Monday, October 11, 2021

Porkies Solo 2021, Day 3: Mirror Lake to Lake of the Clouds

Last time: Bath by Thunderstorm

A ravine from one of today's many adventures

Wednesday August 11, 2021: I slept long and hard in the Mirror Lake 4 Bunk. I woke up well after dawn and found a cool but cloudy morning. I felt great, headache-free, and actually hungry for the first time in days. It turned out that this was perfect, because today would be absolutely filled with excellent adventures! I started with...

The adventure of the lazy morning! I knew today's hike would be short, so I spent a lazy morning enjoying tea and oatmeal on the bench near the fire pit. I read more in the log book and enjoyed a book on my Kindle.

Oh, and I cleaned out the wood stove, too. I opened the stove's door on a whim and discovered that it was filled with foil, empty freeze-dried food packets, styrofoam, and other partially combusted junk. None of these items actually burn, but that doesn't stop people from trying (and conveniently forgetting when it doesn't work). I crammed the scraps into my trash bag, then started sorting through the fire pit for good measure. In the end I had a full trash bag and incredibly dirty hands, but at least things were a bit cleaner than when I arrived.

I stuffed the trash bag in the side pocket of my pack and walked down to the lake to wash my hands. The clouds were low in the sky and mist hung heavily over the lake. A pair of loons were on patrol, and their haunting calls echoed across the lake.

When I had done all of the cleaning and reading I could manage, I decided it was time to go. I left a note in the log book, swept the floor as thoroughly as can be done in a 70+ year old log cabin, and went to pick up my pack. Right on cue, thunder crashed and a torrential downpour started.

With a shrug, I pulled my Kindle out of my pack and settled in to read some more. I really wasn't in a hurry.

Fairwell selfie with cabin, from the Mirror Lake shore

A fast-moving thunderstorm swept through, bringing a reprise of yesterday's heavy rain. The wind whipped through the cabin, and I had to seal up the windows. But just as quickly as it arrived, the storm blew past, leaving the sun to peak through the clouds.

Tentatively, I picked up my pack, strapped it on, and took one last look at the cabin. Mirror Lake 4 bunk had been a nice enough place, and an excellent shelter in a storm. It was a beautiful true log cabin. But in the end, its dim setting, proximity to the trail, but strange lack of view of the lake all conspired to make it not one of my favorites.

It was noon, and today's route was simple: Follow the North Mirror Lake trail downhill all the way from the interior highlands to Lake of the Clouds. My cabin for the night was the super-popular Lake of the Clouds cabin, which was my 3rd new cabin on this trip.

The trails were a bit muddy, but only in the top layer -- after weeks of little rain, the water soaked in quickly. This was nothing like the boot-sucking mud after a good Porkies spring melt.

Wetland boardwalk

I passed through the beautiful wetland again, and paused to enjoy each wildflower along the way. Then it was up a hill, past Government Peak trail, and down a long stretch of green tunnel. I crossed a small stream that drains a swamp, and which also marks two important points in the trail: The start of the steep downhill to Lake of the Clouds, and the start of the enormous ravine that runs just west of the trail for nearly its entire descent.

The enormous downhill is exactly what it sounds like: One extremely long downhill hike over roots and rocks, as you lose almost all elevation between the central highlands and Lake of the Clouds. The entire way down, the trail parallels an enormous ravine cut by a tiny, unnamed tributary of Scott Creek.

I had tried to explore the ravine before on several occasions, but never made it very far. This time, when I reached the bottom of the enormous downhill, I was ready for a rest. And of course, by a "rest", I meant dropping my pack and scrambling back up the ravine.

A picturesque ravine (path to mine shaft hiding on the left)

The adventure in the ravine! At the bottom of the downhill, the ravine becomes a shallow stream bed. I dropped my bright red backpack in an obvious location (to make it easy for rescuers to find -- yes, that was my thought process), pulled out my Big Camera, and turned up the stream. The stream bed was mossy and slick, so I took my time as I enjoyed the views.

A slight digression: In 2015, USA Today hosted a well-publicized competition to determine "America's Best State Park". The Porkies nearly won, beat only by an upstate New York park named Letchworth State Park. The next year, Sarah and I decided it was worth taking a trip to visit this place, and along the way we visited the 3rd place winner as well: Watkins Glen State Park, also in upstate New York. Letchworth and Watkins Glen were indeed spectacular. The defining feature of both were trails that followed deep canyons, cut by rivers deep into bedrock. Over the years, New Deal agencies and others had built similarly spectacular stone walkways and bridges that wound through the canyons.

Ravine again

The beauty of the Porkies is quite different from the New York state parks. The Porkies are all about cliffs, lakes, and forests -- they really don't have anything like those canyons. Or so I thought, until I climbed up this ravine. The ravine reminded me exactly of what the canyons of Watkins Glen and Letchworth must have looked like before the WPA and CCC tamed them with walkways and bridges. The high rocky walls were fractured into huge brick-like blocks. Narrow rays of sunlight snuck through the fast-moving clouds and highlighted the moss that covered walls, along with the ferns that grew from every crack. The stream bed was filled with massive boulders covered thick with moss, surrounded by cobbles and tiny burbling waterfalls. The air was cool and humid, filled with the scent of green things.

An unusual feature along the side of the ravine caught my eye: A very regularly shaped wall of rock and debris surrounding a water-filled pit. I realized that this was, almost certainly, the Devon mine -- an extremely short-lived copper mine from the 1840's. I'd actually visited this ravine many years ago to search for this mine, but didn't make it this far. The Devon lasted less than a year -- probably not enough to realize that their shaft would be drowned by the spring floods each year.

Ferns clinging to the ravine wall

The ravine was a magical hidden place in the middle of another magical hidden place. I spent half an hour slowly climbing up the ravine, taking photos, and breathing deeply in the humid air trapped in its tall walls.

Eventually, I found a convenient spot to climb up the side of the ravine -- probably an old access trail to the mine shaft, now basically a goat path. I followed the trail back down to my backpack, where I enjoyed a rice-cake-and-peanut-butter lunch to go with my mellow bushwhacking glow.

The next mile or so of trail was nothing to write home about. I reached my last major waypoint: The bridge across the Big Carp River at the west end of Lake of the Clouds. This is a long bridge across a beautiful place. The Big Carp is grassy and slow here, winding below the tall bulk of the Escarpment. High above, I could see tiny people at the Lake of the Clouds viewing platform.

One of my original goals for this trip was to photograph the sunrise from this very bridge. The wonderful Photographer's Ephemeris showed me that the next morning, the sun would rise just behind the Escarpment, and would be perfectly aligned down the axis of the lake just a few minutes later.

Photographer's Ephemeris showing the sunrise direction and 30 minutes later (yellow lines).

