Sunday, January 22, 2017

Winter cabin camping at Wilderness State Park

In fall of 2016, I found myself with a few free days just after final exams -- the perfect time to relax after the busiest time of the semester. Sarah and some of her friends had planned a girls' weekend out, and I needed my own end-of-semester getaway: Getting away from everything, including running water, electricity, and people.

Shoreline of the Straits of Mackinac
So, I fired up the trusty old internet browser, headed to midnrreservations.com, and made my reservations for 3 nights in a rustic cabin at Wilderness State Park. When Friday December 16th came around, I threw my snowshoes and backpack in the car and headed north towards Mackinac City.

Wilderness is a large state park in the far, far northern reaches of Michigan's lower peninsula, just a few miles west of the Mackinac Bridge. At over 10,000 acres, it's nothing to sneeze at. Better yet, most of that space is undeveloped. Most of the park is wild Lake Michigan shoreline and woodlands. Best of all, Wilderness has my favorite amenity: rustic cabins, without any running water or electricity. They are available in winter, but only if you're willing to snowshoe or ski several miles on ungroomed trails. Why yes, yes I am willing to do that -- and I was willing to bet that almost nobody else would want to do such a thing.

Friday, December 16: Light snow followed me north until Gaylord -- a city that every Michigan Tech student traveling north dreads, as it inevitably marks the line where lake effect snow starts reaching inland far enough to affect the expressways. Sure enough, a dense band of lake effect was turning I-75 into a sheet of solid packed snow. I ended up in a caravan of cars going 35 mph with our blinkers on, occasionally looking up to see cars on the southbound lanes spin out and go off the road (but, strangely, nobody on the northbound lanes had this trouble). An hour later, I thankfully exited the expressway at Mackinac City and headed west for the park -- and the lake effect snow immediately stopped.

10 miles to the west, I pulled in to the park headquarters. The ranger handed me my keys and said "we started a fire in the wood stove for you this morning". This was the best thing I'd heard all day -- I wouldn't have to walk into a completely cold cabin and immediately have to start a fire from scratch.

One more mile down the road, I reached the small parking area where the plowed road ended and the adventure began. I parked, put on snowshoes, and strapped on my backpack. I am new to winter camping, so I probably overpacked a little -- the pack weighed 40 pounds, at least as much weight as I brought for 6 days on Isle Royale. My pack included an (empty) day pack strapped across the top, three different pairs of gloves (I used them all!), a full-sized Nalgene bottle (to act as a hot water bottle), and ski goggles.

Station Point cabin from the rear. In summer, cars could drive right up to the cabin and park in the corral.
My cabin for tonight was a little over 2 miles down a narrow and unplowed dirt road. The road was covered with a nice thick base of snow, and was surrounded by gorgeous northern Michigan beauty -- a solid wall of cedars, along with red pine, hemlock, and birch. I stopped frequently to take photos. OK, with a bit more honesty, I was also stopping to catch my breath -- snowshoeing with a 40 pound pack was kicking my butt! Luckily, a lone snowmobile (probably a park ranger) had followed the road earlier in the day, providing a somewhat packed trail to follow.

After 2 miles, I reached the metal gate blocking the quarter-mile long driveway to Station Point cabin. The driveway wound through an even closer, denser, and hillier forest of pines. The cabin itself soon swung into view, nestled among pines growing right along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Station Point cabin was built by a CCC camp which worked in the park in the 1930's. It's a genuine log cabin, with a wood floor, a stone foundation, and no running water nor electricity. The furniture was exactly the same style of chunky rustic chairs and tables found in my favorite cabins in the Porcupine Mountains. Two double bunk beds were lined up against one wall. Strangely, the bunks together were longer than the wall of the cabin. To make room for them, the front wall of the cabin popped out slightly, making a small niche just large enough to hold the end of a bunk bed (and a lovely window above one lucky sleeper's head). The main feature of the cabin, however, was a surprisingly large wall of windows on the lake side. Those windows gave a gorgeous view of the snowy lake.

