Monday, November 21, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Day 5: Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor

Last Time: Moskey Basin and a rest day in the rain

Moskey Basin sunrise
I sat up in near darkness and saw the faintest hint of a sunrise at the far end of Moskey Basin. My sleepy brain said: Sunrise? Then... That means it's not raining! followed quickly by Holy crap, I can watch the sunrise from my bed!

The sunrise was faint and partly obscured by clouds, so I convinced myself to get up in the cold morning air and head out to our private rocky peninsula leading out into the Basin. It was small, distant, and eventually obscured by clouds, but the sunrise was indeed good, as so many other backpackers had promised us. It was the only sunrise we saw all trip -- I was happy.

After our usual breakfast -- oatmeal and tea while looking out over the most beautiful place in the world -- we packed up, ready for a big day. After 4 days, our packs were getting lighter, so I decided to try packing my pack differently by placing our tent right down the center (rather than strapped crosswise under the brain case as I'd done previously). It took only a few yards on the trail to realize that I should have been doing that the whole time. The belt stopped cutting into my hips -- I felt fantastic!

In addition to my better-packed pack, it was amazing what a day of 100% enforced rest had done for us. We were fully recharged and ready to go. The trails were muddy, the rocks were slippery, and the underbrush was soaking wet (forcing us to put on our rain paints), but the day was sunny and cool. It was perfect hiking weather, and we trucked along at a good pace. Obstacles that had made our knees (and voices) groan two days ago felt like nothing. The constantly-sloping trail back to Rock Harbor felt downright easy and a even bit more beautiful than I had realized. We made great time, but still saw no moose.

When we arrived at Daisy Farm around 10:30 am, we were fully ready for lunch. We sat on the dock, ate peanut butter rice cakes, and enjoyed the quietness. It was late enough that almost everyone had left the campground (because, remember, nobody stays at Daisy Farm -- they're all heading somewhere else), but early enough that few newcomers had yet arrived. We took our time and soaked up the sun.

Then we discussed our plan: Today was our last full day on the island. Our goal was to reach Three Mile campground, which (brilliantly named) is 3 miles from Rock Harbor. That would let us get up early tomorrow and make it to Rock Harbor well before the Queen left in the early afternoon. This had felt like an ambitious plan: It's an 8 mile hike from Moskey to Three Mile -- and our previous 7 mile days had wrecked us. As a contingency, we had considered staying at Daisy Farm and getting up reaaaaalllyy early to hike the 7 miles in to Rock Harbor tomorrow. But we were both feeling fresh, and the 4 remaining miles to Three Mile seemed doable -- in fact, we thought that we might make it to Three Mile early enough to snag a shelter, before the hoards of newcomers arriving on the Queen and Ranger could get there.

With that, we started out on the next leg of our trip. The Rock Harbor trail continues east from Daisy Farm, following extremely close along the harbor that gives the trail its name. We had heard wildly varying accounts of this trail, ranging from "easy and beautiful" to "horrible and rocky". The trail turned out to be lovely. It was by far the most level, flat, and even trail we had seen on the island. There were occasional roots and small rocks, but the flatness of the trail felt downright luxurious. There were nearly constant views of the harbor and equally constant opportunities to pick thimbleberries.

I think everyone who's hiked Isle Royale has a photo like this.
The woods inland from the trail were dense, and the trees were hung thick with old man's beard. But those thick woods sometimes gave way to huge rock outcrops that angled uphill. At one of these, we stopped for a rest break and chatted with a solo hiker also heading towards Three Mile. He had hiked this trail before and warned us that it wasn't all butterflies and rainbows.

Back on the trail, my spidey senses started tingling -- there was a mine around! I mentioned this to Sarah, who looked turned her head and said "Well, sure." I looked left and sure enough, there was a fenced-in mine shaft immediately next to the trail, with an interpretive sign attached to it. In my defense, I sensed the mine first.

This was the Siskiwit mine, one of the larger copper mines on Isle Royale. It was also quite old. There were only a few poor rock building foundations remaining, and several fenced shafts -- plus some scary looking places where solid bedrock was slowly sinking into the long-lost mine tunnels. I frightened Sarah by going off-trail to look down one of these sunken spots. Having scratched that itch, I returned to the trail safe and sound, and we continued on.

As we walked, the park's headquarters on Mott Island -- across the harbor -- became visible, and we were able to track our progress by our position relative to it. The next attraction was a beautiful, flat, grassy, and shady point of land sticking out into Rock Harbor directly across from the headquarters' dock. The point was something we hadn't seen much of: Non-rocky, actual dirt. It was also covered in blueberry bushes. We seriously considered stopping for a rest break or even a nap, but decided to push on to reach Three Mile campground instead.

So far, the trail had been incredibly flat with only a few roots and rocks. But after shortly after the "blueberry point" -- and about 1 mile away from Three Mile campground -- that changed in a big way. We suddenly started to encounter 1 or 2 foot boulders with only a narrow path of dirt running between them. Occasionally massive bedrock outcrops cut across the trail, sloping into the water, and we had to follow cairns across them. One section was even more amazing -- a steep and impassable swath of bedrock cut right down almost to the water level, leaving only a 2 foot wide ledge of rock at the very bottom, almost in the lake. We had to wait as others came through the opposite way, and then walk carefully with waves almost lapping at our feet.

The tougher path and the longer mileage started to wear on us, and we trudged onward.

Blueberries, so many blueberries!
After another enormous bedrock outcrop, we finally saw the trail sign for Three Mile campground. Three Mile was squeezed between the steep bedrock ridges and the water, so it was stretched out into a long line of campsites and shelters. The very first shelter was occupied by none other than our Trail Twins, John and Shelly. They greeted us warmly but warned us that we were a bit late, and the big crowd that had arrived in Rock Harbor on the Queen had already made it to Three Mile -- but that we could share their shelter if we needed.

I raced ahead to check the remaining sites. Nothing was available -- even the tent sites were overflowing with two or three tents per site. One shelter briefly faked me out -- it had no itinerary attached to the door handle, but I soon saw that backpacks were stashed inside. We later learned that some of our fellow backpackers had accidentally left their itinerary attached to their shelter back in Moskey, but didn't discover it until 4 miles into their trek.

We sat on the dock for a while, discussing our options and trying to rest, but bugs chased us away (the only time in the entire trip that bugs were a problem). We decided to check out the group sites, just in case they were still open and reasonable for camping. The group sites were both located far uphill and away from the water. They were wide open, sunny, hot and buggy. Sarah was tired and upset and proclaimed Three Mile an "ugly campground". We sat down at a picnic table in Group Site #1, swatted bugs, and grumped it up.

But, after a bit of rest, things started to look up. We agreed that we felt good enough to push onwards, all the way back to Rock Harbor. We were this close to Rock Harbor already, and there was a huge campground there. It couldn't be more full than Three Mile! We decided to take some advice that we had heard from several other backpackers: Avoid the Rock Harbor trail between Three Mile and Rock Harbor. It was the most direct way "home", but it was supposed to be especially rocky and difficult, much like the last mile of trail that we had been on. Instead, we would cut across the peninsula to the Tobin Harbor trail, which we knew from experience was flat and easy (despite adding an extra mile of length).

We backtracked a short way and, at the enormous bedrock outcrop, discovered that the Mt. Franklin Trail that would lead us across the peninsula went directly up that outcrop. The climb was short but intense, and then the trail became truly beautiful. It wound through deep and dark woods, up and down small ridges, and across wetlands. It was cool and pleasant. We loved it. Soon we found the trail intersection and turned onto our old friend, the Tobin Harbor trail.

Maybe it was just the 8+ miles we'd already done, but the Tobin Harbor trail didn't seem quite as friendly as it did 5 days ago, when were were totally fresh on the first leg of our trip. It had many more ups and downs than either of us remembered, lots more roots and rocks, and it sure seemed long. It did, however, still have gorgeous views of the deep blue waters of Tobin Harbor. We took it slow, trying to enjoy the views and not just stare at the trail in front of our feet.

Tobin Harbor Islet
After what felt like hours we suddenly came upon three backpackers stopped dead in the middle of the trail, staring uphill into the woods. One of them whispered, "there's a moose up there!". We froze and stared into the woods, trying to see its moosey form. They stared. We stared harder. Nothing happened. We didn't even hear anything. Eventually we all started walking again, with the other people talking about how it had been "right there!" Once again, we were late to the moose party. At this point, I was starting to suspect that we actually has special powers to make moose disappear.

At long, long last we saw the trail sign for Rock Harbor, and turned onto the paved trail leading down towards the harbor itself. We turned again onto a wide dirt path leading to the Rock Harbor campground, which was a ways uphill from the main harbor complex.

The trail led past a long line of shelters, all of which were filled. We were trudging wearily toward the campsites when a man walking the other way saw our backpacks and stopped us. "Are you looking for a site?" he asked us. We nodded wearily. "Everything is full here. I've got a site up the hill that you're welcome to share." We were too tired to be surprised that the campground was also full, but we were certainly amazed at generosity. We thanked him and headed the way he had pointed. Sure enough, we found a large campsite with only one hammock and a clothesline strung up around the edges.