All this ran through my head as I looked east from the bridge and saw this lovely view:

Carp River, looking towards (but not at) Lake of the Clouds

Beautiful, yes, but with no view of the lake at all. I must have forgotten from my previous visits. It sadly did not suit my vision of a spectacular sunrise highlighting the waters of the lake below the towering Escarpment.

Mildly discouraged, I continued across the bridge and followed the maze of trails below the Escarpment until I found the turn-off to the Lake of the Clouds cabin. The cabin's access trail was rather long -- it's not right on the trail like so many others. Around a bend, the cabin came into view, along with its breathtaking view:

Lake of the Clouds cabin

I set down my pack and walked out to the shore, which had a perfect view down the length of the lake. Problem solved: I could take sunrise photos from the comfort of my cabin's front yard tomorrow morning!

The Lake of the Clouds cabin has always been one of the most popular cabins in the park, for good reasons. It has a nearly perfect setting right next to the Porkies' showcase lake. The cabin has the usual huge banks of windows, but unlike the Mirror Lake 4 Bunk, these windows flooded the cabin with afternoon light and a perfect view of the lake. The sky had been in the process of clearing all day, and while the wind kept blowing, the sun was bright and direct.

Mystery board

Inside, the cabin showed some signs of special attention from the park. It had been upgraded with a ceiling and a few other nice touches. A board was attached to the wall, just below a window, with hinges. Chains connected it to the wall above the window, keeping it horizontal -- I can only guess it was a folding writing desk, something that no other cabin, much less most houses, have. There were actual topographic maps for hikers to use, and a full unopened package of firewood that some poor soul had backpacked in from the parking lot, half a mile and several hundred feet above the cabin.

I spent a while reading the log book and resting. This led to... 

The adventure of the treasure hunt for fresh water! Tucked in next to the most recent log was a piece of cardstock with a detailed map showing how to find a fresh water spring on the far side of the lake. The map was meant for people to help people use the cabin's row boat to avoid the supposedly poor-tasting lake water.

Treasure map for fresh water

I needed water, so it was time to go find this spring! The wind was blowing hard across the lake, and I didn't want to take the cabin's row boat out by myself. Instead, I opted to walk back across the bridge, around the end of the lake, and along the opposite shore. There are several backcountry campsites there, so I followed the trail past them. The map soon took me off trail, following faded pieces of flagging tape tied on tree branches (and no trail whatsoever -- nothing visible to this experienced bushwhacker). The ground was squishy; clearly this was a place with a high water table.

Big Carp Bridge with the Lake of the Clouds overlook high above

A few hundred yards up the hill from Lake of the Clouds, there was the spring! It was covered by a wooden box set into the ground, with a long plastic pipe coming out of it. There was no water coming out of the pipe, so I opened the lid of the box, disturbing several frogs, and carefully scooped some water from its depths. The map had led me perfectly to the spot (metaphorically) marked by "X", which held backpacker's gold: clean(-ish) water.

The spring!

Before I returned to the cabin, I made my way down to the lakeshore and looked across at the cabin, picturesquely nestled between the shore and the towering Escarpment. While the cabin was in a dense area of forest, not far to the east of the cabin was a huge pile of scree flowing down from the Escarpment and reaching all the way to the lake. I made a mental note to check it out later.

Back at the cabin, I filtered the water -- no need to risk an unpleasant stomach bug, even with spring water. I confirmed that it was indeed quite tasty and frog free.

Picturesque log

Not willing to waste any time in this beautiful place, I set right out on my next adventure:

The adventure of the scree piles! I was intrigued by the scree pile east of the cabin, and with a beautiful afternoon still in front of me, I wasted no time in setting out to find it. I started by following the trail to the cabin's outhouse, which went in the right direction. A faint trail continued beyond it, getting fainter quite fast as years worth of adventurers had given up. Soon it was a good ol' Copper Country bushwhack for me, with the bushes getting denser and the terrain getting steeper as the Escarpment and lake pinched together. Eventually I couldn't even make any forward progress. I stumbled my way down to the lake shore -- and at least gravity helped me do that -- and splashed into the lake. There was a narrow, rocky, but shallow area along the shoreline. It required a bit of balance to walk on the cobble-filled lake bed, but in my magical quick-drying shoes I was able to wade the rest of the way to the scree.

The scree pile was like an alien landscape. The scree slopes were made from massive piles of broken  rock that had fallen from the high towers of the Escarpment, hundreds of feet overhead. The chunks formed an enormous pile at the base of the cliffs, a pile that made it nearly all the way to the lake shore. Only a narrow band of "flat" land escaped the rock pile, and that was covered with reindeer lichen and low-growing scrub brush.

The rocks were mostly exposed to the late afternoon sun, with only small patches of evergreens and brush along the lake. The piles were hemmed in by sharp lines of dense forest on the east and west sides -- some different rock must be exposed in just this one part of the Escarpment, making the rock more fragile.
View of the Escarpment with scree pile

Most amazing to me was the trail. A very clear and very old trail wound its way along the bottom of the scree pile, cutting a path through the lichen. It was just a slightly dished area of rock, but clearly different from the rock around it. It ran around obstacles and trees for a few hundred yards. It didn't start anywhere nor end anywhere. It didn't disappear into the woods -- it just faded away on the rocks. It didn't even cross the whole scree pile. What was it for? Was this perhaps an old trail used by miners at the nearby Carp Lake Mine? Hunter's paths? (It would be a foolish deer that would be caught out in this open rock.) Old trails leading from Cloud Peak, the former site of the Lake of the Clouds overlook?

I spent a long while scrambling up and down the rock, enjoying the views, pondering the trail, and eating a few wild raspberries that were attempting to make a living growing from the rock.

Eventually, I waded back along the shore, making the return trip in a fraction of the time of my original bushwhack. It had been quite a satisfying day for adventuring off-trail.

Looking at the lake from the scree pile

When I got back, I was ready for dinner: freeze-dried spaghetti. I ate outside, enjoying the beautiful evening light and reading the log book. The log was filled with more than the usual array of wacky stories. Folks arriving long after dark -- in the winter -- without winter gear. People bringing wheeled suitcases down from the Escarpment. Folks carting in gallons and gallons of pre-filtered water. So many carried-in firewood bundles. The Lake of the Clouds cabin seems easy to get to, if you have no idea where it's located.

And now for the story of my final mini-adventure of the day:

The adventure of the outhouse! Yes, this is a story about going to the bathroom. Stick with me here. After dinner, I felt nature's call. I went to the cabin's outhouse, and immediately went running back out of it, desperately trying not to vomit. It was horrendous. After a long and hot summer filled with daily visitors, the outhouse was nearly overflowing with both second-hand food and flies

That didn't solve my problem. Let's just say that, #1: This was not something I could easily use a tree for, and #2: I wasn't about to dig a cathole in the rocky soil next to the cabin.

But I did know that there were decent bathrooms not that far away, at the ever-popular Lake of the Clouds overlook. They were merely a 3/4 mile hike away... and also 500+ feet above me.

