Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Porcupine Mountains 2016: Introduction

This is the first of 3 posts about my May 2016 Porcupine Mountains explore-a-thon (one per day, plus this intro). Check the bottom of this post for a link to each other day, or see this list of all of my backpacking blog posts.

Kyle with unnamed falls on the Little Union River

The Porcupine Mountains are 90 square miles of my favorite hiking places on earth. More precisely, the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the far western Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a vast swath of protected virgin forests of great beauty, and a haven for backpackers like The Lovely Sarah and me. The "Porkies" include all of my favorite parts of the UP: Rugged, remote, beautiful, silent -- and of course, mine ruins.

Just over a month ago, I spent three days exploring new bits of the Porkies. It was a fantastic visit, and somewhat different from the two previous trips that Sarah and I have made. Let's start at the very beginning...

November 2015. Way back in fall of 2015, weddings started to pop up on our calendar for spring 2016. Two were on back-to-back weekends in May, and Sarah's cousins started to plan a "girls getaway" for the week between them. As a non-girl (and hence non-invitee) I saw a perfect opportunity to get away for a solo trip to the Porkies.

My idea was simple: See parts of the Porkies that I've never seen before. A solo trip meant that I could plan things that Sarah wasn't interested in -- especially bushwhacking through the backcountry, and long pauses for photography. This opened some very enticing doors.

I dug into planning with zeal. Planning is half the fun, and really increases my enjoyment of a trip. The first item on my list was to explore two remote outposts of the Escarpment ridge: Lafayette and Miscowawbic peaks. The Escarpment, as its name suggests, is a tall ridge that runs through the Porkies just inland from Lake Superior. The Escarpment trail, east of Lake of the Clouds, is one of the most famous hikes in Michigan. But the Big Carp River trail west of Lake of the Clouds, and the parts of the Escarpment that it runs on or under, were untouched territory for me. The two "peaks" (really, high points on the ridge) were the sites of copper mining attempts in the 1850's, and I expected to find old shafts, adits, and ruins. After all, exploring old mine sites (and photographing them) is one of my favorite UP pastimes.

After a bit of investigating, I added a second item: Bushwhacking on the Union and Little Union Rivers. How could I pass up two rivers that are reputed to be made of waterfalls?

The "girls getaway" never came together, but my Porkies trip stayed on the calendar. The "solo" part changed when I invited my old friend Kyle to join me. Kyle and I explored the UP together for several years while I was in grad school, and he's not afraid of a good bushwhack. He is also a skilled photographer who helped encourage my interest in photography (when I'd mostly forgotten it since my 4H years).

We dispensed with 30 pound backpacks and instead planned day hikes from one central location. To make the day hikes possible, I decided to rent one of the rustic cabins within the state park. Sarah and I have used cabins for our last two backpacking trips, and they are a fantastic way to see the park. They're little more than a roof over your head, rock-hard bunks to sleep on, and a wood stove for heat -- but they provide peace of mind and a nice way to keep your food safe from wildlife.

I had originally hoped to snag the highly-in-demand Lake of the Clouds cabin, but it was already taken when I made my reservations (6 months in advance!). Instead, I decided to roll the dice on a yurt: A giant round tent, and (apparently) the future of Porkies housing. The state park has four yurts, all built within the last 10 years or so. I reserved the Union Bay West Yurt, located right on the shores of Lake Superior. Unlike many of the other cabins we've stayed it, this yurt is within convenient walking distance of a parking area -- making it easier to drive to trailheads.

Finally, the Porkies trip was also a new gear shakedown. Sarah and I are heading to Isle Royale for 7 days this August, and we have some new gear to make life a bit easier. My REI dividend went to head nets (to protect against mosquitoes), a collapsible water bucket, and a lightweight weather radio. Watch for gear reviews later.

Trap Falls on the Big Carp River

Sunday May 15 2016, 7:00 am. The great Porkies adventure of 2016 began just after the first family wedding of 2016. When Sarah and I woke on Sunday morning at the wedding hotel, we looked out the window, and saw... snow?? Sure enough, we'd had a dusting of late-season snow -- in southern Michigan.

