Sunday, June 16, 2024

Porkies Solo 2024, Day 5: Big Carp to Lake of the Clouds

Last time: A "rest" day at the Big and Little Carps - links to all of my adventures

The Big Carp 4-bunk cabin's beautiful setting

Thursday May 23, 2024: Despite being woken up by animals screaming outside the cabin window in the middle of the night, I slept well and woke for good by 6:30 am. It was a clear morning -- the first and only one of the trip -- and the sun was already rising above the Big Carp river.

As I awoke I realized, for about the 4th day in a row, just how truly stinky I was. It was worse this trip than usual. Probably the jumping jacks I did yesterday didn't help. I was ready for a shower. Luckily, today was my last day in the woods, so I would get my wish. On previous trips, we'd usually arranged for a short hike on the last day, which helps make the trip home a bit smoother. Today was different, since (depending on which map you trust) I had to hike anywhere from 8 to 10 miles -- the full length of the Big Carp River trail -- before escaping the woods and heading to a hotel in Marquette.

First, I dressed and walked out to the shore. The river continued emptying its muddy waters into the lake while I had a pleasant chat with a fisherman from Houghton who was staying with his father in the 6-bunk cabin.

Right next to the Big Carp 4-bunk

Then back to my own cabin, breakfast, packing up, and out the door by 8:30 am. My knee still hurt, but I felt like I was ready for today's challenge. I stopped to stretch one more time before I left.

The Big Carp 4-Bunk cabin had been a good one. It was clean and well-maintained, with a lovely view of the river, plus I could hear the river all the time -- a feature in my opinion. While it lacked the lake view of the 6-Bunk, its setting was close, intimate, and picturesque. This early in the season, I didn't have to deal with a parade of hikers walking right next to its windows, but I could see how that would be a problem at other times, much like the cabins at Lily Pond and Greenstone Falls.

Big Carp waterfall -- one of dozens

I immediately took the wrong trail and ended up... maybe on the Cross trail? There's a whole maze behind the cabin. In any case, I backtracked and found the Big Carp bridge.

My knee gave a few twinges as I climbed high above the river, then a few more when the trail took me right back down to river level. But the morning was clear and cool, and I stopped frequently to rest and stretch my knee, with the excuse that I was taking photos of the dozens of waterfalls along the river. I passed Shining Cloud falls with only a quick look -- it's hard to see from the trail, and there was no way I was going to climb down the steep river bluff to view it up close.

The Big Carp River trail winds through a field of (faded) trout lilies.

The mud began above Shining Cloud falls, where the trail starts to follow a flat area high above the river. At first it wasn't bad, but soon I scrambled down a low bluff and entered the part of the trail I had been most dreading: The Swamp. As far as I can tell, the trail just disappears into a genuine standing-water swamp filled with deep mud holes, laced with fallen trees, and lacking any sign of an actual path. The only thing to do is to pick your way between grassy tufts, along tree trunks, and sometimes just through the water. I've hiked this twice before, and it's always been awful. This time was no better.

The trail supposedly goes straight ahead...

... then through this.

The swamp did seem a little shorter than previous trips, but after I exited the worst of it, the trail remained seriously muddy. At least it was clearly a trail. Soon enough I scrambled down another, bigger bluff and came to the Big Carp River, the site of today's first unbridged river crossing. I stopped for a quick snack and another knee stretch before I crossed.

The river crossing itself was uneventful -- the water was only calf high, and I waded right through in my trail runners. My worries about the river rising too high to cross after the thunderstorms were thankfully unfounded.

After the river crossing came another long muddy stretch. It was mostly flat, but the mud holes had slippery bottoms. Or maybe my shoes were getting caked with mud, giving them less traction. In either case, I had to lean heavily on my hiking poles to keep my balance.

Another feature of the Big Carp River trail at this point is a bunch of small but steep-sided stream crossings. The streams themselves are at most ankle-deep, but they have steep, muddy banks (usually 6-10 feet deep) that I had to descend. These muddy banks were, you guessed it, slippery! As with other downhills, they hurt my knee more than uphills or flat land, so they required even more careful navigation. On one of these descents into a tiny stream valley, one of my feet started to slip right in the middle of the bank. I flailed and started to pivot around my other foot. I tried to plant both of my hiking poles for support, but my arms were turning with the rest of my body, and one arm ended up crossing over the other as I stabbed the ground with my pole. I did manage to stay upright, but in a contorted, twisted position, and my right arm hurt mightily as I pulled a bunch of muscles all at once.

