Saturday, January 20, 2018

Snowshoeing and Cabin Camping at Wilderness State Park, Winter 2017

Snow and cedars on the Old South Boundary Trail
Sarah and I are university teachers, which means that the middle of December is a busy time of year: the end of fall semester. For pretty much every day between Thanksgiving and the middle of December, our waking hours are taken up by writing exams; meeting with students; grading papers and exams; calculating and recording grades; and responding to emails about those grades.

Last year, I had a great idea: Once all of the exams were marked and the final grades recorded, I headed north to hide away from the world at Wilderness State Park, at the tip of Michigan's lower peninsula. Wilderness has rustic rental cabins that require snowshoeing 2 or more miles just to reach them -- an ideal way to escape from the world for a little while, decompress, and calm down my twitching grading hand.

In 2016, I was caught by surprise at how big the park is, and I ended up spending all of my time only in the west side of the park (you can read about it in my trip report). So for 2017, my choice was the Nebo cabin on the east side of the park -- and also the only cabin in the park not on the Lake Michigan shore.

Late in November, the lovely Sarah gave me a lovely surprise: She wanted to come with me this time! While Sarah is an excellent backpacking companion, I never thought that she'd want to snowshoe miles to stay in a cabin with no running water, no electricity, and only a wood stove for heat, all in the middle of winter. Nonetheless, she too was feeling the end-of-semester stress and looked forward to a few days of quiet reading and no email.

The last two weeks of school were a blur -- we didn't have any days off, even on the weekends. But at last all of the exams were graded, the last-minute homeworks checked, final grades entered, and -- at the very last minute, on Friday night -- the bags packed. So it began.

Saturday, December 16, 2017: After a hearty breakfast, we headed north for Wilderness. As we traveled north, temperatures dropped from the mid 20's down to the low teens. Lake effect snow kicked in around Gaylord, as it always does, but the roads weren't too bad.

We exited I-75 just before the Mackinac Bridge. 10 miles west on barely plowed roads brought us to the Wilderness State Park headquarters. Nobody was there, but the rangers had kindly left an envelope labeled "Clark - Nebo" clipped to a board outside the main door. The envelope contained the cabin key as well as a park map and informational pamphlet.

We backtracked to the Nebo trailhead, near the east edge of the park, and parked in the plowed parking area. After quickly packing up the last of our items, we strapped on snowshoes, hitched up backpacks, and headed out.

Getting into and out of the car in 15 degree weather is hard on the glasses.

The Nebo trail heads directly south, away from Lake Michigan. In summer, it is wide enough to be a 2-track that allowed campers to drive right up to the cabin. In winter, it is a wide and clear trail with a handful of ski and boot prints in 6 inches of fluffy snow.

Although the trail was mostly flat, we took our time -- 30 pounds of packs plus winter gear and snowshoes does not make for a fast hike. Plus, it was a wonderful day for a wander through the woods: The air was crisp and cool (20 at the highest), but the sun peeked out through puffy clouds while birds chirped in the trees. The Nebo trail took us through cedar swamps, red pine groves, and some occasional scrub and birch.

On the Nebo trail.

There are a lot of trails on the east side of the park, with a numbered post and map at every intersection. We made out way from post to post, ranging from 1 mile (the last stretch to the cabin) down to 0.08 miles (about 400 feet) between two closely spaced trail intersections. Along the way, we noticed other wood posts marking out distances along a 10k route that we were apparently following backwards. For a short stretch, we also followed the familiar blue blazes of the North Country Trail, which runs through the park.

Closing in on 2 miles, I spotted a building around a small bend. It slowly came into view. Its homely wooden lines became clearer. It was... an outhouse!

Nebo outhouse. Cabin is uphill to the left, not shown.
Up a short but steep hill behind the outhouse was the real Nebo cabin. But yes, the cabin's outhouse was directly trailside -- perhaps for easier access by hikers, without disturbing cabin renters? Every other cabin's outhouse is private, rather than shared with hikers.

The Nebo cabin is located in a very bumpy part of the park -- some sort of glacial feature. It's located at the top of a small hill, surrounded by tall pines and many other hills. As with the other cabins, it is log construction. A picnic table sat outside, reminding us of warmer summer months, with a hand pump in front of it. Out back was a large wood bin, which we would shortly be turning into heat via the cabin's wood stove.

Nebo cabin with wood bin in the back

Inside, the cabin was quite similar to Wilderness's Station Point cabin that I stayed in last year -- so similar, in fact, that I forgot to take any interior pictures! So instead, I bring you this photo from the archives -- just pretend the uppermost window isn't there.

Station Point cabin, but basically Nebo too

Our first goal was to start a fire in the wood stove. The stove was the "long metal box" type, with a solid metal door and no glass front -- meaning that the fire wouldn't shed light into the cabin at all. The stove sat on a cement pad, with a large stone wall behind it. I would guess that the cabin was built with a fireplace, which was filled in (hence the stones) and replaced with this stove. This part of the cabin had a significant difference from Station Point: Because of the filled in fireplace, there are no windows on the stove side of the cabin. This makes the Nebo cabin even darker yet.

We were successful in lighting the stove, although we had to hunt outside for larger kindling. We brought in a large supply of down and dead branches to start thawing.

While we got the fire burning hot and fast, it took a long time for the cabin to warm up even slightly. To warm myself up, I went back outside into the freezing weather and tramped around the forest surrounding the cabin. There were volunteer trails leading every which way, and I followed as many of them as I could through the tall pines and open understory. The sheer bumpiness of the terrain amazed me -- I couldn't go 100 yards without finding a steep uphill or downhill.

