Sunday, September 30, 2018

North Country Trail 2018 Day 2: Lake Superior State Forest Campground to Grand Marais

Last Time, Day 1: A good choice of hike and a poor choice of campsite
Lake Superior: Just over the hill, all day long

Saturday June 2, 2018: I woke up at 6:30 am with the sun already rising. I'd rolled over every hour or so during the cold night, did some sit-ups in my sleeping bag to generate heat, and then dozed off again. Late into the night, I finally managed to string together more than one hour of uninterrupted sleep.

I was still plenty chilly, so my first order of business was hot tea and hot oatmeal. I am pleased to report that my bear-proof Ursack hadn't been disturbed during the night. I suspect it was mainly because the bears were all hiding in caves to escape the cold.

I made the oatmeal in last night's Chili Mac freeze-dried food bag, a convenience that kept me from getting a cooking pot dirty, and instead made the oatmeal bright red and slightly spicy. Delightful.

Before leaving, I took advantage of the fact that I was staying in a State Forest campground one more time to throw away my trash in a real honest-to-goodness trash bin. What wild luxury! With that, I headed west out of the Lake Superior State Forest campground, following the blue blazes of the North Country Trail.

The trail was beautiful, in a different way from yesterday's trail. Yesterday, I was always in the forest, hiding under the trees despite being just feet from the shoreline. Here, I ran through open fields of beach grass with occasional pines or scrubby trees. The early morning light lent a golden glow to every scene.

The trail near the campground stayed close to the lake, but again unlike yesterday, it ran over extremely bumpy territory -- a constant series of ups and downs. For the first -- but far from the last -- time today, I noticed that the trail seemed to go directly over every hill in its way, never veering around anything.

There goes the trail again...

This all changed as the trail climbed one last hill and then leveled out, high above the lake. And just like yesterday, the trail started falling off the cliff.  The pine forest was open enough that I just followed the bluff's edge most of the time, not worrying about the trail. The sheer number of blowdowns, however, occasionally required me to do some serious inland bushwhacking.

I knew that somewhere within a mile or two of the campground, the trail turned sharply inland and stayed that way. To make sure I didn't miss the turn, every now and then I would pop out to the edge of the bluff and scan the line of fallen trees far below until I saw one with a blue blaze -- just to make sure I was keeping on track, you see.
Ah, there's the trail

I did eventually meet a wide, clear trail heading inland to my left -- so wide it was almost a 2-track. The NCT seemed to dead-end here, with a thick wall of brush blocking me across the 2-track. I must have to go left down the 2-track, I figured. Sure enough, on a tree next to the turn, there was a pair of bright blue blazes telling me to turn... right?

I looked to the right, and just feet away I saw the edge of the horribly eroded bluff and the blue lake beyond it. The 2-track sailed right off of the bluff, the rest of it fallen far below.

These blazes mean "turn right". Note the trail going left.

I scratched my head. Could someone have mis-blazed the trail and meant to leave the similar -- but definitely not identical -- blaze that means to turn left? I peered down the 2-track but couldn't see any blue blazes on the trees that way.

Adding to my confusion, there was also this can opener, just hanging out on the blazed tree (you can see it in the photo above too, if you look carefully):

Why not?

Maybe I really was supposed to go right. I thought about this option quite carefully, because the only thing I wanted to do less than getting lost in a maze of 2-tracks in the UP backcountry was getting lost off-trail in a trackless wilderness in the UP backcountry. Looking really really carefully, I found another pair of very faded blazes on a pine that was just barely clinging to the bluff's edge. Sure enough, the trail did turn right -- and then almost immediately left again. The trail beyond that point had clearly fallen off of the bluff, so I had nothing left to do but bushwhack it again.

For a nerve-wrackingly long time, I didn't see another blaze, and the trail's tread was nowhere to be seen. I kept peering over the edge for fallen trees with blue blazes, but I couldn't see a single one. At very long last, the trail reappeared from the edge of the bluff, and a blue blaze told me that I'd made the right choice.

Almost immediately, the "turn left now!" blaze showed up, and the trail cut south through dunes, ridges, and swales. In just a few minutes, the trail crossed a large and well-maintained gravel road. This was the Grand Marais Truck Trail, the same road that I'd been dropped off at outside Muskallonge State Park yesterday, and which ran next to the campground that I'd stayed at last night.

My plan for today was flexible. The North Country Trail crosses the Grand Marais Truck Trail multiple times, and each of those was a potential ditch point. Just a few miles from my camp, I definitely wasn't ready to stop yet -- so, 5 more miles for me.

Crossing the road, the forest changed yet again. The trail wound through an open pine forest and skirted the edge of a strange, open, burned-over land. Perhaps it had been logged, and the slash piles burned -- I didn't know. Under the forest, the hillsides were more open, and the ground was covered densely with pale blue-grey moss and pine needles. I wound around scrawny pines, in and out of the cool morning sunlight, and up and down hills. The trail skirted around another large logged-out area.

Lichen and pines

In this segment, the trail joined the "Blind Sucker Pathway", a loop probably intended to take hunters along the Blind and Dead Sucker rivers and between various campgrounds in the area. The trail continued its trend of heading directly up every hill in its way, including one extra-long huff-and-puff up a very large ridge. At the top was a picnic table overlooking the beautiful and steep-sided valley of the Dead Sucker river (yes, there's the Blind Sucker, the Dead Sucker, and just plain the Sucker -- all of which I met on this trip). I sat here for a while, eating gorp, relaxing in the shade, enjoying the views, and reading the obscenities carved over top of each other in the picnic table.

There was a fallen sign pointing the separate ways of the Blind Sucker Pathway and North Country Trails, which split here. I knew the right directions, so I attempted to re-set the sign in the correct orientation. When that didn't work, I just laid it down in a way that at least wasn't wrong.

The North Country Trail turned sharply west and followed along the edge of the ridge on an old 2-track that was quickly becoming overgrown with low blueberry bushes. The trail wound over hills and around the edges of lovely hidden lakes. The largest of these, and almost wholly hidden from the trail, was Props Lake, about 3 miles later. As I skirted high above its (barely glimpsed) deep blue waters, I scared up something very large and very loud. I tried mightily to get a glimpse of the creature, but I couldn't see anything as it noisily splashed through the lake's shallows. Nonetheless, I'd heard those sounds before on Isle Royale -- it had to be a moose!

