Hiking in Michigan's upper peninsula wilderness and thinking I'd be better off dead.
(not the animal)
I planned on taking this backpacking trip to the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan's western Upper Peninsula last fall, but my work schedule prevented that from happening. So now here I am, driving 675 miles from home to my outdoor wilderness experience in the Porkies, as they are commonly called.
After traveling for about twelve hours, I arrived at the Best Western Hotel in Silver City at eight-thirty p.m., just three miles from the Porkies' park entrance. I treated myself to a filet mignon dinner and a couple of drinks in the lounge. The hotel was right on the shore of Lake Superior, and after dinner I sat on a driftwood log, under a clear sky with a full moon, while I watched and listened to the waves of Lake Superior curling softly on the beach just eight feet in front of me. Once again, as I do when I get out into nature, I thanked God for this beauty and turned in.
I was out of my room by seven a.m., but there was nothing open in the small town of Silver City, so I drove thirteen miles to Ontonagon and had a good breakfast to start my morning. Returning to the Porkies to pay my camping fees at the ranger station, I hit the Lake Superior Trail at nine-ten a.m., my goal being the Big Carp River, a ten mile hike.
About three miles into the trail, I was already exhausted and sweaty. Man, these trails are rugged! At least they were for me. Tree roots, loose rocks and changing elevations that literally take your breath away were already wearing me down. How the hell was I going to make ten miles today? I pushed on, taking numerous breaks and guzzling a lot of water. The temperature was about eighty degrees, warmer than normal for this time of year, which didn't really help things any. Most of the Lake Superior Trail keeps you close enough to hear the waves crashing against the rocky beach, but just far enough away so you can't see it. A few times the trail gets close to the water's edge, but it was so rocky you could hardly walk. Roughly four miles into the hike, trouble started. I slipped on some loose shale walking downhill, straining the Achilles tendon in my left ankle. A short time later I twisted my right ankle on some uneven rock, the pain shooting up my right calf to my knee, and I knew then I was in trouble. But instead of sitting there and letting my ankles get stiff on me, I continued down the trail.
Eight miles down the path I felt like I couldn't go on. It was about time to call in "Air Rescue One" and lift me out of here. Along the beach I found a large, flat rock reaching into Lake Superior and after dropping my pack I laid down in the bright afternoon sun, drying my sweat soaked shirt.
A short nap of half an hour, my ankles already getting stiff from resting, I moved on, and in no time I reached Big Carp River. I made my ten mile destination! Feeling good enough to travel a little longer, I pushed upstream to Shining Falls, where I made my camp for the first night at five-thirty p.m. My body was so sore I thought I would be here until spring. Camp was set up not far from the river, with the sound of water rustling over layers of solid rock, mesmerizing me into a deep slumber through the night. (I probably really just passed out from the pain my body was being put through).
I was awakened to the sound of hard sniffing outside of my thin tent wall. Hitting the side of the tent with my hand, I must have knocked him in the nose because I heard him snort and step back. With one quick, angry swipe, my tent was laid wide open, and the black bear was looking at me through my new window, not of my design, his saliva dripping onto my cheek, with his hot, panting breath wafting around my face. My heart throbbing wildly in my chest, I dared not move a muscle for fear that move would be my last. It's amazing what goes through your mind in an instant when you're facing death.
And then it happened.
Something I never thought would happen at a time like that.
I woke up. Yeah, it was a dream. A freaking nightmare. My watch read one-thirty a.m., and I knew I still had half the night to worry about this becoming a reality, but being exhausted I soon fell asleep and rose about six a.m. to the complete silence of the woods, except for the sound of the Big Carp River rustling next to me. After having coffee, trail mix, and a wad of beef jerky, I packed up camp and was on my way.
Today's trek would take me to the mouth of the Little Carp River, then east along the river to Greenstone Falls, about nine and a half miles for the day. Both of my ankles felt pretty good this morning, so I was willing to give it my best shot. The sky was partly cloudy with a lot of wind. When I reached Lake Superior again, the waves crashing into shore were three to five feet, expected to rise to six to eight feet by the end of the day according to report on my weather radio. The wind, blowing out of the northwest, was bringing in a cold front, with tonight's temperature dipping to a chilly thirty-seven degrees and cooler days ahead.