Downhill from the cabin and a little farther along the main trail, I found this interesting device:

Pen for bad children? Unfinished horse corral?
Reading in the cabin's log book later, I learned the solution to the mystery: The corral provides porcupine protection for your car. Apparently porcupines will sometimes gnaw on a car's brake lines, and this pen (with its closable, weighted doors) is designed to keep them out.

Night came on quickly in the forest. We were almost at the winter solstice, leaving us with only 9 hours of light per day. The temperature plunged down to 10 degrees, but the wood stove had started to make a difference in the cabin. We assisted it with hot tea and freeze-dried chicken and dumplings, eaten by the light of our headlamps.

When the sky was thoroughly dark, I stepped outside to look for stars. I had brought a new lightweight tripod to (hopefully) take some star photos, but it was not to be. A thin layer of clouds reflected light from Mackinaw City, letting only the brightest stars show through. Nonetheless, I enjoyed standing in the dark and silent woods, staring up past the tall trees and into the sky... at least, until my hands started to freeze and I hurried back to the pleasantly warm cabin.

The sky directly overhead, minus most stars.

We curled up on bunk beds with headlamps and read for several hours. I climbed down occasionally to tend the fire. The cabin was downright hot at this point -- well on its way to becoming a backwoods sauna. I had been hanging out on a top bunk, but the heat got to be too much for me. I moved my pad and sleeping bag down to the bottom. I also turned the stove's air control down to the minimum, but we had warmed things up too well. I sweatily fell asleep with my sleeping bag open, only to wake up three or four hours later, chilled from the burned-down fire. As one of my favorite guidebooks says,

"Avoid the rookie mistake of loading the stove up with wood before going to bed, thinking that it will simmer nicely until morning. What a loaded stove will do is produce a short-lived blast of heat that will clear the top bunks and sweat everyone out of their sleeping bags."

I guess I was that rookie.

Sunday, December 17, 2017: I woke up after sunrise, after 10 hours of sleep. I was amazed, but the deep darkness in the woods made it easy to sleep for so long.

Breakfast was our usual tea and oatmeal, which was goopy and unpleasant -- more than usual, at least. My plan for the day was an epic (or at least, pretty good) snowshoe hike around the east end of the park. Sarah came with me on a provisional basis, with the understanding that she would eventually head back for a day of snuggled up reading in the warm cabin rather than sharing the full epic hike.

We headed south on the Nebo trail and quickly came across the park's lone trailside warming shelter.

The beefiest trailside shelter I've ever seen.
The shelter, like almost everything in the park (including our cabin) was CCC construction from the 1930's. With its huge wooden beams, the shelter was like a severely overbuilt version of the shelters on Isle Royale (or are they underbuilt?). The biggest difference is a massive stone fireplace in front of it.

After a brief rest at the shelter, we came to a major intersection where most of the longer trails on the east side of the park meet. I briefly investigated the options. From my earlier research, I thought that two of these trails were open to snowmobiles, but there were no tracks visible anywhere (and no evidence of old ones). Moreover, one of the trails had an old "bridge out" sign near the intersection, making me doubt that snowmobiles use them any more. Sure enough, looking at maps now, it's clear that the Old East Boundary and O'Neal Lake trails are now hiking trails in an expanded part of the park. There's even a backcountry campsite on the O'Neal Lake trail. Perhaps I'll have to investigate those on another visit.

Sarah turned back for her day of cozy reading, and I was on my own on the "Old South Boundary Trail". It looked for all the world like an old railroad bed (which it very well might have been) -- wide, straight, gently graded, and making its way directly through every swamp and hill in its way.

The trail was often lined with cedars and other evergreens, although it also ran through a long frozen swamp. Occasionally there were clusters of fancy grasses growing along the trail -- native or not? I don't know.

In the swamps, The extremely cold temperatures overnight had formed beautiful frost patterns on the frozen water, and occasional hoar frost appeared on the low-growing grasses.

Is this a native grass we don't see much of anymore, or an escapee?

I kept meeting posts with distance markings for a 10k route, counting down towards some eventual starting point. Several kilometers (and several miles) down the Old South Boundary Trail, I came to another major intersection. I sat on a convenient bench and ate "lunch". After skimping on breakfast, I was ravenous. I scarfed down two rice cakes with peanut butter, a couple of meat sticks, and a decent amount of gorp.

For the entire trail so far, I'd been following the same boot prints (not snowshoes) that we'd seen on our way in yesterday. The previous visitors made life easier for me, but I longer for some fresh powder to break trail in. I poked my head briefly to the west on the Sturgeon Bay trail, which I had (over-ambitiously) planned to hike last year. It was completely untouched, except for a lone deer who must have wandered this way recently. I enjoyed the brief romp through the powder, but turned around to continue on my loop.

My way lay north, on the Swamp Line trail. This was also the North Country Trail, which came up from the south. Swamp Line was more of the same lovely evergreen-bordered trail, wide enough to be a 2-track. The boot prints continued this way, along with a variety of deer tracks, all winding their way around a surprisingly large number of blowdowns. The park's website claims that this route is groomed for skiers -- I highly doubt they'll be grooming it any time soon unless someone with a chainsaw and a snowmobile makes their way down the Swamp Line.

Snow on pine

True to its name, the Swamp Line trail ran along the edge of (and sometimes directly through) a large swamp. I was deep in the wilderness part of Wilderness State Park, but I soon started to see evidence of humanity again. Rotting wooden retaining walls in a swamp spoke of some former draining project, and nearby a series of posts ran into the woods, strung with fallen cable. I passed an odd opening in the trees, which turned out to be a heavily overgrown road. I tried bushwhacking my way in through the dense undergrowth to see why anyone had ever built a road here, but I couldn't make it more than a few dozen yards.

