Saturday, March 3, 2018

A Day in Denali | Part 1: The Journey

Denali National Park, Alaska. Maps at bottom of post.

Actually, it was a day and a half, but that doesn’t make as good of a title. Why would someone spend only a day and a half at Denali National Park? Because that’s all the time we had. In August 2014, my sister Andrea and I visited Kenai Fjords National Park (see the links along the right for the trip report), and after our itinerary there, we had three days before our flight back home out of Anchorage. It’s possible to drive to Denali from Kenai Fjords in one day, provided one doesn’t mind a long drive chock full of spectacular scenery.  

We decided to drive from Seward—our home base at Kenai Fjords—to Denali on Day One, spend Day Two in the park, then drive to Anchorage on Day Three. The scenic drive is spectacular, and as far as ways to spend a few days are concerned, this wasn’t too shabby.  Would we have loved to spend a week in Denali? Of course! But if the options were 1) Spend one day at DNP, or 2) Don’t go to DNP at all, we were going to go with option #1.

There was a part of us that wanted to get to Denali as early as possible and maybe squeeze in a short hike and check out a visitor center before nightfall. But in the end we decided not to rush the drive. The journey should be the adventure, and we let the day unfold on its own.  The drive was approximately 375 miles; we took our time, stopped whenever and wherever we wanted, and had a spectacular time.  It ended up taking us forever to get there, but it was worth every minute.

We said goodbye to the wonderful town of Seward, and headed north around 9:00 am. After seven days on the Kenai Peninsula, we were finally going to experience what something other than rain was like. Every single day of our Kenai Fjords adventure was enjoyable, but we were excited at the prospect of dry clothes and maybe even some sunshine.  

Moose Pass
Our first stop was Moose Pass, which is a town of around 120 people. We spent a few minutes enjoying the view along Upper Trail Lake, took a clandestine photo of an Alaska State Trooper vehicle, and moved on.  Next was Girdwood, southeast of Anchorage. We visited the Alaska Roots store for a few screen-printed hoodies, and chatted with the young couple who owns the store. We each picked out a few designs we liked, and watched the owners’ adorable baby crawl around the front of the shop while our sweatshirts were customized in the adjacent workroom. After that we wandered around the small town and checked out a few other shops before moving on. We continued along Turnagain Arm, passing through Anchorage and following Alaska Highway 1 until it intersects with Alaska Highway 3—also known as the Parks Highway—and continuing north on Highway 3.

We stopped next in Talkeetna.  The base for mountaineering expeditions to Denali is located here, and it is also a colorful party of a town. Actually, I learned later that it is not incorporated and is considered a “historical district,” not a town.  As such, it has no human mayor, but a cat named Stubbs became the community’s honorary mayor and enjoyed a long run in office until he died in 2017 at the impressive age of 20. (Mayor Stubbs has a Wikipedia page and a Twitter account.) 

We ate lunch at Mountain High Pizza Pie before wandering through the open air market and visiting the various shops to browse the artwork, jewelry, clothing, and other offerings, many of which were locally made. 

The weather was sunny and warm—a bit of a foreign concept for us since arriving in Alaska. A curious thing we kept hearing people in town say to each other was “The mountain is out.” “The mountain” is of course Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley...previously known as Denali), and “out” meant that it was not completely shrouded in clouds, which tends to be more its style.  We would learn later that the mountain is not fully visible much of the time. Clear views are not the norm during most of the year, and more often than not the clouds hide most of the mountain, including its dual peaks, from view. It was clearly significant when the mountain could be seen.

The internet claims that Mayor Stubbs' office was located in Nagley's Store
This was exciting news, and after bidding farewell to this fun town, we stopped at the first turnoff that claimed to have possible mountain views. Several cars were parked, and people were standing around peering into the distance with binoculars and cameras. We joined the party and spent several minutes staring intensely at the Alaska Range miles and miles away, which was partially covered by fluffy white clouds. I scanned back and forth along the mountains, wondering which one was Denali, and how I could discern it from the others if the clouds were hiding its peak (and why was everyone saying it was “out” if there were still clouds covering it?). Then Andrea figured out what we were doing wrong.  We were foolishly looking at the main part of the mountain range, which was populated with run-of-the-mill mountains—mere hilly peasants. Denali was a Royal Highness Mountain, and could not be seen with the likes of them. We were looking too low—WAY too low. What I had thought was a mass of Cumulonimbus clouds above the mountain range was actually The Mountain. Andrea explained that I should look at the clouds but keep moving my gaze up…up…keep going…look closely at the “clouds”…

Denali's ridges high above the clouds
I may have actually said “whoa” like Keanu Reeves once I figured it out. What we were looking at was a layered vista of regular mountains, then clouds, then the snow-covered crags of a behemoth rising far above all of it. The majority of the mountain range was like a cute rock garden decorating Denali’s grounds.