The walk was pretty much uneventful, taking me along the river's edge and high up on the bluff, with a lot of ups and downs along the way. By two-thirty p.m. I reached Greenstone Falls, but it seemed too early to stop, so I continued on to Lily Pond, a total of twelve miles for the day. When camp was made along the Little Carp River, I began to feel every step that it took to get me there. More pain, but now I was deep in the Porkies, and the only way out was to walk. Or be eaten by a bear.
It's ritual for me to bring along blackberry brandy on a backpacking trip, something I started with the first trip I made, and have continued in that tradition each time after. Coyote Jim, blackberry brandy. Kind of goes hand in hand. If you ever come across me on the trail, you can bet you'll be toasting the evening with blackberry brandy. My treat.
The campsite was a popular one, with a fire ring for campfires, and a bear pole for hanging your food up high to keep the bears from eating everything in sight. If the park provides a bear pole for you, then that should tell you there are bears in the area, and I didn't want to see or hear any of them. I figured the bears probably know where the bear pole is by now, knowing there's food up there, so I decided to hang my food bag in a nearby tree, where hopefully they wouldn't look.
By now my calves and shoulders ached from hiking and carrying the backpack, and I knew it would be tough getting up in the morning to hike about ten more miles to the Adirondack shelter that I planned to stay at for the night. The park provides three Adirondack shelters along the trails. The structure is about eight feet by fifteen feet, with three sides of solid wood and the front being half wood, half screen, with a door. And of course a roof. Inside are four bunks and a table. Quite cozy, especially if it's raining, and they're on a first come, first served basis.
After having a disgusting dinner of mountain chili (I think it was made with parts of the mountain), I turned in at dusk. With absolutely no one else around, I knew I was alone in the woods. The silence made you feel as if you were deaf. I found myself lying there listening to every twig and acorn drop, wondering "Was that a bear? How about that one? Maybe that?" I knew I would be awake all night listening, so I turned on the little pocket radio I had, laid my ear against it on the small camping pillow and fell asleep to some oldies music.
Morning was pretty brisk and I didn't waste much time packing up and hitting the trail. A number of times I had to cross rivers by rock hopping and log jumping, because there were no bridges to use. The trail would suddenly stop at the river's edge and continue on the other side. The waters were pretty low this time of year, but I would think in spring they could be treacherous to cross during snow melt. In spots, especially where the river makes a turn, you could see where logs and branches were piled up from high, raging water, and let me tell you, you wouldn't want to cross during that time. The whitewater could sweep you away instantly. I guess I just thought of another way out of here, didn't I?
The trail took me along Lily Pond, through parts of the oldest stand of hardwoods in the country, from which I've never seen such massive pine trees in my life, along Mirror Lake, and then up a long, steep, massive climb to the summit of Government Peak. From the top I could see for miles, when I wasn't hunched over gasping for breath. On the way up, I think I saw more dirt than anything else. I couldn't raise my head to see anything because I was always ready to fall flat on my face from exhaustion. There were still two and a half to three miles to go from the peak to get to the Adirondack shelter, right next to Trap Falls. My water was just about gone, and I kept looking for a river or a pond to replenish my supply with my water filter, but every creek bed I came to was dry. Exhausted, thirsty, and completely soaked from sweat, I stopped to take a break. The temperature was in the upper fifties and the sun hidden behind clouds.
I started to chill. Hypothermia is a real concern in the wilderness, so much so that if not recognized right away, it could be fatal. Great. There's another way out of the woods. Your body starts to shiver, trying to warm you because your inner core temperature is dropping. You need to get warm fast. I started to shiver and knew I was headed for trouble if I didn't act upon it quickly. A change into dry, warm clothes and some fast carbohydrate foods got me back on track in a reasonably short time. Soon I was on my way, but still no water.
The next two miles seemed like it was taking forever, and I even wondered if I was on the right trail. Thirsty and feeling like I couldn't go much further, I stopped and listened. Real hard. Turning my head in all directions. Concentrating... listening...I HEAR RUNNING WATER!!! Sure enough, just down the next slope, was Trap Falls! Water was running freely and abundantly over rocks that created a magnificent, sloping waterfall, covering a gradual span of two to three hundred feet. And right across the river was the shelter, with no one in sight. It was mine. And I welcomed it with open arms.