Well, that pretty much made up my mind for me. I quickly packed a day-pack with toilet paper (just in case!), my trash bag (to be disposed in the parking lot trash cans), my camera (for obvious reasons), and my headlamp (because it was already getting dim).

Lake of the Clouds from the overlook

Then I set out on the trail, moving fast. The hike up the Escarpment isn't easy at the best of times, but I was motivated. I passed a groups of parents and bored-looking kids coming down to check out the sunset from the Big Carp bridge. I whizzed up to the Escarpment Trail intersection and then zipped even faster up the steps to the overlook -- all of which felt rather longer than expected. I streamed along the boardwalk. A few late-day tourists looked on as I practically ran into the bathroom building (which, I was happy to find, were unlocked).

The Lake of the Cloud bathrooms are still outhouses, but of the cold-composting variety found at Mirror Lake. Most importantly, they don't smell! What joy.

A few minutes later, I emerged and dumped my overflowing trash bag into the overflowing bear-proof trash can. That was a few pounds gone!

I took my time on the way back. I enjoyed the late-evening light from the overlook and listened to the conversations of late-evening tourists who were astonished at the beauty before them. "I don't know what I expected, but there are just so many trees!" said one man. I too wondered what he was expecting.

Looking across Lake of the Clouds

Sarah and I had seen an advertisement in the Visitor Center for ranger-guided meteorite viewing tonight. It would happen at this very overlook at 10:30 pm tonight. We agreed that we might meet up for it -- but no requirement. After the hassle of climbing up in the light, I decided I wanted nothing to do with hiking back down in the dark. Alas, Sarah would have to stargaze by herself (if she came at all).

As I enjoyed the scenery, a younger couple wearing backpacks chatted about where their campsite was located. That concerned me a bit, since it was already 8:30 pm. As it turned out, their campsite was just a few hundred yards down the trail -- I saw them setting up as I passed by on my way down the Escarpment again. I also passed the parents and bored kids, now looking more sullen than bored, as they climbed their way back up from the Big Carp bridge.

I made it safely back to the cabin with a little daylight to spare, feeling much better all around. I settled in to bed with a book and enjoyed a light evening breeze as I drifted off to sleep.

Next time: Up the Escarpment... again!

Miles hiked: 3.8 trail + 4.5 dayhikes (!)
Total miles: 23.1

Day 3's main hike in pink, with many day hikes not shown

Friday, September 17, 2021

Porkies Solo 2021, Day 2: Lost Creek to Mirror Lake

Last time: Hot, humid, and bug-free

Lost Creek Yurt, perched high on a hill.

Tuesday August 10, 2021: It was a hot night with no breeze, and I tossed and turned in the stuffy Lost Creek yurt. I woke around dawn feeling bleary, headachey, and totally without an appetite. But, what was there to do? I got dressed, forced down a quick breakfast, wrote in the log, and headed out on the trail.

Today's goal was the Mirror Lake 4 bunk cabin, just under 8 hot and sweaty miles away. I knew from the pre-trip forecasts that there would likely be storms in the late afternoon, but with such an early start I wasn't too worried about them.

I started by retracing yesterday's steps up Lost Lake trail. It was even more beautiful in the morning light, and just as hilly. I started with a long, slow, twisty uphill to Lost Lake (still beautiful and glassy-smooth), followed by a steep downhill to the rocky Big Carp crossing, then another long slow uphill to the intersection with Government Peak trail. Along the way, I met not a single mosquito, a minor miracle even in August.

Trailside fern

Today was even hotter and more humid than yesterday, so I was already drenched with sweat after the first uphill. Once I reached the Government Peak trail, I leaned my backpack against a signpost and stood in the middle of the trail, since there wasn't anywhere better to rest. I nibbled a small snack, but my headache and lack of appetite had stuck around. With a sigh, I strapped on my pack and continued west on the Government Peak trail.

Jim Dufresne's guidebook to the Porcupine Mountains describes the west end of the Government Peak trail as "lightly traveled" with brush so thick that it "obscures the path". Today the trail was a quiet walk through a green tunnel, bumpy but not particularly difficult. The extra traffic from another COVID summer seemed to have kept it clear, and I never had trouble finding my way.

Beaver pond

The air remained hot and stagnant until the trail wound its way around the edge of a large beaver pond. The open pond was oriented in just the right way to let a light breeze blow across the trail. I took off my pack and enjoyed a slight airing-out as I ate some convenient trailside blackberries. According to my map, these grassy ponds were some of the headwaters of the Big Carp river. I enjoyed seeing the river in so many different forms on this trip.

Just beyond the beaver ponds was a backcountry campsite filled with two harried-looking adults (parents? trip leaders?) and a swarm of elementary school-aged kids. The kids had discovered that some large plastic bags fit tightly over the tops of their heads, standing up straight in the air like a chef's hat. One ran up to me and yelled "DO YOU LIKE MY HAIR??!"

Remembering some advice a ranger once gave me, I asked the adults how they were doing, and where they were headed today. "OK... Mirror Lake?" one told me hesitantly. Mirror Lake was about 3 miles away, which seemed like a good plan. I wished them luck, told the kids to stay stylish, and headed on. As I left, I realized that they were the first people I'd seen since early yesterday afternoon -- as busy as the Porkies were this year, not much of the traffic made it out this far.

Government peak, such as it is.

Shortly afterwards, the flat and easy trail started to climb a mountain. Well, a "mountain" in a state whose highest point is below 2000 feet, but still... Government Peak, which gives the trail its name, is definitely steep and the trail goes directly over it.

I was ready for another break by the time I reached the top (heat, humidity, no breeze... you've heard the story). There is no view whatsoever from the "peak," but there are the footings of an old fire tower, two campsites, and lots of convenient logs to sit on. I sat down and forced myself to eat some lunch and drink some water. I spent some time talking to an extremely friendly chipmunk, but it wasn't much for conversation.

I discovered that I had the tiniest sliver of cell service at the top of the mountain, so I sent texts to Sarah and my parents: "Hello from Government Peak! Hot and humid. All is well."

Soooooo... got any spare food, buddy?

After a nice long sit down, I was feeling pretty good. I packed up, said goodbye to my friend the chipmunk, and headed down the wrong trail entirely. Whoops, that led to another campsite! Back on the right trail, I knee-bent my way down another steep section before bottoming out near another lovely beaver pond (also a headwater of the Big Carp). Near that pond sat four youngish hikers. Leaning in to being an informal ranger for the day, I greeted them with a hearty hello and asked where they were headed. They were hiking all the way past Trap Falls and up the Escarpment -- a long hike on a hot day. I told them a bit about the trail ahead (including, sadly, informing them that Government Peak had no views) and wished them well.