We were so tired that we didn't even bother to check out the rest of the campground, but we could still tell that it was filled. There were people everywhere. They were a combination of campers who had arrived today -- both the Queen and Ranger had arrived, an event that only happens a few days per week even in the height of summer -- and campers like us who were planning to leave tomorrow. In particular, the Ranger docks at Rock Harbor overnight and would be leaving at 9 am sharp the next day. Any backpacker who wanted to be on the ship would be in Rock Harbor tonight.

We couldn't believe it -- we had just hiked 12 miles, all the way from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor, after having our butts totally kicked by mere 4 and 7 mile hikes on the previous days. It was our single longest day of backpacking ever -- and we did it on the butt-kicking Isle Royale! It felt great: We had really accomplished something. It also felt exhausting. But even more important, our early arrival in Rock Harbor opened up some bonus opportunities that we hadn't expected to have.

We quickly set up our tent and then headed back down the hill for the first and most glorious of the unexpected bonuses: hot showers! There is a shower building with hot running water just behind the main ranger station, and we were about to take full advantage of it. The showers are operated by tokens, so we went to the "camp store" to purchase tokens. For $6 each, we got a token for a 5 minute shower. For an additional $2.50 each, we got towels, soap, and shampoo. It was the best $17 I've ever spent.

Well, almost. Sarah started first and literally sang the praises of the hot shower. I stepped into the next stall and got ready (including strategically pre-placing soap, washcloth, etc. so as to waste not a second of hot water time). I put my token in the machine and... nothing happened. I fiddled with the token machine, the water knobs, the shower head... nothing! Resigned, I got re-dressed and went back to the camp store, where the clerk (a very young college kid) gave me another token for free. I tried a different shower, which worked as expected. It was everything I could have hoped for and more. There is nothing better than a hot shower after 5 days in the backcountry -- it was glorious.

After drying and changing into "clean" clothes (at least, clothes we hadn't yet worn that day), we once again went to the camp store and looked at the amazing variety of items for sale. You could almost arrive on the island with a backpack and a sleeping bag, and buy the rest of your supplies at the store. They had freeze-dried food, sleeping pads, stove fuel, rope, water filters, cook sets, and a huge variety of other backcountry essentials.

More important for us, they had ice cream bars and Cherry Pepsi. We bought one of each (for a mere $1 each -- it felt like we were back in 1990!) and sat on a bench enjoying them. They too were glorious.

With our most pressing needs satisfied, we could focus on another of the unexpected benefits of arriving at Rock Harbor a day earlier than we had planned. The Rock Harbor Lodge runs sightseeing cruises on the MV Sandy, a passenger boat operated by the Rock Harbor Lodge. We walked around the harbor to the Lodge's office and found out that there were still spaces on tonight's "Sunset Cruise". We bought two tickets immediately. The cruise left in about 30 minutes, so we didn't have time to make dinner. To tide us over, we bought a few more snacks (cheese crackers and Pringles) and ate them while sitting at Sandy's dock.

Bedrock on Raspberry Island
Only a few minutes before departure time, the captain and his first mate (a young college kid) arrived and helped us onboard. It turned out that there was no urgency in buying the tickets -- there were maybe 10 people on the entire boat. Almost all of us crammed ourselves into two rows of seats in the open-air back of the boat. Most of the passengers were staying at the Rock Harbor lodge, and some of them were strangely grumpy. They complained about the seats, the breeze, the distance they had to walk from their hotel rooms... This made no sense to us, what with the soft beds and running water they enjoyed here on Isle Royale. Whatever its cause, the grumpiness couldn't dampen our euphoria over clean skin and junk food. Other passengers were quite friendly, and we had a fun time chatting with the other passengers.

After motoring out of dock, our first stop was just across Rock Harbor at Raspberry Island, one of the barrier islands standing between Rock Harbor and the open water of Lake Superior. Raspberry Island is relatively small and has a very short loop trail with interpretive signs. The grumpy tourists became extra grumpy when the captain unceremoniously announced that this part of the tour was self-guided, and that we should make sure to be back in 30 minutes or else. A few didn't even bother to look at the trail, instead spending their time trying to get a cell phone signal from the dock.

Sarah and I started on the interpretive trail but quickly took a less-traveled spur that lead off to a rocky cliff. The island is really just the top of one of the unending series of ridges that make up Isle Royale -- but most of this one is under water. The steep basalt cliff gave us simultaneous panoramic views both of Lake Superior and back towards Rock Harbor, and we spent almost all of our time just taking in the views. Well, that, and picking tons of wild blueberries that grew on the island. Due to the lack of constant foot traffic, they hadn't been picked over yet. No raspberries actually grow on Raspberry Island -- but apparently they did 150 years ago, when the island had been completely clear-cut by miners searching for copper veins in the rock. The first plants to grow in the burned-over soil were raspberries brought by birds, but they were eventually out-competed by other plants.

We returned to the dock on time to catch our ride. The Sandy headed northeast around Scoville Point, one of the long, narrow, rocky points that make up the "five fingers" at the eastern end of Isle Royale. Scoville Point separates Rock Harbor from Tobin Harbor, which we now got to see from the water side of things. At this point, the young-looking second mate picked up a microphone and started narrating some of the sights along the way. The main sights were old cabins and other buildings left from Isle Royale's heyday as popular resort destination. Our narrator described the island's history as a resort paradise -- a place for wealthy people to escape from dirty cities and enjoy the pure, crisp Lake Superior air. A large number of resorts existed on the "fingers" and islands at the eastern end of Isle Royale.


The "easy" side of the ridge that forms Raspberry Island. This is what the entire trail from Moskey to Daisy Farm looks like.
When the island became a National Park in 1940, existing resorts and private cottages were purchased by the US government, but the private owners were allowed to keep using them -- for as long as the owner was still alive. Our guide pointed out a few of these leases that were still active, and some which had recently reverted to the park -- and others which had been forcibly returned to the park after shenanigans such as not notifying the park when the owner finally passed away. One of the most intriguing was the Artist in Residence cabin, located right at the end of Scoville Point at an incredibly exposed location. Our guide told us about various Artists in Residence, the requirements for the program, and how great the location was. It got me (and many others!) thinking about how I could possibly apply.

We got a fair bit of gossip from our young guide, whose willingness to talk about anything and everything related to island life quickly endeared him to us. His parents both worked for the park service, while he was a college student back in the UP somewhere. He excitedly interrupted his own string of gossip about leases and lessees to point out a (very distant) bald eagle sitting perched high on a tree, and then turned right around and had us wave at a cabin whose owners were in "town". We also saw quite a few decrepit buildings from long-abandoned resorts -- some wooden shacks, some piles of rubble, and the occasional converted cabin still being used by its old owners.

We turned around and traveled out around Blake Point, the extreme point of land on this end of Isle Royale. We could see Passage Island (the northernmost point of land in Michigan) and its lighthouse in the distance as we learned about Great Lakes shipping paths, lighthouses, buoys, and shipwrecks. The sun began to set as we made our way out into the open lake, hearing about the "Sleeping Giant" and "Sleeping Baby" visible on the Canadian shore. But, there was no sunset to be seen -- it was hidden behind a thick bank of clouds that was blowing in. Nonetheless, our trusty captain had us tread water for at least 10 minutes out in the brisk wind so that we could enjoy the "sunset". Apparently he kept to the schedule no matter what.

It was a long trip back in the dark -- really, incredibly dark. The islands were just dim bulks against the darkening sky, made even darker by the thick clouds. Being out on this small craft on the big lake in that dark evening was a spooky and humbling experience. Thankfully, our young narrator kept us entertained with tales of growing up on the island. I had to admit that I was a bit envious.


The Ranger III at dock in Rock Harbor
When we made it back to Rock Harbor, I stayed put on the dock until everyone had left. The Ranger III was in port and all lit up. It was quite beautiful in the dark.

After that, there was nothing to do but walk the dark paths up to the Rock Harbor campground, crawl into our tent, and go to sleep. We were so exhausted that we didn't even have dinner.

Miles hiked: 12
Total miles: 30

Next time: Riding the Barf Barge



Trail Reviews (based on our one trip as experienced UP backpackers with 40 pound packs):

Rock Harbor Trail (Moskey Basin -- Daisy Farm): Medium. The angled ridges keep your feet (and body) constantly tilted.

Rock Harbor Trail (Daisy Farm -- 3 Mile): Easy! The last mile (into 3 mile) is tough with bigger rocks, but the first 3 miles are flat and have only roots and small rocks. Great views.

Mt. Franklin Trail (3 Mile -- Tobin Harbor intersection): Easy. Twisty and turny with one big uphill at 3 Mile, but the rest is beautiful.

