Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Porcupine Mountains 2016, Day 2: Bushwhacking the Escarpment

Last time: Waterfalls!Miss something? Here's a list of all of my backpacking posts.

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

Tuesday, May 17, 7:30 am, Union Bay West yurt: I woke to see the sun already shining in a clear blue sky. I unzipped my sleeping bag, moved one toe out, and immediately curled right back up again. It was cold!

A few minutes later, I convinced myself to get out of bed for real. I tossed on my winter jacket, hat, and gloves, and stepped outside to find a hard frost still lingering in the shade. It had gotten all the way down to 26 degrees last night. Luckily hot tea and oatmeal are just about perfect for a clear, cold morning, and that's exactly what we had.

Today, we would tackle my original inspiration for the trip: A long hike along the Escarpment ridge, finding old mines and bushwhacking to the highest points. I couldn't wait to get started.

Topographic map showing the Escarpment (on the right) and the ridge from Lafayette Peak to Miscowawbic Peak (lower left). This map shows an older routing of the Big Carp River trail that has since been rerouted closer to the peaks.

Side note -- the Escarpment: We parked at the Lake of the Clouds overlook, our starting point for the day. The overlook lies midway along the Escarpment ridge, a 300 foot tall ridge line that runs roughly east-west through much of the Porkies. The main part of the Escarpment is about 6 miles long, but there are outposts that extend for some distance both east and west. Like many ridges in the Copper Country, the Escarpment has a relatively gentle slope towards Lake Superior and a very steep "front" facing south. Lake of the Clouds lies in the shadow of these sheer south-facing cliffs.

The Lake of the Clouds overlook is also the endpoint of two of my favorite trails. First is the Escarpment trail, stretching 4 miles towards the east end of the Escarpment, with nearly nonstop beautiful views of Lake of the Clouds and the interior of the Porkies. The second is the Big Carp River trail, which heads west from Lake of the Clouds and doesn't stop until it hits Lake Superior.

We've hiked half of this trail before -- the far west end, nearest the lake -- and enjoyed its many waterfalls and beautiful old-growth stands of hemlocks. However, I had never hiked the east end of the trail. It starts high above the Big Carp River valley, running along the edge of the Escarpment, drops down off of the Escarpment along a series of switchbacks, and then skirts around the base of Miscowawbic and Lafayette Peaks -- both really just outposts of the Escarpment ridge.

So today's real goal was: Hike the portion of the Big Carp River trail that I hadn't hiked before (up until the Big Carp River crossing), then turn around and head up -- into the hills, where there are no trails! -- and see what views could be found at the top of the peaks.

Along the Escarpment, with the Big Carp River valley below

9:00 am, Lake of the Clouds Overlook: With our daypacks at the ready, Kyle and I walked the lovely paved trail to the overlook. The view was as spectacular as ever, and we spent a while taking photos -- the exact same view you'll see on every postcard of the Porkies, and the exact same view we've both photographed many times before -- but why not? It's still gorgeous. We also spent a while reading the interpretive signs about the wildlife, geology, and history of the Escarpment.

With our Required Tourist Activities completed, we headed down a set of wooden steps and started into the real wilderness. In fact, there was a convenient sign about 20 yards along the Big Carp River trail: "Entering Wilderness Area". Good to know.

As it had been on Sunday, the trail was dry, rocky, and lead us to many beautiful overlooks. The general trend of the trail was to spend about a quarter mile running just inside the trees away from the edge of the Escarpment, and then to climb uphill and pop out at an overlook along the cliff's edge. The first of these stopped us cold, and we spent a while taking photos of the cliff and Lake of the Clouds, still visible behind us. The second worked the same way. By the third overlook, we started to realize that this was a bit of a theme. We stopped at every overlook, but eventually stopped taking photos -- well, unless there was a really good reason, of course.

Another beautiful Escarpment view, ho hum.