After filtering a lot of water, and immediately drinking a quart, I made some coffee, mixed up a quart of Gator Aid, and boiled some water to take a sponge bath. Let me tell you, even a sponge bath feels great in the woods.
I set up my temporary home in the shelter for the night and then started a nice, warm campfire. The evening air was chilling down, and I knew it would be colder in the shelter than in my tent, because your body heat warms the small tent area. And since the shelter was much larger, with one wall all screen, it would definitely be colder.
By five p.m. the skies cleared to a gorgeous blue, and nearby maples changing color were outstanding against the blue backdrop. A group of teenagers entered the camp area about six p.m., and I told them the girls could stay in the shelter with me, but the guys had to pitch their tents up the hill. Just kidding. I told them the ugly girl could stay with them. They ALL made their camp about sixty or seventy yards upstream, and I heard them scream when they decided to go swimming at the top of the falls. There was no danger of course, but the water was real cold.
Okay. I don't mean to change the subject or anything, but it's time to talk about urine. That's right, urine. And if you learn something here, then it was worth it. Especially if you're a backpacker, because it could save you a lot of grief. I noticed when I urinated that it was dark yellow. Really dark. This means that you're using up more water than you're taking in, and you're headed for trouble. If you don't drink enough water on the trail, the result could be a urinary tract infection, and you don't want to have that, especially in the woods, far away from everything. High fever and a burning sensation when you urinate is no fun anywhere. When I saw that, I drank plenty more water and within hours it cleared out. You should drink a cup of water every fifteen minutes when hiking, more if it's real hot. DRINK PLENTY OF WATER!!! You won't be sorry. Unless of course you wet your bed.
So far, in the three days I've been in the Porkies, I've walked thirty-three miles, with seven more to go tomorrow. The walk tomorrow should be the best, taking me along the Escarpment Trail, high above the beautiful Lake of the Clouds. My original route was going to take me an additional eight miles through the heart of the Porcupine Mountains, but really, all there is to see are more trees, and I think I've seen plenty.
Recently, on a trip to California, a friend of mine brought me a tee shirt from the T.V. series "Home Improvement". Advertised on the shirt is the fictional tool company "Binford Tools", a manufacturer of well made tools used on the show. So, at each one of my camps, I hung the shirt on a line and designated the camp "The Binford Camp". Stupid, but it's what you do out in the middle of nowhere to amuse yourself.
It's now eight p.m., the sun is just down over the horizon, and I feel I could stay out here next to the warm campfire all night. The only sounds are the crackling of the fire, the cascading water of Trap Falls, an occasional owl hooting in a tree and the teens yelling and screaming nearby. Okay, so they spoiled the serenity. But it is kind of nice to have someone nearby, even if it is loud adults-to-be. I was there once, too. A long time ago. In a land far, far away. Stop it.
I just went down to the river to see what their noise was all about, and two of them were playing Frisbee on the rocks above and below Trap Falls. Cool! Something they could tell their grandkids someday, playing Frisbee on a waterfall! And their grandkids would say, "What's a Frisbee? You do what with it?"
When I woke up at five a.m., the temperature in the shelter was forty two degrees, much cooler than the fifty five degrees I was used to in my small tent. I crawled deeper into my sleeping bag and slept for two more hours, rising at seven a.m. to pack and hit the trail for the best hike of the trip. The Escarpment Trail takes you high above "Lake of the Clouds", walking along the edges of cliffs where you wouldn't want to slip or have your backpack shift on you. Which it shouldn't if you've got it on right. You would have lots of time to think about it before you came to rest at the bottom. The seven mile walk today would be the shortest of the four days, but I anticipated also the toughest.
The first two miles were easy, walking along the river's edge, but I also knew the river was at the lowest grade, and all the pictures I've seen of the Escarpment Trail were at high elevations, so eventually I had to go up.