A mile later -- 7 miles total for the day -- I crossed my old friend, the Grand Marais Truck Trail again. I sat on a log just inside the shade of the forest, ate a lunch of rice cakes with peanut butter, and pondered.

This was the 2nd of my possible ditch points. It was only 11 am, our scheduled meet-up was 4 pm, and I was feeling great. Lunch gave me a shot of energy, and I was ready to keep moving. The only trouble was that the next segment of the NCT was 6 miles long without any chance to ditch. After already doing as many miles as I'd do in a normal backpacking day, I considered the wisdom of nearly doubling that amount. I wanted to continue on, but the backpack was starting to weigh heavily on my shoulders.

Leaving my non-essentials behind

I came up with a plan: I removed non-essentials from my pack (tent, clothes, a handful of other heavy items) and crammed them into stuff sacks. I then tied those sacks to the base of the large North Country Trail sign at the road crossing, and left a note explaining that these were mine, thankyouverymuch, and that I was planning to come back and retrieve them later. I kept only absolute essentials -- a little food and water, matches, a space blanket, and similar items in case something went wrong. With one last check of the bags, I hitched up my much lighter backpack and headed out with a lighter step.

The stand of pines in which I'd eaten my lunch turned out to be just a few dozen yards deep. This is a common trick of logging companies in the UP: It looks better if they don't log all the way to the road. Shortly after starting, I stepped out of the cool pines and into a barren and sun-soaked field of slash. These pines had been logged within the last year or two at most.

Blazed trees and not much else

The trail was visible as an area of bare, packed dirt among the slash and low blueberry bushes that covered the sun-drenched ground. Every now and then a tree remained standing, and -- surprise! -- they were exactly the trees with blue blazes on them. I'm not sure who made arrangements with the loggers, but the trail remained blazed, even amidst the nearly total removal of the forest.

Oddly, there were still mature stands of trees on every little ridge and hill. Only large, flat, empty basins had been logged out. The trail wound its way through the cut-over land, occasionally dashing through a stand of uncut pines, before re-emerging into the hot flats. You can see the odd pattern to this here (the trail is in red):

The trail marches through oddly logged areas.
You can also see my road crossing near the bottom right, and recently re-planted areas in pale green towards the top.

Some of the lonely blazed trees had fallen over, at least in part because they lacked support from their brethren. Of course, when this happened, they fell directly across the trail. Sometimes, even the trees hadn't been saved, and the only blaze around was on a wooden post. Other times, the only blaze in sight was painted on a stick jammed into the ground.

Blazed post

Blazed stick
After a long, hot, and sunny few miles walking through these miserable and sad lands, the trail finally re-entered a mature pine forest. The understory was open and filled with blueberry bushes, just starting to blossom. One side of the trail was the edge of a previously logged-out area that had been replanted -- or maybe naturally re-seeded -- and was densely packed with head-high pines.

I enjoyed this leg of the trip, with dappled sunlight and a perfect temperature. I passed several survey markers and stopped to take a photo of them, knowing that my surveyor-in-laws would be curious to see where I'd been.

The trail aimed generally north, occasionally crossing narrow 2-tracks that appeared to be well-used by locals, but were not wide enough for logging trucks. Soon, the ground became sandier, the trail headed up a hill directly into a perfect blue sky, and I popped out on another gorgeous Lake Superior beach.

The lake was a perfect deep blue-green. The sky was clear. The breeze was light. I sat down, ate some gorp, and drank it in. Everything about the scene was perfect. There was one jarring element that seemed out of tune with the rest of this beauty: This beach had suffered from the same storm that tormented my earlier trails. It was strewn with driftwood, and even some of the standing trees on the shoreline were clearly dead.

With my rest break over, I got up and followed the trail as it made a sharp left, heading west to follow the shore. The trail followed a sandy 2-track through the (mostly) dead pines. As with the day's other 2-tracks, these looked like they were used by locals to access the lake. Indeed, while I felt like I was absolutely isolated and alone, I suddenly glimpsed a tent set up in the stand of pines next to the lake. A little while on, I passed a parked pickup truck. I didn't disturb the occupants of either the tent or the truck. Maybe it was just projection, but I had a strong sense that they had come here for the same reasons as me, and didn't wish for my company.

I did, however, spend quite a while with a lady -- or at least her pink slipper, of which I only ever found this one:

Lone Pink Lady's Slipper

As the trail continued west, I entered an area of steeper sandy hills. The trail always went directly up, over, and straight down the back of each hill -- I never met a hill that the trail didn't attack head-on. I was huffing and puffing by the time another familiar problem showed up: The trail fell off the cliff again. By this time, I'd climbed high above the lake and there was no way to (safely) scramble down to the beach -- so bushwhacking was the only option. This area had suffered a huge number of blowdowns that had fallen, criss-crossing each other, all throughout the forest floor. They made my bushwhacking experience even more of an adventure and slowed me down enormously. With 9+ miles on my legs by this point, I wasn't quite so spry any more.

As I was bushwhacking along the edge of the bluff, miles from anywhere, I looked down to the beach and saw... another person. Let's say that this person did not, at a glance (and then a double-take), look like someone who could have easily hiked miles along the beach to reach this point. Nonetheless, whoever it was was nonchalantly picking stones and driftwood and didn't seem to have a care in the world. The surf and wind made it impossible to shout anything down at them, so I simply rested and watched for a few minutes, until I was convinced that they didn't obviously need any immediate help. Once I'd caught my breath, I continued on my way.

After a seemingly endless series of hills, bushwhacking, and blowdown-scrambling, I reached the top of a particularly big hill. Or, almost the top -- I noticed that the actual top was right at the edge of the lakeshore bluff, high above the water. It was about time for another break, so I bushwhacked my way up to the edge, found a fallen tree to sit on (I had my choice of dozens), and plopped down to enjoy a break.

"OK already", you might say, "Haven't you told us enough stories about taking breaks by beautiful Lake Superior beaches?" I hear you. And I ignore you. The day was amazing. I couldn't get enough of the beautiful scenery, and I was loving every moment of it -- even the really tiring moments, which were starting to pile up about now. This particular break lasted a bit longer than usual, and I even pondered laying back in the sun for a nap -- but I knew that a nap could easily end up turning into an extra night in the woods if I wasn't careful. Instead, I pushed on.

