Isle Royale: A Recap and Reflection

Posted on 02 June 2013

Late last night I returned from a five-day, four-night solo hiking trip to Isle Royale National Park. The island — actually, a very rocky archipelago — lies in northwest Lake Superior, not far off the U.S.-Canada border; its lush boreal forests, glacier-scraped basalt and abundant wildlife contribute to the park’s highest per-acre backcountry usage of all the National Parks, despite being the least visited of them all.

Recap/Travelogue

Monday. I departed from Grand Rapids around 4 p.m., after having celebrated a surprise 80th birthday party for my beloved grandmother. With gear stowed and cats provided for, I set out for Houghton, Michigan — an 8.5-hour, 500-mile journey that ended up costing about $90 in gas. I routed north on US-131 until somewhere in Charlevoix County, whereupon I connected through side roads to I-75 until I crossed the the Mackinac Bridge. From St. Ignace, I took US-2 to M-77, then M-28 (including the infamous never-ending, perfectly straight road between Singleton and Seney), then US-41 to Houghton. Ended up snoozing around midnight in a rest stop just outside of Houghton.

Tuesday. Finished the last 30 minutes of the drive to Houghton. Swapped my misprinted tickets for the ferry with Ranger Barb. She was totally awesome and makes me feel happy about paying taxes for the National Park Service. Watched the USNPS Ranger III get loaded. The ship — a 165-foot, twin screw behemoth displacing 835 tons — provided a quiet, comfortable ride. Which is good, considering it’s a six-hour trek across Lake Superior. We got a late start but arrived early because we skipped a port call at Mott Island. One of the dedicated volunteers, a sweet 18-year-old girl who says she has “lived” on the island all her life because she volunteers her summers there, said that her only real advice for first-time visitors is “to give it a chance, despite the cold.” Our voyage proceeded without incident; the 10-knot winds gave 1-to-3 foot waves that barely ruffled the 60-year-old ship. While on board, I received my backcountry permit from Ranger Paul. He very gently suggested that my original itinerary, which included a day of off-trail hiking, might be less optimal than a route that he suggested. He was proven correct. After we arrived at Rock Harbor, around 2:45 p.m., we got our stuff from the cargo hold and all six of us — me and a five-man party of young dudes from Purdue University, the only hikers in that scheduled voyage — hit the trail by 3:30. I covered 6 miles in about 3 hours, stopping occasionally for water and photos. I went from Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm by the Tobin Harbor Trail and the Rock Harbor Trail. The terrain was damp and steep, with much of the trail either muddy or an honest-to-goodness rivulet from snow runoff. I set up camp around 7 p.m. and had the entire site to myself. While preparing dinner, I learned that double-insulated steel mugs don’t heat on a white-gas stove, and also that my tent site was some sort of central party zone for many of the island’s massive population of snowshoe hares. Hares, more to the point, that have no fear of humans whatsoever. Two rabbits meandered around my camp, cool as cucumbers, and got close enough that I could have touched them. Bed by 9 p.m.

Wednesday. After studying my topo map in greater detail, I altered Ranger Paul’s planned expedition in favor of my own (to his prior approval; he said our agreed-upon route was “Plan A” but I was free to make my own “Plan B” as circumstances required). I awoke at 7 a.m. and broke camp by 8:35. It had rained intermittently throughout the night, but my tent stayed dry — glad I brought a tarp as ground cover. Pumping drinking water from Lake Superior wasn’t bad until I slipped on a rock and fell into the sub-40-degree water up to my calves. Good thing I was wearing my neoprene-and-rubber camp shoes at the time. Breakfast consisted of hot oatmeal and hot tea punctuated by another hare visit. After I broke camp, I trekked from Daisy Farm to the top of Mt. Ojibway by around 10 a.m. Although the elevation change was steep, the scenery was beautiful and the trail, away from the lakeshore, was challenging but not wet. The mountain ridge was warmer, with temps in the upper 60s and a light breeze. Few bugs. I enjoyed a lunch of canned tuna along the Greenstone Ridge Trail between Mt. Ojibway and Mt. Franklin — there was a huge, flat basalt boulder just off the trail, so I took off all my gear, including my boots and sweater, and laid on the rock for like a half hour just soaking up the sun and enjoying the sounds and smells of the backcountry. The ridgeline is much drier and as much as 30 degrees F warmer than lakeshore trails, so I had a great time just sunning myself. Later on, at Mt. Franklin, I ran into the Purdue gang and then went down to Lane Cove. After seven difficult miles and two major elevation changes (lake to Mt. Ojibway; Mt. Franklin to lake), I made camp at Lane Cove around 3 p.m. Camp setup there was more interesting — a consistently stiff, warm breeze off the bay required some creative use of rocks to get my tent set up. My little camp site was a mere 20 feet off the lakeshore, and again, I had the site to myself. The fun thing about Lane Cove is that it shelters a bunch of loons — and I saw plenty of them. Only downside: I kept hearing some bird call that sounded like one of my cats, and that made me sad. I missed them. And I spilled two-third of my dinner on a log. Spent the afternoon enjoying the sun, journaling and reading some of The Nicomachean Ethics. Bed by 9.

