Friday, May 31, 2024

Porkies Solo 2024, Day 1: Intro and Lake of the Clouds to Mirror Lake

This is the first of 5 posts about my solo backpacking trip to the Porcupine Mountains in May 2024. There's a link to the next one at the bottom of each post, or take a look at this list of all of my adventures.

Mackinac Bridge, floating in fog

You know how people tend to remember an event mainly by how it ends rather than how they feel throughout the event? In unrelated news, my May 2024 solo backpacking trip to the Porcupine Mountains was fantastic!

Last year, a friend of The Lovely Sarah went on sabbatical in Korea. Sarah's friend invited her to come visit, and Sarah embraced the opportunity with gusto. So it was that in late May, I dropped off Sarah at the airport and bade her goodbye for 10 days and the trip of a lifetime.

Sarah's trip covered our usual late-May spring backpacking trip time slot. What was I to do? I didn't think too hard: I planned a solo backpacking trip to my very favorite place in the world, the Porcupine Mountains.

This solo trip was a chance to hike the last major trail in the Porkies that I'd never before hiked: the Cross Trail. This trail is notorious for being barely maintained, not to mention that it goes straight through the middle of the Memenga Swamp. While I'm not a completionist, I was curious to see just how bad this trail was -- plus the ability to say that I've hiked the entire park did sound kind of nice.

As always, I would hike between rustic cabins, and I'd have a chance to try out some new cabins too (OK, maybe I am a bit of a completionist). The cabins are in high demand, so I wasn't able to reserve everything that I'd hoped for -- the Mirror Lake 8-bunk will have to wait for another day, which I guess is fair for a solo hiker -- but I was still able to put together a decent 5-day loop that would include the Cross Trail and one new cabin. I would also have a rest day at the mouth of the Big Carp river, one of my very favorite places in the park.

I didn't make any major changes to my tried and true packing list. I stuck with my now old-faithful lightweight trail running shoes, which do great in wet and muddy conditions. Likewise, I brought lots of rain gear and my zero degree quilt, expecting wet days and cold nights.

Speaking of wet and cold, the weather forecast for my trip settled into a nearly solid wall of rain:

Well, that's to be expected in the spring. Maybe I would get lucky and there'd be a few nice days... right?

Saturday May 18, 2024: A day after dropping Sarah off at the airport, I packed my own bags and headed north. I stopped at a scenic overlook just outside of St. Ignace to enjoy lunch in my car. From the overlook, the Mackinac Bridge seemed to be floating in fog.

While the air was cool at the Straits, the rest of the UP was in the middle of a heat wave. I turned on the AC as I headed west. But as I pulled up to the Super 8 in Houghton for the evening, a wall of thunderstorms rolled in just behind me, breaking the heat with a drenching downpour. Welcome to spring in the UP!

I managed to fit in a couple of short walks around town between downpours, enjoying the old familiar sights. I also grabbed a small pizza for dinner from the Studio, my favorite pizza place in the Keweenaw (which has now mysteriously merged with my favorite coffee place in the Keweenaw -- what a combo).

The Portage Lake Lift Bridge, between storms

Sunday May 19, 2024: The storms cleared out overnight, and I woke up to a sunny and cool morning. I grabbed adequate coffee from not-my-favorite coffee place, because it was open (while my favorite coffee place, again mysteriously, decided that opening at noon on Sunday was the right call).

I headed out of town on my way to another important food-related stop: the Bosio Biscuit Company, recently opened by an old college friend in Tapiola. If that location doesn't ring a bell, you can be excused -- it's a 4-corners in the middle of southern Houghton county, not on any of the main highways. It is, however, extremely worth the detour. I had a great but brief time catching up, and then took my biscuits and gravy to go. I ended up eating them at the Ontonagon Township Park, a lovely view of the lake with delicious food.

Maybe you can tell, but I was kind of stocking up on good food experiences in anticipation of a week of mushy oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter and meat sticks for lunch, and freeze-dried dinners. I had packed one luxury -- a small can of beer -- to enjoy at some point.

