Friday, September 17, 2021

Porkies Solo 2021, Day 2: Lost Creek to Mirror Lake

All backpacking posts - Last time: Hot, humid, and bug-free.

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

Lost Creek Yurt, perched high on a hill.

Tuesday August 10, 2021: It was a hot night with no breeze, and I tossed and turned in the stuffy Lost Creek yurt. I woke around dawn feeling bleary, headachey, and totally without an appetite. But, what was there to do? I got dressed, forced down a quick breakfast, wrote in the log, and headed out on the trail.

Today's goal was the Mirror Lake 4 bunk cabin, just under 8 hot and sweaty miles away. I knew from the pre-trip forecasts that there would likely be storms in the late afternoon, but with such an early start I wasn't too worried about them.

I started by retracing yesterday's steps up Lost Lake trail. It was even more beautiful in the morning light, and just as hilly. I started with a long, slow, twisty uphill to Lost Lake (still beautiful and glassy-smooth), followed by a steep downhill to the rocky Big Carp crossing, then another long slow uphill to the intersection with Government Peak trail. Along the way, I met not a single mosquito, a minor miracle even in August.

Trailside fern

Today was even hotter and more humid than yesterday, so I was already drenched with sweat after the first uphill. Once I reached the Government Peak trail, I leaned my backpack against a signpost and stood in the middle of the trail, since there wasn't anywhere better to rest. I nibbled a small snack, but my headache and lack of appetite had stuck around. With a sigh, I strapped on my pack and continued west on the Government Peak trail.

Jim Dufresne's guidebook to the Porcupine Mountains describes the west end of the Government Peak trail as "lightly traveled" with brush so thick that it "obscures the path". Today the trail was a quiet walk through a green tunnel, bumpy but not particularly difficult. The extra traffic from another COVID summer seemed to have kept it clear, and I never had trouble finding my way.

Beaver pond

The air remained hot and stagnant until the trail wound its way around the edge of a large beaver pond. The open pond was oriented in just the right way to let a light breeze blow across the trail. I took off my pack and enjoyed a slight airing-out as I ate some convenient trailside blackberries. According to my map, these grassy ponds were some of the headwaters of the Big Carp river. I enjoyed seeing the river in so many different forms on this trip.

Just beyond the beaver ponds was a backcountry campsite filled with two harried-looking adults (parents? trip leaders?) and a swarm of elementary school-aged kids. The kids had discovered that some large plastic bags fit tightly over the tops of their heads, standing up straight in the air like a chef's hat. One ran up to me and yelled "DO YOU LIKE MY HAIR??!"

Remembering some advice a ranger once gave me, I asked the adults how they were doing, and where they were headed today. "OK... Mirror Lake?" one told me hesitantly. Mirror Lake was about 3 miles away, which seemed like a good plan. I wished them luck, told the kids to stay stylish, and headed on. As I left, I realized that they were the first people I'd seen since early yesterday afternoon -- as busy as the Porkies were this year, not much of the traffic made it out this far.

Government peak, such as it is.

Shortly afterwards, the flat and easy trail started to climb a mountain. Well, a "mountain" in a state whose highest point is below 2000 feet, but still... Government Peak, which gives the trail its name, is definitely steep and the trail goes directly over it.

I was ready for another break by the time I reached the top (heat, humidity, no breeze... you've heard the story). There is no view whatsoever from the "peak," but there are the footings of an old fire tower, two campsites, and lots of convenient logs to sit on. I sat down and forced myself to eat some lunch and drink some water. I spent some time talking to an extremely friendly chipmunk, but it wasn't much for conversation.

I discovered that I had the tiniest sliver of cell service at the top of the mountain, so I sent texts to Sarah and my parents: "Hello from Government Peak! Hot and humid. All is well."

Soooooo... got any spare food, buddy?

After a nice long sit down, I was feeling pretty good. I packed up, said goodbye to my friend the chipmunk, and headed down the wrong trail entirely. Whoops, that led to another campsite! Back on the right trail, I knee-bent my way down another steep section before bottoming out near another lovely beaver pond (also a headwater of the Big Carp). Near that pond sat four youngish hikers. Leaning in to being an informal ranger for the day, I greeted them with a hearty hello and asked where they were headed. They were hiking all the way past Trap Falls and up the Escarpment -- a long hike on a hot day. I told them a bit about the trail ahead (including, sadly, informing them that Government Peak had no views) and wished them well.

