Sunday, June 9, 2024

Porkies Solo 2024, Day 3: Lily Pond to Big Carp and the Cross Trail

Last time: Gray times at Lily Pond (link to all of my adventures).

Big Carp River with fresh spring leaves

Tuesday May 21, 2024: I woke up around midnight with my head flat on my sleeping pad. My inflatable pillow was fully deflated. Uh oh. Luckily I could bundle up some unused clothes to make a serviceable, if smelly, pillow.

This resulted in, you guessed it, another night of fitful sleep. Lily Pond cabin creaked and moaned in the overnight wind and rain, but at least there were no mice.

The night was warmer than expected. I never did use the woodstove, and so the next visitors found a large stock of dry wood and a nice kindling setup in the stove. As I woke up and made some tea, I enjoyed hearing the return of the trumpeter swans (car horns!) and the distant croaking of sandhill cranes.

Lily Pond, still gray and foggy

I was awake and moving by 6:30 am, driven by a combination of excitement and anxiety for a big day of hiking. Today, I'd tackle the original goal of this trip: the notorious Cross trail.

I was packed and on my way by 8:30 am. Today, unlike most days, I used a GPS app on my phone to record my track. The distances on Porkies maps and trail signs are notoriously bad, sometimes giving literally impossible values. I was curious to see the actual length of the Cross Trail, which was listed on most maps as 4.5 miles.

But first, I had to hike a few more miles of the Little Carp River trail just to reach the Cross Trail. The sky was still a solid gray with no sign of improvement. Vegetation along the trail was soaked from overnight rain. As I walked, occasional rain showers pattered down on me, likely from wind rustling the wet tree leaves. There was some mud on the trail, but nothing terrible.

I waded across the Little Carp River on the first unbridged crossing of the trip. Once I'd crossed, I stopped at the nearby campsites (LC-3 and LC-4) to put on rain pants, mainly to keep the wet foliage from soaking my hiking pants.

Jack-in-the-pulpit along the trail

The hike was quite pretty, in the way that misty air can make fresh spring forests appear intense and mysterious. I was feeling better today, enjoying the hiking and more excited for the adventure than I'd felt all trip.

I soon turned onto the spur trail leading to the Little Carp River road trailhead. I took the spur both because I'd never hiked it before (I'd never done the 3rd side of the triangle of trails that connect the trailhead with the main trail) and because I was hopeful that there was a trash can at the trailhead. Yes, I was a bit obsessed with getting rid of trash weight this trip -- my backpack, despite being fairly light, also seemed to be weighing on me.

This spur had once been part of a logging road that was used after a huge wind storm in the 1950s. The wind knocked down many huge old trees, and the park, not yet being a designated wilderness, allowed loggers to harvest the remnants. The rest of the road is now a very faint trail used by hunters. It crosses the river on a surprisingly large bridge, possibly a remnant of the logging days.

There was no trash can at the end of the spur, so I dropped my pack and continued up the Little Carp River road to the parking area (the road follows, appropriately, "Blowdown creek"). Along the way, I met a fresh-faced backpacker heading out for his first day on the trail. We exchanged pleasantries and I wished him well -- he was the first and only other person I saw on the trail that day.

There was indeed a trash can at the parking area, so I dropped my approximately 4 ounces of trash, at the cost of just about 1 extra mile of trail distance. Win! (?) On the way back, I took the side trail to Overlooked falls, telling myself that this more than made up for the extra distance. It was, actually, worth it.

One of the few bridges on the Little Carp River trail

I strapped my pack back on and headed out on the trail again. After another mile on the Little Carp River trial -- one of the prettier miles in the Porkies, and also a rugged one that comes as a surprise for many new hikers -- I finally came to the intersection with the Cross trail. Here it was, the motivation for this entire trip.

Side note: The Cross trail. The Cross trail is a little-used connector trail that links the Little Carp River Road trailhead area to the Big Carp River's mouth. It is reputed to be rarely traveled, poorly marked, swampy, muddy, and buggy. As the guidebooks say, "you're more likely to see wildlife than another human." It's also more or less unnecessary: The Little Carp River trail makes the same connection, and while it is longer, it's also easier, more scenic, and much better maintained. I'd always taken the Little Carp River trail in the past, and enjoyed it, but today my goal was to finally hike the very last of the park's main trails.

Back to our hero, who has just set foot on the fearsome Cross trail. The Cross trail started out as a nice walk through evergreens, but it was clear just how little the trail was used. The trail's tread itself was harder to follow than most in the Porkies, with more duff, sticks, and general cruft covering it than I'm used to. It would have been easy to lose track of the trail entirely if I wasn't watching carefully for blazes on the trees, which weren't marked quite as often as I would have liked. Somebody had gone through within the past year or so and added orange flagging tape at a few key points, for which I was quite thankful.

