Winter Adventure in The Porkies
I felt fit and adventurous announcing our winter trip to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. "We'll snowshoe a mile to a rustic cabin, pulling all our supplies on sleds. We'll chop wood for heat and melt snow for water," I said. Friends were wide-eyed. My mother worried. And I, truth be told, wasn't all that sure what I was getting myself into.
As it turns out, with proper supplies and prior planning just about anybody can handle this winter adventure in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
My husband and I had last visited the Porkies in July 1979. At that point I was pregnant and nauseous, so Steve ended up shouldering all 70 pounds of backpacking gear. This time, however, he adjusted my daypack straps, loaded my snowsled, buckled my harness, checked my snowshoe bindings, and commanded: "Mush!"
Not that I minded. Pulling my share of the heavy load helped warm me in the 6 degree air. The trail descended gradually through a spectacular forest of birch trees. "I can't believe how much snow there is!" said Abe, our older son, as snowflakes continued to fall.
Steve and the boys had used snowshoes before. I hadn't, but found them remarkably easy to walk in. With the cabin in sight, I removed my left snowshoe to see what effect they really had. My boot sank knee-deep in snow.
Measuring 20 by 22 feet, our cement-floored, log cabin was cozy. It had a plank table, benches and chairs, a wood counter with cupboards and four pairs of bunkbeds. The wood stove was still warm from the previous guests.
Through the windows, we could see the lapping waves of Lake Superior. While I cooked canned ham, wild rice and frozen broccoli on our propane campstove, we watched the sky turn orange, pink and periwinkle.
Clouds covered the moon and stars as we set out after supper on cross country skis. Steve's headlamp lit our way for the half mile until we reached the Superior Loop trail. From December 12 through January 2, and every Saturday during ski season, park interpreter Bob Sprague lights kerosene lanterns along the 1.5-mile trail. (If he can't recruit help, he occasionally skip a night.)
Like the park's other nordic trails, Superior Loop is groomed for skate-skiing and double track-set, so you can do classic cross country skiing, side-by-side. Superior has only a few hills, easy to glide down or herringbone up.
"It's like an enchanted forest!" Josh said, as the well-set tracks guided us from one pool of lantern light to the next.
Near the end of the loop we found a bonfire. "Have a seat," said Bob Sprague, beckoning to high-back benches made of straw bales. "I've got hot water for instant coffee, hot chocolate or cider."
Three skiers with German accents joined us. We talked about the park's trails and wildlife. Sprague explained how to distinguish deer, porcupine, raccoon and squirrel droppings. He said we might find bobcat or otter prints but probably wouldn't see the animals. "The bears are sleeping, but if you go jab a bear in its den he'll wake up," Sprague said.
Back in Whitetail Cabin, we lit our propane lantern and read the log (cabin diary). Previous visitors reported seeing bears in November and early December.
An undated entry quickened my pulse: "I've lived in these woods for six years. I like to watch. I come right up to the windows at night to take a closer look. I've come inside while people were sleeping. I also follow people on their little hikes...." It was signed "The Woodsman."
I peeked out the uncurtained windows and double-checked the door's deadbolt lock.
The next entry read: "We saw two people claiming to be 'The Woodsman.' Killed them both. Having a wonderful time."
We had a wonderful time cross country skiing 10 miles the next day. Our nordic trail pass entitled us to ride the chairlift at nearby Porcupine Mountains alpine resort. While snowboarders rode to the top and plummeted 640 feet back down, we trudged even further up to West Vista. On a bench overlooking a silvery ribbon of Lake of the Clouds, we felt like we were sitting at the edge of the world.
From West Vista we skied a long, thrilling (but manageable) descent to Union Spring, where we saw what may have been otter prints. We spent another hour on skinny trails through deep snow in a hemlock forest. By the time we reached Crosscut Warming Hut, I was sweat-soaked, dehydrated and exhausted. I felt much better when Steve and the boys said they were beat, too.
The hut's wood stove and our lunch of GORP, home-dried jerky, carrots, oranges, pumpernickel and cheese somewhat revived us. Even better, Steve used a contour map to show that our return would be mainly downhill.