Tobin Harbor Trail (heading east): Easy. As much as I complained about it in here, this is still about as easy as Isle Royale gets. Roots and some rocks, but wide with and rolling hills.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Days 3 and 4: Daily Farm to Moskey Basin and a Rest Day

Last Time: Lane Cove, Greenstone Ridge, and wine on the Daisy Farm dock

Wildflower, rainy day, Isle Royale

Wednesday, August 10, 2016: Our third day on Isle Royale began wonderfully. Our sleep in our awesome shelter was restful and calm. We woke up (relatively) early feeling refreshed ready to go.

After our normal breakfast, we took down our clothesline and our luckily dry clothes (the thunderstorms had stopped well before sunrise). We packed up, swept out the shelter, and got started.

Our goal for today was Moskey Basin, which we had planned as the high point of the trip. Moskey was hailed by all as a beautiful and quiet place with gorgeous sunrises and shelters right on the water. We planned to stay an extra day and rest, or perhaps do day hikes to some of the less-visited sights of the island.

After a quick jaunt up the Daisy Farm trail (and a few stops to pick thimbleberries), we turned west to follow the Rock Harbor trail towards Moskey Basin. The trail started out rocky but not bedrocky -- in other words, lots of small, pointy "killer rocks". We passed a short spur to an overlook that both Jim Dufresne (author of the classic Isle Royale guidebook) and many hikers we met described as "beautiful", and also as "your last chance to see Rock Harbor all day". I hopped up the spur and was unimpressed. It would turn out that neither statement was true.

The trail itself quickly became like an old familiar... well, friend is a bit strong of a word. It quickly became solid bedrock, following one of the endless low ridges of Isle Royale. However, this bedrock wasn't like the Greenstone flow -- we were essentially following along the side of a long sloping ridge leading up to the Greenstone. As a result, the trail was consistently slanted to the south -- even our feet were slanted. My left elbow started to hurt from using by walking stick too much to support my left (downhill) side. The trail occasionally ran up long uphills, down steep downhills, and through low wet places. It even changed between ridges on occasion, since there are so many parallel ridges.

The ups and downs wore on us both quickly after our Greenstone Ridge day. My backpack's hip belt continued to dig into my hips, which were already sore. But, the trail was as ruggedly beautiful as everything else on this ridiculously gorgeous island. So, with tired legs and sore hips, we trudged on through the beautiful and cool morning. Blueberries, thimbleberries, and the occasional juniper berry gave us fuel. We watched carefully and quietly for moose hiding in the dense growth just off the trail. Both of us repeatedly thought that we had heard a moose moving in the woods, or seen a glimpse of one wandering through the grasses -- but we never actually saw anything.

After what felt like an eternity (but was actually about 3 miles), the trail started to flatten out. We met a few groups heading back from Moskey, who confirmed what we had heard: Beautiful, quiet, sunrises. Got it. Around that point, with only one mile to go, Sarah and I again parted ways, and I raced full steam ahead. With rain in the forecast, we wanted to make sure we had a shelter.

I crossed a steep rocky stream that had to have gorgeous waterfalls at the right time of year -- probably early spring, when there are no humans on the island. The trail became almost Porcupine Mountains-like -- wide, flat, running through relatively open woods. I raced through several narrow swamps over long bridges, up and over long low hills, and passed just inland from a tall ridge separating me from Moskey Basin itself.

I found the traditional metal campground map and immediately got confused. Moskey has trails going every which way, and I chose the wrong one. After wandering around near the group campground for a bit, I found my way back and tried the next trail -- this time successfully finding the shelters. As it turns out, Moskey's shelters are all strung out along the solid bedrock shore of the bay. Through an enormous stroke of luck, there was exactly one shelter still available. I immediately hooked our permit on Shelter 7, our home for the next two days.

Shelter 7: A little slice of heaven at Moskey Basin.
Shelter 7 was fantastic. Its front yard was almost solid bedrock leading to a tiny point of rock that poked out into Moskey Basin. The Basin itself is the western extension of Rock Harbor, the long narrow harbor that stretches along much of the southeastern end of Isle Royale. The Basin is surrounded by high hills on three sides and has only a narrow opening into Lake Superior on the east end, making it extremely sheltered and quiet. From our shelter, we could see a smaller bay opening to our right with reeds growing thickly near the short -- prime moose territory! To our left the coast curved around again, with another shelter just barely visible along a small point of land. The point hid the rest of the shelters -- and the Moskey dock -- from our view. Our shelter felt like it was alone at the end of the world.

A tiny bit of dirt clung to the bedrock near the shelter, which allowed a few raspberries to grow. Behind us and on all sides of the Basin, the woods rose up quickly and ridge lines rose beyond that. Wildflowers poked their heads out here and there. A picnic table sat in front of the shelter, so Sarah and I set up shop immediately for a lunch of rice cakes with almond butter (Justin's All Natural Almond Butter, to be precise -- we found it bland and lacking salt).

After unpacking, Sarah decided to take a nap. I did camp chores -- pumping water and doing laundry in our foldable bucket. As I did the chores, the sky started to cloud over, a breeze sprang up, and a few raindrops fell. I ignored them until the rain got too strong, then ran inside -- only to see the rain stop. I went back, did more chores, got chased inside again, over and over as the wind blew quick-moving rainstorms through the sky.

Think this is funny? Don't knock it until you've
been backpacking for 3 days.
When Sarah woke up, it was sunny and looked like a perfect time for a swim -- until we stepped foot outside. A cold front was definitely coming through and there was no way we were getting into the water. Nonetheless, Sarah wanted to wash up but didn't want to wade into the frigid water. She settled on laying down on the small spit of rock in our "front yard" and dousing her head. When you're camping, you'll do whatever it takes to feel clean!

We both went back to take (another) nap -- or try. I became aware that our neighbors in Shelter 8 were extraordinarily noisy. Shelter 8 was the very last one on the Basin, and although I hadn't noticed it yet, it was almost immediately next to ours -- but well hidden by a few trees and the curve of the bay. The neighbors just plain talked loud and didn't let up on their constant stream of commentary, yelling back and forth while banging about pots and pans.

Instead of trying to get to sleep, I put on my raincoat and went for a walk instead. Close to our shelter were two campsites -- Site #6 was deep back into the woods, and I could just barely see a tent down a long and narrow path. Site #5 was right next to the trail and had 4 tents packed into it, all trying to avoid the light rain that was still falling. I was once again extremely thankful to have a shelter.

As I passed some more shelters, out popped our trail-doubles, John and Shelly. I waved "hi" and chatted briefly. I learned that they too were planning to stay here for a rest day. They also had photos and even video of a moose they saw on the trail, just an hour or two before we had passed through. Dangit!

Late October in the Keweenaw, or early August on Isle Royale?

Without any particular plan, I wandered through a light mist to the main trail intersection, from which I could see Moskey Basin's main cement dock. It wasn't quite the social center that Daisy Farm's dock was -- possibly because of the crappy weather -- but something caught my eye. Between the dock and the rest of the campground, a huge arm of bedrock extended out into the slate gray basin. It was the tail end of one of the zillions of parallel ridges of Isle Royale, making a long slow descent into Rock Harbor. I made a short bushwhack up the side of the rock and was completely entranced. It was as if I were transported directly back to a late fall day in the Keweenaw. The bedrock was steep on the dock side and long and sloping on the opposite side -- just like all bedrock outcrops on Isle Royale. It was covered in the dead grass, juniper, scraggly balsams, and low bushes that I know and love from my copper country days. The wet and cool mist heightened the already-changing colors of the small trees and bushes, giving a wet sheet that felt exactly like late October. The slate gray lake surrounded the rocky outcrop. Once again, I knew this scene -- I had hiked this exact kind of place hundreds of times on hundreds of identical fall days while I lived in Houghton. It was thrilling and bittersweet, all at once.

With nobody else around and nothing more to see, I wandered melancholily back to the shelter. Sarah was awake and the rain was slowly letting up, so we made dinner. We chose Mountain House Lasagna with Meat Sauce as a break from the chicken themed dinners of our last few nights. It was pretty good (although it did live a bit in the shadow of the Chicken & Dumplings from last night). It definitely scratched the need for a hot meal on a cool and damp evening. We also made AlpineAire Cinnamon Apple Crisp for dessert, even though we didn't really need that many extra calories. Its warmth and sweetness was also delicious.

Sun and clouds over Moskey Basin
As night began to fall, the sky partially cleared and let in a few glimpses of late-evening sun. We stood in our "front yard" and enjoyed the beautiful light for a few minutes, until we were chased back inside by a renewed round of rain. Once again, there would be no star-gazing.

We made some hot tea and curled up inside our shelter, reading and enjoying the feeling of glorious aloneness in the wilderness. All night, loons called in the basin as a steady rain kept falling.

