Thursday, March 1, 2018

My first time backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains

It's the middle of winter, and the days are still short. I've been spending the dark evenings sorting through old photos, and I came across a few from the first time I went backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains -- in 2012. So, to get in the mood for my spring trip to my favorite mountains, I present this severely overdue trip log.


Mirror Lake living up to its name at sunrise.
2012 was a big year. In May, I graduated with my PhD. In June, the lovely Sarah and I got married. In July, we packed up and moved from Houghton -- where I'd lived for 10 years -- to the Twin Cities for our first "real" jobs.

I had a short teaching job in May and June, but when that was over, there was nothing to do but pack up the apartment and get ready for the big move. With our imminent departure from the Copper Country hanging over me, I wanted to see a few favorite places one last time. There was also a big item left on my bucket list: Go backpacking in the Porkies! Yes, this was the first time -- although it turns out I've kept checking off this bucket list item, year after year ever since then.

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park -- as I've written many times before -- is a huge state park in Michigan's western Upper Peninsula. Rugged, remote, and situated on the shore of Lake Superior, it's a beautiful escape from the rest of the world. By this point in my life, I'd made a number of dayhikes in the Porkies (especially the breathtaking Escarpment Trail), and slept in my tent in several of its campgrounds -- but never alone, and never backpacking. It was time to truly go off the road and into the park all by myself.

After reading Jim Dufresne's guidebook, I chose a quick overnight loop that would take me on a bunch of new trails, focusing on a gem hidden in the hills on the south side of the park: Mirror Lake.

Monday, June 25, 2012: Classes done, grades entered -- woohoo, unemployed until August! On the upside, that meant that I could travel to the Porkies on a Monday, when I was sure nobody else would be there. If you've read my other writings, you know that one of my favorite things about backpacking and hiking is the ability to get far away from everybody.

I kissed my (newly wedded) wife Sarah goodbye and headed south from Houghton. I made a short stop at an old mining location near Rockland that I wanted to explore (more on that elsewhere). I couldn't stay long, because of a then-new policy at the Porkies: All backcountry campers had to talk to a ranger in person in order to check in and get their camping permit.

At the Visitor Center, I received a hasty and somewhat pointed lecture about backcountry etiquette and the Leave No Trace philosophy. I was a little off-put by this until hours later when, after backpacking in to my campsite, I stood staring at the week's worth of styrofoam and plastic containers burned in a fire pit 3 miles into the backcountry. I suddenly felt a great deal of empathy for the rangers who had to deal with this sort of thing.

I drove the long winding way around the park on South Boundary Road and pulled in to the Summit Peak parking area. I'd never been to Summit Peak -- the highest point in the Porkies -- and there's an observation tower at its top. This is definitely one of the more built-up areas of the park, which you can tell by the fact that the parking area is paved, and there's a well-maintained wooden walkway all the way up the side of the "mountain". I didn't even break a sweat heading up. At one of the landings, I paused to enjoy the view over the interior of the park. A couple heading down asked if I wanted my photo taken -- of course I did! -- and so we have this lovely portrait of younger Dave:

Backpacking glamor pose
The observation tower at the peak itself is wooden, with stairs leading up to a small platform at the top. The view is fine, if you like wide, slightly bumpy expanses of trees -- nothing nearly as awe-inspiring as Lake of the Clouds. Lake Superior is just a distant blue haze. So I looked around, failed to take any photos, and headed back down again.

I moved my car a little way back down Summit Peak Road to the smaller (and unpaved) parking area at the South Mirror Lake trailhead. I did one last check on the backpack, strapped it on, and headed down the trail. I was on an adventure!

The path started out wide and grassy -- an old truck route into the heart of the park. The park's trail guide said something about how the "first uphill will test your legs". Sure enough, there was a long, slow uphill... that caused me no trouble at all. Not that there weren't problems: I was using my Osprey Atmos backpack, one of their older designs with a highly arched back panel that really did keep my back (relatively) dry. But the arch also put an outsized amount of force on my upper back and started to rub my shoulders painfully.

Soon the path narrowed and became a traditional single-track winding through deeply shaded, and deeply pretty, groves of hemlocks. The trail also became quite muddy. And as soon as there was mud... there were mosquitoes. I stopped to apply spray, which did exactly nothing to stop them. I picked up the pace. Eventually, I gave in and started doing a sort of modern dance: Hit the side of my neck... hit my opposite shoulder... flail at mosquitoes in front of my face... repeat.

For the entire trail, I met not a single other person (thankfully, after the mosquito dance had started). The woods had an almost spooky silence -- no wind, no rustling leaves, no nothing -- just quiet. I arrived at the turnoff for the backcountry campsites on the south side of Mirror Lake by 5:30 pm and found exactly nobody there. There are advantages to backpacking on a weekday in June.

