Saturday, July 3, 2021

Porcupine Mountains 2021, Day 2: Mirror Lake to Big Carp

 All backpacking posts - Last time: Hiking and canoeing to Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake, not living up to its name

Sunday May 23, 2021:
We awoke as a passing wind gust shook water off of the trees and onto the Mirror Lake 2 bunk's metal roof like a cascade of marbles. The temperature in the cabin had plummeted from sweltering to frigid during the course of the night, and I wrapped my quilt around me as I prepared our usual breakfast of hot tea and instant oatmeal.

A bit out of practice, we took our time cleaning up the cabin and packing our gear. With some huffing and puffing, we were able to get my mattress back up onto the top bunk. After sweeping the floors and leaving a quick note in the log book, we slung on our backpacks and headed out into the world.

The world was cold, wet, breezy, and misty. Mirror lake was fogged in, with choppy water in place of the mirror-like calm we had seen yesterday. We wore full rain gear, partly to keep off wet foliage and rain falling from trees, and partly to give us an extra layer against the cold and wind.

After a quarter mile hike past the Palace-Potty, we started down Correction Line trail. Correction Line is a popular connector trail between Lake Superior and the interior highlands around Mirror Lake. Last time we were here in 2014, we had climbed the trail uphill on a sweltering day. Exhausted and a bit dehydrated, I barely remembered anything from the end of that hike. Today, with the weather as different as it could be, we were instead starting at the beautiful highland end of the trail and descending down to Lake Superior.

Cliffs and outcrops line the upper Correction Line trail.

From my last visit, I had vague memories of towering cliffs and equally towering trees, but that didn't prepare me for the beauty of the south end of Correction Line. The trail begins at Mirror Lake with a short but steep climb, after which it follows a deep cut in the hills, winding around giant outcrops covered in ancient trees. The mist and fog made the setting look like something straight out of Lord of the Rings.

The deep and Tolkienesque cut opened up into a bright green valley filled with spring plants and life. A small creek burbled through the valley.

Picturesque mountain stream

This wasn't the last transition, as we soon came to a steep downhill. This was the edge of the valley of the Big Carp River, still many miles away and far below us. We could see towering evergreens disappearing into the ethereal mist below us. Our hiking poles came in handy as we descended on slick rocks, roots, and mud. We crossed several bubbling streams, wandered through fields of young ferns, strode below massive and ancient hemlocks, and briefly spotted a deer watching us, before it turned tail and ran.

Once the steep downhill was done, the mud began. Somehow, I had forgotten that the westernmost mile of the Correction Line trail was a river flood plain filled with unending mud holes. I rediscovered this quickly. This was the first place where my trail-running shoes really showed their worth. I did try to find stepping stones or convenient logs, but if they didn't exist -- I walked through anyhow! The water squished between my toes, but then... it dried out, or at least got much less squishy.

Correction Line hillside

Still, the mud bogging exhausted us. It takes physical and mental effort to make it through a mud hole without slipping and ending up like a turtle on your back, pack submerged in dank water. Our progress slowed, and slowed some more. Our trekking poles were essential to keeping our balance, but then they tired out our arms. The only upside was that the cool weather kept bugs down to a bare, lazy minimum.

We eventually reached the intersection of Correction Line and Big Carp River trails, at an uninspiring spot in the woods. We rested our legs on a fallen tree trunk while eating our usual backpacking lunch: rice cake peanut butter sandwiches, a meat stick, and a side of gorp.

Another couple soon came up the Big Carp River trail and rested with us for a while. Making trail chit-chat, we learned that they'd had nothing but mud and bugs on their trip so far and were trying to decide between staying the course to Mirror Lake, and leaving to get back to their car. One piece of news they gave us: While the Big Carp trail still had much mud to share with us, it was "nowhere as bad as the Lake Superior trail". That was our path for the next two days... uh oh!

We let them know about the slog ahead on the Correction Line, and wished them luck as we all put on our packs and headed our respective ways. We met another couple shortly afterwards, who gave us the same bad news: As bad as Correction Line was, it was "nowhere as bad as the Lake Superior trail". Uh oh, again!