That dread of camping food was also a symptom of a bigger cloud that hung over this trip. For some reason, I just wasn't excited about it. Oh, it had been fun to plan and prepare... but once I was actually on the road, I felt like dragging my feet. I just wasn't into it, and I wasn't sure why. Maybe the bad weather? The expectation of bugs and mud? The long, long drives, all alone without my favorite backpacking buddy? Regardless, I pushed on.

I arrived at the Porkies Visitor Center by about 11 am, checked in, and drove around to my starting trailhead at the Lake of the Clouds overlook. As soon as I set foot out of the car, bugs swarmed my face. None of them bit, but they wanted to be really, really close to my eyeballs. Gnats and non-biting flies seemed to be the main offenders. Luckily, I had packed my head net for exactly this reason, and I put it on posthaste.

View from the Big Carp River bridge looking towards Lake of the Clouds

With my 25 pound pack on my back, I first took a quick look over the overlook, then down the steep drop-off from the Escarpment towards North Mirror Lake. I met several groups on that steep descent and chatted with each of them, many of them expressing envy at my bug net. The biggest group, 6 high school or college-aged students, were resting at the very bottom of the trail before heading steeply up and out. We stopped to talk for a while, and their questions gave me a chance to put in a plug for Superior Wilderness Designs, who made my fantastic pack.

This was my first time hiking the North Mirror Lake trail north to south, although I'd done it many times in the other direction. After the steep 300 foot drop from the overlook, it regains nearly double that elevation as it heads up to the interior highlands. I took it slow and enjoyed familiar waypoints along this route, including the sunny and scenic bridge over the Big Carp river and the deep canyon carved by an entirely unnamed stream.

Canyon along the North Mirror Lake trail

As I slowly trudged upward, I met more hikers. I played leapfrog with two younger hikers who looked rather unprepared: Their shoes appeared to be brand new, they were wearing shorts and sweaters (?!) and had no bug nets at all. One time when I passed them, I stopped to chat and gauge whether they were OK. They were, so I headed onwards trusting that they could make their own decisions. Later, I met two bug-net-covered hikers taking a break next to the trail. One of them -- if I understood right -- was going all the way up to the overlook to "bring back" another group, which would be quite a serious round trip.

Once I had topped out, the trail got muddy, although it was far from bad. I trudged through the middle of it all in my lightweight trail runners, using hiking poles to keep my balance in the slippery puddles. It looked like I had missed out on the best of the spring wildflowers, but a few showed up in this wet section. Even better, just outside of Mirror Lake, the North Mirror Lake trail crosses a swamp on a long boardwalk. This swamp is beautiful and filled with wildflowers in every season, and this year didn't disappoint.

Spring Beauties

I made my way over Trail Creek, past the 8 and 4 bunk cabins, beyond the turnoff to the Correction Line trail, and down the spur to the Mirror Lake 2-bunk cabin. Sarah and I had stayed here twice before. It is a curious cabin -- originally a very small ranger cabin, later expanded by adding a second room that now holds the woodstove, table, and wood bin. It's quite a ways away from the lake in a quiet and isolated setting.

I appreciated that the cabin provided protection from the bugs, but I soon discovered that was mainly because all of the gnats and flies that had made it into the cabin were beating against one sunny window, trying to get out. At least they weren't bugging me -- and the cabin came supplied with a flyswatter!

Once I got in and unpacked, I did the essential first steps of camping: I filtered some water from Trail Creek, and hauled in some firewood. While the forecast for tonight was fairly warm (50 degrees), it's always smart to stock up.

Inside the Mirror Lake two-room, er, two-bunk

After that, I did a bit of wandering up and down the shoreline, checked out the bridge over the Little Carp River, and generally paced restlessly. I continued to feel strange, even a bit depressed. I wasn't eager to do anything interesting like taking a dayhike or exploring the lakeshore, but I felt like I would be missing out if I hid in my cabin. The cabin came with a canoe, but I felt uncomfortable taking it out on the lake alone. In the end, I decided that staying in the cabin was better than battling the bugs outside, so I went back inside, still feeling unhappy with my choices.