The trail became a different kind of tunnel of green after this point, changing from deciduous trees to evergreens. I soon passed a campsite and caught a whiff of a campfire. The campsite was empty, but the recent occupants had left their fire smoldering! Annoyed, and knowing that the northlands had been exceptionally dry -- eventually leading to wildfires in the Boundary Waters and on Isle Royale -- I stopped and put out the fire in a tried-and-true fashion known to Boy Scouts everywhere. (Side note: I was never a boy scout.) A few steps down the trail, I felt a few sprinkles of rain.

I crossed a stagnant and muddy stream that drained a small swamp and continued down the tunnel of green. Without any fanfare, I suddenly arrived at the intersection with the North Mirror Lake trail. I was within a mile of my endpoint for the day! As I turned onto the trail, I passed a highly tattooed solo hiker. I know he was tattooed because he wasn't wearing a shirt (much like many of the hikers I'd met yesterday). As we passed, the sprinkles turned up the intensity a bit. We grinned at each other and said "time for a shower!".

Mirror Lake boardwalk with Goldenrod and Swamp Milkweed

The North Mirror Lake trail crosses a wetland on a long boardwalk just outside of Mirror Lake. I heard some voices ahead and decided to pause before starting down the narrow boardwalk. Two young women appeared around a bend of the boardwalk just as the gentle rain turned into a sudden shower. The women dashed past with a quick "hello", running for the shelter of the trees.

I took my time walking across the boardwalk, enjoying the wildflowers. Wetlands can be gorgeous at any time, and these were even more beautiful as the rain momentarily abated and the sun peeked out.

Asters in the swamp

It didn't last for long though. Just as I exited the boardwalk, thunder rolled and the skies opened up, quickly soaking me in a torrential downpour! The storms predicted for late afternoon had arrived early.

I was a bit worried about the thunder, but the drenching was nice. It was like a shower -- and after the last day of hot, sweaty, humid hiking, I was ready for a rinse.

Nonetheless, I picked up the pace. There aren't many good places to be outside in a thunderstorm. Dense hemlocks saved me from some of the rain, and as I power-walked past I saw a deer huddling up  just off the trail. It stared at me as if to say "What are you doing out in this rain? At least I live here!" before finally bolting deeper into the forest.

As I raced along a wooded bluff above the north side of Mirror Lake, I passed a tent which had been quickly pitched (with rain fly, of course!) right next to the trail. An unhappy-looking pair of backpackers huddled inside.

Trailside waterfall (taken after the rain stopped)

I crossed Trail Creek -- almost there! -- and met a group of six college-aged hikers crossing the other way. They looked  utterly bedraggled in the streaming rain. I tried (and failed) to lighten things up by greeting them with the old hiker's mantra: "Embrace the suck!" They were not amused.

I finally squished up to my goal, the Mirror Lake 4 Bunk Cabin, with the torrential rain still dumping buckets all over me. I spent more time than I should have trying to get the key out of a pack pocket, and then messing with a sticky lock. But at that point, what did I care about a few more gallons of water down my neck?

The Mirror Lake 4 Bunk was new to me. It is a true log cabin, one of the older park cabins, and beautifully aged. It had been unavailable for our May trip due to repairs. I noticed that some of the logs near the foundation had been replaced. As I entered, I could see that the cabin backed up against a huge hill. Some newly installed pipes ran behind the cabin and up the hill. Held down by rocks, they were apparently intended to divert water that streamed down from the huge hill behind the cabin.

Interior of Mirror Lake 4 Bunk -- a true log cabin

The 4 Bunk is also dark. Like many cabins, it has big banks of windows -- but for some reason they face east and west into dense forest. As I looked out, the thunder and lightening returned with a vengeance. Thunder shook the walls and rattled the windows, and a wall of rain blotted out most of the daylight.

I found the cabin's lone chair sitting immediately in front of one of the few south-facing windows and dropped my soaked pack on it.

My pack was supposed to be water-resistant. But just to be safe, I had lined it with a large plastic trash bag, and put essential items (like my camping quilt) in their own plastic bags. As I delicately opened the pack, I found that not a single drip of water had even made it onto the liner bag -- victory!

I carefully stripped down and changed into my wonderfully dry spare clothes. I hung up my sopping wet clothes on a convenient clothes line strung between rafters. I carefully removed everything from the pack, and hung the pack itself to drip-dry on one of the many pegs set in to the log walls.

My seat by the "bright" window

I found the cabin's log book in a unique spot: on a small lectern, apparently purpose-built and attached right to the wall. My body was exhausted, and as I opened the log book my exhaustion manifested itself in an intense concentration on the stories in the log book. I sat down in the light of the front window and dove into the log's stories.