Thursday. Up at 7. Broke camp at 8. Occasional showers the night before left the camp cool and damp. Oh, and I had a huge spider in my boot. The trek along the trail from Lane Cove to Mt. Franklin was easier than I had been dreading. I guess I was starting to get used to the 40-lb. pack strapped to my back. That, and I was taking greater care to keep properly hydrated. The difficult part of that 2.4-mile segment was the roughly 500 feet of elevation gain in the last half mile; the trail consisted of a series of steep switchbacks that included large boulders, roots, mud holes and the prospect of tumbling down one side of the 18-inch-wide trail hundreds of feet to your gruesome death. Arrived at Three Mile by 11:30 — I knocked out a 5-mile hike with all that elevation change (lake to Mt. Franklin; Mt. Franklin to lake) in just a few hours. The downside, however, was that the entire journey was conducted in a light but consistent cold rain and I neglected to bring a pack cover. So I used my poncho to cover my pack, but by the time I got to Three Mile I decided to skip on the tent and make use of one of the shelters. Chilled to the bone, I realized that even my sleeping bag had gotten slightly damp, and the ambient air hovered in the low 40s. At one point, I contemplated breaking camp and making for Rock Harbor because I was worried about hypothermia. Then I remembered that I had an emergency bivy bag in my waist pack, so I put that inside my sleeping bag and put myself in the bivy. The trick worked; my “dry heat” warmed up my bag, and the bivy warmed me. By nightfall, I was confident that I’d have a warm, dry place to sleep. Plus, some hot tea at 5:30 helped boost my spirits. I read more Aristotle to pass the time, and did a lot more journaling. Plus I watched a trio of large birds — I don’t know the species, but they were jay-sized, with dark grey bodies, white necks and black faces — eat worms at my camp site. They paid me no heed; they even perched on the table within an arm’s length of me on several different occasions. A group of six campers stayed at Three Mile near me, but the consistent drizzle kept them quiet and in their tents most of the afternoon. In the bag by 7 p.m., reading by candlelight until sleep-time at 9 p.m.

Friday. Up at 6:50. Used the outhouse and obtained more water from Lake Superior. Broke camp at 8:25 and made the 4-mile trek to Rock Harbor by 10:15 with no stops and only two slight falls on wet, mossy basalt. Set up shop in shelter No. 6 and hoofed it to the general store to get more stove fuel plus some chips and sour-cream dip. The day was sunny and warm, and I was in a great mood. I spent most of the day — after paying $6 for a 5-minute hot shower — journaling and working on various possible novel plots for this year’s NaNoWriMo. In the early afternoon, the Purdue Five grabbed the shelter across from me. And I had repeated visits from my “pet” red squirrel. He had no fear of humans; he often hopped up on the picnic table with me, or brushed by my ankles. I didn’t feed him, but I think he was on the lookout for crumbs from my bag of Ruffles. Then another snowshoe hare visited later. Then I watched a curious 10-minute battle between a black fly and some small ants: The fly kept molesting the ants, and the ants kept trying to grab the fly. It was odd. I retired by 8 p.m. when a sudden squall line moved in. The lightning was awesome.

Saturday. Up at 7 a.m., and a bit sore. I have a great zero-degree bag, but it’s a mummy and it constrains movement. I toss a lot, and often fall off my Thermarest pad and getting back on while you’re cocooned requires some gymnastics skill. Broke camp by 7:45 and made it to the dock by 8. Boarded at 8:30 and we were out for early departure by 8:45. We did, however, stop at Mott Island this time. The passage back to Houghton was quiet. The entire lake was in a fog and waves ran 2 to 4 feet. Around 1 p.m., Ranger Paul entertained me, the Perdue Five and one of the grad students departing from Mott with some self-composed songs and poetry readings. It’s stuff that you’d expect from a park ranger with a guitar and a fascination with Dylan. Still, he is clearly passionate about Isle Royale and his job and cares deeply for the hikers he shepherds. Good fellow. By 2 p.m., I got a cell signal again. I had left the dock on Tuesday with true Inbox Zero; by the time I returned to Houghton I had 669 unread emails in four different accounts. Of which, I responded to just two — both, my mother — and kept a mere 13 for later action or response. Puts email connectivity in a different persepective. Arrived at Houghton by 3:10 and after a welcome-back hug from Ranger Barb, I was on the road by 3:30. Stopped for gas in Christmas, Michigan, and was sorely tempted to stop in a moment to see the Indian casino there, because given its size I would have expected to see three slot machines and one table game. Happy to see Lake Michigan again at Naubinway. Route through the U.P. was the same as on the way North. However, the southbound trek through the Lower Peninsula was different — I-75 to US-127, connecting to US-10 between Clare and Reed City, then US-131 at Reed City back home. I have no idea why Here Drive (Nokia’s vaunted GPS routing system) recommended two radically different routes between Grand Rapids and the Bridge. Got home by 11:45 — much later than I hoped — and found Fiona in the kitchen. I petted her a bit but Murphy didn’t show up. So I said, “Murphy, I’m home!” and then I heard him meow and then scamper into the kitchen. I petted them for a long time because I missed my little fuzzy buddies. I’m glad my mom and my friend Stacie were willing to alternate days to come and check on them.