Soon the mud started. This was actually a good thing, because somebody else -- just one person -- must have hiked the trail in the opposite direction that very morning, leaving a clear set of footprints. When I wasn't sure where to go, I checked for footprints and squished in that direction.

Once, while checking for footprints, I looked down and found this instead:

Bear track, with my footprint for scale

Yep, that's a bear track. But compare it to my footprint -- that's a tiny bear track, most likely from a cub. That immediately raised all kinds of really important questions, like "where's the cub?" and even more urgently, "where's the mother?" I took a careful look around me and saw nothing at all, but to be extra careful I started talking to myself and even singing silly made-up songs like "hey there bear, I'm right here!" (while making "bear" and "hear" rhyme, of course).

Singing my little ditties, I continued picking my way along. There were plenty of fallen trees and other obstacles across the muddy trail. Many were old blowdowns, with grass and even small trees growing up where they fell across the trail. There were lots of ways that a volunteer trail might skirt around the obstacles, and sometimes I'd find myself following one option, then having to stop and very carefully consider where the real trail picked back up. In many places the trail was more of a probability distribution than an actual path.

The path goes straight ahead

At some point, the mud became a swamp -- the Memenga swamp -- but it was a gradual thing. There was more standing water and fewer islands of dry land to aim for. More than once I was convinced that I'd completely lost the trail and had to backtrack to previous blaze, at which point I'd inevitably see the next blaze off in the direction I'd already tried. The trail was just mostly lost in the watery maze of grasses, small trees, and mud.

While the swamp dragged on mentally and physically, it actually didn't last as long as I expected. I'd had an unfair mental image of the Cross trail being entirely swamp. I was surprised when, after at most a mile of swamp, the trail climbed back out into a relatively dry mixed hardwood forest.

This forest spread out around me, remarkably clear and open. This was not the rugged, hilly, cliff-edged Porkies that I knew and loved, rather, it was just kind of boring and sloped gently downhill towards the distant Lake Superior. The sky remained gray, but had brightened up a little, and the brief rain showers stopped entirely.

Old blaze on a fallen tree

The trail was on a slow but steady decline -- nothing very steep, just always slightly downhill. Not long after the swamp ended, the streams and washes began. These were similar to the west end of the Lake Superior trail, which crosses many small streams with steep sides (and certainly no bridges). They're annoying at most, but they can start to wear on you when your legs are tired.

At one point I came to yet another wash, not even a particularly deep one. As I'd learned to do today, before I climbed down into it, I looked around to see where the trail climbed back out on the other side -- and I couldn't see the trail anywhere. That's when I noticed a bit of orange flagging tape down at the bottom of the wash. Sure enough, the trail ran right along the bottom of this little seasonal drainage, just wandering between the roots and rocks in the streambed. The trail kept getting deeper below ground level until the wash emptied into a larger stream's valley. I have no clue if that's what the trail was supposed to do, or maybe if the wash had formed from the trail itself, but the orange flagging tape certainly followed the bottom of this little stream.

Looking back up the trail-wash

Besides the washes, there were essentially no landmarks. I stopped to eat a meat stick next to a random tree -- a relatively dry but otherwise undistinguished location. Pretty soon after the Random Tree, I came to the precipitous drop at the edge of the Big Carp's valley. There were a few good viewpoints as the trail followed the edge of the valley, and then the trail also plunged down a steep hillside into the river valley. It followed the river itself for a while longer, passed the "new" (as of several years ago) bridge on which the Lake Superior trail crosses the river, and then dropped me off directly at my home for the next two days: The Big Carp 4-Bunk cabin.

I arrived at about 1 pm -- not bad for the amount of suck I'd just encountered on the Cross trail. I checked my GPS track and learned that the actual length of the Cross trail is 3.8 miles, not the 4.5 miles that appear on park maps and trail signs. So that long, slow slog behind me was actually shorter than I'd expected. Nonetheless, I still felt accomplished. I'd finished the last big trail in the park -- and the most notoriously bad one too -- and I'd survived!

It started raining just as I walked the last few steps up to the cabin, perfect timing that I wish I could claim was intentional.

A bit of mud.

The Big Carp 4-Bunk was the one cabin at the mouth of the Big Carp river that I hadn't stayed in before, and the only new-to-me cabin on this trip. While it has no view of the lake, it is right next to the river, with the trail squeezing between the cabin's big bank of windows and a short, rocky scramble down to the water. Up until a few years ago, the cabin was extremely private since only Cross Trail hikers would pass by it. Nowadays, it's on the main route through the area since the bridge over the Big Carp river was moved a significant distance upstream, and I was a bit worried about how busy the trail would be. The cabin itself is squeezed between the river and a huge hill, on top of which sits the cabin's "Mt. Everest outhouse", as the log book called it.