The trail became a different kind of tunnel of green after this point, changing from deciduous trees to evergreens. I soon passed a campsite and caught a whiff of a campfire. The campsite was empty, but the recent occupants had left their fire smoldering! Annoyed, and knowing that the northlands had been exceptionally dry -- eventually leading to wildfires in the Boundary Waters and on Isle Royale -- I stopped and put out the fire in a tried-and-true fashion known to Boy Scouts everywhere. (Side note: I was never a boy scout.) A few steps down the trail, I felt a few sprinkles of rain.

I crossed a stagnant and muddy stream that drained a small swamp and continued down the tunnel of green. Without any fanfare, I suddenly arrived at the intersection with the North Mirror Lake trail. I was within a mile of my endpoint for the day! As I turned onto the trail, I passed a highly tattooed solo hiker. I know he was tattooed because he wasn't wearing a shirt (much like many of the hikers I'd met yesterday). As we passed, the sprinkles turned up the intensity a bit. We grinned at each other and said "time for a shower!".

Mirror Lake boardwalk with Goldenrod and Swamp Milkweed

The North Mirror Lake trail crosses a wetland on a long boardwalk just outside of Mirror Lake. I heard some voices ahead and decided to pause before starting down the narrow boardwalk. Two young women appeared around a bend of the boardwalk just as the gentle rain turned into a sudden shower. The women dashed past with a quick "hello", running for the shelter of the trees.

I took my time walking across the boardwalk, enjoying the wildflowers. Wetlands can be gorgeous at any time, and these were even more beautiful as the rain momentarily abated and the sun peeked out.

Asters in the swamp

It didn't last for long though. Just as I exited the boardwalk, the thunder rolled and the rain started up again, quickly becoming a torrential downpour that completely soaked me. The storms predicted for late afternoon had arrived early!

I was a bit worried about the thunder, but the downpour was nice. It was like a pleasant shower -- and after the last day of hot, sweaty, humid hiking, I was ready for a rinse.

Nonetheless, I picked up the pace. There aren't many good places to be outside in a thunderstorm. Dense hemlocks saved me from some of the rain, and as I power-walked past I saw a deer huddling up  just off the trail. It stared at me as if to say "What are you doing out in this rain? I live here!" before finally deciding to bolt deeper into the forest.

As I walked on a wooded bluff above the north side of Mirror Lake, I passed a tent which had been quickly pitched (with rain fly, of course!) right next to the trail. An unhappy-looking pair of backpackers huddled inside.

Trailside waterfall (taken after the rain stopped)

I crossed Trail Creek -- almost there! -- and met a group of six college-aged hikers crossing the other way. They looked  utterly bedraggled in the streaming rain. I tried (and failed) to lighten things up by greeting them with the old hiker's mantra: "Embrace the suck!" They were not amused.

I finally squished up to my goal, the Mirror Lake 4 Bunk Cabin, with the torrential rain still dumping buckets all over me. I spent more time than I should have trying to get the key out of a pack pocket, and then messing with a sticky lock. But at that point, what were a few more gallons of water to me?

The Mirror Lake 4 Bunk was new to me. It is a true log cabin, one of the older park cabins, and beautifully aged. It had been unavailable for our May trip due to repairs. I could see that some of the logs near the foundation had been replaced. As I entered, I could see that the cabin backed up against a huge hill. Some newly installed pipes ran behind the cabin and up the hill. Held down by rocks, they were apparently intended to divert water that streamed down from the huge hill behind the cabin.

Interior of Mirror Lake 4 Bunk -- a true log cabin

The 4 Bunk is also dark. Like many cabins, it has big banks of windows -- but for some reason they face east and west into dense forest. As I looked out, the thunder and lightening returned with a vengeance. Thunder shook the walls and rattled the windows, and a dense wall of rain blotted out most of the daylight.

I found the cabin's lone chair sitting immediately in front of one of the few south-facing windows and dropped my soaked pack on it.

My pack was supposed to be water-resistant. but I had lined it with a large plastic trash bag just in case, and put essential items (like my camping quilt) in their own plastic bags. As I delicately opened the pack, I found that not a single drip of water had even made it onto the liner bag -- victory!

I carefully stripped down and changed into my wonderfully dry spare clothes. I hung up my sopping wet clothes on a convenient clothes line strung between rafters. I carefully removed everything from the pack, and hung the pack itself to drip-dry on one of the many pegs set in to the log walls.

My seat by the "bright" window

I found the cabin's log book in a unique spot: on a small lectern, apparently purpose-built and attached right to the wall. My body was exhausted, and as I opened the log book my exhaustion manifested itself in an intense concentration on the stories in the log book. I sat down in the light of the front window and dove into the log's stories.

In contrast to the Mirror Lake 2 Bunk (aka the "Love Shack") where Sarah and I have stayed in several times, the 4 Bunk is located within sight of the lake -- and right on the trail. As I was intently reading the log book, someone suddenly shouted "Hello! Anybody here?" just outside the cabin. I was so surprised that I nearly fell out of my chair. By some strange reflex I also shouted "Hello!" right back, but there was no response.

Collecting my wits, I looked up in time to see a couple of backpackers racing away down the trail. They must have been looking for a shelter in the still-streaming rain, but for some strange reason they decided to yell in the cabin's side window rather than coming up to the front window (where they would have seen me sitting). Deciding nobody was there, they left quickly.

As I read, I dried off, and as I dried slowly become chilled (in addition to feeling headachy, tired, and appetiteless). I curled up on one of the bunks under my quilt, intending to read and warm up. Instead it became an unintended nap, from which I woke up an hour later, feeling much better.

Mirror Lake 4 bunk, after the rain

It was still raining, but much more lightly, and the thunder had stopped. Feeling newly energized, I suited up in rain gear and headed outside. My first goal was to filter some water. I headed to Trail Creek, which is clearer and easier to reach than the lake itself. Along the way, I passed the 8 Bunk cabin and noticed a huge pile of used freeze-dried meal bags sitting in its fire pit. Not only do those bags not burn, but they would easily attract bears and other wildlife. I hoped it was just temporary storage.

The creek itself wasn't flowing as well as I'd hoped, but it was good enough. As I grabbed water in my "dirty" bag, several groups trooped past, all of them looking bedraggled and unhappy. There isn't much more misery for a backpacker than having to take down your campsite in the rain, walk in the rain, and then set up again in the rain. Everything will be soaked for days.

Tree growing on tree

Once I'd returned to the cabin and filtered the water (with the filter working perfectly fine), the rain finally stopped and even a bit of sun peeked through the clouds. I saw some more groups hiking past the cabin, including the big group of young kids, all in high spirits (but without fancy headwear any longer).

I grabbed my camera and took a walk around the cabin area. The "4 Bunk Mountain" that backs up right behind the cabin looked enticing, so I climbed it. There weren't many good sights, but I did enjoy wandering around in the beautiful post-rain woods.