One of those good reasons appeared just after we walked up to a particularly large open area on the edge of the cliff. As we dropped our packs and sat down to rest for a moment, a medium-sized bird appeared, almost floating in front of us. It was a falcon, riding thermals over the Big Carp River valley and hovering just beyond the cliff face. As we watched, the falcon slowly glided back towards Lake of the Clouds, occasionally circling lazily high above the trees below it (and even with the top of the Escarpment). Kyle pulled out his big lens -- a 200mm beast that accounted for at least half of his pack weight -- and started tracking it. The falcon made another long slow glide past us, when we noticed that there were two birds, apparently hunting together. For 10 or 15 minutes, we sat in awe, watching the graceful birds hover at eye level (or sometimes just below us), moving with calm grace.

We finally convinced ourselves to continue. Lake of the Clouds slowly disappeared into the distance, but we could always hear the Big Carp River bubbling away far below us. After about 3 miles, we reached a wide, rocky, open area that marked the end of the trail's run along the top of the Escarpment. Beyond this point, it would switchback down the end of the cliff, then run along the base of several high peaks. We sat down on a flat ledge of rock, rested our feet, and had a snack.

After a long rest (and some time on my part spent carefully edging towards the sheer drop-off to take photographs of blueberry blossoms, choke cherries, and other items that live dangerously close to the edge of the Escarpment -- a maneuver that Kyle would take absolutely no part in), we put our boots and packs back on and continued on our way. The trail quickly started down a long series of switchbacks on the west end of the Escarpment. The sunny bare rock of the Escarpment's top disappeared as we descended into a cool and deeply shaded hemlock forest. The trail ran in a wide saddle between the main Escarpment (to the east) and the high bluffs of Miscowawbic Peak (an outpost of the Escarpment) on the west. Huge boulders sat piled at the base of Miscowawbic, making us wonder what it would be like to witness one of them falling. Smaller pieces of scree formed massive piles below them. A deep layer of needles, leaves, and fallen branches covered the ground in all directions.

Looking ahead towards Miscowawbic Peak (foreground) and Lafayette Peak (middle distance) from the west end of the Escarpment.

We found ourselves playing leap-frog with a pair of power-walking backpackers. We would hike quickly for a few minutes, pass them, then they would pass us when we stopped for a long pause to photograph the rocks and shadows, and the ferns and trout lilies growing in the mottled sunlight in the forest understory.

The trail headed west along the base of the long extension of the Escarpment. The eastern end of this extension is called Miscowawbic Peak -- its name comes from the Ojibway word for "Copper" and doesn't seem to have a consistent spelling ("Miscowawbic" and "Miscowabic" both appear on maps, "Miscowaubik" is used in some writings, and "Miskwaabik" is used by the Ojibwe Peoples' Dictionary).

This extension of the Escarpment runs several miles west from Miscowawbic Peak where it ends at Lafayette peak. Lafayette is named for a mining company that did a bit of "gophering" (as the old miners called it) around its base, never finding much of anything. As we approached Lafayette Peak, my spidey senses started tingling: Mine sign! I caught a hint of an overgrown trench and rock pile near the base of the cliffs and quickly ran off to climb the pile and follow the trench all the way to the base of the cliff. There I found the unmistakeable signs of a collapsed mine tunnel running into the base of the cliff. I later discovered that there were several other such "adits" along the base of the cliff, some closed with bat cages, but we didn't see any of them.

This little side trip scratched a big itch for me: mine hunting. I used to regularly spend my weekends (and evenings, often) hunting for abandoned mines and ruins when I lived in the Copper Country. My old mine-hunting colleagues claimed that I had "spidey senses" that could detect mines, since I could sometimes walk off into the woods almost at random and find a mine. I spent entire days off-trail, developing a great love for the dense wilderness and extreme beauty of the Copper Country.

