Friday, June 25, 2021

Porcupine Mountains 2021, Day 1: Summit Peak to Mirror Lake

 All backpacking posts - Last time: Intro, planning, and a lot of gear updates

Mirror Lake, living up to its name

Saturday May 22, 2021: After a quick breakfast and goodbyes with Sarah's parents, we set out for the Porkies. The weather was hot and humid, but the miles passed easily under clear skies.

As we drove through Baraga, Sarah noticed an old-fashioned drive-in restaurant along the side of the road. We immediately decided it would be our first meal on our return trip. From long experience we knew we would be ravenous for a greasy burger (or, to be fair, anything that wasn't freeze-dried).

Soon the hunch-backed profile of the Porcupine Mountains came into view -- the very shape that gave the mountains their names. We arrived at the Visitor's Center around 2 pm, where a helpful ranger and her very new intern got me my keys and permits. When I asked how the trails were looking, the ranger answered "Oh, there's mud, but it's nowhere near as bad as it could be. The bugs, on the other hand...". Oh boy.

Elegant hemlocks hiding untold swarms of mosquitoes

Our starting point, Summit Peak, was half way around the park on the South Boundary Road. Just before the Lost Creek Outpost campground, I saw a scruffy-looking backpacker trying to hitch a ride. Two cars ahead of us both slowed for a moment, then drove on. I slowed and glanced at Sarah -- we had been incredibly careful in the year of COVID, and picking up a random dude on the road was never high on our list. On the other hand, a backpacker stuck in the wrong place was a major problem. I pulled over.

Thus we met Rick, a backpacker from downstate Michigan who was visiting his brother's favorite place for the first time -- to spread the brother's ashes. The heat and bugs had built beyond Rick's tolerance in the last few days, and together they drove Rick to make a run for civilization. Unfortunately, he had ditched at about the farthest point of his hike, and so he was trying to hitchhike back to his truck.

We rearranged things carefully, rolled down all the windows, and invited Rick and his pack into our car. Rick was a talkative and funny guy, and we enjoyed learning about him and his trip as we zipped along the boundary road. At the Little Carp River road, we made sure he had keys for his truck, and then headed out towards our final goal: Summit Peak.

Summit peak road was long and winding as we climbed up to Michigan's third highest point. We started by walking the well-tended boardwalk up to the Summit Peak observation tower. Just before we left, I thought about Rick and grabbed our head nets. We took 5 steps before putting them on. The mosquitoes practically threw themselves at us. Passing hikers looked at our nets with undisguised longing.

Summit Peak selfie featuring the UP's latest fashion craze: bug nets

Summit Peak itself isn't that inspiring. We climbed the tower, surveyed the green bumpy bits, squinted and imagined we might actually be able to see Lake Superior, and enjoyed the breeze that kept bugs off of us. Then we climbed back down, got in the car, and drove to the South Mirror Lake trailhead.

We parked next to a large-ish trailer -- the kind you'd expect someone to store their power tools in. I double-checked the last few packing items, such as putting the car keys into an extremely secure case that will never escape my backpack no matter what. Then we hitched up our packs and headed down the trail. Our adventure began!

The South Mirror Lake trail starts out as a two-track road that rangers use in the off season. It also starts by climbing a shoulder of Summit Peak, which means a half-mile of long slow uphill. After that point, it narrows into a regular single-track hiking trail. The heat, humidity, and bugs were an unpleasant combination as we climbed that first hill. There may have been a brief bout of tears, but we got through it.

Mirror Lake Truck Trail

As we progressed, the mud seemed worse that I'd expected. Some of the mud bogs looked just like the ones you'd find on two-tracks in the Keweenaw backcountry. In many places, I could see clear tire tracks We slowly realized that the trail had actually been expanded into a two-track road for its entire length, all the way to Mirror Lake. Trucks had been hauling up and down it for a while, tearing up the trail and making some truly stupendous mud bogs. In a few places, the "road" briefly separated from the trail and took a less rocky route through a newly cleared cut.