I finally passed the last (that is, first) marker in the 10k route that I'd been inadvertently following -- it was the "Wilderness 10k run". Shortly beyond that I found a sign telling me that I'd been in the "Big Stone Creek Wilderness Area". Beyond that sign, I found a North Country Trail trailhead kiosk with a log book. I was the first person to log a trip that month.

I followed the North Country Trail on a winding route though one of the more built-up areas of the park. It wound along the shore of "Canada Goose Pond". The huge swamp that supplied the pond with water was starkly beautiful under the gray sky that had been following me all day:

Swamp beyond Canada Goose Pond
The trail crossed the pond's inlets over three bridges, two of which were this funky log construction:

Funky log bridges
It looked like the log bridges could have been original CCC construction. The middle of the three bridges was brand new.

At the pond's dam, I pondered this complicated sign for a while (this was just the lower half):

I turned east (continuing to follow the North Country Trail) onto the Red Pine trail. This turned out to be the prettiest trail yet. Rather than the dense and monotonous cedars I'd seen so far, the Red Pine trail wound through a grove of... you guessed it... red pines! The pines left an open understory, showing me the surprisingly hilly and gnarly terrain in the northeast corner of the park. It looked like a glacier had gotten stuck and had trouble getting started again: razorback ridges covered in pines wove on curving paths, with random piles of sandy soil rising 20 or 30 feet out of swamps. The trail bucked up and down and around a surprising number of blowdowns.

I rested my (now rather tired) legs on a convenient bench at the top of one of the random mounds and snacked on gorp. Within a mile or so, the Red Pine trail ended at the Nebo trail -- at one of the intersection markers we'd followed in yesterday.

Club Moss on the Red Pine trail

By this point I was dragging. The bumpy Red Pine trail had done a number on my already tired legs. But rather than heading back to the cabin, I turned north for one last detour. On our way in, I had seen a sign for the Hemlock trail which wound up to "Mt. Nebo" and an old fire tower. You can bet I wasn't going to let that go by without checking it out!

The Hemlock trail was narrow and beautiful, surrounded by, well, pine trees (mostly not hemlocks, however). It ascended steadily until it suddenly popped me out at the top of a tall glacial hill -- Mt. Nebo. Cement footings were the only sign of the fire tower that once stood here, and the views were mostly blocked by trees. Nonetheless, it was a lovely spot, and a the foundations made for a good place to sit and rest.

Fire tower foundations
The Hemlock trail made a short loop, and rather than going back the way I'd come up, I decided to keep following the trail and see if I could find these elusive hemlocks. The far side of the trail was incredibly steep. I had trouble keeping upright! Mt. Nebo was the last outpost of the long line of hill, and its steep side rose straight up from the edge of a low swampy area. I quickly lost all of the elevation that I'd gradually gained. In the flats around the base of the hill, there were indeed scattered tall hemlocks which made me a bit wistful for the Porcupine Mountains.

I trudged through the flats and finally met up with the Nebo trail. Turning south, I slowly hauled myself down the final 1.5 miles back to the cabin, for a grand total of 8 miles of snowshoe adventure.

I took off my snowshoes and stumbled into the toasty cabin. Sarah had a great afternoon carting in firewood from the wood bin, reading, and relaxing. I took off my coat, gloves, and hat and collapsed on my bunk.

Once I had recovered, we had Fettuccine Alfredo for dinner, freeze-dried of course. It was delicious, made more so my by epic snowshoe hike. We topped it off with a luxury: A can of hard cider carted in from the outside world.

By this time it was dark again (which is to say, it was after 5 pm). The sky was thickly clouded, so there would be no night photos again. Instead, I stayed inside and read by the light of my Kindle. I also tended the stove more carefully, keeping us warm but not sweltering. I was no longer a rookie.

Old leaves

Monday, December 18, 2017:
We woke up after sunrise -- another 10 hour night of sleep! I had let the fine burn down overnight, but the temperature had also risen up to near 30. I only had to build a small fire in the stove.

Breakfast was freeze-dried granola and blueberries with milk, an oddball freeze-dried meal from our back-stock. The blueberries were like little crunchy fruit-flavored cocoa-puffs, and they turned the milk a purple-blue color. The whole thing was sickeningly sweet. Oh well, you can't win them all.

We were both ready to go. The isolation and removal from the world had done its job: We were relaxed, well-rested, and ready to head home. We packed up, swept out the cabin, sealed up the stove, and locked the door.

We strapped on our snowshoes and headed up the trail... for about 20 steps. Without any snowfall and with warmer air moving in, the snow was densely packed and sticky. It was easier to move without snowshoes than with them!

We reached the car quickly on foot and headed south through a light fog. We celebrated our return to civilization with burgers at Spike's Keg o' Nails -- yes, really -- in Grayling.

Old fence (?) in the woods
My second visit to Wilderness was a lovely break from the world, which is exactly what I wanted it to be. Nebo cabin was a very pleasant place to stay, nestled in the trees on top of a glacial hill -- but it felt odd not to be camping on the shore of a great lake (which we almost always do at other parks). My long day hike showed me that the park is nothing if not consistent -- long, wide trails lined with cedars, running through swamps. I am still impressed at how big the park is, and there are yet more trails to explore. We will definitely be back.

