Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Porcupine Mountains Solo April 2022, Day 2: Presque Isle and Black River Waterfalls

Last time:  Union Mine waterfallsAll backpacking posts

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

One of the Presque Isle waterfalls, although heaven knows which one

Saturday April 23, 2022: I slept well, snuggled into my incredibly cozy camping quilt. The night was colder than predicted, and my brain kept waking me up to tend the wood stove fire. Occasional rainstorms sped through, pitter-pattering on my yurt's roof. Lake Superior absolutely roared all night long, with white caps crashing against the shore. As one log book entry put it, "some people pay hundreds of dollars for a white noise generator as good as Lake Superior."

I finally awoke to this view -- not one that most campers would be excited about. I have no idea why these curtains are in the yurt:

Aaaaaah, a bear! (Actually an ad for "Yukon Thunder" soap in curtain form.)

The woodstove was cold and the morning was chilly. I restarted the fire from embers (zero matches!) and got the yurt warmed up in no time. On-and-off rain continued as the wind gusted and Lake Superior attacked the shore. I took my time enjoying breakfast (mush, I mean, oatmeal), reading, and generally having a lazy morning.

When things looked dry enough, I headed out on the day's adventure: more waterfalls! This time my target was the many waterfalls on the Presque Isle River, at the opposite end of the park. Because the park's roads were still locked in with ice and snow, I took the long way around (compare to the usual South Boundary Road route in red):

The long way to the west side of the park

As I drove, the sun unexpectedly came out. Wisps of fog and mist streamed across the road as the rain and sun encountered frozen ground and snow.

An hour later, I arrived at the gated and locked entrance to the Presque Isle campground. I was far from the only person to have the idea to visit the Presque Isle waterfalls today -- I parked behind a line of 4 or 5 other cars. The road to the campground itself was still covered in several inches of ice and snow.

I wore rain pants and a rain coat along with my day pack. The most recent weather forecast called for a gray but warm day with occasional rain, clearing up in the afternoon. It was already getting sunny, but I decided not to chance it.

Presque Isle River Rapids

I've seen the Presque Isle waterfalls before, but the West River trail is always a pleasant walk. The river was roaring with spring melt, as thousands upon thousands of gallons of water roared over every rapid and waterfall. I spent lots of time taking photos, but like yesterday, the unexpectedly sunny sky gave me trouble. It also warmed me up, until I eventually had to take off all of my rain gear.

Part of yet another waterfall on the Presque Isle river

I eventually reached the suspension bridge to the "almost" island that gives Presque Isle its name. Here I did something new: I walked the island down toward the river mouth, which was surprisingly quiet and calm. Not a soul was around, and I could scarcely believe that the lazy river that emptied into the lake was the same as the roaring torrent just a few hundred yards upstream.

The "dry" side of the river

I sat down on a convenient patch of grass and ate my usual camping lunch -- rice cakes with peanut butter -- while I watched the river flow past. It was immensely enjoyable: quiet, solitary, and beautiful. In retrospect, it was the best part of the day.

The "island" in the middle of the Presque Isle river's mouth divides the river in two. Most times of the year, the east branch of the river is totally dry, and you can walk across the riverbed in peace. Today, this "dry" side of the river was running high, a sure sign of just how much melt water was pouring down from the highlands. I eventually got up from my quiet patch of grass and hiked upstream, until I came to a waterfall I had never seen before. In most times of the year, this is bare and dry rock:

Not dry this time!

I climbed carefully down to a ledge near the waterfall and tried to take photos of the rushing water. Today, the waterfall was running so hard that I couldn't keep the camera lens dry -- which is why you get the blurry photo! As I sat down here, a family I'd been playing leapfrog with all day appeared, featuring a 2-ish year old who proceeded to throw a stick directly at me. The parents, staring at the waterfall, didn't seem to notice nor care.

Normally, hikers cross over to the east side of the river by walking across the dry riverbed. That wasn't possible this time, so I backtracked along the west bank, enjoying the waterfalls a second time.

View from the Presque Isle suspension bridge

By the time I got back to the car, there were still many hours of daylight left -- so many that it felt silly to drive back and sit in my yurt. So, I decided to check out one of my "stretch" goals for the trip: the waterfalls along the Black River, which I had never before seen. The Black River runs roughly parallel to the Presque Isle river, just a few miles west of the park.