This is how close I stayed to the wood stove in order to stay warm.
The other main feature of the cabin was the essential wood stove, my only source of heat for the weekend. There was no fire left in the stove -- it had been burning much too long for that. But by poking around inside the firebox, I found enough embers left to start some kindling.  I quickly had a roaring fire going, thanks to instructions from the Porcupine Mountains Companion (and no thanks to the instructions left pinned to the cabin's door, which got some important details -- such as which way to adjust the oxygen control -- exactly backwards). There was a large pile of well-seasoned wood left inside the cabin and a truly enormous amount piled outside, so I felt confident of my ability to stay warm, even with single-digit lows predicted throughout the weekend.

I completed the one other important camp chore -- getting water from the nearby water pump -- just before sunset. That left me with just enough time to take some photos along the lakeshore. The wind had the lake whipped up into whitecaps which crashed against the pack ice near shore. There was a big storm moving in overnight.

Gray, stormy, and snowy Straits of Mackinac.
There was one oddity I noticed on the outside of the cabin: A bit of electrical conduit ran up a pole and directly into the cabin. I suspected that there used to be a weather station mounted on the pole, until I went back into the cabin and found this:

Huh?
Yep, a hotel safe, the only electrified item for miles in every direction. I couldn't figure out any way to open it, either.

After a quick freeze-dried dinner, I pulled a bunk bed closer to the wood stove and set up a sleeping pad beneath my sleeping bag for additional insulation. I made a lovely hot-water bottle from a Nalgene filled with boiling water and wrapped in spare clothes. It was still warm the next morning.

With those chores done, I settled in for the night. I read by headlamp-light for a while until I finally rolled over and went to sleep. As I slept, the fire slowly died out, and I woke up three hours later feeling a definite chill in the air. I stoked the fire, threw on a new log, and tried to sleep again. For the rest of the night, I tossed and turned, waking up every hour or two to add another log on to the fire.

Saturday, December 17: I woke up with the sun already well above the horizon. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and hot tea, I dressed up, packed my daypack, made up a roaring good fire (in hopes that some coals would be left when I returned) and headed out for a day of adventuring in the snow.

Station Point cabin after a fresh snow. The small "pop out" for the bunk beds is on the right.
Nearly a foot of fluffy fresh snow had fallen overnight. It was a snowshoer's dream (and, I suppose, a cross-country skier's nightmare). The wind was extremely brisk and blowing from the east, but the air had warmed up into the high teens. My goal for the day was to explore the west end of the park. This consists mainly of Waugoshance Point, a long sandy point of land that sticks out into Lake Michigan. The point ends in a series of almost-connected islands. My hope was to find a short ice bridge across to those islands. Tomorrow, I would explore the east end, with more traditional trails winding through the woods.

I began my trek along the shore, admiring the puffy clouds, snow-covered pines, and giant piles of pack ice. The shore was usually a long, grassy, and somewhat sandy beach that was favored by endangered Piping Plovers. Now, it was a giant pile of fluffy snow.

I soon came to an unplowed parking area and found my way onto Waugoshance Road, the same road that I had followed in to the cabin yesterday. The road had been untouched by humans for days, and it was like walking into a true wonderland: Snow draped cedars and red pines above a sparkling and completely untouched layer of snow.

Undisturbed snow leading out to Waugoshance Point
The road quickly led out of the trees and onto Waugoshance Point proper, which was much more exposed to the cold wind. Only scattered clusters of cedars broke the vast stretches of beach grass and low scrub. I vaguely followed the ruts of a two-track trail, but, hoping to follow the shoreline, I quickly headed off-trail towards an interesting-looking cluster of trees which were growing on a slight rise in the sand.