Total distance: 12 miles (with a lot of duplicated trails)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 7: Rock Harbor, Houghton, and Home

Last time: Return to Rock Harbor

Sunrise over Rock Harbor, from the America Dock
Tuesday, August 8: We woke up dark and early in the Pee Hut at Rock Harbor Campground, and got out of it as fast as possible. Not even stopping to eat breakfast, we got dressed and marched down towards the waterfront. Sarah took a turn in the coin-operated shower, while I took her camera and headed to the America dock (my battery was dead from overuse in the Minong Mine).

The sky was still mostly dark and the moon was far above the horizon when I made it to the dock. I watched the moon slowly drop behind the islets in a peaceful Rock Harbor. I was completely alone on the dock, and nobody else was even moving along the waterfront.

Moon setting over Rock Harbor

When Sarah's 5 minute shower was over, we met up again for breakfast. There was no way we were going to force down another meal of oatmeal when the Greenstone Grill was so close. The "two eggs, any style" turned out to involve not only eggs but also potatoes, bacon, and toast, and they all sat very nicely with a hot coffee after a week of mush and tea.

We saw some familiar faces in the Grill: The three men from Grand Haven were (again) eating at the same time as us, and were (again) loudly planning the restaurants they would eat at and the beds they would sleep in after they departed for the mainland later today.

We had more than 6 hours before the Queen's boarding time, and I was eager to make use of every minute of it. In particular, I wanted to take a day hike and see some new trail. We've stayed in Rock Harbor 3 times, but we've never hiked the section of the Rock Harbor Trail that runs between Rock Harbor and 3 Mile campground (we detoured around it last year and took the Tobin Harbor Trail instead). With breakfast done and no desire to stay in the Pee Hut, the time was ripe.

The sky was low and cloudy, so we wore rain coats. The Rock Harbor trail was wet and slippery from rains overnight, but we were more than compensated by the wild raspberries, blueberries, and even some strawberries along the trail.

Half a mile down the trail, the rain came back with a vengeance. We briefly huddled under a tree that provided almost no shelter, at which point Sarah decided to turn around. I didn't mind the rain, so I forged onward. I enjoyed the rugged trail, which wound its way up, down, and between rock outcrops along the shoreline.

At one point, I stepped aside to let past a group of 4 hikers coming from 3 Mile campground. Despite the steady rain, they were jolly and greeted me happily. As they passed, they left a strong whiff of pot behind them -- so that explained the good vibes!

The rain turned up another notch, and then another, until I had to call it quits too. I turned around, but not before taking pictures looking both ways along the trail:

When I made it back to the Pee Hut, I found Sarah sitting outside on the picnic table, under the shelter's overhang. As we sat outside, attempting to read while we huddled against the side of the shelter (unwilling to enter it unnecessarily), a familiar couple appeared on the trail -- the pair from McCargoe who had inspired me with their folding chairs. They marched through the rain with a wet and bedraggled look, clearly trying to find a shelter. We waved at them and offered the Pee Hut, with a fair warning about its name. They gratefully took it over, and we packed up the few belongings that were still sitting out and prepared to leave. We chatted for a few minutes first -- getting the name of the folding chairs, of course -- and learned that they were from Saginaw, and had come all the way from Three Mile Campground in the morning's rain.

With our shelter given away and a few hours left before the Queen left, we made our way down to the visitor's center. We looked at the books, posters, and other knick-knacks. As we did so, my thoughts unexpectedly returned to the unprepared hiker we had met at East Chickenbone. I tried to broach the question to a ranger, who essentially said "We can't stop people from going hiking just because they seem unprepared." Call me crazy, but that might actually be a great idea, especially given what we had heard about the "Hatchet Lake Incident" last night.

You can get anything you want, at the Isle Royale Visitor Center.

With the visitor's center thoroughly perused, we went back outside and found a bench near the waterfront. We sat reading and watching a mama Merganser teaching her tiny fluffy children how to dive. A bit later, I looked up and saw a river otter swimming right up towards the dock. I pulled out Sarah's camera, ready to catch it when it appeared... but it didn't, right up until it did appear by running up onto land. It glanced around, saw me and the many others nearby who were suddenly very interested in it, and made a sudden (and rather awkward) dash inland.

A few minutes later, as I came out of the nearby bathroom building, the otter popped right out of the woods behind me and made another mad dash, hiding in a hole underneath the Greenstone Grill's basement. When it rains, it pours (wildlife, at least).

If there's one thing I learned from my repeated otter encounters on this trip, it's that they are nowhere near as elegant (nor cute) when they're on land. They run around with a sort of scrunched-up, hunch-backed hop that screams "I'd rather be swimming!"

Sarah on the Indian Portage Trail -- because I didn't take any more photos once we got on the boat!
The Queen soon arrived and unloaded a crowd of eager new campers. We watched their orientation, waited a discrete interval, and headed towards the dock to get ready for our departure. The dock was already hopping by the time we arrived. No matter how beautiful Isle Royale is, after a week of sleeping on the ground, there's nothing like the idea of a soft bed waiting for you on the mainland.

Captain Ben appeared and started whipping the general mass of passengers into a slightly more organized line. The three men from Grand Haven were just ahead of us, chomping at the bit. When they reached the boat, the leader of their gang handed Captain Ben their return ticket. He took one look and said "This is for tomorrow. Today's August 8. You're a day early." They deflated as the captain told them to get out of line and stand off to the side -- "We have a full ship so I doubt I can fit you on today."

I double-checked our ticket again as I handed it to Captain Ben. Ours was for the right day, thank goodness. We handed our bags to another sailor and passed by the forlorn-looking Grand Haven crew.