A lovely hillside

I paused to ruefully rub my arm and shoulder and take a few deep breaths, and then I hiked on even more carefully. Very soon I came to the intersection with Correction Line trail, an undistinguished flat spot in the middle of the woods. I turned to follow the Big Carp trail, after which I was on another piece of new trail -- I'd never hiked the tiny (0.1 mile?) segment of the Big Carp trail between the Correction Line intersection and the second unbridged river crossing. In typical Porkies fashion, a sign at the intersection warned "No water next 6 miles". Of course, there was a river crossing just ahead that kind of negated the sign's point. I assume the sign was warning about the long dry stretch after that. It's not as if the sign was any help here, at an intersection in the middle of the woods where there was no water to be filtered anyhow. Why not put the sign at the river?

Along that new 0.1 mile I passed a campsite, BC-6, that featured a heavy steel bar forming the seat for an informal bench. Who in the world would have carted that all the way out here? As soon as I came to the river crossing, I understood: It had been scrapped from the footings of the long-gone bridge that used to span the river here.

The crossing is now unbridged. As always, I walked right into the river, which turned out to be deeper and running faster than I expected. It reached up past my knees, the current pushing strongly on me and forcing me to use my hiking poles to maintain my balance (which in turn tweaked my messed-up arm).

After that, the trail began a slow climb as it followed the base of a long line of cliffs -- an extension of the Escarpment that featured Lafayette and Miscowawbik peaks. My friend Kyle and I had hiked this bit of trail years ago and even bushwhacked along the top of the cliffs. This segment was mostly dry, a noticeable improvement on the last few miles. It was pleasantly shaded by a mix of deciduous trees and hemlocks, lacked rocks, and was as well-maintained as any Porkies trail ever gets.

Another view of the Big Carp river

Like I've mentioned in previous posts, most days on this trip I had some particular goal -- a new bit of trail to hike, a new cabin to stay in, something new to me in the park. Today, one of those goals was to complete the entire Big Carp River trail in one go (thereby also covering the last tenth of a mile of the trail that I'd somehow missed). But as part of that, I wanted to find some of the abandoned copper mines scattered along the base of these cliffs.

When I lived in Houghton, I used to spend most of my weekends exploring old mine sites, something that has gone by the wayside now that I live 9 hours away. But as it turns out, my old mine-hunting skills haven't completely disappeared. I first noticed a suspicious looking pile of rocks just about a mile up from the river. I'd found this before on my previous trip -- it was indeed a rock pile from the old Lafayette mine, leading up to nothing in particular. The "adit" (horizontal mine tunnel) at the end of the rock pile had long since collapsed, leaving just boulders at the base of the cliffs.

I knew there should be more mines along here (the Last Porcupine Mountains Companion claims four of them), so I kept my eye tuned towards the cliff base. Unfortunately that was several hundred yards off-trail, which made it a bit hard to see anything useful. Plus, my knee twinged worse and worse each time I stepped off the trail, and it really complained if I tried to climb on any uneven rock piles and then make steep descents back off of them.

I was nearly to Miscowawbik peak at the east end of this line of cliffs before I saw a hint of another mine site. I wasn't even sure -- after more than 150 years, a manmade pile of mine rock looks an awful lot like  a mossy pile of scree -- but I decided that it was worth it. This was my last chance to find a mine before climbing the Escarpment and returning to Lake of the Clouds.

Hey hey everybody! Like my grill?

Once I winced my way up the steep pile of rocks, I knew I'd made the right choice. All of the signs were there (be grateful I'm not spelling out the technical details here). As I came closer to the cliff base, the payoff appeared: An actual mine shaft! It was "gated" with a grid of rebar jammed into the rock, a way to allow bats to enter and exit while keeping pesky humans out of the collapsing, water-filled hole in the ground. The overall effect was as if the cliff was grinning -- and it had braces. It was immensely satisfying to find this shaft. Now if only I could have found the two others supposedly in this area. Maybe I will need to devote another trip just to that goal.