As soon as I headed beyond the rise, my snowshoed foot broke through ice hiding beneath the snow, and plunged straight into icy cold water. I jumped back, thankful that the water hadn't overtopped my boot. With some careful probing, I discovered ice beneath much of the snow. It quickly became clear that the shoreline was almost fractally twisted, with ponds and pools hiding between grassy points of sand. You can see what I mean on an aerial:

My cabin was located a little to the right of this view.
I carefully picked my way back to the trail. Along the way, I found this interesting relic of the park's past: The steel skeleton of a glider, apparently left by the Army Air Corp. During World War II, the Corps used Waugoshance Point as a testing range, including aerial bombing runs. Some of the gnarly coastline was undoubtedly a result of that target practice.

Wreck of a glider.
The trail passed through more clusters of cedars before veering off towards the coast again. As I walked farther and farther, I began panting as I broke trail in the knee-deep snow. And then, suddenly, my feet broke through ice again -- the trail had water beneath it too! After a few more breaks, I finally decided to give up and turn around. There was no way to tell what was going on beneath the thick layer of snow, but the answer was clearly: ice, and none too thick. I looked wistfully towards the end of the point, which I couldn't even see: I had made it perhaps 1.5 miles out onto the point, nowhere near the end. Oh well, maybe in summer!

I was the only person to pass this way all day.
I backtracked through the beautiful tunnel of trees and paused when I reached the driveway to the Waugoshance Cabin, the westernmost of the line of rustic cabins at the state park. There were no tracks visible in the driveway, so I felt safe waltzing into the cabin's front yard to check it out. The cabin was much larger -- 8 bunks! -- but had a big sand dune blocking its view of the lake. I sat at a picnic table and ate a lunch of meat sticks, plus my favorite hiking food of all time: peanut butter on rice cakes. The rest felt good, and I was soon refreshed enough to push on to a longer hike.

My next goal was to follow the Sturgeon Bay trail south until it intersected the bay of the same name. This trail was completely undisturbed, except for the tracks of a fox and some occasional rabbits. The trail was fully surrounded by dense cedar swamps and overhung with tall trees, making for a gorgeous slog through the snow. It was my own personal fluffy trail through beautiful northern Michigan woods. This entire day had been a true snowshoer's dream.

Red Pine and Snow
After what seemed like a ridiculously long distance (but was really only a little over 1 mile), I reached the trailhead for the Sturgeon Bay Trail -- I'd only been hiking on the access road to the trail! Shortly beyond the trailhead was the Sturgeon Bay Cabin, also unoccupied. I spent nearly half an hour at this cabin, resting, exploring the area around it, and attempting to investigate the lake shore (which was just as gnarly and hard to reach as it was farther north).

My original plan for today had been to make a loop, using the Sturgeon Bay trail and continuing on the North Country Trail east into the heart of the park. Then I would turn north, find the access road past my cabin, and hike 2 miles west back to the cabin.

Sturgeon Bay Cabin wins the award for most picturesque (and coldest) walk to an outhouse.
As I sat at the Sturgeon Bay Cabin, I wasn't even sure that I would be able to drag myself directly back to my cabin. There was no way I could have continued on the 8+ remaining miles of the loop. Oh well, I could leave the east end of the park for tomorrow. I also had the idea of popping down to this area to watch the sun set over Sturgeon Bay. But with the coastline all but impossible to find, a long hike through powder to reach it, and my legs almost ready to fall off, that was another too-optimistic idea. I eventually hauled myself up, put the daypack back on, and headed back the way I'd come. At least I had my own tracks to follow this time.

After a very slow hike back, I arrived at Station Point cabin just a few minutes before sunset. I plopped down in front of the wood stove and stirred up the coals of the fire. A brisk north wind had started up, and I wanted to make sure the cabin was good and toasty before night fell.

The big, beautiful, and drafty front windows.
I soon began to feel a distinct draft. Some investigation revealed that almost none of the windows were locked, which left small cracks for cold air to enter in. Then I found the huge gaps in the frames of the big, beautiful windows on the north wall of the cabin -- and the north wind was taking advantage of every crack and crevice. One window in particular let a strong breeze in that blew directly on my chair in front of the fire. I found evidence of previous visitors' attempts to stop the breeze -- napkins stuffed into the biggest cracks, duct tape laid over them (and peeling away), and other jerry-rigged attempts at breeze-blocking. I eventually stretched my coat and a towel across the worst parts of the window, holding them up with tacks and a clothespin. I added two more logs to the roaring fire and pulled my chair closer.