Reflections

  • You don’t appreciate just how remote the Upper Peninsula is until you spend some time there. In all my years as a Michigan resident, this trip marks the first real experience I’ve had in the U.P. It’s telling that between St. Ignace and Marquette — nearly four hours of driving time — I may have seen exactly one fast-food joint (in Munising, I think). Many of the towns along the way consist of one stoplight and any three of the following: A gas station, a trading post, a sit-down local diner, a church, a 1950s-era motel or a generic service outlet like a barber or an auto garage. Grocery stores? Hard to find. Unless you live near the larger cities, like Marquette or Sault St. Marie, you don’t have a lot of places to go that aren’t The Great Outdoors. Cell service is spotty. And I’ve decided that “Up North” in a cultural sense begins around Gaylord.
  • Be very, very careful with pack weight. My gear weighed in somewhere between 40 and 42 lbs., which was still below the recommended maximum by the National Park Service for my weight. Still, Isle Royale has lots of difficult trail with sudden elevation changes, mud bogs, wet basalt and the like. Every unnecessary pound makes the trek that much more miserable.
  • Do not attempt a hike at Isle Royale unless you’re in decent cardiovascular condition. If you can’t run a 10k, you won’t really survive an average hike on an average trail on the island with a heavy pack. See my photos, above, for some snapshots of the trail. Then mentally picture miles and miles and miles of it.
  • Do not attempt a zone hike (off-trail) unless your last name is Grylls. Despite the appearance from satellite imagery, the terrain on the island is astonishingly dense. You will absolutely need at least a good machete — kissing Leave No Trace principles ‘tween the buttocks — and expect a slow slog. I’m not kidding: The terrain is wildly erratic with elevation changes, dense undergrowth and giant boulders. Even the rangers say they’ve done it once, and once was enough.
  • If you hike solo, make sure you’re OK being alone with yourself. When you’re on the island, you’re on the island. There’s no going home until the next boat departure. There’s no firing up the cell phone for Twitter therapy. Just you and your thoughts. I think I wasn’t quite prepared for my initial feelings of loneliness — when I spilled my chili on Wednesday, I spontaneously burst out in tears and screamed at the trees, “I don’t want to be here anymore!” — but after I had some time for reflection and journaling, I was in good shape. If they told me on Friday afternoon that the boat wasn’t sailing for another week, I’d have been totally cool with it and plotted my next destinations on the trail. Just have to get through that first 48 hours of being with no one but yourself. On the bright side, I had some deep insight on the island that absolutely will stay with me and has already begun to color some of my long-term goals.
  • Visit the island only after you understand map-based orienteering and have a bit of trail sense. Except for a few discreet wooden posts at major intersections, none of the major trails (at least, on the east side of the island) are marked or blazed. In some places, rangers have left small, discreet rock cairns to mark the trail when no other option would suffice (e.g., when you’re crossing a large field of mossy basalt with no dirt to mark the way). Generally, though, you need to survey the terrain ahead of you and just figure out where the trail leads. Which is easy to do when you know how to do it. Likewise with map-based orienteering. If you want to known where you are, you can’t point to a marker that says “half-mile to camp, go that way.” Instead, you’ll need to pull out your map and either orient by taking bearings against landmarks like the lighthouse or the observation tower on Mt. Ojibway, or by looking north or south and comparing the topography of the train against the topo lines on your map.
  • Gear correctly. I wore my trusty Doc Martens and had no foot-related problems; one of the Perdue Five wore Vibrams and said he was fine, except I saw him apply ointments and moleskin to his feet on Friday. Although NPS has its standard gear list, I’d go a bit further and say that the following items should be considered standard for an Isle Royale visit: A sturdy staff (not collapsible trekking poles), waterproof boots with solid ankle support, a tarp as groundcover, a pack cover, fuel at the rate of 4 oz. per day per person, a good technical base layer, clothes and a bag for 20 degrees cooler than you expect, food for one day longer than you plan to visit, and the capability to haul 4L of water if you plan to go anywhere near Greenstone Ridge. Save weight by skipping most redundancies; just go with the 10 Essentials and, possibly, an emergency bivy bag in case stuff gets wet.

Hiking at Isle Royale National Park wasn’t what I expected. The scenery was even more lush and awe-inspiring than I imagined. The terrain was tougher. The isolation hit harder. But I’d go back again in a heartbeat, especially if I had some fellow travelers and suitable cat-care lined up back home. Ranger Paul’s folk songs about how the island touches you might be a bit of an overstatement … but not by much.

Chalk one more item off Ye Olde Bucket List.


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