Lovely tent pad
I had my pick of the tent sites. I chose one near the lake, in the shade of tall pines, backed by a large outcrop of rock. It was gorgeous. It was also as far away from the styrofoam-and-plastic filled fire pit as I could get. That trash was a guaranteed bear magnet -- no need to tempt fate.

After I rolled out my pad and sleeping bag, I filtered some water by balancing precariously on a rock in the muddy shallows of the lake. Add to that my continuing mosquito dance, and it was miraculous that I didn't dunk myself in the lake. I then carefully hung my entire pack from the supplied bear pole, doing a sort of dance while I tried to lift the 20 pound pack on the end of the supplied 10 foot pole. I hadn't figured out the art of the bear bag yet.

With the basics taken care of, I headed out to explore. My campsite was located in a corner of land on the south side of Mirror Lake. I continued north and quickly came to a long board bridge across a long, narrow inlet of the lake. This was the Little Carp River, which passes through Mirror Lake on its way towards Lake Superior.

Bridge over the Little Carp River
The boardwalk showed me picturesque views of the log-choked Little Carp and the outlet of Mirror Lake. It also showed me that mosquitoes could actually bit through existing mosquito bites. I continued quickly on to the other side, trying not to fall into the water as I revisited my mosquito jig. Shortly beyond the bridge, I passed a sign for the Little Carp River trail, which I would follow on the return trip tomorrow.

I continued on the Mirror Lake trail and, after a short jaunt to the east, I found a sign for the Mirror Lake 2-bunk cabin. This was another of my reasons for coming here: I'd heard that the Porkies had rental cabins, and I wanted to check them out. The path to the cabin led away from the lake, up to a secluded hollow between hills and beneath tall hemlocks. I carefully approached the cabin, lest there be renters in residence (the 2-bunk is known as the "love shack"). But, it was a Monday in June -- nothing to see here. The cabin was small, cute, and definitely something I wanted to stay in. (A few years later, Sarah and I would indeed stay in the 2 bunk cabin, and I would hit my head repeatedly on its ultra-low ceiling.)

Back on the main trail, I checked out the 4 bunk and 8 bunk cabins as well -- both built right on the trail but unoccupied. I wandered as far as a backcountry site on the northeast corner of the lake -- located in a muddy hole that I was glad I hadn't decided to camp in -- and then headed back to my own tent site.

For dinner, I had brought one of these new-fangled freeze dried meals, which I'd never tried before. This one was some kind of buffalo chicken filling that had to be put in tortilla wraps. I set up my kitchen far away from my tent -- another nod to camping alone in bear country -- and set about boiling water.

Once the chicken filling was ready, I discovered that I didn't quite have enough hands to do everything that I needed to do. I filled up my lone tortilla, then sat it down on a log while I walked a couple of steps to pick up my water bottle. When I turned around, there was one of the Porkies finest: A tiny red squirrel gnawing away at my tortilla! I ran at it, shouting, until it casually scampered up a tree and sat on a branch, scolding me. I looked at the damage -- several small holes gnawed right through the tortilla. I could go hungry, or share my meal with the squirrel -- so I ate with the little bugger.

Looking over the edge of the bridge into the Little Carp River

After dinner, I went back to the bridge to enjoy the evening. The mosquito population was only growing, so after taking a few photos I promptly evacuated the area -- all the way back into my tent.

I wadded up a shirt to use as a pillow and read by the slowly diminishing daylight. It was just past the longest day of the year, and the sky stayed visibly light well after 10 pm -- there was still a distant glow in the sky at 11 pm. I started to go a bit stir-crazy being stuck in the tent, but if I so much as poked my head outside, I lost a pint of blood.

I eventually rolled over and tried to sleep. Every little sound tweaked my nerves -- even my friend the red squirrel sounded like a bear from the blind setting of my tent. Then, the frogs started. An entire colony of frogs started chirping in the swampy waters near the bridge. They effectively drowned out all "bear" sounds, but their high-pitched singing bored straight into my head (with occasional harmony provided by bullfrogs). I tossed and turned all night, always accompanied by the music of the frogs. I slept fitfully for whole minutes at a time, if even that much.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012: Sunrise was about 6 am, and I was out of the tent and making breakfast  shortly afterwards. Mirror Lake earned its name as the sun came up over the tree line, with a light mist hanging just above the lake's perfectly placid surface. I took my chances and found that the bridge-squitoes were mostly asleep, so I enjoyed my oatmeal and tea while sitting and watching this glorious view:

Mist on Mirror Lake

I packed quickly, dodging newly awakened mosquitoes, and paused only to take a few photos of the glorious morning that was opening up all around me.