Later that night, I stepped outside for a moment and looked up to see an unexpected sight: Stars peeking through the quickly moving clouds. The stars in the deep black sky were a breathtaking sight. Back inside the cabin, another beautiful and unexpected sight awaited me through the large front windows: Freighters, with lights blazing along their entire length, heading through the Straits of Mackinac. The Straits are so narrow that the freighters were at most 2 miles away from me. They looked like a parade as they slowly made their way under the Mackinaw Bridge.

I read for many hours (Naked in the Stream: Isle Royale Stories by Vic Foerster -- which I highly recommend). I finally turned over and curled up with another hot water bottle. I slept in 2 hour shifts, waking up like clockwork to put another log on the fire.

Sunday, December 18: I woke up groggy and stiff, with a huge headache threatening to split my skull open. Sleeping in 2 hour shifts hadn't helped. Snowshoeing 6 miles in powder had helped even less.

There had been a change in the weather, heralded by last night's strong winds: I could see bright blue sky out the window with puffy white clouds skittering across it. What a perfect day for a snowshoe hike!

Clearing skies heralding my departure.
My overly ambitious hiking plan for the day began with a 2 mile snowshoe back to the parking area, followed by a longer loop (6 or 8 miles, depending on what I felt like) in the east end of the park. That included investigating the Nebo cabin, the one cabin nestled deep in the woods at the east end of the park. Then, I would hike 2 more miles back. Sitting in my cabin, groaning as I bent over to put another log in the wood stove, even the 2 miles to the parking lot sounded nearly impossible. There was no way I could do a real hike today.

To avoid the reality of that situation, I laid back on the bed and pulled out my weather radio. The weather service reported good weather today, but more snow falling tomorrow. Darn. The more I thought about it, the clearer my course: I had to leave today.

The choice was made, but I could at least take my time packing up. I savored the solitude, the beautiful view, the smell of the wood fire. I wrote in the cabin's log book and read stories that others had left. I got limbered up enough to go outside and split some firewood, feeling badass and sore at the same time. I took a few photos and wandered around the lake shore, enjoying the beautiful sky.

Eventually, I couldn't put off my departure any longer. I strapped on my snowshoes, loaded the slightly-lighter-than-40-pound pack onto my back, and headed down the cabin's driveway. All trace of my tracks from the day before had been obliterated by snow and wind.

The snowshoe hike back out was long, slow, and painful. There was no way I could have hiked for more than those two miles that day. I stopped frequently to take photos of my gorgeous surroundings... and to catch my breath. The only signs I saw of fellow humans were some snowshoe tracks through the fresh snow -- both coming and going. Whoever it was must have been out for a nice hike and already returned.

When I finally made it to the end of the road, I was already bushed. Then I got to dig out the car.

As if snowshoeing wasn't enough...
The drive home was long but generally uneventful, except for a small lake-effect squall around (where else?) Gaylord. Once again, several people had managed to spin off the road heading southbound -- and the sensible people on the northbound side were having no problems at all.

Even though I cut the trip short, it was still worth every ache and pain. Just like the Porcupine Mountains, I've found another place that I want to keep coming back to over and over. Next year, I'll return -- and stay in a cabin closer to the east end of the park. Watch for it next year!

Map of Wilderness State Park: Notice all of the trails I didn't even get near.

Total miles snowshoed: 10




Monday, December 19, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Day 6: Homeward Bound

Last Time: A long haul from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor

News flash! Just before I published this post, the National Park Service announced that it is planning to introduce new wolves to the park in an attempt to save the disappearing wolf population.

