Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Porcupine Mountains: December 2012

I took a little, two-night backpacking trip through the Porcupine Mountains at the end of the year, and here's my report.  I left Saturday morning from the Milwaukee area and managed to slide off the interstate by about 8:30am, 2.5 hours into my trip.  Had to get a tow truck to pull me up from the bottom of the embankment, which took about 1.5 hours from when I called to when I was out.  So that was an auspicious beginning, and between the delay and the road conditions (I drove really slowly after that) it ended up taking me 8.5 hours to get there instead of the 6 I had planned on.

But I got there, self-registered and got on the trail by 2:30pm.  The sun set at 4:15pm so I had limited time.  I left from the park headquarters (one of the few places you can get by car) and was hoping to at least get to the flats below Government Peak before I set up camp.  However, due to the 2.5 hour loss I realized that was no longer feasible.  I went up through the cross-country ski trails at first, until they forked off from the hiking trails and then it was up to me to find my way.  It was snowing and getting dark but they've done a great job marking everything so it really was not that bad.
One of the cross-country ski trails I followed
I got a bit worried about light and cold.  It was in the teens or high single digits the whole time I was there, and colder in the valleys next to the rivers.  The problem I had was that the sun was setting and I was still right next to a river.  Plus I had never set up my little back-packing tent up on snow before (it's not designed to be set-up that way) and I was nervous about doing that in the dark.  So when the trail began to climb out of the ravine above Trap Falls I found the first, vaguely flat spot and set up camp.  It was 4:30 by that point, snowing and pretty dark.  Still I got everything put together and myself in the sleeping bag by 5:00.  One of the advantages of not bringing a stove: you don't have to cook anything.

My tent the next morning.  A clever use of twigs and one long piece of string I had brought along is what held this thing up. As you can see, it snowed an inch or two on me that night.
I had forgotten how long winter nights are when you can't do anything in the dark.  Sunset at 4:15 and sunrise at 7:45 doesn't just mean you only have 8.5 hours of daylight in which to get where you're going, it also means over 12 hours of lying in your tent at night, not doing anything.  It gets a little chilly and claustrophobic knowing that, especially since my tent isn't exactly roomy.  But I got more sleep than I anticipated and when the day came: I was ready to go!

Up and over Government peak I actually met two parties.  One guy who had gone to the peak the previous night and was hiking out that day, and a couple who went to mirror lake and were going to spend sometime wandering around in the area.  I was surprised: I figured I was the only one dumb enough to backpack in these conditions!

View from Government Peak
For warm gear I wore my thermals under my normal hiking gear along with some light, utility gloves.  I also brought a very warm jacket, a rain coat and incredibly warm mittens.  I didn't wear any of those things while hiking and as long as I kept moving I was fine.  It was amazing though, how fast I cooled down if I stopped.  I found if I stopped hiking for more than 30 seconds, I could feel my core temperature dropping.  More than about 3 minutes and I'd start shivering.  My breaks were pretty short as a result.

Me on top of Government Peak.  I backpack with the old-school, exterior frame pack (they haven't made any in decades). The clothing is what I hiked in for the whole trip: baseball cap, ear warmers, hiking shirt and pants with thermal under-layer  light gloves, gators and hiking shoes.  If you kept moving anything else was too warm and made you sweat.  If you stopped it was far too cold.
One big surprise was having to ford a river: everywhere else I'd been in the park had bridges.  In fact even the marshes were bridged!  But not this river: it was ford or go back, and I didn't have the supplies for turning around.  It ended up not being that bad.  Lower water levels in the winter meant that if I was careful I wouldn't have to step anywhere deeper than 4-6 inches of running water.  Which is good because I only had light hiking boots and gators so I couldn't really handle anything more sever.  I ended up literally running across the whole thing.

The ford I had to cross (I actually crossed downstream, just out of picture). Trust me: it was worse than it looks.
I made it down to the shores of Lake Superior and kept walking.  Two things were in my mind: I didn't want to have to drive through snow and dark the next day after my experience on Saturday (this turned out to be a non-event but I didn't know it at the time) and I was running out of water.  I'd brought three liters, which should be enough for a about one day in the winter (I typically use 5 liters for just a day hike in the summer), and a pump.  Only, other than the river I had to ford (and where I was not in a mental state to think about pumping water) there were no really feasible places to pump water.  Probably a few that would've worked if I had to make them, but no good ones.  And since the pump can break if used improperly in sub-freezing temperatures I just hadn't used it.

So I kept walking as long as I thought prudent (I had a headlamp, but the idea of losing the trail after it got dark...)  Around 5:15 I finally stopped.  I was pretty thirsty, as I hadn't been drinking enough water all trip, but I had less than a quarter of a liter left, and about 10 miles to go the next day.  So I skipped eating anything and set-up camp.  I camped right by the shore (next to "Buckshot Cabin") and so I took some time before heading into my tent to admire the stars and the shore.  It is gorgeous, and the ice build-up there just added to the majesty.

The shore of Lake Superior
The sun setting as I tried to get as far as possible before I couldn't see the trail.
The stars over Lake Superior.  This was actually pretty hard to get without a tripod, but what an experience to be there!
Off to bed and a lot of rolling around until morning.  I got out around 6:15am and used my headlight to get everything packed away.  It took a little longer because the wind had picked up quite a bit by then, so by the time I was going we were already into nautical twilight, and I was able to put my headlight away after just 15 minutes or so of walking.  The trail winds up to the road and dead ends there.  A little ways down the road you can get back on a trail, but it's a sequitious route with a non-trivial amount of climbing (at least for the Midwest) and I was worried about water.  I drank my last bit just before I hit the road and I could tell I was experiencing some effects from dehydration.  So I stuck to the road.  It's closed to everyone except snowmobiliers, and I didn't see any of them the whole way back.  I did see their tracks though, and the hard snow made for a very fast pace.

I finally turned off onto a little side trail and followed it back to the park headquarters: success!  Of course the water I left in the car was completely frozen so it was still a while until I had anything to drink (and even then it burned my throat) but I had made it, and had a great time out in the wilderness.  Plus: I stayed on the road the whole way back: amazing, right? 

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