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 home...no 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.


DC said...

Woohoo! I can't believe you actually stayed at McLain in July -- that place is a *zoo*. Then again, most campgrounds up there are a zoo in July. Looking forward to the details of your trip -- we've been day-dreaming about a similar list for our next trip (Lookout Louise, Canoeing in Tobin Harbor, actually getting out to Stoll Point...).

Nina said...

"Zoo" is pretty accurate. Yikes! We've been curious about that park, and with this trip I finally did some reconnaissance. I wonder if it's that busy in the fall.

DC said...

McLain is nowhere near that bad after Labor Day, except for K-Day (Michigan Tech's end-of-1st-week holiday). Plus, it too has cute little cabins with a great Lake Superior view that you can even rent in winter!