The hills kept coming, and they only got bigger. The trail started to dance inland every now and then, mainly (so it seemed) so that it could climb directly up (and back down) only the biggest hills. The woods darkened under mature pines that completely shaded out the understory. The trail made another zig zag maneuver and headed straight towards the lake again, briefly disappearing over the edge of another high bluff and quickly reappearing to the west at an informal campsite situated directly at the end of a 2-track. From my map, I knew that this would be my last view of the lake before the trail headed sharply inland on its march towards my last pickup point. So, I sat down on a log for one last rest-and-gorp break before the final sprint. As I looked out over the lake, I felt a mighty longing for my "old days" of living in the Keweenaw, when I could find views like this any afternoon that I wanted them.

There goes the trail... just before turning inland

Reluctantly, I tore myself away from the lake, re-shouldered my pack, and headed inland. The trail climbed many more hills -- straight up and over, as always -- and crossed a veritable maze of criss-crossing 2-tracks, mostly abandoned and starting to grow over. The dominant form of life in the understory was a fluffy blue-green lichen that covered the forest floor in giant swaths. The lichen was surprisingly lovely, and also dry and crunchy under my feet.

By this point, my legs were just about ready to fall off. Just when I needed a change to distract me, the trail started to get greener and grassier. In short order I was marching alongside the Sucker River, the 3rd of the Suckers, although this one flows west into Grand Marais and doesn't connect with the other two.

I started to see signs of more frequent human visitors in this area. The clearest sign was the amount of trash. Small and large piles littered the grassy areas around the trail, a sad but not unusual situation in the UP's backcountry.

Star flower along the trail

Another odd feature of the river area were a large number of white mesh cylinders. They were lying scattered around on the ground, and initially I wrote them off as more garbage. But then I started to see them standing upright -- with tiny saplings growing out of them. Not inside them, like a grow tube or trunk protector, but almost always growing out through the mesh. I eventually decided that these were intended to protect saplings from animals, but they had not been tended well and were more likely choking off the tree growth instead.

The trail followed a sandy 2-track along the river, which gradually became a narrow dirt road, and eventually a wider gravel road. I suddenly popped out at a paved road intersection -- School Forest Road, with a sign detailing the conservation efforts of the Grand Marais school students.

The trail crossed the river by following the road, then jumped across the road into the Grand Marais School Forest. The NCT followed ski trails through the forest, which seemed to stretch on for days. My legs were made of lead by this time, and I wasn't so much enjoying the hike as merely trudging forward like an automaton.

After an eternity -- but probably more like 30 minutes -- the trail brought me to a large sign advertising the cross country ski trails. On the other side of the sign was... the Grand Marais Truck Trail! This was the 3rd time I'd met it today, although here (much closer to Grand Marais) it was paved and named "Grand Marais Road". This was the last of my possible pick-up points. I very briefly thought about continuing 2 miles west into Grand Marais, but whatever part of my brain had that thought was shouted down by my legs, shoulders, and everything else. I was not about to push it any farther.

The finish line! Blue blazes visible on the posts.

Amazingly, despite being the main trailhead for a big ski trail system, there was no bench anywhere to sit on. Instead I dropped my pack and plopped down with my back against a comfortable looking tree. I almost immediately had to put on my bug-proof headnet. But otherwise, with a bag of gorp next to me and my Kindle in my hand, nothing was going to get me to stand up for a long, long time.

About 30 minutes later, Sarah and her parents cruised by, looking for me. I jumped in to their truck (well, crawled in slowly) and was overjoyed to find that they'd already found and picked up the bags that I'd left at the previous trailhead.

We drove the last few miles into Grand Marais, cruised around town briefly, and then headed south to the Cobblestone Bar in McMillan. A burger and fries had never tasted so good... at least since my last backpacking trip.

Reflection. My final tally for the day was a whopping 13 miles. That might not sound like a lot to some of you, but for me it was a personal record -- one more mile than even our epic march from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor during our first Isle Royale visit. For the whole trip, I'd done 20 miles in two days, a wholly respectable tally.

But it really isn't about the numbers. This segment of the North Country Trail was every bit as lovely as I'd hoped. Despite the frequent trouble with the trail disappearing right off of a cliff, it was a (mostly) good trail through (very) beautiful country. The nearly constant views of the lake were a big plus, as was the extreme solitude.

West from my endpoint, the trail enters Grand Marais, a tiny town that is also at the east end of the Pictured Rocks. From Grand Maris the trail winds through Pictured Rocks and is much, much less quiet. East from my starting point (Muskallonge State Park), the trail does a series of odd zig-zag maneuvers to avoid private land along the lake, and then heads directly inland towards Tahquamenon Falls.

I was glad that I hiked the trail in early June, and a cold early June at that. Much of the trail would be swarming with mosquitoes and black flies just a few weeks later. The rivers and swamps along the way would only have made that worse.

In the end, I'm glad I did it -- and I'll be making my way back again as soon as I can.

Miles hiked: 13
Total miles: 20

Today's trail map, with Grand Marais Truck Trail crossings visible along the way. The dashed green line is the Blind Sucker Pathway.

Friday, September 7, 2018

North Country Trail 2018 Day 1: Muskallonge to Lake Superior State Forest Campground

There goes the trail: This photo is all you need to know about my backpacking trip.

In earliest spring of 2018 -- when snowdrops were just starting to poke up through the crusty snow -- The Lovely Sarah and her parents got a unique invitation. They were invited to come to Marquette to witness a college friend's ordination as a priest.

The ordination was in early June. I didn't know the future priest at all, but I did know that I was trying to complete the North Country Trail Association's "Hike 50" challenge -- that is, to hike 50 miles on the NCT in 2018. I'd tried the "Hike 100" challenge in the past and failed miserably, not because I couldn't do 100 miles in a year, but because most of my hiking miles weren't on the North Country Trail. But, I thought, with a glint in my eye, the North Country Trail runs for miles along the south shore of Lake Superior, right on the way to Marquette. Plus, early June is practically guaranteed to be bug-free and chilly along the Superior shoreline. I prefer both of those situations, and so everything had lined up perfectly for a solo backpacking trip.

Friday, June 1, 2018: So it was that I came to be standing alone on the side of the road just outside Muskallonge State Park, near the Lake Superior shore north of Newberry. I was glad for my raincoat, gloves, and winter hat as the cold wind blew off of Lake Superior, twirled through the spring mist that lay on Muskallonge Lake, and slammed straight into me.

