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 casts over the landscape.  Fog can turn a mundane scene into something magical, but its moodiness sometimes turns malicious. Fog has been known to show up, like a stalker, when I’m spending time with other friends 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 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 found on the mainland is, being in a position to pick and eat as many of these berries 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

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.  Once we reached the end of Mt. Ojibway Trail, we zombie-shuffled into Daisy Farm Campground and decided to hole up there for the night.



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:
https://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/1309/report.pdf
Nature.com:

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