Crossing the Big Carp, one of many times

After yet another mile of low-lying mud slogs, the Big Carp River trail brought us to the river itself. This was an unbridged river crossing, the first of many we would ford over the next week. Here again, I walked straight into the river without pausing. The river, like at most Porkies river crossings, only came up to the middle of my calves at its deepest. Sarah paused to change into sandals, and then proceeded to walk across... and back... and across again, enjoying the cool water and the deep-cleaning provided by the river. The third time across, she stopped in the middle and tried to scrub her muddy pants -- while wearing them!

We paused on the far side, enjoying another snack. We usually spread out "lunch" along the trail, giving us frequent energy and excuses to take breaks. As we ate, another couple came along and crossed the river. They choose to high-wire walk across fallen trees instead of wading through the river. 

After the crossing, the Big Carp River trail climbs steeply up the river bluff, and then enjoys a bit of dry ground. I was lulled into thinking that the mud was done, but then the trail dropped us right into the middle of a swamp.

This wasn't a mud hole -- it was a true swamp, with lots of deep standing water. The water and blown-down trees had obliterated the trail. Even volunteer trails weren't clear. We had to pick our way around carefully, stepping on fallen branches, tree roots, and tufts of grass growing on small hummocks. Thoroughly wiped out, we stumbled up a small hill and found ourselves on the far side of the swamp.

Since I was fully committed to not sinking up to my knees in muck, you instead get this photo from our 2014 visit to this same dismal swamp:

Which way does the trail go?

After that, the trail was dry, flat, easy, and slow. The slowness wasn't because of difficult terrain, but because the mud -- plus heavy packs -- had worn us out. We slowly wound through a large area of deciduous trees, which soon gave way to ancient stands of towering Hemlocks. The trail followed the very edge of the river bluff, giving us vertigo-inducing views down to the Big Carp. About three miles after the river crossing, we crawled up one last big uphill, then found a sign: Lake Superior trail -- straight downhill.

The rutted, water-worn trail led us 100 feet straight down to the river. Just down a short spur, we found our cabin for the night: the Big Carp 6 Bunk, seated right where the Big Carp meets Lake Superior. 

The mouth of the Big Carp, and especially the Big Carp 6 Bunk cabin, is one of my favorite places in the world. It's a beautiful, remote, rugged place where water meets land.

There was one big change: For many years, the Lake Superior trail crossed the Big Carp on a bridge right in front of the 6 Bunk cabin. That bridge repeatedly washed out in spring floods, so a few years ago the park re-built the bridge much farther upstream. This left the 6 Bunk alone on a spur that nobody else needs to follow. I was amazing how much more isolated the cabin felt. Perfect!

Big Carp 6-bunk, showing the river (left) and Lake Superior.

The cabin is, nonetheless, one of the most popular in the park. We unlocked the cabin and immediately discovered 
stuff, left all over the place: A foam sleeping pad on a bed; socks hanging from the clothes line; a mysterious trash bag filled with something large but very light; unburned foil in the wood stove; food of every variety in the cabinets. It felt like walking into someone else's messy home.

Every cabin has a log book, where renters can leave their stories, ponder the deeper meaning of the beauty of their surroundings, and record Cribbage scores. They are also great sources of advice and local information about the cabin. The log book told us that the Big Carp 6 has a severe mouse problem, which was no surprise at all after seeing the mess left by previous renters. The log book's advice was clear: Put food in the cupboards, because they are the one place mice can't reach. We moved dishes out of the cupboard and carefully stashed all of our smellables on the shelves.

The day had never warmed up above the mid 40's, and the cool lake breeze made things feel even cooler.  So, the next order of business was to start a fire in the wood stove and hang our damp clothes on a clothesline above the stove. I placed my damp shoes below it, hoping to speed their drying.

Wood stoves don't heat quickly, especially in a larger cabin like the Big Carp 6, so we set out to explore around the cabin (and keep moving and generating heat!). Several pairs of Common Mergansers paddled around in the river mouth as we walked along Lake Superior's cobble beach. The Big Carp river is practically made of waterfalls and rapids, right up to its mouth, and the Mergansers seemed to enjoy playing in the waterfalls as if they were water slides. We spent some time searching for agates along the beach (a new interest, born of a webinar we had both watched during the pandemic). Alas, we had no luck, and I switched to collecting driftwood to resupply the cabin's firewood stash.