The Ranger III in Rock Harbor
I woke up well after sunrise and found a grey day waiting for me outside the tent. Sarah was still asleep, so I wandered down the trail to the docks, eating a breakfast of thimbleberries and raspberries from the bushes growing along the way. I lounged around the waterfront and watched the Ranger III use a crane to load large objects onto its dock, including dumpsters and an entire speed boat. Needless to say, the Ranger is a large vessel -- much larger than the Queen.

Sarah eventually joined me, and together we sat on a bench and watched a motley assortment of backpackers shuffle tiredly aboard the Ranger. The ship loudly blew its horn (surely waking up anyone still asleep in the lodge) and motored slowly out of the harbor.

We spent some time wandering around the "welcome center". I read the visitor log book, but was quickly disheartened by all of the wildlife sightings and had to put it down. ("Log books: the Facebook feed of yore" claims my fellow explorer Nailhed, and in this case the two certainly served similar purposes.) I turned to the books and posters for sale, and found a particularly fetching poster -- but I realized that I could never keep it clean while carting it around the dirty campground.

We overheard a ranger talking about the scattered showers that were predicted for this morning. With the day already looking grey and breezy, we decided we should pack up camp before the weather changed. As we walked back to the campsite, light sprinkles followed us -- and soon after we started shoving camp gear into our backpacks, the sprinkles turned into a torrential downpour. We dove into the empty tent and stared at each other. This wasn't good.

We sat miserably listening to the rain, and watching water slowly creep under the rain flies. We hadn't even eaten breakfast -- and I was not about to fire up our camp stove inside the tent. Instead, we sweltered in the humid atmosphere and moped. Much like Moskey, the main topic of conversation was whether the rain had let up: "I think it's brightening up a little bit... never mind." However, being stuck in an opaque dome without even being able to see outside (at least without pulling aside a rain fly and getting massively wet) was somehow even worse. Worse for me, I had hoped to go for a quick hike along the Stoll trail this morning. That trail is a loop that goes out on Scoville Point, past ancient mining pits, and through 360 degree views. It was going to be a lovely goodbye hike -- but, that was out of the question now.

Sarah hoofing it along the Tobin Harbor trail
To add to that: If things didn't let up soon enough, we would have to bite the bullet and pack up in the pouring rain, so that we would be on time for our ride home on the Queen.

After an hour of sheer boredom mixed with anxiety, the rain quit as suddenly as it had started. We quickly folded up the tent, barely even stopping to try to shake the water off of the rain fly. We wanted nothing more than to be under a roof down at the dockside.

Down at the dock, we stashed our packs under an overhang and booked it across the harbor to the Greenstone Grill -- the lodge's less formal dining room. We had missed breakfast today and dinner last night. Food had never ever sounded so good. The dining room was packed with grimy backpackers who were hungrily eyeing their menus -- the "less formal" dining room is, in other words, the one that is willing to serve those of us who had just walked out of the woods after a week without showers. The waitstaff -- entirely college kids -- were swamped. We ordered Polish sausage and a huge pizza and waited. And waited -- watching carefully to see if the Queen had yet arrived to summon us back home (it hadn't). At long last, we dug in. It was fantastic.

As we ate, rain storms rain storms blew through quickly and unpredictably, pushed on by a strong wind. Back at the dock, the Queen's arrival had been delayed by weather, and we heard many rumors that seaplane service (the fastest way to get to Isle Royale from any direction) had been canceled for today. Seaplane passengers were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to buy tickets for the Queen (and, since the Queen arrives at Copper Harbor while their vehicles were waiting at the Hancock airport, they also had to figure out how they would be traveling 50 miles without a car).

In the midst of the chaos, I realized something even more important: The only other place that I could buy that fetching poster that I had seen in the welcome center was the National Park headquarters in Houghton -- which would be closed by the time we arrived. I whipped up a solution: I purchased the (unwrapped) poster, rolled it into a tube, and covered the tube with a large waterproof bag. To keep that closed, I wrapped it thoroughly with bright orange cord from my backpack, creating a safe, secure, and waterproof sheath for my poster which for all the world looked like a kid's toy light saber.

