Michiganders always head up north for a holiday weekend – it’s just what we do. Detroiters and anyone south of Lansing want to ditch the industrial, bustling and metropolitan lower half of the mitten in search of taller trees, clearer water, and sandy beaches. The question is how far north to go? Traverse City is a popular choice or some continue north to Petoskey or Harbor Springs. If you want lots of time behind the wheel (it is the motor state) then head up to Mackinac City for your fill of fudge and views of the mighty Mackinac Bridge that connects Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas. For my Labor Day holiday weekend, I decided to go farther.
Being a northern girl and Traverse City native, I inherently understand the northern call. I want to head north too – further north to the Upper Peninsula into a park – home to largest tract of virgin hardwoods in North America. My destination: The Porcupine Mountains State Park (The Porkies) where you’ll see a gazillion majestic trees and zero cell towers. Michigan is a big state though, making the drive time from my abode in Spring Lake to The Porkies, in the farthest western corner of the U.P., a back-aching, bitch-attack inducing 11 ½ hours. Michigan’s revered inland seas make for arduous logistics. 11 hours is just too long, not to mention it hogs two precious days of time I could otherwise be spending admiring lakes, northern lights, hardwood forests or the catch of the day. My crew and I contemplated options, asked Google maps for help and then we checked the USS Badger cross-lake ferry for rates and schedules. After our research, we added the ferry to the plan and also a state (Wisconsin) to the logistics equation. The historic USS Badger departs from Ludington and slowly sails (in four hours) to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 90 miles across Lake Michigan. The best part of four hours is that I am not piloting the ship, nor do I have any responsibility at all, except to put my feet up, sip cold beers and tell lies with friends. From Manitowoc, it is manageable 4 ½-hour drive, thru cheese-curd Packer fan land up to The Porkies. Splitting nine hours between a boat and a car did not give anyone in my group a rectal ache, so we inked the plan. And, our plan still left almost three full days of backpacking and camping.
My weekend fun-seeking group included a few staples: Kim, Steve (and their dog Zoey), and Theresa. Theresa added her niece, Rosie, to make it five, just a day before departure. Rosie was a rookie. She had rarely set up a tent, never carried a 30 lb. pack, nor had she ever shat in the woods. She did, however, bring the median age of our group down considerably, at 24. She, at least, had youth and exuberance on her side. Steve called up to the park office for camping information and learned backcountry permits were limited to groups of four. We would chance it and travel in a five-pack. The journey started on the 8:30 p.m. crossing, aboard the Badger car-ferry. Rather than a movie on-board, we chose a sunset show at dusk from the main viewing deck. We all gazed at a sky turning a complete palette of pastels from pinks, to purples that turned Lake Michigan blue to gray, then finally dark. To serenade our colorful departure, a police escort boat spouted a water cannon off starboard until the massive ferry cleared the channel. We now had four hours to kill. On the back lounge deck, opting not to play Badger Bingo in the main cabin, we ordered salads for dinner. We laid maps out on the table to determine our hiking routes, campsites and agreed, seven miles per day with a full pack was our limit. Wide-eyed and smiling, Rosie listened, and nodded her head. The tentative plan was a loop, starting at Overlooked Falls trailhead, first to a cabin on Lake Superior, next to Mirror Lake then back following Little Carp River trail. We guesstimated it was under 20 miles total in three days. It was a good plan.
The next morning, the ferry gave way to hours of driving north from the Green Bay Country Inn. It was our final opportunity to be clean for several days. We passed Lambeau field, cursed the Packers, as any true Detroit Lion fan should and continued north to the park. After one view of Lake Superior notched and permits secured at the main office, Steve rocketed the mini-van on winding roads 12 miles to our starting point. The five of us excitedly spilled out of the van and started cramming three days of food and gear into our pack. Enthusiasm was high. Our hiking shoes were laced, straps secured and sleeping gear checked. My pack seemed heavy so I tossed out a pack of PopTarts and an extra shirt. I was ready to start walking in the woods. Rosie the Rookie was all smiles and even Zoey had her doggie pack on, ready to run.