With my pack on my back, I headed across the bridge and hung a quick left onto the Little Carp River trail. The trail starts by following the river fairly closely, which also means that it was filled with mosquitoes now coming to life after a cool night. I power-walked, opening up my stride as much as I could with a backpack on my hips. I eventually out-ran the mosquitoes -- or more accurately, I left a trail of fat and happy mosquitoes behind me along the trail.

The trail soon climbed a small bluff above the river. The forest here was filled with tall old-growth hemlocks. Their dense shade left an open understory. The pine-scented air was cool and pleasant and the golden sunlight filtered through the tall canopy. I passed a lovely campsite next to the river and immediately vowed to return and camp there (I haven't... yet!).

Another beautiful scene. Ho hum.
A few miles later, the trail dropped down off the ridge and started to run through lower, muddier ground. The river was off to the side somewhere, but I could no longer see (or hear) it through the denser undergrowth. I passed the trail intersection for the Beaver Creek trail, a cut-off that would have taken me quickly back up to Summit Peak. I had decided to take a longer but more scenic route.

Soon, I came out into a sunny, marshy, grassy patch. A long bridge took me out over Lily Pond, a well-named wide area along the path of the Little Carp. There was a bench built right in to the middle of the bridge -- a fantastic way to escape from (most of) the mosquitoes. I sat back, soaked up the sun, and enjoyed the view of the large and picturesque beaver pond that interrupts the Little Carp. I also enjoyed a Clif bar -- a rare event that can only occur after some seriously hard work.

Lily Pond with beaver dam, from the bridge-bench
At the far end of the bridge I discovered the Lily Pond cabin, another of the park's rustic rental cabins, which was built right next to the trail. I wandered around it (nobody was home), admiring at the huge bank of windows that looked right out over Lily Pond itself. Another spot for the "maybe some day" list.

A little ways beyond Lily Pond, I met the junction with the fairly well-named Lily Pond trail. This trail is an east-west trail that leads into the park from the Summit Peak road. It also carries the North Country Trail, letting me knock off another short section of my favorite National Scenic Trail. The Little Carp River trail turned west, heading towards a rocky stretch that Sarah and I would hike in the rain several years later.

The Lily Pond trail wound east through a surprisingly deciduous forest. The land was lower, more muddy, and hot, all of which brought out even more bugs. Despite my pleasant rest at the pond, I was starting to feel overheated and sweaty. But with the mosquitoes chasing me, I double-timed it all the way to the trailhead. I popped out at Summit Peak Road by 10 am.

I was still about a quarter of a mile down the road from my car, a hot and tiring road walk that I (for some reason) hadn't counted on. When I made it back to the car, I dropped my back and plopped down in the seat, exhausted but triumphant. I had survived a backpacking trip in the Porkies!

Ravine along the North Mirror Lake trail

10 minutes later... I wasn't done yet, however. Part of my goal for the trip was to find some of the abandoned copper mines in the Porcupine Mountains area. On my trip out from Summit Peak, I stopped by the White Pine Extension mine (a field of rock with a little bit of barbed wire). My next stop was the Lake of the Clouds, where I climbed down the escarpment on the North Mirror Lake trail and hiked the spur trail to the Lake of the Clouds campsites. Again, I failed to find anything interesting (I later learned that I was just a few tenths of a mile away from some semi-interesting diggings, but I hadn't gone far enough). I followed the North Mirror Lake trail uphill and explored the deep gorge that runs next to it. I briefly convinced myself that some of the rocks strewn about by the spring melt were rock piles from mines, but I was wrong. Again, I found nothing. On the way back, I poked my head down the spur to the Lake of the Clouds cabin -- another lovely cabin in a gorgeous setting -- then hiked back up the Escarpment.

I returned to my car and headed east out of the Porkies. My very last side trip was to the old White Pine mine. No, not the new White Pine mine, which was the most productive copper mine in Michigan's history -- I mean the old one which thwarted dozens of investors, who collectively sank a fortune into its pits.

The main draw of the old White Pine were these "ball mills", which (once upon a time) freed up copper-bearing rock by grinding the rock with heavy ball bearings. They somehow escaped the World War II scrap drives, and now here they sit, rusting, right where they were abandoned:

Ball Mills at the old White Pine

And with that, my Porkies backpacking adventure was over. It was brief, intense, mosquito-filled, and wonderful. I had the backpacking bug already, but I had it even worse after this trip. Just a few years later, we'd be back for a much longer trip including cabin camping.

But for now, I turned my car back north towards Houghton, where the only thing remaining to do was to pack up all of our belongings into boxes, Tetris them into a U-Haul, and head south for yet another adventure -- to the Twin Cities. But of course... I'd be back!

Blue: Monday, Green: Tuesday


Distance hiked:
Day 1: 3.0 miles
Day 2: 5.5 miles

Animals seen: One very persistent squirrel, and a few million mosquitoes.


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