Porcupine Mountains, September 2012

Day 3

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Islept fairly well, even though it had been downright cold overnight. I had put my sleeping pad inside the hammock and under my sleeping bag to help insulate me from the cold air. That method actually worked well until the thin, inflatable pad slipped out of place at some point during the night. It was then that I became cold and woke up. I attempted to maneuver the sleeping pad back in place without getting out of my bag, but after about two minutes of fidgeting and not making sufficient progress, I realized I would have to get up.

I unzipped my sleeping bag and stepped out. There was no wind at all and the entire forest was quiet and still. It was very peaceful. The air was very cold and each exhaled breath instantly transformed into a wispy vapor as it slowly and silently rose into the darkness. The moon was high and provided ample light for me to see what I was doing without artificial light so I was able to make quick work of the task before me. I repositioned my sleeping pad, jumped back inside, zipped the mummy bag up to my face, and pulled the cinch cord tight. The recent movement translated into a gentle, side-to-side rocking motion and I was soon back to sleep.

Ken and Derek had already been up for a while when I finally rolled out of my hammock at 9:30 a.m. Ken had revived the fire and silky sheets of white smoke wafted through the morning calm of the forest. We fired up the camp stoves and boiled water for breakfast. To keep from having to clean pots in the morning I put my oatmeal into zip-top sandwich bags before the trip. I poured the steaming-hot water into one of the bags, zipped it shut, shook it a few times to mix the contents, and held it between my arms and chest for a few minutes to warm me up while the oats reconstituted.

After breakfast, I took my mug of hot chocolate down to the lake while I took some pictures. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and a couple puffy, white clouds were slowly drifting past. The water was completely calm and reflected the sky, the clouds, and the varied fall colors of the surrounding trees. Mirror Lake was living up to its name. It was an awesome sight and I managed to capture several photos that actually turned out to be my favorites of the entire trip.

We finally hit the trail around noon. Nothing like a very leisurely start, huh? As we backtracked on the trail that led into our site, we stayed alert for a sign pointing to the North Mirror Lake Trail. We were admiring the scenery and talking when all of a sudden we realized we were back at the Correction Line Trail half a mile away. Well, this was a great way to start the day. Somehow, all three of us managed to miss the trail sign, causing us to add an extra mile (one-half mile both ways) to our day. We double-checked the map attached to the signpost, then turned around and headed back to where we had just come from.

The sign directing us to the North Mirror Lake Trail was only a short distance from our campsite, but it was no wonder we had missed it, the sign was attached to only one side of the tree. It was clearly visible coming from the Correction Line, but not from the campsite we had just left.

The North Mirror Lake Trail carried us in a general northeast direction toward the heart of the Porkies. In short time we arrived at a large, swampy, marshy area where several sections of planked walkway carried us over the most onerous portions. Out to the east we were able to see a beaver lodge. Closer inspection revealed that this area was a prime location for the tree-gnawing creatures because there are chewed-up tree stumps and waterlogged limbs all over. By viewing this area from Google Maps, it appears as though there are several beaver dams along a 0.6-mile stretch of what used to be a river or stream that emptied into Mirror Lake.

The intersection of the North Mirror Lake and Government Peak Trails appeared just past this swampy area. The Government Peak Trail continued on to the east for about 4.3 miles where it intercepted the north-south Lost Lake Trail. The North Mirror Lake Trail veered to the left and headed north which is the direction we needed to go.

The trail increased in elevation for a short distance, leveled out for a bit, and then began a long, constant, often steep descent that eventually terminated at the bridge over the Big Carp River at Lake of the Clouds.

Not long after the trail split, we were paralleling a long, narrow gorge several yards off the trail to our west. We found a small outcrop along the trail, left our packs propped up on the rocks, and walked over to investigate the giant gouge in the landscape. The gorge was one of those places that looks awesome in person, but lacks all sense of perspective, scale, and impressiveness in pictures. The gorge looked like someone had taken a huge ice cream scoop and scraped it along the ground, removing a huge swath of dirt, rocks, and trees. The bottom is littered with large boulders and sections of dead trees, all of which is covered in years’ worth of moss and algae growth. We carefully made our way down the steep sides, zigzagging a path of least resistance and peril over the sometimes-treacherous objects that impeded our way. We spent about 45 minutes exploring and taking pictures before fighting gravity and climbing back to the trail above.