The boat trip was uneventful (at least after we'd departed -- no, they didn't make it on). The lake was remarkably calm, and I finished reading Diary of an Isle Royale Schoolteacher in the first hour of the ride. I sat for the rest of the ride in quiet melancholy. It was hard to see the island receding into the distance, after a wonderful week of backpacking.

After a long, long ride, we turned into Copper Harbor and cruised past the Harbor Haus, whose waitstaff ran out to give us a good ol' kick-line. We waved; the Queen honked. Off the boat, we packed our bags into the car and headed south by way of M-26 and Cliff Drive, two favorite Copper Country Cruises. I cruised slowly, enjoying the views of the Cliffs, the Lake Superior Shore, and so many of my favorite places to explore in the days when I had lived here.

We stayed in Hancock at the Ramada, a wholly adequate hotel. The first order of business was showers! I won right of first wash, since Sarah had taken a 5-minute coin-operated shower in Rock Harbor. As usual, I scrubbed twice and felt clean in a way I didn't even realize I had been missing.

Sunrise on Chickenbone Lake
While I showered, Sarah set our evening plans in motion: Beer and Pizza. We just barely acquired a delicious pizza from the Studio before they closed for the night (at 8 pm -- Hancock is not a party town in the summer). We were so hungry that we ate it in our room before heading to the Keweenaw Brewing Company, where we enjoyed an evening of quiet conversation, beer, and peanuts (it closed at 10 pm).

Then, we slept as best we could in the strangely soft, fluffy bed. After a week of sleeping with only inch-thick pads between me and the ground, I didn't quite know how to handle a nice bed.

Wednesday, August 9: The next morning, we got up bright and early and arrived at the last of our essential food stops -- the Four Seasons Tea Room in Houghton -- just in time for their opening at 11 am. We had a lovely lunch in a comfortable English tea room setting, then strapped ourselves into the car for the uneventful 9 hour drive home.

Oh yeah, I went for the bad pun.

Some final reflections: 
Despite what you might think from my complaints about boaters and noisy teenagers, this trip was wonderful. We didn't hike as far as we did last year, but we saw more than enough beautiful and memorable spots on the island to make up for it. This trip was far more relaxing -- and less ache-inducing -- than any of our previous backpacking trips. We had new experiences (seeing 4.5 moose comes quickly to mind) and met new people (both wonderful and annoying).

We experimented with using day hikes as a central part of a backpacking adventure, and it succeeded wildly. Rather than constantly trudging from place to place with 30+ pounds on our backs, we were able to make quick jaunts off to new and interesting places and, y'know, enjoy them! Perhaps we're getting soft, but I like to think we're figuring out how to make the most of our limited backpacking time each year.

Using the Voyageur as a ferry also worked well and let us see some new parts of the island that we would never have seen otherwise, especially Chippewa Harbor. For repeat visitors, I highly recommend considering something like this. First time visitors don't need a ferry -- there's already so much to see within hiking distance of Rock Harbor!

On a different note, we met some truly amazing hikers who could pound out 12, 15, or even 20 miles and still have energy left to do a somersault into the lake at the end of the day. We hiked, at the longest, 8 miles -- and that was just one day. At times, both Sarah and I felt not just humbled by this difference, but almost ashamed -- like our ferry-riding, day-hiking, shelter-sleeping, wine-toting selves weren't worthy to be on the same island as such hardy folks.

Of course, I know that's not the case. As the old phrase goes, "Hike your own hike" (or "Everyone hikes their own trail") -- a hiking-specific version of my favorite general life advice, "Everyone should just chill out". We didn't actually let it get us down (we were too busy relaxing like the bad-asses we are). Not everyone enjoys grinding out 15 miles every day and sleeping under a tarp. But you too might find yourself feeling a little sub-par -- just remember: Hike your own hike! (On a related note: On the way to the island, there's always that one guy who has to impress everyone with his knowledge of the island, his plans to hike 30 miles every day, and how there's no possible way he would ever stay at the lodge because it's not part of the "wilderness ethos". Don't be that guy.)

One last thing: Gravity water filters are amazing. I will never go back to a hand pump again.

What's next? I have a few trips lined up for the coming year, to places new and old. Stay tuned!

Miles hiked: 2 miles (dayhike).
Final miles hiked: 10.6 trail + 14.5 dayhike = 25.1 miles, every one of them new to us.
Final moose sighted: 4.5
Total days on the island: 7, and on nary a one did we miss civilization (much).

You can also return to the Introduction at the beginning of this series.

Our final hiking map. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 6: Ferry to Rock Harbor

Last time: Dave goes mining on the Minong

Sunrise over McCargoe Cove
I woke up to a brilliant flash. A few seconds later, thunder rolled across the hillside and crashed all around our shelter.

Sarah and I both lay awake, listening to the rush of wind and roar of thunder coming closer and closer. A single extremely dark cloud blacked out the bright morning sky. A tiny spatter of rain fell, and then the cloud slowly slid by to the east.

Thus began our last full day on Isle Royale. We woke up in McCargoe Cove, which had quickly become one of our favorite spots on the island. Today was to be both exciting and sad: In the early afternoon, we would take the Voyageur II on its way around the wild eastern end of Isle Royale -- new territory for us -- but then we would be back at Rock Harbor, ready to catch the Queen IV back to the mainland tomorrow. Our beautiful and relaxing trip was coming to an end.

The morning was cool and misty, so me dressed in our warmest clothes and walked down to the dock to look for moose. It was the first time I'd seen the dock silent and empty. We could still see the lone thundercloud skimming away into the distance, but the morning it left behind was nothing short of gorgeous. The water in McCargoe Cove was unnaturally calm, and the sky was streaked with sunrise on the high clouds. There was, however, not a single moose to be seen.

