Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The "Porkies"

Backpacking the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...”
John Muir

I believe Muir was correct in his opinion that “wilderness is a necessity” A break from our “civilized” world, a chance to be in a place that time has not changed, our ancestral  roots so to speak.  Sometimes we need to seek out and experience living a day or two where all modern safety nets and/or distractions are far removed.  Although Wisconsin does have seven designated Wilderness areas  (Blackjack Springs Wilderness, Gaylord Nelson Wilderness, Headwaters Wilderness, Porcupine Lake Wilderness, Rainbow Lake Wilderness, Whisker Lake Wilderness, Wisconsin Islands Wildernessthey tend to be of smaller parcel size and scattered throughout the northern part of the state.  For a larger unbroken wilderness experience, one just has to venture across the border into the U.P. to visit the Sylvania Wilderness and Porcupine Mountains.

The “Porkies,” Michigan's largest state park and designated wilderness comprises 60,000 acres of old growth forest along Lake Superior and is just north of the Wisconsin border. Besides the shear natural beauty of this park, friends Mark Haferman from Marshfield (backpacking instigator) and Dave Borman of Ladysmith and I hoped to explore some of the 87 miles of backcountry hiking trails spread thought the forest. 

As with all good trips, a plan is formulated weeks ahead (more or less) and there are always a few new gadgets to buy-one always needs a good excuse for fresh gear!  New boots, tents, sleeping pads and an ample supply of freeze dried food started arriving by Fed-Ex at front doors leading up to our hike.  Mark is our most experienced backpacker and has made the trip to the “Porkies” a few times before.  We usually rely on his good judgment to plan our itinerary and work out the details of the trip.  With one of the worlds largest freshwater lakes it’s doorstep, we'd planned to spend at least one or two days along it's shore.  Mark had been driven back from the big lake previously by cold winds on shore, so we'd hoped the weather would be more cooperative.

As it turned out, weather would not be our biggest challenge.  Warm temps and a small chance of rain lead us to tackle the "Lake Superior Trail" first, a 9+ mile trail starting high above the water at the Lake of Clouds.  To access the trailhead, we actually had to hike a steep blacktop park road down to the trail entrance and into the dark primeval hemlock forest. We’d guessed the trail would follow along the shores of the lake, making for spectacular views of the big water.  Instead, the majority of the route lies deep in the forest, starting in rocky shale downhills, then into wet muddy sections, a challenge to navigate.  At the midpoint a spur trail led us to the lake and the first campsite.  It was at that point we discovered what would be a real test.

According to locals (we found out later) there are peak times for the ferocious black flies (“fish flies” “sand flies” *#$@% flies etc.) and we were unlucky enough to hit them in swarms.  (For another great account here: http://personaldiatribes.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/black-flies-in-the-up-a-k-a-my-15-minutes-of-living-hell/)  We quickly retreated to the mosquitoes inland, which were a bit more tolerable (though very bad by all standards).  Stopping for a break, lunch or to even zip on lower pants legs was all about impossible.  Five hours into our trek, we really wondered what our options would be as the trail headed back to the lake again.  More bug spray was showered on, head nets donned and our pace quickened to little avail.  Even reaching the Little Carp River trail intersection provided no relief and slight winds off the water did little to deter the little buggers.

At this point, our only option was to head upstream and hope the deep hemlock forest would be less suitable habitat for the bugs and we could at the very least quickly pitch a tent and hide.   A mile or so along the river found our strength fading-we’d run out of water (no chance to stop and filter during the day) and hiked much further than planned.  We found a campsite along the beautiful Big Carp River and decided this would have to be it.  Surprisingly, the ‘sqeetos were not to bad, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

This is wilderness, so one has to take the good and the bad.  My thoughts during the day at times went back in time to those who actually lived here-a 100 or 200 years ago and how difficult life would have been.  Much tougher than us I know.  The campsite along the rapid filled Carp was so perfect that the swarms of insects were soon forgotten.  Feet were soaked in the ice cold water, a good meal prepared and a few hours chatting around the campfire ended this testing day.  Tomorrow, a decision would have to be made on the remainder of the trip.

The Big Carp River trail in the old growth Hemlock sections are beyond what a camera can possibly capture (though I tried) and constantly amazed us.  Day two had us heading upstream past small waterfalls and through dark cathedral forest- a great way start even with weary legs.  Several hours later we needed to determine which trail to continue on.  The Big Carp would be 3 more hours of challenging climbs to the escarpment and end at Lake of the Clouds, while the “Correction Line trail” would end at Mirror Lake (the parks highest lake). We’d met several groups of hikers along the way, (one band, loaded down with pistols on hips and bowie knives strapped to chests….really???) and all reported the bugs were thick at Mirror Lake.  Tired of getting bit, we chose heading uphill instead.

We again found ourselves in beautiful Hemlocks and though the trail steadily tilted upward and the legs felt it, the hike was great. Frequently stopping, just to look and see, this was the best trail we’d been on.  The escarpment high above Lake Superior here is a strenuous climb up to about 1400 feet.  With heavy packs on, it was one-foot-in-front-of-the-other until reaching the top.  In the end, it was well worth it-the views cliff side were breathtaking.  It would be another hour or so until we reached the Lake of the Clouds observation area in the distance. Not quite done with us yet, the trail played cruel jokes on us by descending and re-climbing a few times along the way.  Day hikers, with nary a waterbottle along would fly by, somehow (in our minds) not worthy of this trail.

Muir spoke of places like this as “home” and in some primitive way it is.  No conveniences, no cell calls or texts-no help or aid if something should go wrong.  The late "Dick" Proenneke (Alone in the Wilderness) once stated that you do everything very carefully-a cut or fall could be life threatening-good advice.   We were deliberate to pick good foot placements on wet slippery hills and take our time.  Although our time spent in the backcountry here was limited, it was satisfying to be tested and challenged-not always something that happens in our daily modern life.  This big block of roadless territory is a place we’ll return to for it seems we have unfinished business and more life to live there.

“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” -Aldo Leopold

33303 Headquarters Rd.
Recreation Passport Required: Yes
Ontonagon, MI 49953-9087
Approximate Size: 59020 (Acres)
Phone Number: (906) 885-5275