Sunday, August 29, 2021

Porkies Solo 2021, Day 1: Introduction and Government Peak trailhead to Lost Creek

This is the first of 4 blog posts about my 2021 solo backpacking trip to the Porcupine Mountains. Here are links to each day of this trip:

You can find links to all of my hiking and backpacking trips in the adventure index.

Trap falls

Monday August 9, 2021: Sarah pulled up next to the Government Peak trailhead as we gawked at the cars parked up and down both sides of M-107. I grabbed my backpack, said goodbye, and headed off into the woods.

Six months earlier, in the middle of the 3rd COVID Semester From Hell, Sarah and I stared in disbelief and disappointment at my laptop screen. It displayed the message "We're sorry, but that site is already in somebody else's cart." We had been dreaming of an end-of-summer camping trip to Bay View Campground, a gorgeous and pine-shaded National Forest campground right on Lake Superior at the east end of the Upper Peninsula. You can reserve sites at Bay View 6 months in advance, and we were ready -- down to the exact second -- but we had lost out. Just our favorite site? No, all of the sites. Looking ahead to the second summer of the pandemic, everyone wanted to be camping.

What could we do? I proposed a second backpacking trip (an end-of-summer capstone to our May Porkies trip). Sarah's job involves a lot of work near the end of summer, so she didn't want to be totally offline. Instead, we compromised: I would go on a solo backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains while she stayed nearby at a cabin-motel right on the shores of Lake Superior.

The Porkies weren't quite as full as Bay View, and so I was able to put together a plan: a 4-day solo loop through the east end of the park, covering some of the last few trails that I'd never hiked, and staying in three new backcountry cabins that I'd never visited.

Start of trip photo by The Lovely Sarah

Six months later, that brought us to the shoulder of M-107 at the Government Peak trailhead on a hot and humid August day. The Porkies had been overwhelmed by an onslaught of tourists in Summer 2021, and day hikers were swarming this normally quiet trailhead.

Sarah waved and drove off, heading towards the Sunshine Motel. I checked my straps once more and headed up the Government Peak trail.

The first few tenths of a mile on the Government Peak trail are not kind. They climb an ancient shoreline of Lake Superior -- all red rounded cobbles, and all uphill. In the hot, humid, stagnant air, I was drenched in sweat before I hit the half mile mark.

Taking a cool-down selfie at the top of the hill

It was already mid-afternoon, and the early birds were returning from their dayhikes. I met group after group coming down the trail, many of them walking without shirts in the heat and humidity.

Government Peak trail eventually levels off as it heads through beautiful stands of ancient hemlocks. By the time I reached the bridge over the Big Carp river, I was ready for any excuse to rest. Luckily, I had my Big Fancy Camera ready.

Brush-choked Big Carp River

My big DSLR is heavy. I made our May backpacking trip a bit easier by leaving its 3 pounds of weight at home and using only my phone for photos. I decided to bring along the big camera and make this solo trip into a photography trip. I was willing to stop and get to know places along the trail a bit more than usual.

The Big Carp River varies a lot along its length. This is the river that forms Lake of the Clouds. Below the lake, it's all rapids and waterfalls. Just above the lake, where I was crossing the river, it's a slow, marshy, and brush-choked.

After the Big Carp bridge, the trail cuts inland for a while, before joining up next to an upper reach of the Big Carp. It was no longer a marshy, weed-choked river -- here it felt like a boulder-strewn mountain stream. As with the lower reaches of the Big Carp, this stretch of the river is practically made of rapids and waterfalls. Several beautiful backcountry campsites sit right next to it.

Shady and rocky Big Carp

Soon, I could hear a real waterfall. It appeared around a short bend: Trap Falls, one of the prettiest of Porkies waterfalls. The falls are situated in a secluded valley, with a large pool below the falls that would have been perfect to swim in on this muggy day. Unusually, my trip didn't even get near Lake Superior, so I hadn't brought a swimsuit.

Trap Falls

After meeting so many people coming down the trail, I was surprised to be totally alone at the falls. I spent half of an hour cavorting around the falls, taking the kind of photos that you really do need a (mildly) fancy camera to take. As I did, I cooled down in the spray of the waterfall and the shade of the river gorge until I was refreshed. Trap Falls is truly a magical place, in a park filled with magical places.

Smaller falls above Trap Falls.

After I was thoroughly waterfall-photoed-out, I slowly packed up and headed south again on the Government Peak trail. This was now new trail for me -- I'd last visited Trap Falls with my friend Kyle on our 2016 bushwhacking trip, but we had turned around and returned to the trailhead after visiting the falls.

Beyond Trap Falls, the trail was a walk through a green tunnel. Just a short distance later, I reached the unremarkable intersection with Lost Lake trail. Here Government Peak trail turns sharply west, and Lost Lake splits off to the south. I took the south split.

Lost Lake trail is a little-traveled 3.4 mile connector between nowhere and nothing. That might be a little harsh, but it does connect South Boundary Road near the White Pine Extension outpost campground to the just-as-little-traveled western end of Government Peak trail. Its main features are the Lost Creek yurt and Lost Lake itself. Besides the yurt, there is exactly one campsite along the trail's entire length.

