couples in shiny hiking gear and ponchos. One of them told us that the weather called for "scattered showers" for the rest of the day, and that things should clear soon. We wished them well, and slogged onwards.

The trail, previously rather flat and easy (at least by Porkies standards) became much steeper and hillier as we passed the miles. We were climbing into the central highlands of the park, where long, rounded hills and outcrops were the order of the day. The hills pushed the trail high above the river and, while beautiful and pine-covered, kept away the lovely river views from earlier in the day. In glimpses through the trees, we could see that the river had become sluggish and choked with brush and blowdowns. From high up on a ridge, we could see some fantastic campsites down at river level. An enormously steep hillside sat between the trail and the campsites. We never did find a spur trail leading to the sites.

The rain gradually slackened, until we were able to take our coats back off and walk through only a light mist.

Greenstone Falls

At long last, we passed the intersection with the Cross Trail and quickly found the spur to the Section 17 cabin, our final cabin of the trip. The Section 17 cabin is across the Little Carp River from everything else (including another palace-potty and a second cabin, Greenstone Falls). A narrow wooden bridge leads across the river to the cabin. This was good since we had absolutely no desire to cross the river yet again today, getting even more wet in the process.

The bridge crossed and the steep hill on the other side climbed, we found yet another remote and cute rustic cabin set in the middle of a flat rise high above the river. The cabin backed up against a steep bluff that rose suddenly behind it, and curved around to partly enclose it on the east side as well. Thick thimbleberries encroached on the west side, and the river (back to being made of small waterfalls) audibly fenced in its north side. This was a lovely, and well-guarded, location.

The skies cleared and sun shone down on us as we plopped our bags down on the cabin's picnic table and took stock. We were mostly dry -- the waterproofing on our coats and boots had held. Our packs were waterproof enough -- and we had packed almost everything in plastic bags anyhow. But we had strapped our sleeping pads on the outside of our bags and they were wet around the edges. We inflated them and set them out in the sun to dry, along with our river-crossing sandals.

Sarah had gotten chilled in the rain and needed a nap. She curled up in a sleeping bag on one of the cabin's bunk beds, and that's the last I heard from her for several hours. Once again, a long day of hiking into the Porkies' interior took its toll.

I did not suffer from the same exhaustion. This is the story of my hiking life: No matter how exhausted I am, I can't stay put for long. Taking advantage of the sun and perfect temperature, I set out to see what I could see. I started by climbing the bluff behind the cabin, which ran along the river and had yet another high bluff behind it. I found plenty of down firewood on the bluff, which I moved piece by piece into a pile in front of the cabin.

Rock in River. I probably spent 20 minutes setting up this shot and loved every minute of it.

My next stop was the river, with camera in hand. This stretch of the Little Carp River was once again rocky and rapid-y, in contrast with the slow and stagnant stretches around our last crossing. There were several named waterfalls nearby, including Greenstone Falls (which granted its name to the other cabin, directly across the river) and Overlooked Falls, although neither of these were particularly large. The river was as beautiful and rugged as I could have wished. I became completely engrossed in photographing the waterfalls, jumping from rock to rock in the stream, contorting myself into funny shapes to get just the right angle, cavorting across the bridge, and sitting motionless for minutes trying to capture a scene with just the right composition. It felt just like the good old days of waterfalling in the Copper Country. I completely lost track of time.

As I was focusing on the river, the sun disappeared, a thick wall of clouds obscured the sky, and... raindrops started falling on my head! The fell in what was most certainly not a wistful B. J. Thomas sort of way.

This sudden weather change (I think the 5th one, at this point) brought me rudely back to reality. I raced back up to the cabin and threw our pads and sandals into the cabin (waking Sarah up in the process) just as the sky again broke open and unleashed a steady downpour. Drenched again!

Last year, when we stayed "inland" at the Mirror Lake 2 Bunk cabin, we noticed how dark it was in the woods. Without Lake Superior taking up half of the horizon, there was little room for light to make it in through all of the trees. This was equally true at Section 17, and the rain and clouds made the darkness even worse. It was well before sunset, but we were completely stuck in the dark cabin, in the dark woods, under the dark sky.

We made freeze-dried Lasagna for dinner to warm ourselves up, and then followed it up with several rounds of hot tea for the same purpose. Afterwards, with a steady rain still falling, Sarah and I broke out the headlamps (both of whose batteries were quickly dying), cuddled up in sleeping bags, and settled in to read and/or stitch.

The steady rain never let up. As the dark night closed in over the woods and the cabin, we eventually nodded off to sleep.

The Day 4 trail is light blue and starts at the "Lk Superior" cabin. The orange spur is our waterfall trip on Day 3.

Miles hiked: 7.3
Total miles: 16.8

To be continued in Part 5: Out of the woods!


Jan said...

Beautiful photographs and interesting reading. This part of the trip sounds pretty exhausting!

Jacob Emerick said...

Very glad you went with Option 1 :)