Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Porcupine Mountains Solo April 2022, Days 3 and 4: Escarpment snowshoe and home

 Last time: Too many waterfalls, too much driving - All backpacking posts

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

Frozen Lake of the Clouds, a sight rarely seen by hikers

Sunday April 24, 2022: I woke up refreshed from a great night of sleep. The night was cool, not cold, but the wind howled and Lake Superior's waves crashed. Rainstorms blew through during the night, leaving the air fresh and clean. It was wonderful.

I had been contemplating two options for today's hike. Both involved hiking down the (still closed) M-107 to the Government Peak trailhead. But what would I do from there? Option one was to follow Government Peak trail south to Trap falls, a scenic waterfall that should be roaring. Option B was to instead head up onto the Escarpment and enjoy one of the premiere hikes in all of Michigan.

I'm sure you can tell what I chose: Escarpment! My actual decision-making process went more like this: I've seen a lot of waterfalls. And I've even seen Trap Falls in spring before. Plus the Escarpment... well, it's the Escarpment. And so the choice was made.

I hiked out to my car and drove all of a half a mile down M-107 to the Whitetail Cabin parking area (the entrance to Union Bay campground, where I was parked, is also on M-107). I pulled in to the small parking lot, got out my daypack and snowshoes, and headed around the barricade.

Icy M-107, looking towards the Escarpment.
Also notice the different trees on each side.

Like all Porkies roads, M-107 is a snowmobile trail in the winter. That means it's not plowed, and the snow machines pack it down into a feet-thick crust of snow and ice. This packed crust takes quite a while to melt -- much longer than a regular snow-covered road -- and so the park roads are usually closed until the middle of May.

Snowmobiles (and snowmobilers) are also notorious for dropping bits and pieces of equipment all over the road. On this hike, I found bits of tread, broken pieces of head- and taillights, a spark plug cable (!), headphones, a cell phone charger cable, and so many pointy tire studs.

The road started out partly clear, with piles of snow along the edges. That filled in quickly, and by a mile into the hike, I finally had to put on my snowshoes (learning my lesson from the mistake I'd made on Friday). 

The day was gray and warm. I had packed for essentially any weather -- rain gear, coat, fluffy layer, t-shirt. The exertion of snowshoeing uphill caused me to shed layers. As the sun started to peek out from the dense layer of gray clouds, I wondered if I should have brought sunblock!

Not today!

It was an eerie feeling to walk -- on snowshoes! -- down the center of a state highway, with nobody else in sight. No people, no cars, no man-made noise. This road is often so packed in fall that the backups last for miles. Today, I was completely alone.

Even though I've driven M-107 dozens of times in my life, the view on foot was so different than the view from a car that it might as well have been a totally different road. I slowly walked past the scenery and got to see it more clearly. I could look deep into the woods, see the details, pause to inspect each seasonal stream-turned-waterfall. It was a unique experience.

This stream barely exists any other time of the year

This pleasant amble eventually brought me to the Government Peak trailhead, where there was ample evidence that snowmobilers had enjoyed it throughout the winter. I paused for a quick snack, then picked up my gear and headed up the trail. 

Government Peak trail itself, always steep and rocky as it climbs up ancient lakeshores, was an absolute river in the spring melt. The water ran over, under, and around the remaining snow. I kept my snowshoes on for traction as I trudged upwards, and I was glad to be wearing waterproof winter boots as well. I relied on my hiking poles constantly for support, balance, and a little extra push uphill.

The first uphill on Government Peak trail.
Everything that isn't snow is covered with running water.

Oh yeah, the mileage signs. Porkies trail signs are notorious for being both inaccurate and inconsistent. Here's the first sign you see, right at the Government Peak trailhead. Notice that the Escarpment trail turnoff is just 0.1 miles away, and Trap falls is 2.25 miles:

Escarpment trail: 0.1 mi, Trap falls: 2.25 mi

After hiking that 0.1 mile and reaching the Escarpment turnoff, there's another sign, below. Magically, Trap falls has gotten 0.15 miles farther away than it was 0.1 miles ago!

My advice: Use the signs as only the most general suggestion, and never trust them when it's critical.

The Escarpment trail was another steep, rocky river of meltwater. Here I had another unique experience: snowshoeing across a boardwalk.

Snowshoes suggested

As I gained elevation, the trail started to clear up. I was suddenly snowshoeing on bare rocks! I took off the snowshoes and carried them as far as the next turn in the trail, where I was presented with a solid trail of snow and ice. I put the snowshoes right back on again.