As we continued, the trail took a wide swing south towards the Big Carp River, heading gradually downhill and becoming more muddy as it did so. It eventually spat us off of a low bluff and into the river's flood plain. We again met the leapfrogging hikers, who had decided to set up camp at a backcountry site next to the river. We found a sandy spot along the bank, took off our shoes and socks, and soaked our feet in the ice-cold river as we ate some gorp and meat sticks.

After a refreshing rest in the sun -- almost a nap -- we packed up and headed back the way we came, towards Lafayette Peak. The next step was the biggest of the day: Bushwhacking the Peaks.

Trout Lily in the shade of hemlocks

Hey, wait! As you might be able to tell from some of my other blog posts, I'm an old hand at off-trail adventures in the Copper Country. Today's bushwhacking adventure with Kyle was well in keeping with our skills and years of experience, when we both lived in the Copper Country and spent entire days hunting down distant off-trail mines and waterfalls. We had compasses, maps, and two GPSs, and we knew how to use all of them -- plus having a lot of on-the-ground familiarity with copper country forests and ridges. Don't go trying this just because some rando with a blog did it!

Back to our story... With my GPS as a guide, I chose to leave the trail at a point that would lead us up the sloping west end of Lafayette Peak. The understory was largely clear, with only a few blowdowns and small maples blocking our way. The ground was covered in a thick layer of leaves -- no rocky bluffs for us here! We kept a steady pace, pausing at flat spots and re-adjusting to make sure we were always headed towards the peak.

With some huffing and puffing, we made it to the top -- maybe. Near the top, Lafayette Peak was less of a "peak" and more of  a rounded, wooded hill. The face of the cliff on Lafayette's south side was a few dozen yards downhill, with a dense stand of trees between us and it. We made our way down to the edge and caught a few glimpses of a nice view over the Big Carp River valley, but overall the views were disappointing. Nonetheless, we had made it to the trackless peak of one of the Porcupine Mountains -- that alone felt like an accomplishment! (Topo maps put the elevation of Lafayette Peak's top at about 1335 feet -- hardly a mountain, but pretty good for Michigan.)

 We continued along the ridge line, making our way generally eastward. A small saddle sat between us and what appeared to be a second, unnamed "peak". Above the saddle, we saw a dense undergrowth of maple saplings completely covering the high point. Something -- possibly a windstorm -- had felled some large trees, letting in enough light for a new batch of young trees to take root. The saplings were of very uniform height (about 6 feet) and completely blocked our path. We pushed around to the south, where the undergrowth was less dense (but still slowed us down quite a bit). There were no particular views from this peak, either.

This set the tone for the rest of our bushwhack: A gentle saddle, followed by a peak crowned with dense undergrowth and surrounded by only slightly less dense undergrowth. We quickly discovered that if we tried to avoid the undergrowth by heading too far south, we would be pushed onto steeper and steeper terrain, dangerously close to the cliff face. At the same time, bugs were a big problem in the sun-exposed southern slopes and in the saddles, forcing us to keep our bug nets on. We eventually found that, by cheating to the north instead, we could find slightly less dense growth. As a bonus, we picked up fresh breezes from Lake Superior that helped avoid the bugs as well. The going was tough and slow, and we were making at most 1 mile per hour -- often much less.

After each peak, we stopped to discuss our options. The constant up-and-down was wearing on both of us (a lesson that I did not fully learn, as evidenced by my August adventures on Isle Royale -- but more about that in a future post!). Each saddle offered the possibility of escape by climbing south down a (relatively) low point in the cliff face. However, the saddles were never that low, and we would be forced to do some serious down-climbing to get to the cliff base. As we were both quite aware, up-climbing is much easier than down-climbing. If we retraced our steps and climbed down at Lafayette peak, we would be doubly backtracking. To the north our maps showed nothing but dense forest and (joy!) swamps. So our only other option was to push on along the ridge line to the east.