After that we drove on and on, stopping every so often to marvel at the scenery, which was stunning. We stopped at various scenic sites with expansive mountain views, as well as random spots along the road that caught our eyes. Fireweed was in bloom all around, its bright purple flowers popping against the lush green landscape. The most vivid rainbow either of us had ever seen appeared in front of us at some point, and it stayed there throughout the journey—sometimes obscured by clouds, but then re-appearing and guiding us forward like a beacon.

The day was truly all sunshine and rainbows with one small exception: We discovered that the price of leaving the constant rain of Kenai Fjords behind was a growing abundance of mosquitoes the further north we drove. We had been lulled into a false sense of security by the lack of insects during the earlier part of the trip, and received a rude awakening when we were immediately assaulted by a mosquito armada upon getting out of the car at an interpretive site about the Alaska Range. In fact, I think it was that moment when it dawned on us that we hadn’t had to deal with mosquitoes at all and how awesome that had been. We were very quickly brought back to reality.

A view from an interpretive site as you near Denali National Park
Our destination for the night was Denali Lakeview Inn, a small B&B type place on Otto Lake in the town of Healy, about 10 miles north of the park. It’s an out-of-the-way establishment, located off a dirt road far from the busy area of the park, with a middle-of-nowhere feel to it. We arrived around 9:00 pm, located our welcome card on the wall outside near the entrance, and removed our shoes upon entering per the card’s instructions. We then made our way to our room and were immediately mesmerized by the view from our window.  Otto Lake, Mount Healy, and the last remaining strip of our faithful rainbow gleamed before us, welcoming us to the rapture. Classical music twinkled from the clouds. There were mini boxes of cereal in the room.  Everything was magical. It was difficult to leave, but we were hungry and decided to go to 49th State Brewing Company for a late dinner. 

Our room and its utopian view. Denali Lakeview Inn - Healy, AK

Around 10:30 pm the sun was setting and the moon rose, full and orange above the mountains as we left the restaurant. We decided to drive to the park to familiarize ourselves with the location of the Wilderness Access Center, where we would need to be in the morning. We had an early start planned, and needed to be there at 6:30 am to board a shuttle.  We drove to the park, stopping now and then to stare at the glowing moon on one side of the road and the colorful sunset on the other. We encountered a couple of moose eating vegetation along the road during the dusky drive, and we pulled over a short distance away to watch them. After a few minutes, they seemed to become aware of our presence and began acting agitated, so we pulled away and left them to their roadside dining. 

We arrived at the park and did some reconnaissance. The weather was beautiful, and the clear sky offered perfect views of the moon, which had continued to become more orange and was looking magnificent. We hung around for a while, just loitering in a deserted parking lot and moon-watching.

When we arrived back at the inn at midnight, the view over Otto Lake had transformed into a mystical blue dreamland. I was pretty sure that enlightenment could be reached in the reflection of the moon on the lake, and some kind of transcendental lullaby was emanating from the water itself. We didn’t want to go to sleep, but staying outside for more than a few minutes would’ve required a generous application of insect repellant to ward off mosquitoes, which we didn’t feel like getting into right before going to sleep.

We reluctantly turned in and tried to get a few hours of sleep before attempting to see as much of Denali National Park as we could in a single day.

Continued in Part Two: Eielson Visitor Center, Alpine Hike, and Lots and Lots of Grizzlies.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Isle Royale National Park July 2016 | Day 4

Rock Harbor and Departure
Continued from Day 3

A bald eagle perched at the top of a tree on an islet in Rock Harbor
(This report is regarding day hiking out of Rock Harbor. For backpacking trip reports, go here for the eastern, Rock Harbor side and here for the western, Windigo side.)