Moskey Basin, as we saw it for most of our stay
Thursday, August 11, 2016: We had planned for our fourth day on Isle Royale to be a rest day. And what better place to rest than Moskey Basin? It's known for glorious sunrises (visible right down the bay) and is 2 short miles from Lake Ritchie, where we could hopefully do some wildlife viewing, or at least enjoy what the guidebook called an "easy hike".

I knew from the moment I woke up that a hike of any length was out of the question for today. A soaking rain had fallen all night, occasionally waking me up with rolls of thunder. There was no sunrise because the sky was completely covered with thick gray rainclouds. The rocky trails had turned into a water-logged mess. After a long dry period, Isle Royale was making up for lost time.

We made breakfast in the shelter -- oatmeal and tea again -- and then we sat in the shelter and read. We snacked on gorp. We watched the sky and took turns commenting "I think maybe it's letting up a bit" followed a few minutes later by "never mind". We paced around the shelter and read the walls, which were covered in graffiti. Some was fascinating, some amusing, and some was neither. We read some more. Lunch passed -- rice cakes, meat sticks, and cheese -- and we read even more (I finished an entire book on this day alone). At one point, I looked down and discovered that my bag of gorp was completely empty -- yet I was still hungry. The peak of our entertainment was a crazy squirrel trying (and succeeding!) to climb the screened front of our shelter.
At least we didn't have to deal with mosquitoes like Brady and Dan.

In the middle of the afternoon, we looked up from our kindles and saw... a break in the rain! No sun, mind you -- that would be too much to ask for. But the rain had definitely stopped. We put on raincoats (we weren't that confident about the change in the weather) and headed outside for the first time all day. We weren't alone: everyone was heading towards, returning from, or at the dock.

At the dock, we met our next-door neighbors in Shelter 8. The noisy people had left yesterday, and were replaced by a middle-aged woman and her husband. The woman was, well, a bit odd. She was very enthusiastic about backpacking and clearly belonged to that breed of people who really like to talk about their hobbies. She had been very athletic in high school, then stopped (apparently) all kinds of physical activity for 20 or 30 years. After deciding to get in shape again, the first thing she and her husband did was come to Isle Royale. Whoa.

Not only that, but this was their 10th of 15 days on the island. Not only that, but they had planned to bushwhack for most of those days. That's right -- they weren't even going to hike or camp on trails. While this is tough but reasonable in some places (ahem: my Bushwhacking Adventure in the Porcupine Mountains, just 3 months earlier), on Isle Royale you must get special permits, commit to a definite schedule, and (I expect) have your head examined if you want to go off trail. The dense undergrowth, rocky ridges, and constant swamps between ridges kept any desire for bushwhacking out of me. I asked the obvious question: If you're bushwhacking, why are you staying in a shelter at Moskey Basin? It turned out that the island had indeed shown them who was boss, they were now taking several unplanned rest days, and the remainder of the trip would be entirely on trails. They were discovering just how unforgiving the island can be. She did share the knowledge that there had been moose sightings right next to our shelter... 2 days before. Dangit, again!

We hung around, hoping that someone might show up who had knowledge of a recent weather report.  It didn't really matter, because we didn't have much choice -- we had to leave the island in two days and so we had to make it back to Rock Harbor by then. We couldn't easily sit around in Moskey Basin for another day. But, we at least wanted to know if we could look ahead to good hiking, or miserable hiking.

A ranger boat was tied up at the dock, but nobody was in it and nobody seemed to have seen a ranger.  (We later heard a rumor that the boat belonged to what must have been the most miserable trail repair crew in existence -- camping out in the rain while trying to repair flooded trails.) Several other hikers came and went, alone and in pairs. We asked all of them if they had heard a recent weather report -- except when they managed to ask us first. It seemed that everyone had heard one of two stories, always secondhand: The rain would let up tonight, leaving a beautiful day tomorrow -- or it would keep raining through the weekend. That about covered the possibilities. But, nobody had any definite, recent information.

A water taxi appeared down the bay and gradually drew closer. Four very unhappy hikers wearing ponchos got out and headed off for the trails immediately, not saying hello to anyone. The pilot took the time to chat with us, but had no idea about the weather either. As he said, "I run rain or shine, so I don't pay much attention to weather reports."

View from inside the shelter
Having exhausted all social opportunities (and with the rain starting to kick back up again), we headed back to the shelter. And read. And read some more.

Dinner -- made inside the shelter -- was Backpacker's Pantry Chicken Alfredo. We were back on the Chicken Dinner track again, but it was (again!) delicious. We really lucked out with freeze-dried foods this trip.

As night fell without a sunset, or even a clearing of the clouds, I tried the weather radio. I was (miraculously!) able to pull in several stations -- In fact, every single nearby weather station, with one notable exception: the Marquette station, the only one that includes an Isle Royale forecast. But extrapolating from the Minnesota forecast, my best guess was a dry day tomorrow. I hoped.

And with that, we went to sleep, and slept amazingly well for having done almost nothing all day long.

Next Time: A slightly longer hike than we expected

Miles hiked: 4
Total miles: 18



Trail Reviews (based on our one trip as experienced UP backpackers with 40 pound packs):

Rock Harbor Trail (Daisy Farm -- Moskey Basin): Medium. Almost all solid bedrock except for the last mile to Moskey. You're following along a ridge, with all of the unevenness that implies. Even your feet will be tilted to the left. Tons of small ups and downs where there are breaks in the ridge. Last mile is easy and beautiful.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Day 2: Lane Cove to Daisy Farm

Last time: Rock Harbor, up and over the Greenstone to Lane Cove

Greenstone Ridge trail, our special challenge for the day. Photo by Sarah.

I woke around 6 am, when the first blush of sunrise was starting to lighten the sky. A quick jaunt to the outhouse convinced me that the mosquitoes were earlier risers than me, and that I should hide out in the tent for a while longer. Then, it began to rain. Clearly, I was meant to sleep in today!

When Sarah and I crawled out of the tent again at 7 am, the rain had stopped and we saw that Shelly and John were already packed up and about to head out. We wished them well and set about making our traditional camping breakfast of hot tea and oatmeal. We packed up camp somewhat slowly, after the unexpectedly hard workout we had done yesterday.

We paused briefly to find hiking sticks on our way out, which was easy (especially since it's my superpower to find them any time, anywhere). Shortly after we left Lane Cove, a couple who had also camped there caught up to us and headed past, walking at a fast clip with their fancy-pants hiking poles. Who needs that when you've got a stick!

The hike back out of Lane Cove was beautiful in the morning light. I quickly outpaced Sarah (she claims that I was "running", which I can assure you was definitely not the case!) (She adds: "YES YOU WERE."). After a few stops, we agreed that I would go ahead at my own pace, and we would meet up at Mt. Franklin for a break.

I raced on ahead, but kept stopping to admire the beauty of the swamps that lay between the ridges. The morning sunlight, a light mist, and the dew on the plants all made for a gorgeous picture. I had barely even noticed all this beauty yesterday. Plus, I was keeping a sharp eye out for moose. Despite these frequent stops, I never paused to take my camera out of my backpack, and so I have no photos from that part of the hike. Now I really wish I did, though.

Sooner than I expected, the strenuous climb up the cliff face started. Upclimbing isn't nearly bad as downclimbing, especially because upclimbing doesn't require any finesse -- for better or for worse, it's all muscle. As a result, I was a bit winded by the time I reached the fallen trees. I removed my pack and crab-crawled under the trees again, then stashed it against a tree at the next bend in the switchbacks. I grabbed some gorp and went back to sit on the fallen trees while waiting for Sarah. As I did so, a huge crashing sound came from the trail above me. I swung my head around just in time to see... my pack, rolling slowly but inexorably down the trail towards me.

I ran up the trail with a speed I didn't know I could still muster, but luckily the pack stopped after just a few tumbles. Reseating the pack securely between two trees, I went back and met Sarah at the fallen trees, where we rested and enjoyed some gorp.

We then parted ways again. The last part of the uphill seemed to stretch on forever. However, I thoroughly enjoyed following the narrow trail through deep, dark, and cool cuts between the rocky faces, with ferns and moss draping over the bedrock cliffs. I topped out at a fern-bordered path that quickly led to the junction with the Greenstone Ridge Trail.

At the junction I ran into the speedy couple who had passed us earlier. They were deeply engrossed in doing something with the woman's foot, but stopped to chat as I rested for a moment. Apparently her foot already had blisters which required moleskins, and his knee was hurting badly after the steep uphill. "Where are you headed?" I asked, hoping the answer was "3 Mile campground", about 2 miles downhill. Nope -- they were headed to McCargoe Cove, another 20 miles from this very trail junction. I mention this here only in case their relatives are wondering what happened to them and happen to be reading this blog.