The Lovely Sarah searching for moose

It was about this time that I discovered that yesterday's bonanza of long-exposure Minong Mine photos had killed my camera battery. Very shortly, the battery died once and for all. For the rest of the trip, I used Sarah's pocket camera -- but you'll see that I didn't take many photos at all.

After enjoying the morning, we less-than-enjoyed our usual breakfast. After five straight days of oatmeal, even a handful of wild raspberries couldn't make it taste good. We packed our bags, swept out shelter #4, and headed back down to the dock. The campground had been completely full for the last two nights, and we assumed that other hikers would be coming in and looking for space. We didn't need the shelter any more, so we might as well make room for those who did need it.

Down at the dock, we were soon joined by the giant group of parents and kids. They were also heading to Rock Harbor on the Voyageur. Their party was reduced by 2 -- the backpacker from our first night at Chippewa Harbor, plus another, had headed out on foot the previous day (I guess they needed a little more quiet time).

The Ann Arbor crew had been up at first light, like the good farmers they were, and were already out on the trail. The large group of teenage girls had left the day before. Various others headed out on the Minong Ridge or towards Chickenbone Lake as we sat at the dock. All in all, almost nobody was left in the campground which had been so full and busy for the last two days.

Clouds over a calm McCargoe Cove

We sat on the dock and people-watched. Two stern-looking fishermen pulled up in their own boat, sat on the dock, and started fishing off of it. A couple walked in from West Chickenbone, stopped for lunch, and continued on the Minong towards Todd Harbor. A ranger pulled up in a tiny park service boat with two enormous motors. He brought with him his wife, also a ranger (but off-duty) and their 5-year-old. The mother and child headed up the Minong towards the mine site, while the father (who was on duty and clearly loved his job) stopped to chat with each and every one of us, before heading off to check the pit toilets.

Feeling melancholy about our imminent departure, Sarah and I unfolded our park map and daydreamed about future trips. We figured out our highest priority campgrounds to visit (Huginnin Cove and Todd Harbor, here we come!), mapped out routes to get there, discussed ferry schedules, and generally fully planned out 3 or 4 trips into the future.

Soon, another husband-wife ranger team arrived, both on duty this time. They hopped out of their boat and started getting us in order for the ferry. There were at least 10 of us waiting to board the Voyageur, quite a large number. Meanwhile, nobody was arriving to take up our empty shelters. This felt odd, and we suspected that it was due to the ferry schedule. McCargoe is well-served by the Voyageur, and if you are a non-hiker who wanted to get out away from the "built up" parts of the island, you could reasonably spend your time at McCargoe. In the future, we agreed, we would watch those schedules and try to avoid the busy days.

Soon enough, the Voyageur appeared as a tiny silver speck, far down the cove. It very slowly grew larger, until it finally arrived at the dock. The captain called out the group names (we watched as the over-large group went through a bit of verbal gymnastics in front of the rangers to make it clear that they weren't, y'know, actually all traveling together) and we crammed ourselves onboard the already packed boat.

Thunderhead over McCargoe Cove
The Voyageur wasted no time in backing out and heading back down the long, long cove. We stood on one of the side walkways -- the only open space -- and enjoyed watching the scenery. We passed Birch Island, a pretty little island near the mouth of the cove, with exactly one shelter and one tent site. At the mouth of McCargoe cove, we turned northeast, threading between long narrow islands that are really the tops of mighty basalt ridges. As we traveled, I recognized three identical boats coming towards us in formation. They were the messy boaters from Chippewa Harbor. So long!

We passed along the length of Amygdaloid Island, the outermost of the long parallel islands. We passed Crystal Cove and Belle Isle, both the former sites of resorts from the island's glory days. We passed smaller islands with curious names like "Captain Kidd Island" and "Dead Horse Rocks", and then started to round the farthest end of Isle Royale. Mighty Blake Point (the very end of the Greenstone Ridge) and the towering rock wall of the Palisades passed on our right.

About this time, I looked to the west and noticed a wall of dark clouds lurking just a few miles behind us. The sky ahead was blue and serene, but there was a storm chasing us. It looked likely that we'd get in to port before the rain caught us. Likely, that is, until the Voyageur made a turn not towards Rock Harbor, but rather into Tobin Harbor. The captain made an announcement: We were making a mail drop! The Voyageur is a designated mail carrier for the island, and one of its duties is to drop off a packet of mail at the Minong Island "post office" -- a tiny locked cabin with a tiny, sagging dock, all on one of the small islets in Tobin Harbor. There are still a few cabins on Tobin Harbor that are leased by their original owners -- from before the National Park was formed -- and this is a way for them to get mail during the summer.

The captain expertly brought the Voyageur up next to the sagging dock. One of his assistants jumped onto the dock, unlocked the cabin's door, tossed in a mail bag, locked up again, and was back on the boat within a minute.

Thunderstorm Warning over Isle Royale, from NWS Marquette.
That yellow box basically covers our entire route.
As we backed up and rounded Scoville point, the storm finally caught up with us. Huge raindrops chased the few of us remaining on deck into the main cabin. The drops quickly became a torrential downpour, complete with thunder rolling overhead. We later learned that the National Weather Service had issued a rare thunderstorm warning for Isle Royale.

