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Onward & Upward

Michigan has mountains. Most people don’t know it. People imagine large bodies of freshwater, sand dunes, pine trees and fall leaves when they think of Michigan wilderness. The Lower Peninsula is somewhat tame when it comes to elevation change. Granted you could spend 3 hours hiking up a sand dune in Sleeping Bear, or shred the slopes of snowy peaks on skis, most of what we call “mountains” are in the UP. The Huron Mountain range along the northern part of the Upper Peninsula and the Porcupines Mountains (aka “The Porkies”) in the western UP date back to the Precambrian Period, some of the oldest mountains in the world. They’ve crumbled since then, topping off at around 2,000 feet above sea level. The Ojibwe people named the Porkies after the porcupine, calling the mountain chain "Kag-wadjiw" (Kag = porcupine, wadjiw = mountain). I often wonder what other names and stories the first people have for this land. 


Mid-August 2017, I backpacked the Lake Superior and Big Carp River Trails in the Porcupines Mountains Wilderness State Park, part of the park’s 90 mile network of hiking trails. A friend and I started at the Lake of the Clouds visitor area with our trail tradition: devour a fresh jalapeno in two big bites. One for you, one for me. A shot of endorphins = ultimate trail fuel. 

The visitor area was well-visited, for good reason. The Lake of the Clouds is a tourist destination, a lake settled 1,076 feet up, often shrouded in a mass of minute water droplets. People from all over the world come to see it. Though mostly they’re from Wisconsin, which isn’t much farther than some of the rural towns scattered across that part of the peninsula. 

We billy-goated over rocks as we headed into the woods, away from those popular scenic views. We collected what we called “big raspberries” along a stream, and were corrected by a Wisconsiner who overheard our excited ramblings. "They’re thimbleberries," he told us. Sweet and sour berries that sit on your finger like a little hat. 

We narrowly escaped death. My friend loved to “stop and smell the flowers”. Literally. And mushrooms too. He pointed out a patch of weird-lookin fungi, made me stop to appreciate its beauty even though we were making good time, cruising along a relatively flat path. We stood admiring the bright red spires shooting from the moss, the spiraling patterns of various shades of green, when SSSHBOOM!! A tall tree snapped and crashed across the trail ahead. Had we not stopped, we would have been under it, my friend pointed out. 

That night, after a day of rock-hopping, elevation change, and enchanted observations, we slept in an undesignated site along a small river. The designated campsites, which we had a permit for, were all occupied. The next night we slept near Lake Superior. It was raining heavily, so we zipped tight in our tent and fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves. 

At some dark, unknown hour, we were roused awake by DNR Officers shaking our tent. At first we thought we were being attacked by some mythical missing link, though once our heads cleared, we were able to talk to the officers. They asked if either of us were [insert name] or knew of her whereabouts. We said no and they moved on. We learned later that a young woman had gotten separated from her peers earlier that day. She was found alive and well in a tent nearby.

Queue morning birds. We examined the wetness of our gear, dried what we could, and continued onward. Old-growth trees shaded us from the bright sun above. We started at the mouth of the Big Carp River and headed back into the mountains, fording the river as the trail wound upward. FYI: “Ford” isn’t just a car company. It’s a verb, which means to cross a river or stream at a shallow point. I was thrilled that my feet stayed dry inside my hiking boots. (Those boots have since been destroyed by years of long-distance hiking.)

We followed the river into the Porkies until we came to a small waterfall, sprouting from a mountainside like a faucet. “This is where the river begins,” my friend proclaimed. We marveled at this thought for a while, then onward and upward we went. Further up the mountain and deep into the woods, we came across another “Lake of the Clouds”, a small lake nestled high. We stood and watched as clouds rolled over the lake and the shore on the opposite side disappeared. A soft mist dusted our cheeks and cooled our sweaty brows. To this day I am comforted by the serenity of that moment, witnessing the subtle passing of time and weather, the stillness of the water and trees, the silence.  

Fast forward to the next morning. We went to collect my bear bag (the dry sack I filled with our food supplies) from the pole which we hung it from. There were many failed attempts to hang the bag the night before. We hooked the strap of the heavy bag to a long pole, to hang it from a taller, stationary pole. We dropped it multiple times, but didn’t think much of it. When we opened the bag (our food for the remaining 2 days of our trek), we discovered that a large pouch of liquid amino acids had busted from the falls and had soaked much of our food. Now everything the liquid infiltrated tasted like soy sauce. At this point in our trip, all we could do was laugh. We made the best of it. Our marinated pretzels were pretty good actually.


Giga-waabamin menawaa, Kag-wadjiw. (Basic Ojibwe Words & Phrases)

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