Greenstone Ridge trail
I wished them good luck -- and I really meant it! -- and turned onto the Greenstone Ridge trail, not wanting to waste any time here when Mt. Franklin was a mere 3/10 of a mile away. The trail was straightforward, and after about 3/10 of a mile I came out into a grassy clearing with some rocky bluffs looking towards the Canadian shore. The views from the bluffs weren't that great. They were partly masked by trees, but I could see a reasonable amount of the lake and the "Sleeping Giant" on the Canadian shore -- and the breeze was fantastic. Just to be sure, I dropped my pack and headed down the trail a few yards. It disappeared downwards into a forest, so I headed back: This must be Mt. Franklin!

I pushed my way through the low brush to the cliffs, surprised at how few paths a place as well-known as Mt. Franklin had out to the views -- not to mention the fallen logs across the paths! But, I wasn't about to complain: The wind cooled me as I sat on the edge of the cliff, eating gorp and enjoying being 40 pounds lighter for a little while.

Sarah joined me a few minutes later. She had also met the McCargoe Cove hikers and shared my skepticism. We made our lunch (rice cakes with peanut butter -- the best trail food ever), looked at the map, and generally relaxed. After a while, I took out the small weather radio that we had brought and discovered that I could pull in the Marquette National Weather Service radio broadcast as clear as day up on this high ridge. The Marquette NWS office broadcasts a weather forecast for Isle Royale every half hour, and we were able to pick up an extended forecast. Things looked questionable: Thunderstorms tonight, rain tomorrow night, and a solid day of rain after that, with a questionable following day as well.

We conferred while laying on the remarkably warm and sunny rocks: Our current plan put us in Moskey Basin for a rest day during the fully rainy day. We decided it would be better to risk a day stuck in a shelter, than to change our plans and possibly be caught hiking in a full-day rainstorm.

After a wonderful rest, we hitched our packs back on and headed down the trail. The trail dipped down into a forest and then quickly -- not 100 yards from where we had rested -- it pushed right back up into an opening with huge rocky cliffs overlooking the most amazingly clear view of Lake Superior and Canada. In front of it all was a small sign: "Mt. Franklin". Ah.

However, there were already several large (and loud) groups hanging out in all of the best viewing spots, so we regretfully continued onward. Next time, perhaps.

Soon, the trail came out from the trees and ascended a rocky hill to a high point, covered in dry grass, low shrubs, and late-summer wildflowers. The views toward the south were astonishing, and I spent quite a bit of time taking photos here.


Sarah on the Greenstone, overlooking Moskey Basin and Conglomerate Bay
After that, the trail stayed almost entirely out in the open. The Greenstone Ridge trail was hot, sunny, and very exposed. The breeze which had felt so refreshing on "fake Mt. Franklin" (as I now thought of it) started to get a bit too stiff. Together with the direct sun, it dried me out. The trail was a solid ribbon of bedrock, visible where the grass and low juniper bushes had been worn away by incessant foot traffic. Occasionally it would dip down into a low spot, where incredibly thick deciduous shrubs reached up over my head. In these places the trail was so narrow that the shrubs constantly grabbed at my arms, legs, and pack. I used my walking stick as a path clearing device, pushing away the bigger branches and protecting my face from the rest.

The trail consisted of a number of large climbs and descents over rocky mounds, each with smaller ups and downs on top of it. This got rather tiring after a while. There was never a flat spot, but there were almost constant dramatic views to either north or south (but rarely both at once).

Soon, the fire tower on Mt. Ojibway -- our next waypoint -- peeked up over the distant edge of a hill. The trail started to open up into exposed rocky hills with few trees. Occasionally it also wound through low juniper and blueberry bushes -- in fact, enough blueberries started to show up that I frequently stopped to grab entire handfuls. They were sweet, delicious, and kept me going.

The constant up-and-down wore me down, but the glowing beacon of the Mt. Ojibway tower helped me keep moving. After what seemed like an endless series of hot hills, I finally arrived at the base of the tower. I dropped the pack, grabbed my camera, and... waited at the bottom. A family consisting of two saintly parents and a swarm of children with an endless amount of energy were climbing the tower.

The family finally made it down, picked up their tiny daypacks, and headed down the hill towards Daisy Farm. The view from the top -- and the breeze -- was spectacular. I could see across the island, and up and down the Greenstone both ways. And then... Sarah appeared.

Hot and extremely grumpy, Sarah harrumphed her way up the last hill and collapsed at the base of the tower. She had not had a good hike since I saw her last. The heat, the hills, the wind... everything conspired to make a miserable Greenstone hike for Sarah. She was completely wiped out, and her feet were seriously hurting her due to a twisted sock seam. We sat quietly (with boots off) for a while, but I couldn't convince her that a view from the tower would help.

We did agree, however, that it was getting late in the afternoon, and that as a result I would head downhill with all due haste in order to secure us a shelter at Daisy Farm. We probably didn't speak quite as formally as that, but you get the idea. I ruefully shouldered my pack, noticing that the pack's belt was really digging into my hips, and started the process of heading back down the Greenstone Ridge for the 2nd time in the last 24 hours.

Looking west along the Greenstone Ridge from the Ojibway tower
While this was the "easy" side of the Greenstone, that didn't keep it from being the same rocky up-and-down that had been eating away at my legs all day. The trail was solid bedrock for most of the downhill, until I hit a low point that quickly became swampy. After a few hundred yards with dense underbrush lining either side of the trail, I suddenly found myself on... another uphill!

This unhappy surprise is apparently called Ransom Hill, named after the Ransom Mine that was once drilled into its slopes. The steep rocky climb was an unexpected and disheartening experience. I had to stop frequently to rest for a few seconds as I climbed its steep and rocky side. As I passed along the top of the hill, my famous "spidey senses" started tingling (famous, that is, among the 3 or 4 other Copper Country explorers that I regularly spent time with, for my ability to apparently walk into the woods at random and find old mine ruins). Through the dense pine forest at the top of the hill, I could see signs of old trenches, pits, and other mine signs.

The downhill side of Ransom Hill seemed to be an eternal gradual downhill. I was trucking it downhill, striding as far as I could in my haste to make it to Daisy Farm before all of the shelters were taken up. I suddenly came upon the family with the young boys who had been running around the fire tower and almost ran them over as they sat resting in the middle of the trail.

All of a sudden, I saw wooden structures in the trees ahead -- shelters! I was at Daisy Farm. And once again, I was surprised: Just like Lane Cove, Daisy Farm is more a large collection of semi-isolated campsites than it is a traditional campground. Even the shelters are fairly separated, with pines or huge thickets of thimbleberry bushes separating the shelters.

A metal campground map on a post stood at a trail intersection between the two shelters. Looking quickly left and right, I realized that both of the shelters were unoccupied. I wasted no time in hanging our camping permit on the door handle of Shelter #22. I dropped my pack but continued to follow the trail, looking to see if we could find a shelter with a nicer view. The Mt. Ojibway trail enters the campground from behind, and so our shelter was pretty far from Lake Superior.

Daisy Farm truly is a maze of trails, laid out (more or less) in a large outer ring with many criss-crossing inner trails. I found my way to the lake and was disappointed to find that even the shelters right on the lake had their view blocked by high brush and scrubby trees, with the Rock Harbor trail running right through their front yards. I did find a remarkable number of unoccupied shelters, however, and quickly realized that (today, at least) my rush was unnecessary.

As I passed Shelter #13, I head a loud "hello there!" and turned to see John and Shelly hanging up laundry in front of the shelter. They had been there for several hours, but had had a similarly rough trek across the Greenstone. We agreed to meet up again later once Sarah and I had settled in.

With that, I decided it was better to stick with Shelter #22 and do camp chores instead. I started by taking our foldable bucket down to the shore to collect some water for filtering. As I sat at the picnic table in front of the shelter (what luxury!), mindlessly pumping the handle approximately 85 times per liter (so sayeth REI), I looked around our new home.

The shelter itself was a classic Adirondack style, constructed of wood painted brown. The ceiling was high enough to stand up near the front of the shelter, but only 3 or 4 feet above floor level near the back. Three walls were solid wood, while the entire front was made of screens. All of the walls had tons of narrow boards nailed to them to allow campers to hang wet clothes and gear. One side of the shelter was completely blocked off from the next shelter by a huge thicket of thimbleberries. The rear was nearly built into the sloping end of Ransom Hill, while the remaining side had spindly red pines between it and the Mt. Ojibway trail. The front, with the picnic table, was open to a cross trail.

Clouds over a fantastic swimming spot
As I sat pumping water and pondering how lovely it was to sit down, Sarah stumbled down the trail. I jumped up and yelled to catch her attention and waved her over to our new home. She collapsed at the picnic table and began slurping down water from one of our spare Platypuses -- she had run out of water shortly after leaving Ojibway and was hot, ornery, and dehydrated.

We vegged out gloriously, and Sarah told me the story of her trip after I had left her at Mt. Ojibway. She had sat in the shade beneath the tower with her boots off, letting her painful feet cool down. As she waited, two Eagle Scouts from Wisconsin hiked up the trail from the west. They were extremely enthusiastic and managed to convince her to climb the tower with them -- which is where all of my good photos came from. They also shared some advice, such as "This tower is way better than Lookout Louise!" and "Belle Isle is the best campground for kayakers." She took note for future trips.