Back on the trail, I passed below the towering cliffs of Miscowawbik peak and started climbing the switchbacks that ascend the west end of the Escarpment proper. I topped out at a spectacular bedrock overlook and immediately plopped down on a convenient bit of rock to rest and eat lunch. The view was fantastic, looking back over Lafayette and Miscowawbik peaks, the Big Carp River valley, the interior highlands, and even a hint of Lake Superior in the distance. I'd come a long way today and seen all of it.

Looking back towards Lafayette (left) and Miscowawbik (right) peaks,
with Lake Superior in the distance

Early in the day I had put on my headnet to ward off bugs, but they were so rare in the cool morning that I often pulled the net up onto my hat and left it attached there, away from my face. Up here on the sunny and warm Escarpment, the bugs were bad. I quickly pulled the net back down and left it there for the rest of the trip. I even ate lunch by pushing bits of food up under the net.

After 20 or 30 minutes, I was ready to move along. Up here, the Big Carp River trail zig-zags from the clear, rocky edge of the Escarpment and into the scrubby trees that cover its more forested interior. Then it heads back to the cliff's edge again to pass another spectacular viewpoint. Wash, rinse, repeat. Each viewpoint brought Lake of the Clouds closer. I stopped at every overlook, also taking the time to stretch and rest my knee. When the trail enters the trees, it often descends sharply and then climbs back up again, aggravating my knee even more. Despite all the beauty, the knee pain began to make the trail drag. The one upside was that my tender arm and shoulder muscles seemed to have repaired themselves in record time.

Lake of the Clouds nestled between the Escarpment and the interior highlands

I trudged my way through the last few miles of unending beauty and climbed the last few steps to the boardwalk at Lake of the Clouds. This is where I realized that, up until now, I hadn't seen another person on the trail all day. I had been entirely on my own for the last five-and-a-half hours, covering... how much distance? According to my GPS, 8.6 miles (including my mistake back at the beginning of the trail, plus two off-trail excursions), much less than the 9.6 miles reported by park maps. That makes my walking speed 1.5 mph, slower than usual and definitely reflecting how tenderly I had to treat my knee at times.

I hadn't met anybody on the trail today, until suddenly I met everybody. Or at least, it sure felt like it after the solitude of the last few days. Several groups of tourists were walking around the boardwalks and overlooks. These sparse "crowds" made the boardwalks feel positively cosmopolitan after how empty the woods were. I noted with approval that the groups were all wearing bug nets this time -- those nets were even more necessary here than they had been earlier on the Escarpment. 

I passed an older couple attempting to take a selfie along the boardwalk, then turned around to offer to take the photo for them. They reciprocated, which is how I learned that they were from California but were visiting friends in the Twin Cities, and now touring around the scenic sites of Lake Superior for the first time. They said that their friends had given them bug nets (which they were wearing). They had thought "nah, there's no way we could need those", but now they were extremely glad they had brought them.

Selfie at the Lake of the Clouds overlook. Zoom in to see the bugs.

I limped my way along the wooden boardwalks, with my knee now screaming at me on every flat step. I tossed my bag into my car, jumped in, and finally took off my head net. I was done!

I drove back to the Visitor Center, dropped off my keys, and headed east. Normally on a trip like this, I might try to get to my in-laws house on the east end of the UP, or even all the way home. But with such a long hike today, I instead stopped for the night in Marquette.

After the traditional two showers and a fresh set of clothes, I got a burger and fries from Lakers, the new brick-and-mortar restaurant operated by the owners of the Burger Bus. I took them down to the waterfront, where Sarah and I happened to be online at the same time -- she in the morning (Korean time), me in the evening. I spent a beautiful evening catching up with her, eating my delicious food, and enjoying the waterfront views. I ended the meal by picking up a hot fudge sundae from a shop on 3rd Street, a perfect end to the day and the trip.

Burger and Ore Dock in Marquette

This is about when I realized that I hadn't had any food fantasies on this trip. Normally by the second day of a backpacking trip, I'm having nearly intrusive thoughts about hamburgers, onion rings, pizza, a coke... you get the idea. This time, that never happened. Almost certainly it's for the same reason that I didn't feel cold, except for last night -- when I hadn't eaten enough calories. Indeed, some nights my 2-serving freeze-dried meal left me overly full. In general, I was much better fed on this trip than on previous ones, which helped both keep me warm, and keep me from daydreaming about food. Certainly a lesson learned for future trips.

Nonetheless, the burger and fries were everything I could have hoped for: They weren't freeze-dried.

