Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fall Backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains, 2012

Fall colors at the Government Peak Trailhead along M-107 where we started hiking on Saturday.

“I have a backpacking hangover and it’s pretty awesome” was my Facebook status yesterday morning, and that’s exactly how I felt! I had puffy eyes, was tired and my skin hurt – probably a little dehydration mixed in with forcing my body into acclimating to colder weather a little too quickly. It was freaking out. But what better way to get used to the colder temps of late fall and early winter than to dive into the beautiful woods of Upper Michigan and sleep in it... hike in it... eat, pray and laugh in it...?

This year’s annual Fall Porkies Backpacking Trip was another good one. Each time I go on a backpacking trip it is different from the last – each trip turns out amazing in its own unique and sometimes unexpected way and I’m unable to compare it to any other. The reason I even mention this is because when I get home from the latest excursion and start writing out my blog, I feel tempted to say “this was the best trip ever.” But I can’t do that every time or it would totally lose its meaning. Each adventure is just as awesome as every other one, but in its own way.

The crew at Trap Falls (from L-R): Tim, Jen, Caitlin, Matt, Rachel, Robin, Ross, Jason, Brian, Jan, Graham, Nancy, Jenna & Darwin, Randall, Patty, Keith

We originally set this trip for a maximum of 12 backpackers because that is what the group limit is on the backcountry permits in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Area. The trip filled up so fast, Rachel and I decided to take advantage of our co-organizing and open the trip up for more people. We changed the max to 20 people, and we’d just purchase two backcountry permits, each with a group of 10. It was stretching the rules a little bit, but it’s exciting to see so many people interested and it’s really hard to turn anyone away. We had a few people that had to drop for one reason or another last-minute, and we had a couple people add on, too. Our final attendance was 16. That’s a pretty big group, and the incredible thing with this large group is that all of us had great backcountry chemistry - meaning we all got along great - and from comments I received and smiles on faces, I think everybody had a really awesome time.

One of the biggest highlights of the trip, which is the whole reason we planned this trip this time of year was the fall colors. They were AMAZING. We got there a little after the reds fell from the big maple trees, but we got some super-vibrant golds and oranges that were still strongly hanging on. The forest was literally lit up with a golden hue in many places, lighting up the trail like a naturally golden-lit tunnel. Leaves were also scattered all along the forest floor, still just as vibrant as they were when hanging for their last minutes on the branches above. Being completely surrounded by the bright colors made for some seriously jaw-dropping hiking. And it never got old. Each corner or hill brought a new scene, and we all “oohed” and “aahed” as we wound through the forest. 

Feeling rich in a forest of gold.

We got some challenging weather on this trip, too. It was colder than normal for this time of year, or at least it seemed that way. But for a beginner trip, we all did great dealing with that challenge. We hit some pretty crazy snow on the drive up that made us feel like we were traveling in a galaxy far, far away. It was on and off for most of Friday night and Saturday morning, and with a forecast of cold daytime temps, below-freezing nighttime temps and a “100% chance of snow,” we were all prepared for some nasty weather. But guess what? The weather decided to not be quite as dramatic. I think the weather said, “Hey, just for you hikers down there, I’m gonna give you a little of this: BOOM! SUNSHINE!” The sun peeked out for us every once in a while and really warmed us up and lit up the woods’ vibrancy even more – and on Sunday, we had mostly blue skies, with an almost electric fall breeze. This made for the perfect combination, allowing us to witness leaves being softly wiggled from the branches and flutter down to the ground. After this trip I feel like we’ve truly entered cold-weather hiking season, and now I’m mentally ready.

Welcome sunshine with a forecast that called for a 100% chance of snow!
 On the last day we hiked through some amazing pine forests with giant trees towering overhead, and a soft, windy trail until we reached more deciduous forest where we began the climb back up to the Lake of the Clouds overlook where our cars were parked. We were rewarded for that climb back up to the escarpment with some stunted maples still donning their gorgeous, deep-reds. Those reds were mixed in with the strong oranges and yellows – and when you added in the green from the pines and other shrubs along the rocky cliff, we were all finishing our walk through a rainbow of foliage. It was shockingly beautiful.

Colors along the Big Carp River Trail with Lake of the Clouds in the distance.

Another highlight from this trip was, as I mentioned earlier, our group chemistry. We had a larger group of 16 people (and one awesome dog), and we all got along great! We had a variety of experience levels, but everyone was supportive of the others, and we were all still able to hike at what pace we wanted and enjoy our day. I really enjoyed the mix of current friends and new friends. I love meeting people on the trail and find it’s the best way to really get to know people. I laugh because if these people stick with me on a 2-day backpacking trip and can put up with my poop-humor, then I’ve found friends that I’m sure I’ll see again! It’s all in fun, and everyone had a really good sense of humor. I’m just always happy that people don’t run from me when I get on a roll with the potty humor. I figure, ‘hey – we all poo in the woods, why not crack some jokes about it?’