Walking through a hazy green forest along Correction Line.

Back in the much warmer cabin, we had dinner. Backpacker's Pantry Pad Thai was by far the most involved freeze-dried meal we had ever eaten -- it came with separate packages of peanuts, lime flavoring, and Sriracha sauce. It was also one of the best freeze-dried meals we've had, and definitely makes it on the list for future trips.

With daylight fading, we entertained ourselves by playing some solitaire (with the many packs of cards left by previous occupants -- some of them were even complete decks!) and reading more of the cabin's log book. One log detailed the saga of "Darryl the Lost Hiker", a day hiker who somehow got lost and arrived at the cabin after dark, begging for help. Something was a bit off about the fellow, who had packed many emergency flares, but no map and no water, and spent most of his time spouting conspiracy theories. The cabin occupants somehow managed to get enough cell service to call for a rescue. Rangers arrived at the river mouth in a boat, and when last seen, Darryl was setting off his flares just to make sure they saw him.

The rest of this post is provided with editorial approval by my lovely wife, Sarah. You'll see why shortly.

We also found a log from some friends who had visited the cabin last year. They caught 7 (!) mice before their bait ran out.

With those stories fresh in our minds, we curled up in our respective bunks and spent some time reading. Out of the corner of my ear, I heard a rustling sound coming from another bunk. Sarah looked over and screeched: "It's a mouse!" I had left my (empty) pack sitting on an unused bunk, with its trash bag dry-liner inside. As I watched, a cute whiskery face popped out and scurried right into the wood bin.

This is when I learned -- you'd think I would have known this after 9 years of marriage -- that Sarah has never lived in a house with mice problems, and therefore was extremely uncomfortable with this wee bold critter. Having grown up in a 100 year old farmhouse myself, I was more annoyed at the creature's boldness than anything else. It was clearly used to living high on the hog of messy cabin renters.

I got out of my cozy bed and hung my pack on one of the many wall pegs. I collected a few other items of gear and sealed them inside the bag. Then, naively assuming that I had defeated the mouse, I crawled back into bed.

Former site of the Big Carp bridge

The cabin was nearly dark when I heard the telltale sound of tiny mice feet scampering around again. I shined my headlamp around the cabin and caught the reflective eyes of a furry little food bandit, staring at me from the countertop. The mouse continued to patter around, supremely unconcerned about me or my light. It climbed into and out of every pot and pan that we had cleared out of the cupboards when hiding our food.

I got up to try to chase the mouse out, and it skittered into the wood pile, then around under the beds -- our beds -- and up onto the table. This did not have a calming effect on Sarah. We had safely stashed away everything of any value to the mouse, but that didn't stop it from investigating every surface in the cabin.

The cabin log book included stories of people waking up to find mice crawling on their sleeping bags, although I strongly suspect they had been eating in bed -- or even kept food on them -- something that we practiced backcountry campers never do. Sarah now accelerated to full freakout mode. I helped her move to a top bunk, which I convinced her would be impossible for the mouse to reach. I also gave her a sleeping pill that we had packed in our first aid kit.

I watched the mouse make another trip along the counter, doing its best to reach the cabinets where all of our food was stashed. It couldn't reach, no matter how hard it tried. Then the cheeky little bugger skittered over to our hiking poles, which leaned against the counter, and slid right down one like an old-fashioned fireman.

With no desire to set a mouse trap and certain that our food was safe, the best plan was just to let the cute little beggar satisfy its curiosity and leave on its own. I turned off my headlamp, attempted some calming words for Sarah, and snuggled in to bed. Eventually the pitter-patter of the little feet ceased, and we all managed to get some sleep.

Next time: Revenge of the Lake Superior Trail - All backpacking posts

Day 2's hike in green.

Miles hiked: 7.3

Total miles: 11.3

Notable animals: One deer, many mergansers, one very tame mouse

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