After rehydrating, snacking, and generally enjoying the lack of packs on our backs, we decided it was time to do something with the wonderfully long northern afternoon. That, undoubtedly, would be swimming in Lake Superior (after all, we had to try to outdo Sarah's record from last year of swimming in Lake Superior for 5 days in a row!) We changed into swimsuits and walked down to the lakeshore.

Daisy Farm has a large cement dock that goes far out into Rock Harbor. One side protects a beautiful sandy beach and a rocky lake bed that were absolutely perfect for swimming. The day was warm and beautiful, with a perfectly clear blue sky. The water was a little choppy -- the breeze that had blasted us up on the Greenstone was blowing across the lake as well. Being more exposed to Lake Superior, the water was colder than Lane Cove, but that didn't stop us from taking a good long bath in the lake. It felt great to clean up. After washing, I spent much of my swim just floating on my back and staring at the sky. After the water got a bit too cold for us, we climbed out and sat on the dock.

Daisy Farm Selfie
The dock and beach also turned out to be the social center of Daisy Farm campground. Daisy Farm is a hub for the Isle Royale trail system, and all of the trails that enter Daisy Farm lead straight to the dock. Backpackers came in, especially from Three Mile and Rock Harbor, and immediately dropped their packs at the dock to rest. Hikers coming down the Greenstone showed up at the dock while looking for a (now scarce) shelter. Boaters arriving in small fishing boats and enormous lake cruisers tied up and had a beer. Groups that had been separated on the trail hung out at the dock, waiting to reconnect while enjoying the rest.

Sarah made a quick run back to the shelter and grabbed our water bottles andKkindles, and we spent the next hour drying off, reading, people-watching, and chatting with our new neighbors. Throughout the whole trip (and in pre-trip research), we had heard one thing over and over: "Daisy Farm is a zoo!" Daisy Farm was too busy, too full, always overflowing, and nobody every went there on purpose -- they were just passing through on their way to somewhere more scenic, more quiet, better.

We felt exactly the opposite. We liked it! Daisy Farm was the only place we stayed that actually felt big enough for the late summer hiking crowds -- indeed, one shelter (located conveniently right next to the outhouses) stayed unoccupied until quite late in the evening. (I wonder why.) Socializing at the dock wasn't exactly traditional backpacking fare for us, but we found it immensely enjoyable. We shared a common experience with everyone there, and frankly, not too many genuine jerks make it that far out into the outback. We enjoyed watching a small herd of kids playing frisbee (and the drama that unfolded when someone missed their catch and let it fly too far off the end of the dock); a boater in a very fancy cruiser that docked and held court with anyone interested in his stuff; a group of boy scouts all doggedly pumping identical Katadyn filters; and a group of three backpackers who seemed to come and go, each looking for the others, meeting in pairs, and then disappearing again before the 3rd could appear.

Our time at Daisy Farm is one of my very favorite memories from a trip that is filled with fantastic experiences. Don't let people scare you away from Daisy Farm.

Clouds and a lone water-filterer
We also watched wildlife: A mama Merganser with (by my count) more than 25 kids led the family on a cruise around the dock around while papa (or another mama?) dealt with stragglers from behind.

Back at the shelter, we started to prepare dinner when John and Shelly stopped by to say hello. Our hiking doppelgängers had left an hour before us and arrived at Daisy Farm two hours before us -- a hint about our respective speeds and breaks. They began their visit with an excited question: "Did you see the moose at Lane Cove??" They had indeed seen a moose right outside Lane Cove campground, browsing in the shallows of the cove. We saw nothing an hour later. Lucky bums! After some further chitchat, they headed home for an early bedtime.

We started dinner: freeze dried Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings. It was spectacularly good, perhaps the best freeze-dried dinner I've had. Despite the hunger that multiple days on rough trails can create, many freeze-dried meals are bland (much like the Chili last night). Something about the Chicken and Dumplings hit the spot.

A second fantastic part of dinner was the result of a last-minute packing decision: A tiny box of wine that we had picked up in Houghton. Today was my birthday, and Sarah had convinced me that we should bring this 350-mL wine box for celebration. I'm not a huge wine aficionado, but this stuff was good. Yum, backcountry wine!

Keeping it classy at Daisy Farm
We took our kindles and (to keep it classy) the boxed wine back down to the dock and read some more. This time, in addition to the normal batch of water-filterers, boaters, and swimmers, we watched as a backpacker pulled a banjo out and started playing it. All I could think was: He must not have come across the Greenstone.

We also noticed a lot of people with gravity filters -- systems that used gravity and two water bags with a filter between them to filter water, with no effort required beyond filling one bag and hanging it on a branch. This looked positively glorious compared to our heavy, hand-cramp-inducing, ceramic filter.

The sky slowly filled with puffy clouds as we sat on the dock again, people-watching and reading. A beautiful sunset was happening somewhere over the Greenstone, but things were pretty good over here too.

As darkness fell, we could no longer avoid going back to our shelter and snuggling in to our sleeping bags. I first checked the weather radio, only to discover that the NWS broadcasts were completely obscured by static. Down at lake level, the signals didn't travel this far. Not too long afterward, a loud crash of thunder heralded a sudden downpour of rain that continued for several hours. Boy, were we glad to be in a shelter... with our clothes hanging outside on a line.

Oh well, that's a problem for future Dave and Sarah. We quickly dozed off into a long and well-deserved sleep.

Next time: The Rocky Road to Moskey

Miles hiked: 7
Total miles: 14


Trail Reviews (based on our one trip as experienced UP backpackers with 40-pound packs):

Lane Cove Trail (going uphill -- south): Medium-hard. Rocks and roots. One really steep uphill plus crossing a bunch of lower ridge lines. Beautiful swamps and lots of bridges.

Greenstone Ridge Trail (Mt. Franklin -- Mt. Ojibway): Medium. Lots of up-and-downs on bedrock, which is hard on the feet. Very exposed to sun, heat, and wind, except for a few dense thickets. Gorgeous views.

Mt. Ojibway Trail (Mt. Ojibway -- Daisy Farm, going downhill -- south): Medium. Relatively mild descent off the Greenstone. Lots of bedrock. Ransom Hill is an unpleasant surprise near the end.



Friday, September 23, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Day 1: Rock Harbor to Lane Cove

Last Time: Background, Planning, and Travel

The Isle Royale Queen IV departs Copper Harbor bright and early at 8 am, so we were up and ready to go by 7 am. We jumped in the car and by 7:01 am had arrived at the Queen's parking lot, where a fellow was vigorously directing a long line of cars into tiny slots. Copper Harbor is not a large place.

Across the street at the Queen's dock, we left our packs sitting next to a bench and walked to a nearby tourist shop that was doing a brisk business selling coffee and muffins to other Isle Royale-bound tourists. It was also doing a not-so-brisk business selling the most expensive thimbleberry jam I've ever seen ($16!!).

The Isle Royale Queen IV at dock. Photo taken from in front of our hotel room.
Back at the dock, we people-watched as we enjoyed our coffees. Some hauled huge wheeled luggage behind them, clearly headed to the Rock Harbor Lodge. But most of our fellow travelers had the huge packs, wide-brimmed hats, and trekking poles that marked them as heading for the backcountry. More than a few had shiny new packs, hats, poles, jackets, and everything else. I wondered how they would be feeling in another 12 hours.

It was fascinating to watch the backpackers. Some huddled in quiet groups. Others made sporadic bursts of conversation with those around them: "Have you been to the island before? Nope, us neither." One man in particular held court, sharing his extensive book-learning about the island. This clearly impressed some but annoyed many more, ourselves included -- especially when it became clear that he was staying at the lodge! Sarah whispered to me: "It's about to be Lake of the Clouds all over again". She was referring to an incident at the end of our 2014 Porcupine Mountains trip which nearly involved me snapping the heads off of some tourists who were extremely vocal about the difficulty of walking 100 yards on pavement to see Lake of the Clouds.

Soon, the parking lot attendant appeared in front of the Queen and announced that he was, indeed, our captain -- Captain Don, who would also be helping us load our bags. This man was the truest Yooper I've ever met: A Jack of all trades.

Captain Don instructed us to get in a line and bring our bags up to him. Everyone immediately followed his instructions by forming their own personal line, until he yelled at the mob to get in one line, thankyouverymuch. He then proceeded to pick up our 40 pound packs one-handed as we passed them to him, lifting, twisting, and hoisting them over his head to his helpers on the top deck.

With the bags packed, Captain Don started the next phase: Boarding. Naturally, he would be taking our tickets. He began with a short speech: "Sometimes people get annoyed at this process. But when you have such a beautiful calm day like this, you just have to be happy!" He also commented that today, August 8th, he could feel a bite of fall in the air. I had to agree -- we truly were in the north, and summer was ending.

We formed a line -- yes, one line -- and boarded the ship.