I eventually headed back to the cabin and set myself up with the log book by the window again. I kept the main cabin door open for more light and a better breeze, but left the screen door closed. As I read, I head a slight scritch-scratching coming from the door. I leaned over to look, and found a chipmunk staring back at me from inside the cabin! It squeaked and ran for the door. It was able to slip right under the screen door and back to its home in the brush in front of the cabin. I stuffed the crack under the door with life preservers (for the cabin's row boat) in hopes that they would keep the chipmunk out.

A small shoulder of 4-Bunk Mountain

Once the sun had dried things even more, I moved outside to the convenient benches surrounding the cabin's fire pit. The storms had washed out some of the heat and humidity, and left behind a pleasant breeze. I continued reading the log book and my own Kindle, and eventually made and ate dinner outside as well (freeze-dried macaroni and cheese -- first half of a pack, and then the second half too -- my appetite was back!).

As I sat back digesting, a fellow and his young daughter walked up to the cabin. Once they introduced themselves, I recognized Zach and Stella from the most recent entry in the log book: They'd been here last night! They had moved to the 2 Bunk due to some confusion about not being able to stay in a cabin for more than one night (you can!).

Today, they'd had some luck fishing and now were looking to borrow some cooking oil that had been left in the cabin -- and also to share their fish! I gladly got out the cooking oil (one of several bottles left in the cupboards by past renters) but explained that I'd already eaten an enormous amount of carbs and cheese and had no space left. We ended up sitting and chatting for a good long while, about their trip so far, the cabins, the lake, and the Porkies as a whole. It was the first time in more than a day that I'd had an interaction lasting laster longer than a minute.

Sunset on Mirror Lake

As dusk started to fall, Zach and Stella headed back to their cabin to cook the fish. I wandered down to the shore. The sky had fully cleared -- in fact, it had cleared too much, and there was hardly a sunset to speak of! Good sunsets require clouds. I did notice a ray of sunlight reflecting off something in the distant hills, and realized it was the Summit Peak viewing tower. I never realized that it could be seen from Mirror Lake, and I enjoyed imagining people up on top of the tower squinting and trying to make me out, standing on the shore of the lake.

As I stood enjoying the silent evening, an enormous crash echoed across the lake: A tree falling in the woods. As I tried to locate where it had happened, a second tree crashed down to the ground as well. Those trees fell in the woods, but somebody was around to hear them.

Feeling better than I had in 24 hours, I went back to the cabin and settled in for the night with a water bottle and a book.

Miles hiked: 7.7 trail + 1 dayhike
Total miles: 14.8

Day 2's hike in green

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Porkies Solo 2021, Day 1: Introduction and Government Peak trailhead to Lost Creek

This is the first of 4 blog posts about my 2021 solo backpacking trip to the Porcupine Mountains. A link to the next installment is at the bottom of the post.

Trap falls

Monday August 9, 2021: Sarah pulled up next to the Government Peak trailhead as we gawked at the cars parked up and down both sides of M-107. I grabbed my backpack, said goodbye, and headed off into the woods.

Six months earlier, in the middle of the 3rd COVID Semester From Hell, Sarah and I stared in disbelief and disappointment at my laptop screen. It displayed the message "We're sorry, but that site is already in somebody else's cart." We had been dreaming of an end-of-summer camping trip to Bay View Campground, a gorgeous and pine-shaded National Forest campground right on Lake Superior at the east end of the Upper Peninsula. You can reserve sites at Bay View 6 months in advance, and we were ready -- down to the exact second -- but we had lost out. Just our favorite site? No, all of the sites. Looking ahead to the second summer of the pandemic, everyone wanted to be camping.

What could we do? I proposed a second backpacking trip (an end-of-summer capstone to our May Porkies trip). Sarah's job involves a lot of work near the end of summer, so she didn't want to be totally offline. Instead, we compromised: I would go on a solo backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains while she stayed nearby at a cabin-motel right on the shores of Lake Superior.

The Porkies weren't quite as full as Bay View, and so I was able to put together a plan: A 4-day solo loop through the east end of the park, covering some of the last few trails that I'd never hiked, and staying in three new backcountry cabins that I'd never visited.

Start of trip photo by The Lovely Sarah

Six months later, that brought us to the shoulder of M-107 at the Government Peak trailhead on a hot and humid August day. The Porkies had been overwhelmed by an onslaught of tourists in Summer 2021, and day hikers were swarming this normally quiet trailhead.

Sarah waved and drove off, heading towards the Sunshine Motel. I checked my straps once more and headed up the Government Peak trail.

The first few tenths of a mile on the Government Peak trail are not kind. They follow an ancient shoreline of Lake Superior -- all red rounded cobbles, and all uphill. In the hot, humid, stagnant air, I was drenched in sweat before I hit the half mile mark.

Taking a cool-down selfie at the top of the hill

It was already mid-afternoon, and the early birds were already returning from their dayhikes. I met group after group coming down the trail, many of them walking without shirts in the heat and humidity.

Government Peak trail eventually levels off as it heads through beautiful stands of ancient hemlocks. By the time I reached the bridge over the Big Carp river, I was ready for any excuse to rest. Luckily, I had my Big Fancy Camera ready.

Brush-choked Big Carp River

My big DSLR is heavy, and I made our May backpacking trip a bit easier by leaving its 3 pounds of weight at home and using only my phone for photos. I decided to make this solo trip a photo trip, bringing along the camera and being willing to stop and get to know places along the trail a bit more than usual.

The Big Carp varies a lot along its length. This is the river that form Lake of the Clouds. Below the lake, it's all rapids and waterfalls. Above the lake, where I was crossing the river, it's a slow, marshy, and brush-choked.

After the Big Carp bridge, the trail cuts inland for a while, before joining up next to an upper reach of the Big Carp. It was longer a marshy, weed-choked river -- here it felt like a rock-strewn mountain stream. As with the lower reaches of the Big Carp, this stretch of the river is practically made of rapids and waterfalls. Several beautiful backcountry campsites sit right next to it.

Shady and rocky Big Carp

Soon, I could hear a real waterfall. It appeared around a short bend: Trap Falls, one of the prettiest of Porkies waterfalls. The falls are situated in a secluded valley, with a large pool below the falls that would have been perfect to swim in on this muggy day. Unusually, my trip didn't even get near Lake Superior, so I hadn't brought a swimsuit.

Trap Falls

After meeting so many people coming down the trail, I was surprised to be totally alone at the falls. I spent half of an hour cavorting around the falls, taking the kind of photos that you really do need a (mildly) fancy camera to take. As I did, I cooled down in the spray and the darkness of the river gorge until I was refreshed. Trap Falls is truly a magical place, in a park filled with magical places.

Smaller falls above Trap Falls.

