Last Morning in the Porkies

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The view from my tent flap this morning. Yes. Really.

I’m back from my backcountry trip to the Porcupine Mountains. I never seem to take many photos when backpacking – I’m too focused on putting one foot in front of another on the trail and on getting all the necessary chores done in camp. This morning I remembered to take one of the view from where my tent was pitched on the edge of the Escarpment, though. That’s the “Upper” Carp River down in the valley, upstream of Lake of the Clouds.


  • Finding a toad orgy in a clear still pool by the Presque Isle River on the first day. Several pairs in amplexus, the females laying their longs strings of eggs, while unpaired males looked on and trilled sadly.
  • A hummingbird appearing out of nowhere and landing on the hand of one of my students as she stood in our first campsite. Yes, this really happened!
  • A beaver swimming by our cabin on Mirror Lake on the third night. A number of our students had never seen a beaver before and got really excited.
  • Keeping a running tally of all the wildflowers I saw in bloom. Blue bead lily, trout lily, Dutchman’s breeches, Canada mayflower, starflower, spring beauty, jack-in-the-pulpit, false Solomon’s seal, sunbursts of marsh marigold, multiple varieties of trillium and anemone and violet, more that I couldn’t put names to…
  • Standing on the bridge at the downstream end of Lake of the Clouds and watching the bright sparks of Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, and Canada Warbler dart from alder to alder.
  • The two birds we heard calling on our last night – the soft booming of an American Bittern drifting up from the river valley below (goonk-glunk, goonk-glunk, goonk-glunk), and, after dark, a Whip-poor-will (whip-poorWILL! whip-poorWILL! whip-poorWILL!) calling from close by our camp.

There were some less-great moments, too (a thunderstorm with nickel-sized hail while you’re in the backcountry and responsible for other people’s children? fuuuun), but it was nice to have this last immersion in the North Woods before I move.

More to come. Mom and Dad, I’ll call you soon – right now my phone is charging and I think we’re going out to dinner later.


The Forest Reclaiming an Old Copper Mine

One last post from my camping trip in the Porcupine Mountains last weekend. Next week I’ll be back to regular natural history, and the week after that I’ll be in Arizona for the holiday.

From before the Civil War into the early twentieth century, the Porkies were mined extensively for copper.Today, except for the occasional fence blocking off an old mine shaft entrance, you’d hardly know it; the forest itself is still pristine, with some of the most extensive old-growth stands in this part of the country. But when we were on our way to our campsite, we passed a sign for the Union Mine interpretive trail, and we decided to check it out. The woods have almost completely reclaimed this old, old mine, which dates back to the 1840s.

At the trail head. That’s me on the right.
This notch in the rocky stream bed is where a water wheel once stood to power the mining activities.
This chunk of foundation is all that’s left of the stamp mill that was built to process the ore.
The remains of the Nonesuch Road, which was the only route in and out of the area until the 1930s.
One of the old mine shafts.

It’s fascinating to me how the land can just swallow up what people have built once they’re gone. Have a good weekend, folks.


Tannin and Shale

One of my favorite places in the Porcupine Mountains is the boardwalk along the Presque Isle River – a short trail runs along the river on its final approach to Lake Superior, and a couple features make this beautiful spot stand out. One is the caramel color of the water as it tumbles over a series of waterfalls and rapids.

This comes from the tannin in the cedars and other plants that line the river and decompose in the water. Tannin also makes the water foamy, creating huge drifts of suds in some places and interesting patterns on the surface in others.

The river has carved through the areas’ layers of shale bedrock and shaped some pretty scenic rock formations. It’s hard to do it justice in photographs.

If you’re ever in the UP, don’t miss the Porkies. They may not be the most mountainous mountains you’ll ever see, but they’re definitely beautiful.


Needle Ice

While hiking up to Summit Peak in the Porcupine Mountains this past weekend (not quite as impressive as it sounds; as I said at the time, “peak” is a relative term and we were in Michigan), we came across a patch of mud at the edge of the trail with some unusual ice crystals sprouting out of it.

The shape actually reminded us of string cheese, only smaller – delicate curlicues of ice growing out of the surface of the soil. I’d never seen anything like it before, but we found several more patches of them as we walked, all growing out of exposed mud.

It turns out this phenomenon is called “needle ice.” It only occurs when the air temperature is below freezing but the soil temperature isn’t – in other words, in the fall before the soil freezes for the winter. Liquid water in the soil is drawn up to the surface through capillary action and is extruded in columns through pores in the soil as it freezes. This is more or less what we’d guessed was happening.

And if you’re wondering, here’s what the view from Summit Peak, the highest point in Michigan’s UpperĀ Peninsula, looked like this first weekend in November. That’s Lake Superior on the horizon, although it blends so seamlessly with the sky that it’s hard to tell. (Click to enlarge.)


Back from Backpacking

I made it home alive from my week backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains (in Michigan’s UpperĀ Peninsula) with my students. The photo above is a storm rolling in off Lake Superior, taken looking out from the mouth of the Big Carp River – luckily that was the one night we were in cabins rather than tents. The real excitement was on the very first day, when one of our students sprained her ankle and yours truly heroically bushwhacked out to a ranger station in the pouring rain, navigating by compass, to get help evacuating her.

Anyway, I’m home and I no longer smell like a combination of sweat, smoke, turkey jerky, and damp wool. Regular blogging resumes this week.