Kyle advocated heading downhill, while I became more and more stubborn in my insistence on bushwhacking the whole way to Miscowawbic Peak at the east end. My stubbornness came in large part from my joy at experiencing a good bushwhack, something that I rarely get to do downstate. Bushwhacking these peaks was an accomplishment that scratched an itch. In my Copper Country exploring days, I learned to revel in the knowledge that I've gone somewhere that (almost) nobody has ever gone -- the most remote of the remote, the places where even badass backcountry backpackers don't set foot. Plus, the cliffs on the south face of Miscowawbic Peak looked impressive from below. I knew that if I could find my way to the top of those cliffs, a spectacular view would wait me -- a view that few people had ever seen.

So onwards we continued. After we passed Lafayette Peak, the second high point had no name on the map, so Kyle suggested that I name it. Thus I claimed Dave Peak for, well, Dave. The third high point became Kyle Peak. After the fourth (and final unnamed) high point, we stopped to sit on a fallen tree in the cool shade at the bottom of the saddle. We ate some gorp and decided to follow the grand tradition of explorers everywhere: We named the 4th high point "Sarah and Amy Peak", after our wives.

Finally, we were ready to tackle the last (and tallest) peak: Miscowawbic Peak, with an elevation of 1433 feet (and a slope of 20% as we climbed up from the last saddle, getting thwapped and scratched by a patch of dense maple saplings). The peak itself was as uninspiring as the rest, but I quickly headed downhill towards the cliff face. With a final burst of bushwhacking, I suddenly came out onto a wide, flat slab of solid bedrock leading directly to the cliff face. A deep cut into the cliff formed the west edge of the slab, while dense brush blocked the east edge.

Looking west from the Miscowawbic Peak overlook

The views were glorious, with unobstructed views across the entire Big Carp River valley. We sat quietly enjoying the views as we caught our breaths and enjoyed some gorp.

After that, there was nowhere to go but down. Our maps suggested that we could bushwhack down the gentler north slope of the Peak. By curving around to the east, we would reconnect with the Big Carp River trail right where it bottoms out below the switchbacks. This was what we did, although descending the back of Miscowawbic Peak proved interesting in unexpected ways. As we descended, the old growth hemlocks returned with a vengeance. The hemlocks kept away the dense undergrowth, but unlike the inland side of the cliffs, the ground was extremely uneven. For centuries, giant hemlocks had fallen in storms, leaving a huge hole where their roots had once been, and a giant mound where their roots now pointed skyward. This resulted in an extremely bumpy forest floor that had us constantly circling around hills, holes, and fallen giants.

Looking east (towards Lake of the Clouds) from the Miscowawbic Peak overlook

At long last, we noticed an long, narrow, even strip running horizontally along the hillside in front of us: The Big Carp River trail. We gratefully rejoined the trail and immediately starting uphill on the switchbacks, regaining all of the elevation that we had just lost.

After a rest and snack at the top, the remainder of our hike was a long, slow trudge back towards Lake of the Clouds. The views were just as gorgeous (and even easier to see, now that we were pointing towards the lake), but we were completely bushed from our multi-mile bushwhack along Lafayette, Dave, Kyle, Sarah & Amy, and Miscowawbic Peaks. It felt great.

6:00 pm, Lake of the Clouds Overlook: We finally reached the car about 8 hours after we had started the 11 mile hike. An average speed of 1.375 miles per hour isn't exactly the fastest hike I've ever done, but that's not the point -- we had accomplished something enjoyable, challenging, and exciting.

Along the way back to the yurt, we saw something interesting along the way and had to stop. That something was the Meads mine, an adit (horizontal tunnel) entering the back of the Escarpment from right next to the road. Up until about a year ago, it was possible to walk quite far into the cliff through this tunnel, right up to a cement wall that held back a huge amount of water, slowly draining along the floor and into a drain that led under the road. The mine had been recently closed with a bat cage that allowed bats to enter, while keeping humans (and the mysterious causes of White Nose Syndrome, a huge danger to bat populations in the northern US) out.

