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.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Porcupine Mountains 2021, Day 7: Greenstone Falls to Lily Pond

 Last time: 5, or 5.5, or 6, or 6.25 miles to go...

Greenstone Falls cabin with its shutters all closed up

Friday May 28, 2021: Our last full day in the Porkies dawned clear and cool at the Greenstone Falls cabin. As always, we felt a real difference between being on the lakeshore versus inland. When half of the horizon is clear, uninterrupted Lake Superior water, much more light can reach you. You're lucky to see a sunrise or sunset at all from the dense forest of most inland campsites.

Today's hike would be a short 3 miles, an intentionally easy day as we reached the end of our trip. Sarah and I spent a lazy morning reading and enjoying breakfast. Eventually, we could delay no longer (cabins do have a "check out" time: noon), so we packed up our bags, swept out the cabin, closed and latched the shutters, and headed east on the Little Carp River trail.

Today's goal -- and our last cabin of the trip -- was Lily Pond Cabin. Many years ago, on my first backpacking trip in the Porkies, I stumbled upon Lily Pond Cabin and was immediately taken with its beautiful setting, huge banks of windows overlooking the pond, and magnificently situated bridge. I vowed to stay there some day -- and that day, at long last, was today.

Picturesque segment of the Little Carp river


After a mile of flat but rocky-and-rooty trail, we passed the turnoff for the Little Carp River trailhead. After this point, we were hiking new ground. The Little Carp River and Little Carp Trail parted ways here, and we spent most of the rest of the hike in a tunnel of trees.

The trail quickly started climbing and didn't let up. Despite our packs being super-light after 7 days of travel, we took a few breaks to catch our breaths. I was surprised at just how hilly this part of the trail was, although I shouldn't have been too surprised -- we were continuing to climb into the central highlands of the park. This also seemed to be a less-maintained and less-traveled segment, with brush growing close along the sides.

The Little Carp River trail is one of the few non-muddy trails in the park. We found only one big mud bog, at a low point in the trail, although it took us quite a lot of work to get through. But, compared to entire miles of the Correction Line or Lake Superior trail, those few dozen yards really weren't a problem.

Little Carp river, from the middle of the crossing.

Another mile or so later, we came back to the Little Carp river. This was our last unbridged river crossing of the trip (the 4th!). The trail ran between two campsites (LC-3 and LC-4) that are directly adjacent both to each other, and the river. We paused here for a snack and for Sarah to change to sandals. The bugs were bad enough, unusually for this trip, that we kept our bug nets on as we ate.

As we sat, a large group of college-aged backpackers came up to the opposite side of the river and started to cross. They took every conceivable route across the river, with no coordination whatsoever: Hopping between big rocks, tip-toeing across small rocks, wading in sandals, just trudging through the deepest bit. A few tried to help each other, most just did their own thing. After they crossed, they sat down at the other campsite in small groups, eating snacks and chatting. The way the group splintered into many small subgroups made us think that they didn't know each other well, and so we guessed that they might be here as part of an "Outdoor Adventure" class from Michigan Tech.

With our snack finished, we crossed the river too, each in our own way. On the other side, we paused to dry off and decided to go all out and actually eat lunch as we enjoyed the beautiful and very shallow river.

Another view from the river crossing. Mystery students on the right.

The trail continued on, soon passing the turn-off to the Lily Pond trail (which, oddly enough, never actually makes it to Lily Pond). Quickly we started to get distant views of the pond, and suddenly poof! -- There was the cabin, right next to the trail.

From the outside, the Lily Pond cabin looks remarkably similar to Greenstone Falls cabin. It is right on the trail, with the fire pit across the trail from the cabin. It is so close to the Little Carp river that you can hear the river at all times, even indoors. Because it's so close to the trail, it also has shutters.

View out the front window featuring fire pit and (just over the edge) the river

As soon as we opened the shutters, we could see that the interior of the cabin was quite different. It was beautifully paneled and well maintained. The cabin was a bit smaller than others and felt cozy (like Speakers cabin) rather than large and empty (like Little Carp). The smaller size meant that bunks were arranged differently from any other cabin I've been in, with some of them separated from others by a privacy wall, and others right next to a window.

Despite the superficial similarity to Greenstone Falls cabin, we ended up loving Lily Pond cabin. We will definitely be returning in the future. Besides the pleasant interior, one of the biggest reasons we loved it so much was its setting -- and especially the bridge.