In contrast to the Mirror Lake 2 Bunk (aka the "Love Shack") where Sarah and I have stayed in several times, the 4 Bunk is located within sight of the lake -- and right on the trail. As I was intently reading the log book, someone suddenly shouted "Hello! Anybody here?" just outside the cabin. I was so surprised that I nearly fell out of my chair. By some strange reflex I also shouted "Hello!" right back, but there was no response.

Collecting my wits, I looked up in time to see a couple of backpackers racing away down the trail. They must have been looking for a shelter in the still-streaming rain, but for some reason they decided to yell in the cabin's side window rather than coming up to the front window (where they would have seen me sitting). Deciding nobody was there, they left quickly.

As I read, I dried off, and as I dried I become chilled (in addition to feeling headachy, tired, and appetiteless). I curled up on one of the bunks under my quilt, intending to read and warm up. Instead it became an unintended nap, from which I woke up an hour later, feeling much better.

Mirror Lake 4 bunk, after the rain

It was still raining, but much more lightly, and the thunder had stopped. Feeling newly energized, I suited up in rain gear and headed outside. My first goal was to filter some water. I headed to Trail Creek, which is clearer and easier to reach than the lake itself. Along the way, I passed the 8 Bunk cabin and noticed a huge pile of used freeze-dried meal bags sitting in its fire pit. Not only do those bags not burn, but they would easily attract bears and other wildlife. I hoped it was very temporary storage.

The creek itself wasn't flowing as well as I'd hoped, but it was good enough. As I grabbed water in my "dirty" bag, several groups trooped past, all of them looking bedraggled and unhappy. There isn't much more misery for a backpacker than having to take down your campsite in the rain, walk in the rain, and then set up again in the rain. Everything will be soaked for days.

Tree growing on tree

Once I'd returned to the cabin and filtered the water (with the filter working perfectly fine), the rain finally stopped and a bit of sun peeked through the clouds. I saw some more groups hiking past the cabin, including the big group of young kids, all in high spirits (but without fancy headwear any longer).

I grabbed my camera and took a walk around the cabin area. The "4 Bunk Mountain" that backs up right behind the cabin looked enticing, so I climbed it. There weren't many good sights, but I did enjoy wandering around in the beautiful post-rain woods.

I eventually headed back to the cabin and set myself up with the log book by the window again. I kept the main cabin door open for more light and a better breeze, but left the screen door closed. As I read, I head a slight scritch-scratching coming from the door. I leaned over to look, and found a chipmunk staring back at me from inside the cabin! It squeaked and ran for the door. It was able to slip right under the screen door and back to its home in the brush in front of the cabin. I stuffed life preservers (for the cabin's row boat) into the crack under the door, in hopes that they would keep the chipmunk out.

A small shoulder of 4-Bunk Mountain

Once the sun had dried things even more, I moved outside to the convenient benches surrounding the cabin's fire pit. The storms had washed out some of the heat and humidity, and left behind a pleasant breeze. I continued reading the log book and my own Kindle, and eventually made and ate dinner outside as well (freeze-dried macaroni and cheese -- first half of a pack, and then the second half too -- my appetite was back!).

As I sat back digesting, a fellow and his young daughter walked up to the cabin. Once they introduced themselves, I recognized Zach and Stella from the most recent entry in the log book: They'd been here last night! They had moved to the 2 Bunk due to some confusion about not being able to stay in a cabin for more than one night (you can!).

Today, they'd had some luck fishing and now were looking to borrow some cooking oil that had been left in the cabin -- and also to share their fish! I gladly got out the cooking oil (one of several bottles left in the cupboards by past renters) but explained that I'd already eaten an enormous amount of carbs and cheese and had no space left. We ended up sitting and chatting for a good long while, about their trip so far, the cabins, the lake, and the Porkies as a whole. It was the first time in more than a day that I'd had an interaction lasting laster longer than a minute.

Sunset on Mirror Lake

As dusk started to fall, Zach and Stella headed back to their cabin to cook the fish. I wandered down to the shore. The sky had fully cleared -- in fact, it had cleared too much, and there was hardly a sunset to speak of! Good sunsets require clouds. I did notice a ray of sunlight reflecting off something in the distant hills, and realized it was the Summit Peak viewing tower. I never realized that it could be seen from Mirror Lake, and I enjoyed imagining people up on top of the tower squinting and trying to make me out, standing on the shore of the lake.

As I stood enjoying the silent evening, an enormous crash echoed across the lake: A tree falling in the woods. As I tried to locate where it had happened, a second tree crashed down to the ground as well. Those trees fell in the woods, but somebody was around to hear them.

Feeling better than I had in 24 hours, I went back to the cabin and settled in for the night with a water bottle and a book.

Miles hiked: 7.7 trail + 1 dayhike
Total miles: 14.8

Day 2's hike in green