I finally topped out at the edge of the Escarpment, a south-facing trail. That meant that it was snow-free (although the tread was ofter filled with meltwater). Confident that I wouldn't need the snowshoes, and not wanting to hand-carry them for the next several miles, I took a break and figured out how to tie them onto the back of my daypack.

Selfie with snowshoes and Lake of the Clouds

The Escarpment was as gorgeous as ever. I stopped often to enjoy views of the Big Carp River valley. With no leaves on the trees and all of the brush down, I could see much farther than in the summer. I was even able to catch some views out towards Lake Superior, and back east towards White Pine.

East towards White Pine (the old mine stack is just barely visible in the center)

I took my time and enjoyed every moment of the hike. I moseyed and dallied my way 2 miles to the halfway point, where the trail takes a steep plunge down into a valley between two "mountains." By this time the skies were well on their way to clearing, and the spring forest was bathed in warm sunshine. It was warm enough that I took off my fleece.

Government Peak in the distance

On the way down into the valley, I quickly started encountering snow again. In fact, the entire valley was filled with squishy snow.

The valley halfway along the Escarpment is absolutely filled with old mining remnants and I couldn't help but see them through the clear, brush-free woods. A collapsed shaft first caught my eye, then an old adit. I wandered off-trail, examining every mine and relic I could find while postholing the whole way in the squishy snow. I ran into a bubbling spring stream, which I followed partway down to the old Carp Lake Mine site. I'd been all the way down to the bottom of the Escarpment before, long ago, and seen the remains of the steam-powered stamp mill that still lives there.

Today I decided that my quickly tiring legs didn't need the extra trouble of hiking all the way to the bottom, and it would be too wet and mushy anyhow. So I turned around, headed back uphill (still postholing the whole way) and found the sign that marks the shortcut trail leading to M-107.

Here, quite belatedly, I undid my snowshoes from my daypack and put them on. Thus it was that I came to be snowshoeing in a t-shirt, surrounded by brilliant sun, blue sky, and snow as far as the eye could see.

Upper Big Carp river

I had a choice facing me: I could begin my trip home by heading downhill towards M-107. Or, I could continue along the Escarpment by heading uphill -- way uphill -- to the top of Cloud Peak. It had become such a beautiful day that I decided I couldn't possibly miss the views from one of the highest points along the Escarpment. So, uphill I climbed, slowly but surely.

I soon popped out into the large swath of open rock at the top of Cloud Peak, the long-ago site of the original Lake of the Clouds overlook. The sky had continued clearing, and I was presented with a clear blue sky and spectacular views of the distant Lake of the Clouds -- which was still frozen!

I found a ledge of rock with a particularly good view and sat down to enjoy lunch (peanut butter and rice cakes, with meat sticks and gorp). I rested and soaked up the sun and the incredible setting. The contrast between the blue sky, the warm sun, and the frozen lake were both jarring and wonderful.

Frozen Lake of the Clouds

I watched birds circling high above the Big Carp River -- but below me. Ravens, hawks, and (I think) a bald eagle all circled, looking for food or just riding the thermals. I'm not sure about the bald eagle because, well, how often have you seen one from above?! A sandhill crane flew past, parallel to the cliff and at eye level to me, croaking its spooky rattling call the whole way.

Before, during, and after lunch, I took so many photos. With such an iconic view staring me in the face, how could I resist? As I took photos, the wind gusted more and more, until it was almost blowing me over (thankfully, it was blowing away from the edge of the cliff).

After a glorious half hour in the most beautiful place in the world, the wind gusts finally convinced me it was time to turn around and head home. I packed up, strapped on my snowshoes, and headed back down to the valley, and then down the half-way trail.

The half-way trail turned out to be a river. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised; it's the lowest point along the Escarpment. In addition to all the water coming down from the halfway-valley, the trail also collects water from every spring rivulet along the hill. At some points, I was literally wading through water along the trail. Thank goodness for waterproof snow boots!

At the very bottom of the trail, this small set of wooden steps had become a waterfall:

Water pouring down from the Escarpment into the ditch that these boards cross.

I came out on M-107, which was solid ice at this point. I made a short detour out on to the red rock piles of the Meade Mine to enjoy the Lake Superior view (the mine is now a gated bat cave). After that, I started the long snowshoe slog home along M-107. It was still sunny and beautiful, but boy were my legs tired. Even so, it was still a fantastic walk along the strangely silent road. It truly was a perfect day, brought to me by the unexpected silence, the chance to pause and rest and enjoy every spring waterfall, and the beauty of the deep woods.