View from the bench in the middle of Lily Pond bridge.


The Lily Pond bridge crosses the Little Carp river's outlet from Lily Pond, and it's just a few steps down the trail from Lily Pond cabin. The bridge is probably the most elaborate bridge in the park, with the possible exception of the Lake of the Clouds bridge.  Two longs with some planks this is not. The bridge is long and beautifully constructed, but its best feature is a bench set right in the middle. The railing opposite the bridge is cut away to give a beautiful view of the pond (and, perhaps, to fish from).

There were two log books in the cabin -- one filled, and another almost brand-new -- so we took them and our water filter and walked down to the Lily Pond bridge to read and filter.

The view from the bridge was spectacular, and the bench was the perfect place to enjoy it from. Lily Pond itself is a wide spot in the river that has been converted into an enormous beaver pond by a long and industrious line of beavers. This year, the beaver dam was a few yards downstream from the bridge, although we could see remnants of older dams on both sides of the bridge. The lake was ringed by grassy marshes and the skeletons of long-dead trees, while the water reflected the perfectly clear blue of the sky.

Lily pond's outer edges, with canoe and rowboat.

Near the edge of the bridge sat a canoe and rowboat. We considered taking them out for a spin, but a stiff and cold breeze convinced us that any boat outing would become a fight against the weather soon enough.

The log books were as enjoyable as always -- a glimpse into other people's lives. Some were living their best lives, and others... not so much. Lily Pond is a popular cabin with relatively easy access to trailheads, so it tends to attract people who are new to backcountry camping. As we had seen all through the COVID Camping Craze of 2020 and 2021, people tend to make unwarranted (and uninformed) assumptions about their destinations. Lily Pond's log books did not disappoint.

Many, many logs bemoaned over-packed backpacks. One couple made 5 (!) trips back and forth to the parking lot before they had hauled in everything from their car. The next renters described opening the cabin to discover that the couple had left quite a lot of their stuff behind. There were tales of people attempting to bring luggage, wheeled coolers, and even a wagon to haul in their goods -- over 3 to 4 miles of rocky, rooty, muddy trails.

There are always many logs cursing the previous renters for not leaving firewood. One log mentioned how the renters didn't think they could burn any wood from near the cabin at all, and so they packed in enough firewood for several nights, nearly breaking their arms along the way. To be sure, you can always find firewood from the many dead and down branches that are all around the cabin. Whether that wood is dry enough to burn is another matter.


Reading log books on the bridge

A nearly constant theme was a near-mythical spring of fresh water somewhere far across the lake. One entry had a detailed map, and many others gave step-by-step instructions for finding the spring, but others complained of their inability to find it nonetheless. A large number seemed to think that this spring was their only option for clean water. Some cited the disturbingly brown pond and river water as a sign of Bad Stuff (I personally enjoy the fresh astringency and delicate bouquet of Porkies river water. Seriously.). Others noted that, since you ought to filter it anyhow, just grab some water from the conveniently placed bridge. This was exactly what we did, and the water tasted great.

The final major theme in the log book was: Wildlife! Logs detailed every conceivable kind of bird, from sparrows to cranes to a Bald Eagle that supposedly lived nearby. Waterfowl abounded. Deer and bears came and went in Disney-like quantities. Mice, chipmunks, and squirrels were endless pests.

We sat quietly reading on the bridge for quite a while, and managed to see only the redwing blackbirds staking out territory in the grassy marshlands around the pond. We seemed to be in a wildlife lull.

The bridge and pond were beautiful, the bridge itself was lovely, and the sun was wonderful, but the wind was frickin' cold and so eventually we returned to the cabin, which was somewhat more protected.

Sarah in a smoky cabin


The cabin was well stocked with firewood, but we again expected a cold night to pair with the chilly day, so we headed out to generate some heat by searching for firewood. The area around the cabin was littered with fallen hardwood logs, and we worked up quite a sweat hauling and sawing them.

As we hauled and sawed, we met and chatted with a few dayhikers, all of them amazed by the beautiful setting of cabin -- beautiful even by Porkies standards. Most of them were also confused, since the spur trail to the cabin's outhouse looks more obvious than the real trail through its front yard.

Using the well-dried wood in the cabin, I managed to eventually get a fire started in the wood stove, but as the log book warned: This stove was smoky and hard to light. Dinner was freeze-dried as always, and served with an extra seasoning of smoke.

