Saturday, September 26, 2009

Isle Royale National Park | Day Two

The Plan: Lane Cove to Moskey Basin: 10.8 miles

Actual: Lane Cove to Daisy Farm: 6.9 miles
The view north from Mt. Franklin

After leaving the picturesque setting of our campsite at Lane Cove, it was necessary to back track up Lane Cove Trail to the top of the Greenstone Ridge. We had been dreading this moment since reading about the steepness in other hikers' trip reports while in the research and planning phase of this trip. In truth, it didn't take as long as I expected (I bet 2 hours minimum; Craig firmly wagered 1.5 hours which proved right on the money) and once we had a few minutes to recuperate at the top, we agreed that going down was worse than going up.
Junction of Greenstone Ridge, Lane Cove, and Mt. Franklin Trails

While resting at the trail junction, we met a few other hikers who had also camped at Lane Cove and were getting an early start. Two young guys had climbed out ahead of us and were headed to Chippewa Harbor – a distance of 16.6 miles. We helpfully informed them of their insanity before bidding farewell. A couple from Wisconsin arrived next and, like us, were heading to Moskey Basin. Looking to be around 50 years old and in very good shape, they were like versions of ourselves 15 years from now, only much better. Over the coming few days they would shame us as we would see them here and there, taunting us with their cursed drive and fitness.

Mt. Franklin
After a half-hour of wallowing at the trail junction, we headed west along the Greenstone Ridge toward Mt. Franklin, less than ½ mile away. Mt. Franklin is a spectacular lookout point at an elevation of 1,080 feet – this is where we should have taken our break. This vantage point offers a view far above the trees of the north side of the island, an inland lake or two, Lake Superior, and the distant shadow of Canadian shoreline. Huge chunks of rock rise out of the ridge here providing ideal spots for resting, eating lunch, or just absorbing the marvelous view. I was sad that we had lingered so long at the top of Lane Cove Trail and couldn't spend too much time here.
The view north from Mt. Franklin
The section of the Greenstone Ridge between Mt. Franklin and Mt. Ojibway – our next stop and lunch destination 2.5 miles away – is reportedly one of the most scenic stretches of this long, 42-mile trail. We agreed that it was noteworthy in that the ridge is high enough to provide panoramas of both the north and south shores of the island, and Canada on a clear day. In fall it would undoubtedly prove an impressive stretch of trail; however, it was very hot on the high, sun-exposed ridge and we looked forward to reaching Mt. Ojibway and the shade of the old fire observation tower that still stands at its summit. This section proved to be a very long and tiring stretch that seemed to go on forever.
A cairn marks the way on the Greenstone Ridge
By the time we reached Mt. Ojibway, we were exhausted and a bit annoyed with the Greenstone Ridge. We puzzled over why it is such a popular hike for people to take along the entire east to west length of Isle Royale. Luckily, we would discover later in the week that not all of it is quite so bare and exposed to the sun, but still very challenging nonetheless.
The view south from the Greenstone Ridge
We fired up the Jetboil in the shade of the fire tower and prepared to indulge in a lunch consisting of dehydrated burrito mix in whole wheat tortillas and powdered orange gatorade. Soon, other hikers showed up to share the ideal lunch and resting spot, including the sisters we had met at Lane Cove (one of them was again not speaking to anyone) and a group of young hikers from St. Joseph, MI. They had come from Moskey Basin and highly recommended we push to get there that night. We had started to doubt our ability to complete our planned 10.8 mile hike to this destination based on how we felt 5 miles into it. One of the girls in the group informed us that wolves had been active near their campsite, and they had enjoyed the movie-like experience of listening to them howl the night before under a full moon – at midnight. A few of their party had also seen a moose in the area. This information boosted my determination to make it all the way.

Before leaving Mt. Ojibway, I climbed up the fire tower to observe the view it provides. Although it is closed about 3/4 of the way up, people can still climb high enough for a nice 360ยบ view of the island. It was a bit hazy, but on a clear day it is undoubtedly wonderful to see. No longer used to watch for fires in this remote wilderness, I think the tower now holds equipment used to monitor air pollution.

