Afoot in the Porkies
On the Upper Peninsula, a splendid wilderness remains unchanged.
© Beth Gauper
A hiker walks above Lake of the Clouds on the Escarpment Trail.
Just up north, there’s a vast wilderness of lakes, virgin forest and wild rivers lined by waterfalls and rapids.
It isn’t like other north-woods forests — not as they are in this century, anyway. It’s a wilderness unto itself, and though it’s no farther than the state parks farther up Minnesota’s North Shore, it seems a world away.
It feels a world away, too.
This is Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and parts of it look like nowhere else in the region. Hiking high above Lake of the Clouds, from which the Carp River winds into the horizon between rolling green ridges, I felt as if I should be off to find a ring or rescue a princess.
The forest floor, darkened by old-growth hemlocks, also has a fairy-tale feel — peeping through the windows of a little cottage, I felt like Goldilocks, wondering if anyone was home — though I’d just passed the occupants toting their gear back along the trail.
Except for the popular Lake of the Clouds overlook, which nearly can be reached by car, the Porkies are a place for hikers
and backpackers, many of whom vie for nights in the park’s 19 rustic log cabins and three yurts.
A hundred miles of trails crisscross the 94 square miles of the park, whose ridges rise 1,000 feet above 23 miles of Lake Superior shoreline.
Under the timber lies the edges of lava that welled out of the Earth a billion years ago and, as it grew heavier, buckled in the middle to form the Lake Superior basin. Its edges sloped upward, forming the Porkies, now worn down and smoothed by erosion and glaciers.
Copper formed in the lava flows, and the first miners arrived thousands of years ago, leaving pits and stone tools to mark their existence.
The Ojibwe, who named the area Kaug Wudjoo, place of the crouching porcupine, arrived not long before French explorers, who noticed copper nuggets on the rocky shoreline.
Fortune-seekers followed, then mining companies, nearly all of which were stymied by the rugged topography. The earliest expedition, sent by London investors in 1771, gave up in disgust on an area Patrick Henry told Congress was "beyond the most distant wilderness and remote as the moon.''
Loggers were able to wrest more from the land but got a late start, after mining companies finally gave up.
The interior of the Porcupines still was untouched when the area was designated a state park in 1945, and its stand of old-growth forest -- sugar maple, eastern hemlock, yellow birch — is considered the biggest and best of its kind east of the Mississippi.
In the fall, these trees burst into color. In winter, there’s skiing — cross-country and downhill, in a ski area with a vertical drop of 641 feet — on the most copious snowfalls in the Midwest. In spring, the snowmelt turns the dozens of waterfalls into ferocious gushers. In summer, people actually can swim from sandy beaches.
Despite all this, the Porkies never have been overrun by tourists. The U.P. is separated from the rest of Michigan by Lake Michigan, and Minnesota and Wisconsin have their own wildernesses.
Many visitors, like me, discover the Porkies while taking the Circle Tour around Lake Superior. And then, like me, they want to return.
© Torsten Muller
Waterfalls tumble down the Presque Isle River on the western flank of the Porcupines.
One September, my niece and I drove to the Porkies. We hiked first from the Lake of the Clouds overlook, where the four-mile
Escarpment Trail begins on a worn outcropping of basalt.
Following the ridge that formed at lava’s edge, we were 300 feet above the valley floor, above hawks coasting atop breezes that made the treetops below ripple in green waves.
Afterward, we joined naturalist Bob Sprague’s Black Bear Habitat hike. Bears are frequently seen in the Porcupines, usually fleetingly.
“They get gone before you even know they’re there,’’ Sprague said. “You’ll have to satisfy yourself with evidence of bears.’’
He found it everywhere, showing us a rotten log a bear had ripped apart looking for grubs; claw marks on a red oak, where a bear was reaching for acorns; a surprisingly small den; a clump of hair on the branch of a small red pine, where a bear had bitten off the top and others had rubbed, leaving their scents.
He told us what bears eat — berries, ants, fiddlehead ferns — and what they like — bacon, pastries, fried chicken, licorice. Backpackers who don’t hoist their food into a tree have a very good chance of losing it, he said.
“Earlier this summer, I saw a bear off the trail with a big Ziploc bag of pancake mix,’’ he said. “The Girl Scouts had failed to put their food in a tree.’’
The next day, we pored over the tantalizing list of hikes. The Union Spring Trail: “From the floating dock, view over
700 gallons of clear water bubble out of the ground each minute . . .’’