Braving the totally un-icy roads, we headed to a coffee shop just north of Lansing for our rendezvous with Kyle. We arrived early, which gave us time to order some coffee -- or at least to stare helplessly at the cash register, while the lone employee on order duty took a looooong smoke break. Once we finally squeezed life-giving caffeine from the turnip that is Tim Hortons of Dewitt Michigan, I unloaded my backpack and other gear from the car and Sarah headed home. I sat outside, sipping coffee and enjoying the cool morning.

As I waited, an older man walked out of the coffee shop and asked "Are you a backpacker?" He turned out to be a member of the West Michigan Chapter of the North Country Trail Association -- the association that maintains and promotes the 4600 mile long North Country National Scenic Trail that runs (almost) through my own back yard. We had a fun chat about the trail, backpacking, and the role of the North Country Trail Association in the Porkies (we had followed most of it on last year's backpacking adventure). Kyle pulled in right about then and got to meet him as well (unfortunately, I've completely forgotten his name). If you cart around a big enough backpack, it seems that people are exceptionally friendly to you.

As we headed north, we drove between snow squalls and blue skies. At one rest stop in the northern lower peninsula, we pulled in as a squall started -- and left, less than 10 minutes later, with enough snow to cover the grass! Once we crossed the Mackinac Bridge and headed west, the snow died out, the skies cleared, and the temperature rose. Just what you'd expect from the northlands.

In what has become a backpacking tradition, we stopped to obtain Dried Meat Products. This year's winner in the Dried Meat Lottery was Gustafson's Smoked Fish in Epoufette, a wide spot in the road along US 2 in the UP. We purchased some hunter's sausage and turkey jerky and stashed it in the cooler, right next to delicious root beer and other camping-food-making supplies that we could never take on a real backpacking trip.

Hours later, after a quick but delicious dinner at the Hilltop Restaurant in L'Anse, (famous for their cinnamon rolls which are the size of a baby's head -- and dinner rolls to match) we set out on the last leg of our trip.

Us, outside the yurt. Photo by Kyle, with help from his magical tripod.

Sunday, 6:10 pm: Union Bay Campground. We finally arrived in the Porkies a little after 6 pm, after about 10 hours on the road. In past years, if we arrived this late, the rangers would have tacked an envelope containing our cabin keys and permits onto a bulletin board outside the park headquarters. Starting today, the day we arrived, that policy changed: All incoming renters are required to meet with a ranger in person. The keys have been changed to number codes and permits wouldn't be written out until... well, until we didn't know what. My best guess is that the park is reacting to a few too many tourists who don't do their research before renting a Porkies cabin. There has undoubtedly been trouble with renters who thought that the cabins were, well, modern and expected to be able to wheel their 50-gallon beer cooler down the nice paved trail to the cabins.

The nearest ranger was at the Union Bay contact station, and our arrival forced him to scramble for the paperwork -- we were literally the first renters to arrive under the new policy. After completely failing to find the right form, he used a marker to scratch out a makeshift permit on scratch paper and handed it to us, along with the key code for our Yurt. As two raging math nerds, neither Kyle nor I had any trouble remembering the code: 314. (wait for it...)

(To prove our level of math nerdiness, we later calculated the total number of possible key combinations for the locks. There are only 5 buttons, numbered 1 -- 5, key codes are 3 digits long, and the numbers can't be repeated. It turns out that there are only 60 different key codes possible under this system -- few enough to let you get in to any key-coded cabin you'd like, in an emergency.)

We drove across the mostly empty campground, parked at a small gravel pad, and walked about 100 yards in to the Union Bay West Yurt. (Ok, in this case, you could wheel your beer cooler down the trail to the rental. Most of them aren't quite so easy!) Along the way, we passed the Union Bay East Yurt, located just that much closer to the camp ground. A college-aged couple were sitting happily on the picnic table outside the yurt, and hailed us as we walked by. After a brief chat, it turned out that the couple -- Burley and Amy -- had just gotten engaged. There are certainly worse places to propose than on the shores of Lake Superior. We congratulated them and left them to their happy glow.