Eventually came soon enough. The trail soon split, north going to highway M-107 for one mile, and west going to the Escarpment for four miles. North was flat, west was up. Way up. I couldn't see the top. But it was my personal goal to do this, and I figured once I hit the top of the hill I was home free, walking the ridge for the last three miles. I went west. And I went up.
It wasn't so bad. The climb was gradual, but steady. After passing the old Cuyahoga Mine of eighteen hundred something, the climb steepened. I found myself taking many breaks along the way. I probably walked for twenty minutes before I finally saw a break in the trees at the top, and I knew I was close. A few more rest stops followed, and when I reached the clearing, the trail leveled out on solid rock with a beautiful vista view of the valley.
Pausing for a moment, I took a picture and moved back into the tree covered trail.
And then I saw it.
I was shocked. No, stunned. Speechless. Paralyzed. Nope, not a bear. Not a poisonous snake, either.
It was another hill. At least as big as the one I just climbed. I wasn't even near the top yet. Once more, I climbed. The trail was rocky, uneven and steep. Every fifty feet I rested. Finally, after exhaustion taking me over, the trail flattened on the edge of a cliff with another beautiful view of "Lake of the Clouds" in the distance, far below. Thanking God for letting me finally reach the top, I felt a spark of energy and was ready for this gorgeous hike along the Escarpment. The trail turned into the trees and...went up. Again. Higher, and out of sight. Now, being mad at God for doing this to me, I walked up again until, yes, this time, the top! What a gorgeous view. The deep valley down below, Lake of the Clouds ahead, and over the ridge out in front of me was Lake Superior.
From where I was standing I could see the end of the trail about two miles away, high on the ridge I was on, where the tourist parking lot was. The end was in sight, and I was at the top walking to that point. I felt good. I'd walked nearly forty miles to get here. I was tired, sweaty, and sore, but it was almost done.
Or so I thought.
The trail started down. That's right, down. WAIT A MINUTE! I'M AT THE TOP! I'M SUPPOSED TO FINISH AT THE TOP!!! It kept going down. Down so far I felt like I had to reach up to touch bottom. I couldn't see the top anymore. If there's one thing I've learned from hiking the Porkies, it's "down means up." When you go down, you have to come back up. And up it went.
Would you believe this happened three more fucking times? Thought I was gonna die. When someone tells you that the views at the top are worth the climb, tell them to kiss your ass. Well, alright, it was pretty nice. Okay, fine. It was worth the climb. And it was one of the most beautiful sights you'll ever see. But they can still kiss my ass.
The sign finally appeared, "Parking lot one quarter mile." Of course it was all uphill. Hunched over, practically crawling up the trail on my hands and knees, I passed a group of backpackers just starting out. I said, between gasps, "Good...afternoon...guys."
"Good day to you, sir," they said. "A magnificent day today, isn't it? Perfect weather for hiking the trails!", they beamed, chipper and energetic. Smart ass punks.
I wanted to say, "You dipshit. I'll give you six hours and ten miles and see how fucking chipper and excited you really are."
Well, needless to say, I made it to the top. Crawling, but to the top. Almost fell over the edge in front of all the tourists, but an elderly man caught me with his walking cane and dragged me back. You know I'm kidding. Do you really think they could do that? Of course not. It was a girl scout troop.
The last mile of my hike was downhill, completing the forty mile loop to where I parked my car at the beginning of the Lake Superior Trail. It was a tough four days, rugged and challenging. But I stuck it out. I had to. There was no one out there to help me. I'm tired, I'm sore, but most of all, I'm proud.
Just one more thing. I don't know if this is just a Michigan thing or what. But while driving on the northern Michigan two lane highways, you often come across a sign that reads, "Do not pass while opposing traffic present." I swear I'm not making this up. In fact, I had to stop and take a picture of this thing. People don't believe me. Why don't they just write, "Hey dumbshit, do you really want to pass when the car coming at you head on is going to smear you all over the road like a bug on a windshield?" I mean really, don't you think that the person who needs this sign shouldn't have a driver's license anyway? And who's the bigger idiot? The person who needs this sign or the person who wrote this sign? Or maybe even the supervisor that read this idea for the sign and said, "Yeah, that's a good one. Print it."
Just a thought.