A few miles as the crow flies, that is. No drivable roads head directly west to the Black River and the Black River Scenic Byway that runs along it (although the North Country Trail makes a nice beeline that way). Once again I ended up taking the loooooong way around:

Crow-flying distance from start to finish: About 5 miles.

The whole route took nearly an hour on the road, but the trip took much longer than that in total. That's because waterfall after waterfall pours down the Black River, and I stopped at (almost) every one. The National Forest Service has done a nice job of building up each of the waterfall areas with a parking area, a quarter-mile of trail, and an enormous flight of steps down to the river.

I ooh'd and aah'd at almost every waterfalls (I accidentally blasted right past Great Conglomerate falls). However, each waterfall's parking area was closed for the winter, so cars had to find their own ways to park wherever was clear. Sometimes I had to walk an extra mile, other times I just had to try not to fall down an icy flight of stairs.

Sandstone Falls on the Black River

I was perfectly nice. Well, mostly. Certainly the scenery was beautiful, the woods deep, the rocks dramatic, the rivers roaring. Nothing to complain about, right?

The problem was... well, there were two problems. First, much like everything else in the western UP, the Black River was absolutely filled with the meltwater from a long, hard, and snowy winter. This sounds like a good thing: Water is what makes waterfalls waterfalls, right? More falling water = more waterfall. That's true, but often the best part of waterfalls is not about the amount of water, but what the water looks like.

There was so much water running down the waterfalls that they had almost no definition or shape. The rocks that give the waterfalls form, the eddies and rapids that give them interest--they were all hidden under thousands upon thousands of gallons of rushing whitewater, spray, and foam. The sheer volume was impressive (and loud!), of course, but there's really only so many ways for a few zillion gallons of water to rush over a ledge.

Rainbow Falls on the Black River

When I got home several days later, I looked up photos of the waterfalls in other times of years, and they were much more interesting than what I saw. More than once I said "oh, that's what the waterfall is supposed to look like!" Fall would be a perfect season to view the Black River waterfalls; early spring is not.

The second problem was more about the format of the trip. In the end, the day's waterfall visits got more than a little repetitive: Drive a couple of miles, find the next access road, figure out how to park without getting stuck in the snow, hike in to the real parking lot, hike down 100 steep steps to a viewing platform, spend a few minutes seeing yet another roaring waterfall, and then reverse all of the steps.

I was getting tired at this point, but I also just didn't enjoy the repetition. Unlike yesterday's wonderful hike to the Union River, today's hike was broken up into many short segments, punctuated by short drives. I should have realized this long ago, but I really prefer one long hike to many small ones. Spend some time on my feet, get to really see a place from the ground, get into "nature" mode. It's just not fun to stop and start constantly, switching my mind between the details of driving and the joy of hiking. That's what the Black River waterfalls had me doing, and it did not do the trick for me.

There's quite a large drop-off between foreground and distance

I finally made it all the way to the end of the road -- Black River Harbor, once the site of a struggling fishing village, now the site of a nicely maintained park. A wedding party clung to each other in the increasing windy day. I briefly walked around the park, checked out a suspension bridge across the river (to me it looked just like the one at Presque Isle), and then I got back in the car to undo the entire trip.

I did do one very un-camping thing: I stopped at the Burger King in Ironwood for a good old fashioned greasy dinner. After just one day of camping, it was still amazing.

As I started the long drive home (of course, it was the looooooong way), the sprinkles and wind turned into downpours and blasts. Thunder, lightening, wind gusts, and even more fog and mist! The weather only added to my discontented mood. I drove slowly along M-28 until I finally outran the nasty weather.

Waterfall detail

I stopped by Headquarters to top up my water supply, which is when the torrential rain caught up with me again. At least I had a rain coat with me. It must have been a narrow line of storms, because shortly after the torrential rain caught up with me -- in fact, just after I'd finally filled up my water pack -- the storm blew past and left just a light mist.

I parked back at Union Bay and walked across the campground, pondering how I enjoyed Friday's waterfall hike so much more than today's. As I did, I noticed two things:

First, most of the shelf ice and icebergs that were present yesterday were gone. Blown out to sea or melted away (or both)? Either way, the spring melt continued unabated.