The captain opened up the throttle, and we made it into the safety of Snug Harbor as the downpour let up slightly. With raincoats buttoned up, we raced up the hill towards the campground, hoping against hope that a shelter was still available this late in the afternoon. Rock Harbor is always busy in August, and the campground often fills up by afternoon. We had one thing working in our favor: The Ranger III, the largest vessel serving Rock Harbor, wasn't in port -- and as a result, the campground wouldn't be full of hikers preparing to depart on it at 8 am tomorrow.

Sure enough, every shelter was taken, except for one -- Shelter #6, sadly breaking up our Tour de Fours. We took it anyhow. As we were setting up our sleeping pads, we learned why the shelter was still available. Despite being located between the campground's two outhouses, we didn't notice any unpleasant smells outside. But inside the shelter, there was a very definite -- and very outhouse-y -- smell. We nicknamed our shelter the "pee hut" and left for dinner as quickly as possible.

One more McCargoe Cove View. What a gorgeous place.

Tonight was a special treat: Dinner at the Greenstone Grill, the park's "informal" restaurant -- meaning that it's willing to serve scruffy hikers who haven't had a shower in 7 days. It was only 4:00, but we were famished and nothing sounded better than food -- any food at all, really -- as long as it wasn't freeze-dried. We sat by a window and ordered a half pound burger, a pasty, and a coke, each of which we split with each other. They were every bit as amazing as I had hoped.

One fun part of being on the island for a week is how we started to recognize nearly all of the backpackers. We chatted briefly with a table of three men from Grand Haven. They had been out just as long as us and were practically singing the praises of the Grill's food, while avidly planning all of their food stops on their trip home tomorrow.

As we sat enjoying our food, the waitress (there was only one) suddenly shouted, "Moose!" I looked at her, pointing straight towards the window behind us. I almost got whiplash, my head turned back to the window so fast. Sure enough, a bull moose with a spectacular rack was wandering slowly down the paved waterfront trail, heading right towards us.

The moose was following the trail towards the restaurant, which also lead towards the Rock Harbor Lodge, bathrooms, and generally a much more built-up part of Rock Harbor. I scrambled to get out Sarah's camera (which I had been carrying ever since my battery died). I was basically shooting from the hip, but I got the photo:

A rather confused moose, from the Greenstone Grill

The moose got spooked when it saw the people and buildings up ahead, and made a remarkably fast about-face. A few curious bystanders had noticed the moose and were following behind it along the trail. They, too did really fast turnabouts as the moose started back towards them. One of the onlookers jumped into Rock Harbor itself in their haste to get off of the trail (luckily the water was only about a foot deep at shore).

The moose quickly disappeared into the woods near the amphitheater. We returned to our food. A big group of people started to collect near where it went into the woods, so we guessed that the moose must have decided to hang out in the trees not too far from the path. Soon enough, a ranger appeared and started running crowd control, keeping people from getting too close to the moose, and sharing moosey trivia.

After we paid for our meal and waddled out, the crowd had mostly dispersed, except for a few hardcore onlookers. We peeked into the trees, and sure enough, there was the bull, sitting in a field of thimbleberry plants and looking absolutely gigantic. I couldn't look away. It was almost unreal to see him "up close" (still a dozen or more yards away). His head swiveled around in a way that reminded me of cheesy Christmas yard ornaments -- until I stopped and reminded myself that all that means is that, apparently, animatronic reindeer are much more realistic than I ever believed.

We wandered over to the Visitor's Center. I was looking for a specific book, which I found: The Diary of an Isle Royale Schoolteacher, the transcribed diary of Dorothy Simonson, who spent a winter in the 1930's teaching in the one-room schoolhouse that we had found at Chippewa Harbor. Our local library has two copies, both of which are permanently restricted to the library's history room -- so I'd been reading it in fits and starts for nearly a year. I purchased a copy so that I could actually read it on my own time.

As we walked out, we saw a small group gathered on the path leading up towards the campground. One of the bystanders told us that another (different!) bull moose had just walked up the trail, which was a bit of a problem for anyone who wanted to go to the campground or the rental cabins located across the way on Tobin Harbor. Sure enough, as we looked, a bull moose wandered across the path and into the trees. A ranger rounded up all of the cabin campers nearby and had them follow him at a safe distance, while he ran "moose control" for them. It was quite the busy night for moose in Rock Harbor, and our total was now up to 4.5 moose.

There was no hurry for us, so we sat on the bench outside of the Visitor's Center. I read a bit of my book, until Sarah uttered a surprised yelp. The Ann Arbor farmers (and company) had just marched in, looking about as fresh and energetic as they had 12 hours and 15 miles ago -- at McCargoe Cove. We chatted with them briefly (we didn't want to get between them and the restaurant, which was their ultimate goal) and they yet again impressed me with their endurance and endless energy.

Finally it was time for the big event of the evening: the ranger presentation. Tonight was Ranger Kelly, presenting "Isle Royale Stories". The auditorium building was filled with lodge-dwellers on this cool and rainy evening, as well as a handful of backpackers like us (you can tell the difference by the week-old beards, the mud-stained clothes, and the smell). Ranger Kelly's presentation was surprisingly philosophical, reflecting on her own experiences on the island. I liked it. She told stories of her own and others' experiences with northern lights, canoeing, meeting moose, day-to-day ranger life, and helping with wilderness rescues. It was a fascinating glimpse into long-term life on the island (or at least, as long-term as it's possible to get, given that the park is closed for 6 months of the year).

We had the unfortunate luck to be sitting next to a large and severely rude group that wanted nothing to do with this philosophical nonsense. Sarah and I did our best to ignore loud sighs and barely-whispered complaints about how boring it was. They left as soon as the last slide clicked past, to our great delight.