After I was thoroughly waterfall-photoed-out, I slowly packed up and headed south again on the Government Peak trail. This was now new trail for me -- I'd last visited Trap Falls with my friend Kyle on our 2016 bushwhacking trip, but we had turned around and returned to the trailhead after visiting the falls.

Beyond Trap Falls, the trail was a walk through a green tunnel. Just a short distance later, I reached the unremarkable intersection with Lost Lake trail. Here Government Peak trail turns sharply west, and Lost Lake splits off to the south. I took the south split.

Lost Lake trail is a little-traveled 3.4 mile connector between nowhere and nothing. That might be a little harsh, but it does connect South Boundary Road near the White Pine Extension outpost campground to the just-as-little-traveled western end of Government Peak trail. Its main features are the Lost Creek yurt and Lost Lake itself. Besides the yurt, there is exactly one campsite along the trail's entire length.

Big Carp: Not so big, but plenty rocky.

What the Lost Lake trail does have is hills. The first bit past the intersection was relatively flat, although overgrown, brushy, narrow, and constantly winding over or around every bump. Soon it began a long descent, bottoming out at a small, rocky creek: yet another crossing of the Big Carp river on its spiral-shaped trip through the park. Beyond the Big Carp, the trail started a Big Climb right out of the Big Carp's valley. The uphill was relentless, and once again I was a sweat-drenched out-of-breath mess after just a few minutes. I paused many times on the uphill, sometimes pretending to look for thimbleberries in case anyone saw me (nobody saw, and I didn't find any berries either).

At long last, I topped out and quickly found the campsite at Lost Lake. I took another break here and pushed through the brushy shoreline to try to get a look at the lake. Lost Lake was indeed beautiful, silent, and calm. It is lost deep in a little-visited corner of the park and would be a lovely place to spend a day, but don't expect to be able to take a swim in it.

Lost Lake -- yes, it's back there beyond the brush!

The trail took me onward, through another long downhill with many bumps, twists, and turns. Soon the trail started following a lovely creek that burbled through a rocky bed. This was Lost Creek, for which the yurt is named.

And then there it was: A sign pointing towards the yurt! ... Except that I couldn't see the yurt at all. I followed the sign's arrow along a faint path, which dove down into the creek's surprisingly deep valley. I crossed the creek (which was barely running) and climbed a steep red-earth bluff. I could just barely see the yurt now, perched ominously at the edge of the bluff.

Lost Creek yurt has a lovely location. Perched high above the creek, the yurt commands a view of the rocky and bumpy forest below it. Perched atop its own platform raised may feet in the air on posts, the yurt also gives a feeling of floating on air. A Mongolian Cloud House, indeed!

I climbed up to the yurt and paused, catching my breath again. The hills, hot weather, and humidity had really gotten to me on this hike. I could start to feel the creeping headache and lack of appetite that indicate the beginning of heat exhaustion.

Lost Creek yurt. Note the awkward window arrangements and the "buck pole" on the right.

Inside the yurt, things were pretty much the same as all other Porkies cabins: Two bunk beds, a wood stove, a table and some chairs. The main difference, besides the circular shape, was that there were no cupboards -- that was replaced by a bear-proof metal box outside.

Just like outside, the air inside the yurt was hot, humid, and absolutely still. My first goal was to figure out how to open the windows! The yurt's windows are screens that are built in to its canvas sides. They are covered on the outside by clear plastic "storm windows" that can, in principle, be rolled up to let in a breeze. With the yurt perched high up on posts, there was no way to reach the storm windows by hand. The clever park rangers had installed some sort of pulleys and cords that should have made it easy to pull the storm windows up from ground level, except that two of the three pulleys had long since broken. Even for the window that did have a working pulley, the cord only pulled up the center -- leaving most of the flexible clear plastic draped over the screen on either side. It took a while, but I figured out ways to get each of the storm windows rolled at least half way up. One of them involved tying a line off to a mysterious structure of 4x4's that looked suspiciously like a buck pole.

My next goal was water. The only water source in easy reach was Lost Creek, which was down a steep hill and barely trickling through its rocky bed. The creek is exceedingly picturesque, but not a very reliable water supply.

I took my gravity filter's dirty bag down and swiped it through a few puddles, trying to avoid the minnows and frogs hanging out there. I had to make several trips and leave the water to settle in a bucket, before I could strain out the miscellaneous "organic matter" that would have clogged the filter.

Quiet Lost Creek

As the water filtered, I unpacked, taking it slow to avoid getting overheated. When the water was done, I decided I should do an "integrity check" on the filter. This involves blowing through it backwards using one of the filter tubes to make sure the filter is still working correctly. A properly functioning filter shouldn't let any air through.

As I blew through the tube, water, then air, started bubbling out the other side! I'll admit, I freaked out for a moment. Having a non-functional filter would basically end my trip. What was happening? How had this happened?

Then I remembered the wise advice that apply to most crises in the woods: Sit down, take a deep breath, and take stock of your options before making any rash decisions.

First thought: How urgent is this? I still had more than a liter of good water in my pack's reservoir, so I could make it through the night. No need to do anything immediate.

Second thought: Without water, I can't continue after tonight. Can I get out of the woods tomorrow morning? I checked my map and saw that the South Boundary Road was just a mile farther down the trail. Should I wake up, hike out, try to hitch a ride to Sarah's motel, and show up at her door? If the filter was truly broken, that was the only safe option.

Third thought: Hey, didn't I pack a few chlorine tablets as a backup? Chlorine tablets can make water safe to drink in a pinch and are incredibly lightweight. I found them but I'd only packed a few. I realized that I would boil most of the water I needed for meals anyhow. Boiling makes water safe to drink, so all I needed was drinking water. Doing a quick tally, I figured that I could probably get by if I used those tablets only for unboiled drinking water. I started chlorine-treating a few liters of water right away, since they take hours to fully work.

Finally, I decided to take a careful look at the filter again. Attached inside the filter's storage bag was a piece of paper showing how to check the filter's integrity. It was entirely pictures -- no text at all -- and it took me a while to make out the details. Hm, wait, I didn't remember the integrity check quite right. There was a step before blowing through the filter backwards. First, back-flush a small amount of water... I hadn't done that. I picked up the filter, back-flushed, and blew through the hose again. No air bubbles! I tried again, just to be sure. Still good! My bad result had come from doing the check wrong, not from a truly broken filter.

In the end, my trip was saved by sitting down, not panicking, and carefully reading instructions. Total time from start of freak-out to successful fix: 15 minutes.

Old flagged route sign

With that crisis fixed, I set out to explore my surroundings a bit more. Lost Creek yurt is, sadly, built in one of the few logged-out areas of the Porkies. Its surrounding forest is lovely, but clearly second growth. One side of the yurt was bordered by the steep bluff leading down to Lost Creek. Two other sides were high hills or a deep ravine. The fourth option -- east -- took me to the outhouse. But beyond the outhouse... that looked a lot like a wide, straight, and grassy path. I followed it.

