Monday, July 16, 2012

Summer Porkies Backpacking



 Just another super-perfect weekend in the woods.

There were blueberries, thimbleberries and raspberries. There were minimal mosquitoes, zero biting black flies and snorting deer. Curious deer, too. There was a small road walk and feeling like a thru-hiker. There were crazy, root-stepped hills and sweating profusely. There was a great group of friends, old and new. There was an awesome dog named Lombardi, our newest non-human Meetup member. There was a backpacker’s version of a rock spa on the beach. And the warmest Lake Superior in history, making for a long, refreshing swim. There was a fluorescent sunset and aurora borealis!! There were moonshine blueberries and euchre. A midnight waterfall slide and hundreds of tiny leeches. Fire, woods, friends, laughs, dirt, sweat, trail, sky, trees, mud, swimming, stinking, eating…

The Porcupine Mountains in Upper Michigan hold a very special place in my heart. My very first backpacking trip ever was in the Porcupine Mountains, and afterwards I was pretty sure I’d never be doing it again. Can you believe that!? I was a senior in high school, and I took an outdoor class. We learned all kinds of cool stuff, and for our final we had to spend a 4-day, 3-night trip in the backcountry in May. Looking back, I’m pretty certain I was showing symptoms of Aplastic Anemia, but was totally unaware what was happening. I struggled through that trip, but I still look back and remember it as an amazing adventure and great accomplishment. I also still remember sitting down for a break with knees that felt broken and 8 cans of Spaghettios in my backpack that our teacher, coach and leader made me eat. I told him I wasn’t going any further… they could all go on without me. But I got up anyway and finished it out. I had to. That’s how it works, and there’s something incredible about that. I learned. And I later learned that I loved all of it. Even the pains of it all. It all adds up and created this giant ball of incredible adventure and feeling strong and accomplishing something amazing. Being a strong backpacker makes me feel like I could survive anything. I know it’s getting a little mushy, but it’s my second love, Adam being my number one, of course!

So this is why I chose the Porkies as my destination of choice to spend my birthday weekend this year. I took some vacation and planned a four-day trip. The first two days were mine by myself, and the second two I’d be meeting up with a group of friends, old and new, from our Fox Valley Meetup group. I’d never been solo backpacking before and I’d been wanting to try it for a long time. I figured it was the perfect time for that. One night in the woods by myself, and everything at my own pace. I even chose to push the miles as an added challenge during the daytime.

The plan I came up with worked pretty much how I planned it with a few tiny route changes, and that was it. It was perfect. I drove up Wednesday night. I drove up with Randall and met Pete and Piotr up at the Presque Isle Campground – they were able to take the time off to take a couple of extra days and asked if I minded they go early, too – I wouldn’t turn down a carpool! On Thursday morning we all head to the Presque Isle Falls, and we parted ways. The three of them drove around looking at points of interest through the park via car, then hiked in 2 miles that night and camped at Lost Lake. I’d meet up with them again the next day.

I hiked a little over 20 miles to Mirror Lake, camped, then hiked 14 miles (including a 2-mile road walk) the next day, Friday. I walked to Union Bay Campground where I met up with the Meetup group. We woke up early Saturday morning and hiked the Lake Superior Trail and camped after 12 miles. On Sunday, we hiked out the last 6 miles to Presque Isle where my car was parked, and we shuttled drivers back to the start to get vehicles. We stopped for burgers, then parted ways. The plan went as good as it did in my head. It’s just cool when that happens… with anything.

Presque Isle River's pretty falls.

 I got a bit of a later start than I’d wanted on Thursday. Getting packed up while car camping somehow sucks time away. But I still had most of the day to get to camp, and even if I had to hike into the dark, I was okay with that, but I was going to do all I could to avoid that. During the hiking portion of backpacking, while enjoying the scenery and the exercise, it’s hard to not dream of camp… where you can relax, eat, rehydrate, and who knows… maybe even take a swim. I dreamed of having enough daylight to take my time doing all of these things… and still hanging my food in a tree without use of a headlamp. But I had 20 miles in front of me with a late start. On top of the late start, I accidentally took the “scenic route” around the Presque Isle Falls. It’s the East and West River Trails, and it added 2 miles to my day right off the bat. But it was a gorgeous detour, and I was happy with that mistake. After those 2 waterfall-filled miles, I got onto the Lake Superior Trail and headed out. My first wildlife encounter was a little buck that must have been napping right along the trail. I think I nearly stepped on him. He shot up and out into the woods, stopping on a dime a few leaps in to look back and assess the situation. He stared at me through the trees and snorted a huge, snotty, whistley snort. Then he snorted again, and again, and again. I was going to take out my camera with the intention of capturing his antics on video, but he wasn’t having any of that… and he took off.

