Sunday, October 10, 2010

Porcupine Mountains | Day One

Big Carp River Trail

View from Big Carp River Trail

Monday morning we shuttled our car to Presque Isle campground – the finish line of the trip at the park's western end – then stopped at the park HQ to pick up keys for each of the cabins we would be using over the next six days. The park ranger on duty was surprised to find so many keys reserved for us. It is apparently not very common to hike cabin-to-cabin over so many days. He then gave me a heap of park information to take along, including a flyer about black bears. A bear had been sighted frequently along one of the trails we would be hiking, and he advised extra caution.

Enjoying the view from the escarpment

The hike would begin at Lake of the Clouds overlook, the most popular destination in the park.
Our shuttle driver pulled away after leaving us alone in the parking lot, and we experienced that exciting moment of realization of what we were about to do. We now had no means of communication (our phones lost their signals as soon as we left the resort that morning), and six days of hiking stood between us and our car. We started up the path to the overlook to find the trailhead and leave the tourist scene behind. It was 11:30 a.m., sunny, breezy, and felt like low to mid 60's: perfect hiking weather.

Another view from the escarpment. Lake of the Clouds is in the distance.

After snapping a few photos at the overlook (including a shot of an interpretive sign that some insane creationist had defaced by scratching off each reference to the length of time it took for the landscape to form), we struck out on Big Carp River Trail. At 9.6 miles, BCRT follows its namesake river from Lake of the Clouds to its mouth on Lake Superior.

Geology - it's amazing what can happen overnight!

High above the river valley, BCRT starts out along the escarpment that is a geologic highlight of the park. The escarpment was formed by ancient lava flows. A tilted layer of basalt sits on top of a layer of sandstone, and as the sandstone erodes away, chunks of rock fall down the cliff's face and pile up as talus. The trail begins by following the edge of this steep ridge and offers view after view of mountaintops, endless forest, and the river valley below. If we would have been able to push our trip back a month, the fall color in October would have been stunning.

Frogs are awesome. (This might be a toad. Either way - still awesome)

About two miles from the trailhead, the trail descends into the forest. Here the shaded understory cools the air, and sunlight filtering through the forest canopy creates a wonderful green glow above. Car-sized boulders sit along the trail, and enormous hemlocks and pines, many hundreds of years old, tower overhead.

Big Carp River Trail after descending from the escarpment

For the next four or five miles, BCRT has a few steep climbs and descents as it follows the river valley. We passed a handful of very nice, spacious backcountry campsites along the trail. For our lunch break, we rested on a fallen tree and made peanut butter and jelly tortillas. We started eating this meal on our first backpacking trip, and it has remained our favorite trail food. The materials are very easy to pack, there is no mess to clean up, and peanut butter and jelly always tastes great after a few hours of hiking.

Best trail lunch ever

Shortly after lunch, we finally reached the river and came to the first of the day's two river crossings. A footbridge guided us over the first one; the second one came a mile and a half later and was a bit more interesting. Here the river had to be forded, but it was only about ankle-deep. Not
 wanting to push our luck with the waterproofing of our boots, we slowly made our way across, stepping from one slippery rock to the next.

Fording Big Carp River

We passed a few more impressive backcountry sites, the best of which was at Shining Cloud Falls. At this point, the trail follows a steep ravine, where a series of 2 cascades can be heard rushing down the valley. The campsite in this spot is near the river and within earshot of the falls. This would be a terrific place to spend the night, and if we hadn't made plans to stay elsewhere, we would have happily pitched our tent. Unfortunately, we were so tired at this point that the steep and slippery descent to the water in order to get a better look was not appealing. Continuing on, a few more small unnamed waterfalls provided points of interest along the remainder of the trail.

Lake Superior at the mouth of Big Carp River

We reached the mouth of Big Carp River around 5:30 p.m. Our cabin, Big Carp River 4-bunk, was located upstream, away from the lake. Because it was tucked back in the woods, not much light penetrated the windows, and it was fairly dark inside. The river bubbled past the side of the cabin, and a short walk from the front door led to Lake Superior's rocky shore. In the cabin log book, the previous guest left a note to “enjoy climbing Kilimanjaro” to go to the bathroom. He or she was not exaggerating much; the outhouse was located at the top of an extremely steep and intimidating hill. I had managed to develop a blister on my left big toe, which added a thrilling element of pain to the nearly vertical climb.
Big Carp 4-bunk Cabin

The previous guests had left a little firewood inside the cabin. We collected a bit more, but nearly all of it was damp, and we had some difficulty getting a fire going in the wood burning stove. We settled for a very small fire and made use of a few candles that had been left behind. Dinner was made and eaten quickly, and we went to bed soon after. The thin mattresses on the bunk beds were rock hard, which made us feel a little less like sellouts for not tent camping on this trip. High winds, rain and thunder woke me up frequently throughout the night, and I wondered what tomorrow would bring.