Second, a group of birds feeding on the ground flew up in front of me, leaving this strange birdie to forage on its own:

Mystery bird

Any clue what it is? It was almost like a white version of a Goldfinch, but larger. My best bet is some sort of albino or mutant.

The evening continued windy with occasional rain showers blowing through. I had expected today to be gray but dry, so once again the forecast was... imprecise. I spent most of the evening indoors, except for a brief burst of hauling and splitting more firewood between showers.

The night was warm enough that I didn't light a fire. I fell asleep to the howling wind and roaring waves crashing against the shore. Even a less-than-stellar day that ended in a cozy yurt next to Lake Superior was still pretty good by any standards.

View through the yurt's roof window

Next time: Snowshoes and sunburn - All backpacking posts

Miles hiked: 6 (3.1 at Presque Isle, 2.1 along Black River, and 0.8 back and forth to the car)

Total miles: 12.9

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Porcupine Mountains Solo April 2022, Day 1: Intro and Union Mine Waterfalls

This is the first of 3 posts about my solo visit to the Porcupine Mountains in April 2022.

More coming soon! Until then, check out my full list of adventure posts.

An unnamed Porcupine Mountains waterfall on the Little Union River

In "real life," I'm a math professor. I teach for a living. But in Winter semester of 2022, I got an opportunity that only comes around once every 7 or 8 years: A semester without teaching. As part of this "sabbatical," my entire job was to sit down and write a book about teaching. This meant that I could truly set my own schedule. The Lovely Sarah (who sadly did not have a sabbatical) encouraged me to make the most of this flexible semester, especially by taking trips that I might not otherwise be able to do.

The first trip was a "writing retreat" to the Keweenaw in late February. I spent half of my time writing, and the other half snowshoeing (and the third half coughing). More on that later, perhaps.

My second trip -- the one I'm writing about here -- happened near the end of Winter semester, late April 2022. Right around final exam week, I decided I'd rather be anywhere else. So I reserved the Union Bay East yurt at the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park -- my favorite bit of wilderness anywhere -- and headed north for a Spring adventure.

An early Spring adventure, that is. Previously I'd visited the Porkies in mid-Spring: Once with Kyle, and once with Sarah (and a late spring visit just last year). We'd gotten lucky on each of those trips, which turned out sunny and dry. I knew that I was rolling the dice with an April trip to the UP. The winter of 2021-22 turned out to be one of the snowiest in recent years -- over 300 inches in the western UP! -- and spring was long and cold. During the winter, the roads around the Porkies are snowmobile trails, and they get so packed down that it takes months for them to melt and open to vehicles again. Some years the weather warms quickly and the roads open early, but not this year. By the time I left for the UP, not even a single mile of the 25-mile South Boundary Road was clear enough to drive on. The forecast continued to call for cold, rain, and possibly even snow.

An unnamed rapid on the Union River

Thursday April 21, 2022: So it was that I headed north with the full expectation that I'd be stuck indoors most of the time. Oh well, a weekend stuck next to beautiful Lake Superior wouldn't be so bad, especially since my yurt had a wood stove.

I stayed the night with my parents-in-law in Newberry. Everything there had melted except their snow piles, but what piles they were! My parents-in-law expressed a bit of concern: Did I really know what I was getting into?

Friday April 22, 2022: On Earth Day 2022, I woke up early, enjoyed a lovely breakfast with my parents-in-law, and headed west towards the Porkies. The drive was easy and I made great time, stopping only to grab another coffee and a donut at the Huron Mountain Bakery in Marquette.

I arrived at the park by early afternoon and checked in at Headquarters. The Visitor Center is only open May 15 - October 14, so campers have to stop by the much less grand HQ building to check in during the long, long winter.

My yurt was located right next door to the Union Bay campground, but the campground was also closed for the season. I parked at the muddy Folk School parking lot, right outside the locked gates to the campground. I hefted on my backpack (yes, I packed for backpacking) and walked across the campground, which was also soggy with melt water. 

Union Bay East yurt. The green box is the "chuckwagon" (a bear-proof storage box).

The yurt was just as expected: a big round tent-like thing perched on a bluff just above the Greatest Lake. It was my first time at the Union Bay East yurt, and I was welcomed with a gray sky and a cool breeze.

