Sunday, July 11, 2021

Porcupine Mountains 2021, Day 3: Big Carp to Speakers

 All backpacking posts - Last time: A downhill mud slog to the Big Carp mouse house

Lake Superior at the mouth of the Big Carp

Monday May 24, 2021:
We slept well despite yesterday's mouse drama. The morning was chilly, so we took hot tea with us out to the beach and searched for agates. We had no luck, but we did get to watch the female mergansers playing in the waterfalls again.

We were packed and ready to go by 11 am. Today, we planned to hike the Lake Superior Trail west for an overnight at our favorite cabin, Speakers, to be followed by an equally quick return to the heart of the park on the next day.

We crossed the river on the new bridge, perhaps a quarter mile upstream from the river mouth. The new bridge was similar to many other permanent bridges in the park: Two or three large tree trunks stretched horizontally between high platforms on each bank. They were topped with planks, with some thick ropes for railings. The steps leading up to the bridge platforms were so big that they were hard to climb with a full backpack.

The new Big Carp Bridge

West of Big Carp, the Lake Superior trail runs through a grassy and fern-y area just a few dozen yards from the lake. It was flat, easy, and barely muddy. We gawked at a series of campsites along the shore. They all had elaborate driftwood structures that had been built up over the years: barriers to protect fire pits and tent pads from the frigid Lake Superior breeze.

Lake Superior Trail between Big and Little Carp rivers

In just over a mile, we came to the bridge over the Little Carp River. Even though we had barely been on the trail for half an hour, we had to stop and enjoy a snack at this scenic spot.

Leaving our bags near the bridge, we got out some rice cake sandwiches, climbed down a few rocks, and sat right next to the pool below a waterfall. It was a spectacular place: The Lake Superior trail crosses the river at a narrow gap, where the river rushes down a series of waterfalls between high walls of rock and towering hemlocks cling to the steep banks. We enjoyed our rice cakes while listening to the rush of the water, smelling the fresh scent of the trees, and viewing the gorgeous scenery.

Bridge over the Little Carp River

As we were packing up to leave, Sarah pointed at the waterfall pool and said "look!" just as a fish, flapping its tail like mad, tried to swim up the waterfall. Looking closely, we suddenly noticed hundreds of fish hanging out just below the surface. There were so many that their fins stuck out of the water as they jockeyed for position in the prime feeding areas. Every few seconds, one or two would make a run up the waterfall, and inevitably get flung back by the rushing water.

Neither of us have the tiniest bit of knowledge about fish. As far as we were concerned, we were extras in a nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough. Our lazy stop suddenly became an exciting diversion. We hopped up and down the rocks, looking for fish in upstream pools (they were there! some had made it, somehow!) and downstream (thousands!). We cheered on the fish as they powered up the waterfalls. We must have hit things at exactly the right week (if not day) to have this amazing experience.

Here, fishy fishy fish...

We could have easily passed a whole day dallying beside the river -- indeed, we made a note to do exactly that when we passed back through -- but eventually we had to pack up and continue on.

Across the river, the Lake Superior Trail swung inland through an open conifer forest. We crossed a ravine on an awkwardly tilted bridge, and crossed back down to lake level for another lovely, fern-filled walk. So far, none of yesterday's warnings about the Lake Superior Trail had come true. We figured that the people warning us about the mud must have come down the east end of the trail, which we knew from experience was more of a stream than a trail.

Pinkerton Creek (not shown: hundreds of fish)

We soon climbed up the lakeside bluff again, then followed some switchbacks down into the exceedingly fetching valley of Pinkerton Creek. I walked right across this wide, shallow, reddish colored creek in my running shoes, enjoying the pleasantly cool water tickling my toes. Sarah followed shortly, after changing into her sandals. We both stopped in the middle and watched more of the mystery fish swimming upstream The day had heated up somewhat, and the sun shining directly down on us as we stood in the stream felt pleasant after yesterday's cold wetness.

Across the creek, the trail out of the creek's valley had been severely washed out by a recent rainfall, leaving it more like a small ravine with a wet bottom. We struggled up, relying on our hiking poles for support. This marked the beginning of a significant change in the trail.

First came the mud. It wasn't quite as bad as yesterday, but still bad enough to require our attention.

Then came the blowdowns. Trees have no love for trails, and fallen trees are part of life in the wilderness, but this looked like a serious wind storm had come though. Many required a large detour, often through high grass and mud. I recognized some of these fallen trees from the last time I had hiked this trail, in 2015! Was this trail unmaintained? Little did we suspect how bad it would be.

Sarah crossing yet another stream

Finally, there were the stream crossings. Never very large streams, but always unbridged, and usually found in combination with another hazard: Slippery muddy banks, or an inconveniently fallen tree.