From Union Spring Trail to River Trail the grade was slight. Then came heaven over a half-mile of the best trail I've ever skied. All we had to do was keep our skis in the grooves gravity did the rest.
The price for this effortless ride was another mile-long uphill climb. We were actually happy when we finally heard the whine of snowmobile engines, since it meant we were near the highway and only a mile from the cabin.
Steve hung up two privacy tarps, heated snow on the wood stove, and we took sponge baths. Lake Superior crashed on the shore all night, drowning out snores and sniffles that had ruined my sleep the night before.
After a breakfast of apple-walnut pancakes, we headed back to the ski lifts where Steve, Abe and Josh rented alpine skis. I enjoyed the ski chalet's fireplace, electric lights and indoor plumbing while I read a mystery and eavesdropped. Men one-upped each other: "Yeah? Well, we were in Big Sky when that avalanche killed two people." Mothers chanted: "It's 15 degrees. You are not skiing without a hat and mittens."
At lunch Steve gushed: "It's a holiday weekend, there's a great snow base, the temperatures are reasonable and we never have to wait for a chairlift or T-bar!"
"And it's real snow," Josh said, "not that icy, snowmaker-type stuff." On the Hemlock run, he and Abe found a foot of fresh powder.
On our third and final evening in the cabin, we popped corn, played cards and listed all the places we'd still like to explore in the Porkies.
"You really need about five nights in the park," Steve said. "Only next time I'd rather sleep in a quin-zhee--a, hand-dug snow shelter."
I'll be back too, but a remote cabin and ice-crusted outhouse are about as rustic as I'm willing to get.
If You Go
More Info: Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is 275 miles from both Madison, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Only 3 of the park's 16 cabins are available for winter rental we reserved ours 2 years in advance. Cabins cost $35 (four or fewer beds) or $45 (six or more beds) per night; $5/reservation fee. For reservations contact: Porcupine Mountain. WSP, 412 S. Boundary Rd., Ontonagon, MI 49953; (906) 885-5275. State park motor vehicle permit: $4 day or $20 annual; during winter, permit is required only for overnight visitors.
Special Events: Free snowshoe hikes during holiday season and on Saturdays and Sundays, snowshoes provided. Every Saturday, sunset to 8:30 pm, lantern light skiing on Superior Loop. February 28, 11 am-dusk, Snow Burst Festival with ski races, hayrides, spaghetti dinner, torchlight parade and fireworks, (906) 885-5206.
Alpine (Downhill) Lift Tickets: Given for weekday/half weekday/weekend or holiday/half day on weekend or holiday. Age 65 and up and ages 13-17: $15/$10/$20/$15. Ages 18-64: $20/$15/$25/$20. Ages 12 and under: Free. The 11 miles of alpine ski runs include 3 novice, 7 intermediate and 4 expert trails.
The ski chalet now has a new rental shop, ski pro shop, first aid room, day care center, more seating and group room (available for rent).
Nordic Skiing: Given for weekday/weekend or holiday. Ages 65 and up AND ages 13-17: $3/$5. Ages 18-64: $6/$8. Ages 12 and under: free. Nordic pass includes chairlift ride. There are 42 K (26 miles) of groomed, track-set trails.
Equipment Rental: Complete ski packages, alpine or nordic: Ages 13 and up: $18/day; ages 12 and under: $13/day. Snowboards: $7/hour; $15/half day; $25/day. Snowshoe rental: $18/day. Snowmobile rental: $95-$110/day.
Lodging Outside Park: Contact Ontonagon Chamber of Commerce, 600 River Road, PO Box 266, Ontonagon, MI 49953; (906) 884-4735.
Joan Huyser-Honig, an award-winning travel writer from Michigan, has written for Family Fun, Harrowsmith Country Life, New York Post, San Francisco Examiner, travelocity.com and Westways. She and her husband, photographer Steve Huyser-Honig, frequently have joint assignments. They often travel with their two teenage sons digging dinos, searching out ethnic food, canoeing untouched rivers. All Original Material Copyright © by Joan Huyser-Honig.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication