Monday, October 11, 2021

Porkies Solo 2021, Day 3: Mirror Lake to Lake of the Clouds

All backpacking posts - Last time: Bath by Thunderstorm.

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

A ravine from one of today's many adventures

Wednesday August 11, 2021: I slept long and hard in the Mirror Lake 4 Bunk. I woke up well after dawn and found a cool but cloudy morning. I felt great, headache-free, and actually hungry for the first time in days. It turned out that this was perfect, because today would be absolutely filled with excellent adventures! I started with...

The adventure of the lazy morning! I knew today's hike would be short, so I spent a lazy morning enjoying tea and oatmeal on the bench near the fire pit. I read more in the log book and enjoyed a book on my Kindle.

Oh, and I cleaned out the wood stove, too. I opened the stove's door on a whim and discovered that it was filled with foil, empty freeze-dried food packets, styrofoam, and other partially combusted junk. None of these items actually burn, but that doesn't stop people from trying (and conveniently forgetting when it doesn't work). I crammed the scraps into my trash bag, then started sorting through the fire pit for good measure. In the end I had a full trash bag and incredibly dirty hands, but at least things were (on average) a bit cleaner than when I arrived.

I stuffed the trash bag in the side pocket of my pack and walked down to the lake to wash my hands. The clouds were low in the sky and mist hung heavily over the lake. A pair of loons were on patrol, and their haunting calls echoed across the lake.

When I had done all of the cleaning and reading I could manage, I decided it was time to go. I left a note in the log book, swept the floor as thoroughly as can be done in a 70+ year old log cabin, and went to pick up my pack. Right on cue, thunder crashed and a torrential downpour started.

With a shrug, I pulled my Kindle out of my pack and settled in to read some more. I really wasn't in a hurry.

Farewell selfie with cabin, from the Mirror Lake shore

A fast-moving thunderstorm swept through, bringing a reprise of yesterday's heavy rain. The wind whipped through the cabin, and I had to seal up the windows. But just as quickly as it arrived, the storm blew past, leaving the sun to peek through the clouds.

Tentatively, I picked up my pack, strapped it on, and took one last look at the cabin. Mirror Lake 4 bunk had been a nice enough place, and an excellent shelter in a storm. It was a beautiful true log cabin. But in the end, its dim setting, proximity to the trail, but strange lack of view of the lake all conspired to make it not one of my favorites.

It was noon, and today's route was simple: Follow the North Mirror Lake trail downhill all the way from the interior highlands to Lake of the Clouds. My cabin for the night was the super-popular Lake of the Clouds cabin, which was my 3rd new cabin on this trip.

The trails were a bit muddy, but only in the top layer -- after weeks of little rain, the water soaked in quickly. This was nothing like the boot-sucking mud after a good Porkies spring melt.

Wetland boardwalk

I passed through the beautiful wetland again, and paused to enjoy each wildflower along the way. Then it was up a hill, past Government Peak trail, and down a long stretch of green tunnel. I crossed a small stream that drains a swamp, and which also marks two important points in the trail: The start of the steep downhill to Lake of the Clouds, and the start of the enormous ravine that runs just west of the trail for nearly its entire descent.

The enormous downhill is exactly what it sounds like: One extremely long downhill hike over roots and rocks, as you lose almost all elevation between the central highlands and Lake of the Clouds. The entire way down, the trail parallels an enormous ravine cut by a tiny, unnamed tributary of Scott Creek.

I had tried to explore the ravine before on several occasions, but never made it very far. This time, when I reached the bottom of the enormous downhill, I was ready for a rest. And of course, by a "rest", I meant dropping my pack and scrambling back up the ravine.

A picturesque ravine (path to mine shaft hiding on the left)

The adventure in the ravine! At the bottom of the downhill, the ravine becomes a shallow stream bed. I dropped my bright red backpack in an obvious location (to make it easy for rescuers to find -- yes, that was my thought process), pulled out my Big Camera, and turned up the stream. The stream bed was mossy and slick, so I took my time as I enjoyed the views.