We spent quite a while enjoying the cool air flowing out of the mine, then walking across the road to see where all the water drained. The answer was a lovely pool lined with mine rock, clearly created by some New Deal agency. We were also able to walk out on the mine's huge rock pile, which felt just like walking on a level path -- the cliff drops off so quickly towards Lake Superior that all of the pile's massive bulk lies below the road level.

We finally got back into the car and headed back to the yurt.

7:30 pm, Union Bay West Yurt: Over another cook fire, we made another dinner of Tonka Pies, followed by a delicious dessert of more Tonka Pies, this time filled with blueberry pie filling. We washed it all down with a shared blueberry cider.

After cleaning up, we rushed down to the beach just as the sun was heading towards the horizon. The lake was much calmer tonight, and the sky was filled with high wispy clouds, the kind that make for beautiful sunsets. We were joined by several campers and the inhabitants of the East yurt, all waiting for the sunset. Sure enough, the sky gave us what we wanted. We spent every minute we had photographing the sunset, until the sun was completely below the horizon.

Sunset by the Union Bay West Yurt

With the sun thoroughly set, we found ourselves in another clear and cold night with the nearly-full moon showing high above. We started one more fire in the wood stove to keep us warm.

Wednesday, May 18: After another cold night, we woke early, ate more oatmeal, packed up, wrote in the cabin log book (including the newly named peaks of the Escarpment) and headed downstate. We reconnected with Sarah in Kalkaska near dinner time. As Kyle and I walked through town to meet up with Sarah, we noticed an ice-cream stand -- and nothing sounded more absolutely amazing after a couple of days of oatmeal and gorp than a nice big ice cream cone. We wanted nothing more but ice cream for dinner. Could we do that? Yes, we decided, we could. Why? Kyle had the answer: Because we're adults, that's why!

We actually had a quick real meal, but then Sarah joined us on our quest for the most delicious ice cream we've had in a long time. Bushwhacking does that to you -- it's great!

Miles hiked: About 11 (2.5 off-trail)
Total miles: About 18 (3.5 off-trail)
One-match fires started using instructions in the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion: 5

Hiking trip, day 2: Our path out (red), bushwhacking (blue), and return (where blue meets red and to the east). The green circle is the Miscowawbic Peak overlook.


nailhed said...

this shot is WHOA

DC said...

You should see it in person. :D

Nina said...

Great photos! Looking forward to reading about your Isle Royale trip!

Jacob Emerick said...

the most remote of the remote, the places where even badass backcountry backpackers don't set foot YES

Sir, another amazing accounting. Bushwhacking through the escarpment sounds wonderful. The tops of most of the Huron Mountains are the same - low, scrubby stuff on top, decent cliffs and views only found dozens of yards below. And the tired questioning was quite vivid, trying to decide if it's worth pushing on or backtracking to known, possibly easier, routes... Fantastic.

11 miles in a day, eh? Can't wait to hear about your Isle Royale route. You can see a lot of the island with half that rate.

DC said...

Thought you might like that quote, Jake!

I definitely felt like I was channeling one of your trip logs here... "An ambitious 11 mile bushwhack..." :P

This was the first real serious old-tyme bushwhack I've done in a loooong time. It felt great -- just like when I actually lived up there. 11 miles was pretty good, but we actually did more in Isle Royale. Stay tuned!

Roc said...

Awesome trip dc.
So you did you find much of the old La Fayette Mine?

Anonymous said...

I love your post. Great detail. I really want to get to Porcupine Mountains again.

FYI - I'm a mathematician and Michigander who like to hike, bike, snowshoe, and take photos. I spent many years living in the Copper Country: Michigan's rugged Keweenaw peninsula, and now live near Grand Rapids. - "likes" not "like"

DC said...

Hah! That error has been there for years -- you're the first to mention it.

Glad to hear you enjoyed the post. Get back up there, as soon as you can!