White pine in light. The beaver dam is in the foreground, then the river bends to the left.


Once the fire was chugging along and the cabin had cleared out a bit, we spent some more time sitting and reading on the bridge. The sky was perfectly clear, and the scene was stunningly beautiful. As the sun lowered, it managed to shine directly down the river, highlighting a large white pine right at the bend behind the cabin. 

When we couldn't handle the cold air any more, we went back in to enjoy the toasty cabin and some nighttime tea. As we laid in bed reading, we heard loud voices from a group heading down the trail. The voices passed... then came back again... then again. Listening carefully, they seemed to be trying to continue west on the Little Carp River trail, which they were doing (the last time they passed, at least). As I peeked out the window, I saw a group of college-aged students, several wearing t-shirts and shorts. Where were they headed? How had they ended up hiking at 9 pm, unsure of where they were going? Why had they ever worn t-shirts and shorts on a day this cold and windy? They had marched off with a certain, um, certainty before I opened the door to see if they needed help.


Finally, the fire's going and not smoking!


I spent the rest of the evening tending the fire, reading, and generally staying cozy. Dusk fell around the cabin, slowly hiding the beautiful scenery all around us. Just before bed, I put on all of my layers and stepped outdoors to use the outhouse one last time. As I stood outside the cabin in pitch blackness, I looked up and saw the sky absolutely filled with stars. It took my breath away.

Well, that, and the really cold temperatures. I took a mental photo, but not a photo photo, and made a run for it.

We slept cozily in our new favorite cabin (well, tied with Speakers).

Next time: The biggest disappointment in the world

Day 7's path is highlighted in orange. The loop is almost closed!


Miles hiked: 3

Total miles: 31.2

Notable animals: Red winged blackbirds, a few ducks and geese, a wide range of humans.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Porcupine Mountains 2021, Day 6: Little Carp to Greenstone Falls

 Last time: Everyone loves the Little Carp cabin's tilt-a-potty!

Cold morning meets hot tea

Thursday May 27, 2021: After tossing, turning, and burrowing deeper into the sleeping bag all night, I managed to string together a few hours of sleep. Sarah and I woke to a cold, gray morning outside the Little Carp cabin. We put on as many layers as we could find (including, in her case, wrapping herself in my quilt!) and made multiple rounds of hot tea with our oatmeal. We later learned that it had dropped to 34 overnight, and the puny fire in the cabin's wood stove barely lasted an hour.

The day didn't feel much warmer than the night and it looked like rain, so we piled on layers and rain gear before saying goodbye to the Little Carp cabin. In the end, we did enjoy the Little Carp cabin and its private setting -- despite the number of interruptions from nearby campers.

Little Carp River cabin on a gray day

Today, we would hike the Little Carp River trail into the park's interior, ending at Greenstone Falls cabin -- another new cabin for us. The Little Carp River trail started just across the Little Carp bridge. We waved at the still-spawning fish as we crossed.

At the trail intersection, we found a sign: 6.5 miles to Greenstone Falls cabin. Great! ... except that the Little Carp River trail is also part of the North Country Trail, which has its own set of maps that put the mileage closer to 5 miles. Mileage signs are often like this in the Porkies: As best I can tell, the signmakers just make their best guess and stick with that.

The Little Carp River trail is a contender for the most beautiful trail in a park where all of the trails run through nonstop beauty. The trail runs all the way from Lake Superior to Mirror Lake, the heart of the park's interior highlands. We planned to hike nearly all of it in the next two days, starting with the big hill right in front of us. We climbed it... and then quickly came right back down to river level. 

Traders "falls"

Shortly afterwards, we followed a sign for a short spur to Traders falls, one of the few waterfalls marked with a sign in all of the Porkies. I have no idea why this tiny collection of river rocks got a name, much less a sign. The whole river looks like Traders falls, and many larger waterfalls go unnamed and unsigned.

For the first few miles of the Little Carp River, the trail is right next to the river, with constant amazing views. I tried to capture many of them, but really... you have to see them in person. The trail crosses the river several times with no bridges to be found, but the river is almost always shallow, rocky, and easy to ford.

Sarah at the first Little Carp crossing.

On of my favorite parts of the river is the "Tree Alley", a long straight stretch deeply shaded by overhanging hemlocks. Tree Alley ends with a beautiful waterfall -- surely one of Trapper's or Explorer's falls, but I honestly have no idea because unlike Trader's falls, it has no sign.