I tucked my water bottle into my side pocket and approached Theresa, “You and Rosie ready to go?” She walked closer to me and in low voice informed, “Steve and Kim forgot their tent.” Incredulous, thinking I heard wrong, “They forgot their tent – seriously?” Simultaneously, we turned toward the open back of the van where a perplexed Steve and Kim discussed their important missing item. They confirmed, after one final search of the van, the tent was safely packed and sitting at the front door of their Grand Haven home. Silent, I waited, for a rush of finger-pointing or angry accusations. Nothing happened except for some sheepish shrugging and exchanged mumbling, “I thought you packed it.” Theresa, always solution-minded, refocused our tent-less friends and reminded them we did have two other small tents and we could make do. So it was, Rosie went from rookie to hero (without having taken one step), with her borrowed two-person tent packed and present. The tent I carried would have to transition from a two-man to a three-woman tent and Rosie’s ultra compact would become a one-woman, one-tall man, one-dog tent! It would be very tight but the camping mission need not be aborted. Plus, on a whim pre-trip, Steve reserved a cabin for night one on Lake Superior. In our case, another bit of luck considering we were one tent down. The crisis seemed partially averted and our five-pack started to laugh at the forgotten tent. Theresa presented Steve with Rosie’s tent bag and asked, “Would you mind carrying this?” We crossed the Little Carp River and a footbridge and started walking.
It was easier to forget the tent and my busy life once we walked with the forest closing us in, on a narrow path. I had not packed my mobile phone, knowing The Porkies had no cellular service. I let out a long gratifying exhale and fixed my mind on the moment – not to be interrupted for three complete days by dings, pokes, likes or vibrations. My mind craved simpler thoughts and choices not connected to an email chain. I just wanted to think about things like:
- Light and dark
- Morning or night
- Hungry or full
- Awake or sleepy
- Sand or stone
- Sun or stars
- Wet or dry
- A still wood or a rushing river
I had plenty of time to focus my thoughts and enjoy the beauty of a deep leafy, mossy green that enveloped the trail. We hugged the Little Carp River for miles, just like the moss did to the base of reaching hardwoods. Distilled sunlight sniped through the forest branches and landed on moss, lichen, river and rocks. It was humid so I was thankful for the abundance of shade. Our five-pack stopped aplenty getting used to our packs and snacked on homemade jerky, gorp and fruit snacks. Photo ops were conveniently placed around every bend in the river. Steve, oft in front with his long strides announced, “There might be scenery up ahead.”
Two river crossings made for day one highlights: one with shoes on, rock-hopping and the second we carefully waded in, our bare feet sliding on slippery stones under the surface of the water. The river provided our music as we walked north toward Trapper Falls. As we tired, the conversations waned and I felt my pack dig into my right shoulder. My first pack “hotspot” presented itself and I shifted to release the pressure. I kept moving and Theresa and I checked the map for distance once we hit the Superior beach. Opting not to take the shorter Cross Trail, The North Country Trail route was longer and deposited us just west of our cabin. As a bonus, we hiked a mile along the shore to our cabin for a grand total of eight miles. That’s plenty with a heavy pack on and everyone’s back and shoulders had hotspots to remedy. We were elated to take our packs off and huge sighs of relief escaped everyone. I equate it to taking your ski boots off after a full day of skiing.
The sun was already low, so it was time for a dunk before sunset. Lake Superior was a refreshing camp shower that doubled as an ice pack. The view from our Superior beach and the mouth of the river, held huge flat, partly submerged black boulders, near the shore. The grouping looked like a pod of orcas circling in the shallows as I approached on the path. I realized they were not whales as I watched my friends sit on them and look out toward the setting sun. The beach is strewn with terra cotta red stones, black rocks and pebbles, in stark contrast to the sandy dunes of Lake Michigan. The black beach of Lake Superior characterized its rugged beauty – I felt I could almost hear it flaunting its superiority and power over the smaller great lakes. Superior, sometimes the angry and menacing lake, was calm and serene while she mellowed through the evening to welcome a burning red ball of sun to its edge. The sunset perched on Lake Superior for just a moment, which gave way to hunger and taco night in the cabin. Kim (our most experienced camper) suggested we eat that meal first, since it was the heaviest in our packs. We all readily agreed, acutely aware of our aches. The cabin had four bunks, a table, a counter facing north and a potbelly stove. I lit two candles, Kim and Theresa stirred our Mexican rice mixture, Rosie retrieved some water to filter and Steve gathered firewood. We sat down to a candlelight dinner and a bottle of wine Theresa had hauled in a portable Platypus container. We demolished the food (no calorie counting while backpacking), and the wine before our late dinner turned quickly into bed making and hitting the outhouse.
Just out the screen door for my turn, it occurred to me to look up for northern lights. I looked up at a star scene that turned the black night to a twinkling mass of light. I craned my neck and yelled to the gang, “Hollllyyyy Crraaaappppp, you have to come and look at this.” I must have sounded dramatic because within minutes we all laid on the rocky beach looking up, captivated. The big dipper stretched out in front of us, lower in the sky and the handle pointed to the ever bright, North Star. Straight above you (its best if you lay down), is the Milky Way, strewn with millions of stars in a surrounding halo. The sunset had been a highlight but star gazing on a Lake Superior clear night, had me feeling blessed to be up north. Full, of wonder and tacos, we could now get some rest. The good news – the tent situation was a non-factor on night one. All the girls got the bunks and Steve volunteered to hit the floor with his sleeping pad. We fell asleep to rodents scratching in the stovepipe, Zoey licking her paws, followed by a chorus of on/off snoring.
