Winter Backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park – January 2018

Hannah – 4 years old – Backpacking Trip #2

Some Background Info – Christmas in the Porkies

Jim’s family would often celebrate Christmas the weekend before actual Christmas, and my family would tend to celebrate the weekend after Christmas, which left us alone on the actual holiday.  We decided to book a winter trip to the Porkies (Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park) over the Christmas holiday.  We booked 3 different yurts that we cross country skied into.  One night while we were there, it snowed 14 inches.  It was magical.  We decided this was the type of Christmas we wanted every year, even when we had kids.  And we did just that every year following. Map of Porkies

After Jim died I desperately wanted to continue that tradition, but knew it wasn’t possible for me to do alone.  It would have required me to chop wood to keep us warm (something I am capable of, but didn’t really want to rely on).  And I wasn’t sure I should be alone in the middle of nowhere with a 1 year old.  And so, I had to learn to let go of some traditions, and figure out new ones.

A New Winter Porkies Experience

When Hannah was 4 years old, I was able to convince some friends to go on this winter adventure with me.  Though not over Christmas, we went during a long weekend in January.  I booked a yurt for one night and then a cabin (which stays warmer than a yurt) for the following two nights.  My friends were only able to join for the cabin nights.  At the fear of me staying at the yurt alone with Hannah, my dad offered to join us for the night in the yurt.  Although I was confident I could make it a night alone, I was pretty quick to accept his offer.

In the winter, only the eastern part of the park is open.  There are several cabins and yurts to rent with various hiking distances in to them.  We rented the Little Union River Yurt for night one with Dad, and the Union River Cabin for the next two nights with my friend Kara, her boyfriend Zac, and Kara’s two teenage daughters.  Winter Map of Porkies

The Hike, Ski, Sled In

We met my dad in the parking lot near the trail head and got our packs ready.  The route in was about 3 ½ miles.  I was not sure how the snow conditions would be and how Hannah would handle that distance in the snow, so I cross country skied while towing her in a sled.  She was elated with this mode of transportation.  I did a test run earlier that month on a particularly snowy day by skiing to her daycare and sledding her home.  It worked great! 

The ski and sled ride into the Little Union Yurt
Photo credit: my Dad

My dad had chosen to hike in boots.  The trail was broken in enough that this worked just fine.  Tip: I’ve been to the Porkies in the winter when there was no snow and we had to hike in boots, and other years when it was necessary to have skis or snow shoes.  I’d recommend bringing both boots and either skis or snowshoes and decide once you arrive which one to use.

We hiked in on the River Trail past the Artist-in-Residence Cabin – a cabin available for artists who are inspired by the amazing great northern wilderness.  It was warmer than we expected that day and by the time we reached the yurt we were nearly down to our base layers.

Little Union Yurt

We built a fire in the stove inside the yurt, which quickly heated up the yurt to a balmy 85 degrees – it’s a little challenging to regulate the temperature in there, but we finally figured it out.  After dinner, we got ready for bed, and Hannah suggested a late night moonlight walk.  We got dressed and hiked about a half mile before stopping, turning off our headlamps and staring up at the gorgeous sky, lit up by moonlight and stars.

Star-gazing on a night hike
Photo credit: my Dad

Union River Cabin

The next morning we packed up the yurt and hiked about 1 ½ miles to the Union River Cabin.  We got there just in time to get a fire going in the stove before my friends arrived on their snow shoes.  My dad said his good-byes and hiked out on his own.  That afternoon we explored the area around the cabin, hiked down along the river, and found a very fun sledding hill that everyone enjoyed.  I was very glad to have brought the sled for the added entertainment.

Sledding near the Union River Cabin
Photo credit: Zac Bogstad

The East Vista

The next morning we decided to all hike (and Hannah sled) to the East Vista overlook – which is about a 7 mile round trip.  The first 2 ½ miles was relatively flat while the last mile was basically straight up hill.  The East Vista overlook was well worth it, overlooking Lake Superior and much of the park.  On the way back down, one of the older girls suggested that she and Hannah SLED down the one mile trail.  We sent them on their way, the rest of us all jealous we hadn’t thought of that and didn’t bring additional sleds.  They had a blast and surprising did not hit any trees on their way down.  And I was glad Hannah had a teenager with her as it took the rest of us awhile to catch up to them.

The View from the East Vista – Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Park
Photo credit: Zac Bogstad

Snow Day

On our walk back to the cabin, it started snowing pretty heavy.  Overall throughout the day, it snowed about 8 inches.  It was beautiful.  We all played outside in the fresh powder – building forts, jumping into piles of snow, and enjoying every minute of the winter wonderland.  The fire was raging inside the cabin for a toasty warm surprise when we came in from playing. 

Hannah playing in the fresh powder.
Photo credit: Zac Bogstad

Someone left a 500 piece puzzle in the cabin and we were determined to finish it.  Unfortunately it gets dark early in the winter, so we rigged up some lanterns to continue our puzzle late into the evening until it was finally done.  Meanwhile, Kara and her daughter had cooked up the most delicious Pad Thai meal I’ve ever had while backpacking.

The Snow Shoe, Ski, Sled Out

We woke up the last morning and packed up our gear for the 4 mile snow shoe, ski, and sled ride out of the park.  However, we now had a lot of fresh powder to push through.  Hannah kept sliding to the back of the sled, making it harder for me to pull it through the snow.  We finally got her situated correctly so her weight was evenly distributed on the sled so I could actually tow her.  Once we all got moving, it was a very enjoyable hike out.  The storm the previous day had left all of the tree branches glittered with fluffy snow. 

Kara and her daughters had a head start and by the time Zac, Hannah, and I reached the cars, they had put their backpacks in their car and had the car warming up.  I dug out my keys from my pack and went to unlock my car, but nothing happened.  Hmmm… that’s odd.  Click, click… again nothing.  So used the keyhole to open my door.  And that’s when I saw it – the dome light was on.  Either Hannah hit it while she was changing into her snow gear, or perhaps I hit it getting my skis out of the car.  Regardless of the culprit, we weren’t leaving the Porkies quite yet.  I was so thankful for Zac and Kara there to help jump my car.  If I were alone, it could have been a long hike to find someone who could help us out. 

Lessons Learned:

It’s okay to leave some traditions behind, and it is okay to start new ones, or not.  I would love to tell you that we do this every winter, but the fact is that so far, it only worked out this one time.  I am so grateful to my Dad and my friends who helped make it a special experience, and I hope to do it again some winter, but it likely will not be an annual tradition. 

Also, ALWAYS check your dome light before leaving your car for a few days on an adventure.