The trail between the gorge and the Big Carp River took us about 40 minutes to traverse and contained long stretches of ground covered with exposed tree roots. At least it was all downhill for us, but I remember feeling bad for the people who choose to go the opposite direction because this crazy section would be 1.5 miles of uphill hiking for them.

The trail bottomed out at the banks of the Big Carp River, and when we stepped onto the wooden bridge, we were able to see the river to the east and to the west and the Escarpment Ridge 300 feet above. There were several people congregating on the bridge, admiring the scenery. The sun had finally appeared and warmed the air to a comfortable temperature, and puffy, white clouds contrasted sharply against the sapphire blue sky. We exchanged the typical trail niceties with a few people—“What an awesome view.”, ”Where did you start your hike today?”, ”Where do you plan to stop for the evening?”, “Have you ever been here before?”, etc.—and then moved on across the bridge.

We stepped off the north side of the bridge and began the uphill trek to the Escarpment Ridge Trail. About 0.25-mile from the bridge, we discovered a sign and a side trail leading to the Lake of the Clouds cabin to the east. The sign said the trail was only for use by people who had rented the cabin. This was most likely because it is not a through-trail and dead ends at the cabin. We did not have a reservation, but we still wanted to see the cabin and its view of the lake, so we hiked over to the cabin anyway. When the cabin came into view, we stayed where we were on the trail and tried to determine if it was occupied. The cabin was closed, there was no gear lying around, and there were no other signs that people were present. We slowly walked up to the cabin and discovered that it was unoccupied. We left our packs on the bench near the front of the cabin and walked down to the shore to snap a few photos.

Originally we had planned to hike up to the Escarpment Ridge and then hike east about 2.5 miles to the campsite on Cuyahoga Peak. We would spend the night and then backtrack the 2.5 miles and continue west a short distance to the Lake of the Clouds overlook where we had left Derek’s car a couple of days ago. Well, the more we discussed and thought about what lay ahead, the more we began to reconsider. Another 2.5 miles was definitely not too difficult for us, but the lack of water on the ridge is what finally changed our minds. Surely we could have topped off our containers here at the lake and had enough water for dinner and clean-up this evening. We may have even had enough water for a hot beverage tonight, but there would most likely not be anything left for breakfast in the morning and the subsequent hike back to the car.

In the end, we chose not to make the hike up to the ridge. The decision was even more bearable knowing that we would still hike the portion of trail from here to the Escarpment in the morning, and that we would still experience the views from the ridge tomorrow when we made the trip over to the Carp Lake Mine. We shouldered our packs, hiked back south, and crossed the bridge.

There are four rustic campsites along the southern edge of Lake of the Clouds and we were going to spend the night at one of them. The distance separating each of the first three sites is almost identical, but the fourth is quite a bit further to the east. The first campsite is literally only a couple of yards east off the North Mirror Lake Trail and that was simply out of the question! The second site was not bad, but we continued on to see what the third had to offer. The third site was large and open and not far from the water’s edge. I told Ken and Derek to stand by while I hiked further east to scout out the last site.

The access trail quickly narrowed and I had to step over quite a few branches and logs as it snaked its way through the trees and carried me deeper into the forest. Obviously, this last stretch had not been traversed as often as the section behind me. I knew I had not missed the last site, but after hiking along for several minutes, I turned around and headed back. The fourth site would have to remain a mystery.

Our site was nice, but its abundance of shade would cause it to become cold and dark quickly after the sun dipped below the tops of the trees out in the distance. So, after unpacking and setting up the tents, we cooked some chicken teriyaki, ate dinner, and cleaned up while daylight was plentiful and the temperature was still comfortable.

With all the important tasks behind us, we had time to enjoy our surroundings. During our inbound hike we had passed a small side trail on our left that led down to the lake only a few yards from the entrance to our site. We took our cameras down to the water’s edge and spent some time shooting the amazing landscape sprawled out before us. The bright afternoon sunshine enhanced the craggy appearance of the escarpment and caused the colors of the recently changing leaves to pop with vivid orange, yellow and red hues.

By 5:30 p.m. the sun was still plenty visible, but it was noticeably lower in the sky. Low-angled shafts of light streamed through the trees, mottling the ground with a warm golden glow. Despite the fact that the sun had not yet set, the temperature was beginning to drop. After some foraging, we were able to collect enough kindling, twigs, branches, and logs to create a sizeable pile of campfire fuel.