Big Carp: Not so big, but plenty rocky.

What the Lost Lake trail does have is hills. The first bit past the intersection was relatively flat, although overgrown, brushy, narrow, and constantly winding over or around every bump. Soon it began a long descent, bottoming out at a small, rocky creek: yet another crossing of the Big Carp river on its spiral-shaped trip through the park. Beyond the Big Carp, the trail started a Big Climb right out of the Big Carp's valley. The uphill was relentless, and once again I was a sweat-drenched out-of-breath mess after just a few minutes. I paused many times on the uphill, sometimes pretending to look for thimbleberries in case anyone saw me (nobody saw, and I didn't find any berries either).

At long last, I topped out and quickly found the campsite at Lost Lake. I took another break here and pushed through the brushy shoreline to try to get a look at the lake. Lost Lake was indeed beautiful, silent, and calm. It is lost deep in a little-visited corner of the park and would be a lovely place to spend a day, but don't expect to be able to take a swim in it.

Lost Lake -- yes, it's back there beyond the brush!

The trail took me onward, through another long downhill with many bumps, twists, and turns. Soon the trail started following a lovely creek that burbled through a rocky bed. This was Lost Creek, for which the yurt is named.

And then there it was: A sign pointing towards the yurt! ... Except that I couldn't see the yurt at all. I followed the sign's arrow along a faint path, which dove down into the creek's surprisingly deep valley. I crossed the creek (which was barely running) and climbed a steep red-earth bluff. I could just barely see the yurt now, perched ominously at the edge of the bluff.

Lost Creek yurt has a lovely location. Perched high above the creek, the yurt commands a view of the rocky and bumpy forest below it. Perched atop its own platform raised may feet in the air on posts, the yurt also gives a feeling of floating on air. A Mongolian Cloud House, indeed!

I climbed up to the yurt and paused, catching my breath again. The hills, hot weather, and humidity had really gotten to me on this hike. I could start to feel the creeping headache and lack of appetite that indicate the beginning of heat exhaustion.

Lost Creek yurt. Note the awkward window arrangements and the "buck pole" on the right.

Inside the yurt, things were pretty much the same as all other Porkies cabins: Two bunk beds, a wood stove, a table and some chairs. The main difference, besides the circular shape, was that there were no cupboards -- that was replaced by a bear-proof metal box outside.

Just like outside, the air inside the yurt was hot, humid, and absolutely still. My first goal was to figure out how to open the windows! The yurt's windows are screens that are built in to its canvas sides. They are covered on the outside by clear plastic "storm windows" that can, in principle, be rolled up to let in a breeze. With the yurt perched high up on posts, there was no way to reach the storm windows by hand. The clever park rangers had installed some sort of pulleys and cords that should have made it easy to pull the storm windows up from ground level, except that two of the three pulleys had long since broken. Even for the window that did have a working pulley, the cord only pulled up the center -- leaving most of the flexible clear plastic draped over the screen on either side. It took a while, but I figured out ways to get each of the storm windows rolled at least half way up. One of them involved tying a line off to a mysterious structure of 4x4's that looked suspiciously like a buck pole.

My next goal was water. The only water source in easy reach was Lost Creek, which was down a steep hill and barely trickling through its rocky bed. The creek is exceedingly picturesque, but not a very reliable water supply.

I took my gravity filter's dirty bag down and swiped it through a few puddles, trying to avoid the minnows and frogs hanging out there. I had to make several trips and leave the water to settle in a bucket, before I could strain out the miscellaneous "organic matter" that would have clogged the filter.

Quiet Lost Creek

As the water filtered, I unpacked, taking it slow to avoid getting overheated. When the water was done, I decided I should do an "integrity check" on the filter. This involves blowing through it backwards using one of the filter tubes to make sure the filter is still working correctly. A properly functioning filter shouldn't let any air through.

As I blew through the tube, water, then air, started bubbling out the other side! I'll admit, I freaked out for a moment. Having a non-functional filter would basically end my trip. What was happening? How had this happened?

Then I remembered the wise advice that apply to most crises in the woods: Sit down, take a deep breath, and take stock of your options before making any rash decisions.

First thought: How urgent is this? I still had more than a liter of good water in my pack's reservoir, so I could make it through the night. No need to do anything immediate.

Second thought: Without water, I can't continue after tonight. Can I get out of the woods tomorrow morning? I checked my map and saw that the South Boundary Road was just a mile farther down the trail. Should I wake up, hike out, try to hitch a ride to Sarah's motel, and show up at her door? If the filter was truly broken, that was the only safe option.

Third thought: Hey, didn't I pack a few chlorine tablets as a backup? Chlorine tablets can make water safe to drink in a pinch and are incredibly lightweight. I found them, but I'd only packed a few -- nowhere near enough for the full trip.

Fourth thought: Actually, I boil most of the water I needed for meals anyhow. Boiling makes water safe to drink, so all I needed was drinking water. Doing a quick tally, I figured that I could probably get by if I used the chlorine tablets only for unboiled drinking water. I started chlorine-treating a few liters of water right away, since they take hours to fully work.

Finally, I decided to take a careful look at the filter again. Attached inside the filter's storage bag was a piece of paper showing how to check the filter's integrity. It was entirely pictures -- no text at all -- and it took me a while to make out the details. Hm, wait, I didn't remember the integrity check quite right. There was a step before blowing through the filter backwards. First, back-flush a small amount of water... I hadn't done that. I picked up the filter, back-flushed, and blew through the hose again. No air bubbles! I tried again, just to be sure. Still good! My bad result had come from doing the check wrong, not from a truly broken filter.

In the end, my trip was saved by sitting down, not panicking, and carefully reading instructions. Total time from start of freak-out to successful fix: 15 minutes.

Old flagged route sign

With that crisis averted, I set out to explore my surroundings a bit more. Sadly, Lost Creek yurt is built in one of the few logged-out areas of the Porkies. Its surrounding forest is lovely, but clearly second growth. One side of the yurt was bordered by the steep bluff leading down to Lost Creek. Two other sides were high hills or a deep ravine. The fourth option -- east -- took me to the outhouse. But beyond the outhouse... that looked a lot like a wide, straight, and grassy path. I followed it.

Sure enough, I was following an overgrown two-track. Not far down it, I found an old wooden signpost with an arrow labeled "Flagged route". It was marked with a black diamond -- a difficult ski trail. The flagged route (sadly now defunct) was once a long and winding route that allowed truly adventurous skiers and snowshoers to reach the Lost Creek yurt in winter. It was 6 miles long and barely used -- you truly had to be ready to spend a night in the winter woods if you used it, especially since winter days in the Porkies usually have only 8 or 9 hours of daylight. I imagine that all of those features are why the park decided it would be wise to stop renting the Lost Creek yurt in winter. (I later learned that the "buck pole" outside the yurt is probably a ski-stand.)

The road continued while the flagged route turned left and disappeared into the undergrowth. I continued straight on the road. I quickly came to a gate marked with a "no snowmobiles" sign. Just beyond it was the South Boundary road! I'd found it in what felt like half a mile, but not by following the Lost Lake trail. This must have been a road that allowed rangers access to the yurt in off seasons.

Yet another lovely view of the Big Carp river, with moss everywhere!

I hiked slowly back, enjoying the silent woods. At the yurt, a sign specifically warned against preparing food indoors. Perhaps yurts aren't as bearproof as cabins? I moved out to the conveniently located picnic table to boil some water and brought the yurt's log book with me.

Cabin log books are always interesting to read, and Lost Creek yurt's log was no exception. Being so close to the road, it's a destination for first-time backpackers. The pages were filled with awe at the forest, the beauty of Lost Creek and its ravine, and gorgeous fall colors. It was also filled with complaints about bugs! I had been incredibly lucky and felt no bugs on me yet, despite the hot weather and recent rain.

Lost Creek is also a destination for people who haven't yet realized that they should be using a backpack. Log after log included details of the clever ways people tried to haul their stuff in to the yurt. Wagons were especially popular, as were wheeled luggage and even a wheeled cooler. Inevitably these all failed to make it over the rough trail, and the unfortunate visitors ended up making multiple trips back and forth, carrying items in by hand. "Learn from our mistakes!" was written on more than one page.

A surprising number of logs casually mentioned the 5, 6, or more people who stayed in the yurt. It's a 4 bunk yurt, and there is definitely no room for any more people. The state park specifically forbids camping in a yurt's "yard", too. (Wheeled items, like wagons and luggage, are also forbidden, but using them on Porkies trails is generally its own punishment.)

Wild cranberries

One thing that was totally missing from the logs was any mention of mice. Porkies cabins typically have a healthy mouse population living in their walls, but yurts are tighter and leave no space for mice to hang around. I was glad to see, for once, that I didn't have to worry about the furry little pests.

Dinner was freeze-dried lasagna. I forced myself to eat a full bag. I didn't really want to eat anything, but I knew that part of getting out from under heat exhaustion was to stay hydrated and well-fed.

As I ate, I stopped to think through my day's hike and write down a few notes. Despite the miserably hot and humid weather, it had truly been an exceptional hike. The combination of Government Peak trail and Lost Lake trail crosses the park from north to south, showcasing almost everything the park has to offer. It is rugged and hilly, but worth the effort. I'd do the hike again in a heartbeat. Plus, today I had passed my own milestone: I turned 40, backpacking through the woods. It felt appropriate.

I spent the rest of the evening reading and relaxing inside the yurt. The forest was silent -- not even a breeze -- except for the occasional "who cooks for you?" of a barred owl. The yurt was just as hot inside as outside, so I had trouble getting to sleep in the stagnant air and ended up reading deep into the night.

Miles hiked: 5.1 trail + 1 dayhike
Total miles: 6.1

Day 1's hike in yellow, plus a day hike to the boundary road