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)


Anonymous said...

I wear my netting over my hat, but find it hard to see.
How good was your vision wearing the net under your hat? Did it keep the bugs away that close to your skin?

DC said...

Hah, you noticed! We actually didn't have trouble with bugs biting through the netting (it was still pretty loose), but the netting would get stuck in our mouths and get annoying with our noses and glasses. The next day, we changed to wearing netting over our hats. It worked a lot better. No trouble seeing in either setup, though.