Camping and hiking is the simple life, yes? Or is it merely trying to plot distances and time in between finding a private spot to go. We took to calling the outhouses, Crapportunites on our three days in the park. The Porcupine Mountains has this great network of rentable cabins and nearby outhouses that made being a woman in the woods significantly easier. Although, Kim and I did have new Shewee’s (gifts from Theresa) that made for easier woodland potty breaks. A Shewee, is an ingenious funnel and tube system, that allows a girl to pee like a boy and avoid swiping our bottoms on poison ivy, during multiple squatting sessions. Theresa’s tip: take a wide stance to prevent peeing on your shoes. I became a believer in this pink- sleeved contraption over the weekend. I pressed the catcher/funnel tight to my unmentionables and made sure the tube was securely attached at the bottom. When I tried to go and instantly understood why some guys get stage fright. I needed to get used to the equipment. Eventually, after a deep breath, I let myself go (literally) and magically a stream of yellow shoots out the funnel and on to the leafy ground. Less mess, no soggy underpants – I was hooked. Next up, I thought I might try it in winter and see if I could write Laura in the snow.
Besides well-placed outhouses, the Big Carp River Trail on our second day in the park was noteworthy and very scenic. The Big Carp Trail would lead us to Correction Line Trail for the day’s route. We had a solid eight miles to traverse (up as it turned out) to Mirror Lake and to land a campsite. It was sad to leave the views of Superior behind and the safe confines of a roof over our heads. A warm and humid day was taking shape after breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. I was dreading putting on the pack for fear of awakening the shoulder hotspot again. The Big Carp River was calling and so was the Shining Cloud Falls; we donned packs and started up. I was damp quickly and swabbed sweat away from my eyes as I labored up the grade to make another awesome waterfall vista. We were only 1.5 miles in when the river views moved inland to muddy and soggy footpaths for the next many miles. I tried to split time between finding dry footfalls and soaking up the deep misty green of the dense woods. Most of my steps, I heard my heavy breathing paired with a squishy suction sound that rose up from the bottom of my boot. We all noticed mud smears all along our shins and ankles from trying to hop from logs to trail to path. We would all need another dunking later. After a lunch stop along a river perch, with a glimpse of sun, we were back at it again too soon. With still two to three miles to go, the walk transitioned to a march and my hotspot resurfaced. I grimaced and dug my fingers in while I walked and tried to find those simple thoughts again. Dry or muddy… dirty or clean.
I convinced the girls to take another break. Steve was well ahead anyway, we figured scoping out campsites with Zoey. I slid my pack off with a grimace and gulped the last of my water then started bumming some from Theresa. After a quick, all girl tribal council, we determined it was just another mile. Thankfully, we were right and Zoey and Steve walking toward us without packs, confirming we had almost made it. Rosie, Kim, Theresa and I were elated. Steve happily shared he had found a campsite and the other three were all occupied. Yay Steve! Spirits lifted, we spotted the lake through the green foliage and the mud finally gave way to sunrays bouncing off water ahead. Mirror Lake was an oasis of clean water with an abundance of waterfowl, including some very vocal loons. They called at us as we invaded their lake with our skankiness. No one bothered with soap, instead electing to stay submerged and just scrub the mud away while cooling sore muscles yet again. My motto: mostly clean will do when backpacking. I didn’t dally after my camp shower, rather headed up the short distance to the camp to unpack the tent and find some snacks. I am always hungry anyway and hiking with a pack had exacerbated this condition. Steve, Kim and Theresa had hijacked the rowboat near our swimming hole and were paddling around the perimeter of the small lake trying to entice more waterfowl to say hello.
