Backpacking in the Porkies

The Porcupine Mountains is probably my favorite place on earth.

Every year, the men in my family take a backpacking trip to "The Porkies" and it's the time we spend together there that really makes it special. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is a 60,000 acre wilderness area on the coast of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Just north of "up north" Wisconsin lies a land rich in old growth forests, waterfalls, and miles of rugged trail that's just a little too out of the way for the crowds. In the Midwest, it's one of the best places to go for secluded backcountry hiking and camping. 

Over the past year, Anne and I have really enjoyed leading a couples small group out of our home through our church, Epikos. Small groups is one of the many awesome things Epikos is doing in Milwaukee; it's a place where real, meaningful relationships develop while we grow in our faith in Jesus and live life together. When our group first began meeting last fall we didn't really know any of them (aside from my sister and her fiancé), so it's been a joy to see our group transform from a group of strangers into a group of friends over the past several months. Some members in our group share an interest in the outdoors, so, last weekend, Anne and I took our small group to the Porkies for a few days of wilderness backpacking. What better way to test our new friendships?

After a record high 98°F the week before, temperatures dipped to the 40's for our long-weekend trip touching on 30°F overnight. For a group containing several newbies, we were a little nervous about the weather, but aside from a few shivers here and there, it was a terrific escape from the city. There were a few other complications—an ice cold stream crossing, sporadic blowing snow, multiple blisters—but that's what makes a trip memorable! Being amongst the expanse of virgin forest, rocks, and earth that feels at once ancient and pristinely new helps you to forget about those little things. 

In case you're planning a visit, here's the route we traveled: We started at the Lake Of The Clouds Overlook and hiked down the Big Carp River trail tracing an escarpment and then descending through a stand of old growth hemlock until we arrived at our first camp at Shining Cloud Falls. On day two, we took a short walk to Lake Superior before backtracking to the Correction Line Trail and hiking to our second camp at Mirror Lake. On our last day we took the North Mirror Lake Trail back toward our cars, skirting along the edge of a steep wooded ravine before rising back up the escarpment overlooking Lake Of The Clouds. 

MORE INFO ON THE PORKIES

Highlights from the trip:

  1. The views of Lake Of The Clouds. 
  2. The campsite at Shining Cloud Falls (sorry, no photos!). It's the best site in the park, in my opinion.
  3. Trails with steep drops and rocky streams below, especially along the North Mirror Lake and Big Carp River Trails.
  4. Thai Peanut Noodles. Anne and I tried a new recipe out on the group and it was a hit. Recipe: http://tinyurl.com/jbn3quj
  5. Sleeping with a bottle of hot water inside of our sleeping bags to stay warm. That definitely came in handy.
  6. Animal noises in the middle of the night: owls, loons, wolves, and something walking around our tents... Deer? Bear?

Black Hills, South Dakota

Throwback to summer 2015. After shooting a wedding in South Dakota we spent a few days in the Black Hills hiking and camping. We saw a ton of wildlife on a drive through the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop and camped two nights in the park, one of them at picturesque Sylvan Lake. We set out to climb the highest peak in the U.S. east of the Rockies in two days and, through a series of unfortunate events, did it in one. Feeling a little tired and sore from our death march, we decided to just pass through the Badlands rather than camp. It's a long drive from almost everywhere but the Black Hills area is definitely worth a visit. ProTip: make sure you read a topo map before doing any hiking; those hills are mountains. 

And a few iPhone snaps:

Morning at Zillmer

We had a perfect morning skiing at the Zillmer Trails, located in the Kettle Moraine State Forest- Northern Unit, just a few minutes drive from my parents' place. Not to mention the terrific trails, there's a nice big shelter with a wood burning stove and fire pit near the trailhead. Both of those will surely be utilized when we return this Saturday for the candlelight ski. More info on that here:  http://dnr.wi.gov/calendar/events/parks/

Deer Season

I tend to measure the seasons of life through consistent events--birthdays, holidays, graduations, anniversaries, the first snow, and deer hunting. A past-time for many Wisconsinites, and especially my family, deer hunting is as much about the camaraderie as it is about the actual harvesting of the animals. My parents live on an old farmstead that includes two outbuildings—an old shed and an 1800’s cabin— that are almost entirely dedicated to the tradition. Rough beech and cherry furnishings, wood stoves, and deer, elk, and turkey mounts adorn the place and for a few days a year, it’s filled with family and friends. Through the years, I’ve grown to love deer hunting more and more and begun to embrace it as part of my heritage and identity. It began with my dad dragging my brother and I around age 8 out into the cold to join him in this most exhilarating hunt. Begrudgingly at first, we joined him on brief morning stints that made me feel as if I'd hunted all 9 days of the deer gun season.

I remember one morning sitting in the tree stand as a boy with my grandpa, struggling to see over the edge of the rough-cut wall. We were quietly posted in a giant oak tree at the corner of a marsh and two farm fields with a wide view of the surrounding land. It was the kind of morning where the frost appears to have frozen everything in its place and the only thing moving was the faint puff of steamy breath rising from our fort. I was having a hard time focusing on the tree line; I knew a deer could arrive at any second but my feet were so cold they hurt. My grandpa started the propane heater and I yanked off my boots. I hovered my feet above it, nearly touching it in hope of quick relief. My feet soon thawed out, but when I went to massage my toes to confirm they still had feeling I discovered large holes where the heater had singed my wool socks. Our morning ended shortly after and we left the field empty handed.