We had driven up to Newberry -- staying overnight at Mackinaw City, followed by breakfast at Java Joe's in St. Ignace -- and picked up Sarah's father that morning. They dropped me off at the state park and headed straight towards the ordination. My planned hike was a point-to-point hike west along the Lake Superior shoreline, and they would pick me up tomorrow at the went end of my trail.

I had some trouble finding the NCT trailhead at Muskallonge. The trail runs right through the park, and I certainly saw blue blazes all over the place -- arranged in no apparent order. I walked back and forth for a while, even entertaining the possibility that Muskallonge Lake could have flooded over some of the trail. After the fact, I found this map and realized that the trail made a very odd zig-zag within the park that accounted for some of the weirdness:

The trail's odd passage through Muskallonge State Park.
I finally gave up and followed the main road out of the park to the west, which eventually crosses the trail where it exits the park. Here at least I was sure of what I should do. The trail crossed the road and cut a clear swath north into the forest (you can see this on the far left of the map above). It bumped up and down pine-covered sand dunes until, after one last big uphill, I could see blue sky and hear the roar of the lake.

There goes the trail.
I crested the hill and almost marched directly into the lake, as the trail sailed straight off the edge of a high bluff that had collapsed onto the beach below.

Can you find the trail? It's visible in this photo!
The trail should have made a sharp left to follow the shore, but the bluff was severely eroded and the trail completely gone -- over the edge and into the lake. I peered into the dense undergrowth where the trail should be and saw, distantly, a short bit of trail reappearing from the bluff face. I bushwhacked around the fallen portion and was barely able to make it to the trail, which then immediately fell down into the lake again. There was more dense underbrush beyond it, and no more trail to be seen. I gave up, returned to the clear trail that I'd come in on, and pondered what to do.

There's a trail down there somewhere.

My maps showed that, to the west, the trail eventually came pretty close to the road. I walked back to the road and followed it west, hoping to cut in towards the trail after a little distance. I soon started seeing occasional faded blue blazes along the road -- had the trail once been routed this way? Soon, there was no doubt -- a blue-blazed cut through the trees headed straight for the lake and its eroded bluff again. I cautiously followed the trail.

This time, the trail stayed up on the bluff -- barely. The trail never strayed more than a few yards from the edge, giving me nonstop panoramic views of a stormy Lake Superior as I hiked west. It occasionally dropped into the lake again, forcing me to bushwhack inland for a few yards, but the underbrush was less dense here. Even when the trail was on firm ground, it was often obscured by fallen trees. It looked like a severe storm had come through during the winter, and trail crews hadn't made it out to clean things up yet. (In this part of the UP, "trail crews" probably consist of one or two dedicated retirees who haul their own chainsaw and gas for miles on foot. So, it's hard to actually complain... much.) In some places, large numbers of trees had fallen right off the cliff and were even leaning on it, with their dead branches waving just above my head.

Fringed Polygala, I think.

Now that I had things straightened out and had trail tread consistently underfoot, I thoroughly enjoyed the hike. The cold weather was no problem -- working hard with a full pack on my back kept me warm. It was much better than trying to stay cool on a hot and humid summer hike.

As I settled into hiking mode, I started to notice more and more of the world around me. Spring was truly just beginning along Michigan's northernmost coast. Only a few hardy wildflowers were blooming, like this one -- I think it's the vivid purple Fringed Polygala. Right next next to the shore, not even blueberries had blossoms on them yet.

A few miles down the trail, I was walking along and minding my own business when suddenly, something enormous and hairy reared up directly in front of me! Wait... no, something small and feathery made an enormous fluttering exit from my path and quacked its way into the distance. I looked around, heart still in overdrive, and found the duck's nest, right on the ground and right next to the trail.

Good luck, kids, 'cause you're on your own!
The trail soon merged with a sandy 2-track that rollercoastered its way through the near-shore ridges and swales. This section of trail was marked as a "road walk" on the NCT maps, although that hardly seemed fair -- the 2-tracks were overgrown and remote. The only vehicle I could even plausibly meet out here would be a 4x4 -- if that.

Suddenly, the trail made a sharp turn and plunged into a wide marshy area. I heard the sound of running water and realized that I'd reached the Blind Sucker River, the one real water crossing of my trip. The river was wide and marshy here. I didn't have a very good plan for this -- sandals in my backpack if I really needed them, but the cold weather and mucky river bottom made wading across the last thing I wanted to do.

I backtracked and soon found a way to reach a more solid-looking part of the river bank. The river ran right through the rocky Lake Superior beach, which narrowed the river's channel and made its bottom more solid. What's more, luck was with me: An old tree trunk had fallen right across the river and it looked totally possible to walk across it.

You think this doesn't look too bad? Try it with 30 pounds hanging off your back!

I wasn't about to just heel-toe it across the narrow trunk with a 30 pound pack on my back, however. I cast around until I found two good sturdy sticks. I unbuckled my pack's hip belt and sternum strap just in case I fell off the log -- the narrow river channel made the river deeper and faster, and the last thing I wanted was 30 pounds holding me down in the rapid river.

I carefully edged my way out on the log, using the sticks to keep my stability. It was just a few short steps, but I was glad to reach the other side. I left the sticks nearby, just in case someone else (or even I) had to cross back over.

The intended crossing. Notice the conveniently blazed tree stump.
The river enters the lake at a steep angle, leaving a narrow spit of sandy, rocky shoreline between the lake and the river. The trail followed this spit, and as I walked along, I saw the intended crossing. What do you think?

The trail ascends a ridge.

The trail quickly rose up onto a razorback ridge. The ridge was often just a few yards wide, and it was the only thing that separated the river from the lake. This added a new and picturesque dimension, as the views alternated between the lush river bottomland and the stormy lake, and sometimes both at once.

Blind Sucker River on the inland side of the ridge.

For the next several miles, I ate up the miles along this narrow ridge. The shoreline bluff slowly descended until it was easy to jump right onto the beach whenever I wanted.

At this point, I met my first and only fellow hiker of the entire trip -- a middle-aged woman came around a bend, heading the opposite direction. She had no daypack, no visible water source -- but she was leaning on a crutch. She paused just long enough to say "maybe a mile" to my greeting and question, "Am I close to the Lake Superior campground?" (my goal for the night), and then continued on.