Interior of Big Carp 4-bunk Cabin at night

Miles: 9.6
Wildlife sightings:
1 eagle, 1 frog (or toad)

To be continued in Day Two:
Little Carp River Trail - From Lake Superior to Greenstone Falls

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Porcupine Mountains | Intro Pt. 2

The Journey North

Crossing the Mackinac Bridge under stormy skies

We took our time and spent 2 days driving north to the UP, then west to the Porcupine Mountains. The first day was rainy and shockingly cold considering the intense heatwave Michigan had recently endured. Storm clouds hovered over the Straits of Mackinac, and rough waves crashed on the Lake Michigan shore along US 2. Just after crossing the Mackinac Bridge, we stopped at Lehto's for a couple of their delicious pasties. The hearty combination of beef and potatoes contained within a warm flaky crust energized us after the long, boring drive through the Lower Peninsula.

A pasty from Lehto's

The plan was to camp for the night at Mead Creek - a small, off the beaten path campground on the Manistique River near Seney National Wildlife Refuge. All sites were empty, and based on the registration tags that remained on a few posts, it looked as though no one had been there in a month. It was still very cold, and camping in the rain lost its appeal once we discovered the fish weren't biting. We decided to push on and head toward Munising. At the intersection of M77 and M28, a rainbow curved into the sky, and a couple of pairs of sandhill cranes walked in the grass along the edge of the refuge.

Fishing at Mead Creek Campground - Sept. 4 and I'm wearing gloves

It was Labor Day weekend, so all motels around Munising were booked. We pulled into Bay Furnace Campground in Christmas, across the bay from Grand Island. The campground is located at a historical site where a blast furnace converted iron ore for shipping back in the 1800s. Daylight was fading, so we quickly chose a site and set up our tent in the rain. It had been a long time since I'd gone car camping; compared to our backpacking tent, the old REI Campdome 4 was a palace! I spent the near-freezing night completely zipped up in my +15 mummy bag, wearing long underwear and a winter hat, and with the sleeping bag's hood cinched tightly around my face. My nose suffered in the cold air, but the rest of me was well-insulated.

Getting ready to hunker down for a cold night

The next morning we continued west and stopped for breakfast at Peggy Sue's Cafe in Negaunee. A bald eagle swooped across US 41 near Craig Lake State Park, and I may have spotted a golden eagle above Hwy 38 as we approached Ontonagon. Golden eagles aren't common here, but they are seen in the western U.P. now and then. Another fishing attempt was made on the Sturgeon River somewhere between Baraga and Ontonagon, but without any luck.

A couple of regulars at Peggy Sue's Cafe

We checked in to Superior Shores Resort on the outskirts of Ontonagon. Owners Don and Linda are very helpful and are involved in the Peter Wolfe chapter of the North Country Trail Association. Don loaned us a handful of books and a detailed map of the area. We took his advice and visited Bonanza Falls – a section of Big Iron River where a series of small waterfalls cascade over layers of shale. The bright midday sun made it difficult to capture good photos, but it was an interesting spot, and we spent about an hour wandering along the river.

Bonanza Falls

We ate an early dinner at Syl's Cafe in Ontonagon, then headed back to our room on the shore of Lake Superior to make sure we were organized and ready to go the following morning. Amazingly, neither of us had worn a watch. In addition to being in an area remote enough that our cell phones couldn't get a signal, we were also close enough to the border between the Eastern and Central Time Zones that the phones were caught in some kind of time vortex. Their displays kept switching from an hour ahead to an hour behind. One minute it was 8pm, the next it was 9pm. Could we trust the car's dashboard clock, or were we supposed to have switched to Central Time at some point during the day? We had completely forgotten to check the time zone situation, and suddenly our 5 months of planning seemed inadequate. We didn't want to go to the resort office and admit that we couldn't tell time, so we took a guess and set an alarm for the morning.* I made a note of the weather outlook for the next 6 days:

Monday: High 72, sun/clouds
Tuesday: High 55, rain
Wednesday: High 61, sun/clouds
Thursday: High 61, sun/clouds
Friday: High 64, sun/chance of rain
Saturday: High 68, sun/chance of rain

Rock layers at Bonanza Falls

If we'd just consulted our road map, Ontonagon is clearly shown in Eastern Time.

To be continued in Day One: Big Carp River Trail