Wednesday, August 1, 2018

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

Last time: Waterfall Extravaganza
New bridge over a restored streambed 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 decided to start with 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 downhill ski hill, an outpost of the Escarpment) and is 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 steep 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 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 a surprising number of 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 completely forgotten to clear out the tall and dense stand of trees a few steps farther downhill that were completely blocking 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 saw a bunch surrounded by a halo-like glow... all 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 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 more than a little 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 trail 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 first branch, 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 streambed 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 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 -- she couldn't handle a nasty, muddy trail on top of that. She headed back to Crosscut and told me to enjoy the trail on my own.

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 with 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 my hammock was 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, nearly a record for us. 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.

I climbed back up the bank of the stream, billy-goat style, 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 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" -- 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.

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


    2 comments:

    JimLob said...

    Enjoyed reading your most recent blogs. Havung spent some time in the Porkies last year I recognize some of the places you write about. This year my son and I hiked Isle Royale as I had discussed with you in commenting in your bligs frim last year. Maybe next year we'll hike the Porkies?!

    Nail Hed said...

    Yep i have to do the cabin thing eventually.