I woke up to a clear, sunny morning, with all traces of the previous day’s fog and moodiness gone. This was my last day on the island, and I hoped to spend some time canoeing in Tobin Harbor and just bumming around the nearby trails. I made some coffee and oatmeal and ate a leisurely breakfast before packing up. I heard the sea plane overhead, and caught sight of it out my window a few minutes later when it appeared in between some trees as it taxied to the dock.

I was itching to sleep in my tent after a few nights fulfilling my research regarding the cottages, and I set out in search of a campsite for my last night on the island. The moon was still hanging in the clear blue sky, and it was already shaping up to be a hot day. I thought about heading down to Three-Mile Campground, but because I was on the 9am sea plane the following day, I decided to stay in Rock Harbor so I would not have to hustle the following morning. After wandering up and down the path through the Rock Harbor campsites, lurking behind trees, and snooping around various sites, I concluded they were all occupied, so I set up shop in an available shelter (#7) up the hill at the edge of the woods. I did some laundry and hung various things to dry in the relentless sun.

Morning moon

The shelters at Isle Royale are a treasure trove of information. Are you interested in knowing which previous hiker’s digestive system was distressed over dehydrated burrito mix? (Trevor. In July 2010.) Have you been unsure about how you should feel about mosquitoes? (They sucked circa the beginning of time-2016.) Are you feeling under-informed regarding what bands rule? (This one is tricky, because it depends on which shelter is consulted. Iron Maiden probably, but some are in the Slayer camp. (See what I did there?)) All of this information, and much, much more, is available on the shelter walls. Some of the graffiti is typically stupid; some is funny; and some is heart-warming. (5 days spent hiking with Dad. Best time ever.

The people on the left felt more affectionate toward the island than those on the right.

I walked to the lodge to see about canoe rental and noticed the water in the harbor was a fairly choppy. It was sunny and very warm, but it was also quite windy, and I discovered that boats were not being rented that day due to high winds. In keeping with the theme of this trip so far, my final opportunity to fulfill my last goal—to canoe around Tobin Harbor—would not be realized. I was not particularly bummed out by this, partly because I was getting used to failing to attain my goals at this point, but also because I still had a whole day to spend wandering around this area on foot, which was fine too. By this time I was also feeling more comfortable spending a leisurely time here, not hiking my ass off. I was embracing this relaxation thing.

Rock Harbor is big. Generally people refer to the immediate area of the ferry dock, visitor center, camp store, marina, and lodge as “Rock Harbor.” Technically that specific area is Snug Harbor—a small cove within the larger protected waters of Rock Harbor, which is actually 11 miles long, beginning in Moskey Basin to the southwest and ending at Scoville Point to the northeast. 

In the mid-1800s, a handful of copper mines operated in the Rock Harbor area. This, combined with the fisheries that were functioning at the time, necessitated the building of the Rock Harbor Lighthouse in 1855. Copper mining was not successful on Isle Royale, and the lighthouse was not operational for long. It was deactivated in 1859 after the mining didn’t pan out, but was re-lit in 1874 for general shipping use. It was deactivated again in 1879 and has not been operated since. It’s now part of the national park and is open to visitors of Isle Royale.

Rock Harbor Lighthouse
Across the harbor to the south are many small islands that make up the protective outer boundary of the harbor. The park headquarters is located on one of these—Mott Island—and is an impressive operation. A few days earlier, while I was aboard the Sandy on its way to Edison Fishery and my drop-off at Daisy Farm, I learned that most park employees live on Mott Island and are ferried to work every day by boat. The park superintendent also lives there. The island is obviously very boat-dependent, and there is a large building on Mott Island that is dedicated to boat repair. A little farther down the line, Cemetery Island is the site of mysterious grave sites, the final resting place of several people who died on Isle Royale in the mid-1800s.

I spent the day wandering up and down trails, and photographing various plants and rocky islands. 

I love these small outer islands, and I particularly like the tiny islets that are not much more than a chunk of bare rock without much of anything growing on them. Of these, my favorites are those covered with elegant lichen—the crusty growth that gives the rock an orange color. Lichens are a tough combination of algae and fungus, and they are able to flourish in Isle Royale’s harsh environment. Various types of lichens grow all over the island, but the most common are elegant lichen, a type of crustose lichen that cements itself to the rock; reindeer lichen, a folios lichen that is more leaflike; and old man’s beard, a type of fruticose lichen that hangs off trees in tufts of pale green strands.