One joy of cabin camping in the Porkies is the log book found in each cabin. The Mirror Lake 2-bunk had two log books, which usually means one full older one and one newer one -- so, lots to read. I hopefully opened one up, only to discover that it has just a few entries from the end of 2023. The other one was brand new and completely empty. So much for good reading!

I laid down on a bunk and tried reading on my Kindle instead. I might even have had a short nap, always a sure sign that something's not quite right with me. When I woke up -- or came back from a reverie, or whatever -- I felt refreshed and actually eager to get out and see the lake. I guess sometimes taking a nap is just what the doctor ordered.

I convinced myself that I could handle taking the canoe out into the lake. Sarah and I had managed the canoe together a few years ago, so why not now? Plus, the wind was light and I was feeling good. I sorted through the huge number of PFDs in the cabin until I found one that fit me (it looked like it was about as old as I am), grabbed two paddles (in case I lost one -- I do have a realistic assessment of my canoe abilities), and headed down to the lakeshore. I turned the canoe over, shoved it out into the shallow water, and jumped aboard. I was on an adventure!

In the canoe, during a calm moment

The trip began slow and easy. The canoe only had bow and stern seats, nothing in the middle, so I could only sit in the back. I slowly made my way clockwise along the shore, in front of the other two cabins and several campsites. I poked around in some weedbeds and got to the Little Carp River's inlet, crossed it, and headed towards "the rock", a large shoreline outcropping that seemed to grow straight out of the lake directly across from the cabins. I saw a bald eagle and a pair of swans touring the lake.

I started to feel the breeze gust up a bit, which prompted me to turn around and return home rather than continuing along the (long, wiggly) shoreline. That's when I realized that the gentle, helpful wind had been at my back the entire time, and now it was getting stronger. The trip back into the wind was... not easy. I was basically paddling straight into the wind, and with only one paddler in the canoe I had to work double time just to make progress. Not to mention that the wind tended to push me to one side or the other, and I am very much an amateur at steering a canoe. I ended up nose-first in a weed bed, side-swiping the shore, nearly running into fallen trees, and even turning around backwards. I seriously considered dragging the canoe up on shore and bushwhacking my way back to the cabin. I eventually got into a rhythm -- a fast rhythm -- and made some progress directly into the wind. Once I got into the shelter of the far shore, I finally felt like I was actually going to make it. I rammed the canoe into the muddy launch area, staggered out, and nearly fell over. I hadn't realized how much I'd been using not just my arms, but also my legs and abs, just to give myself leverage with the paddle!

With that, my adventures for the day were done. I stumbled back to the cabin and flopped down on a bench, ready for dinner and sleep. Dinner was a new freeze dried meal that I'd packed as a test, single-serving Good-to-Go Thai Curry. That will also be the last time I ever eat that particular meal. My notes simply say "too many brassicas". It was packed with limp, brown broccoli and questionable cauliflower, and not much else. It did however contain a lot of calories, and that's what I needed at the moment.

Mirror Lake, living up to its name

After processing those calories with a bit of rest, I took one last trip down to the lake -- still wearing my bug net -- and found that the wind had died down and let the lake truly live up to its name. As I stood enjoying the view, I heard a barred owl vigorously hooting from the woods. I was a bit sad that there were no loons yet -- I love their calls -- but it was probably too early for them to have returned.

I finally returned to the cabin for good, climbed under my quilt, and spent several hours reading in bed. As I did, occasional rain showers moved in and started making loud noise on the cabin's metal roof. I eventually slept but only fitfully, as I kept hearing many small critters going about their business outside the cabin.

Miles hiked: 5.0 (4 miles on the trail + 1 mile getting water and wandering)
Total miles: 

Today's route in pink. Don't trust the distances on the map, they're detached from reality.