A slight digression: In 2015, USA Today hosted a well-publicized competition to determine "America's Best State Park." The Porkies nearly won, beat only by an upstate New York park named Letchworth State Park, the "Grand Canyon of the East." The next year, Sarah and I decided it was worth taking a trip to visit this place, and along the way we visited the 3rd place winner as well: Watkins Glen State Park, also in upstate New York. Letchworth and Watkins Glen were indeed spectacular. The defining feature of both were trails that followed deep canyons, cut by rivers deep into bedrock. Over the years, New Deal agencies and others had built similarly spectacular stone walkways and bridges that wound through the canyons.

Ravine again

The beauty of the Porkies is quite different from the New York state parks. The Porkies are all about cliffs, lakes, and forests -- they really don't have anything like those canyons. Or so I thought, until I climbed up this ravine. The ravine reminded me exactly of what the canyons of Watkins Glen and Letchworth must have looked like before the WPA and CCC tamed them with walkways and bridges. The high rocky walls were fractured into huge brick-like blocks. Narrow rays of sunlight snuck through the fast-moving clouds and highlighted the moss that covered walls, along with the ferns that grew from every crack. The stream bed was filled with massive boulders covered thick with moss, surrounded by cobbles and tiny burbling waterfalls. The air was cool and humid, filled with the scent of green things.

An unusual feature along the side of the ravine caught my eye: A very regularly shaped wall of rock and debris surrounding a water-filled pit. I realized that this was, almost certainly, the Devon mine -- an extremely short-lived copper mine from the 1840's. I'd actually visited this ravine many years ago to search for this mine, but didn't make it this far. The Devon lasted less than a year -- probably not enough to realize that their shaft would be drowned by the spring floods each year.

Ferns clinging to the ravine wall

The ravine was a magical hidden place in the middle of another magical hidden place. I spent half an hour slowly climbing up the ravine, taking photos, and breathing deeply in the humid air trapped in its tall walls.

Eventually, I found a convenient spot to climb up the side of the ravine -- probably an old access trail to the mine shaft, now basically a goat path. I followed the trail back down to my backpack, where I enjoyed a rice-cake-and-peanut-butter lunch to go with my mellow bushwhacking glow.

The next mile or so of trail was nothing to write home about. I reached my last major waypoint: The bridge across the Big Carp River at the west end of Lake of the Clouds. This is a long bridge across a beautiful place. The Big Carp is grassy and slow here, winding below the tall bulk of the Escarpment. High above, I could see tiny people at the Lake of the Clouds viewing platform.

One of my original goals for this trip was to photograph the sunrise from this very bridge. The wonderful Photographer's Ephemeris showed me that the next morning, the sun would rise just behind the Escarpment, and would be perfectly aligned down the axis of the lake just a few minutes later.

Photographer's Ephemeris showing the sunrise direction and 30 minutes later (yellow lines).

All this ran through my head as I looked east from the bridge and saw this lovely view:

Carp River, looking towards (but not at) Lake of the Clouds

Beautiful, yes, but with no view of the lake at all. I must have forgotten from my previous visits. It sadly did not suit my vision of a spectacular sunrise highlighting the waters of the lake below the towering Escarpment.

Mildly discouraged, I continued across the bridge and followed the maze of trails below the Escarpment until I found the turn-off to the Lake of the Clouds cabin. The cabin's access trail was rather long -- it's not right on the trail like so many others. Around a bend, the cabin came into view, along with its breathtaking view:

Lake of the Clouds cabin

I set down my pack and walked out to the shore, which had a perfect view down the length of the lake. Problem solved: I could take sunrise photos from the comfort of my cabin's front yard tomorrow morning!

The Lake of the Clouds cabin has always been one of the most popular cabins in the park, for good reasons. It has a nearly perfect setting right next to the Porkies' showcase lake. The cabin has the usual huge banks of windows, but unlike the Mirror Lake 4 Bunk, these windows flooded the cabin with afternoon light and a perfect view of the lake. The sky had been in the process of clearing all day, and while the wind kept blowing, the sun was bright and direct.