I hiked straight through the first 8.3 miles strong. I stopped at the mouth of the Little Carp River, where it flows into Lake Superior. I crawled under the bridge there and took a nice break. I took my shoes off and soaked my feet in the water, ate a couple of backcountry deli bagels – mini bagels with deli chicken, cheese and mayo. I treated some water for a cold coffee and and electrolyte mix. I filled up with fresh energy and moved on. 

My break at the mouth of the Little Carp River.

Deli bagels with a view.

I then took the Little Carp River Trail. I was moving fast. I wanted 20 miles that day… I was hoping to get to Mirror Lake to camp, happily exhausted from a long-mileage day. That was my plan. So I found a good, strong hiking pace and kept that up all day. It was tough, but it was perfect. I passed by Trader’s Falls, Trapper’s Falls and Greenstone Falls along the Little Carp River. They were all small falls, but still very pretty… and inviting. I could have stopped at each one and taken a swim, if I’d had the time. Maybe on the next trip – I can make that my goal. I’ll stop at all the swimming holes along the way.

Here is where I made a few route changes. It was getting later in the day, and as I calculated my pace and my remaining miles, if I stuck with my original route, I’d be ending the day with about 22 miles and getting to camp after 7:00pm. I hoped to get there sooner than that, so I passed on the 1-mile detour to Overlooked Falls and the side trail to Summit Peak… which I would have climbed, even though I was going to be exhausted at that point. Again, next time!

I stopped for a break at a campsite just before Lily Pond, took my shoes off, picked a wood tick off of me – which ended up being the only wood tick I got, except for one deer tick later in the trip… but he wasn’t attached, I don’t think. He still had his head attached and no skin in his microscopic pincers, so I think I’m safe from his threat of Lymes Disease.

I got turned around heading back out from that break. The mistake only cost me about 10 minutes, so it was okay. I came into that break pretty tired. My mind was focused on Lily Pond – I knew there was a boardwalk there with a bench, so I was planning to stop there for my break and wasn’t paying attention to how the trail entered the campsite where I decided to break instead. On my way back out I ended up going the same way I came in. I realized it when I hit a swampy, muddy patch of trail and stepped over a tree that looked eerily familiar to one I stepped over going the other direction. There was even a group of tiny moths that fluttered up around me as I stepped over it… same as last time. I turned around and decided to backtrack to be certain, before going to far. Sure enough. I came into those campsites the same way as the first time! Whoopsy! This was the result of a tired mind. And  a reminder to keep myself fed and hydrated well in order to keep my mind sharp. I should have stopped a little sooner, but I was in a low area and the mosquitoes were coming out. They weren’t terrible, but the ones that were out still attacked as fiercely as they could. It was enough to push me to a breezy spot where they’d be less of an annoyance. I felt pretty lucky, as the skeeters could have been much, much worse. And I could’ve had biting black flies, but there weren’t any.

Lily Pond.

I took a small break at Lily Pond when I arrived, and enjoyed a nice breeze coming off the pond, then continued on the Little Carp River Trail until I arrived at Mirror Lake. I got there at about 6:00pm, which I was thrilled with. I had plenty of light to do all the things I wanted to do. I hiked around to the back side of the lake where I knew there were a couple of sites with small “beaches” to swim out from. The first site had a tent in it, so I hiked past and came to the second one. There were two tent pads, but no tents. I claimed it as my own and started to unpack.

Mirror Lake campsite, view of the lake with a small beach.

It was interesting and fun to work out in my mind all the things I needed and wanted to do being out there by myself, and then put them all into a perfect order. I’d take my shoes off, then head into the water to fill up my bottles before polluting the water with my stank while swimming. I set up my tent with the door facing the lake for a clear peek of the sunrise the next morning. I found the perfect tree to hang my food in and threw my rope over a high branch right away so I wouldn’t have to do it later. All I had to do was tie my bag on and pull it up. I changed into my running shorts and jumped in for a swim. The water was pretty warm, but it felt amazing to rinse off the sweat, dirt and deet from the day. I got out, and feeling secluded, I stripped down and dried off with my bandana, and just as I was getting my shirt on, a couple of guys came walking into my camp looking for a site. There weren’t any past me, and the first was taken. I pointed up the hill, letting them know of the third site there. Even though I was excited to camp alone, I felt good inviting them to camp down by the lake on the other tent pad in my site. I know it’s awesome to camp on Mirror Lake, and I wasn’t going to deprive them of that opportunity… I would hope a camper would do the same for me had I been the one walking in on the same situation. They crawled up the hill to check out the other site, and came back down quickly and took me up on my offer and set up next to me. Adam and Derek were quiet, nice camp-mates. Later in the night Ken stopped over, our neighbor from the other site. He brought some firewood and asked if we’d like to join resources since the firewood-picking in the area was slim. We later did join up for a fire, and as it turns out, I had some really nice company for the evening. And I was given props for being a chick hiking solo. That made me feel pretty awesome. :)

