Friday, June 16, 2017

Isle Royale National Park July 2016 | Day 4

Rock Harbor and Departure
Continued from Day 3

A bald eagle perched at the top of a tree on an islet in Rock Harbor
(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 to a clear, sunny morning, with all traces of the previous day’s fog and moodiness gone. This was my last day on the island, and I hoped to spend some time canoeing in Tobin Harbor and just bumming around the nearby trails. I made some coffee and oatmeal and ate a leisurely breakfast before packing up. I heard the sea plane overhead, and caught sight of it out my window a few minutes later when it appeared in between some trees as it taxied to the dock.


I was itching to sleep in my tent after a few nights fulfilling my research regarding the cottages, and I set out in search of a campsite for my last night on the island. The moon was still hanging in the clear blue sky, and it was already shaping up to be a hot day. I thought about heading down to Three-Mile Campground, but because I was on the 9am sea plane the following day, I decided to stay in Rock Harbor so I would not have to hustle the following morning. After wandering up and down the path through the Rock Harbor campsites, lurking behind trees, and snooping around various sites, I concluded they were all occupied, so I set up shop in an available shelter (#7) up the hill at the edge of the woods. I did some laundry and hung various things to dry in the relentless sun.

Morning moon


The shelters at Isle Royale are a treasure trove of information. Are you interested in knowing which previous hiker’s digestive system was distressed over dehydrated burrito mix? (Trevor. In July 2010.) Have you been unsure about how you should feel about mosquitoes? (They sucked circa the beginning of time-2016.) Are you feeling under-informed regarding what bands rule? (This one is tricky, because it depends on which shelter is consulted. Iron Maiden probably, but some are in the Slayer camp. (See what I did there?)) All of this information, and much, much more, is available on the shelter walls. Some of the graffiti is typically stupid; some is funny; and some is heart-warming. (5 days spent hiking with Dad. Best time ever.

The people on the left felt more affectionate toward the island than those on the right.

I walked to the lodge to see about canoe rental and noticed the water in the harbor was a fairly choppy. It was sunny and very warm, but it was also quite windy, and I discovered that boats were not being rented that day due to high winds. In keeping with the theme of this trip so far, my final opportunity to fulfill my last goal—to canoe around Tobin Harbor—would not be realized. I was not particularly bummed out by this, partly because I was getting used to failing to attain my goals at this point, but also because I still had a whole day to spend wandering around this area on foot, which was fine too. By this time I was also feeling more comfortable spending a leisurely time here, not hiking my ass off. I was embracing this relaxation thing.

Rock Harbor is big. Generally people refer to the immediate area of the ferry dock, visitor center, camp store, marina, and lodge as “Rock Harbor.” Technically that specific area is Snug Harbor—a small cove within the larger protected waters of Rock Harbor, which is actually 11 miles long, beginning in Moskey Basin to the southwest and ending at Scoville Point to the northeast. 


In the mid-1800s, a handful of copper mines operated in the Rock Harbor area. This, combined with the fisheries that were functioning at the time, necessitated the building of the Rock Harbor Lighthouse in 1855. Copper mining was not successful on Isle Royale, and the lighthouse was not operational for long. It was deactivated in 1859 after the mining didn’t pan out, but was re-lit in 1874 for general shipping use. It was deactivated again in 1879 and has not been operated since. It’s now part of the national park and is open to visitors of Isle Royale.

Rock Harbor Lighthouse
Across the harbor to the south are many small islands that make up the protective outer boundary of the harbor. The park headquarters is located on one of these—Mott Island—and is an impressive operation. A few days earlier, while I was aboard the Sandy on its way to Edison Fishery and my drop-off at Daisy Farm, I learned that most park employees live on Mott Island and are ferried to work every day by boat. The park superintendent also lives there. The island is obviously very boat-dependent, and there is a large building on Mott Island that is dedicated to boat repair. A little farther down the line, Cemetery Island is the site of mysterious grave sites, the final resting place of several people who died on Isle Royale in the mid-1800s.

I spent the day wandering up and down trails, and photographing various plants and rocky islands. 



I love these small outer islands, and I particularly like the tiny islets that are not much more than a chunk of bare rock without much of anything growing on them. Of these, my favorites are those covered with elegant lichen—the crusty growth that gives the rock an orange color. Lichens are a tough combination of algae and fungus, and they are able to flourish in Isle Royale’s harsh environment. Various types of lichens grow all over the island, but the most common are elegant lichen, a type of crustose lichen that cements itself to the rock; reindeer lichen, a folios lichen that is more leaflike; and old man’s beard, a type of fruticose lichen that hangs off trees in tufts of pale green strands.

Left: Reindeer Lichen         Right: Elegant Lichen (orange)
Old Man's Beard
I made dinner, read a book for a little while, then did more of the same before turning in for the night. As I laid on the floor of the shelter, listening to waves in the harbor with my head propped against my backpack, I thought about how special this park is and wondered about its future and what my next visit here would be like.

The next morning I arrived at the sea plane dock with a park employee who worked at the Rock Harbor Lodge. He had rolled his ankle badly while hiking and was being taken to the hospital in Houghton via the sea plane. (Someone was waiting at the airport to drive him to the hospital.)  Although obviously in pain, with his ankle very badly swollen and the possibility he might not be able to finish out the season, he was excited about his first trip on the sea plane.  We talked about his experience living at the park (he had worked there a few summers in a row), and he told me a story of another lodge employee who had gotten lost while hiking a few weeks earlier. When she hadn’t returned by dark, a search party went out in a boat, and eventually found her on the shore, near the eastern end of Tobin Harbor. She had come down from the Greenstone Ridge and mistook the waters of Tobin Harbor for those of Rock Harbor. Thinking she was on the home stretch to the lodge, she headed east instead of west, and ended up disoriented and lost when she met endless forest instead of civilization, and darkness fell. She luckily had a flashlight, and she made her way to shore and shone her light out at the lake, which enabled the search party to find her. She was apparently pretty shaken up from the experience, and it was a reminder that even when mistakes happen close to home base, things can get scary fast. 

Kayakers in Tobin Harbor
While I talked with this new acquaintance, a couple of kayakers showed up with their double kayak, hauled it out to the end of the dock, lowered it into the water and set off paddling into Tobin Harbor. It was a beautiful day to be out on the water, and I watched them paddle off—directly into the path of the sea plane, which came barreling out of the sky for a landing, causing them to have to pick up the pace and get out of the way.

Rock Harbor Lighthouse from the sea plane
We boarded the plane and lifted into the air, swooping south above Rock Harbor, past the lighthouse, and out over the expanse of Lake Superior. My third visit to Isle Royale National Park was now in the rear-view mirror, and I watched it fade into the endless blue, wondering when I’d be back again.



2 comments:

DC said...

Those shelter walls kept us entertained for many rainy hours. Glad to see how your trip ended. I'm feeling the itch to get back to Isle Royale again!

Andrew Betka said...

Thanks for the last installment! What a fine line between setting expectations and goals for a trip and letting go of them when the island doesn't agree.

Hey, would you ever be interested in posting an Isle Royale Camping Checklist for first timers who are slightly overwhelmed with the idea of packing for a week on the island?