Lake Superior panorama from the trail (click to enlarge)

The trail eventually met a well maintained dirt road that paralleled the lake. This was a continuation of the road where Sarah and my father-in-law had dropped me off earlier today. A sign pointed me towards the Blind Sucker campgrounds, which were a mile or so south of the road. They were my alternate camping spot, in case my real goal -- the Lake Superior State Forest campground -- was full. The trail continued through a well-used section of shoreline with many parked trucks and couples wandering along the beach.

Very soon, I entered the Lake Superior State Forest campground, snuggled between the shoreline and road. This campground is cut from the same mold as the rest of Michigan's many state forest campgrounds. A dirt road leads past well spaced sites, with a short loop for a turnaround at the end. Every site has a fire ring and a picnic table, and nothing else. There are a couple of outhouses, a hand pump for water, and a self-registration station.

I noticed how cold many of the sites were, with the chilly lake breeze blowing right across their tent pads. I kept walking until I found site 16, in the loop at the end of the road, with a nice high hill blocking it from the breeze. I dropped my pack, hoofed it back to the self-registration station, and filled out my registration form. That and $15 got me a night in the campground. After a few minutes of chit-chat with a maintenance guy who was cleaning up sites after the long winter, I headed back to site 16.

Site #16 with my tent staked out against the wind.

There were few other people set up in the campground, and we were all well-spaced-out from each other. That was fine by me -- I was out here to enjoy nature and silence, not generators and cow-shaped strings of lights.

I sat down at my newly acquired site and looked around. It was a lovely place, surrounded by trees and still within earshot of Lake Superior. As I sat quietly, a deer cautiously appeared out of the woods and nosed around the next site over. I silently communed with nature, until a truck hauling a giant trailer blasted past on the road, which was just a few hundred feet beyond the end of the loop. The deer bolted, and I got up to set up my tent.

With camp set up, I set out to explore my surroundings. Even after a good long hike -- 7 miles today -- I rarely feel like just sitting down and doing nothing. With Lake Superior just a few dozen feet away, I couldn't stay put. A short path up and over the hill popped me out at a wide beach that was buried under piles and piles of driftwood. The same storm that had blown down so many trees along the trail must have left trees floating in the lake too, because the beach was absolutely covered with huge weather-worn driftwood.

Driftwood-covered beach

In the distance, east along the beach, I spotted an odd construction. As I picked my way closer, I saw that there was some sort of teepee or pyramid made of driftwood. Even closer, I realized that I was looking at a giant driftwood tiki hut, complete with benches, back rests, and a roof. Somebody (or many somebodies?) had put in quite a bit of work to construct this lovely (and remarkably stable) hut. I examined it from every side before deciding that it was structurally sound. Inside, I relaxed on a remarkably comfortable bench -- and realized just how much my legs and feet were screaming at me.

My stomach was starting to grumble, and with no waiter appearing to bring me an appetizer and cocktail, I headed back to my site to make my own. The cocktail was hot tea to chase away the cold. Dinner was freeze-dried "Chili Mac with Beef", A Mountain House meal that I'd been storing away for a solo trip (because Sarah was disgusted by the very thought of it). She had a point: the chili mac had an unnaturally bright red color that stained everything it came in contact with, including me. I washed out the bag it came in and saved it, to help me make breakfast the next morning. Try as I might, I couldn't get the bright red color out of the bag. I resigned myself to a breakfast of bright red oatmeal.

After dinner, I enjoyed one of the luxuries that my $15 camping fee purchased: I went to a trash can and threw away my trash. After that, I went to a hand pump and pumped myself a full supply of cold, fresh well water -- no filtering required. Those two alone made the camping fee completely worth it.

The temperature had never been particularly warm today, and as the sun headed toward the horizon things were only getting colder. I made another cup of tea, grabbed my Kindle, and headed out to the beach to enjoy the last few minutes of daylight. I sat with my back against a driftwood log, warming in one of the last rays of daylight, and read a few chapters. The sunset itself was merely OK, but relaxing on a beach next to the roar of Superior was well worth it.

Sunset over Lake Superior

After that, I took care of my last few camp chores. The main one was setting up my bear bag. For this trip, I'd purchased a new Ursack, a bear-proof bag that could be tied directly to a tree without having to go through the whole ordeal of finding a good branch to hang it from. I put all of my food inside the smell-proof liner bag, tied the opening tightly shut per the instructions, and tied the whole bag around a smallish tree a way from my campsite.

After a hard day of work followed by a hard afternoon of relaxation, I was ready for sleep. I climbed into my sleeping bag and curled up for the kind of rest that only comes after a day of backpacking.

A few hours later, I woke up, chilled through to the bone despite the fact that I was wearing all of my layers (including a hat). I realized my error quickly: One reason that this site was so well protected from the lake breeze was that it was lower than the other sites nearby. Well, the lake breeze had died off after sunset, and the cold night air had settled into the little hollow where my tent was pitched. I had set up my tent in a refrigerator.

I did a burst of sit-ups, still in my bag, to generate some extra heat. When that started working, I quickly zipped the bag right up tight around me, leaving only my nose and mouth exposed. It was going to be a long, cold night.

Next time: The long and winding trail to Grand Marais

Miles hiked: 7

7 miles, from the campground on the right (Muskallonge) to the campground on the far left (Lake Superior)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Porcupine Mountains 2018, Day 3: Overlook Trail and Union Spring

Last time: Waterfall ExtravaganzaMiss something? Check out this list of all of my backpacking trips.

New bridge over a restored stream bed with tiny Crosscut Cabin in the background

Sunday, May 20, 2018: We woke up around 8:30, thoroughly rested, with the sun already shining high. The cold morning called for hot tea and oatmeal -- but of course, that's all we brought for breakfast anyhow.

We set a pretty general goal for today: to visit the east end of the park and hike a few new-to-us trails. Which trails? We had enough options to fill at least 4 days, so we punted and decided to choose whatever we felt like hiking when we got to the east end. After hiking out and driving east, we honed in on one of my must-see choices: the Overlook Trail. This is a 3.6 mile loop that climbs up the side of one of the "mountains" (specifically, the Porkies ski hill, an outpost of the Escarpment) and was supposed to give excellent views of the park.

The Government Peak trailhead was oddly crowded, and we were lucky to get a parking spot. Nonetheless, we saw nobody as we huffed and puffed our way up the series of ancient shorelines that form the start of the Government Peak trail. The Overlook Trail begins a short distance up this trail, which is also where the Escarpment Trail starts. We paused at the top of the steep uphill, where I reflected on what the Escarpment really is: a giant freaking hill that has outlasted the glaciers and thousands of years of Lake Superior's waves. Don't mess with it.