I set down my pack and took a look around. The cabin was quite nice inside, clearly well tended by the park and its renters. It had a similar arrangement to Buckshot and Lily Pond, with two pairs of bunk beds along the back wall, one perpendicular to the other. Unlike the other cabins, Big Carp 4's right-angled bunks are a bit more private, set up directly next to a pair of walls that screen their occupants and make those two bunks feel almost enclosed. There are also a lot of windows, including big banks of windows on the east (river) and west (hillside) walls, plus miscellaneous other windows facing north and south. Together with the trail's proximity, I suppose all those windows account for the need for more private bunks.

Big Carp 4-bunk interior. "Private" bunks on the right.

There was a decent amount of wood in the "wood shed" corner of the cabin. There was also a stack of screens hiding behind the firewood, which I picked up and started installing in the windows. That let me open the windows and avoid the bugs, but I quickly picked up a chill from the cold air and rain.

I filtered some water from the river and made some hot tea to warm up, while I ate a peanut butter rice cake for a few extra calories. Then I noticed that the (now closed) windows were heavily fogged. I stepped outside into warm, humid air -- completely unlike what it had been just a few minutes before! As I stood there, clouds rushed across the sky, alternating rain showers and brief bursts of clear blue. The breeze swung around wildly, cold from the north, warm and humid from the south. The weather couldn't decide what it wanted to do. I ended up opening and closing the windows several more times, trying to let warmer breezes into the cabin while pushing the cold air out.

Bank of windows looking out on the river (and trail)

Once everything was unpacked, I made several trips in and out of the cabin to check out my surroundings between rain squalls. I collected some wet wood and sat it next to the cabin to (hopefully) dry in the future. I noticed that while there were several blades, and several handles for bow saws, no combination of them actually fit together -- the cabin had no functional saw.

I sat on the bench next to the cabin's fire pit and read some entries in the log book, which was nearly full. As I sat, two bald eagles flew right in front of me, following the river -- it looked like they were chasing each other, or perhaps an adult was teaching a juvenile how to hunt. I walked down to the mouth of the river and enjoyed views up and down the lakeshore. On that trip, I noticed with amusement that at the former site of the bridge (which had frequently been washed out by spring floods), a large log had wedged itself between bedrock outcrops and formed a new and very convenient natural bridge.

On one of these short walks, I realized that my left knee was hurting -- in fact, it hurt a lot. Any downhill step sent a shot of pain through my knee. Today's long, slow downhill hike must have had something to do with it. There was nothing to do but take it easy on the knee and hope it improved on its own.

From that point on, I more or less stayed in the cabin. The suddenly changing weather turned into a steady rain, giving me another reason to stay inside. As I laid about, reading the log book, the rain turned up even harder. Soon I started to hear some rumbles of thunder in the distance. 

Dinner was Chili Mac, a slightly spicy and very red meal that gave me plenty of calories and mild heartburn. As I ate, dusk came early as the clouds built. Then the distant thunderstorms finally crashed in, bringing a torrential downpour along with them.

Storm clouds coming and going

With nothing better to do, I turned in to bed at 9 pm, made a bundle of smelly clothes to substitute for my flat pillow, and read on my Kindle for quite a while. The thunderstorm and downpour continued unabated, with some thunder crashes shaking the whole cabin. I spared a thought for the poor campers caught in their tents in this miserable weather.

I finished reading a book and tried to turn over to go to sleep, but the storms kept me awake. Well, the storms, plus some anxiety about what might happen next. The Porkies and other parts of the western UP have a bit of a history of strong thunderstorms causing extreme floods. In 2018, the Father's Day floods destroyed roads and caused massive damage in the Keweenaw. More than once in the past, rivers in the Porkies have risen by 30 feet after strong storms, stranding campers. A few years earlier, one such storm had caused Speakers Creek to rise so quickly that it started to eat away its bank, undermining Speakers Cabin. The log book in that cabin told the story of a mother and son who spent the night in the cabin's outhouse for fear of the cabin washing away. It didn't, but the cabin had to be moved several feet back from the stream onto a stronger foundation.

With sleep not coming, I started a new book and continued to read late into the night. It wasn't until well after midnight that the thunder quieted down, and the storms settled into merely normal heavy rain. At one point, I made a quick trip out to the "bathroom" in the heavy downpour. On the way back, I quickly shined my headlamp at the river to see if it had risen. It was still within its banks.

With that reassurance, plus the help of a sleeping pill that I'd packed in my first aid kit, I finally dozed off some time after 1 am.

Next time: Taking it easy (no, of course not)

Miles hiked: 7.9 miles

Total miles:  17.4 miles

Today's hike is in orange -- but the distances on this map are pure bunk!

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