David and I finally got to take our backpacking trip up to the Porcupine Mountains in the UP of Michigan this past weekend. We had been planning that trip for over a year! We had been slowly collecting gear and were preparing to hike for our first wedding anniversary in September until David broke his foot. Sadly, we had to let go of our expectations of being able to hike and we made the decision to put our trip off for nine months. It gave us plenty of time to plan our trip, but not much could have prepared us for what we encountered in the wilderness!
If you haven’t heard, there have been a lot of bear attacks recently. Oddly enough, it wasn’t grizzly bears that were attacking humans. Instead, the gentler giant, black bears, have been wreaking havoc. This is apparently pretty uncommon for black bears. Of course, black bears inhabit the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park where we were planning to hike.
I told David that I was hesitant to hike given the recent bear attacks, so we prepared ahead of time. We bought bear bells and bear repellent, which gave me some peace of mind. But when you’re in the wild, anything can happen.
And that it did.
On our Way
On our 10+ hour drive up to the UP, David’s check-engine light came on in his Jeep. By that point, we were already 6 hours away from home. We unfortunately went through some major car troubles back in October which ultimately resulted in us having his transmission replaced. Already, our expectations of how amazing our vacation was going to be was not matching the reality of what we were dealing with. Our anxiety set in as we approached the cell reception point-of-no-return.
If you have visited mountains before, you know that you will drive for sometimes up to an hour before seeing any semblance of civilization. Not only were we fearful of our vehicle breaking down, we worried that if it did, we’d have no way to get any help.
Yet once we arrived at the park, we knew we wouldn’t have to worry about the car for at least a couple days. We could finally fulfill our great expectations of our backpacking adventure. Dog in tow, we headed out onto the Lake Superior Trail, the longest trail in the park. Unfortunately, we didn’t consider researching the difficulty levels of the trails before we set out.
Hitting the Trails
We set off at the trail head a couple of hours later than we had anticipated, bear bells jingling at our waists and around Koji’s collar. David and I enjoy casual, day hiking. We live in a relatively flat area. This was the first time that we’ve seriously hiked in the mountains. Although we knew that backpacking through the mountains would be challenging, we did not expect the grueling, crumbling rocky terrain that was the Lake Superior Trail.
The trail was remote and winding. And the foliage was THICK– so thick that spotting a bear seemed impossible. As much as I tried to remind myself that we were prepared in case we spotted any bears, the fear of accidently crossing the path between a mother bear and her cubs lingered in the back of my mind. Mother bears will do anything to protect their cubs, and will not hesitate to attack a perceived threat. Bear cubs, by the way, are smaller than a cat. It would be easy to miss a bear cub in the wilderness. My expectations were that bears would be an obvious spot, and I was confused how anyone would miss a bear cub. I was, once again, proven wrong. I know nothing, Jon Snow.
By the time that we were five miles in, it was already 6:30 pm. The sun was falling lower and lower into the sky, and shadows began to slowly overtake the trail. The day was catching up with us. Koji was worn out, and so were we. The mosquitoes and the flies became more and more intolerable. Our stomachs were growling. We decided that it was finally time to stop and have some dinner.
We took off our packs and sat down to cook. I gave Koji some food and water as David boiled some water for our Chili Mac dinner. Dehydrated food, by the way, is surprisingly delicious. I asked David to take a photo of us with Koji, and for the life of us, we weren’t able to get Koji to look at the camera. He was fixated on something in the woods.
Suddenly, Koji began barking and growing at whatever he saw in the woods. My friends assured me that he would scare away any bear that approached us. But in that moment, Koji felt less like a watch dog and more like a liability. David urged me to grab my pack and start heading in the opposite direction. We quickly grabbed our things and set off the way we came.
We’ll never know for sure what Koji saw. For all we know, he saw a funny-looking plant. But we knew we weren’t going to take the chance of find out what lurked in the trees.
Unfortunately, the only nearby campsite was a mere 100 yards from where we stopped to cook dinner and where we encountered a bear or otherwise scary plant. Going the other direction meant we would have to pass said bear/plant. Campsites were still another grueling five miles away, and it was getting darker by the moment. We discussed the possibilities that we may not complete our hike at all.
When David suggested turning back and sleeping in the car that night, my chest fell. I tend to be a proud person, and Jeep camping felt like giving up. Sleeping in the car did not, in any way, meet my expectations of what I thought our trip would be. I had envisioned camping on the edge of the largest Great Lake, our beach campfire crackling as we all lay together under the stars. Cramping together in the trunk of the car was not at all glamorous, and yet I was scared to die. I reluctantly agreed that going back would be the best choice.
The Next Day
The next morning, we set out to hike the four-mile North Mirror Lake Trail, another trail that was predominately up-hill. However, after a good night’s rest, David, Koji, and I woke up rejuvenated.
North Mirror Lake Trail is a much more open trail, but not necessarily an easier one. I was relieved to find that I could easily see out into the wilderness, which made me feel more comfortable about a potential bear encounter. We started our day by climbing to the trail summit that overlooks the Lake of the Clouds. When the fog rolls in, it appears to be resting on the lake. On our way down into the forest, we scouted out campsites and picked the perfect plot that we’d return to that evening.
North Mirror Lake Trail is a stunning trek that passes by a large ravine with a spectacular, rocky waterfall where we first stopped to rest. At this point, we were finding our confidence and getting used to the taste of the lake water we had filtered into our Camelbaks. We reflected on how afraid I was the day before, and how silly it all felt in comparison to the views we were taking in that day.
The trail continued to amaze us as we approached the end of the trail and arrived at Mirror Lake– a crystal clear body of water that, as its name suggests, reflected the beauty of the wild. Once again, my expectations were proven wrong. The night before, I was dead set on thinking our trip was ruined all because we weren’t able to pitch our tent. Now, I was sitting on a mountaintop, unable to tell where the water ended and the sky began.
Heading back to the campsite, a deer flicked its white tail and watched us with wide eyes as we drifted past. We arrived back to camp at promptly 4 pm– plenty of time, we thought, to snag our site and relax for the evening.
Except we were wrong. The camp was somehow filled with people. Twenty bodies flooded the three campsites, including the one that we had set our hearts on that morning. Frustrated, I insisted that we head back to the car. As we trudged up the mountainside, resigned to the fact that we would once again be Jeep camping, we stumbled on a forgotten campsite that overlooked the trail. Relieved, we set up camp and quickly kicked back in the hammock. Another doe meandered into our campsite, unafraid. We were finally experiencing the night we had hoped for.
We settled into bed with the sunset that night, unable to keep our eyes open. At 2:00 AM, however, we were rudely awakened by a downpour of rain. By morning, our tent was saturated. Evidently, the rainstorm that was forecasted for our last day had decided to come early. By this point in our trip, we knew to expect nothing and just go with the flow. We packed up early.
At daybreak, we trekked up to the car. Our campsite saga ended up being a best-case scenario, being so close to the trail head. Rather than continuing to hike in the rain, we drove to the east side of the UP to see the Pictured Rocks of Lake Superior. Miraculously, by the way, the check engine light was off!
Looking over the sandstone cliffs and waterfalls, we reminisced about how our expectations had been continuously challenged over the two days. John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Our Michigan backpacking trip was no exception.
I learned that life will never match my lofty expectations. Resisting what presents in my life only leads to fear and frustration. When I let go of the expectations I set for my life, I ease into the flow of adventure, and find my joy.
What lessons have you learned about letting go?