Sure enough, I was following an overgrown two-track. Not far down it, I found an old wooden signpost with an arrow labeled "Flagged route". It was marked with a black diamond -- a difficult ski trail. The flagged route (sadly now defunct) was once a long and winding route that allowed truly adventurous skiers and snowshoers to reach the Lost Creek yurt in winter. It was 6 miles long and barely used -- you truly had to be ready to spend a night in the winter woods if you used it, especially since winter days in the Porkies usually have only 8 or 9 hours of daylight. I imagine that all of those features are why the park decided it would be wise to stop renting the Lost Creek yurt in winter.

The road continued while the flagged route turned left and disappeared into the undergrowth. I continued straight on the road. I quickly came to a gate marked with a "no snowmobiles" sign. Just beyond it was the South Boundary road! I'd found it in what felt like half a mile, but not by following the Lost Lake trail. This must have been a road that allowed rangers access to the yurt in off seasons.

Yet another lovely view of the Big Carp river.

I hiked slowly back, enjoying the silent woods. At the yurt, a sign specifically warned against preparing food indoors. Perhaps yurts aren't as bearproof as cabins? I moved out to the conveniently located picnic table to boil some water and brought the yurt's log book with me.

Cabin log books are always interesting to read, and Lost Creek yurt's was no exception. Being so close to the road, it's a destination for first-time backpackers. The pages were filled with awe at the forest, the beauty of Lost Creek and its gorge, and gorgeous fall colors. It was also filled with complaints about bugs! I had been incredibly lucky and felt no bugs on me yet, despite the hot weather and recent rain.

Lost Creek is also a destination for people who haven't yet realized that they should be using a backpack. Log after log included details of the clever ways people tried to haul their stuff in to the yurt. Wagons were especially popular, as were wheeled luggage and even a wheeled cooler. Inevitably these all failed to make it over the rough trail, and the unfortunate visitors ended up making multiple trips back and forth, carrying items in by hand. "Learn from our mistakes!" was written on more than one page.

A surprising number of logs casually mentioned the 5, 6, or more people who stayed in the yurt. It's a 4 bunk yurt, and there is definitely no room for any more people. The state park specifically forbids camping in a yurt's "yard", too.

Wild cranberries

One thing that was totally missing from the logs was any mention of mice. Porkies cabins typically have a healthy mouse population living in their walls, but yurts are tighter and leave no space for mice to hang around. I was glad to see that, for once, I didn't have to worry about the furry little pests.

Dinner was freeze-dried lasagna. I forced myself to eat a full bag. I didn't really want to eat anything, but I knew that part of getting out from under heat exhaustion was to stay hydrated and well-fed.

As I ate, I stopped to think through my day's hike and write down a few notes. Despite the miserably hot and humid weather, it had truly been an exceptional hike. The combination of Government Peak trail and Lost Lake trail crosses the park from north to south, showcasing almost everything the park has to offer. It is rugged and hilly, but worth the effort. I'd do the hike again in a heartbeat.

I spent the rest of the evening reading and relaxing inside the yurt. The forest was silent -- not even a breeze -- except for the occasional "who cooks for you?" of a barred owl. The yurt was just as hot inside as outside, so I had trouble getting to sleep in the stagnant air and ended up reading deep into the night.

You can find a list of all of my backpacking posts in the adventure index.

Miles hiked: 5.1 trail + 1 dayhike
Total miles: 6.1

Day 1's hike in yellow, plus a day hike to the boundary road

Friday, July 30, 2021

Porcupine Mountains 2021, Day 8: Lily Pond to Summit Peak

 Last time: Lily Pond cabin, at last!

Lily Pond in the morning sun

Saturday May 29, 2021:
Our last day of our longest backpacking trip dawned... well, I don't know how it dawned, because I slept through it! We slept in longer and longer each day, enjoying a slow slide into relaxation and laziness after a seemingly unending school year.

Once we were awake and making tea, however, I saw that it was a sunny, clear, and cool morning. Sarah and I took our tea down to the bridge and enjoyed the beautiful view on a beautiful morning in the most beautiful place I know.

In addition to being beautiful, it was cold. We had to wear all of our layers, and Sarah wrapped herself in my quilt.

Sarah, cozied up in my quilt!

As we sat, we started to do what all backpackers eventually do: Daydream about food. We were both so excited for a big, greasy hamburger. We agree that fries would be a good side, but onion rings would be the best. We had our eyes set on getting all this delicious greasy food from the old-fashioned drive-in we'd seen just outside of Baraga.

With that in mind, we packed up our packs, closed and latched the shutters, and departed on the last leg of our trip. Lily Pond cabin was definitely a new favorite, and we agreed that we would return there on our next Porkies trip. We spent quite a bit of the next few miles discussing what that trip might look like, and how we could arrange for a rest day at Lily Pond.

We crossed the Lily Pond bridge one last time, heading north on the Little Carp River trail. This segment of the trail was flat, well-maintained, and pretty dry. It took hardly any time at all to reach the intersection with the Beaver Creek trail, but by that point the day had already warmed up enough that we had to stop and take off some layers.

Goodbye Lily Pond cabin, you were one of our favorites!

We turned on to Beaver Creek trail, a new segment for us. This is one of several short trails that surround Summit Peak and make popular day hikes. The trail was well maintained as it crossed a large swampy area on board walks. Soon the boardwalks became a bridge, and we crossed the Little Carp River one last time at a small and picturesque beaver pond.

Immediately after the bridge, the trail stared to climb the shoulders of Summit Peak. The bugs came out and didn't let up, and mud followed the same pattern.

Long boardwalk at Beaver Creek

We met may groups of day hikers coming from Summit Peak, and every one of them commented on our bug nets with envy.

Beaver Creek trail was quite nice, running (sometimes) near its namesake creek, other times along low bluffs or other interesting bits of topography. But after the beaver pond, it was mostly a walk through a green tunnel, and we were ready to be done with it. The mud kept increasing, as did the bugs, as we trudged onwards.

Little Carp River and beaver marsh.

After a mile or two, we came out of the woods at the Summit Peak parking area. The parking lot was almost completely full on this holiday weekend. We only saw two open spots, and several cars coming in.

We had not parked here, but that's where the trail took us, and so we had to walk another mile or so along the shoulder of Summit Peak Road in order to get to the South Mirror Lake trailhead. As we did, a steady stream of cars came up the road, surely over-filling up the parking lot.

The road walk was hot, buggy, and unpleasant, but we had made it this far, and so we made it work. When we finally arrived at the car, the South Mirror Lake trailhead's parking lot was almost completely empty. We made it!

Our official exit from the wilderness.

We got in the car, stopped at the Visitor's Center to drop off our keys, and then headed east towards Baraga with dreams of hamburgers and onion rings dancing in our heads.