Along this stretch, we started to meet some more hikers. First came several solo hikers who seemed excited just to be in the Porkies. Next, we met a couple of hikers sitting in a campsite, looking unhappy as they peeled off their socks. They warned us about the upcoming unbridged river crossing, which must have caught them by surprise.

After crossing the river (again, I waded right in without changing my trail-running shoes), we paused for lunch. The day had hardly warmed up at all -- it was in the 40's at most -- and rain occasionally spritzed down on us.

A real waterfall!

The trail soon cut away from the river and ran through a broad open forest. We met a group of 5 guys, looking for all the world like a cross between lumberjacks and college students. We guessed, from long experience, that they were students at Michigan Tech (where both Sarah and I attended college). The flannel and beards were a dead giveaway.

A nice feature of the Little Carp River trail is that how slowly but steadily it gains elevation. There aren't too many steep segments of the Little Carp, but most of them happen at this point, as you climb over knobs of bedrock leading up to the interior highlands. The trail runs high above the river, which is still visible and audible far below. Near the top of one of these knobs, we passed the turnoff to the mysterious Cross trail -- the only major trail in the park that I've never touched. After that, we quickly found the Greenstone Falls cabin. In the end, the hike felt closer to 5 miles than 6.5, but we didn't verify the distance with a GPS.

Greenstone Falls cabin was another new cabin for us. It's named for the waterfall that's just a few hundred yards farther up the trail. The cabin is so close to the river that you can always hear rushing water inside, even with the windows closed. The trail runs through the cabin's front yard, squeezed between the cabin and the river.  The cabin's fire pit is across the trail from the cabin itself, and almost in the river during high water. If you are a social sort of person, you could do worse than renting this cabin and sitting on its front steps and chatting with the passersby all day.

In the Tree Alley

We are not very sociable people, or at least, that's not why we go backpacking. We must be in good company, because this was the first Porkies cabin I've ever rented that has shutters. The cabin's huge banks of windows -- very similar to those on Little Carp cabin -- can be entirely covered by thick, solid wooden shutters that latch solidly and keep out prying eyes. The cabin is within a mile of a popular trailhead, and even as we unlocked the cabin, several groups came hiking in from that direction, walking just feet of the cabin.

We opened up the cabin, including the shutters, and took a look around. The first thing I noticed wasn't  a sight, but a smell... a whole range of them. Some of the smell came from the mingling scents of literally dozens of candles sitting on windowsills, counters, and the table. We've seen candles left in other cabins, but this felt like we had walked into someone's personal shrine. That wasn't all though, as I caught a whiff of a distinctly urine-ish smell near the counter. Maybe that's what all the candles were about. We quickly opened the windows to air out the cabin, despite the cold air outside.

The smells and candles were part of an overall odd feeling I got from the cabin. The cabin's ceiling and some walls were made from some sort of varnished chipboard, rather than the paneling found in other cabins. The bunks were built in to the back wall (again, much like the Little Carp cabin). Most cabins have small "shelves" built in to the walls next to each bunk, to store items like glasses or a headlamp. The lower bunks here had no shelves at all, and the upper bunk's shelves were so high up that we'd would have had to stand up on the mattresses to reach them.

Greenstone Falls interior. Notice the oddly textured roof.

On the positive side, especially on this cold day, the cabin was well stocked with firewood. A big pile of freshly split wood sat directly underneath the wood stove. In the log book, the previous renters said that they had put it there to help it dry.

Inspired, and knowing that we were going to burn a lot of wood to heat the cabin tonight, we headed out to cut even more wood and managed to haul in another big load of wood. I quickly started a fire in the stove, hell-bent on building a better fire than I'd done last night. To help, I carefully followed the instructions in the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion, an invaluable book that the Friends of the Porkies have provided in each cabin (although a few seem to have walked away over the years). The book, plus the excellent dry firewood already stocked in the cabin, helped me start a roaring fire that pushed the chill away as evening started to creep in.

Greenstone Falls

When the fire was old enough to be left alone, we went to check out our surroundings. The river near the cabin is (as always) practically made of waterfalls, including the picturesque Greenstone Falls.

