Hiking through the Porkie's with Dan and Tom
I’ve never hiked in the Porcupine Mountains during the winter before and I’ve definitely never tried winter camping up there, nor have I ever tried winter camping before at all, so this was unquestionably going to be an adventure. We had it all planned out weeks in advance; who was going to bring what, how much food were we going to need, what kind of clothes should we pack so we don’t freeze to death. When we set out, we knew we were prepared.
A great advantage to visiting a state park in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is that it's almost guaranteed to be remote with beautiful back-country settings. The Porkies are no exception. The big cities of the midwest such as Milwaukee WI, Duluth MN, and Detriot MI are all at least 150 miles from these Lake Superior hills. Located 15 miles west of Ontonagon on M-107, this pristine wilderness is truly a must see if you're ever in the UP.
Heading into the wilderness
Planning on hiking the Escarpment trail up to the Lake of the Clouds we promptly arrived at the park around noon and stopped by the Ranger Station to check in and pay for our camping permit for the weekend. Everything went really smooth, the ranger asked us about our tents, sleeping bags, and backpacks so in case they needed to send out a search and rescue team for us they at least knew what kind of gear to look for. She gave us a bunch of park maps and wished us luck. A short drive down the road took us to the trailhead parking lot near Cuyahoga Creek where we bundled up and strapped on the packs. Each of us snapped a few quick pictures by the car then we were off into the wilderness to live and experience the awesome forces of nature in their true glory.
The hike begins
Well it definitely felt pretty cold when we first got out of the car but as this trip would undoubtedly teach us time and again it was going to be a constant battle between being too hot or too cold. After about a 100 yards down the trail we made our first stop to strip off several unnecessary layers then we were back on our way. At first we feared that this trip wouldn’t give us a true appreciation of winter camping at it’s finest, what with the lack of snow and all we really thought it’d turn out lame…We were definitely wrong on that one but I’ll be the first to admit I’m glad we were. It turned out to be a good foot of fresh powdered snow and it continued to fall the entire time we were there. Talk about the perfect time to go camping.
Sometime around two o’clock we stopped to have a quick lunch break. If there’s anything I learned about winter camping, it’s that doing things probably takes at least three times longer to do than if it were summer. What we originally thought was going to be a short lunch turned out be about an hour long stop. When considering which gloves to buy don’t sink down to the $20 Wal-mart brand, take it from me, they’re right when they say, “You get what you pay for”. After lighting up the stove to boil water for the ramen, I noticed that I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. It took about ten minutes of sitting around with the gloves back on until that painful stinging sensation started coursing through them. But I will say it was a good early learning lesson on winter survival and preparing ahead to figure in more time for basic tasks. Overall no harm done and eventually we were packed up and back on our way.
After an hour or two of hiking through the woods, up and down hills, in and out of the constant snowfall, we arrived up on the escarpment. Talk about a breathtaking view. The hills were rolling in the gray mist, the snow was falling lightly, and everything was just covered in beautiful fluffy powder. We tried our best to keep a nice relaxed pace going, always cautious to not start sweating and around four o’clock we reached our campsite for the night. Located right up on the escarpment, a person couldn’t ask for a much better view from their tent considering we’re in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Overlooking the Lake of the Clouds to the south and the river valley to the east, I honestly couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be at that point in time.
Everything was going according to plan. We arrived at the site by four which gave us at least two more hours of daylight to set up the tents, collect firewood, and start making supper. Since we had just finished hiking in, getting a fire started wasn’t our top priority so we started with the tents. Tents went up in a jiffy and then we moved into the trees to collect the firewood for the night. Again we operated real efficiently and quickly had a large pile of nice dry wood ready to be burnt. Soon after we got the fire going and made dinner as the last glimpse of day faded into cloud filled night. I never really thought about it before but 14 hours of darkness is a really long time when you’re out in the woods with nothing particular to do except concentrate on staying warm and keeping the fire going.
Now I want to be honest, up to this point I was comfortably warm in all my winter apparel. Two pairs of socks, long-johns, snow pants, a polypropylene t-shirt, two different fleece jacket mid-layers, jacket shell, balaclava, winter hat, and my winter gloves all bundled up and ready to take on the world. But when I crawled into my sleeping bag liner inside of my sleeping bag on top of my sleeping pad inside the four-season tent, after about an hour or so I was really starting to cool down quick. It started with my toes and continued by sending constant shivers down my spine. Even curled into a ball inside my 20 degree mummy bag fully enclosed I still became really cold. This was without a doubt one of the longest nights of my life but I look back on it now and I can definitely say it was one of my most memorable. I learned a lot about winter camping lying there in my tent that night and I’m already looking forward to more experiences somewhat similar to this one. ;)
The next morning
Yep, we survived the night. There were times when I thought that might not be the case but in the end we did just fine. The call of nature finally became too unbearable for me around 7:30 a.m. and I slowly crawled out of the tent to attend to some business. After spending the next few hours trying to revive the feeling in my frozen toes we eventually got the campsite cleaned up and packed away. Fresh snow was boiled to create more drinking water for the day ahead and several laps were ran around the site to get the blood flowing once again. Our plan for the day was to make it over to the Lake of the Clouds then all the way back out to the car and home. We broke camp and got moving by 10:30 a.m.
Lake of the Clouds
In order to hike the six miles back to the car before nightfall we decided that wherever we were at 12:30 we were going to turn around and start heading out. We wanted to try and make it all the way down to the shores of the frozen lake but time constrictions prevented us from traveling that far. When 12:30 hit we were halfway around the lake up on the ridge above it. Everyone took some nice scenery pictures then we turned around and started the long hike back. The Lake of the Clouds looked absolutely beautiful frozen over and piled with fresh snow. We got to see what we came for and no one was disappointed with the early turn around. Winter can be so amazing in these hills and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be witness to its majesty.
A successful adventure
I’ve never experienced winter camping before this trip so I couldn’t truly judge or even appreciate the amazing joy it can bring someone who takes the time to respect it’s beauty and simplicity. I’ve come to realize also that with that beauty, hardship and pain can be a real factor to those who don’t prepare. I learned a lot from my time spent in the woods and I will continue to look forward to more adventures in the awesome presence of the mountains.
Porcupine Mountain LinksPorcupine Mountains Convention and Visitor Bureau
Porcupine Mountains Official Website