At some point during our trip, I was given the title of resident firebug, and as such, it was my responsibility to start the fire. I broke and twisted some of the smallest twigs and placed them into a pile in the center of the fire ring along with a few strips of birch bark and some fluffed up pieces of dryer lint. I added increasingly larger twigs and branches around the perimeter until I had a proper setup. Two or three scrapes of the metal striker along the flint rod caused a shower of sparks to rain down on the dryer lint. The sparks quickly became dancing flames that grew in size and intensity with each passing second. Soon the birch bark caught fire and began to sizzle and pop. The flames and heat intensified until all the kindling and small twigs were ablaze.

Things were going well. Well, that is, until the flames reached the larger branches and logs. The bark seemed to burn just fine, but the wood itself never really took off as I had expected; they must have been too damp on the inside. In order to keep the fire going we had to continually feed it smaller, bone-dry branches and reposition the larger logs to stay within reach of the less-than-robust flames. It was more work than we had expected, but the warmth we gained outweighed the additional effort.

We sat next to the fire for a long time, enjoying the camaraderie, the conversation, and the overall experience of being here in this magnificent State Park. Even though we were not alone out here in the middle of this 60,000-acre wilderness, we may as well have been. There were no people anywhere near us—nobody staying at the Lake of the Clouds cabin, nobody camping at any of the other sites here near the lake, and nobody we had spoken with earlier in the day made mention of camping anywhere nearby. We were probably a good several miles from anyone else.

As the sun began its final descent toward the horizon, the black of night slowly infiltrated the forest. Like water creeping up on a sandbar at high tide, darkness slowly seeped in, eventually filling every nook and cranny of the forest and effectively shrinking our “world” to only the small area of our campsite. The faint glow of our fire illuminating the surrounding trees was the only thing that staved off utter and complete darkness. It was a bit eerie, surreal, and awesome, all at the same time.

It’s not often that we have the opportunity to experiment with night photography, at least not with the complete darkness we were experiencing. After it had been dark for quite a while we took our cameras down to the lake and over to the bridge where we spent an hour-and-a-half taking long exposures of the escarpment and the lake. It is amazing how much light a camera is able to capture even when it was as dark as it was out here. We managed to get a couple decent photos of the lake with the escarpment in the background and the Big Dipper constellation hanging overhead.

Just like the previous two, today had been an exceptional day. The day began with a cool temperature and an overcast sky, both of which persisted into the middle of the day. That did not really bother us, though, because that combination makes for comfortable hiking conditions. As mid-day progressed into the afternoon, the coolness turned warm under a sunny sky, and finally, the evening turned into a cold night that was perfect for standing around a warm, inviting fire. The scenery was beautiful and the off-trail exploration was a nice diversion from the sometimes-monotonous, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other hiking. The trail rose and fell a few times, but overall it was not too bad, except for the sections covered with rocks and tree roots, and at least that portion was mostly downhill.

The only annoyance to rear its ugly head was when our water filter became difficult to use. The filter was brand new before the hike and we were not able to determine what caused the problem. We had not pumped any muddy or silty water and we back-flushed the pump after roughly 8-10 liters of water, just as the directions had specified. I looked at the filter again today, but was not able to remedy the malfunction. Filtering water required an inordinate amount of effort and became increasingly more difficult each time we used the device. The problem persisted for the rest of the trip, but at least it still filtered and we had clean water to cook with and drink.

Back at camp, we added more branches to the campfire that had reduced itself to mere embers before we left. The flames perked up again for a while as we rounded out the evening with a couple hot beverages and more conversation.

We retired for the night at 11:00 p.m. when the cold on our backs was more than we felt like dealing with. I had not felt very tired while we were standing around the fire, but my eyes became very heavy as soon as my body assumed a horizontal position inside the warmth of my zipped up Slumberjack. As my remaining few moments of consciousness ebbed away I listened to the lonely screeches of an owl not far from our site as they echoed throughout the blackened forest.

Final count for the day: Twelve people, most of them day-hikers without backpacks, several chipmunks and a few red squirrels.

Miles Covered Today: 6.2
Total Trip Miles: 20.8

Day 4

This page last updated on 02-25-2016 @ 11:29 AM