A few hundred yards down the trail, we found another composting outhouse in the style of the one at Mirror Lake. We took turns availing ourselves of its nearly smell-free interior. While waiting, I spent a little while enjoying the view from the Section 17 bridge. This bridge leads across the river to the other cabin in this area, Section 17 cabin. We had stayed there on a previous trip, in much wetter conditions. Section 17 is much more isolated, smaller, and cozier. In many ways, it's similar to the Mirror Lake 2-bunk. Having stayed in both Greenstone Falls and Section 17 now, I will definitely choose Section 17 in the future.

Forest beyond a bank of windows at Greenstone Falls Cabin

As I was coming back from the bridge, I met another pair of backpackers trudging up the trail. They looked like a father and son, and they hiked quietly with hunched shoulders and downcast eyes. They were the only hikers I'd seen who were coming from Lake Superior, the same direction we had come today. It was getting quite dim, so I greeted them and asked how they were doing. The father said, briefly, "It's too darn cold and windy at the lake, so we're going home." It must have been quite a decision that led them to be hiking out after 9 pm.

Back in the cabin, we played some solitaire, read our books, and curled up for the night. The fire kept the cabin toasty warm despite another freezing night outside, and we slept easily.

Next time: The magical bridge of Lily Pond

Day 6's route is shown in red.


Miles hiked: 6 (I guess? We'll go with this.)

Total miles: 28.2

Notable animals: Only humans today, but lots of them.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Porcupine Mountains 2021, Day 5: Rest day at Little Carp

 Last time: Pinkerton, or The most beautiful trail of them all.


Little Carp River Cabin hiding in the trees

Wednesday May 26, 2021: Wednesday's goal was nothing more -- nor less -- than relaxation and rest at the Little Carp cabin. In line with that, I have no clue when Sarah and I woke up, but it was well after the sun rose. We finally got out of bed around 10:30 and continued our lazy morning with oatmeal and quiet contemplation of our tea.

Things had cooled down considerably overnight, with more rounds of rain and wind. The day was dry but breezy, so we bundled up for our late-morning run to the leaning-outhouse-of-Little Carp.

Oh yeah, did I mention the outhouse? It looks for all the world like it's about to sink into its own pit, and comes with a couple of boards propping it up:

Careful where you sit.

Not long afterward, we saw our first "lost" hikers of the day. A couple walked right past the big bank of cabin windows, where I was standing and looking out. They also must have walked right past the "Cabin users only" sign at the start of our spur trail. They eyeballed the outhouse, with its large and clear "Cabin occupants use only" sign. They looked back at the cabin. They decided to go for it. We stayed inside and didn't bother them.

If I sound a bit skeptical, it's because of the sheer number of signs they had to ignore to end up where they wanted. I can understand the desire to use an outhouse instead of digging a cathole, but in that case -- own it, rather than trying to sneak around!

Steps down to the bridge


After breakfast, with no specific plan in mind, we walked down the huge bank of steps to the Little Carp river bridge. We chatted with a family of four (plus a very active dog) who were hanging out and fishing. They were enjoying easy fishing with the spawning fish, but had no more idea than we did about what they could be. "Uh, carp, I guess?" one said, referring to the river's name.

As several guide books point out, the Big and Little Carp river were not named for fish -- they seem to have been named for Carp Lake (renamed Lake of the Clouds in the early 1900's, for tourism purposes). That name survives in the name of one of the townships covering the park, Carp Lake Township. But the lake in turn was named after a shortening of the French word for the Escarpment that towers above the lake. In short, the "Carp" rivers don't seem to have anything to do with fish.

The family packed up and continued on what looked like a day hike, and we wandered up along the river, checking out several waterfalls and the pools below them. Above the 3rd waterfall, we found some good flat rocks and spent a long, beautiful afternoon soaking up sun next to the babbling river.

Pink Lady's Slipper


We briefly got motivated to check out the Little Carp River trail, our route for tomorrow. The trail ran up a big hill almost immediately, and we decided that we didn't want to see the trail that badly. We did find a grove of Pink Lady's Slippers sunning themselves along the side of the trail, so that made the (minimal) effort worth it. We settled back down by the river, reading, sunning, and cheering on spawning fish.

Eventually, even we couldn't come up with an excuse to linger any longer, so we headed back up the steps towards our cabin. At the cabin trail's intersection, we passed a familiar looking couple... the outhouse bandits from earlier! They were probably planning to use the tilted outhouse again until they saw us walking down the trail.