I made dinner and ate while the two guys took a swim. They were in longer than I was, and apparently Derek had a giant leech on his foot when he came out. So now we know there are big leeches in Mirror Lake. I drank my one Keewenaw beer that I packed in while the guys drank tea. I brushed my teeth, hung my smellies up in the tree, and sat around the fire until about 11:00 with Ken talking about some of his travels. He was an artist that has traveled all around the world drawing and painting. He was super fun to talk to.

The next morning, I woke up and snapped a couple of photos of the pretty morning lake from my tent, then rolled back over and fell asleep again. About an hour later I woke up for good, got my food out of the tree, made breakfast and packed up all with a steady, comfortable pace, moving from one fun chore to the next. I loaded my pack on my back, said a parting farewell to my camp-mates and head out for the day’s 14 miles.


Taking a break at Government Peak.


About four miles in, I stopped at Government Peak for a break. I was missing Adam, so I pulled out my phone, curious if I had any signal. I had a bar, so I sent him a quick text letting him know I was doing well, that I loved and missed him. I shut it off and stuffed it back into my pack. Then after about another 3 miles I stopped at Trap Falls, where I knew there was a bench and a gorgeous little falls. I took my shoes off again, snapped some photos of a posing frog, filled my water bottles for coffee and electrolytes, then dipped my stinky, dirty feet in the cold water. It felt amazing. My feet were sore from all the miles, but were holding up beautifully.

My next stop was a really quick one at Union Spring. I’d never been on the Union Spring trail, and it was my first time seeing the spring itself. It was really, really cool! It was a small, deep, crystal-clear, aqua-green pool of freezing cold spring water. There was a floating boardwalk that went out a little ways, and I leaned over the edge, looking down at the white surface, wondering if it was sand or a white muck. Then I noticed a bubbling – I could see where the water was coming into the spring from the ground underneath! It was just really neat. I took some underwater photos and I started hearing thunder rolled across the sky above me. An ominous sky loomed overhead, so I pulled my poncho out and within easy reach just in case it opened up on me.

Union Spring.

Underwater photo at Union Spring.

I hiked on until I came out to the South Boundary Road at the Union Spring Trail trailhead. As was my plan, I turned onto the road and took a two-mile road walk to the Visitor’s Center. I felt like a thru-hiker entering civilization. I thought about trying to hitch a ride as I walked on the hot, hard road, but I stunk pretty badly, and I was alone – I figured it was only two miles, so I kept walking. It went by quickly.

At the visitor’s center I bought the backcountry pass for our group for Saturday night, and explained to them about my car being parked at Presque Isle – in the window was a self-registration slip saying I was going to return that day… which I didn’t think about until that morning… I was going to return on Sunday. So I cleared that up, and the two people working at the visitor’s center asked me twice where I came from. They were pretty shocked that I’d hiked a 20-mile day and a 14-mile day. Aw, shucks… quit boosting my ego, folks! Haha! My and Rachel’s crazy-long day hikes were paying off. I was able to do the miles pretty comfortably. They wiped me out, but they were still awesome!

I then took a foot trail through the woods that let to Union Bay Campground. I came out on the road right across from an outpost where I would again feel like any of the thru-hikers I was following on trail journals. I took my pack off and set it on a picnic table, then stepped inside the small store, trying to give as much space between my stinky self and the tourists and campers mingling around looking to purchase overpriced t-shirts. I found what I was looking for. Campsuds. A big bottle. I stood in line and drooled when I saw the soft-serve ice cream machine. I walked back out to my pack with a tall ice cream cone in hand, loaded my pack onto my back and head down the road to the campground, smiling and eating my cone.

I arrived at the campground, stepped inside the building to check into our three sites we had reserved there, and that’s when the sky finally did open up. It POURED rain. I could not believe the timing -- perfect time to be under a roof! I just laughed out loud at the whole situation.

I walked over to the sites and met back up with Pete, Randall and Piotr, who were already there and set up. They waited for me to get my stuff set up, I took a quick shower, and we head over to the Porkies Pub for giant burritos and a couple of beers at the bar. Tim, Charisse and Brian came through, having just finished up a dinner in the restaurant.