As we sat near the dock waiting for the Queen (with me making lightsaber noises as I waved my poster around)who should march into town but our trail twins, John and Shelly. They were astonished that we had arrived anywhere before them -- they had stayed in Three Mile campground and hiked to Rock Harbor this morning. We proudly shared the story of our epic hike and the glory of the hot showers. They reported that they had seen a moose along the Tobin Harbor trail this morning -- another moose miss for us! Someone nearby chipped in that they had seen a moose on the Stoll Trail -- two moose misses in one day!

The Queen arrived and unloaded a batch of green-around-the-gills passengers. We overheard snippets of conversation about the weather conditions on the lake and the, uh, difficulties the passengers had encountered while crossing. We warily lined up and slowly made our way onboard. The whole boarding process was much simpler than when we left from Copper Harbor -- clearly the Queen crew knew that they were the only thing standing between their clientele and hot showers and soft beds back on the mainland. Captain Don again performed Herculean tasks of lifting our packs over his head and up to the top deck, and we were on our way.

The ride was great for about 5 minutes, which was exactly how long it took us to exit Rock Harbor. The open lake was choppy and our ride was correspondingly bumpy. I had never before sailed on the open waters of a great lake, and Sarah told me that I should probably expect to get seasick -- that's how landlubbers like myself always were on their first choppy trip. Instead, it was Sarah who quickly became queasy and started popping ginger candies (given to us by an extremely kind coworker). When that didn't help, she moved to the open air of the stern, hoping for some relief. My landlubber self was feeling fine, so I stayed in the comparatively warm cabin and chatted with John and Shelly.

A dead tree on the Greenstone. We didn't take many photos today -- you're getting the back stock!
After a while, I decided to check on Sarah. As I exited the rear door of the main cabin, I discovered that somewhere around half of the passengers were out on the stern of the boat in an attempt to avoid seasickness -- standing, sitting, or crouching on every available surface. I looked around and found Sarah, holding on to the railing for dear life. She was focused on the horizon with a determined stare and a clenched jaw. I checked in with her and gave her the rest of the ginger candies, but I quickly decided I needed to leave -- the diesel fumes from the Queen's engines were making me feel sick!

After what felt like a very long time, we entered the sheltered waters of Copper Harbor. I suddenly had a much greater appreciation for just how important harbors like Copper Harbor were 100 years ago. As we cruised past the Harbor Haus (likely the fanciest restaurant within 50 miles of Copper Harbor), their entire waitstaff raced out onto their patio, joined their arms together, and did a kick-line for us. Did I mention that they were all dressed in pseudo-German dresses? We waved and cheered; the Queen honked.

We said goodbye to our trail doppelgängers, acquired our backpacks (also unloaded by Captain Don),  found our car and headed south.

Rather than staying in Copper Harbor, we planned to stay closer to our old college haunts in Hancock. Sarah was still recovering from the boat ride, and neither of us were very hungry, so we checked in and took our second fantastic showers of the last 36 hours.

Dinner ended up being another old college haunt: beer at the Keweenaw Brewing Company with Studio Pizza. We ate on the deck. We moved in and ate on the couches. We moved to a table. We watched the olympics. We ate peanuts. It was glorious.

And with that, we went back to the hotel and slept in real beds. Well, actually, we tossed and turned. The mattresses were too soft, the pillows were too fluffy -- we had become used to sleeping on wooden floors and inflatable pads.

Our trip home the next day began with breakfast at Suomi, where it is a moral imperative to have breakfast when visiting Houghton. Try the Pannukakku -- you won't find better in a restaurant. (You will likely find better in an old Finnish homestead hidden in the Copper Country woods, heated by a wood stove, where not a word of english is spoken to this very day. But good luck getting in there.)

The rest was the same old 9 hour drive we've done hundreds of times. It was as hard to leave as ever.

If you know anything about us, you know this: We'll be back!

See you for the next adventure!

Grand total miles: 30
Moose sighted: 0
Moose just barely missed: Dozens. Maybe hundreds.


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 them.

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 and Kindles, 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.