Little Carp River from the bridge, looking towards the mouth


Our next step was to take showers. We had filled up the solar shower and set it out in the morning, but the filtered sunlight and cool air temperatures didn't do much to warm it up. After 5 days on the trail, we decided that "not teeth-chattering cold" was good enough.

The solar shower hangs from a tree branch, using a long length of nylon rope -- much like you would hang a bear bag. We found a likely branch on the Hobbit Hemlock (the magnificent hemlock near the river bluff). I tied a rock to the rope and managed to get it over the branch with just one, or maybe two dozen throws. The shower turned out to work amazingly well here, and both Sarah and I enjoyed the rinse. It was definitely better than submerging ourselves in near-freezing Lake Superior waters.

The only downside was that we had somehow managed to set up the shower directly above an animal dropping of unusual size -- probably from a fox, by its shape. That required some careful stepping as we rinsed off, because I was most certainly not going to manage another dozen or more rock throws just to move the shower.

After spending what felt like all day relaxing and showering, there was still a ton of daylight left. This far north, and this close to the summer solstice, we had over 16 hours of usable light. We spent late afternoon walking along the Lake Superior shore, enjoying the cobble beach, searching for agates (still no success), and reading on the giant driftwood tree. I took a long walk along the beach until I was out of sight of everyone and everything, enjoying the feeling of even deeper solitude.

Narrow cobble beach

Dinner time arrived eventually. As we climbed the river bluff and headed back to the cabin, we ran into yet another couple who had wandered past the "Cabin users only" sign and were eyeballing the outhouse. I decided to play happy-and-dumb with them, always a fun tactic. "Hi! Can I help you find the trail?" "Oh, we thought this was..." "Oh, I see. You must have missed the sign. This trail is just for cabin renters. Where are you headed?" A bit flustered, the two halves of the couple came to different conclusions. She said "the lake" as he said "Carp Big River" (yes, in that order). Taking that as my cue, I gave them turn-by-turn directions to get headed towards the Big Carp, in the process learning that they were very confused about which direction they were facing. I continued to stand happily in the middle of the trail with a huge smile on my face (while mentally daring them to tell me what they really wanted), and they finally turned around and headed back.

Back in the cabin, we prepared one of our favorite freeze-dried meals: chicken and dumplings! We save the best meals for easy days. When we've hiked a dozen miles uphill, it doesn't matter what dinner is -- we'll eat it! But on a quiet rest day like this one, it's nice to have a meal that you actually like.

After dinner, we climbed back down the river bluff to sit and read on our favorite driftwood log. In case you haven't gathered it, we found it absolutely worth the effort to be at our favoritest place, near the lake. This time there were a few groups at the tent sites across the river, also out on the beach to watch the sunset. We were all disappointed as the sun set behind some dense clouds -- they looked like rain headed our way -- so we packed up, turned on head lamps, and climbed the hill one last time.

Another view of the river, since I didn't take any more photos!

We did the usual nighttime chores: taking medicines, brushing teeth, going to the angled outhouse. Sarah returned breathless from her outhouse visit (and not because of the smell): "Quick, go look at the sunset! The sky is glowing!" Sarah proclaimed that she didn't have another hill climb in her, but I ran out to look at the sky from the Tolkein Tree. Sure enough, the entire sky was aflame with a bright orange glow. I quickly scuttled down the bluff to the beach. There, I could see that the sun had come out into a tiny gap between the rain clouds and the true horizon and was lighting up all of the clouds into a magnificent sunset of molten orange metal, fading to rich red and then a deep purple.

In my haste to run down the hill, I'd left my phone behind in the cabin, and so I have only memories of the sunset. Lesson learned: Never give up on a sunset!

Finally back in the cabin for good, we switched our bedding. Sarah and been eying my camping quilt and wanted to give it a try, while I was interested in her Big Agnes sleeping bag -- the style has no insulation on the back, instead including a sleeve for an air mattress. Her bag is also semi-rectangular, leaving more room than a mummy bag (which have always made me feel too constrained).

Cabin windows

With the promise of a cold night ahead of us, I started a fire in the wood stove, something that I had done many times before (including almost every night on this trip). This time, a combination of wet wood and too much ash in the firebox gave me endless trouble. I could  barely get the fire to stay lit, much less grow. I tended the fire until midnight, at which point I thought I had it going well enough to keep us warm for a while.

The night was indeed frigid -- 34 degrees, we learned later -- and Sarah and I both had trouble keeping warm as the fire died down. We added layers and curled up, trying to get to sleep in the cold, drafty cabin.