North Mirror Lake Trail: “Surrounded by rugged bluffs and magnificent pines, at 1,532 feet, it is the highest lake in the park . . . ” Of course, we were dying to hike on the 16-mile Lake Superior Trail, but just getting to the big lake would take us hours.
So we decided to skip and jump our way across the park. We walked the milelong loop of the Union Mine Trail, using a guide to identify the spots where miners had scrabbled for copper alongside the pools and rock slides of the cold Union River.
Farther west along South Boundary Road, we picked our way along the Little Carp River Trail, past Overlooked Falls,
Greenstone Falls and a series of rapids.
Under the forest canopy, we’d barely noticed a light drizzle, only how it made the fallen maple leaves and glossy wood fungus glisten with color; the entire forest was a wet canvas, brought to life by the constant hum of rushing water.
At the end of South Boundary Road, we turned toward Lake Superior and descended to the banks of the Presque Isle River along
the West River Trail, overhung by 350-year-old hemlocks. The crashing Manabezho, Manido and Nawadaha falls are here, named
for the legendary spirit-warriors of Ojibwe lore.
Everywhere we saw signs of violence wreaked by water — in the scallops and potholes drilled into the riverbed by
swirling gravel, in the angry foam whipped up at the river’s mouth by the thrusts of Lake Superior.
Another sign was in black-and-white print: “Beautiful but dangerous . . . wading or swimming could end your vacation.’’
© Debra Gagner
Three yurts are open year-round in the park.
We’d seen plenty in the park, but not enough. The Porcupines, I suspect, always leaves its visitors wanting more.
Trip Tips: Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
Getting there: It’s an hour north of Ironwood, on the Wisconsin-Michigan border. From U.S. 2 in Wakefield, drive north on Michigan 28 and 64. The main entrance to the park is near Silver City. When you get there, you’ll be on Eastern Standard Time.
When to go: From mid-May through June, flies are a problem. By late September, frost has killed deer flies, horse flies and the even-worse stable fly.
Winter: The park includes a downhill ski area with 42 runs and a vertical drop of 787 feet. The longest run is 1 1/8 miles, and two lift tickets cost $48.
There are also 42 kilometers of cross-country skiing. The park holds lantern-lit skiing on a one-mile loop on every Saturday night in January and February.
There's snowshoeing throughout the park. If you can coordinate reservations, you can snowshoe from yurt to cabin or cabin to
cabin or lodge.
2013 events: More than 30 artists will play folk, blues and bluegrass at the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival, Aug. 23-25.
Accommodations: Mountain View Lodges, just outside the eastern entrance
to the park, are very attractive two-bedroom cabins with wood-burning fireplaces, VCRs, cable TV, well-equipped kitchens,
screened porches and sofa sleepers. A sand beach on Lake Superior is lined with fire pits. Four cabins are open to pets and
one is wheelchair-accessible.
In the park, the Kaug Wudjoo Lodge, on the lakeshore in the former park headquarters, sleeps up to 12. It rents for $1,225 per week. To reserve, call the park at 906-885-5275.
Union Bay Campground, along Lake Superior near the visitors center, has showers and electricity. Presque Isle Campground is rustic and 17 miles from a phone and supplies. Reserve up to six months in advance at Michigan DNR Reservations, 800-447-2757.
The park also has 19 wood-heated rustic cabins, $60. Three are open in winter. Most sleep four, but some sleep six or eight. Seven are within a mile of a trailhead, and one is handicapped-accessible; others require a hike of up to four miles.
Cookware and tableware are provided, but guests need to bring a stove. Cabins on Mirror Lake, Lily Pond and Lake of the Clouds include boats.
Three yurts are open year-round and can be reached only by trail — the shortest hike is a mile — and do not have electricity or running water. Water is supplied at one yurt; at the others, guests must filter water from streams. Wood is provided. They sleep four, and the cost is $60.
Reserve cabins and yurts up to a year in advance at Michigan DNR
Dining: Don’t expect brewpubs, bistros or espresso bars. You’ll find pasties, though, and Konteka Lodge, six miles south of Silver City in White Pine, is a pleasant place to eat.
The 358-page book “Porcupine Mountains Companion’’ (Nequaket Natural History Associates, $18.95), written by rangers Bob Sprague and Michael Rafferty, has lots of helpful information, including trail descriptions, tips on dealing with fly invasions and 21 pages about the cabin descriptions. With shipping, it’s $21.95 from the gift shop, 906-885-5283.
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