My grandpa has since then passed away but the stand we sat in that morning is named for him—Pa’s Stand. My grandpa helped my dad build it when he bought the property 20 years ago. It was the first of the 26 that now pepper the 98 acres of land. Most of the stands are made of old barn boards and the weathered texture and color look at home alongside tree bark. After a few years, they feel as much a part of the land as the trees do. My dad catches flack for being overboard with the number of stands he’s built, but he has immediate plans for a couple more. Each one serves a unique purpose catering to the varied habits of the deer affected by weather and crop rotations. Each one is named at its inception—The Grand Stand, Hayrake,The Sweet Stand, Old Indian Tree, Penitentiary—and each has its own set of memories, stories, and legends. And there’s always lots of talk from my dad that "this year is the year the bucks are hanging out under the Sinkhole Stand," or perhaps "they’re all traveling through the meadow by Canoe Rock Stand."

My mom’s dad also passed away more recently and this year I hunted with his rifle. My grandma purchased the gun—a Sears Model 53 .30-06—as a gift for him about 40 years ago. The scratched wood stock, leather sling, and cowhide case are aged reminders of his deer hunting days. I had hunted with the gun once in the past but harvested no deer, so this year felt special, as if I was carrying on his legacy. But after almost 20 hours of hunting in 3 days during the regular gun season I was deer-less. I had seen 11 deer total but didn’t have shots at any of them. Determined, I returned for the 4 day December antlerless hunt. On the first day back, I sat in Pa’s Stand waiting for something to come charging out of the woods and into the field as they’d done just a few weeks earlier. And then, a flicker. A distant spot that before had looked like a tree or a shadow in the tall grass was suddenly moving. Three does slowly moved in my direction skirting the edge of the opposite side of the field. Surely they’d make it to me soon. And then they disappeared. Daylight was fading quickly and just when I thought they were gone, they reappeared even closer this time. Ten minutes before shooting hours ended, they continued slowly moving toward me and then began trotting across the field, broadside. They paused and I found one in my scope. The crack of the rifle shattered the stillness of the field and the three deer tore away in unison. I reloaded watching the three of them run with equal intensity until 75 yards later, one tumbled and was still—the sure sign of a heart shot. I was ecstatic and grateful. It was pretty special to be in one grandpa’s fort, using my other grandpa’s gun. 

Seeing it all unfold—the appearance of the deer and its movement and its life, then the sudden explosion of our convergence and the death and the stillness—is complex and beautiful. I don’t enjoy killing and although there are many good things to hunting, it’s partly tragic. Feeling the soft, warm body, just barely absent of life, is surreal. There are strong memories tied to each time I’ve fired my gun and the visceral moments that immediately follow. It may sound cliche, but being a part of that makes you feel more alive. The heritage and tradition of hunting, and along with it the close witness of life and death, are enriching and something I cherish each year. 

This is an ongoing project; I've taken photos of the hunting season for the past few years and the following are just a few from this year. 

 Mapping out positions the night before 

Mapping out positions the night before 

Hunters, 5:45AM, Opening Day

 Josh 

Josh 

 James

James

 Dave

Dave

 Nate

Nate

 Daniel

Daniel

 Scott

Scott

 Dan

Dan

 Alex

Alex

 Looking southwest from the Sinkhole Stand

Looking southwest from the Sinkhole Stand

 Looking north from the Grand Stand

Looking north from the Grand Stand

DeerHunt_25.jpg

The Sugar Shack

The sun hasn't begun to poke through the tree-covered horizon as we make our way down a dirt path through the quiet Wisconsin woods. At the end of the trail is a shack, just as at-home in the woods as the trees next to it, with a sort of soft smoke billowing out of one side. As we move in we see that the smoke is actually steam with a subtly sweet scent rising from a vat of boiling liquid to the roof of an overhang then pouring out into the morning air. A tall figure half masked by the steam sees me approach and turns to meet me.  Larry Prahl greets us warmly with a firm handshake and an enthusiastic smile on his weathered, bearded face. He's excited that we've come so early and is eager to invite us into his world of sugar shacking-the annual process of harvesting sugar maple sap and boiling it down into pure maple syrup. It's not a business for him and far from a tourist destination, but rather a deep seated passion and even a way of life.

Larry had his first boil thirty seven years ago, tapping just one sugar maple and carrying the raw sap out of the woods on horseback. A skilled carpenter, he built a shack dedicated to the boiling process a few years later with additions slowly being added through the years. The homey hodgepodge of a cabin carries it's own unique charm, filled with rough wood, deer antlers, oil lamps, and trinkets, complete with the warm feeling of a wood stove and years of camaraderie. He hasn't missed a year since 1978 and has developed a core group who help with the various duties or at least keep the shack warm.  

The friendship among Larry and the other men has grown through years of sugar shacking and their common participation in modern day rendezvous-- local get-togethers inspired by the wilderness meetings of the 1800's involving fur traders, Native Americans, and Mountain Men. Larry and the others fall into the latter category, some of them sharing stories of tomahawk throwing, sewing their own clothes out of animal skins, and the like. 

Years have passed but the tradition has remained the same: a ritual to end winter's hibernation and usher in the spring. The sap begins to flow each year when daytime temperatures begin to rise above freezing and overnight lows drop back down below freezing. Between Larry's and a friend's stand of sugar maples, 400 gallons of raw sap were harvested this year, which boiled down to 13 gallons of pure maple syrup. He never sells the syrup-- just gives it away throughout the year to friends and family and those who help with the process. It's a precious gift considering the sticker price of pure maple syrup versus it's high fructose corn syrup counterpart, not to mention the dedication and passionate labor behind each jar. 

Although we're decades younger and come from different worlds, we're welcomed in as friends. By the end of the night, Larry has repeatedly invited us to come back any time. The night closes with celebration and the enjoyment of several well-deserved homemade wines--dandelion, rhubarb, raspberry, blackberry--all a toast to a new season and another harvest.