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.

Find a link to the next one at the bottom, or check out my full list of adventures.

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. (Edit: I wrote it up! Enjoy: A snowshoeing and writing retreat in the Keweenaw.)

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

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