This disconcerting situation took away from our enjoyment of the gorgeous old growth forest and rugged wilderness all around us, but in the end the wilderness won. When we reached the bridge that crosses the Little Carp River's outlet at Mirror Lake, we might have been hot, sweaty, muddy, and buggy, but we were also feeling the joy of being in a remote and beautiful place.

Bridge over flat, very untroubled water

Across the bridge, we quickly found a spur that led us to our cabin for the night, nestled in a small hollow in the hills. The Mirror Lake 2-Bunk, aka the "Love Shack", is well named: Several newlyweds had honeymooned here already this year and left breathless stories in the cabin's log book.

The 2-bunk is a tiny cabin, originally a small single-room ranger cabin. It was expanded with a tiny second room that holds a table and wood stove. The single bunk bed's top bunk is so close to the ceiling that many logs recorded scores: "Head 0, Ceiling 3" read one. Others recommended taking the rock-hard mattress down and laying it on the floor.

Mirror Lake 2-bunk. The fire pit is, strangely, behind this photo -- nowhere near the bench.

Before we settled in, we managed some camp chores. The log book recommended getting water not from the lake (which, despite its mirror-like surface, provides water that is mucky and hard to filter) but from Trail Creek, which enters at the north end of the lake. "It's a long hike, but worth it!" one log promised.

The creek was probably 1/3 of a mile from our cabin. We passed another cabin, the Mirror Lake 4-Bunk, which was surrounded by yellow tape. Its yard was filled with cut wood and sawhorses. The cabin was getting a thorough remodel, both inside and out, which probably explains why the trail was expanded into a rough road.

Next on our tour, we passed the Palace-Potty, a "cold composting" outhouse -- basically an outhouse built on stilts above a screened-in above-ground "pit" where all of the... waste... goes. Sounds disgusting? It's not -- something about this open-air process makes the entire thing smell-free and way better than any pit toilet. I left Sarah to enjoy its pleasures and continued on to Trail Creek.

Along the way, I passed by the Mirror Lake 8-Bunk, the oldest cabin in the park and a popular hunting lodge. In its front yard was a tiny human -- 3 or 4 years old at most -- wearing a tiny bug net, and carefully pounding a rock against a tree stump. There were no larger humans in sight. The tiny human greeted me and asked what I was doing. "Going to get water," I answered. "That's great! During the day, we get water at the creek, but at night we get water from the lake," came the tiny answer, which then continued into some detail about the mechanics of gathering water. I thanked my tiny guide and continued along to the creek, which was just a few steps past the cabin. It lived up to its promise of easy water, and was quite picturesque to boot.

Trail Creek, picturesque and convenient water source

Back at the 2-bunk, we performed another cabin ritual: Stashing all of our food in pots and pans with tight-fitting lids. Porkies cabins are notorious mice-holes, and we didn't want to give any furry bandits a chance to steal our food. The log book confirmed that the 2-bunk was host to a whole family of mice.

With chores handled, we took advantage of one of the perks of cabin life: It comes with a canoe! With a beautiful and calm day like this, we weren't going to let the chance to tool around Mirror Lake pass us by (unlike our previous stay at the 2-bunk, where we had been too exhausted to do anything but nap). 

There's an eagle waaaaaaay up ahead on one of those trees

Sarah and I are far from expert canoeists, but this was also not quite our first canoe rodeo. We managed to launch the canoe with a minimum of trouble and no tipping over (victory!). As we coasted along the west end of the lake, a bald eagle flew over us and perched atop a tall pine at the other end of the lake. We slowly turned and paddled our way over towards its perch, where it sat supremely unconcerned about us. We sat silently watching the majestic scavenger, until the wind started to push us back in to shore. We slowly rotated again and, after a few more maneuvers, made it back "home" safely.

With that excitement behind us, we settled in for dinner (freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff, meh) and some reading time. The air remained hot and humid long into the evening, which stretched on quite late, this far north and this close to the Summer Solstice.