The morning was cool with no breeze and a glass-calm lake, so we immediately headed out to the bow of the ship. With a blast of the horn, we cruised out of the harbor. Behind us, I could see the silhouettes of some of my favorite Keweenaw locations: Brockway mountain, East bluff, and the unnamed outcrop of the greenstone ridge just inland that held some of my favorite hiking memories. The remnants of early-morning fog hid between the steep hillsides and gave the land a magical appearance.

We were soon out on the open water. Sarah and I met two older pastors from southwest Michigan who were traveling to the island for the nth time -- far more serious backpackers than us. They were planning not just to backpack, but to bushwhack part of their trip, an activity that requires special permits and (it seemed) a psychological examination before the Park Service would allow it. I spent a large part of the trip enjoying the beautiful weather and chatting with Pastor Dave about the island, the Keweenaw, his Detroit upbringing, and all sorts of other things. It was just the first of many friendly encounters we would have on this trip.

11:30 am: The Queen threaded a needle between the long, thin, rocky islands that separate Rock Harbor from Lake Superior proper, and we quickly docked at the island's main port of entry. On the dock, we were separated into groups: Lodge guests got a few light instructions, while we backpackers met Ranger Emma, who gave us a much more detailed orientation to the island. This included handing out laminated cards with the seven Leave No Trace principles on them and asking the lucky recipients to explain how they would follow their principle. We got an easy one: "Travel and camp on durable surfaces." How? Stay on the trail! Not that we were planning anything else.

I'm pretty sure this is official National Park Service propaganda.
We were surprised by one bit of advice from Ranger Emma: Don't hang food in bear bags. There are no bears on Isle Royale, but there are plenty of other scavengers (especially foxes and an especially hardy breed of squirrel) that will happily climb right into your pack looking for food. It turns out that most of the trees just don't have branches big enough to support hanging a food bag, and there are no bear poles in the campgrounds. The official National Park Service advice is: Double-bag your food, put it in your pack, and put your pack in your tent vestibule for good measure. These two bear-country campers were more than a bit skeptical.

After the orientation, I headed to the park office to register my itinerary. After impatiently spinning my wheels in line behind someone who clearly hadn't planned ("So how far away is Three Mile campground again?"), I gave our very modest itinerary to a ranger. He didn't ask any questions as he put it in a plastic baggie, told me to keep it visible on my pack, tent, or shelter at all times, and sent me on my way.

Sarah had picked up our packs in the meantime. I found her next to the camp store, where we tightened the last few straps and picked up our packs. We were first heading to Lane Cove, an outpost at the end of a dead-end trail, 7 miles away from Rock Harbor and across the Greenstone ridge. We had heard that it was much quieter and less frequented than other common first-night destinations like Three Mile or Daisy Farm campgrounds.

A very tired looking man sitting on a bench nearby overheard us discussing our itinerary and offered us some advice. He had also gone to Lane Cove at the start of his trip too and told us it was absolutely gorgeous, especially campsite 3. Oh, but "It was really hard hiking up over the ridge. It maxed me outBut you two look a bit healthier than me, so maybe you won't have as much trouble." Great. We thanked him and headed on our way.

We followed the paved (!) trails towards the Tobin Harbor trail, our first trail of the trip. Pretty soon, we were on a wide dirt path running right along the edge of Tobin Harbor. The harbor is a beautiful long slice of water between the narrow rocky fingers of land that form the northeast end of the island. The water was a deep blue-green and was absolutely clear near shore, while tiny rocky islets bursting with evergreens populated the farther reaches. It quickly became our favorite trail.

After about a mile we found a nice place where some roots formed a bench right next to the water. We dropped our packs and enjoyed a lunch of meat sticks, cheese wheels, and peanut butter rice cakes. As we sat eating our food, a couple in a canoe floated by and said hello.

Sarah, Thimbleberry plants, and a mystery boy at Suzy's Cave
A short while after, we came to a trail marker pointing uphill towards Suzy's Cave, a sea cave left from an era when Lake Superior was much higher. We dropped our packs again (so far, this trail was a great way to get back into carrying a 40 pound pack!) and headed uphill. After a steep and rocky initial climb, we quickly ended up on a remarkably flat trail. And even more quickly, we found ourselves stuck behind a trio: a 2-year-old with mom and grandma helping her walk very slowly over every single root and rock. Mom and grandma noticed us behind them, and we joked that we were amazed that the little girl was able to hike on Isle Royale at all. Mom told us that this was actually her second time -- it was a little easier when she was just 6 months old and in a baby carrier. Wow! I would never have thought of bringing such young kids out into the backcountry.

Mom and grandma then turned around and continued helping the 2 year old... while completely blocking the trail. We tried not to lurk too close behind, but it was all but impossible to get around them by bushwhacking through the dense undergrowth. Perhaps 5 minutes later, they finally decided that we should be allowed to pass them, which we did with all haste.

Suzy's Cave was a big rounded rocky outcropping with a small cave hollowed out of it by the waves of ancient Lake Superior. Hiding from the sun inside the cave were Grandpa, Father, and Older Brother, who had apparently run ahead to the cave quite a while ago. We chatted a little, updated them on the progress of the other half of their party, and enjoyed the coolness of the cave. With that, I crawled through the narrow opening to the back side of the cave and met up with Sarah on the other side, and we headed back downhill (passing the 2-year-old and entourage along the way).

With our packs back on, it was only a short way to the junction with the Mt. Franklin trail, which heads across the island roughly north-south. It would be our entrance ramp up the Greenstone Ridge on our way to Lane Cove. Near the junction, we met another multi-generational group. Grandpa and grandson passed us heading back towards Rock Harbor after a day hike up the Mt. Franklin trail. They looked bushed, and grandpa warned us that the trail ahead was extremely tough, but worth it. We thanked them and headed onwards.

We had no trouble at all with the trails so far today, and the Mt. Franklin trail started out just as easy as Tobin Harbor. We began by walking a long and very nice puncheon bridge over a swampy inlet to Tobin Harbor. This was our first encounter with these wonderful bridges, which would turn out to be absolutely standard -- we never met a muddy spot that wasn't thoroughly bridged.

Right after the swampy crossing, we met our first real uphill. The trail headed steeply upwards and broke out onto an open rocky ridge. A thought came unbidden into my head: I've been here before! I'd hiked places just like it for years, back on the mainland. This ridge was just like the Cliffs back in the Keweenaw. The color and texture of the rocks, the shape of the outcrops, the dried grasses, the scraggly trees: It was as if it were 5 years ago, I was still living in the Keweenaw, and I was just out for a day of hiking at the Cliffs.

Lost in those thoughts, I learned another important lesson: It's hard to follow a trail across bare rock. I had to backtrack a few feet and look carefully for cairns marking the trail. We quickly got the hang of this, watching for trampled grass and the reddish-brown stain on the rocks made by the dirt from thousands of hikers' boots. The climb was steep but brief, and from the crest of the low ridge we had one last glimpse of Tobin Harbor's deep blue waters.

The only kind of trail markers you'll ever see on Isle Royale.
Interlude, while Our Heroes Catch Their Breath at the Top of a Strangely Familiar Ridge: Geology of Western Lake Superior. Yes, really. Isle Royale is, in a very real way, just a rocky outcrop that manages to poke its peaks above Lake Superior. It is, in just as real of a way, the mirror image of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Stick with me here: Understanding this little bit of geology is crucial to understanding both why Isle Royale is the way it is, why this ridge looked so familiar, and also why it kicked our butts so badly.

Billions of years ago, an enormous rift formed in the earth's crust in the middle of what would become Lake Superior. Over millions of years, hundreds of volcanic eruptions spewed lava through this rift and out across an extremely wide area. As these lava flows cooled, they formed layers of basalt. At some point, whatever was pushing the lava upwards stopped, and in fact all of the magma underneath the western Lake Superior area drained away, leaving a huge gap beneath the crust. The solidified lava began to collapse into this void, forming a huge bowl-shaped depression that became the western end of Lake Superior. As the bowl formed, it forced the northwest and southeast edges of the flows to tilt upwards, exposing the layered rocks to the surface. The southeastern upturned edges formed a large part of the Keweenaw peninsula -- in fact, the Cliffs are formed by the edges of one particularly enormous lava flow, called the Greenstone flow. The northwestern edges became Isle Royale, and the Greenstone flow also forms the largest and most prominent ridge on the Island -- but the other lava flows form many other parallel ridges.

So the Keweenaw and Isle Royale truly are twins. Because of the way the rocks tilted, the outside edges of the lava flows are extremely steep, while the inner sides (facing towards the center of the rift) are comparatively gentle. On the Keweenaw, the steep face of the Cliffs face southeast, while in Isle Royale, the steep sides face northwest towards Canada. The gentler slopes face each other across Lake Superior. The cliff we had just climbed was the gentle face of one of these low outcrops of basalt.

