PORCUPINE MOUNTAINS WILDERNESS STATE PARK, Mich. — Let’s be clear. The Porcupine Mountains are not mountains.
Mountains are vast and jagged, snow-capped and forbidding. They’re way up there, by the angels and clouds, where the air is thin and views dizzying. Have you seen the Matterhorn? The Grand Tetons? Mount Rainier? Now those are mountains.
But we are the Midwest, and while that means many wonderful things (you’ve never heard of “Philadelphia nice” for a reason), it also saddles us with one inarguable drawback: all that flat land. Sure, we have natural beauty, but it’s rarely the grand postcard variety.
Hence when the northwest corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula boasts something called Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, it’s worth a double take. Mountains? Midwest? Well, sort of. Colorado boasts more than 50 peaks reaching 14,000 feet. Porcupine Mountain state park tops out at slightly less than 2,000 feet.
But in the Midwest, we take our mountains where we can get them. And over three warm summer days, William the Photographer and I were called. All that pristine land. All that Lake Superior shoreline. All that … mountainous terrain? Maybe not. But whatever their form, these Michigan mountains are ours.
The 60,000-acre park (a cozy 3 percent of Yellowstone’s grandeur) offers close to 20 electricity- and water-free cabins for rent. Though showing wear from decades of use, they’re solid, wooden and fill up with reservations months in advance.
William and I managed to stitch together a small itinerary, renting one on the shore of Lake Superior for the first night — a five- or six-mile hike from our car — then one toward the middle of the park for the second night that would necessitate a 10-mile trek on Day 2. Then we would have a short walk back to our car.
Packs loaded at 25 to 30 pounds — an appalling amount for two nights, but you know how good beer tastes after work? It tastes even better after hiking to the shore of Lake Superior — we were set.
William and I had all the food we would need in the form of bags requiring hot water, along with various incarnations of nuts and fruit. We also carried sundry essentials: sunblock, hats and clothes for all types of weather, matches, flashlights and a water filter (streams and Lake Superior would sustain us). We traded the wallets and cellphones usually in our pockets for more basic needs: compasses and bug spray.
Boots laced tight, we hauled those packs to our backs one weekday afternoon and began walking into a world of trees and mosquitoes. William had never done this kind of thing; I told him to be thankful that the Porkies’ notorious biting flies were on hiatus until later in the summer.
For the next several hours, we put one foot in front of the other through thick green and countless trees.
Despite the park’s name, the route was mostly flat and the inclines gradual. The dirt trails were well marked and maintained, often with worn wooden footbridges leading us through the thickest patches. We passed several rushing streams that made us think in the first moment, “How can we get across this?” In the second moment, we just figured it out.
Over time we would come across a father and son in the midst of a four-day trip who had shooed a bat from their cabin the previous night, a yellow and black garter snake that fluttered its little tongue at us, and sisters from Minnesota who were supposed to be backpacking in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. Bad weather out West had redirected them to this Midwestern option.
“This isn’t as strenuous, but it’s nice to have,” said Rebecca Lindquist, 22. “It’s a good alternative for a last-minute change of plans.”
A couple of hours before sunset, William and I arrived at a dark brown cabin that seemed more appropriate for 12-year-olds at summer camp. But it was tidy and freshly swept, and a deck of playing cards, two rolls of toilet paper and old newspaper had been left behind, along with ample firewood from the previous guests. An ax leaned in the corner against the wall.
“Get this stuff off of me,” William said, shedding his backpack.
I traded my hiking boots for sandals, covered my feet with bug spray and headed 100 yards from our door through thick greenery to a rocky beach along the shore of chilly Lake Superior. We dropped our beers in the water and let nature’s refrigerator go to work. Twenty minutes later, we pressed those cans to our lips and stared out at the curved horizon. A family of ducks floated by.
We dragged our second beers back to the cabin and chopped and sawed wood. Before long, smoke rose from the old metal stove to our chimney, allowing us to make freeze-dried meals that could never taste so decadent close to a cellphone signal. As we took turns tending to the stove, I flipped through the cabin journal full of the chronicles of people who had slept in those beds and cooked on that stove.
“We had a great getaway here,” one recent entry read. “We bathed in the lake, made love on the beach and enjoyed the campfires. Plus enjoyed the cooler temperatures away from our home state of Arkansas!”
It was signed “Two happily retired 60-year-olds.”
Others immortalized their stays more simply.
“Go Packers,” one young hand wrote.
“My birthday!” wrote another. “I’m twelve!”
Another carried this warning: “The mice will take advantage of anything left out.”
William and I returned to the beach to watch the sky turn dark and darker still, threaded with orange. A foraging deer emerged from the trees, looked briefly at us, then continued along the rocks. The orange burned along the horizon — dimmer, dimmer and dimmer — until sometime past 11 p.m. The air was chilly and clean.
William and I headed to our bunk beds and soon found out about the mice for ourselves when a scampering and rustling of plastic prodded us awake. Blinking in the darkness, my mind went to the worst — an ornery raccoon, perhaps — but I faced my fear long enough to grab a flashlight.
As my beam fell across the cabin, the rustling stopped, and I crossed the wood floor to find a tiny hole chewed into a sea of nuts and raisins. I threw the poor, hapless bag of trail mix into a pot, closed the lid and went back to sleep.
The next morning, as we lit another fire for breakfast and instant coffee, I flipped through the journal again. A woman who had been a regular with her family over the years was there with her three daughters — ages 25, 23 and 20 — but wasn’t sure how soon they would return as a unit because the girls’ “lives are beginning to be directed by their own schedules rather than by their parents.”
It was followed by an entry from one of those daughters, who wrote that she had read three books at the cabin, tanned and watched the sunset while “rejuvenating myself for another busy year.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year, so I really soaked this all in,” she wrote. “I’ll be back someday — hopefully soon!”
William and I needed to leave for our second day of backpacking, but I’d already learned my lesson: While the rest of the world moves, the Porkies remain blissfully still, no matter the size of those peaks.
IF YOU GO:
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, several hours from major cities (about three hours east of Duluth, five hours from the Twin Cities and Madison, six hours from Milwaukee and eight hours from Chicago). Cabins and yurts cost $60 per night. Camping sites cost $14 to $42 per night.
More information: 906-885-5275, michigan.gov/porkies