Two-bunk window with drying socks

I climbed up into the top bunk and tried to read, but pretty soon I had to start keeping score for myself -- and the ceiling had a big head start. Plus, the air was even hotter up near the ceiling. After trying a few different positions, I gave up and followed the log book's advice: I hauled the rock-hard mattress down to the floor and laid out there.

The light slowly faded as we lay reading in the sweltering cabin. Suddenly, a bucket of ball bearings fell onto the cabin's metal roof! Or at least, that's what it sounded like. It was rain, accompanied by thunder and lightening and a howling wind. The temperature dropped precipitously as a dramatic thunderstorm rolled in, bringing cooler weather along with it. We turned in and tried to sleep as the storm continued to drop ball-bearing-buckets of rain on our roof all night.

Next time: It's all downhill from here!All backpacking posts

View from the 2-bunk's front yard.

Miles hiked: 3 trail + 1 (two trips to the potty-palace)

Total miles: 4

Notable animals: Bald eagle and a tiny human

Day 1's hike in pink (not shown: day hikes to the potty-palace)

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Porcupine Mountains 2021: Intro, Planning, and Travel

This is the first of 9 (!) blog posts about our 2021 Porcupine Mountains trip.
There is a complete list of episodes at the bottom of this post, or see the full adventure index.

Lily Pond

Two years without a backpacking trip! I never imagined that my 2019 solo trip to Isle Royale would be my last backpacking trip for nearly two years. We had planned a 2020 backpacking trip with friends, but it was one of (many) plans canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, we spent most of 2020 and half of 2021 teaching online from home -- me in the corner of our spare bedroom, Sarah at a desk right in our living room. It was 15 months of unending work, constantly changing rules, and no meaningful break anywhere.

We did try to do several car-camping trips on weekends, although weather cut every single trip short. I spent more days huddled in a tent during a thunderstorm in summer 2020 than in the rest of my life combined.

Late in 2020, when the first faint glimmers of light began to twinkle at the end of the tunnel, we had enough hope to plan a backpacking trip for May 2021. By May, the School Year-and-a-Half From Hell had finally ended, we were both fully vaccinated, and we were ready to go on our first backpacking trip in 2 years.

Little Carp cabin, hiding in the trees

The plan was our most ambitious trip yet: 8 days of backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains, 60,000 of my favorite acres on earth. As usual, we hiked between rustic cabins rather than tent camping. These rustic cabins, often former ranger stations, are pretty primitive: A wood stove, some rock-hard bunks, and an assortment of too-friendly mice are all they guarantee. But the promise of four walls and a roof over our heads at the end of a long day makes them worth it.

We took it pretty slow: We only hiked about 35 miles over those 8 days, with a rest day in the middle. An unexpected benefit of the pandemic -- one of very, very few benefits -- was that we were in fantastic hiking shape. Nearly every day, we walked. A lot. Like, a lot. Working from home, Sarah and I could take a short walk together in the morning before school. We could eat lunch together (unheard of during regular school days!), and walk then too. We could walk in the evenings -- and all of those walks were very, very good for our stress while conditioning us to walking multiple miles per day.

Sarah hiking the Correction Line trail near Mirror Lake

We didn't cover much new ground in the Porkies, although we did stay at a few new cabins. Some of them became instant favorites. As you'll see, I didn't even focus on photography, as I usually do. Our main desire was to completely disconnect from the world and come back with a fresh start. I said it before, and I'll say it again:

There is a rhythm to backpacking. I enjoy the way my mind is forced to focus on the daily necessities of filtering water, hiking to the next stop, setting up camp, making food, sleeping, taking down camp, and repeating -- all within the confines of sunrise and sunset. The necessities silence any worries -- any concern about emails or projects or class prep or grading -- and let me enjoy the trip. I love this rhythm and the way it forces me to live in the moment of the trip, enjoy what I have, and not let my brain spin on other things.

By these measures, the trip succeeded wildly. It was just what we needed, and it provided an excellent "restart" for us.

The bridge over the Little Carp River at Mirror Lake

Gear updates: This part is for the gearheads, and also for new backpackers who might be interested in my reasoning for using some non-standard gear. If those don't describe you, skip right ahead to the next section.

