Sunday, January 9, 2011

Porcupine Mountains | Day Six

Lake Superior Trail:
Lake Superior Cabin to Presque Isle River

Mud hole? Slimy? My home this is!” - Yoda

Presque Isle River gorge

It had rained all night. I woke up around 6 am, burrowed further into my sleeping bag, listened to the rain which continued to fall, and cursed the fact that I had to go to the bathroom. I ignored this problem for as long as I could, and when it stopped raining at 7:00, I climbed down from the top bunk, got dressed, and went in search of a Sherpa to assist in the ascent of the hill to the outhouse (see day 1 at Big Carp 4-bunk cabin).

Lake Superior Trail

We left Lake Superior Cabin at 9 am wearing our rain gear. Although it had stopped raining, all of the vegetation was wet and the sky was still overcast, so we decided to play it safe. The first mile and a half was a repeat of our hike the morning of our second day, so again we passed a series of outstanding tent sites on the lake as we headed in the direction of Little Carp River. Instead of turning left here like we did earlier in the trip, we crossed the river in order to continue following Lake Superior Trail to its end at Presque Isle River. The stretch of LST west of Little Carp River merges with the North Country Trail, a 4600-mile multi-state trail that travels through the Porcupine Mountains on its way through Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Footbridge on Lake Superior Trail

The trail conditions were extremely muddy and slippery, and we were in for a rough day of hiking. This final stretch of LST features a lot of descending and climbing due to the many stream valleys and ravines along the way. The slippery conditions made some of these areas treacherous, and I took each step with extreme caution as I did not want to risk falling and getting injured. In a few spots, my boots could not grip the unstable, muddy ground, and I had to give up on my trek poles and pull myself up the steep slopes by grabbing onto exposed tree roots. On his way down into one of these steep stream valleys, Craig slipped in the mud and fell, sliding down several feet before the ground leveled out. Luckily he was not hurt, but he was covered in mud on one side from shoulder to foot, another reason rain gear was a good idea. I had fallen a couple of days before, not due to mud, but when I lost my balance climbing down a ravine. I over-corrected, and the weight of my backpack pulled me backwards, causing me to roll around like an upside-down turtle. 

Having to be so careful made for slow progress. Despite our lack of speed, we both became tired quickly from the frequent ups and downs. It eventually warmed up enough that we took our rain jackets off, but continued to wear rain pants because our boots were constantly stepping in puddles, getting sucked into deep mud, and sloshing it up onto our pant legs. Naturally, it began raining again shortly after we removed our jackets, and a light rain continued for the last 2-3 miles of the trail. I thought of Yoda on his home planet and was determined not to whine like Luke Skywalker (Craig wasn’t so successful).

Presque Isle River, just upstream from the peninsula

Just before the end of Lake Superior Trail, the path emerges from the trees and into the Presque Isle River gorge. The trail actually crosses a peninsula that divides the mouth of the river ("Presque Isle" means almost an island). For someone interested in geology, the exposed layers of shale found here make this an ideal spot for a long break. This was one of the places I was most looking forward to on this trip, but unfortunately for this rock nerd, the threat of more rain and the irritability of my tired hiking partner prevented any long-term exploration of the area. After lingering for a few minutes, we moved on, walking across the layered rock on our way to the main crossing of the Presque Isle River, just upstream from its mouth.

Presque Isle River - crossing the peninsula

The Presque Isle is considered a formidable whitewater river whose rapids are an attraction for canoeists and kayakers. A suspension bridge provides a way to cross the river safely. From overhead, one can watch the fast water rushing over the layered, eroded rock and swirling in circular pools that have been carved by the water’s destructive force over many millennia. I remembered standing in this same spot six years ago. The water level had been a bit lower during that visit, exposing more of the rock’s interesting eroded patterns. Short trails along the river allow park visitors to see a series of three interesting waterfalls a bit further upstream (Manabezho, Manido, and Nawadaha Falls). Just downstream, the Presque Isle flows into Lake Superior.

Presque Isle River viewed from the bridge

After crossing the bridge, we found ourselves back in civilization, with people heading toward the riverside trails from the parking lot where we had left our car six days before. Three deer were hanging out near our parking spot; this was the most exciting wildlife we had encountered all week despite the high concentration of black bears in the park. It was 2:00 when we limped across the concrete to our vehicle, peeled off our muddy layers and went in search of the biggest cheeseburgers we could find. We ended up at Ma's Place Cafe, a small restaurant on US 2 in Wakefield that probably sees its fair share of grimy hikers. I enjoyed the rarest, juiciest, most amazing burger I had eaten in a long time before we began the long drive home.

Miles: 7.5

Videos: Presque Isle River

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Porcupine Mountains | Day Five

Lake Superior Trail:
Buckshot Cabin to Lake Superior Cabin

Lake Superior Cabin seen from the thimbleberries

Although we did not want to, we left Buckshot Cabin just after 10 am to continue on Lake Superior Trail. Most of this day's hike was fairly boring, as the trail did not provide much in the way of scenery. This trail's name is deceptive; with few exceptions, it stays far enough inland that we could not see Lake Superior. Approximately four miles from Buckshot, the trail finally breaks out onto the shoreline, and we enjoyed walking along the rocks and drift logs. This is what I had imagined most of the trail would be like and was a bit disappointed to discover differently. After following the shore for a while, the trail swings inland and climbs a ridge that runs parallel to the lake. The forest drops off on either side of the path, which follows along the ridge's narrow top. We finally managed to see an animal when we inadvertently spooked a doe out of hiding behind a group of trees. Aside from a mouse, a couple of frogs, and a few chipmunks, we had seen no wildlife yet.