None of these were terrible alone, but in combination they demanded our full attention, tested our endurance, and slowed us down to less than 1 mile per hour. Our packs weighed heavily on us, our legs started to burn, and our backs ached. The trail itself was "flat" (except for the stream crossings), but in the end, it was an unexpectedly exhausting stretch. We were left to complete a hot, stagnant, buggy, muddy, tree-filled, stream-crossed slog.


The day continued to warm and the breeze died as we walked farther from the lake (the Lake Superior  Trail is rarely, y'know, actually near Lake Superior). The trail took us through one of the few sections of the Porkies that had been logged extensively, leading to dense brush, heat, and even a few bugs!

The worst part was knowing that we would have to do this all again tomorrow. We were on a spur through to the narrow west end of the park. The only east-west trail is the Lake Superior Trail, and so we would have to return back to the core of the park tomorrow on this same stretch of trail. Mid way through this stretch, Sarah asked if there was any other option for tomorrow's hike, even a longer route, but as I explained above -- there really wasn't.

Bunchberry flower

After several hours, we finally came to the intersection with Speakers Trail. That put us less than half a mile away from our goal for the night, Speakers Cabin. Resting (and snacking) again with our packs off, I pulled out our trail map and took a close look. There was another way -- if we were willing to walk along the South Boundary Road for a few miles. I started to warm up to any plan that would avoid this miserable stretch of trail.

As we snacked and mapped, several people walked by carrying an array of curious items: a cooking grill, a long pole that might have been for spear-fishing, large fluffy pillows. We briefly chatted with them and learned that they were heading to the campsites along Lake Superior that are a very short hike from the Speakers Trail parking area. Close enough, in fact, to return to your car for your forgotten pillows.

We finally suited back up and finished the last half mile of our hike, which was slightly muddy and crossed several streams, but was nowhere near as bad as the last few miles. As I reached Speakers Creek, I heard the whoosh of massive wings as a bald eagle took off from its perch in a tree directly above me, and swooped down along the creek and out to the lake.

Speakers Cabin, from the lakeshore bluff

Speakers Cabin is a little slice of heaven, and one of our favorite Porkies cabins. It is isolated, small, and cozy, with beautiful views north and west over Lake Superior. We dropped our packs and relaxed on the driftwood benches around the cabin's fire pit, enjoying the spectacular views and fresh breeze.

After this pleasant break, we got started with camp chores. "Chores" is too strong of a word: Backpacking and camping come with a variety of required daily activities that I find pleasantly focusing. I started by billy-goating down the bluff to the lakeshore to grab some water for filtering (from the stream's mouth, rather than the lake -- the lakeshore was churned up from wave action). I also filled up our brand new "solar shower" -- essentially a black waterproof bag with a nozzle that, in theory, would absorb heat from the sun and produce warm water for a shower. As I messed around at the creek, I noticed that there were no fish spawning in it -- the only large creek all day that didn't have fish.

Sarah meanwhile had hung a clothesline and started drying our clothes from the past few wet days. Together, we collected driftwood and other down wood and (tried to) cut it up to resupply the cabin's firewood supply. The recent rains made the wood wet and hard to cut, but luckily there was enough wood for one night's fire already in the cabin. We left many other branches out to dry in the sun.

With wood, clothes, shoes, and much else all sitting out in the sun, a sudden rain squall crossed the lake and chased us inside, grabbing clothes and shoes as we did. It cleared up just as quickly, bringing cooler air and a brisk breeze behind it.

Speakers Creek after the rain

Dinner was Mountain House freeze-dried Lasagna, paired with a can of Lake Superior-chilled hard apple cider. It was made even more delicious by the knowledge that its weight was now gone from my pack. As we ate, we watched a variety of birds, large and small, wheeling in circles above the lake. The eagle reappeared, along with a juvenile that it might have been teaching how to hunt. Seagulls, mergansers, a falcon, and who knows what else seemed to be enjoying the fresh air.

With the sun back out (but a cold wind blowing), Sarah gave the solar shower a try. Verdict: lukewarm, but better than nothing.

The sunset was lovely, the kind that is only made better by clouds in just the right places.

Sunset over Lake Superior

Thoroughly chilled by shower and wind, we headed back into the cabin and started a fire in the wood stove. As we warmed by the stove, we talked through the possibilities for tomorrow's hike. We agreed that anything was better than repeating today's exhausting slog. Looking over the trail map in more detail, I started to get excited by the road walk option. Besides avoiding a miserable stretch of trail, walking along the road would also let us hike the Pinkerton Creek trail, one of the few Porkies trails we had never taken (and, apparently, a beautiful one even by Porkies standards). We ended with an agreement to revisit the plan tomorrow morning.

We spent the rest of the evening playing cards, reading, and huddling near the fire. As we went to bed, a light rain started to fall, but I was excited by the possibility of hiking a new trail the next day, rain or shine.

Next time: Let's not and say we did - All backpacking posts

Day 3's hike is in yellow.

Miles hiked: 5.5

Total miles: 16.8

Notable animals: Eagles, many other birds, and SO MANY FISH!!!

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