Left: Reindeer Lichen         Right: Elegant Lichen (orange)
Old Man's Beard
I made dinner, read a book for a little while, then did more of the same before turning in for the night. As I laid on the floor of the shelter, listening to waves in the harbor with my head propped against my backpack, I thought about how special this park is and wondered about its future and what my next visit here would be like.

The next morning I arrived at the sea plane dock with a park employee who worked at the Rock Harbor Lodge. He had rolled his ankle badly while hiking and was being taken to the hospital in Houghton via the sea plane. (Someone was waiting at the airport to drive him to the hospital.)  Although obviously in pain, with his ankle very badly swollen and the possibility he might not be able to finish out the season, he was excited about his first trip on the sea plane.  We talked about his experience living at the park (he had worked there a few summers in a row), and he told me a story of another lodge employee who had gotten lost while hiking a few weeks earlier. When she hadn’t returned by dark, a search party went out in a boat, and eventually found her on the shore, near the eastern end of Tobin Harbor. She had come down from the Greenstone Ridge and mistook the waters of Tobin Harbor for those of Rock Harbor. Thinking she was on the home stretch to the lodge, she headed east instead of west, and ended up disoriented and lost when she met endless forest instead of civilization, and darkness fell. She luckily had a flashlight, and she made her way to shore and shone her light out at the lake, which enabled the search party to find her. She was apparently pretty shaken up from the experience, and it was a reminder that even when mistakes happen close to home base, things can get scary fast. 

Kayakers in Tobin Harbor
While I talked with this new acquaintance, a couple of kayakers showed up with their double kayak, hauled it out to the end of the dock, lowered it into the water and set off paddling into Tobin Harbor. It was a beautiful day to be out on the water, and I watched them paddle off—directly into the path of the sea plane, which came barreling out of the sky for a landing, causing them to have to pick up the pace and get out of the way.

Rock Harbor Lighthouse from the sea plane
We boarded the plane and lifted into the air, swooping south above Rock Harbor, past the lighthouse, and out over the expanse of Lake Superior. My third visit to Isle Royale National Park was now in the rear-view mirror, and I watched it fade into the endless blue, wondering when I’d be back again.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Isle Royale National Park July 2016 | Day Three

The Most Spectacular Nemesis
Continued from: Day 2

Tobin Harbor, at the dock near Hidden Lake
(This report is regarding day hiking out of Rock Harbor. For backpacking trip reports, go here for the eastern, Rock Harbor side and here for the western, Windigo side.)
Map at the end...

Nemesis: a long-standing rival; an archenemy.

Sometimes people make decisions they know they will regret.  They could opt to make different choices, but intead they forge ahead, knowing they’re going to hate themselves later on. Welcome to Day Three.

I woke up with a sinking feeling that today wasn’t going to be awesome. It had rained overnight, and I woke periodically to the sound of a mild storm roaming through Tobin Harbor. I hoped that it would stop by morning since I had planned an 8:00 am water taxi to Hidden Lake dock, followed by a 10 ½ mile hike, much of it on the Greenstone Ridge. This would check off Goal #2 of the trip: Hike to Lookout Louise to take in the views from its elevated vantage point. I was really looking forward to that, but when I got up and looked out the window, I found my nemesis smirking back at me: Fog.

The spellbinding view from my window this morning. Fog is capitalized throughout this post out of respect for a worthy adversary.
Fog and I have a complicated relationship. I love the bewitching bastard and the spell it can cast over the world.  Fog can turn a mundane scene into something magical, but its moodiness sometimes turns malicious. Fog has been known to show up when I’m spending time with other friends (you know...the sun, sky, and various other things that are more fun when visible) and specifically did not invite it. Fog sometimes meddles in my life, blocking trailside views of picturesque cliffs, and sadistically snatching away majestic vistas at the end of cold, wet, grueling hikes up mountains, leaving me soggy and disappointed. I was not expecting to see Fog today, but I suppose I should’ve been more vigilant on my way here...maybe doubled back a few times before crossing the Mackinac Bridge to make it look like I was going to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Maybe checked behind the seaplane a few times to make sure I wasn’t being followed by any suspicious-looking clouds. This was exactly the type of opportunity Fog would be waiting for.