Mystery board

Inside, the cabin showed some signs of special attention from the park. It had been upgraded with a ceiling and a few other nice touches. A board was attached to the wall, just below a window, with hinges. Chains connected it to the wall above the window, keeping it horizontal -- I can only guess it was a folding writing desk, something that no other cabin, much less most houses, have. There were actual topographic maps for hikers to use, and a full unopened package of firewood that some poor soul had backpacked in from the parking lot, half a mile and several hundred feet above the cabin.

I spent a while reading the log book and resting. This led to... 

The adventure of the treasure hunt for fresh water! Tucked in next to the most recent log was a piece of cardstock with a detailed map showing how to find a fresh water spring on the far side of the lake. The map was meant to help people use the cabin's row boat to avoid the supposedly poor-tasting lake water.

Treasure map for fresh water

I needed water, so it was time to go find this spring! The wind was blowing hard across the lake, and I didn't want to take the cabin's row boat out by myself. Instead, I opted to walk back across the bridge, around the end of the lake, and along the opposite shore. There are several backcountry campsites there, so I followed the trail past them. The map soon took me off trail, following faded pieces of flagging tape tied on tree branches (and no trail whatsoever -- nothing visible to this experienced bushwhacker). The ground was squishy; clearly this was a place with a high water table.

Big Carp Bridge with the Lake of the Clouds overlook high above

A few hundred yards up the hill from Lake of the Clouds, there was the spring! It was covered by a wooden box set into the ground, with a long plastic pipe coming out of it. There was no water coming out of the pipe, so I opened the lid of the box, disturbing several frogs, and carefully scooped some water from its depths. The map had led me perfectly to the spot (metaphorically) marked by "X", which held backpacker's gold: clean(-ish) water.

The spring!

Before I returned to the cabin, I made my way down to the lakeshore and looked across at the cabin, picturesquely nestled between the shore and the towering Escarpment. While the cabin was in a dense area of forest, not far to the east of the cabin was a huge pile of scree flowing down from the Escarpment and reaching all the way to the lake. I made a mental note to check it out later.

Back at the cabin, I filtered the water -- no need to risk an unpleasant stomach bug, even with spring water. I confirmed that it was indeed quite tasty and frog free.

Picturesque log

Not willing to waste any time in this beautiful place, I set right out on my next adventure:

The adventure of the scree piles! I was intrigued by the scree pile east of the cabin, and with a beautiful afternoon still in front of me, I wasted no time in setting out to find it. I started by following the trail to the cabin's outhouse, which went in the right direction. A faint trail continued beyond it, getting fainter quite fast as years worth of adventurers had given up. Soon it was a good ol' Copper Country bushwhack for me, with the bushes getting denser and the terrain getting steeper as the Escarpment and lake pinched together. Eventually I couldn't even make any forward progress. I stumbled my way down to the lake shore -- and at least gravity helped me do that -- and splashed into the lake. There was a narrow, rocky, but shallow area along the shoreline. It required a bit of balance to walk on the cobble-filled lake bed, but in my magical quick-drying shoes I was able to wade the rest of the way to the scree.

The scree pile was like an alien landscape. The scree slopes were made from massive piles of broken  rock that had fallen from the high towers of the Escarpment, hundreds of feet overhead. The chunks formed an enormous pile at the base of the cliffs, a pile that made it nearly all the way to the lake shore. Only a narrow band of "flat" land escaped the rock pile, and that was covered with reindeer lichen and low-growing scrub brush.

The rocks were mostly exposed to the late afternoon sun, with only small patches of evergreens and brush along the lake. The piles were hemmed in by sharp lines of dense forest on the east and west sides -- some different rock must be exposed in just this one part of the Escarpment, making the rock more fragile.
View of the Escarpment with scree pile

Most amazing to me was the trail. A very clear and very old trail wound its way along the bottom of the scree pile, cutting a path through the lichen. It was just a slightly dished area of rock, but clearly different from the rock around it. It ran around obstacles and trees for a few hundred yards. It didn't start anywhere nor end anywhere. It didn't disappear into the woods -- it just faded away on the rocks. It didn't even cross the whole scree pile. What was it for? Was this perhaps an old trail used by miners at the nearby Carp Lake Mine? Hunter's paths? (It would be a foolish deer that would be caught out in this open rock.) Old trails leading from Cloud Peak, the former site of the Lake of the Clouds overlook?

