Sunday, July 8, 2018

Porcupine Mountains 2018, Day 1: Introduction, Travel, and Tea

Trout Lilies carpet a hillside near Speaker's cabin

In the last few years, Sarah and I have been obsessed with Isle Royale. We made two long backpacking trips there and loved every minute of it. But after giving our hearts away to Isle Royale, we agreed that it was time to return to our first love: The Porcupine Mountains.

Much like the trip that Kyle and I took to the Porkies in 2016, Sarah and I set up base camp in a rustic rental cabin. We did day hikes to see new areas, leaving most of our supplies at the cabin -- a nice change from carrying full packs everywhere.

Other commitments dictated that our backpacking trip had to take place in May. The park is in winter mode until at least May 15, and we planned to arrive on May 18. What is "winter mode"? Well, the Porkies Facebook page periodically posted pictures of an ice-bound South Boundary Road (the only way to access our trailhead) with warnings about how the road was definitely not open, don't even think about trying to drive on it. The boundary road is a solidly packed snowmobile trail all winter, and that extends the ice-melting season by weeks. Just one day before we left -- oh joy -- the county opened the road!

Ferns in the bed of Speaker's creek, and a bridge across the creek.
In that day, we finished packing. With only 3 nights (all in the same cabin) and dayhikes in between, our packs would have to be pretty light, right? Well, when you're staying in a cabin, lots of little extra things start to creep in. Like, say, a few pounds of Hunter's Sausage from Bob's Butcher Block, our favorite purveyor of dried meat products. Or a can of hard cider, to enjoy while overlooking the world's greatest lake. Or every single camera lens we both own (with two camera bodies) so as to take photos in every conceivable way. Or hammocks, to hang up and relax after having to carry all this extra weight.

In the end, we used (and/or consumed) everything we brought. But had we been doing a serious backpacking trip where we'd be carrying our packs for miles every day, we would have cut a lot of the extra items out.

So it was with happy hearts but heavy backpacks that we headed north. We started after a full day of work and made it as far as Sarah's parents (in the eastern UP) where we stopped for the night.

Friday May 18, 2018: We woke up early, said our goodbyes, and headed west -- but not to the Porkies. We veered north in Baraga and made a beeline to Houghton for lunch at the Four Seasons Tea Room, the best little English-style tea room I've ever found (and yes, I've done some looking -- although admittedly none of it happened in England itself). We only get to visit Houghton about once per year, and visiting the tea room is worth a 2 hour detour. With that moral imperative completed, we turned around and headed right back down again.

We made it to the Porkies Visitor Center by 3 pm. We were the only visitors there, and the ranger on duty seemed a little surprised to have anyone come in that day. He bustled around, trying to remember what to do, finally got the correct cabin key out, and forgot to give us our parking permit until I asked about it.

For our base camp, we had selected Speaker's Cabin, a rustic rental cabin that we came to love on our last Porkies trip. Speaker's Cabin is located near the west end of the park, with a 1 mile access trail coming in from a small dirt parking area on South Boundary Road. This made the cabin ideal as a base camp for day hikes -- especially because we could hike out to our car and drive to other trailheads, rather than being forced to stick near the cabin.

We hopped back in the car and drove (almost) alllll the way around the park on the South Boundary Road -- 23 miles, to be exact. We enjoyed the beautiful wildflowers beside the road (marsh marigolds, trillium, and spring beauties), the total lack of anyone else on the road, and the bizarre temperature gradient. The air was a chilly 55 degrees near the lake shore and a toasty 85 degrees inland -- a strong south breeze kept things warm until we were very close to the lake.
Trout lily

We parked in the dirt parking lot at Speaker's trailhead, changed into boots, pulled on our backpacks, and headed into the woods.

Speaker's Trail is a gated 2-track that heads north towards Lake Superior. The trail was broad and clear, at least by backcountry hiking standards. The woods were just barely starting to come alive for spring, with a light green haze of new leaves on some of the trees. The ground was carpeted with the early leaves of spring wildflowers, but no blooms were visible yet in the heavily shaded woods.


After about half of a mile, we crossed a stream on an old wooden vehicle bridge. Just across the bridge we saw an old and abandoned cabin sitting on a hill above a stream. It had "Jacobson" written in faded letters on the side. Before the Porkies became a state park, there were many private "camps" like this located in prime spots (such as the mouth of the Big Carp and, our goal, the mouth of Speaker's Creek). The state bought out most of these landowners, and many of their cabins became rental cabins. Jacobson's, however, is just abandoned with its door hanging loose, soon to succumb to the elements.

Speaker's trail met the Lake Superior trail here, and we turned west onto this trail for the next half mile. The trail became a single track with more descents into ravines than either of us remembered from our previous trips. Trail crews clearly hadn't come this way yet, and we had to make our way up, over, or around fallen trees and broken puncheon bridges. We also had to smush our way through the mud holes that are an unavoidable part of the Lake Superior trail.