I sat down and thought about the day. I had paid $58 for the water taxi, which runs rain or shine, unless the conditions on the water are unsafe. It had stopped raining, but it was very dreary outside, with a chance the rain might return. Regardless, the brush out on the trail was going to be soaking wet after being rained on all night. Hiking in the rain is a reality of backpacking; you have to get from one place to the next despite the weather, so you have to just suck it up. But did I really want to spend the day hiking in those conditions on purpose, when I didn’t have to? I was on vacation after all, and as a grown-up, I could do whatever I wanted.

I looked out at the harbor and the deceptively enchanting fog-ensconced trees on the other side, then at my semi-comfortable bed and fully-stocked kitchenette. Staying in for the morning, reading, and eating warm foods sounded really attractive, $58 loss be damned. But this hike is what I had planned to do today, and as much as I didn’t want to hike all day in miserable weather, I also didn’t want to regret not doing it later. I sighed, came to terms with the fact that I was probably making a stupid decision, and proceeded to get dressed and fill my backpack with everything I would need for a long, probably shitty, definitely wet, hike. Maybe I would get lucky and find that the taxi was cancelled due to distant lightning and then I would be off the hook and guilt-free.

The Sandy and a couple of water taxis wait in the Fog
Wearing rain gear to protect against the cold and wet conditions on the small boat, I walked to the Rock Harbor Lodge, and the people at the front desk confirmed that the taxi was running as-scheduled. I pretended that this was good news, and walked with dread toward the dock and my certain doom. I chatted with the driver of the ridiculously-named “Julie Leigh” as we careened around Scoville Point, bouncing and crashing on Lake Superior’s post-storm, slate-colored, choppy surface, and entered Tobin Harbor from the northeast. Luckily this was a short trip, or I would’ve had sea-sickness to add to the day’s indignities. Except for the occasional old cabin tucked on small islands in Tobin Harbor, everything was grey. There was no escaping it; I had to embrace the Fog.

Let the good times roll
A couple of barely discernible old cabins on islets in Tobin Harbor. Taking photos from a moving boat in the fog is hard.

I was dropped off at the dock near Hidden Lake, and I watched the Julie Leigh disappear into the fog on her way to pick up a few campers in Duncan Bay to the north. Once the boat was out of earshot, complete silence enveloped me aside from the occasional birdcall. (For a short video of this scene, go here.) The scene of Tobin Harbor from this dock was wonderfully mystical because of the Fog. I had a hard time leaving that spot, especially given how much I wasn’t looking forward to hiking by this point. It was a slightly chilly morning, but I knew I was going to get too warm to keep my rain jacket on while hiking, so I stowed it in my backpack and reluctantly set out on the trail. It was 8:30.
The water taxi leaving me at the Hidden Lake dock
Lookout Louise is a viewpoint that sits just above the very eastern-most end of the Greenstone Ridge and provides an outstanding view of the ridges, bays, and islets of the Five Fingers area. The Greenstone Ridge Trail actually begins here, but because of its remote location, nearly all hikers who do the cross-island Greenstone Ridge hike from Rock Harbor to Windigo do not access the trail at its true starting point (or finish there if hiking in the opposite direction). The only reasonable way to incorporate this section (without hiking a ridiculous distance, then having to backtrack) is to access it by boat, which most hikers aren’t going to do because of logistical complications. Instead, the Greenstone is typically accessed at its junction with Mt. Franklin Trail, the earliest it can be reached on foot from Rock Harbor. This means that the eastern end of the Greenstone Ridge Trail—approximately 5 miles of it—between Mt. Franklin and Lookout Louise is hiked far less than the rest of the trail. (And I saw no one during my hike of this entire stretch.)

Of Lookout Louise, Jim DuFresne’s essential Isle Royale guidebook says, “the lookout spot provides the most spectacular view in the park, but most of the 1.0-mile trail is a straight, uphill climb.” (Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes) The trail starts at the dock, follows along Tobin Harbor and crosses a wooden bridge over the outlet of Hidden Lake before curving around the western side of the small lake, then beginning its climb. I stopped around the middle of the bridge to apply insect repellant, as mosquitoes were an immediate issue in the wet environment. I was happy to find an outhouse near the curve of the trail, which I took advantage of. On a day like this, even the small wins deserve mentioning.

Hidden Lake
Lookout Louise Trail looked primordial, intensified after the rainfall. Enormous boulders rest along the trail and loom overhead; however, Fog obscured the view of Monument Rock—a towering 700-foot sea stack left over from an ancient, much higher lakeshore that predated Lake Superior. I saw no sign of this giant monolith that looms high above the trail around the halfway point. Fog had it completely concealed.

Scenes from Lookout Louise Trail

I had looked forward to seeing Lookout Louise for years, and had planned on lingering here to take photos and spend time just enjoying the view, which I would have all to myself since I was the only person for miles around. I passed the signpost marking the beginning of the Greenstone Ridge Trail and knew the lookout was only 1/10 mile ahead. I continued climbing until I reached the small rocky outcrop at the top. The area was fairly overgrown with trees, so it wasn’t obvious to me right away that I had reached the end, and I looked around to make sure I wasn’t missing a spur or side trail to confirm that I was as high up as I could get. I looked northwest, past the edge of the cliff, toward Duncan Bay and its surrounding long peninsulas, to Five Finger Bay beyond that, and further still across the northern expanse of Lake Superior to the distant Canadian shoreline. This is what I saw:

Well played, Fog.
I tried not to be bummed out. After all, I’d only been waiting for this since 2009. I stayed exactly the amount of time it took to snap the above photo, then turned away from this "most spectacular view in the park" and headed back down the trail.

Trip Goal #2: Attained, technically. Now to hike back.

Trail marker at the beginning of the Greenstone Ridge Trail near Lookout Louise
DuFresne describes the first leg of my hike thusly: “The east end of the Greenstone rewards backpackers with some of the best views from the entire trail...[The trail] quickly becomes one of the most pleasant walks on the island. Most of the hike is level and easy and passes through extensive thimbleberry patches...” I had very much looked forward to this hike, but today’s conditions were less than ideal. As mentioned, the eastern 5 miles of the Greenstone Ridge Trail are not heavily traveled. This means that the footpath, while ambiguous at times across its entire length, is even less obvious in this section due to the lack of constant foot traffic that the rest of the trail sees all season long. I set out knowing this and was not bothered; however, the rain that had fallen overnight obscured the trail even further, weighing down the brush and causing much of the visible pathway to be hidden underneath.

Greenstone Ridge...looking for cairns
At first this wasn’t too much of an issue. Walking high on a ridge, it’s at least obvious where not to go—veer too far left or right, and you will eventually find yourself tumbling down a slope. The trail alternated between traveling through forest, then breaking out into open grassy areas that provide awesome views to the north and south of the island on clear days. There was no view whatsoever today, but some of these spots looked pretty magical in the Fog. Lookout Louise aside, I found that I wasn’t so disappointed by the lack of views on top of the ridge. What I didn’t like, however, was how soaking wet I was getting.

I had kept my rain pants on in order to keep my lower half dry while hiking in wet brush. In order to avoid overheating, I left my rain jacket in my pack, and the further along the trail I went, the denser and taller the wet brush became. I stopped early on because I thought it would be a good idea for future story-telling to take a photo looking down at my legs to show my rain pants and boots getting wet. Hey, look how wet I got, ha-ha! At least I was prepared! Later that day I would look back and realize that I hadn’t even understood the meaning of the word “wet” at that point in my life. If only I’d taken that photo a few hours later, but eventually I had to put my camera completely away in a ziplock in my pack because I could no longer keep it protected from water. Later, when I eventually emerged from this soggy hellscape and reached a point where I could rest and change shirts, I had lost interest in photographing anything, and had no desire to ever tell anyone about this hike.

Greenstone Ridge Trail
Before long, I was getting soaked well above the waist by various dense plants and trees as I struggled to stay on the path, which was becoming increasingly difficult to follow. Thankfully the terrain was mostly flat, but the “pleasant” and “easy” walk described by DuFresne was neither of those things on this day. I stopped often to take stock of my situation, looking around whenever I was no longer confident that I was following an actual path. This happened constantly for a few miles, significantly slowing my progress. Much of the time I did not see any sign of the trail, and I plodded forward on some kind of instinct I didn’t know I had. At one point I realized I had veered off-course, but as I looked around, I had no idea where the trail was. As I backtracked, I happened to look down at just the right moment and spotted a small cairn, maybe 6” tall, almost completely hidden in wet, drooping brush. I repeatedly told myself that I couldn’t get truly lost at the top of the ridge. If worse came to worst and I completely lost the trail, I could always turn around—I had managed to stumble blindly this far, I could find my way back the way I had come and return to the dock. Eventually another boat would show up there. Maybe not today, but surely the next? It would be uncomfortable and embarrassing, but I probably wouldn’t die waiting to be found there and begging a ride back to Rock Harbor.

Left: Now you see the trail.  Right: Now you don't.
Even in short grass, the trail tended to disappear.
Adding to the ambiance, mosquitoes gleefully reveled in my presence, coming from miles around for the chance to feast on the only warm-blooded creature in the vicinity. Insect repellant only works so well when it is continually wiped away by wet leaves. While I didn’t see any moose, all along the grassy parts of the trail I found obvious signs of their sleeping forms in large, round depressions in the wet grass. These depressions were everywhere, to an unnerving degree, making me feel surrounded though I surprisingly saw no animals other than a single snowshoe hare on Lookout Louise Trail. This again made me think about the rising number of moose on Isle Royale due to the decline of its wolves. If the NPS does not opt to bring new wolves here, the moose are going to decimate the island and start dying of starvation.

In a few spots on the bare rock of the Greenstone Ridge, I saw scat that at first glance looked like wolf, but was likely from a fox. I wanted to believe that there were a few secret, deep-cover wolves still out there, roaming nearby but unseen in the Fog, perhaps acting as my spirit guides and preventing me from going too far astray. But sometimes a turd is just a turd.

A metaphor for this hike
At some point I began singing songs to myself to pass the time and keep myself sane, as counter-intuitive as that may sound. As time wore on, the reassuring idea of backtracking to the dock became less comforting as the distance behind me grew and grew. Just when I completely lost confidence that I was still on the trail, a path suddenly cut across the grass, and a signpost appeared that simply said, “P.” Yes! I was at a junction with a canoe portage trail. This could only mean that I was going the right way and was somehow still on the trail. I had never been so happy to see a trail marker. My spirits lifted a bit, but before long the path disappeared once again, and I found myself in the same predicament.

Left: The photo I took earlier on. Notice the mosquito photo bomb.  Right: The portage trail sign that temporarily saved my sanity.
On I trudged. To add insult to injury, some of the “extensive thimbleberry patches” mentioned above had grown to over 6 feet tall and towered over my head. At other times, this can be a fun experience. Thimbleberry leaves can grow to the size of dinner plates, and the berries themselves are delicious. Knowing how expensive anything made with thimbleberries is, being in a position to pick and eat as many of them as you want along the trail is a wonderful thing. Today, however, the plants dripped water on my head and stuck wetly to my arms and torso as I pushed my way through them, much of the time not even knowing if I was going the right way. And the shittiest part? The berries weren’t ripe yet. Later, at some high point on the ridge, I noticed a few berries that were juuuuust starting to show the slightest hint of color, maybe due to their extra-sunny (under better circumstances) vantage point. Purely out of spite, I ate one of them. It was awful. As expected.

All of a sudden I found myself on terrain that looked a bit more familiar and far less wet. I looked to my left and realized that I could see some of the landscape off to the south. No sooner had I thought, “I know this place,” then I found myself looking at the signpost at the junction of The Greenstone Ridge, Mt. Franklin, and Lane Cove Trails. I had made it out! Just up ahead a short distance would be Mount Franklin—a rocky outcrop 1,080 feet high that provides a wonderful view north of a huge expanse of forest, followed by bays, peninsulas, Lake Superior, and Canada. Even if Fog ruined the view, it would still be a good spot to stop for a break. I hoped that it wasn’t overrun with people so that I could take some time to rest, change into a dry shirt, and eat lunch. It was around 12:15—it had taken me almost 4 hours to hike 5.8 miles.