I was feeling refreshed and looking forward to the rest of our day's journey which, according to the map, looked mostly downhill. This was not the case. We descended the Greenstone Ridge down Mt. Ojibway Trail toward Daisy Farm campground where we would pick up the Rock Harbor Trail and head west to Moskey Basin. Although technically descending, Isle Royale is made up of so many ridges that the hiking is an almost constant up/down sequence. Every time we descended a steep ridge and found ourselves in a cool valley, there was another ridge to climb in front of us. Within 30 minutes of leaving the sanctuary of Mt. Ojibway, I had deteriorated into a pathetic, sweaty disaster. Craig was getting further and further ahead and suddenly I didn't feel so good. I was not going to speak of what happened next, but in the interest of honest trip reporting, here it is: Suddenly I was dizzy and decided I needed a break with my pack off. As soon as my pack hit the ground, I found myself on all fours vomiting in a very non-Leave No Trace fashion off the side of the trail. Goodbye burrito and gatorade; we had some good times. I felt like the biggest wuss on the planet, but once that was accomplished, I suddenly felt great again!
East view from the Mt. Ojibway fire tower
Craig had stopped to wait for me at the top of a steep ridge, and was feeling quite exhausted himself. He voted for stopping at Daisy Farm for the night, but I still wanted to get to Moskey Basin. “You just threw up,” he pointed out in defense of his desire for change of plans. “But wolves are near Moskey Basin,” I countered. By this point I think I had gone temporarily insane and was attributing my moment of weakness to too much sun beating on my head on the Greenstone Ridge, drinking 70 oz of water in 3 hours, too much food at Mt. Ojibway, and my as-yet-unfulfilled desire to see wildlife.
West view from the Mt. Ojibway fire tower
Part of my hesitance to stay at Daisy Farm was due to the fact that we already planned to stay there toward the end of the trip on our way back toward Rock Harbor. We had read that Daisy Farm is the largest and most popular campground on Isle Royale, and I admit I was poo-pooing it a little because I envisioned it being too crowded and social. Also, I was annoyed because I felt like a wimp. Ten miles on more familiar terrain is easy, and even though all the research we'd done clearly warned of the ruggedness of Isle Royale, experiencing is believing. In the end, changing our plans and staying at Daisy Farm was a good decision and would lead to a wonderfully long day of leisure at the very beautiful Moskey Basin on day three, not to mention change the trajectory of our trip in such a way that we ended up experiencing some truly amazing things later that we otherwise would have missed. 
Daisy Farm actually proved perfectly nice and, although busy, it was relaxing and scenic and everyone was respectful of the quiet atmosphere. We were able to find an empty 3-sided shelter near the water, dropped our packs inside, set our sleeping pads out to inflate and went in search of a good spot along the harbor to filter water. After returning with enough to refill our drinking supply and for that night's dinner and washing up, we rested in our shelter and listened to the group next door discuss their plans for the following day: Daisy Farm to Hatchet Lake – 15.4 miles. I clearly couldn't hang with this type of crowd. At one point we heard, “Hey! A fox just ran through here with a rabbit in its mouth!” Another wildlife opportunity missed, but I couldn't manage to lift my head off my cushy Thermarest pillow.
Later, once we had recovered, we did a little exploring of our surroundings. Thimbleberries grew everywhere and we collected a bowlful to add to our oatmeal in the morning. I didn't mention this about Lane Cove, but the outhouse was very clean and it was the same at Daisy Farm. Although we kept our belongings on lock-down and our eyes and ears peeled for the infamous kleptomaniac fox, there was no sign. After sunset, the moon rose huge and bright orange above the water of rock harbor in front of our shelter. We watched bats zoom out over the water to catch insects, and a big, very tolerant toad let me shine my headlamp on it and attempt to take it's portrait.
Day Two Wildlife Sightings:
Moose: 0
Fox: 0

Toad: 1
Bats: yep
To be continued in: Isle Royale, Day Three: Daisy Farm to Moskey BasinMore photos from this trip can be seen here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Isle Royale National Park | Day One

Rock Harbor to Lane Cove

Morning moon over Lane Cove

The orientation and permit process having taken close to an hour, we were ready to start hiking just before 1pm. Before leaving Rock Harbor, I used the hanging scale outside the camp store to weigh my pack: 34 pounds. This is a bit heavier than I'm used to; because we needed to carry enough food for 2 people for 8 days, it was necessary that I take some of the food. Normally, I take the tent, and Craig takes the food and cooking supplies. It was surprising how much weight the extra food added to both of our packs.
Moss and lichen cover boulders and rocky ridges

Our destination that day was Lane Cove on the north side of the island. We chose this location because, through our research and planning, it appeared to be off the beaten path from where most hikers go on their first day. It is more typical for people to head west from Rock Harbor with the destination of 3-Mile (so named because of its approximate distance from Rock Harbor. Those 3 miles are no joke, however – more on that in a future post.) or Daisy Farm campgrounds. This can result in trail congestion and full campsites. Our route consisted of heading west on Tobin Harbor Trail, then striking out north on Mt. Franklin Trail which would lead us up the Greenstone Ridge. Once at the top of the ridge, we would descend on Lane Cove Trail to our destination. Total miles: 7.1.
Islet in Tobin Harbor

An important thing to note about the trails on Isle Royale is that they are unmarked. Signs are posted only at trail intersections. There are no reassuring arrows when ambiguity strikes, or mile markers to give a hiker an idea of how much lies ahead or behind. At times, the trails will leave the woods and disappear at slabs of bare rock that make up the many ridges of the island. When this happens, it is necessary to look for cairns – stacks of rocks used to mark a path – to find the way until the trail reappears. Our first day would mostly consist of well-defined trails that were easy to follow; however, the constant up and down of the terrain would take its toll on me, and more than once I wondered if I should have chosen somewhere easier for my second ever multi-day backpacking trip.
Tobin Harbor Trail