We all head back to the campground, where the rest of the crew eventually arrived… Marcin and Anna showed up at 3:30am from Chicago – I didn’t wake for a second when they came in, though.

And here began part two of the trip! And was it ever a good one!

Randall, Marcin, Anna, Piotr, Pete, Heidi, Colleen, Me, Charisse, Tim, Lombardi, Mary, Ross and Brian

Tim and Charisse brought their amazing dog, Lombardi. All three were on their first trip with our group, and they were all really fun to hike with, and Lombardi was one of the best behaved dogs I’ve met. It was more than a pleasure having him along. Charisse gave my “mystery berries” a name, too. Earlier on my solo portion of the hike I munched down a few giant berries that resembled raspberries, but after eating them and thinking they tasted funny, I decided since I was by myself that I’d stop eating them just in case they were something I shouldn’t have been eating. They weren’t raspberries… turns out they were thimble berries and totally edible. They were pretty tart, but tasted amazing. They were gigantic and juicy, so I stopped whenever I had one within easy reach along the trail. We also came across blueberries within the first few miles, too.

Anyway, our crew was now 13 (plus one dog) strong. It was me, Randall, Pete, Piotr, Brian, Charisse and Tim (and Lombardi), Mary, Ross, Marcin, Anna, Colleen and Heidi.

We all packed up and got going early. We got to the Lake Superior Trail trailhead on M-107 and the first thing I did was head into the woods to pee. I found a spot by a big downed tree, and noticed that standing right next to me was a deer! He just stood there, still… staring at me. I said out loud to him, “Hey there, buddy… how are you doing?” expecting him to bolt. But he didn’t. He just stood there staring at me, flicking his tail and twisting his ears. I said, “Okay, well, I’m gonna’ pee… hope you don’t mind…” and he stood there the whole time… in fact, he even took a couple of steps towards me…  “Whatchya’ doin’ there, buddy?? This isn’t your kind, so keep yer distance…” He stayed there the whole time I did my business, then I walked out of the woods, grabbed my camera, and Colleen followed me in and we took photos of him until he finally spooked and took a couple leaps deeper into the woods. What a friendly deer!

Friendly deer.

We head down the Lake Superior Trail, hiking over the loose shale-like rocks and picking the berries as we came across them. We all met up at Lone Rock for a nice, long lunch break. We ate, waded in the water with our bare feet, rehydrated and enjoyed the sunshine and cool breeze off the lake. Then we hiked on with about 5 more miles until camp. I stuck in the back and took my time… the others ahead were going to find us a good camp spot with enough room for all of us. But when we got to where there was a line of campsites, one after another was taken. It was only 3:00 in the afternoon, which is really early for us to get to camp. I was shocked how busy it was. But eventually, after a couple of extra miles, we came upon the rest of our crew setting up camp right at the mouth of the Little Carp River where I’d taken my first break on Thursday during my solo hike. It was a great spot.

Camp-time fun began.

I set up my tent on a nice little patch of grass next to Pete and Randall, and Brian later joined our little mini community, too. We prepped for a swim… meaning we stripped down to underwear or swimsuits or whatever we had to swim in, and head to the lake. Pete, Randall and I swam for over an hour. Tim, Charisse and Lombardi came out and joined for a bit, then sunned and dried off in the sun on the warm, rocky shore. Brian came by for a bit, too. We sat up on a rock with the waves crashing into us and just soaked in the whole awesomeness around us. The lake was incredibly warm. Lake Superior is famous for being ice cold. You would never, ever be able to stay in as long as we were during a "normal" year. But we took it for what we could and enjoyed the crap out of it. The three of us shared two beers, then went back up on shore and dried off.

Swimming in Lake Superior!

Colleen came over and went in to rinse off, and Pete took off, but the three of us came up with the idea of doing our own version of a rock spa. I layed across a giant driftwood tree as Colleen laid sun-heated, round rocks all over my back. What a way to relax after carrying a heavy pack for miles! Randall went next, then Colleen. We all got our hot-stone massage in, then head back to camp.

Getting a hot stone massage.

The rest of the crew was sitting around the fire pit laughing about an empty jar of moonshine-soaked blueberries that Marcin brought. Mary gave me a taste of her drink – it was pretty tasty, but I felt it go down and quickly realized where all the giggling stemmed from! I missed out on that! But later Ross had a few extra blueberries and let me try them, too. Eat too many of them and I think you’d go blind! They actually burned on your tongue… but they still tasted good. Crazy.

I ate my mashed potatoes with bacon for dinner, and we all hung out until sunset time. There was a gigantic tree on the shore that we all sat on in a row to watch the sun disappear over the lake. It was a spectacular show. There’s no movie in the world that could beat the scenes we were watching there, sitting on that log. We were all the luckiest people in the world at that very moment. And it was only going to get better.