Yurt interior with skylight (it's a plastic bubble)

I quickly set up the basics and was back outside as quickly as possible. I still had daylight left, and it wasn't raining too much -- why waste it?

I parked just outside of Headquarters, in front of the barricades and signs warning that South Boundary Road was closed to vehicles. A couple was just heading up the road on mountain bikes, one of them with a trailer attached.

I put my own gear together: A daypack (yes, I brought a daypack in addition to my backpack!) filled with a camera, lenses, and everything I would need in case I had to spend a night in the woods. I wore a light raincoat, rain pants, and of course snowshoes! I was wearing winter boots and decided carry the snowshoes for now, since the road looked walkable at the start. I also brought along a sub that I'd bought in L'Anse but never eaten, chewing it quickly as I headed south along the icy snowmobile trail that is South Boundary Road.

Starting out clear... ... 1 mile later, getting icy...

The Porcupine Mountains climb higher and higher as you move south from the lake towards the interior highlands. As a result, the farther you get from Lake Superior, the more snow there is. Sound Boundary road follows exactly this path. Near Lake Superior it was remarkably clear, with only snowy shoulders. But as I walked away from the lake (always south, always uphill), it became more and more snowy and icy.

... 3+ inches of ice with snow on top (and a bonus deer).

Around the first bend, I found a ski trail crossing and quickly checked it out. The trail was snowy, slushy, and muddy where water flowed underneath the snow. I kept postholing -- my feet breaking through the snow and into the mud -- so I stomped back out to the road and continued walking.

At this point, I made a strange decision that (in retrospect) I can't explain at all. I set my snowshoes by the side of the road and left them, to be picked up later. Somehow thinking that I wouldn't need them -- even after the ski trail experience!

A little farther up the road, I caught up with the mountain bikers, who had stopped and were unpacking gear from their mini bike trailer. We chatted pleasantly for a while, while they switched from riding bikes to hauling sleds, complete with snowshoes strapped on top. They were heading in to a nearby cabin. "We're glampers" one told me, contrary to all evidence. I wished them luck and continued on to my goal, the Union Mine trail.

I soon found where the trail crossed the road, and popped down to check out the Union River. This is where I finally realized my snowshoe mistake. The snow was still a foot or two deep, mushy and wet. Snowshoes would work wonders -- but I was at least a mile away from my snowshoes, and I didn't want to walk two miles (back and forth) to get them. Oh well -- I forged onward, slipping, sliding, and sometimes sinking up to my knees.

The Union Mine's "waterwheel" waterfall

The Union River was as beautiful as ever, shaded by tall hemlocks and gushing over an endless series of rapids and slides. I had indeed hit things at just about the peak of the melt. Out came my Serious Camera, and I started getting back into photography mode.

This is where I first noticed the huge temperature difference between the road (warm!) and anywhere down near the river (cold!). It made sense -- could air sinks -- but I've rarely felt such a pronounced difference.

I crossed to the other side of the road and continued following the Union Mine interpretive trail, postholing the whole way. The trail follows the Union River for a while, and that river is basically made of waterfalls through here. They were roaring.

The Union Mine trail turns away from the river eventually and then rejoins the Little Union River near an old mine shaft. One of the largest waterfalls in the Porkies runs through a deep gorge here, although in most seasons it is just a trickle. It wasn't a trickle today, and I spent quite a while enjoying (and photographing) it.

A waterfall that barely exists for most of the year

In every blog post I write about Porkies waterfalls, I'm obligated to quote Jim Dufresne's excellent Porkies guidebook:

"Downstate [Porkies waterfalls] would be the centerpiece of a state park, but here they are so commonplace they are unnamed and left off the park maps."

None of the waterfalls I saw today had names, and especially not this beautiful and quite large seasonal waterfall.

Here I turned off-trail, following the Little Union River downstream to Dan's Cabin. This is the luxurious backwoods accommodation for Porkies Artists-in-Residence, named in honor of the late Porkies photographer (and founder of the Friends of the Porkies) Dan Urbanski. The cabin sits just next to the "hall of waterfalls" on the Little Union River that thoroughly enchanted me when I visited with Kyle, and captured me again on this much snowier visit.