I was immediately alert and searching for signs of animals. From the stories I'd heard, I had high hopes for moose sightings. I clearly pictured them everywhere – munching leaves at the edge of the water, droplets glistening from majestic antlers as they posed in the sun for my camera. As this was the start of rutting season, we were prepared to give any randy-looking bulls adequate space (after catching award-winning photos), and to make sure we didn't get between any females and their calves who would no doubt be frolicking all over the trail, impeding our progress. Needless to say based on the tone of my previous words, we saw nothing the first day. Truthfully, the hiking was strenuous enough that within the first hour, I had put my camera away in favor of concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to breath, and pushing myself to stay within sight distance of Craig, who was working on controlling his pace so that I could keep up.
Perfect spot for a photogenic moose*

The descent on Lane Cove Trail involved 4 steep switchbacks along a very rugged trail strewn with boulders and huge tree roots. By this point I was paying attention to nothing except my deteriorating physical condition and attempting to stay upright as I very slowly navigated the steep trail. Once on a flat surface, Craig stopped me just as I was about to trample a pair of clearly defined wolf prints in the mud. This was a very encouraging site and my spirits rose at the realization that there are animals here after all!
Wolf tracks - front and rear paw prints in the mud on Lane Cove Trail

At 5:15pm we thankfully reached the campground at Lane Cove and staggered into the first tent site we saw (#2). There are no shelters at Lane Cove and the sites filled up quickly. Each site has more than one spot for a tent, and we ended up sharing ours with two sisters from the Houghton, MI area. One of them actually worked at the park many years ago, and the other was on her first ever backpacking trip. Evidence of her feelings on this matter were clear as she spoke to no one for an hour or so and looked like she was blatantly contemplating the murder of her activity-encouraging sibling. Even though I had recovered the use of my legs at this point and was very happily setting up our tent and thinking toward tomorrow's moose-filled adventure, I could sympathize. In the end, both new acquaintances turned out to be fun and respectful neighbors and we enjoyed their company.
Lane Cove Trail - looking back after descending a switchback

When it came time to turn in, we had to decide what to do about food storage. This had been the subject of much debate while planning the trip to Isle Royale. Being used to camping in bear territory, we just could not warm up to the idea of keeping our food in the tent, a common practice on the island due to the absence of bears. Aggressive squirrels are known to chew through backpacks and tents to get at whatever might be inside, so we decided to hang our food bags just for peace of mind. Unfortunately, none of the trees in the vicinity had adequate branches, so we secured a line between two pines and hung the bags from the line. By the end of this process we were covered in tree sap, but the food was safe.
Tired legs in warm sleeping bags

Sadly, this first day traveling to Lane Cove is mostly a blur, and I remember only a few things clearly about our campsite at the water's edge. The water itself was so cold that our ankles screamed in pain as we attempted to filter it. Luckily, our new friends had a collapsible bucket allowing us to retrieve water in large amounts, then filter it elsewhere, warm and pain-free. Later, I slept like a rock in our usually cramped and uncomfortable tent, only waking a few times to listen to loons calling eerily somewhere in the cove, and again at 5am when it suddenly got so cold that I had to cinch my sleeping bag hood around my face. At sunrise, we emerged from our cozy tent feeling refreshed and were immediately mesmerized by the sight of Lane Cove. The moon hung above the line of trees on the other side of the cove, and those trees were reflected perfectly in the water below them. Craig commented that it looked like a painting instead of a real place. My attempts to photographic it did not capture it very well.

7:30 am on Lane Cove

After eating oatmeal and drinking coffee, we packed up, said goodbye for the time-being to our camp friends, and began to drag ourselves up what we climbed down the day before.

To be continued in: Isle Royale Day Two - Lane Cove to Daisy Farm

More photos from this trip can be seen here.

*Smiling Moose inset found on the internets.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Isle Royale National Park | September 2009

Prologue: The Big Picture
The blue line shows our route. Click to enlarge.

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 to 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.
More photos from this trip can be seen here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Preparing for Isle Royale National Park

We are prepped and ready to leave for Isle Royale. Early tomorrow morning, we will make the 12-13 hour drive to Copper Harbor in order to board the passenger ferry Friday at 8 am. We should arrive at Isle Royale around noon, weather permitting, and plan to spend 8 days hiking, camping, taking in beautiful scenery, and hopefully viewing some wildlife.
We've heard stories of recent bad weather (On Lake Superior? There must be some mistake.) and of people getting stranded due to the ships being unable to sail and the sea plane being grounded. Hopefully we will be able to travel to and from the island without incident, but if I don't show up for work on Monday 9/14, I'm probably hunting for berries in order to stay alive in the rain and fog.