To add onto the highlight of having such a great group, I had the extra bonus of my parents hiking with us. My mom and dad are super fun, and have become really great friends with a lot of my backpacking friends, too. I love to hear my closest friends complimenting me on what awesome folks I have! I tend to agree – and I really enjoy sharing their awesomeness with others, so I usually nudge them to come along on some of these trips, although I don’t have to try too hard... they really enjoy it, too. I felt blessed that I was able to hike with them this weekend – it’s always great fun for me and it always brings us a little closer. There’s nothing like spending time in the woods with someone you love – friends become family and family becomes friends.
My mom and dad hiking on a steep decline. I love hiking with them!!

Being the organizer for the trip (and I think I speak for Rachel a little here, too) can be a little stressful at times. You first have the pressure of trying to make sure everyone has a good time... and second, doing so as safely as possible. My theory when organizing is to just be sure nobody feels left behind, and as a result everyone will have a nice time. I think, and I hope, that we accomplished that this weekend. I figure if we get even one person on a new backpacking trip that comes back for more, we’ve done a good job. Organizing routes and planning trips is really fun for me, but hiking along with other people that love backpacking or are just starting out and learning is super rewarding and even more fun. I still learn something new every time I go on a trip, and it’s fun to share the knowledge I’ve gained from past trips with others, as well.

Every once in a while I feel creative and want to do something special for the group when I organize and this usually involves some sort of food. One year I made a tiramisu, and another time it was orange cakes. This time Rachel and I made mini pudding pies. I picked up some pre-made mini graham-cracker pie crusts, three flavors of pudding (pistachio, chocolate and cheesecake) and we brought different toppings – crushed pistachios, dried strawberries, dark chocolate chips and mini marshmallows that ended up all melding together, which was funny because they were impossible to top our pies with, so we ended up burning them in the fire. Oh well, the rest of the stuff turned out great, and it was a big hit!

Pie choice shown: Cheesecake with strawberries and dark chocolate chips. Yum!

And one more highlight – the simplicity of backpacking. There are so many fun things that happen in the woods as we’re walking or sitting around the campfire -- conversations we have of previous trips we’ve been on, or experiences we’ve had in life in general, or jokes, trail talk, or maybe a mushroom that looks like one of those yard decorations – you know the ones – with the lady bending over and her bloomers or whatever you call them are sticking out. I have a picture. Can you see it?

Anyway, a lot of the things we talk and giggle about on the trail or around the campfire are things I can’t even remember specifically. But that’s okay, because it’s all just a small part of the whole experience that makes it so wonderful. I come back remembering being bent over laughing so hard my belly hurt. And I know whatever the heck it was we were talking about was really freakin’ funny, and those are the memories I’m most likely to hang on to. I’ve never had a good memory – especially for specifics – but overall, I leave with a lasting memory like, "Wow, yeah. That was an awesome trip."

Also in the simplicity category of highlights from this trip is the exercise – this is a highlight of any trip for me. The fact that I’m walking with everything I need to survive on my back, and burning up so many calories in such an amazing place makes me feel so happy and healthy. I wish I could do this every day.

Beautiful swamp just before Mirror Lake.

The Porkies always feels magical to me. I’ve mentioned it before in my blog about how I took my very first backpacking trip here, so it holds a special place for me anyway. But others have said the same. It has some awesome trails, great campsites, and lots of pretty water – rivers, streams, lakes, and the big Lake Superior. The forests are wild, and if you don’t talk as much as I do, you might even catch a glimpse of a deer or a bear. Or a squirrel. I saw a chipmunk and a few birds on this trip. Yeah, I talk too much sometimes!!

After a couple of days of fresh air, finishing up and feeling the accomplishment of a good hike, and seeing everyone at the end full of smiles and still laughing about this or that is what this is all about. We had a few people that hiked out a little sooner so they could get on the road towards home, but the remainder of the group met up at the parking lot for a post-hike toast. We ended up finding a place to eat after much indecision and closed restaurants, and we all ate like we’d never seen food before. We had a few last laughs, I had a milkshake, we hugged, said our farewells and all hit the road in our own direction towards home.

Lined up along a bridge on the Big Carp River Trail.

I could go on and on and on about the incredible overall feeling you get from a trip like this, and I would never feel fully satisfied with my descriptions, because there are just not enough words, analogies or adjectives... you just gotta’ get out there and do it. Walk into the woods and absorb as much of the fresh, wonderful natural surrounding as you can. Sleep in it. Eat in it. Nap in it. Laugh in it... Live in it.

Besides, where else will you learn about “Robina the musical,” and Little Pickles, and Kneescab, and Snapper, and the newest, greatest gear invention – the Camelfront? ...among many other crazy, whackadoodle things? Yep, it’s here. It’s these woods, and it’s with these people.

Happy and blessed.

Mirror Lake. This was the view from our camp Sunday morning.

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