An hour later, we arrived in Baraga and knew immediately that something was terribly wrong: There were no cars at the drive-in. We pulled in and saw the hand-scrawled sign: "Closed today". Our dreams were dashed, our hopes crushed, our taste buds left tasteless!

We conferred, got out our last meat sticks, and decided to continue on for another hour and a half to Marquette, which certainly had some greasy food options to satisfy two just-out-of-the-woods backpackers.

As I drove, Sarah worked her smartphone magic and discovered the "Burger Bus", Marquette's hottest new food truck... er, bus. 

The bus was exactly where it claimed to be, so we put in an order and enjoyed a quarter hour walking around a Marquette residential district. With fresh burgers obtained, we drove out to Presque Isle Park (yes, the same name as the campground in the Porkies -- those French voyageurs did not have a lot of creativity in their naming of things), purchased some pops, and settled in at a picnic table.

Sarah with the best burgers (and fries, and pop) ever. At least since our last backpacking trip.

There, surrounded by Lake Superior's beauty (and seagulls), we ate the best burgers in the world. At least I think so -- you should never trust the food judgment of a backpacker who's just come out of the woods after a long trip. The burgers and fries really did hit the spot, though.

Satiated and happy, we got back in the car and drove to Sarah's parents' house in Newberry. We got in, immediately took showers (also the best in the world), and then walked down the street to the nearest ice cream shop (also also the best in the world). It was glorious.

We slept in a strangely soft and comfortable bed. The next day, we finished the 5 hour drive back home.

Yep, went for the bad pun again.

Final reflections: This was the longest backpacking trip we've yet done, and one of the few that we've done in the spring. Spring in the UP is a fickle thing -- it lasts late into May, and can swing from 80's and humid one day to 40's and rainy the next. In fact, that's exactly what happened at the start of our trip. The only thing we didn't experience on this trip was snow, but it was well within the realm of the possible.

Sarah and I agreed that 8 days was just a hair too long for us. We would have been perfectly happy to leave the woods on the 7th day, although some of that may have been because of the disappointment that was Greenstone Falls cabin. We did end on a very high note, though: Lily Pond was fantastic.

After a full year of COVID-related disappointments, we had needed a way to get out and escape from the world for a bit. The trip succeeded wonderfully at disconnecting us from a world gone crazy. I didn't miss social media, news, or email a single bit while in the woods, and I dreaded reconnecting with them when we came out. (I put off checking social media for several extra days, in fact, and eventually dropped one platform entirely after realizing just how little value it brought to my life.)

Last, but not least, I was reminded (not for the first time) how much I enjoy backpacking with Sarah. We work well together (despite occasional mice-related freakouts), have similar tolerances for terrain and distance, and enjoy silence and solitude that we can still somehow find together.

That said, next up on my agenda is a return to the Porkies -- a solo photo trip. Watch for the report!

You can also return to the Introduction to this series.

The final trip: Magenta to green to yellow to blue to red to orange to cyan.

Miles hiked: 3.3

Total miles: 34.5

Gear reviews: Way back at the beginning, I mentioned that I had done some unusual gear upgrades. While I wove my "reviews" into many of the blog posts, here are the key points, all together in one place:

Superior Wilderness Designs Rugged Long Haul 50 pack: As I said before, this ultralight internal-frame backpack is simple, streamlined, lightweight, and very well designed. It is clearly designed by long-haul backpackers, for long-haul backpackers. The pack does everything I want it to and doesn't do what I don't. It avoids the unnecessary extra frills that you only really understand after (not) using them for many trips in a row. It's just as comfortable as my old pack, too, with padding in just the right spots (and nowhere else). I do have a few complaints, but nothing that would make me go back to an older, heavier pack. The roll-top closure took some time to get used to, and was sometimes hard to seal securely enough. I eventually learned to pack the pack "wider" which made this a bit easier. With 8 days of food and gear, I was probably at the high end of its capacity. Also, the small hole that lets my water bladder's tube escape from the pack is placed bizarrely low, with a rain-protective overhang that forces the tube to point downward. It took me quite a while to figure out how to make it work. Most packs place this "escape" high enough so that a water tube can come out over your shoulder. I could only get it to work by running the tube under my arm and back up to my shoulder strap. In the end, it worked, but I sometimes wonder if there was a mistake.

Enlightened Equipment Revelation down quilt: Camping quilts truly are a revelation for me, and this one was so nice and quite lightweight. I bought it with the intent of using it for summer camping and brought it (instead of a warmer sleeping bag) almost on a whim, knowing that we might be at the edge of its warmth rating some nights. Except for the one night when I couldn't keep a fire going, it was cozy and snug. The best part was that as a side-sleeper toss-and-turner, I was comfortable in a way that I've never been in a mummy bag. If that's your situation, I encourage you to consider a quilt. Plus, Sarah loved wrapping up in the quilt on chilly mornings and evenings.

Altra Lone Peak lightweight trail running shoes: Another big win. The shoes performed exactly as promised: Lightweight and quick-drying. They grip all kinds of surfaces just as well as boots (better than some), and their convenience in crossing mud and rivers was astonishing. They offer essentially no ankle support, but that's not a problem for me. They are also not as rigid as boots, even though the shoe does feature a rock splint, so on uneven terrain my feet could "feel" the ground a bit more than I'm used to. I am definitely going to stick with trail runners for future trips. The main downside for me is that they wear out much faster than boots. After about 300 miles of hiking on these shoes, they are losing support and footbed cushion. They'll soon get downgraded to everyday walking and around-town use.

Leaving my Big Fancy Camera at home and using a Google Pixel 5 phone instead: A big, but situational, win. For the most part, the huge weight savings (3 pounds!) outweighed any concerns. The battery lasted a remarkably long time -- I only recharged the phone from a power pack once, and even then it wasn't fully discharged. The camera was easy to use and always in my pocket. With no need to hang a heavy DSLR around my neck or have to pull it out of the pack, I was more comfortable and also more likely to actually take photos (rather than deciding I didn't want to stop and haul the camera out of my pack). There were only a few times I felt the lack of my big DSLR. Taking photos of waterfalls was the worst: Phones just don't have the level of control necessary. In other circumstances with tricky lighting, such as sun-speckled views from underneath dense foliage, the phone tried very hard to do clever stuff that ended up looking overly-edited instead (and this from a Google phone, famous for their Clever Photo Stuff). I'd rather have the manual controls of a DSLR in those cases. Finally, there was absolutely no chance to do real star trails or Milky Way photos, even though the phone claims to have such a mode. In the end, I'll have to evaluate each trip for whether it is to be a photo trip or not. This trip was not a photo trip, and I quickly got into the mode of just doing "snapshots" rather than taking a lot of time to carefully seek out and compose photos. But my next trip -- coming up soon! -- will definitely involve the Big Camera o' Doom.

Thanks for reading! You can go back to the beginning of my Porkies 2021 series, or check out all of my adventures.