The West yurt was a bit different from the cabins I'd stayed in before: The walls were canvas, hung over a cylindrical grid of wooden supports. The canvas roof angled up to a round central skylight with a crank to open it for ventilation.  There were two windows made of transparent plastic, with bug screens and canvas rolls to act as storm windows. Instead of the usual counter and cupboards, there was a metal "chuckwagon box" with a bear-proof handle just outside the front door.

Beside those oddities, the rest of the yurt felt just like any other Porkies cabin. The floor was made of rough-cut boards. Two bunk beds sat on either side of a woodstove, with an axe, saw, and some kindling behind it. Pegs for drying clothes were mounted on the walls and a table with heavy wooden chairs sat next to the door.

Looking back towards Lake of the Clouds from the Big Carp River trail

Sunday, 7:00 pm: Lake of the Clouds. After bringing in our gear and examining the yurt for a while, we looked at each other and said "Let's go out on the trails!" Yes, really -- sunset wasn't until after 9:00, and we weren't about to travel to the heart of God's Country and not use every minute.

We drove up to the Lake of the Clouds overlook and, well, looked over it. It was, as always, a beautiful view from hundreds of feet above the lake. Sunday evening in mid-May is a pretty slow time for UP tourism, but we were surprisingly not alone. A handful of other people were enjoying the view and there were a number of vehicles in the parking lot, most likely other backpackers.

My real goal was to check out the Big Carp River trail conditions. The ranger at Union Bay warned us that the trails were "mud holes", but I wanted to see that for myself. From the overlook, we headed west down a set of wooden steps and found ourselves on perfectly dry, rocky ground: the Big Carp River trail. The trail wound through spring woods with trees just starting to leaf out, turned uphill and popped us out at a gorgeous overlook of the Big Carp River valley and Lake of the Clouds. We found no mud and, better yet, no bugs. Signs looked good for some easy hiking conditions.

Sunday, 9:00 pm: Back at the Yurt. As the sun began to sink low, we headed back to the yurt and entertained ourselves by reading the log books. Every rental cabin has a log book for visitors to record their thoughts, adventures, and (most often) Cribbage scores. There were two log books in the yurt (one had just recently filled up), and we took turns reading amusing stories from them. We read about people swimming in Superior in all times of year, successful and unsuccessful attempts to avoid bad weather, epic cribbage games, plagues of black flies, wolf attacks (followed by skeptical commentary by quite a few later campers), and a hipster couple celebrating 4/20 in grand fashion (plus more than one snarky follow-up comment). Quite a few people stayed in the yurt over the winter (it's only a short hike from the road, even with snow), which started me day-dreaming for next year. Snowshoeing through fresh powder while sleeping next to Lake Superior? Sign me up!

At last, it got dark -- and cold. We later learned that the temperature was near freezing that night. After toughing it out in our sleeping bags for a few minutes, we decided to fire up the wood stove, something that neither of us had ever done before. Luckily, my favorite Porkies guidebook, the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion, has a section devoted solely to the art of lighting and tending a wood stove. With the book close at hand (but not too close), we carefully scraped out a trench in the ashes, placed a medium log on either side, piled kindling in between and placed thumb-sized sticks on top. With a single match, our kindling burned brightly and quickly caught the smaller sticks. After perhaps 30 minutes of following the kindly and somewhat tongue-in-cheek instructions, we had a good fire with lots of hot coals. ("Avoid the rookie mistake of loading the stove up with wood before going to bed, thinking that it will simmer nicely until morning. What a loaded stove will do is produce a short-lived blast of heat that will clear the top bunks and sweat everyone out of their sleeping bags.")

As I laid in my sleeping bag, the chugging of air through the vent control was a surprisingly reassuring sound. Together with gentle waves on Superior, it lulled me to sleep while the star-filled sky showed darkly through the skylight.

Sunset, literally feet from the yurt.

Next time: Waterfalls, Waterfalls, everywhere!