During my long, long backpacking gap, I updated my last few pieces of gear that still remained from my "cheap is top priority" days. But with all that time to think and research, I made a few unusual choices for my gear updates.

The biggest change was my backpack. Back in late 2019, I was looking for ways to cut down my weight. After literally weighing every single thing I normally pack, the answer stuck out like a sore thumb: The pack itself was by far my heaviest item. I was still using a fancy Osprey pack that I had purchased quickly after my old one was stolen from a campsite (that's a separate story that I'll write down some time). I replaced it with a Superior Wilderness Designs Rugged Long Haul 50 pack. This upgrade, costing about the same as my old Osprey, saved over 2 pounds that I wouldn't have to carry.

Then, of course, I didn't get to use the pack for a year and a half!

I'll say more about the pack in the stories that follow, but in short: It's simple, streamlined, lightweight, and very well designed. It does everything I want it to, without extra frills. It's just as comfortable as my old pack, too!

Lake Superior near the mouth of the Little Carp River

Another big change: I ditched my old mummy-shaped sleeping bag and replaced it with an Enlightened Equipment Revelation down quilt. I first learned about camping quilts on Isle Royale in 2019, and boy was I envious of people who had them. A camping quilt is pretty much a tailored, lightweight version of what you put on your bed in the winter. The idea is that you'll have an insulated sleeping pad anyhow, so there's no need for insulation underneath you (in fact, compressed insulation -- like you would be laying on in a sleeping bag -- hardly insulates at all!). A quilt just lays over you, insulating the parts that aren't on the pad. This saved me a lot of weight:1.5 lbs! An even bigger deal for me: Quilts are so much more comfortable than mummy bags for side sleepers and people who toss and turn, both of which describe me to a T. Beyond that, I (or just as often, Sarah) could easily wrap a quilt around me whenever I was chilly. Needless to say, I'm sold.

My 3rd big weight saving measure was the hardest one to decide on: I left my Big Heavy DSLR at home and used my phone's camera instead. During my 2019 Isle Royale trip, I spent some time talking with other photographers about the value of hauling heavy photo equipment into the backcountry. We concluded that it boiled down to one question: Is the trip about photography? If it is, I should be spending a lot of time dedicated to learning the place and discovering how it wants to be photographed. If not, just bring a phone with a decent camera and use it instead. I hemmed and hawed about this, but in the end, it was clear that this trip would be better spent seeing things with my wife, rather than looking through a viewfinder. So, I left behind my 3 pounds of camera gear and brought a (good quality and waterproof) phone instead. While the phone isn't as flexible and can't do some things that my Huge Camera can do, the results are still quite nice.

My last gear change was a very different type: I didn't wear boots. No boots? What?! Yep, I ditched the big clompers and wore lightweight trail-running shoes instead. They are sort of like anti-boots: No ankle support (my ankles are just fine), and totally not waterproof. They're made from lightweight, highly breathable materials that dry out super fast. They worked great for me, but required a significant change in my mindset. This let me pull some stunts that you'll see later -- like wading straight across unbridged river crossings without even pausing.

Pink Lady's Slipper

Friday May 21, 2021: After all of our regular walks and special practice hikes with packs, after packing and unpacking and repacking everything and checking and double-checking our packing lists -- we were finally ready to go. We left bright and early, took our time, and arrived at Sarah's parents' house in Newberry without anything especially interesting happening.

The weather, even this far north, was hot and humid. This sticky weather had been building all week, just in time for our trip. I had been tracking the long-range weather forecasts, and it looked like the weather near the Porkies would cool down over the course of the week and become rainy and cold. Just a normal spring in the Upper Peninsula!

Then again, backpacking isn't about having perfect weather, perfect trails, perfect anything. Part of the fun is dealing with whatever challenges the universe decides to throw at you. With that attitude, we knew we could handle anything.

We slept well, relaxed and ready for a vacation.

Complete list of blog posts in this series: