Thursday, October 20, 2016

Isle Royale National Park July 2016 | Day Two

Rock Harbor Trail, Geological Reverie, and the Impossible Question
Continued from: Day One
Backpackers on Rock Harbor Trail
(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 at 6:30 am after sleeping well despite the small, weird bed in the cottage I was "researching."  I opened the curtains to let in the view of Tobin Harbor, went back to bed, and dozed on and off for another half-hour. After coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, I filled my day pack with provisions for the day and headed to Rock Harbor Lodge to catch the Sandy at 9:00. I would be riding standby—hitching a ride with lodge guests who were going on a tour of Edison Fishery and Rock Harbor Lighthouse. After dropping everyone off at the fishery, the Sandy would shoot across the harbor and drop me at the dock at Daisy Farm. I planned a leisurely hike back on Rock Harbor Trail, taking as much time as I wanted to cover the 7.1 mile stretch. I could pause as often as I felt like to photograph the landscape and plant life, take breaks and relax at scenic spots along the water (which is basically everywhere on this trail), and enjoy the hike without the weight of a full backpack, or the concern of getting to camp as soon as possible to secure a site.

Rock Harbor Trail follows a rock ledge at the water's edge
I boarded the Sandy at 9:00 am, taking a seat toward the back. A little boy of maybe 5 years old climbed on board with his dad, and they took seats behind me.  While we waited to shove off, the dad asked the boy the most outrageous question I’ve ever heard: “What do you like better, legos or dinosaurs?” It was an impossible question, and I involuntarily laughed when I heard it. The boy thought for a few seconds, then gave the best possible answer—the only answer there could possibly be: “Hmmm. I like both. Maybe a lego dinosaur.” A few minutes later, I heard the boy talking about a “unicorn boat” across the water. I turned around—real casual so as not to look like I was interested—to look across the harbor and saw the Ranger III with its crane extended.  Whoa. (Keanu Reeves voice)

Edison Fishery and Rock Harbor Lighthouse
We docked at Edison Fishery and everyone but me and the boat crew disembarked. The lodge excursion consists of a guided tour of the restored, historic fishery, and a walk to the Rock Harbor Lighthouse which sits nearby—a literal and figurative bright white beacon that is one of the most iconic images of this island park.

Left: The Sandy leaves me at the dock at Daisy Farm.  Right: Moose prints at Daisy Farm 
I was shuttled across the harbor and a short distance further west and dropped off at the Daisy Farm dock. The Sandy headed back across the harbor, and I shouldered my pack and walked the long cement dock toward the campground and trail. It was 10:00 am; the weather was beautiful, the sky was clear and blue, and it was pleasantly cool near the water with a nice breeze.

I’ve looked forward to hiking this stretch of trail again ever since my first trip here. It is rugged and scenic, and follows the shoreline on the side of a ridge that slopes down to Lake Superior, showcasing the island’s most unique geologic characteristic.

(Information sources listed at the end.)
As anyone who has trudged around on Isle Royale knows, the island is made up of a series of ridges. Essentially, each ridge is part of an ancient volcanic flow, formed before Lake Superior existed, and originally laid down in a series of horizontal layers. A billion or so years ago, a massive rift opened up in what is now the American Midwest. Known cleverly as the Midcontinent Rift, the continent began separating in two, opening a chasm in the Earth that stretched from present-day Kansas, up through the middle of what is now Lake Superior, curving east and then south through most of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Near the center of present-day Lake Superior, volcanic eruptions occurred from fissures in the rift, the lava extruding and spreading laterally toward the outer edges of the rift valley. The eruptions happened periodically, with intermittent lulls in volcanic activity, during which time sedimentary deposits accumulated on top of the igneous layers. Volcanic activity would eventually resume, and the process would start over. Over time the basin gradually sunk under its own weight, forming a syncline. 
"Flood Basalts and Sediments showing the process of interbedding." USGS Bulletin 1309 (Fig. 43).
For reasons that are still being researched, the rift failed, and the continent stopped its attempted separation. Upward movements of two faults—the Keweenaw and Isle Royale Faults—caused dramatic steepening of the syncline near the margins of the basin, approximately 50 miles apart. Opposite ends of the same layered volcanic land mass, they are now known as the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale. Exposed bookends that mirror each other, the Keweenaw and Isle Royale reveal millions of years of geologic process thanks to their jaunty upward tilts.
USGS Bulletin 1309
Views east and west along Rock Harbor Trail
The exposed ends of the tilted volcanic and sedimentary layers are what make up the ridge and valley structure of Isle Royale. Over time the sedimentary layers were eroded by the elements and glaciers, while the more resistant igneous rock better withstood the forces. Striations in the exposed rock of Isle Royale reveal the directions of glacier movement. The ridge that forms the rugged spine of Isle Royale, the Greenstone Ridge, is the exposed end of the largest of the ancient volcanic flows—the Greenstone Flow.

USGS Bulletin 1309
Walking along Rock Harbor Trail, evidence of the tilted layers is obvious. Rock Harbor itself is space between ridges that has filled with water—the small islands and islets to the south that follow a neat line are what’s visible above water of the next volcanic layer below the surface of the lake.

The USGS document goes into many more fascinating details about the variety of rocks found on Isle Royale and their origins, and I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to match photos I’ve taken of rocks on the island to the USGS descriptions and grainy black and white images in efforts to determine if what I thought was conglomerate at Siskiwit Bay is really conglomerate, or just really spectacular pyroclastic rock. I really like geology.

Eating a snack and looking across the harbor to some outer islands--aka the top of the next ridge
Looking north, up the ridge on Rock Harbor Trail
The campground was deserted at Daisy Farm, which is unusual. Given that it was mid-morning, everyone had likely already hit the trails to wherever adventure awaited them on this day, and newcomers had yet to arrive. I thought I would see at least a few people, however, and I wondered if a few hikers were tucked away in the sites further up the ridge in the trees, sleeping one off. I lingered at shelter #13 for a few minutes, reminiscing about the time we stayed there unexpectedly after realizing our limits on this island’s terrain during our first trip. We had planned to hike from Lane Cove to Moskey Basin, but after climbing up Lane Cove Trail to the Greenstone Ridge, hiking west across the ridge in the hot sun, then heading south on Mt. Ojibway Trail—a “descent” that is a never-ending series of down-then-back-up-again-why-won’t-it-stop-I-should-have-looked-more-closely-at-the-topographic-lines-on-the-map climbs over smaller ridges, we understood the island was trying to kill us and we should respect its supremacy, avoid looking it in the eye, and stop walking around on it at the soonest opportunity.

Thimbleberries aren't ripe yet in July. Another reason to go later in the season.
Thimbleberries were abundant during that early September trip, and we collected a good stash from the plants around the shelter to add to our oatmeal and for general snacking while we recuperated from being so near death, allowing what nutrients the berries possessed to invigorate our weary bloodstreams. On this July trip, however, none of the berries were remotely ripe yet, and the plants were still in their flowering phase.

The terrain of Rock Harbor Trail varies from a standard dirt path (i.e., mud), to the occasional boardwalk protecting marshy ground vegetation, to obstacle courses of jumbled boulders and tangled tree roots, to stretches of smooth exposed bedrock. I had a great time; going slow and not carrying a 35-pound backpack certainly allowed me to have a different experience. I’m not sure I can legitimately call what I did hiking, as I took over 6 hours to go 7.1 miles, but I definitely enjoyed myself. As I walked, it was fun to see things again that I remembered from my previous hike of this trail. I was mesmerized by this trail my first time here; it blew me away, especially the particularly rugged and scenic section between Three Mile CG and Rock Harbor CG. (And the section further west from Daisy Farm to Moskey basin is rugged and awesome, but I did not revisit it on this trip.)

Various trail conditions--mud, foot/ankle punishing rock & root bonanza, smooth bedrock
I looked for a landmark that was no longer there—on our first trip we took a short break on a sandy section of shore with a view of Rock Harbor Lighthouse in the distance. I looked forward to sitting here for a while, but I couldn’t find it, and I eventually determined that the sandy shore we happened upon in 2009 was probably not a normal occurrence and was instead due to Lake Superior having a lower water level at the time. Back in 2006-2009-ish, the Great Lakes were experiencing lower lake levels, and it was causing issues across the region. It may not seem very significant, but a decrease of mere inches can cause far-reaching problems, from recreational boaters being unable to dock their pleasure boats in Great Lakes’ parks for fear of running aground, to billions of dollars lost in the Great Lakes shipping industry--the lower the water level, the lighter a cargo ship’s load must be.

Left: A sandy stretch of beach existed here in 2009 when the lake level was lower.   Right: About the same spot in 2016.
The trail was nearly as deserted as Daisy Farm Campground, which was—again—surprising. At the height of summer vacation season, it’s possible to experience solitude at Isle Royale National Park even on the most popular hiking routes. I crossed paths with a couple of small groups of hikers, who were interested in what I noticed of site availability at Daisy Farm, and one large group of young hikers, who looked to be part of a girl scout or other outdoor-type group. Common loons played games of cat-and-mouse with me throughout the day ("human-and-aquatic bird" doesn't have the same ring to it), taunting me with their magical calls and allowing only fleeting glimpses of them before they dove beneath the surface of the water and out of my life.

I returned to Rock Harbor around 4:00. It had gotten very hot in the midday sun, and I felt only a little guilty enjoying the luxury of a shower, followed by a walk to the Greenstone Grille for a pint of Keweenaw Brewing Company Pick-Axe Blond Ale. Another change from the last time I was in Rock Harbor, the Greenstone Grille now has a nice variety of real pizzas on its menu. When we were here in 2009, it had frozen pizza only, which we gratefully shoved in our faces after the previous 7 days’ physical punishment. I remember it was amazing, and I felt a touch of sadness at the inevitable progress of the world.

I wandered around the harbor for a while before returning to my cottage to read and relax for the evening. I had an early day planned for tomorrow, taking an 8:00 am water taxi to Hidden Lake, where I would climb up the Greenstone Ridge for the notoriously awesome views of the sexy volcanic ridges to the north from the vantage point of Lookout Louise. But a storm was coming...

To be continued in Day 3: Lookout Louise and the Greenstone Ridge

Geological information sources
USGS Bulletin 1309: The Geologic Story of Isle Royale National Park:

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Isle Royale National Park July 2016 | Day One

Houghton, Flight to Isle Royale, and the Stoll Trail Incident
Continued from: Introduction
(Arial map of the Rock Harbor area at the end of this post.)
Stoll Trail
(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 at 8:00 after a pretty good night’s sleep. It had been warm all night, with a steady wind from the lake that seemed to keep the mosquitoes at bay both last night and this morning. My agenda before leaving the campground was just to pack my backpack for the trip. When I quickly planned this trip at home, I collected everything I would need in a large storage box and put it in the back of my car. This morning I made coffee, re-packed the tent, and laid all of my gear out on the picnic table, making sure I had everything I needed one more time before packing my old REI Venus backpack. I was also bringing a day pack for shorter jaunts.

That done, I left McLain State Park around 9:30 and headed back toward Houghton. The drive along the Portage Canal is scenic, with a steep hillside rising up on the north side of the road, a steep slope to the water to the south, with houses tucked in the hillside between the road and water, and a tree canopy shading the road. At one point I pulled off to the side to photograph a particularly picturesque view of the canal through a window in the trees. I raised my camera and focused on the waterway and was immediately photo-bombed by the Ranger III, suddenly cruising into the window I was attempting to shoot through. The huge boat was making its way west through the canal and out to Lake Superior on its six-hour trip to Isle Royale, loaded with park visitors.

Portage Lake Lift Bridge
I crossed the bridge and returned to downtown Houghton, where I stopped at 5th and Elm Coffee House and enjoyed a bagel sandwich and coffee on the patio. After that I visited Downwind Sports to see if they carried inflatable pillows similar to the one that had just self-destructed. They did not, but I bought some wool socks because I had decided earlier in the morning that I didn’t like the selection I brought with me. I bummed around town for a while, eventually stopping at Keweenaw Brewing Company for a Pick Axe Blonde and some last-minute gear arranging.

I drove north to the Houghton County Memorial Airport, arriving around 1:15 pm and heading to the Isle Royale Seaplanes “gate” area to “check in” for my 2:00 pm flight. The “” are because this experience is very casual. I set my backpack down next to a chair in the deserted seating area and the woman working at the desk said hello. She asked if I was on the 2:00 flight and I said yes and gave her my name. She looked at a piece of paper and said, “ok.” I was all set.

Eventually another passenger showed up—a lone 35-40-ish year-old man carrying a backpack and two small duffel bags, one of which was very worn, barely holding itself together by its frayed nylon threads. He was being met at Tobin Harbor by family members who had a boat, which sounded like a pretty fancy situation to me.  He told a funny story about how he had the same ancient duffel bag with him the first time he went to Isle Royale, which was via the Ranger III, and everyone was treating him like he was surely going to die within his first 12 hours in the park. “I’m just carrying this stuff onto a boat. I’m definitely not going to be roughing it,” he admitted.

Neither was I for part of this trip, and I felt weird about it. Isle Royale is such a sacred place for backcountry enthusiasts that is seems like sacrilege to deviate from a strictly backcountry agenda. Staying in a cottage is not something I ever pictured myself doing there, and I struggled with strange guilt about it until I reminded myself that I was on vacation and it was not a crime to check out something different.

The plane was running a bit behind schedule, and we didn’t leave until 2:30. There were just two passengers on this flight, and I sat up front with the pilot. The three of us chatted about various adventury things for a while, then eventually fell silent and just stared out the windows. The flight was perfect—clear blue sky above, calm blue water below, and we spotted the Isle Royale Queen on its way back to Copper Harbor, looking very small on the immense lake. Eventually the island came into view, with smaller islands dotting the outer reaches of the archipelago appearing emerald green against the deep blue water. It looked beautiful and exotic. The pilot maneuvered the plane around in order to fly over the length of Tobin Harbor, where we landed softly and cruised around a few islands on the way to the dock. The flight took about 35 minutes.

Flying into Tobin Harbor
For 2 short videos of landing in Tobin Harbor, go here and here. 

Unlike when we flew into Windigo a few years ago, there was no park ranger at the dock to greet us. We exited the plane, grabbed our gear and thanked the pilot before going our separate ways. My fellow passenger’s ride was docked about 20 feet away, a large fishing/cruiser type boat. (I don’t know anything about boats, but it looked posh.) Four people were waiting to catch the plane off the island, and they had clearly had a great time. We wished each other well as we passed on the dock, then I was basically alone. The Tobin Harbor entrance was like the Wild West—there was no one here to shepherd me to backcountry registration or talk about Leave-No-Trace principles. I looked around at the harbor, small islands, and beached canoes before heading up the path toward the visitor center, it suddenly hitting me where I was. I couldn’t stop smiling.

I walked up the dirt path from the dock, passing a few cottages along the way. This was my first up-close view of them; they are of simple mid-century design—brown rectangles with angled roofs and large panels of windows facing Tobin Harbor—and look as though they probably haven’t changed since they were built. Eventually the trail joined the main network of paths that snake into the woods from the visitor center. Dirt turned to pavement as I closed in on the hub of activity that is the visitor center/camp store/marina/ferry dock area. The sun was blazing down from the cloudless sky, and it was hot. The Ranger III was resting at the dock after having ferried a batch of visitors earlier in the day, and a variety of people were hanging around—exhausted-looking backpackers at the end of their trips, new arrivals who were currently clean and shiny but would soon enough find themselves back here looking equally exhausted, and other visitors who were there to explore the island by canoe or kayak, go fishing, or stay at the Rock Harbor Lodge and take its boat tours. I walked to the lodge to pick up my cottage key, then returned the way I had come, walking back toward the Tobin Harbor sea plane dock, but branching off north and past a spot that I recognized from my first trip. It was from this path that I watched a female moose and her two calves as they crossed a clearing and entered the woods. I remembered the mother stopping to look back at me for a moment to make sure I wasn’t following them before continuing into the trees.

I arrived at my cottage after a few minutes and was happy to discover that it had a nice view of Tobin Harbor. The cottages are duplex units; there are 10 buildings laid out in two rows—the first with front row seats to the harbor, and the second row behind them, but staggered in such a way that they probably also have at least a glimpse of water. The cottage has a kitchenette with stove, oven, mini fridge, and cabinets stocked with cookware. There is a table with four chairs for eating/card playing/activity strategizing, and two Adirondack type chairs in front of the harbor-facing windows, which take up most of that wall. Some cottages have a set of bunk beds in addition to a full-size bed; however, this one just had the one “full-size,” which was a bit small and would not be very comfortable for two adults.  (I got the impression that this cottage was used for single-occupancy reservations.)  It had a large but no-frills bathroom, with tub/shower combo, and changing area. All in all I was very happy with the accommodations. My only gripe was that it appeared I was in the only cottage that did not have a screen door, so I wasn’t able to leave my door open for extra air flow. However, I didn’t plan on spending a lot of time inside, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Time flew by as I settled in to the cottage, took a stroll around the immediate area, and visited the lodge office to verify my water taxi reservations. A retro-style poster in the office warns of moose aggression and reminds people to give them space. I wondered how quickly things will change in this park with the moose numbers rising due to the disappearance of the island’s wolves.  At last count, there were just two remaining, and the National Park Service has been weighing its options regarding the loss of this park's crucial predator.

Soon it was getting near dusk. It was a beautiful evening, warm and clear-skied, and I decided tonight was as good as any time to tackle my first goal of this trip—hike Stoll Trail out to Scoville Point. I threw a few items into my day pack—water, a variety of insect repellant (I hate mosquitoes, but I don’t like to use bug spray unless absolutely necessary, and I try to use those with natural ingredients before going for deet, but I keep both on-hand), camera, headlamp, head net, and my rain jacket and first aid kit just in case.

Snowshoe hare at the start of Stoll Trail
Stoll Trail is 4.2 miles round-trip and can be hiked in a loop, with one half hugging the Lake Superior shore/cliff edge, then looping around to take an inland path near Tobin Harbor on the way back. I planned to hike out and back along the lakeshore instead of doing the loop so I could enjoy the rugged shoreline in both directions and have a bit more light on the way back since I would be returning after sunset. It was 8:40 pm when I set out on the trail, thinking I would arrive at the point in about an hour, right as the sun was going down. I should have known that I would get distracted and take longer than that.

Rugged and rocky, the trail travels at first through thick spruce forest, with lichen hanging from branches, and the forest floor thick with thimbleberry and other plants. Mosquitoes were an immediate problem, and it wasn’t long before I abandoned the lemon eucalyptus spray and went for the hard stuff. However, the mosquitoes were not impressed with any of it, not even 100% deet. They weren’t swarming to the point where I needed my head net, and I knew that once the trail emerged into more open territory it wouldn’t be so bad, so I just tried to hurry through the dense forest.

For a video of a scene from Stoll Trail, go here.

The forest eventually thins, and the trail begins breaking out onto a series of rocky crests, with views of Lake Superior and the small islands to the south. Interesting interpretive signs placed here and there provide history and tell geological stories. I lingered for a long time at these spots; aside from the mosquitoes, it was a perfect night, and the scene was just as I had imagined it would be out on this rocky trail: the setting sun was casting the rugged, sloping rock in soft light and bringing out intense shades of orange on the little rocky islands. Amazingly, I hadn’t seen a single other person out on this trail despite the beautiful night. I was certain other hikers or lodge guests would be out here taking in the gorgeous views, but it appeared I was completely alone.

After spending a bit too much time gazing at the scenery from a makeshift log bench on the edge of an especially picturesque section of cliff, I returned to the trail, which curved behind some trees before once again rising over a crest and providing another open view of the lake. I came over this crest and found myself staring at a gigantic bull moose—way too close. I stopped dead in my tracks.

The moose also appeared to have stopped abruptly; it had been walking along the edge of the ridge in my direction, and when I popped out as the trail crested a hill, I startled it. My immediate thought was that I was looking at a cardboard cut-out or one of those black silhouettes that people put in their yard—like the cowboy lounging against a tree. This obviously made no sense, but the scene looked entirely fake, like an idyllic advertisement for the National Park Service. (In fact, almost exactly like this new poster that I saw for sale at the visitor center. Also, I have a birthday coming up.) The moose stood still and alert, staring at me. My heart was beating against the back of my throat. I backed off the trail and waited. After a few tense seconds, it turned its huge head away from me and back forward and continued walking. I took a couple of quick photos, and then waited some more. The problem was that he was walking a parallel path to me, going in the opposite direction, and we were still in clear view of one another. If I turned around and headed back, it would be behind me heading in the same direction, and I didn’t really want to hike back with a gigantic moose behind me. I waited until it walked a bit further, then I slowly stepped back onto the trail. It stopped again and so did I. I was sweating. Unlike the times I encountered wolves in this park, I was scared.

I didn’t know what the moose was going to do. I assessed my situation and did not like it. There were no substantial trees nearby to get behind if it decided I was unacceptable and charged. I tried to think of what I could do, and came up with nothing that didn’t involve me getting my face sliced open with a hoof.

It faced forward again and continued walking slowly. I took that opportunity to quickly put some distance between us, speed-walking down the trail in the opposite direction and then stopping again to watch it from afar. It was now cutting a path away from the water and toward the trail where I had been walking. It lingered behind a couple of dead spruce trees for a few minutes, then turned in a circle, and abruptly settled down with an audible “thump” right next to the trail. So...I wasn’t going back that way then.

Goodnight moose
I continued toward the point, but my mind started to wander to bad places. I had lingered longer than planned in a few spots and it was now getting dark fast. The mosquitoes were becoming relentless. Since I couldn’t return the way I had come due to moose interference, I would have to do the loop after all, hiking in the dense woods further inland on the way back. This was fine—I had brought my headlamp—but what if there was another moose on the trail and I was cut off going that way too? I really, really didn’t want to startle another one in the dark. At this point, they were all going to be hunkering down for the night—were more of them laying down in the grass up ahead? Would I be trapped and forced to hunker down out here myself? Was this scenario far-fetched? Maybe, but alone in the near-dark and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, the self-doubt was maddening

I thought: This is how people end up in news articles, being judged by others for their stupidity in the comments section. The situation had all the classic elements: I was alone. (Why weren’t any other hikers out here? It was a beautiful night!) I hadn’t told anyone where I was going, and no one would notice if I didn’t come back, probably for a few days. (I was just going on a short, scenic hike! What could go wrong?) I was prepared with a first aid kit and rain jacket, but I hadn’t thought to prepare for an emergency overnight due to potential moose stand-off. (ABC: Always Be Considering...potential moose stand-off.) I was fewer than two miles from Rock Harbor, but I suddenly felt completely isolated. I decided that I needed to abort this mission and get back asap before it was completely dark. I could come out here again on another day and finish where I had left off.

At about a half-mile from the point, I turned around and hightailed it back, hiking most of the trail by headlamp in the dark, while being relentlessly plagued by mosquitoes.  (My notes state: "Have never sweated so much. Mosquitoes bad.")  I was extremely relieved to find myself back at the harbor, where the blue hour was underway. Now out of the woods, the mosquitoes were no longer a nuisance, and I walked to the edge of the water at the marina, took my shoes off, dangled my feet into the water, and just sat there for 30 minutes or so, enjoying the scene. The water and sky glowed dark blue, and the only sound was the gentle lapping of the lake against the docks. The Ranger III was docked for an overnight stay, and everything was shut down for the night. There was just one other person that I noticed sitting on a nearby dock and enjoying a similar experience.

10:20 pm in Snug Harbor
I walked back to my cottage by headlamp and sat at the window for a while reading a book before turning in for the night. I heard common loons calling out on Tobin Harbor as I drifted off to sleep.

Trip Goal #1: Scoville Point--Fail.

To be continued in Day Two: Return to Rock Harbor Trail

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Isle Royale National Park July 2016 | Introduction

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.

Stoll Trail at Dusk

The first time I went to Isle Royale was in September 2009. It was the second backpacking trip my husband and I had ever taken, and it blew our minds and nearly destroyed our bodies. The eight days we spent on the eastern half of the island proved to be an unforgettable adventure. The experience was magical, and its memory has grown to mythic proportions over the years.

My second trip was in September 2013. By then we had been on several more backpacking trips (for Craig this included a solo, return trip to the island the year before), but Isle Royale still kicked our asses. We thought it would be a cool way to mark our tenth wedding anniversary, and we proceeded to put ourselves through several days of mostly grueling misery in celebration. Even though that trip was spent on the island’s more gentle western end, the cold, rain, and fog we encountered were formidable adversaries, making us earn every reward, whether it was a glimpse of wildlife, a beautiful campsite, or a few hours of warm sun.

I experienced surprising encounters with wolves on both trips—strokes of extraordinary luck, the significance of which is not lost on me, especially considering the island’s current wolf/moose predicament. I feel honored to have had those experiences; to this day they are among the most exciting moments I’ve known.

Left: Indian Portage Trail, September 2009.       Right: Siskiwit Bay Site #5, September 2013.
I returned to Isle Royale for a third visit this summer, solo this time when I found myself with some unexpected time off in late-July. In preparation, I thought it would be fun to re-read the trip report from my first trip, revisiting my thoughts and observations at the time. Though some of it is cringeworthy—the typos that slipped through despite obsessive proof-reading, the sharing of too much information at times, etc.—it was interesting to read my thoughts about what it would be like to do certain things from a perspective of having now done them. (Would I ever have the guts to go solo backpacking? Check! Would I ever travel by sea plane? Check!)

What stands out the most in that youthful report are the feelings I expressed about this little-known national park: This hiking trip to Isle Royale National Park is the best vacation I have ever taken. It was at once beautiful and subtle, physically exhausting and mentally rewarding. A feeling of contentment settled over us while on Isle Royale and it lasted for several weeks after returning other trip has managed to have that effect...Isle Royale left an impression on us that will not fade any time soon.”  I still feel that way, and I still think about that trip often.  As I would go on to state later in my 2013 Isle Royale trip report, that first trip set the bar very high for future adventures.

Unnamed stream draining Chickenbone Lake into McCargoe Cove
Unlike that first trip—meticulously planned months in advance after countless hours of research—this trip was spur-of-the-moment, planned over a few days. I had six days off, two of which would be spent driving to and from the Keweenaw Peninsula, leaving four days on the island. I spent a bit of time planning a hiking loop, trying to decide what my best options were for four days, but then I had an idea and decided to simplify things.

At the end of that first trip in 2009, we spent our last day at Rock Harbor waiting for the afternoon ferry back to the mainland. I took note of a few things that I would like to do in the Rock Harbor area if I ever found myself back there with time to bum around, even stating in the last entry of that report, “I could easily see myself going back and spending more time there.”  I decided that since this was going to be a short, solo venture, that’s what this trip should be about.

I abandoned the planning of a loop and instead explored the idea of staying in the Rock Harbor area and doing some long day hikes and canoeing. I wanted to take my time exploring, taking pictures, and wandering aimlessly.

The immediate Rock Harbor area near the main dock and visitor center has a small camp store and marina. The campground is west of the visitor center, a short distance down the Rock Harbor Trail. Just east of the visitor center is The Rock Harbor Lodge, a mid-century guest lodge with 60 rooms facing Lake Superior. It also has 20 cottages a short walk north through the woods, tucked in the trees facing Tobin Harbor and virtually hidden from anyone not deliberately seeking them out.

The Rock Harbor Lodge offers a few options to assist hikers and paddlers. A water taxi service is available to shuttle people, canoes, and kayaks out to some of the smaller islands within Isle Royale’s archipelago, and to more remote locations on the main island. For instance, a hiker with only a couple of days to spend on the island could take a water taxi to Chippewa Harbor, then hike back to Rock Harbor over a few days, thus covering a good stretch of trail on a one-way hike. Kayakers could get dropped off at Birch Island, spend a couple of days paddling and camping in the various coves and on small islands to the north, and eventually make their way to Duncan Bay to be picked up at the dock at a predetermined time. Another option, on certain days of the week the lodge’s sight-seeing boat, the Sandy, also doubles as a “water bus.” If empty seats are available, hikers can pay a small fee to hitch a ride, and the Sandy will drop them off at designated locations on its route. 

I reviewed the lodge’s website and called the office to discuss some of these options, and a plan began to take shape. I could split my time between exploring places I was interested in in the immediate area, like Scoville Point on foot, and Tobin Harbor by canoe, and some longer day hikes assisted by the water taxi service to get me out to more distant starting points, from which I could hike back.

On a whim while discussing the above options on the phone, I asked if any cottages were available, fully expecting the answer to be “no.”  To my surprise, one was open despite the short notice. I took this as a sign and spontaneously decided to integrate a few nights at one of these mysterious cottages into the mix. We had stumbled upon one of them on the last day of our 2009 trip while keeping tabs on a moose that was hanging around the area. At the time, we assumed it was park employee lodging, and we talked about how cool it would be to live there—another thing I could now investigate for myself.

As far as getting to the island, I opted to travel by sea plane out of Houghton in order to make the most of my limited time. Isle Royale Seaplanes (f/k/a Royale Air Service) confirmed they could fit me on one of their flights with just a few days’ notice. If I had more time, I would have loved to spend a day in Copper Harbor and take the ferry, the Isle Royale Queen. The journey by boat across Lake Superior is part of the full experience and helps one appreciate the island’s remoteness and the massive body of water that rules it.

The Ranger III travels between Houghton, Michigan and Rock Harbor, ferrying passengers, canoes, kayaks, and small boats.
The Isle Royale Queen IV passenger ferry travels from Copper Harbor, Michigan and can transport kayaks and canoes.
The Voyageur II brings passengers, canoes, and kayaks from Grand Portage, Minnesota to Windigo, then circumnavigates the island, providing transportation to and from other designated locations within the park.
The Isle Royale Sea Plane brings passengers from Houghton, Michigan to Rock Harbor (docking in Tobin Harbor) and Windigo (docking in Washington Harbor).
I had everything I needed for the trip, including food, as our basement has become a hub of camping gear, including a collection of various freeze-dried meals leftover from previous trips. Other than a few snack items picked up the night before I left, I gathered everything needed during a few trips to the basement gear shop and was ready in no time.

I had three main goals for this trip: 1) Hike to Scoville Point at either sunrise or sunset, 2) Hike up to Lookout Louise and see the notoriously great view, and 3) Spend time canoeing in Tobin Harbor.

(Spoiler alert: I more or less failed at all three. You can make plans, but the island sometimes has ideas of its own.)

I was ready Thursday morning for the 10-hour drive north to Houghton, but I hadn’t yet thought about where I would stay that night. I didn’t feel like staying in a motel, so I decided to look into camping options. McLain State Park, a large park on Lake Superior outside of Hancock, had one campsite left for that night according to the Michigan State Parks reservation system, which I was able to reserve. That settled, I left home at 9:15 am and headed north.

I crossed the Mackinac Bridge at 1:30 pm and stopped at Lehto’s for a pasty soon thereafter. I reached Munising just before 4:00 pm and headed west, driving through one of my favorite stretches in the U.P. The drive from Munising to Marquette on M-28 provides view after beautiful view of Lake Superior, with places to pull off here and there and take a break and wonder why on Earth I live in the Lower Peninsula. The sky was blue and clear, and I enjoyed the drive. My plane didn’t leave until 2:00 pm the following day, and I was in no rush. All I had to do was get to my campsite at McLain State Park and pitch a tent, preferably before dark.

I realized I forgot my watch, which I needed in order to set alarms so I didn’t miss important things like boats and planes while on the island without cell phone service. I stopped at Target in Marquette to buy a cheap watch for the trip. It was intensely hot; according to forecasts, the heat wave most of the country had been experiencing this summer was not going away anytime soon. I sincerely hoped it would not be as hot on Isle Royale as it was on the mainland. Lake Superior helps keep it cooler in the summer, but this heat wave was extreme, and I wondered what it was like up on the Greenstone Ridge in the sun.

I arrived in Houghton around 6:45 pm and attempted to stop at the Isle Royale Visitor Center. It was closed, and the docking area was secured behind a locked fence, preventing anyone from getting close to the Ranger III, the huge National Park Service boat that ferries the majority of visitors to Isle Royale. Since I couldn’t bum around the visitor center, I headed north across the Portage Lake Lift Bridge that connects the cities of Houghton and Hancock in the Keweenaw Peninsula. McLain State Park was packed, and the campground was completely full. I drove to my site, slowly navigating the one-lane dirt road as people ambled alongside of it, and kids on bikes wove all over the place. Not the type of place I would normally choose to camp at the height of summer vacation season, but it would serve its purpose for the night, and it was right on the Lake Superior shore, which helped.

There was a healthy combination of tents and trailers of various sizes and states of adornment indicative of their inhabitants’ lengths of stay. Providing lighting and mood around each home base was everything from classic camping lanterns to strings of festive lights to actual outdoor post lighting. I parked at my site and set up our Kelty Crestone 1 single-person tent, which I planned to use on Isle Royale. I hadn’t used this tent since 2011, and it was a lot smaller than I remembered. I could have brought our car-camping tent, but for one night I didn’t really need a bunch of extra space. All I planned to do was cook dinner, check out the beach at sunset, and go to sleep. A few people marveled at the small tent, which looked like a cocoon, and speculated about my level of hardcore-ness in low voices when they walked by.

Site 61 at McLain State Park
At sunset, I walked down to the beach to find it completely deserted despite the full campground. I stayed there for about an hour and did not see a single other person the whole time. I find this extremely weird; out of the 91 campsites, each probably containing a conservative average of 3 people given the number of families I observed, not a single person besides me wanted to visit the Lake Superior beach at sunset?

I prepared to go to bed and discovered that the valve on my Cocoon Hyperlight Air Core inflatable pillow had cracked, and the pillow no longer held air. This was a major bummer; however, before I left home I threw a few extra things in my car, one of which was my old Therm-a-rest camp pillow that I used to take backpacking before replacing it with the much smaller inflatable one. I brought it so I could have the luxury of two tiny pillows while car camping at this state park. Good thing I did, as I would have been without a pillow otherwise, and at this point—as all the supercool people in movies say—I’m far too old for that shit.

I crawled in the little tent to go to bed, nestling in the cocoon-like shelter to read by headlamp for a while. The weather here was beautiful, and it stayed a comfortable temperature all night. I fell asleep around midnight and slept well, waking up just a few times and hearing only the big lake’s surf.

To be continued in Part One: Houghton, the Flight to Isle Royale, and The Stoll Trail Incident.