Next time: Onward, upward, inward to Greenstone Falls!


No new hikes today, so here's what we've done already:
Pink to Green to Yellow to Blue!


Miles hiked: Basically 0, unless you count a whole lot of up-and-down-the-bluff

Total miles: 22.2

Notable animals: Thousands more fish

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Porcupine Mountains 2021, Day 4: Speakers to Little Carp

 Last time: Speakers cabin awaits us at the end of an exhausting day like a glowing beacon. Also fish.

Speakers Creek in the morning sun.

Tuesday May 25, 2021: The cold breeze overnight gave way to a clear and warm morning, with the promise of a hot and muggy day. My heart was light this morning, knowing that we had figured out a way to avoid the misery that is the Lake Superior trail.

Our endpoint for the day was the Little Carp River cabin, a brand new cabin for us. Our original plan was to backtrack on the Lake Superior trail, but after yesterday's exhausting bushwhack-mud slog-tree climb, we had found a better plan: Walk down Speakers trail to the South Boundary Road, walk the road for a couple of miles, and then hike in to our cabin on the Pinkerton Creek trail.

After a pleasant breakfast (oatmeal and tea, like always), we packed up at a leisurely pace and enjoyed watching birds flying circles in the sky over Lake Superior. We finally left around 11 am.

Note the trail running along the side of the bridge.

Our walk out was uneventful. The short stretch of the Lake Superior trail we had to walk today wasn't bad, and the only event of note was when we scared up two turkey vultures near Tiebel Creek. We turned on to Speakers trail, an old two-track that is extremely easy to hike, and reached the trailhead in no time flat.

We stopped for a quick water break, and to take advantage of another benefit of changing our route: throwing away trash! Every trail head has a bear-proof trash can, and I took the opportunity to ditch the weight of three days worth of freeze-dried food bags, used tea bags, and other such cruft.

We ate a quick snack while leaning against a small swing gate that blocks cars from the two-track trail. As we leaned back, the gate suddenly swung open, and we both fell over backwards onto our backs! It hadn't been latched, much less locked.

Oh boy, a road walk!

Uninjured but slightly embarrassed, we packed up and continued on to the road walk segment of today's hike. Road walks are never fun, although the margins of South Boundary Road turned out to be filled with beautiful forget-me-nots, with monarch butterflies flitting between them.

There wasn't much traffic, but what traffic there was covered a surprising range: Besides the expected cars, trucks, trailers, and RVs, there was a garbage truck and even a fully loaded double-trailer logging truck. South Boundary Road is a wiggly, hilly, and narrow road, but it's also the quickest way between a few (very remote) points.

Selfie with bugs and Pinkerton Creek sign

The Pinkerton trailhead is located about 1.8 miles down South Boundary Road from Speakers trailhead. When we arrived at the trailhead, we took off our packs, sat down on a log just inside the woods, and got out meat sticks and rice cakes. The bugs were thicker than we'd yet seen, so we ate lunch by shoving bits of food up under our head nets.

I also discovered that I'd reached the inevitable point in the trip where I started to daydream about a rich, greasy hamburger. This inspired some food-daydreaming between us. Sarah's lunchtime meat stick inspired her own craving -- for a Lunchable, of all things!

After we had thoroughly discussed our cravings, we strapped on our packs and headed down the Pinkerton trail, a direct access route to the mouths of the Little and Big Carp Rivers. It is a very popular trail for people looking to stay at the campsites and cabins between the two Carps, but it was brand new territory for us -- one of the few remaining trails in the park that we had never hiked.

Sarah on the Pinkerton Creek trail.

The Pinkerton trail is a dream. It is by far the best maintained trail I've hiked the Porkies. The trail climbed over only mild rolling hills, with puncheon bridges over every area that looked even slightly muddy, and many that were wholly dry. There was a bridge over every stream, no matter how small. The worst hazard was an occasional tree root.

The trail wound through lovely woodlands and soon started following a small seasonal creek. After about a mile, we came to the most scenic spot on a very scenic trail: The Pinkerton Creek bridge. Pinkerton Creek was just as broad and red-bedded as it had been yesterday, when we waded across it on the Lake Superior Trail. Here, it is spanned by a lovely wooden bridge. A bench, in dappled sunlight, sits on a small rise overlooking the bridge. We spent half an hour resting and enjoying the sights and sounds, and not another soul interrupted us the whole time. Why rush when you're surrounded by such beauty?

