Craig and I planned to spend 8 days backpacking around the eastern end of Isle Royale. We would end up experiencing the kind of vacation where we truly let go of everything back home. There was no thought or discussion of work, laptops and phones were not missed, and small things like collecting berries to add to our morning oatmeal made us ridiculously happy. Toward the end, it occurred to me that I hadn't seen my own reflection in 7 days.
Calm seas. A freighter can be seen in the distance.
Isle Royale is an archipelago in northern Lake Superior created by ancient volcanic activity, then later scraped and gouged by glaciers. It is 99% wilderness featuring rugged terrain, high ridges, inland lakes, and wildlife such as loons, moose, and the gray wolf. The remoteness of the island makes it one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S., and the only one to close down in winter.
Our itinerary included 7 days of hiking, plus an extra day to use either along the way if a particular spot was especially interesting, or at the end of the trip if we felt like spending more time in the Rock Harbor area. Rock Harbor is the arrival and departure point for most visitors and is home to a ranger station, visitors center, camp store, several boat docks, and a lodge/restaurant/gift shop for those who want to spend lots of money. There are also a handful of day hikes that begin in Rock Harbor, and canoes can be rented for paddling around the many coves and small islands that make up Isle Royale's eastern end.
Leaving Copper Harbor on the Isle Royale Queen IV
On Friday, the 8am passenger ferry from Copper Harbor (Michigan's northernmost town located at the very top of the Keweenaw Peninsula) brought us 56 miles across a thankfully calm Lake Superior. We docked at Rock Harbor around 11:45 am, and joined the other hikers for orientation given by a park ranger. Intentionally planning this trip for September, we expected cooler weather and fewer hikers. While there weren't nearly as many people as there would have been in July or August, there were still quite a few. We learned that we would be enjoying the best stretch of weather the island had experienced all season, as clear skies and warmer than average temperatures would prevail for the next several days. Normally at this time of year, daytime highs in the 60's and nights in the 40's are common, but we would experience days in the mid-high 70's and lots of sun.
Orientation consisted of an overview of the 7 components of Leave No Trace, some do's and don't's regarding how to behave in the backcountry (For instance, if a moose is in your way on the trail, don't throw rocks at it. It's very sad that there are reasons why this type of advice must be given.). Sneaky foxes will steal anything left unattended. Moose need to be given a wide berth as females with young can become aggressive if they feel threatened. He also informed us that while the possibility of seeing a wolf is extremely remote, they want know about it if it happens as it could provide useful information to the wolf study team.
Juvenile mergansers, I think
Upon finishing orientation, an itinerary must be left with a ranger at the visitors center. This information is helpful not only because it provides some idea of where you might be in the backcountry should something happen, but also because if seven people in a row are heading to the same place, the ranger can warn the eighth person that the campsite might be full. They enter your info into their computer and print out a backcountry permit for you to keep with you and post at your campsites. Hikers are not required to stick to their itinerary, but any changes should be reported when you turn in your permit at the end of your visit. Apparently, the majority of hikers end up deviating from their original plans somewhere along the way.
To be continued in: Isle Royale Day One - Rock Harbor to Lane Cove
More photos from this trip can be seen here.