Mount Franklin
I arrived at Mount Franklin to find only 2 hikers there, who were hoisting their packs after having finished up a break. Aside from the boat driver, these were the first people I had seen today. They were 2 young, college-aged men, and one of them was so excited to be on Isle Royale that he could barely contain himself. It was adorable. We exchanged greetings, and the excited kid said it was his first time here, and he asked me if I’d been here before. When I told him it was my third time, he gushed with questions. Did I take the Ranger III? (The plane?! What’s that like?) Had I seen any moose? Where was I hiking from? I was very aware that I looked like I had just washed ashore after fighting for my life at sea for 8 or 9 days. I told him about my morning, explaining the water taxi, Lookout Louise, the trail conditions, and the menacing thimbleberries. When I mentioned the mosquitoes being especially bad, he asked me if I needed insect repellant—as if this was my first rodeo.

He told me about their trip so far and that they had just come from Lane Cove. (His friend clearly wanted to get going, but looked to be waiting as patiently as he could.) I enjoyed his story and could relate; on my first trip, we did the same thing—hiked from Rock Harbor to Lane Cove on our first day, and I remember exactly how I felt. The decent off the Greenstone on Lane Cove Trail is extremely steep and challenging, but camping at Lane Cove is wonderful. Of course, then there’s the climb back up that trail. The kid said that after they experienced the descent on Lane Cove Trail, they found the idea of climbing back up it to be so daunting that they decided to stay there for two nights to put off doing it. I found this hilarious and his pure honesty retelling the experience was endearing. They had just climbed back up Lane Cove Trail and recuperated at Mount Franklin. He told me where they planned to go over the next few days, and he kept referring to Chickenbone Lake as “Chicken Wing” and his friend kept correcting him. They planned to camp at East Chickenbone Lake campground, which is known to be a dud (or absolute dunghole, some would argue), and I advised switching to the West Chickenbone campground if at all possible with their route. He thanked me as they headed down the trail, and I felt like a wise old sage. I wonder how the rest of their trip went.

View from Mount Franklin. On a clear day, Canada is seen in the distance.
Now that no one was around, I dug my towel out of my backpack, stashed my soaked t-shirt in a mesh compartment, and dried off as much as I could before changing into a dry shirt. Thankfully the fog was lifting and I was able to enjoy the view from Mount Franklin while sitting on a rock and eating tuna wrapped in a tortilla for lunch. I hung out there for about 45 minutes. No other hikers showed up until I was getting ready to leave.

The Greenstone leg of the hike was over. Now to head south on Mt. Franklin Trail to Tobin Harbor Trail, then east to return to Rock Harbor. From here I knew the terrain was going to be less brushy, so I removed my rain pants. The weather had warmed up significantly, and I was glad not to have to wear the extra layer anymore. It’s 1.8 miles from Mount Franklin to Tobin Harbor, and heading south Mt. Franklin Trail is a steady walk downhill with very few uphill jaunts. I reached Tobin Harbor Trail in about an hour. Just before reaching the water, the trail breaks out onto a flat, downward-sloping expanse of exposed bedrock that made a good resting spot. I sat on the rock here and rested my feet for a little while. Something about that spot, which is not spectacular in any way, made me feel curiously content. I wasn’t out of the woods yet—figuratively—but I was close! A cairn placed off to the side where the rock disappeared in the grass guided me to the right, and I soon found the trail again.

View along Tobin Harbor Trail
I reached the junction with Tobin Harbor Trail and turned east to finish the final 3 miles. By now the sky had cleared up, and it was turning into a nice day. Small islets reflected in the quiet harbor, and I heard the occasional common loon call, but I never caught sight of one. I met a park ranger heading the opposite direction. He asked me where I had come from, and was surprised when I said Lookout Louise. We chatted for a minute about my day’s hike before continuing on our separate ways. I returned to my cottage around 3:45, covered in mosquito bites and exhausted. I immediately got into the shower, and after a few minutes of standing in a stupor under the hot water, I found myself moving to sit down. Suddenly it was just happening; there was no conscious decision to do it, but there I was—sitting down under under the spray. I just went with it. Clearly the legs just aren't what they used to be.

Well, well.  Look how nice it became.

After that I relaxed in the cottage for a little while, then went for a walk around 5:30. It was now—of course—a bright sunny day, and I spent some time at the old America dock, just watching the waves in Rock Harbor, taking in the views of the various outer islands, and enjoying the sun. After an hour or so I returned to my cottage, made Mountain House spaghetti, and opened a fine box of red wine. I sat at the window enjoying my dinner, reading, and watching the sky change color above the harbor during sunset.

To be continued in Day Four: Lazy Day at Rock Harbor