(Map at bottom of post)
After debating what route(s) to take this time – Hike the Greenstone Ridge from one end of the island to the other? Explore the west side of the island, which we hadn't seen before? Return to the island's east side, but hike to places that we didn't get to last time? – we decided to visit Isle Royale's western end. We opted to travel by sea plane this time, and we booked an 8:00 am flight to ensure an early arrival at Windigo and plenty of time for hiking the first day.
|A freighter on Lake Superior
Our plan was to hike the Feldtmann Ridge/Island Mine loop, working in a stop at South Lake Desor. Once back at Windigo, we would then hike the short Huginnin Cove loop, spending a night on the island's north coast. We had eight days; this was a lot of time for what we were planning, and it ensured we would have an extra day or two to spend in places we really liked. We planned to spend two nights at Siskiwit Bay, and maybe an extra night at Huginnin Cove depending on how everything went. Anything could happen once we were there, so we were open to winging it a little.
|Feldtmann Lake viewed from the sea plane
In addition to fewer people and fewer bugs, going after Labor Day also allows visitors to stay extra nights in places that have stricter limitations during peak season. On the flip-side of that coin, however, going late in the season also means the camp store is either low on supplies or closed for the season altogether. Visitors must arrive prepared with everything they will need; relying on the camp store to have essential items is not advised.
|8 days' worth of food for 2 people. The squeeze tubes were eventually filled with peanut butter and jelly.
Because we took the sea plane, we were not able to bring fuel with us for our camp stove. This made for some strategic planning when it came to food. We brought an Emberlit twig-burning stove (given the restricted nature of campfires on the island, we confirmed pre-trip that these are ok to use) and a tiny Snow Peak isobutane stove with us, as well as several meals that could be made with cold water. The camp store at Windigo would be open the day we arrived, but it was closing right after. If it had fuel left, we would buy it for the Snow Peak. If not, we would make do without. In addition to the fuel situation, we brought a little extra food with us in the event we were unable to leave on our scheduled departure day. The sea plane does not fly in dangerous weather – especially fog – and Lake Superior's weather is famously unpredictable.
|Flying over Isle Royale's western end
We arrived at the Houghton County Airport by 7:30 am. It was dark, and we were the only people there. We hung out in the Royale Air Service waiting area until the pilot appeared and led us outside to the small plane. In addition to the pilot, the sea plane seats four passengers, and another couple from the Metro Detroit area of Michigan soon joined us as we got ready for departure. On busy days, the pilot flies back and forth to the island all day, picking up and dropping off at both Windigo and Rock Harbor. Because of this tight schedule, there is not much room for tardiness, and we left promptly at 8:00. The weather was questionable; it was starting out overcast with a high probability of rain and thunderstorms later on. I had checked the weather outlook before leaving home, which was absolutely pointless, but it made me feel better to see that the week was supposed to be partly cloudy with barely any rain predicted. This was, of course, completely subject to change.
|Coming in for a landing in Washington Harbor
The flight lasted around 30 minutes, and it was smooth sailing over Lake Superior. Approaching Isle Royale and flying over forest, bays, and inland lakes was exciting, as was the fast descent and landing in Washington Harbor. The pilot maneuvered us to the sea plane dock, where Ranger Valerie was waiting to greet us. Before leaving, Craig asked the pilot about the likelihood of being stranded due to weather. He responded that it was definitely possible since things tend to get exciting in September weather-wise. He told us that if we got back ahead of schedule and wanted to leave early in the event bad weather was coming, we should hang out by the dock and come talk to him when he flies in. If he could get us on the plane early, he would. This seemed ominous and hopeful at the same time.