I had read that the Overlook trail is best hiked counterclockwise, although I didn't know why. The trail meets the Government Peak trail twice, so we passed the barely-marked first intersection and trucked on to the 2nd intersection, which would set us on a counterclockwise path.

The Overlook trail begins in a beautiful old-growth Hemlock forest with a deeply shaded and open understory. We hiked a long, slow uphill that gradually took us up to the shoulders of the Porkies ski hill. We twisted ourselves into pretzels taking photos of wildflowers and skirted around quite a few blown down trees.

Dutchman's Breeches

Soon we came to an odd area -- a small square clearing on the downhill side of the trail. It was probably intended to be an overlook, except that whoever had cleared the square had forgotten to clear out the tall and dense stand of trees a few steps farther downhill that completely blocked the view. There was nothing to be seen except tree trunks. I suppose clearing the tiny overlook is probably a good job for summer interns.

The uphill trail got uphillier, and I suddenly noticed just how warm the day had become. This was quite different from yesterday's flat and cool hikes. As we turned a bend in the trail, we looked ahead and saw a halo-like glow. Angels sang... or was it mosquitoes? No, it was a bench, the most gorgeous sight all day... and better yet, it was in front of a real overlook. We flopped onto the bench and ate Clif bars (the only time they ever taste good) while enjoying a fantastic view. A vast panorama was spread out before us: The Escarpment curving into the distance, with the Big Carp River right in the middle and just a hint of Lake of the Clouds around the corner. This was West Vista, and a darn good resting spot it is. A tiny bird and a noisy squirrel chased around the bushes, a light breeze caressed us, and the Clif bars... well, they filled us up at least.

West Vista view

Feeling a bit sorry that we had to leave this beautiful place, we packed up and headed out again. As we did, another day hiker arrived and took our spot on the bench. We nodded and exchanged grunts that said, in universal hiker code, "I feel your pain".

The trail quickly turned downhill, then downhill even more. Our options were to shuffle downhill extremely slowly and carefully -- or else to be flung downhill extremely quickly and painfully. We soon realized why we were advised to hike the trail in this direction: Climbing up this ridiculously steep and rutted bit of path would probably make most hikers turn around and head right back the way they came! Unfortunately, as so often happens, my photos completely failed to capture the madness of this trail section.

As we made our way slowly downhill, the day hiker appeared above us, stepped lightly past us, and continued on into the distance, never to be seen again. Maybe not everyone found this downhill quite so tricky.

The trail eventually leveled out -- in fact it got so level that water collected in the trail's tread, and we had to wade through some mighty muddy stretches. I had flashbacks to our 2014 trip when the trails were made of mud, but truly these weren't (quite) that bad.

After one last down-and-up through the lovely valley of Cuyahoga creek, we popped back out onto Government Peak trail and made our way back to the car, tired but with a feeling of accomplishment. We drove to the Union Bay campground's public picnic area (right on the Superior shoreline) and enjoyed a real lunch of peanut butter-covered rice cakes and meat sticks.

As we ate, we discussed options for our next stop. Perhaps an off-trail waterfall hike along the Union River? A direct hike to Trap Falls? Kyle and I had done both of those two years ago. We chose something genuinely new instead: Union Spring, the second largest spring in Michigan. Part of the promise of the Union Spring Trail was that it was extremely flat and as easy as it gets in the Porkies. While we weren't ready to quit for the day, we were feeling a wee bit tired from scaling Mt. Skihill.

We drove a short way down South Boundary Road, parked at the Union Spring trailhead, and started the hike, which was indeed remarkably easy. In fact the trail was a well-tended gravel 2-track, complete with ditching and cement bridges over the streams. We strolled slowly through the gently rolling second-growth forest, enjoying the luxuriously well-tended trail. We soon learned the reason for the well-tended road, as we passed a parking area for the Porkies' ski trail system. In the winter, the gates that had blocked this trail would be opened, this road would be plowed, and all skiing and snowshoeing would start from this point -- on a trail system that is completely separate from the usual hiking trails. After the parking area, our trail was marked only with ski maps.

We quickly came to a large trail intersection labeled "Crosscut". The ski map posted there was utterly useless for finding the spring (I guess there's not much demand to see it in the winter). We stood in front of the two branches of the trail, looked down each one, looked at each other, and chose the most likely looking branch. The trail soon crossed through an old impoundment -- a drained pond that is a relic of a long gone fish restoration program. I recalled reading about this in a trail guide, which gave me confidence that we'd chosen correctly. We repeated the branch-and-guess process several more times as the trail started to get more overgrown.

The impoundment -- notice the old tree stumps that were once covered by water

Wading along a wet, grassy, overgrown trail, we reached another uncertain branch and decided to turn left, where a ski sign warned us that it was ungroomed. Risking a trek through ungroomed snow in mid-May can indeed be a thing in the UP, but luckily not this year. Not 20 paces down the "ungroomed" trail, we found... a beaver dam! The dam was clearly in active use and blocked up a section of marshy river that we had been following the whole way. The trail went right across the top of the dam, but we did not. We must have made a wrong turn -- not really a surprise. To add to the fun, I found a tick crawling around on my pants, the first of the season. I sent it flying with a vicious flick.

We turned around and backtracked all the way to the "Crosscut" intersection, and took the other trail. Just around the first bend, we found a restored section of the impoundment, with the teeny tiny Crosscut Cabin sitting next to it. Once a "contact station" for summer visitors, the cabin later served as a warming hut for skiers, and now is a rentable 2-person cabin. It's so tiny that I can't imagine how you could do anything other than sleep in it, but that is the primary function of a cabin. As a vestige of its former lives, Crosscut still has windows with tiny sliding glass access panes for exchanging money, should the cabin inhabitants feel the need.

A brand new wooden bridge crossed a freshly rip-rapped stream bed that led directly back to the (drained) impoundment. I now understood the bizarrely overbuilt road we had walked in on: It had been built up for trucks bringing in supplies and rocks for this restored area.