All of this is a way of saying that, because I had spent 10 years exploring the Keweenaw's rocky ridges, I thought I was prepared for Isle Royale. I know the terrain. I'm familiar with the exposed rocks, the sloping terrain, the many ridges, and the constant up-and-down. I've spent entire days bushwhacking through that kind of terrain. And certainly, standing on top of this ridge, I felt very well prepared for what was coming. Boy was I wrong.

Now, back to our heroes: The trail led us down off the ridge, now running in the valley between this ridge and the next ridge north -- the Greenstone ridge, the Big One that we would have to conquer next. The underbrush got more dense, and soon we started to find the best trail food of all: thimbleberries! Those little raspberry-shaped packets of tartness kept us going for quite a while as the trail bucked us up and down innumerable rocky rises.

We were getting tired -- way more tired than we should have been after just 3-ish miles of trail on familiar terrain. The constant up-and-down, the hot sun, and the total lack of breeze in this low valley were all taking a toll on us. Near a small swamp, we stopped to rest again. Sarah was growing grumpy in the heat and told me to just press on -- she would continue at her own pace. I wasn't happy with that, but it sounded better than staying in the hot valley. So, upward I went. Slowly, very slowly, I did something that I'd done dozens of times before in the Keweenaw: I ascended the Greenstone ridge. Passing from low tree cover to hot, exposed rocky patches, I made it forward about 100 yards at a time before stopping to catch my breath. As we ascended we started to feel occasional light breezes. I've climbed the Cliffs before: Why was this so hard?

An answer occurred to me while resting in a shady patch overlooking a lovely field of grass and low trees: The Cliffs have 2-tracks. Those 2-tracks were cut and blasted through the worst bits of the rock by miners and lumbermen, then worn down and improved over more than 100 years -- making for (relatively) even footing. The rocky single-track hiking trails here on Isle Royale were nothing like the old worn-down mining roads back in the Keweenaw. This was the Cliffs in its raw, untamed form.

Sarah is not impressed at the Greenstone Ridge.
At long last, I topped out at the trail intersection with the legendary Greenstone Ridge trail. The intersection was small and surprisingly humble: No magnificent views, no rocky cliffs, just a few fallen logs for benches and a trail marker. Sitting on one of the log benches was a college-aged backpacker, quietly munching on gorp. I greeted him and flopped down on another log. The other backpacker was Peter, a quiet Michigan Tech student who worked on "the boat" in the summer (I never did figure out which one). On his off days, he backpacked the island. That sounded like a wonderful life to me, and I said as much, to which he quietly nodded.

Sarah finally made it up the last few steps of the trail, flushed from heat and exertion, and flopped down on the bench next to me. We spent some more time chatting with Peter, who offered us the opinion that the Lane Cove trail -- our next leg -- was a bit rough but nothing too bad in dry weather. With that, he headed off down that very trail and quickly disappeared out of sight.

We sat, eating gorp and enjoying the breeze, until we could no longer come up with an excuse to sit still. We heaved on our packs again and headed down the Lane Cove trail -- our final leg of the day.

As I described above in the Geological Interlude -- you did read that, right? -- we were now heading down the steep side of the Greenstone ridge. The long slog of an uphill we had just completed wasn't even the worst. And as we have learned many times, up-climbing is much easier than down-climbing.

The trail very quickly started to lose elevation. It switchbacked relentlessly through deep rocky cuts. Mossy cliffs formed one side of the trail, while steep birch forests dropped off on the other side. The going was slow, especially because the trail was so rocky that we couldn't be sure of our footing. Some parts of the trail were solid bedrock, with just enough dirt and pebbles to keep things interesting. And of course, despite going steeply downhill, the trail still managed to buck us up and down a bit along the way. But hey, at least it was dry -- we would have turned right back around and gone home if it were raining.

We also learned that the Lane Cove trail didn't see quite as much trail maintenance as other, more easily accessible trails. One of the more interesting moments happened on an especially steep segment, where a pair of large birches had fallen directly across the trail. Worse yet, the trees had fallen in the perfectly wrong way. They were neither directly on the ground (easy to step over) nor high enough to duck under while still walking -- we had to take off our packs, shove them downhill, and crab-crawl under the tree.

Sarah crossing the "Roller Coaster Boardwalk"
We finally came to the end of the cliff face, having shed nearly 400 feet in just under half of a mile. But this was not the end of the downhills nor the uphills -- oh no, not at all. We were traveling north across the "grain" of Isle Royale, which meant we had to climb and then descend a nearly constant sequence of low rocky ridges (some of which were actually old lake shores). Between each pair of ridges was a low swamp, crossed by a boardwalk. One of the boardwalks was so long and, uh, varied in its elevation that we called it the "roller coaster".

The swamps were ridiculously picturesque, with tall grasses and late-summer flowers blooming in them. (The only reason I know this is because I noticed it the next day, when we walked back out the same way -- at this point, the only thing keeping us moving were the loaded thimbleberry bushes that we found along the trail, so we paid no attention whatsoever to the scenery.)

At very long last, the trail leveled out for good, although it quickly became much more rocky and root-y as we got closer to the Lake Superior shore. We started to glimpse the cove itself as the trail followed it for a few tenths of a mile. Suddenly, a signpost appeared in the middle of the trail, welcoming us to Lane Cove Campground. We had made it! We survived!!

This was our first experience with an Isle Royale "campground", and it was a pleasant surprise. My mental image had been of a large area with a bunch of sites all crammed in immediately next to each other. The campground was really a collection of 5 very isolated campsites, all located close to the shore but not very close to each other. Each site was large enough to hold 2 or 3 tents.

Following the advice we had received from the exhausted man in Rock Harbor, we headed directly to Site #3. As soon as we crested a low hill, we saw... a tent already set up in it. Oh well. Site #4 was also occupied. Someone had just started setting up in Site #5. Sites #1 and #2 were already double-booked with 2 or more tents in each. So, we had to share. We decided to march into Site #3 and ask to share -- at least we could be assured of a nice view.

As I crested the low hill leading into Site #3 (again), I waved and said loudly: "Do you mind if we share your site?" A middle-aged man and woman, each holding a camera, looked up and grinned. "Sure, come on in!"

Sarah and I dropped our bags off next to a very lovely driftwood log that served as a bench and prepared to do introductions. As I looked up, I saw the man's outstretched arm pointing straight at my chest, while his craggy, unshaved face broke into a huge and slightly wild grin. His other arm pointed at his bicep, where a tattoo of a skier was surrounded by the words "American Birkebeiner". I looked down and realized that I was wearing a t-shirt with the exact same logo. We were both wearing (in our various ways) the logo of one of the legendary ski races of the upper Midwest.

Thus I met (and immediately bonded with) John and his wife Shelly, two fascinating and incredibly friendly backpackers from the eastern end of the UP. They welcomed us to their tent site and never stopped talking or asking questions except when one would spontaneously break off to take a photo of a dragonfly or a cloud. We learned that they were experienced Isle Royale backpackers with a very laid-back outlook on hiking. We chatted with them continuously until we had our tent set up, our clothes changed, and were about to jump directly into Lake Superior to wash off 7 miles worth of dirt, grime, and sweat.

And yes, we did take a swim -- Lane Cove was fantastically warm, despite being part of Lake Superior. The water was crystal clear. It was easy to see straight down to the foot-sized boulders that made up the lake bottom. They were extremely slippery, but I didn't care. I spent nearly half an hour splashing around, washing, and floating while staring at the sky. It was wonderful.

After we were done with the water, hunger finally caught up with us. Hiking 7 hard miles in heat and sun has a way of suppressing your appetite... for a while. We ravenously boiled water for our freeze-dried meal du jour: Mountain House White Bean Chicken Chili. For as delicious as the bag looked, and as salty as it actually tasted, it was remarkably bland. Regardless, we devoured it.

My one photo of the Lane Cove sunset.
We finished the day by watching the sun slowly set behind a long arm of land that formed one side of the cove. The clouds came together to make a perfect show, with rich golds and reds over a calm lake. John and Shelly went wild, taking dozens (if not hundreds) of photos from every conceivable angle. Sarah and I sat and watched in astonishment.

And with that, it was dark. We said good night to the photographers, crawled into our tent, and quickly fell asleep to the sound of loons trilling in the cove.

Next time: Hi ho, hi ho, it's up and over the Greenstone Ridge to Daisy Farm we go!

Miles hiked: 7
Total miles: 7



Trail Reviews (based on our one trip as experienced UP backpackers with 40-pound packs):

Tobin Harbor Trail: As easy as Isle Royale gets. Wide and relatively flat. Few roots and rocks. Runs right along a beautiful harbor.

Mt. Franklin Trail: Medium. Lots of ups and downs over bedrock outcrops. The long uphill to the Greenstone is rough.

Lane Cove Trail (going north - downhill): Medium-hard. Steep switchbacks, would be terrible in bad weather. Many ups and downs, but mostly downhill -- which is especially hard. Near the shore, lots of rocks and roots.