Winter in the Porcupine Mountains


Cross-country ski trail in Porcupine Mountain State Park

I’d like to think that I’ve done a fair amount of camping in my life: in hot conditions and cold, in rain, wind, and sun, in a few different corners of the world.  But until this weekend, I’d never actually camped in a tent on the snow in winter.  Real “winter camping.”  This is a gap in my camping experience that I have meant to remedy for years, and this weekend my husband and I were able to make it happen.  It takes six or seven hours to drive from Chicago up to the Porcupine Mountains on the northern edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, not counting stops.  Since we’d never been there before, we left early Saturday morning so that we’d make it with enough time to figure out exactly what we were doing and to set up camp in the light.  We snowshoed through the state park on Sunday from morning to early afternoon.  After that, we hiked back to the car and drove the rest of the afternoon and evening, returning to the city around 9:30pm.  It seems like a lot of driving for only one night outdoors and a few hours of hiking, but it was worth it.


The first nice thing was that it meant that my husband and I had twelve nearly-uninterrupted hours in the car in which to talk to each other—something which, with busy schedules and the various demands work and life, is a rare treat.  It’s nice to spend a long time talking to someone you like, and even better when it’s someone you love too.


Second, I got to try some of the winter camping tips I’d picked up from various places over the years and tucked away in my mind.  As a testament to never knowing where you’ll learn something useful, it was a murder mystery novel that taught me that you can turn your sleeping bag stuff sack inside out and put your boots inside it, then put the whole thing inside your sleeping bag overnight to keep your boots warm for the morning without getting your sleeping bag dirty.  It worked!  My only problem was that my goose down sleeping bag packs down so small that I could only fit one boot in its stuff sack.  So come morning, I had one warm boot and one cold boot.  Live and learn.  And now there’s one more reason to try the whole experience again.


We hiked to our camping spot from where we’d parked the car, set up the tent, and had a dinner of dehydrated beef stroganoff (which was really tasty!  Prepackaged backpacking food has come such a long way.)  Dessert was hot chocolate and Twix bars before settling into sleeping bags to watch the night sky.  The Aurora Borealis was out, as predicted, but the cloud cover kept it to just a faint, blurred glow over the north horizon.  After a few hours, the clouds cleared off, and with the moon waiting to rise until just a couple hours before dawn, the entirety of the heavens was on magnificent display—every meteor, every constellation, and every last fantastic scrap of the Milky Way.


The next morning, we were up with the dawn and ready to roll.  When all you need to do to get going is boil up some water for oatmeal and instant coffee and stuff your gear in your pack, you can get going pretty quickly.  But when the vista from your breakfast spot looks like this…

Enjoying the colors of dawn over Lake Superior

it can be hard to want to leave in a hurry.  We spent a while just watching the colors evolve as the sun came over the horizon and broke through the clouds.  But we eventually got going into the woods and hiked a few miles of cross-country ski trails through alternating stands of hemlock, birch, spruce, and maple.  We spotted whitetail deer, gray squirrels, bald eagles, chickadees, nuthatches, a Buteo hawk arguing with one of the ubiquitous crows, two downy woodpeckers tapping away at the high limbs of paper birches, and a pileated woodpecker in flight.


DSC_0353_crop downy woodpecker
Downy woodpecker on the hunt for grubs

The temperature rose high enough that the snow was soft and noticeably melted from morning to lunchtime.  And it was covered in little  specks no more than a millimeter or two long, so thickly covered in some spots that it looked like black pepper sprinkled over the surface of the snow.  These little specks turned out to be snow fleas, which are arthropods similar to insects that jump by flicking  little forked tails that they keep tucked up under their abdomens.  Throughout the rest of the year, the woods are thick with all sorts of springtails, but most of the time they’re hidden in the cluttered litter of the forest floor and invisible to the casual observer.  On warm days in winter, members of the genus Hypogastrura come out to eat the microscopic detritus that is scattered over the snow, in the process making their dark bodies visible against the white background.  The surface of the snow we walked across was indeed skimmed with detritus ready for springtail snacking.  The snow was a light brown in many places, strewn with twigs and lima bean-sized hemlock cones, and drizzled with water melted out of rotted trees.  The processes of life—growth and decay—are muted but not entirely frozen.  Even in winter, the place is literally crawling with life.


It’s a great time to be outside, and we’ll be back to the Porkies as soon as we can.  No wonder Yoopers love this place.  I’m already looking forward to my next winter camping trip.

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