Big Carp River from far above

Final thoughts: Hmmm... what to say about this trip? It was a strange one, and quite different from previous May backpacking trips. As I hinted way back at the start, the last day of this trip was quite good, which has helped me think back fondly on the whole trip. I almost wrote "fantastic" in that last sentence, because the Big Carp River trail really is wonderful, and the weather couldn't have been better on that last day -- but the mud and my injured knee took a little of the shine off that otherwise excellent day.

While the trip was bookended by nice days, in between I had three days of miserable weather: gray, dreary, rainy, even thunderstorm-y. I didn't see a good sunset, and only one decent sunrise, on the whole trip. I barely saw blue sky at all, and don't even ask about nighttime stars. Even clouds can be interesting, but not when they're a solid undifferentiated mass in the sky. In many past trips, we've lucked out with a week or more of amazing weather. Not this time. Adding to the disappointment, spring came early this year in the UP (after a record mild winter), which means that I missed many of the best wildflowers. I'm used to May including fields of trout lilies, but this year they were mostly gone by the time I arrived.

All of this contributed to my general feeling of "blah" during many of the days. This got better throughout the trip, but it took a long time and never fully went away.

One of the few wildflowers I saw: columbine, usually a June-blooming flower in the UP

Bugs: While I wore a head net daily on this trip, I've certainly experienced worse bugs. Almost nothing bit me during the trip, there were few mosquitoes and no black flies. There were just lots and lots of gnats, flies, and other non-biting insects that really, really wanted to get up in my face. Not surprising for late May, but also not fun.

Trails: The motivating goal for this trip was to hike the Cross trail. I'm proud to say that I did it, and I've now hiked all of the trails in the park (ok, ok, except a few ski trails) -- but I won't be hiking the Cross trail again. It's wet, muddy, unmaintained, and hard to follow. It's not even like the trail is difficult because of tricky terrain -- it's remarkably flat and boring -- it's just a real slog through a swamp. It truly lives up to its (bad) reputation and is no fun at all. The Little Carp River trail essentially connects the same points and is better in every way except for being longer -- but that length just gives you more time to appreciate the sheer beauty of the Little Carp River. The Little Carp River trail is easily one of the best trails in the park. Go that way unless, like me, you want to be able to say you've done the Cross trail.

Little Carp waterfall. You won't see anything like this on the Cross trail.

The Big Carp River trail is as lovely (and muddy) as ever, but it's totally worth it. The first and final thirds of the trail are spectacular -- the first third, near the mouth of the river, is a trek next to constant waterfalls. The last third, below and then above the Escarpment, has dense ancient forests and incredible views. The middle... is a muddy slog. But it's worth the trouble for the start and end. The Big Carp River trail as a whole shows off the best (and worst!) the park has to offer.

Cabins: The only new-to-me cabin on this trip was the Big Carp 4 bunk, which was an unexpectedly nice cabin. I hadn't expected to enjoy it for two reasons: First, because it's far away from the lake and doesn't have a view; second, because the trail runs right next to it. As it turns out, while the cabin doesn't have a lake view, it does have a wonderful river view, and it's in a lovely and intimate setting. The trail could be a real problem in busier seasons, but the combination of a slow season and bad weather meant that I wasn't bothered at all by hikers outside my windows. Besides the 4 bunk, I enjoyed returns to the Mirror Lake 2-bunk (secluded, dark) and Lily Pond (spectacular setting, also right on the trail).

This slug climbed allllll the way up on this fern just for lunch.

One final detail: After I got home, I started putting alternating cold and heat on my knee. It quickly improved and I'm 100% better now. It just needed some TLC that I couldn't provide in the woods. It was frustrating, but I've learned a few things from the experience about how to prepare for a trip. One of those lessons is "take it easy". (Haha, no, never mind.)

In the end, I'm glad I completed this trip, as bad as some parts were. The lovely end justified the sometimes miserable means.

Miles hiked: 8.6

Total miles: 29.6

The full loop: Pink --> Green --> Orange --> Blue --> Yellow

Here's a link back to the first post of this series, and a list of all of my hiking adventures.


Ann Fisher said...

Great seeing you at the history conference. Love your blog.

DC said...

It was good to meet you at the conference! I realized that I also follow you on Flickr (although I don't post much there any more). Thanks for a fun session!