At long last (one mile -- seriously, that was all, but that first mile of backpacking always feels like 10) we came to the edge of another ravine. There, glowing in the distance, I could see it -- Speaker's Cabin's... outhouse! The outhouse is located at the top of the same high bluff that we were standing on. Our view of the cabin itself had to wait until we descended into the valley cut by Speaker's Creek.

Speaker's cabin from across Speaker's Creek
We descended the hillside, which was completely covered in another favorite early spring flower: Trout Lilies. We found the cabin very well stocked with firewood, quite possibly left by the last hunters to rent the cabin back in November. Firewood was a good thing, since the predicted lows were around 40 each night of the trip. After quickly unpacking the essentials, we headed back outside to enjoy the view and see what was new since our last visit.

The shoreline had changed dramatically in the last two years. Severe erosion had washed away significant chunks of the bluffs above the beach and creek, leaving ragged edges of grass hanging out over open space. Two new wood fences guarded these edges, one along the bank of Speaker's Creek and another along the shoreline. The fences must have been built at least a year ago, however, because they were both already undermined by the spring floods and were almost ready to fall onto the beach or into the creek.

Fences, about to fall onto the beach.

Speaker's Cabin itself had been moved a bit since we saw it last. I sat down with the cabin log book and a copy of last year's "Porcupine Mountains Visitor" newsletter (both of which I found in the cabin's cupboards) and read the story: A mother and her young son were staying in Speaker's Cabin in early June 2016 when a remarkable downpour struck overnight. That led to the flash flood, which in turn caved in the bank of the creek -- to within 3 feet of the cabin's wall! The pair spent the rest of the night hiding in the outhouse, enjoying the odor of secondhand gorp and hoping for the best. They made it out ok, and the park closed the cabin for nearly a month. Rangers eventually decided to move the cabin about 10 feet farther away from the stream bank. We could see the stone path that used to lead up to the cabin's door -- and a new one leading up to the new location, with flat stones slowly being added by campers like us.

Speaker's Cabin. Notice the brown patch just to its right where the foundation used to be.

Sadly, another casualty of the erosion one of our favorite parts from our last visit: The Wolf Seat. There used to be some impressive "seats" made from huge flat rocks, placed to overlook the lake. That was all gone, probably buried far below on the beach.

Sarah set up her hammock, tried it out, and then immediately fell asleep -- worn out by full English tea followed by a mile's hike.

I mountain-goated my way down to the shore (erosion had destroyed any obvious path). The lake was roaring with good-sized waves, and I had a hard time collecting silty water from the stirred-up lake. Getting my boots only a little wet, I climbed back up and left the water to settle in a bucket. That chore done, I was ready to explore. The eroding stream bank had exposed an old underground cement pump house, used by the former owners of the cabin (the Greens -- the Speakers, despite the cabin's name, lived across the creek). One side of the pump house had fallen away, exposing several large canisters and various pipes. I spent the better part of half an hour edging back and forth to try to get a clear view, staring intently, and trying to figure out what all this was:

An old pump house, ready to fall into Speaker's Creek
I also wandered up and down the shoreline, which was littered with landslides and fallen trees. I peered into lovely ravines with tiny streams emptying into the lake, giant rocks embedded in the beach, and even a private (not abandoned and very well kept) cabin right on the shoreline. Probably Speaker's trail acted as an access road to it as well. I wonder who the lucky owners are?

This rock shows just how much red clay had slumped down from the shoreline in the spring melt. You can see the red streak where the soil nearly covered it -- but has since been washed away by the lake.

Red clay washing down from the shore.

Back at the cabin, the setting sun was lighting up the hillside with a lovely golden light. But even better than that, it lit up the thousands of trout lilies covering every square inch of the hillside. They love the open understory and dappled light surrounding Speaker's Cabin, and had turned their nodding yellow heads towards the setting sun. I spent the next hour twisting myself into pretzels to photograph these pretty spring ephemerals.

Trout Lily with bretheren

Sunset became even better as some high-level clouds rolled in at just the right time. Because of Speaker's position on a northwest facing shore, the sun set almost directly out across the water.

Sunset from the other side of Speaker's Creek.

On the downside, the clouds meant no (or few) stars tonight. One of my goals for this trip was to photograph the night sky, possibly even the Milky Way. I'd even brought all of my equipment for star trail photos, but tonight would not be that night.

With the air chilling and stomach grumbling, we headed inside for dinner. I made up a fire in the wood stove to keep us warm, and boiled some water for our entirely adequate freeze dried meal du jour, Mountain House Lasagna.

Sarah reading inside Speaker's Cabin -- brrr!

With dinner done, the sun set, and the cold coming, we snuggled into sleeping bags. I spent an hour reading the cabin's log book, including the log from the poor souls who spent the night in the outhouse during the June 2016 storm. At one point I glanced up and saw the moon, nearly full and just about to set, fully visible through the cabin's window. I stepped outside to see it more clearly, and was treated to few stars winking through the thin layer of clouds.

Then I returned to the cozy cabin and was lulled to sleep by Superior's crashing waves.

Next time: Waterfalls, waterfalls, everywhere!

Miles hiked: 1

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