Lake Superior Trail along a rare lakeshore stretch

Eventually we found ourselves on top of a bluff over the mouth of the Big Carp River. We descended and crossed the footbridge that spans the narrow river just before it flows into Lake Superior. At this point, we found ourselves exactly where we were the first night of the trip. To our left was the short path to Big Carp 4-bunk cabin (where we stayed the first night), but our destination was Lake Superior Cabin a little further ahead and near the lakeshore.

Lake Superior Cabin

Arriving at the cabin at 1:30 pm, we dropped our packs inside and walked back to the river. Despite our close proximity to rivers and lakes over the last five days, I got into the water here at the river mouth for the very first time on this trip. The water was freezing but it was worth the few minutes of torture. I upset a merganser who must have had a nest nearby. It did not let me out of its sight and quacked at me until I took the hint and got out of its territory.

Lake Superior: A freshwater sea

The day had turned out to be gorgeous – sunny, with a blue sky and temperatures in the mid-60s. We made ramen for lunch, and I spent some time on the beach while Craig took a nap. Lake Superior Cabin is located in a very pleasant spot. A short trail through thick thimbleberry plants leads to the shore, but this late in the season all of the berries had been eaten by bears, birds, and other hikers. Since we arrived so early in the day, we spent a lot of time just sitting on the bench in front of the cabin, relaxing and enjoying the view.

A relaxing cup of coffee outside Lake Superior Cabin

A hiker nearly scared us to death when he suddenly came around the corner of the cabin. He must have wandered off the main trail, which is closer to the lake. He was carrying a couple of containers and explained that he was looking for water. Considering that we were on the shore of Lake Superior, arguably the coldest, clearest source of fresh water in North America, this was a bit absurd. I didn't realize the oddness of this right away and tried to be helpful, explaining that there was good access to the lake just about anywhere. He seemed a little bewildered and headed toward the river. Craig was convinced he was crazy, but I suggested that maybe he didn't want to get his feet wet in the lake and was hoping to have easier access at the river. I was trying to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, but that reasoning sounded weak even to my own ears. (I went for a short walk later and discovered that he was camping with his wife in a great site that was practically on the lake. Why he didn't collect water 10 feet from his tent remains a mystery.)

About 15 minutes later, he surprised us again when he came from the opposite direction, again not on the path, and walked directly toward our fire ring. We just sat and watched him as he contemplated the logs we had stacked up. Instead of walking around them, through the wide open space he had just recently been through, he stepped directly onto a stray log, which immediately started to roll. He flailed around for a few seconds, but caught himself before he could fall. At this point we assumed he was either over-exhausted or just plain nuts. I had a feeling we were going to see a lot more of him throughout the day, but luckily I was wrong.

We haven't hiked anywhere in quite a while where campfires are allowed, so we built a fire and planned to sit outside and enjoy the good weather and excellent view for as long as we could keep the fire going. Since the following day was going to be our last, we decided to indulge in our food. A few hours after our ramen lunch, Craig made beef stew and I cut up the remainder of the summer sausage in preparation for grilling over the fire. We experienced a slight culinary mishap when we were almost finished eating our beef stew and Craig discovered that he had not removed the desiccant packet from the dehydrated ingredients before cooking. We found the grainy contents of the packet had mostly settled as sludge at the bottom of the pot. Since it was natural clay and not silica, we assumed we were not too poisoned and would live to hike another day.

Packit Gourmet's Tuscan Beef Stew served over polenta

Lake Superior Cabin is another place where I could easily spend several days. This trail is a lot less scenic (until the end) than others in the park, so if a hiker wants to use the cabins instead of a tent, I recommend planning to stay at well-located cabins like Buckshot, Big Carp 6, or Lake Superior for more than one night when taking this route. Despite the lack of scenery while hiking, these locations are well worth the effort it takes to reach them, and hikers will get more out of the trip by spending some extra time in these spots if schedules permit. Unless the goal is simply to pound out the miles, that is.

Sunset on Lake Superior

Product review side note: I am extremely impressed with the Ex Officio Dryflite shirt that I had purchased right before the trip. I had been wearing it for four days at this point, and it did not smell like a dead animal (I cannot say the same for the REI Sahara shirt I wore the first day). I rarely wear long sleeves because I get too warm, but this shirt is very breathable and it stopped me from getting bitten by mosquitoes earlier in the day when they came out of hiding to take advantage of the nice weather. I wore it the following day as well, and could have gotten away with packing only that shirt for the whole trip since the weather was mostly on the cool side.

Miles: 7
Wildlife: 1 deer, 1 merganser, 1 bat

To be continued in Day 6: Lake Superior Cabin to Presque Isle River Mouth