We spotted a sign just beyond the bridge, in front of a dense and forbidding evergreen forest: "Union Spring -- 0.6 miles". We made it a few steps into the trees -- and into the first of the mud holes -- when Sarah turned around. It had been a long day and we'd gone at least 2 extra miles out of our way, and she wanted nothing to do with another nasty, muddy trail on top of that. She headed back to Crosscut and told me she'd see me when I got back from the spring.

I trucked it out of there as fast as I could. The trail was a solid single track of mud. This was by far the worst trail I'd seen this trip, with deep mudholes and even standing water in places. A curious combination of modern puncheon bridges and old-fashioned corduroy crossed some of the mud, and disappeared right underneath other puddles.

Union Spring and its floating dock

Soon enough, a small sign pointed down a spur to the spring. The spring was actually a small pond whose water was a rich teal color. I walked out onto the floating dock and watched water bubble in sandy clouds from about 6 feet below me. I was not terribly impressed -- while this is Michigan's 2nd largest spring, the largest one (Kitch-iti-kipi in Palm's Book State Park) is enormously more, uh, enormous. I stayed on the dock long enough to get a jolt of energy from some gorp, then turned right around and marched back out of there.

Back at Crosscut, I found Sarah sitting on a bench and nearly screamed as I found another tick crawling on me. Flick -- it was off to haunt somebody else's skin.

Our walk out was long and slow, but at least it was easy and flat. Our tired feet and legs didn't let us forget they were there, though. We drove "home" to Speaker's trailhead and slowly hiked the mile in. As soon as we arrived, Sarah flopped into her hammock. I had failed to set up my hammock earlier, a choice that I deeply regretted. As soon as I got my hammock up, I too flopped.

The impoundment, bridge, and restored stream from Crosscut Cabin

As I laid in the hammock, staring at the blue sky, enjoying the sun and the breeze coming off the lake, I counted up the day's miles. Although each individual segment of trail we'd hiked was fairly short, we'd done a lot of segments today! Counting the mile we had to hike in and out from our cabin, the 3.6 miles along the Overlook trail, and 4 miles to Union Spring (plus 2 extra miles of detour), we'd done 11.6 miles today. No wonder we were tired!

As the sun lowered and the breeze sprang up, we started to feel a chill. Stiffly climbing out of the hammocks, we hobbled into the cabin. I started a fire in the wood stove and then got dinner going -- freeze dried, as usual. We shared the meal and a can of hard cider that I'd packed in as a surprise. It was a lovely and low-key way to end a very full day.

Except that the day wasn't quite over yet, at least for me. Sarah curled up to read, and I headed out to finish an important job: taking photos of the stars. I'd scouted out a location down by the bank of the creek and planned out a composition that would include stars, the creek, and Lake Superior. I'd tried to set up for photos each night, only to be stymied by clouds. Tonight was perfectly clear and calm. It was much too light out still, and astronomical twilight didn't end (leaving the sky totally dark) until nearly midnight. But it's hard to compose photos in the dark, so I set up the camera, carefully composed the photo, and headed back to the cabin. I read and tended the fire until about 11:15, when I decided the sky was dark enough to get started. My camera has a built-in time lapse feature, meaning that I could leave it unattended, automagically taking a photo every 30 seconds until the battery ran out.

After setting up the camera, I billy-goated back up the bank of the stream in complete darkness. The camera pointed towards me, and I didn't dare ruin a photo by turning on my head lamp. I curled up in bed, read for a bit, and then fell asleep. I woke two hours later, feeling like I'd slept many more. Somewhat confused and disoriented, I was totally convinced that I'd left the camera shooting for so long that my battery was long dead. I billy-goated my way back down to the stream with my headlamp on, only to find that the camera was still happily clicking along. I'd ruined the last photo with my headlamp, so I had to stop it then anyhow. Nonetheless, after three nights of trying, my photo of stars rotating through the night sky over the reflective surface of Speaker's Creek turned out pretty well:

Stars  (and a satellite) over Speaker's Creek and Lake Superior

That's the north star (Polaris) at the center of the circles. Neat, eh?

I went back to bed and slept the kind of sleep I only ever sleep while camping.

Miles hiked: 11.6

Monday, May 21, 2018: We woke up around 8 am after a deep and wonderful sleep. We enjoyed our last breakfast at Speakers cabin while gazing out over the lake. After packing up and moving some fresh firewood inside, we couldn't delay our departure any longer. One mile later we were at the car and headed south.

This was our first time "backpacking" in the Porkies for a couple of years (really, this was more slackpacking). I would say that "I didn't realize how much I missed the Porkies", but that's not true -- I realized it fully, well before we ever came back. Isle Royale is fantastic, and I can't wait to go back... but the Porkies are really my first backpacking love.

This trip was, as I said, more "slackpacking" than we've usually done. We only carried full packs on the first and last day, bringing a daypack each other time. This method of staying at a central point and doing interesting hikes from there has really started to appeal to me. Something about age? Blatant laziness? Maybe. But both Sarah and I are more interested about the places we can see, rather than how long our hikes are, or how great our gear is. Staying in a cozy cabin on Lake Superior is one of life's greatest pleasures for both of us, and this trip showed us how to do that while still seeing interesting places.

While hiking from a central point is attractive, hiking out to our car and driving to different places was a bit less enjoyable. One of the joys of backpacking is the feeling of disconnection from the world, of having to rely only on your own legs and back to get you from place to place. Hiking to the car and driving, even just within the park, broke that sense of disconnection. Maybe it's an illusion, anyhow?

Of course, in the end, everyone should do whatever they want. If your thing is to hike 20 miles every day with a 40 pound pack -- awesome! Do that. I'll be sitting here, sipping a cider and relaxing in my hammock.

Oh, and just under 2 weeks later, I headed out for another backpacking adventure where I did break my personal daily mileage record. I'll be writing that one up soon. See you then!

    Miles hiked: 1
    Total miles: 19.6

    Sunday, July 22, 2018

    Porcupine Mountains 2018, Day 2: Presque Isle and the Little Carp River

    Last time: Tea and hikingHere's a list of all of my backpacking trips.

    Detail of Manabezho Falls

    Saturday, May 19, 2018: I woke up at 9:30 am after 10 straight hours of deep, restful sleep. Nothing puts me to sleep -- and keeps me that way -- quite like a cold dark night with Lake Superior's waves crashing just feet away from my bed.

    After a quick breakfast (the usual -- oatmeal, but with freeze-dried blueberries to substitute for the fresh berries that we would usually pick fresh during an August trip) we packed a daypack and headed out for a day of adventures.