The rest of the evening revolved around fitting in dinner and in our tents. Both Jetboils were put to work and we made two steaming pots of shells and cheese with turkey sausage mixed in. Devoured, would be the most accurate word to describe dinnertime. In that hungry moment, shoveling in mouthfuls with my blue spork, I may have imagined I was in a Parisian bistro cutting up a piece of duck confit. Not able to fit in another gourmet bite, we all took turns stoking our fizzing and uncooperative fire. The damp firewood kept the fire fizzling rather than flaming and it only partly helped to keep the mosquitos away. We still sat around our small fire, relaxed and Rosie queued up a game, called Head’s Up that kept us entertained for a while. Unexpectedly, we were rudely interrupted by flashes of approaching lightning. Our game playing quickly turned to scurrying, Sheweeing, food collecting, (it all goes up a bear pole in a bag) and tent flap securing. The weather forecast had listed Monday as the T-storm warning but meteorology in Michigan is educated guessing. Low, rumbling thunder started and the lightning continue to flash, over top of the wind-brushed branches. Kim and Steve reminded us to get out garbage bags and ponchos to put shoes and packs in, under the tent vestibule. Frantic motion continued for another 30 minutes while the T-storm kept posturing, sending bursts of wind and heat lightning flashes. Finally, we had all crammed in two tents and Zoey barked at the thunder rolls. Rosie, Theresa and I shared the other cozy tent and zipped up the flaps just as the first drops spattered on the top tarp. My Robert Frost poem recital was interrupted by rain then by two moths flitting around the two head-lamps on, in the tent. All three of us squeaked like pre-teens until we shooed them out and re-zipped. Lights went out, and I lay on my back and listened to the approaching storm. The wind blew harder through the thick evergreen boughs directly above us but remarkably it never shook the tent at ground level. I looked up and watched flashes illuminate our tent in spurts. The rain came, the tent stayed dry and the storm moved east. Only in our minds, did lightning strike a large tree branch that fell and smashed our tent, with all of us in it!
Morning dawned, and I realized I only had five more miles to transport my pack back to the completion of our loop. I lazily stretched and checked around me for wet spots under my pad. All was dry. I hoped my tent neighbors had been as fortunate. It was just after 7, which seemed early until I realized we had scrambled in the tents early to escape the rain. Theresa’s aluminum coffee pot got its final workout and we boiled water to add to our MRE Eggs (meals ready to eat), sausage, hashbrown mixture. Kim and I handed everyone a steaming pile of eggs on top of a tortilla for a final Porkies breakfast. The sky was gray and more rain seemed probable. Purposefully, we ate breakfast burritos, packed up gear and damp tents to be walking by 9. Considering conditions and the number of tents, it had been all but decided to make the rest of our stay in the Porkies the “tourist version” instead of bad-ass hiker version. We still had five miles of ultra green to hike on South Mirror Lake to Little Carp River Trail. We would pass the southern tip of Mirror Lake on a narrow plank bridge that sent us back into enchanted woods, past Beaver Creek and toward Lily Pond. At the pond, waterfowl abounded again, this time several heron took flight around us while we munched PBJ or PBH mini-bagels. The trail intersected again with the North Country Trail, as it had on the first day. The clouds held but the rain stayed away as we walked back to Overlooked Falls and the parked van.
Steve and Rosie had never seen the Lake of the Clouds so the second half of our Sunday we dedicated to backtracking (by car) around the park and west on 107 to the packed parking lot for the viewing area. A short paved trail led us up to a view of the rocky escarpment and a narrow lake below, hemmed in by an impressive thick forest of more green. Nearby Government Peak is the highest point in the park at 1850 feet. (Our Mirror Lake campsite had been at about 1500 feet per the topographical map and Steve’s GPS.) That afternoon, we carried only cameras and no packs. My shoulders were gleeful as I leaned on the stone barrier and soaked up the view that held 60,000 acres of wilderness forest and the oft-photographed lake. I thought back to my last visit to LOC in the fall in 06’ and remembered the same view with strokes of fall color on all the leaves. I couldn’t decide if the velvet green of summer was more inspiring than the reds and glowing gold of autumn. In all my travels, I could only think of one other place that was greener than the Porkies – only the mythical Emerald Isle, known as Ireland.
Our tourist day continued in the van to an outfitter store for ice, to chill some beers and to buy a bag of salty ships. We turned in the cabin keys at the ranger station and headed east. The plan was to make one more Lake Superior beach stop to collect rocks for Kim’s collection in Ontonagon, except the small town was on a channel instead of having direct access. Darn it. And, we just missed a small town Labor Day parade. We drove, cracked open chilled beers while Theresa piloted us south on M-45, in search of cheap lodging. Two hours later, the van landed at the Comfort Inn in Iron Mountain… hometown of two famous coaches, Steve Mariucci and Tom Izzo. Now, our Monday morning drive back to the ferry was only three hours and as a bonus, we could sleep in, on a bed – not on the ground in a sleeping bag, crammed in two tents. If you are keeping stats, we stayed in hotels two nights, a cabin for one and only one night in a tent. Even so, we hauled all the gear around for over 20 miles, which still counts as a semi-bad-ass hiking trip, right? I decided, it didn’t really matter where we slept…we were up north.