I spent a long while scrambling up and down the rock, enjoying the views, pondering the trail, and eating a few wild raspberries that were attempting to make a living growing from the rock.

Eventually, I waded back along the shore, making the return trip in a fraction of the time of my original bushwhack. It had been quite a satisfying day for adventuring off-trail.

Looking at the lake from the scree pile

When I got back, I was ready for dinner: freeze-dried spaghetti. I ate outside, enjoying the beautiful evening light and reading the log book. The log was filled with more than the usual array of wacky stories. Folks arriving long after dark -- in the winter -- without winter gear. People bringing wheeled suitcases down from the Escarpment. Folks carting in gallons and gallons of pre-filtered water. So many carried-in firewood bundles. The Lake of the Clouds cabin seems easy to get to, if you have no idea where it's located.

And now for the story of my final mini-adventure of the day:

The adventure of the outhouse! Yes, this is a story about going to the bathroom. Stick with me here. After dinner, I felt nature's call. I went to the cabin's outhouse, and immediately went running back out of it, desperately trying not to vomit. It was horrendous. After a long and hot summer filled with daily visitors, the outhouse was nearly overflowing with both second-hand food and flies.

That didn't solve my problem. Let's just say that, #1: This was not something I could easily use a tree for, and #2: I wasn't about to dig a cathole in the rocky soil next to the cabin.

But I did know that there were decent bathrooms not that far away, at the ever-popular Lake of the Clouds overlook. They were merely a 3/4 mile hike away... and also 500+ feet above me.

Well, that pretty much made up my mind for me. I quickly packed a day-pack with toilet paper (just in case!), my trash bag (to be disposed in the parking lot trash cans), my camera (for obvious reasons), and my headlamp (because it was already getting dim).

Lake of the Clouds from the overlook

Then I set out on the trail, moving fast. The hike up the Escarpment isn't easy at the best of times, but I was motivated. I passed a groups of parents and bored-looking kids coming down to check out the sunset from the Big Carp bridge. I whizzed up to the Escarpment Trail intersection and then zipped even faster up the steps to the overlook -- all of which felt rather longer than expected. I streamed along the boardwalk. A few late-day tourists looked on as I practically ran into the bathroom building (which, I was happy to find, was unlocked).

The Lake of the Cloud bathrooms are still outhouses, but of the cold-composting variety found at Mirror Lake. Most importantly, they don't smell! What joy.

A few minutes later, I emerged and dumped my overflowing trash bag into the overflowing bear-proof trash can. That was a few pounds gone!

I took my time on the way back. I enjoyed the late-evening light from the overlook and listened to the conversations of late-evening tourists who were astonished at the beauty before them. "I don't know what I expected, but there are just so many trees!" said one man. I too wondered what he was expecting.

Looking across Lake of the Clouds

Sarah and I had seen an advertisement in the Visitor Center for ranger-guided meteorite viewing tonight. It would happen at this very overlook at 10:30 pm tonight. We agreed that we might meet up for it -- but no requirement. After the hassle of climbing up in the light, I decided I wanted nothing to do with hiking back down in the dark. Alas, Sarah would have to stargaze by herself (if she came at all).

As I enjoyed the scenery, a younger couple wearing backpacks chatted about where their campsite was located. That concerned me a bit, since it was already 8:30 pm. As it turned out, their campsite was just a few hundred yards down the trail -- I saw them setting up as I passed by on my way down the Escarpment again. I also passed the parents and bored kids, now looking more sullen than bored, as they climbed their way back up from the Big Carp bridge.

I made it safely back to the cabin with a little daylight to spare, feeling much better all around. I settled in to bed with a book and enjoyed a light evening breeze as I drifted off to sleep.

Miles hiked: 3.8 trail + 4.5 dayhikes (!)
Total miles: 23.1

Day 3's main hike in pink, with many day hikes not shown