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:

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