Beginning of sunset. Then my camera stopped working. :(

 After the sunset, back around the firepit, we started a fire with the tons of wood that Brian hauled in. He was our wood-collecting dude on the trip. He was on a mission and found us plenty to last through the late night. We sat around, drinking wine and talking about whatever we were talking about, and slowly, one by one the group would get a little smaller and a little smaller. Randall, Pete, Anna and I played Euchre – they were teaching me. Half way through the game, Randall made a comment that got our attention. “Wow, the sky is really bright. It looks like the aurora.” We bolted for the beach. Sure enough. We had a light show in the sky. It didn’t have color but it spread out across the entire night sky, rising up over the lake horizon. It flickered, danced and waved. Anna woke up Marcin – it was their first time ever seeing the aurora. We all laid there, ooohing and aaaahing like a bunch of teenage stoners. “Wooooowwwwww…. Did you see that one flutter around? Oooooooohhh, lookit that one!! Woooooowwwwww…. Niiiiiice. Duuuuuuude. This is aaaaaawesome.” We sat out there for quite a long time and soaked as much of it in as we could…

We came back to Euchre and finished the game (Pete and I beat Anna and Randall! Beginner’s luck maybe?). We talked of late-night swimming. I have no idea what time it was. Pete wasn’t game for getting wet again and having to dry off so he hit his tent. Randall, Anna and I head for the little falls on the river to swim. We head in and slid down the waterfall on our butts a bunch of times. It was our own mini water park. But we were alone in the woods, under a canopy of silouhetted trees against a starry night sky above. The water was warm and refreshing. It was the perfect dip before bed. But then we got out.

Leeches. Everywhere. They were tiny little baby leeches, but we had them all over us. We squirmed and twisted and reached and flicked and picked and “ewwwww”-ed as we frantically searched them out on ourselves. We giggled the whole time, peeking at each other’s butts to be sure they “looked good,” then we raced to the lake for one more rinse for good measure. We waded in and sat in Lake Superior in the middle of the night, stars above bright as ever with a translucent light show still flickering across the sky, and the sound of soft waves on the rocky shoreline.

I remember walking back to my tent after that, throwing my hair up into a knot, tugging my camp-jamas onto my wet skin… what I don’t remember is crawling into my sleeping bag. I think I was asleep halfway diving into my tent. I slept like a rock until someone else’s tent zipper woke me in the morning. That’s the kind of alarm clock I like.

I was feeling a little “under the weather” that morning. I couple too many camp-cups of wine the night before. But every bit was worth it. We all hiked out at our own paces for the day and met up by my car at the Presque Isle area. Seven of us stinky hikers squeezed into my car, and we drove the 30+ minutes back to where the rest of our cars were parked at the Lake Superior Trail trailhead. We arrived to one more tiny snafu. There were tickets on several of the cars, but we were all paid for. A quick stop at the visitor’s center cleared it up – turns out, in addition to the “recreation passport” required for parking in Michigan State Parks and the backcountry permit I carried for our group, we needed a simple piece of paper on the dashboards to let rangers know we were legally backcountry camping. It didn’t cost extra, it was just a slip we needed – so next time I’ll be sure to get a car-count and get those. They took our tickets and we didn’t have to pay with no trouble at all.

We all took the long drive back, then caravaned to a small café for dinner. Burgers and carbonated sodas and cake was consumed quickly with pleasure. After dinner, in the parking lot, we hugged, said our good-byes and parted ways.

It’s Monday, my birthday, and I have the day off work. I’m typing up this blog, and still giggling about all the fun stuff that went on. I’m smiling about the hard miles I put in the first two days, and I’m tearing up at the beauty that Lake Superior delivered to us, and the friendships I’m so blessed to have – old and new – but all so perfect. Our group had great chemistry and I think we all left feeling satisfied. I know I did. A hundred times over. Until next time…

And ya’ know, I could’ve done without the leeches, but that memory of us jumping around like crazy people in the middle of the night was worth the grossness that they are. I wouldn’t give that up for anything in the world.

Thank you to all of you that were able to join me on this trip. You are all awesome and I can’t wait for next time!

One happy birthday girl!

3 comments:

Tim J. said...

Awesome write up, but I don't see any mention of glow sticks...lol

Robin Grapa said...

Oh yeah, glowsticks! So many fun things happened, I knew I'd forget something!! :)

backpackingamerica said...

Backpacking can be fun either alone or with friends over the weekend. This can give you some escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, exploring the natural surroundings and exercising along the way.

backpacking advise