    The sky was thickly clouded, the air was cool, and a brisk breeze came off the lake. These were perfect conditions for our big goal of the day: to photograph waterfalls on the Presque Isle River at the west end of the park. We could have hiked 2 miles along the lake shore to reach the river, but instead we chose the option that would give us more flexibility later: We walked a lovely mile back to our car and drive to Presque Isle.

    The Lovely Sarah hiking out to the road

    The Presque Isle River is the largest river in the Porkies, although unlike the Big and Little Carp Rivers, it flows in from the south and runs for only a few miles within the park itself. It is also (as with most Porkies rivers) practically made of waterfalls. There are two key trails, appropriately named the West and East River trails. The West River Trail is heavily built up with boardwalks and a large suspension bridge overlooking Manabezho falls. The east trail is much more rugged and runs for much of its length along a high bluff, with only occasional river views.

    Manabezho Falls

    Before we could hike the trails, we had to get through the crowd. For a day very early in the season, there sure were a lot of guys with enormous cameras and tripods the size of... well, themselves, slowly moseying they way along the boardwalks. I guess everyone saw the perfectly gray but dry sky and decided to come out to photograph waterfalls. (Gray days are great for waterfall photos -- too much sun casts shadows that make it hard to photograph running water, while the lack of sun makes it easier to take longer exposures to give the water that lovely "milky" look you see in most of my photos here.)

    We tromped past 3 photographers who had set up on the suspension bridge, probably ruining their carefully composed waterfall photos as our footsteps shook the bridge.

    The East River trail started with a steep uphill that got the blood flowing nicely, after which we were high above the river and could barely see it. The trail came back down the hill to river level now and then, but always went right back up again. We took our time composing photos and generally enjoying ourselves. We saw few other hikers -- it seems they all stayed on the bridge with their tripods.

    Fallen trees lined up above a waterfall

    We ate a quick lunch (peanut butter on rice cakes, a meat stick, and gorp for dessert) at a bench overlooking a lovely waterfall -- name unknown, probably not named at all. Soon after that, we reached the South Boundary Road. Our trail crossed the river on the road and started right up again on the other side of the river, here picking up the North Country Trail. Woohoo, I got to add another mile to my 50 mile challenge!

    Geometry and chaos
    My first thought on setting foot on the West River trail was... what an incredible smell we've discovered. The carcass of a none-too-recently dead deer greeted us from right next to the trail. We skirted it and continued on. The West River trail runs right next to the river and gave us a lot more to see than the East River trail. We continued our slow way, photographing everything from tiny rapids to thundering falls.

    A long boardwalk led us down a steep bluff to Nawadaha falls, but ended well before we could get a good view. I shimmied out under the railing and waltzed out onto the exposed rocks of the riverbed. What a perfect spot for photos!

    Nawadaha falls

    I wasn't the only one out here today, and I ended up trading spots with another photographer who had also slithered under the railing and was geeking out at the beautifully sculpted rocks, the sharply contrasting water, and the feathery mist. We carefully waltzed around each other, trying to stay out of each other's shots, then nonchalantly trading places and pretending that we weren't taking exactly the same photos.

    Manabezho's more interesting side

    We continued down the riverbank to Manido, then Manabezho falls. When we couldn't justify any more time spent along the river (quite a high bar to pass -- it took us 4 hours to walk 2 miles!), we headed back to the car. Both of us felt great, so we decided to take advantage of the flexibility that the car gave us -- we blasted right past Speakers trailhead and continued all the way to the Little Carp River trailhead.

    Twice in past years we had hiked the stretch of the Little Carp River Trail that runs near this trailhead. Both times we walked past a large handful of waterfalls (Overlooked and Greenstone being the only two that have names). But neither time had we been able to stop and smell the, er, falling water. Once the trail had been busy and the weather hot, the next time it was raining and we were miserably just trying to get to our car. This time, we'd see the waterfalls and enjoy them!

    The day was turning much windier, and a few cold raindrops splattered on the windshield as we parked. The temperature had dropped into the high 40's by this point, so we bundled up in our fleeces and rain coats and headed down the steep hill towards the river. After passing a family returning to their car with two extremely squirrely small boys, we were completely alone -- we didn't see another person for the rest of the day.

    (One side of) Overlooked falls. This photo overlooks the other side.

    The road soon crossed a wooden bridge over the Little Carp. The Little Carp might be my favorite river in the park. It runs through some of the most lovely, evergreen-shaded, and downright rugged parts of the park. It is almost always a rich red color, a combination of the river's tannin-rich waters and the pinkish bedrock it runs over. The Little Carp River trail climbs hills shaded by hemlocks while staying within earshot of the burbling river. It's magical.

    We spent a few more hours slowly cavorting about the river, photographing Overlooked and Greenstone falls (and many others in between), wandering out onto spits and outcrops of rock, and enjoying the serenity and solitude of the river.

    Greenstone falls

    We spent most of our time trying to take handheld long exposures of the river, which gives that fetching "creamy" look to the waterfalls. It takes some practice and a lot of attempts. Sure enough, and soon enough, both of our camera's batteries were dead from the long exposures. We hiked back to the car, chilled and wet. We cranked up the heat and headed back down the road to Speakers trailhead.

    The hike back in to the cabin was cold but uneventful. We built a fire in the wood stove right away to start heating up our cold limbs. After some hot tea, we boiled up tonight's freeze dried dinner: chicken noodle soup with dumplings, a favorite old standby.

    Late evening hillside

    The gray sky started to clear up shortly before sunset, leaving only a light haze high overhead. The late evening light lit up the hillsides around the cabin with a spectacular glow. I wandered around with my camera (and a fresh battery) in hand, constantly finding ordinary scenes turned into magical ones. Especially lovely was the trail that leads up the steep hill to the outhouse. In this light, it looked far more beautiful -- and less smelly -- than at high noon.

    This trail leads to the outhouse.

    As the sun dropped below the horizon, I sat along the shore and enjoyed the breathtakingly beautiful stars and the sound of the surprisingly calm lake. Because of the light haze, I decided not to attempt star photos tonight. Maybe tomorrow?

    Speakers creek, Lake Superior, and oh yeah, a sunset too

    Next time: A little too much hiking

    Miles hiked: 6
    Total miles: 7

    Pink: Speaker's Trail. Green: Presque Isle waterfall route. Blue: Little Carp.