We walked a short path up a hill to the Windigo visitor center, where Ranger Valerie registered our itineraries and talked to us about the island and good practices for our visit. We learned that there are currently around 975 moose on the island, and the current wolf count is eight. This is depressing, but in addition to the eight confirmed wolves, the small pack that lives near Siskiwit Bay is believed to have recently had two pups. Because of this, there is a lot of communication going on amongst the members, which means that their howls are being heard often. Ranger Valerie confirmed that rain was guaranteed in the forecast, and she cautioned about slippery conditions on the trail, especially on the protective boardwalks. I had forgotten how slippery these foot bridges can be, and we would likely encounter many of them due to the swampy nature of the island's southwest corner.
|Inside Windigo Visitor's Center
After orientation, we walked a little further up the hill to the camp store. On the way there, a fox trotted out of the brush and onto the path to observe the newcomers. After a few seconds, it returned to the woods uninterested. The store had one small canister of fuel left, which we bought. There were also a couple of very large canisters of fuel on the shelf, and various food and snack items that would seem like heaven at the end of a trip, but were not necessary at that moment.
|The Feldtmann Lake Trail follows Washington Harbor for about a mile
At 9:30 am, we began hiking the Feldtmann Lake Trail. The sky remained overcast, and the temperature felt like somewhere in the mid-70s. The trail runs along Washington Harbor for about a mile, then it turns inland and climbs a ridge. Once at the top, the trail breaks out of the woods, offering a view of Grace Harbor and Lake Superior to the west, and providing a nice place for a break after the steep climb. The trail leaves this ridge and re-enters the forest. From here to Feldtmann lake there is not much in the way of views. There is a lot of thick vegetation on this part of the island, much of it shoulder height or taller, and it can be tedious to hike through. On the bright side, the hiking is fairly easy. At one point I spotted a moose track in the mud, but we saw no moose on the trail. The area was thick with thimbleberry plants, but few berries. Around 12:30 we stopped for lunch and ate peanut butter and jelly on tortillas with a solo hiker we had met who is also from Metro Detroit.
|View to the west
We arrived at Feldtmann Lake at 2:15 pm. This area is known for being a good place to see moose, and my hopes were high. The trail runs right along the lake through the campground, with all but one campsite located across the path from the lake. Site #2 is right on the lakeshore and is a really nice spot. This site was already occupied, so we chose #4, which had a view of the lake and good water access. Feldtmann Lake is tent only; there are no shelters here. Each of the sites has its own section of lakefront, and although it was still overcast, the lake was pretty, with the surrounding trees mirrored on its surface, and views at the far end of the Feldtmann Ridge.
|Looking through clear water at the rocky bottom of Feldtmann Lake
We set up our tent and spent some time wading in the lake. The narrow beach is made up of red sand and tiny red pebbles, eroded versions of the rocks on the lake's bottom and the red rock we had been seeing all day during our hike. A few garter snakes were hanging out among the roots of a tree on our path to the water, and they slithered into hiding every time we walked by. I had been walking around in knee-deep water for a little while, when I looked up to discover a great blue heron casing the beach about 20 feet away. I watched it walk quietly into the lake, looking intently for fishing prospects. It walked around for about 10 minutes before unfolding its huge wings, taking flight, and gliding just over the lake's surface. It relocated further down the beach, where tall grass near the shore must have looked like a more promising location.
|Great Blue Heron in Feldtmann Lake
I returned to our campsite for dinner, which consisted of the heaviest things in our food bag that we wanted to get rid of first – a foil pouch of salmon for Craig, and tuna for me, which I ate on a tortilla with mayo. Another thing that makes Isle Royale unique is its lack of bears. Typically, we would refrain from bringing such interesting-smelling food with us on a
simply to eliminate any unnecessary attraction to our stash. Without
that concern, there is a little more freedom to bring food we
might otherwise leave at home. Campers at Isle Royale are actually advised to keep their food in their
tents, a practice so inherently wrong to most northwoods
hikers that it can be hard to get used to. The biggest threats to a
hiker's food on Isle Royale are the red fox and the red squirrel, a
smaller version of the mainland squirrel and a subspecies unique to the island.
|Section of trail lined with red stones
As soon as we finished eating and got everything put away it started raining. We passed the time by napping in the tent. The rain did not last long, but the sky never cleared, and it started getting dark early without the sun. A spur trail from Feldtmann Lake leads to Rainbow Cove about ¾ of a mile away. Facing west across Lake Superior, this is known to be an excellent place to watch the sunset, and I was looking forward to walking there later in the evening. Unfortunately, a visible sunset was not on the horizon that night, so we spent more time on the beach of Feldtmann Lake before turning in at 9:00. We didn't see any moose. I read for a while and listened to fish jumping in the lake before drifting off to sleep.
|Campsite #4 at Feldtmann Lake