Dan's Cabin

At this point, an oddly bad thing happened: The sun came out! While that was lovely and pleasant and all, it was actually a problem for photographing waterfalls: Too much sunlight makes it hard to take a long exposure, which gives that wonderful milky blur to the water. I wandered around a while and finally gave up. I left by following a ski trail out to the road.

I returned the way I'd come, heading downhill back towards Lake Superior. I crossed a different branch of the Union Mine trail and popped in quickly to check out yet another of the Porkies' biggest waterfalls, which was also roaring (and is also little more than a trickle in the summer).

Another huge waterfall that is usually just a trickle

Back on the road, I trudged along, quite tired from all of the snow slogging. A deer watched me warily, and I noticed some tracks that were either from a very large dog--or a wolf!

I eventually made it back to my much-missed snowshoes, which I picked up and trudged back to my car. My final mileage to, from, and along the 1-mile Union Mine interpretive trail was 5.7 miles. Nonetheless, the hike satisfied me in a very specific way: A long, tough hike to get to a beautiful place that is inaccessible by any other means, and plenty of time enjoying that place. This was an excellent beginning to my Porkies visit, and I'd barely been here for half of a day!

I drove back to Headquarters and took advantage of a wonderful feature: Free potable water! I filled up my water filter's "clean" bag from the always-available faucet just outside the main entrance. Four free liters, no filtering required.

Back at Union Bay campground, I parked and walked in again. I met a father and son trudging out, heavily laden with gear and food. They had been staying at the Union Bay West yurt -- my neighbors -- but were leaving early. They offered me their well-dried firewood, knowing that cool weather was coming. I thanked them for the offer and continued on. Nobody else would be in the West yurt all weekend.

Detail of yet another waterfall

With plenty of daylight left, and with nicely warm temperatures for the moment, I settled in at the yurt's picnic table and read the cabin's log books. There was a brand new log book, just a few days old. The most recent visitors to the yurt were three students from Michigan Tech who had visited the Porkies as part of an Ecology class. That's a class I'd have liked to take! There was also an older log book, fully filled, that stretched all the way back to 2018. I ate dinner as I read (freeze-dried lasagna -- adequate, if not amazing) and enjoyed stories of camping trips long past. Perhaps because the yurt is so close to a modern campground and parking lot, the logs lacked many of the tales of struggle and poor planning that feature in so many many backcountry cabin logbooks.

After dinner, I hauled in some fresh firewood. The park provides wood for heating the cabins that are open in the winter. The wood was fairly wet, despite the large tarp covering the pile. The logs were split, but still much too large to be useful in the wood stove. I spent some re-splitting the wood with the yurt's axe, and then hauled in a large pile that would need several days to dry.

The yurt's fire pit, on the other hand, was disgusting. Someone had left an enormous amount of unburned napkins or paper, which had gotten wet and soggy. There was also a partly burned plastic bag and styrofoam meat tray (they never burn! stop trying!) and some mysterious food remnants. Maybe a lobster shell?

What not to do with a fire pit. Click to enlarge, if you dare.

I vowed to clean out the fire pit before I left. For now, I left it: When you don't have regular running water and soap, you think really hard before getting your hands that messy.

At one point, just for the heck of it, I turned on my cell phone. Magically, I had one tiny bar of service! (I've never had cell service anywhere in the Porkies, except for a few occasional high points like Government Peak.) Apparently this stretch of Lake Superior shoreline catches some distant tower's signal. I checked in with Sarah, who was preparing for the next day's final exams, and then went right back into airplane mode. Why waste Porkies time on doomscrolling?

Evening slowly slid in. It was hard to tell, with the uniformly gray sky. There was no sunset to speak of. The wind slowly increased and the waves roared against the rocky shore.

The temperature remained moderate, but I knew it would be cool tonight. I moved inside and got a small fire started in the wood stove -- one match! (The detailed instructions in the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion have served me quite well over the years.) I fed it logs slowly all evening while I sat and read on my Kindle.

Inside the yurt: Two bunks, a wood stove, and a table.

Eventually I snuggled in to my bed: A highly insulated air mattress (the yurt's mattresses were as rock-hard as ever) and a 0-degree camping quilt. Together with the small bit of heat from the wood stove, I was as snug as a backpacker could hope to be.

Next time: Day 2 - Too many waterfalls!

Miles hiked: 6.9 (including 1.2 miles just back and forth to the car)

Total miles: 6.9