Pinkerton Creek bridge

The trail, continuing to be awesome and well-maintained, eventually came to the brink of the Little Carp River's deep gorge. Another bench was perfectly situated to look out over the river and forest beyond. The trail made a sharp turn to follow along the edge of the gorge, under the dense shade of towering hemlocks (some of them clinging, as if by magic, to the incredibly steep sides of the gorge).

Pinkerton Creek trail and river bluff

We soon came to the intersection with the Lake Superior trail -- we had been here just a day ago, unaware of the pain about to follow! Just a short jog ahead, we found the turn-off to the Little Carp River cabin, just feet away from the stairs leading down to the Little Carp bridge.

Why did the trail sign have barbed wire? Don't ask me!

The Little Carp River cabin was a new one for us. It had felt a bit like a gamble when we decided to take our rest day here. Little Carp is one of the older cabins in the park, and is located high above the Little Carp River on a bluff. The bluff and its distance from main trails makes it feel much more isolated than some other cabins. There is a partial view of the river, but essentially no view of the lake. Nonetheless, it is very popular with fishermen and deer hunters.

The interior was surprising in a few ways. First, the bunk beds were actually built in to the back wall, rather than being free-standing (and therefore movable). The cabin was a bit larger than other 4-bunk cabins but had only a table, two small benches, and one chair. This left a lot of space, making the cabin feel rather empty. The floor was old, creaky, and in need of a paint job. On the upside, the cabin had tons of windows on three walls with big banks of them facing east and west. If only there were a view, but at least we had a breeze on this hot day!

Sarah found the cabin's log book and sat under a truly Tolkeinesque hemlock at the point of land where the river bluff and lake bluff met. The log gave us the usual warnings of mice, plus some curious stories of first-time campers attempting to haul a wheeled cooler down the Pinkerton trail. It's a nice trail, but not that nice!

Sarah under the huge hemlock

Taking care of camp chores required a bit more effort at the Little Carp cabin. Together we carefully climbed down the steep, steep trail leading down the bluff to the river. There was a small strip of land between the bluff and beach, and an even narrower strip next to the river.

We brought our gravity filter, folding bucket, and water bottles, on the theory that we didn't want to climb down the bluff any more than necessary. As it turns out, we would be climbing up and down that bluff with great regularity for the next few days, but what did we know?

It felt fantastic to stand in the river to scoop up water into the "dirty bag", and Sarah took the chance to wade out into the lake as well. We spent a while exploring the beach and sitting on a huge driftwood tree before climbing back up the steep bluff with our freshly gravity-filtered water.

Little Carp River, looking upstream from near its mouth.

After dropping off the water, we climbed right back down again to do some laundry. The weather was predicted to change for the colder overnight, so we wanted to give our clothes every moment of hot, sunny day that we could.

As we sat on the beach, plunging our clothing into the folding bucket and wringing them out, the day suddenly turned from bright, sunny, and hot to cold, cloudy, and breezy. We raced through a final wash, grabbed clothes that were drying in the sun, hauled ourselves up the hill, strung up clotheslines, and hung up clothes just in time for a rainstorm to drench them. Well, at least they got another rinse!

During the rain, we ate dinner (freeze-dried beef stew -- wholly adequate but nothing special), read more of the cabin log, and set up our bunks. Once the rain had passed, we set out for the Little Carp bridge, which was quite close to the cabin. Once again, we spent a lovely half hour watching fish try to jump up waterfalls.

View through the roots of a giant driftwood tree

As sunset approached, we grabbed headlamps and headed down the river bluff for a third time. We sat again on the huge driftwood tree, enjoying the views of the lake, cobble beach, and forested points of land disappearing into the distance. Even though there were (in theory) campsites directly across the river mouth, we couldn't see nor hear any campers. It felt like we had a private beach all to ourselves.

The sunset ended up as a dud (the sun fell behind a bank of clouds at just the wrong time). But we didn't mind -- we were on vacation in the most beautiful place in the world!

We carefully made our way up the bluff one last time, crawled into bed, and slept hard and well.

Next time: A rest day in paradise.

Day 4's route is marked in blue

Miles hiked: 5.4 (1.8 of them roadwalk)

Total miles: 22.2

Notable animals: Two turkey buzzards (in a hemlock tree)