As I neared my car, I saw the first other humans of my day, a distant group of 5 people who were likely slogging their way along the Deeryard ski loop in boots. I never caught up with them.

Back at my car, I checked my GPS: 10.4 miles! I had hiked all of 2, maybe 2.5 miles on the Escarpment itself, and the rest was getting there and back. No wonder I felt so tired!

One last view of the Escarpment

Back at the yurt, I split more firewood to leave for the next campers. I also (finally) got up the courage to clean out the disgusting half-burned trash from the fire pit, which I put in a bag and threw away in a campground trash can. Was that so hard?

Dinner was a new freeze-dried meal: Alpine Aire Chicken Pot Pie, which was delicious! (As is any freeze-dried food after a 10+ mile day, so maybe don't take my review too seriously.) I paired it with an icy cold beer that I had stuck in a snowbank earlier in the day.

The heavy meal and heavy beer conspired to make my eyelids heavy too. Knowing it was supposed to be a cold night, I decided to start a fire in the wood stove before going to bed. I was successful -- and adding heat to full stomach and beer made me even more sleepy.

I fell asleep quickly, but kept waking up when the fire burned down and the cold crept in. I would stir the embers, add another log, and go back to sleep again. It was hard to keep the temperature comfortable.

Moody Lake Superior

Monday April 25, 2022: After a long night of tossing, turning, and tending the fire, I was ready to head out and find coffee! I left a few notes in the log book as I ate a quick breakfast. I was packed and out of the yurt by 8 am. 

I walked through the deserted campground one last time. The air was cool and breezy. I took the path closest to the lake, which was foggy and gray.

My first stop on the long trip home was at Camp Coffee, a tiny coffee-selling trailer parked in a wrecker's front lot in L'Anse. The trailer was quite popular, but I eventually got my coffee and enjoyed it on the drive across the UP. The rest of the drive was long but uneventful, and I was back in Grand Rapids in time to enjoy evening rush hour.

From Day 2 -- the Presque Isle River's "dry" mouth

Final thoughts: Every trip to the Porkies is different, and I haven't had a bad one yet. Bad days, yes, with hard slogs and exhaustion. Likewise, this trip had ups and downs, but the visit as a whole was excellent.

This was my first Porkies visit in early spring. I knew I was rolling the dice with weather and trail conditions. I was lucky to get generally good weather (excellent weather for my Escarpment hike), but the late and cold spring kept the roads closed and caused me to be snowshoeing rather than hiking.

As it turned out, early spring was the perfect time for solitude. Compared to my busy visit last August, the difference was astonishing. The park was nearly deserted this April because early spring is a tough time in the Porkies. The roads are all closed, but the snow is too melty for snow sports. It's hard to get anywhere, and when you get there, the trails are made of mush, mud, and meltwater.

So if you're up for adventure (and wetness) and know what you're getting into, early spring is great. It's not for the faint of heart, though.

My 10+ mile Escarpment hike is one of my favorite Porkies hikes I've ever done. The solitude, beauty, perfect weather, and amazing experience of snowshoeing in a t-shirt all made the hike unforgettable. It was also an excellent chance to slowly walk along a state highway, alone, and enjoy scenery I might usually see only as a blur through a car window. My hike to the Union River waterfalls was another good long-distance hike, filled with interesting scenery and hard work. Even the middle day -- filled with too many waterfalls and too much driving -- was still better than not being in the Porkies.

Union Bay East Yurt was a new "cabin" for me, although I'd stayed in its next-door twin (Union Bay West yurt) before. It was especially lovely at this time of year, because Union Bay campground was closed. In the regular season, the yurt would be too close to the business and noise of the campground.

Another warning: Union Bay East, like all of the park's yurts, claims to fit 4 people. It's certainly possible -- it does have 4 bunks after all -- but it would be more than a little tight, especially if bad weather drives everyone indoors. Unlike cabins, the yurts don't have any meaningful storage space, or really space at all. I'm not sure where four people could even stash their packs!

To sum it up: This was a unique trip, one I won't likely have the chance to do again for many years, if ever. I'm glad I did it, and I highly recommend something similar for the adventurous Porkies hiker.

Miles hiked: 11.2 (10.4 on the Escarpment and M-107!)

Total miles: 24.1

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