Last year I turned forty years old. Unlike some, I didn’t dread the prospect. I saw it as an opportunity to celebrate all I’d accomplished and continue to forge ahead carving out the life I hoped to lead. I took a couple of ‘life list’ trips. Scott and I climbed the Acropolis and soaked up the sun in Santorini on a dream trip to Greece. We loaded our eight and six year old boys up in an RV and drove 2,000 miles round trip for a week long adventure in Yellowstone National Park. I started making healthier choices and took up running. I ran eight different 5K races, for a total of 40K in the five months leading up to my fortieth birthday. I also wanted to do something that made me feel empowered. I needed the chance to show myself that the insecurities and doubts of my 20s and 30s were gone. I could accomplish hard things. So I asked a close friend, Kate, to go off the grid for a few days and rough it in the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She said, yes.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park has over 90 miles of hiking trails covering more than 60,000 acres and is home to the famous Lake of the Clouds. We spent the better part of a year detailing our trip. What would we eat? How much was too much weight to carry in our 60L packs? Did we trust our fire starting skills? All good questions as we defined our two night adventure in a primitive cabin on Mirror Lake. The choice of primitive cabin meant we’d have reliable shelter and a source of heat, as there would be a wood burning stove. We would be without running water and electricity. The trip would take place in mid-October and weather conditions would be unpredictable. The cabin also offered a chance to “rough” it without being miserable.
On a Thursday afternoon, armed with a can of bear spray and little idea of how to use it, we stepped onto the Summit Peak Trail for a 4 mile trek to our cabin. We quickly learned that trekking along rough terrain with 30 pounds of supplies strapped to our backs is not easy. We hiked through gorgeous fall foliage and looming coniferous forest, on a slippery and mostly uphill trail. The wet weather and a fresh layer of snow, left the trail treacherous and every step needed to be negotiated. We laid eyes on our accommodations, Mirror Lake Cabin #4, in the mid afternoon. The hikers before us had left a good supply of fire wood so we took to figuring out how to filter more water for supper.
Feeling accomplished, we decided to explore the trails near Mirror Lake. It was a bright fall afternoon with temperatures in the mid-fifties. After a little exploring, we tried gathering more firewood (leave the place better than you found it) and made quesadillas for dinner. We planned to hike about 8 miles the following day to Lake of the Clouds and knew we needed to be rested. We enjoyed our first wilderness dinner, played some cards via headlamps and tried to make our cabin as toasty warm as possible before curling up in our sleeping bags. It was lights out on day one.
Neither Kate nor I are the type to sleep in, but somehow we managed to sleep until 8 o’clock on our first morning. We warmed our bellies and our spirits with oatmeal and tea. We loaded small daypacks with PB&Js, some nuts and fruit and full water bottles determined to reach Lake of the Clouds. The Lake was about 4 miles away from our cabin and we needed to traverse through the center of the Porcupine Wilderness to get there. We traipsed through a bog and up a tall peak before we realized we were about 2 miles off course and needed to back track. This was a low point in the trip. We sat on a rock atop Government Peak and lamented about how we’d just walked about 4 miles out of our way. Questions about how long it would take us to get back on track, how much daylight remained to make the entire journey and how difficult the trail would be all lingered in our minds. We picked up our pace and our attitudes and trudged on. We were determined to make it to our destination. Portions of the trail were hard to distinguish as we hopped from tree root to tree roost to avoid ankle deep mud, but we pushed on and finally arrived at Lake of the Clouds.
We still needed to go about a half mile straight up to get to the lookout. There was hesitation. Our legs were tired, it would be a difficult hike back to the cabin and there were rain drops and darkening skies to deal with. We persisted and it was worth it. We were rewarded with beautiful reds, oranges and yellows of the late fall season in the Porkies. That evening we cooked dinner, reflected on our accomplishments (and our blunders) and celebrated all of it with a canteen of Prickly Pear Vodka and lemonade.
The next morning we scarfed down a breakfast bar and a hot cup of tea and made the trip back to the trail head. Overnight, temperatures were low and we awoke to 1-2 inches of fresh snow. We heard the hollowing winds and patter of what we thought was rain throughout the night. The light of morning revealed that patter was of wet, heavy snowflakes. We were thankful for our wood stove and sturdy shelter. As we walked to the vehicle our conversation focused on the giant cheeseburgers we planned to eat and the running water we planned to wash our faces in once we reached the nearest restaurant.
The Porkies are beautiful, but this trip was beautiful in other ways as well. Kate and I strengthened our friendship through experiences that pushed our patience, our tolerance and our determination. Our trip was a celebration of our fortieth birthdays, but it also taught us about self reliance and when to lean into trusted friends for support. We also learned that those giant cheeseburgers we were dreaming about tasted better than we could have imagined.