Buoy marker in McCargoe Cove

There was a Q&A time at the end, and so we endured the usual barrage of wolf related questions (completely unrelated to the topic of the presentation), to which Ranger Kelly had incredibly sensible and well-practiced replies. I also noticed a bizarre trend: Multiple lodge-dwellers asked questions about "Isle Roy-all", to which they received nice and accurate answers about Isle Royal. I can normally understand where the oddball pronunciation comes from (I mean, look at how it's spelled!). But we had all just heard Ranger Kelly pronounce it correctly for an hour straight -- not to mention presumably every ranger and everyone else they had met on the island so far.

I asked the very last question, and it only felt fair to make it actually, y'know, about the presentation we had just seen. It was an easy one: Ranger Kelly had mentioned that the presentation was a couple of years old, and that she wanted to update it with some of her more recent experiences. So, I asked, what was a story that she would like to add? That's how we heard the story of the "Hatchet Lake Incident", a sort of wilderness worst-case scenario that had happened last year. In short, two campers strung a hammock up to a birch tree without carefully checking that the birch was indeed still alive. It wasn't, and the 60+ foot tall trunk fell and landed on them. The rest of the story involved some pretty amazing feats of endurance and grit, since this had taken place at Hatchet Lake Campground -- one of the most remote and inaccessible campgrounds on the island. Everyone came out OK at the end, although not without the help of about 1/3 of the island's personnel and some serious trail-running. This, incidentally, was apparently the origin of the National Park's strict new rules about how and when hammocks could be used on an island filled with standing deadwood.

By the time the Q&A was done, it was nearly dark. All of the moose had either cleared out or fallen asleep in the woods, and so we had a quiet walk back to the Pee Hut. We curled up for our last sleep on this magic island.

Next time: Homeward Bound, or, Why It's Always Worth Double-Checking Your Itinerary

Miles hiked: 0. Total: 10.6 trail + 12.5 dayhike = 23.1 miles.
Moose sighted: 2!! Total moose: 4.5!!

Pink: Voyageur II route, with stopover at the Tobin Harbor Post Office

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 5: Rest Day at McCargoe and the Minong Mine

Last time: Chickenbone to McCargoe to Chickenbone to McCargoe...

Inside the Minong Mine

On the 5th day, we rested. We "slept in" at McCargoe Cove, which is to say, we woke up slightly after the sun had risen. Morning was taken up with camp chores -- doing laundry in a bucket is always a joy -- and enjoying not being on the move for a day.

Sarah's plan for the rest of the day was to read, relax, swim, and take it easy. My plan was a bit different: Visit the Minong Mine.

The Minong Mine was Isle Royale's most successful copper mine, although that really doesn't say much. Isle Royale is, geologically, part of the same rock formation as the rest of Michigan's Copper Country. Ancient miners visited the island and extracted pure copper from the rocks, leaving behind small pits visible to the first European visitors. With the mining boom on the Keweenaw, some prospectors naturally tried their luck on the island as well. There was undoubtedly enough copper, but Isle Royale's remote nature -- especially the way it is completely cut off from the mainland for 6 months of winter -- quickly killed off even the richest mine.

Black-eyed Susans at McCargoe

The Minong Mine is accessible down a spur from the legendary Minong Ridge Trail, which runs along the Minong Ridge (see a trend yet?) between McCargoe Cove and Windigo. This meant that I also got to have a taste of the Minong Ridge Trail, which is famous for its beauty and extreme ruggedness.

I followed the Minong Ridge trail uphill from McCargoe -- or tried to. The campground's multiple criss-crossing paths led me astray, and instead I found a new outhouse. On try #2, I ended up in another shelter's front yard. Try #3 took me to the tent campsites. It turned out that the shelter's front yard in try #2 was on the right track -- I had to skirt around the shelter before continuing uphill.

Minong Ridge trail with wildflowers

When I finally found the trail, I almost flew along it. The day was cool and sunny, the sky was a rich late summer blue, and the breeze was light. The trail was lined with wildflowers in the sunny openings, and birches towered high above me. I felt great: healthy, energetic, well-rested, and happy.

The trail climbed steeply uphill as it mounted the ridge. It soon started following the edge of a steep rocky ridge with many deep ravines cutting into it. At one point, right next to the trail, I found this curious cut:

Ancient mining pit? Minong exploration?

I suspect it was a mining pit -- whether prehistoric or just a test pit for the Minong Mine, I don't know.

In just under a mile, I came to a signpost marking the spur trail to the Minong Mine. The spur trail headed steeply down the south face of the ridge, winding through dense pine forests. The first landmark was a vertical shaft, surrounded by a wooden rail fence. I looked as far over as I dared, but couldn't see much. Next down the hill was an angled shaft that was wide open. I peeked at this one too, but I knew better things were up ahead.

Old tram rail in the Minong adit
At the base of the hill, I found what I was looking for. A small spur that led into a shady trench. Here, the Minong Miners had drilled an adit -- a horizontal opening -- straight into the Minong Ridge. I walked under the cool shade of the trees, into the shadow of towering rock walls blasted out of the Minong ridge itself, and straight into the depths of Isle Royale.

The mine still had rails in place from old trams, which were probably pushed by hand, since it was expensive to bring (and feed) horses or mules to the island. There was no timbering or support -- the rock was strong enough to stand without failing for more than 100 years. The adit ran beneath both of the shafts farther up the hill. Here's the angled shaft from below. The photo at the top of the post shows the spectacular tree growing out of its mouth:

The angled shaft and tree (on the right)
My way to the vertical shaft was barred by a shallow pool of water. Beyond the pool, the vertical shaft was choked with fallen trees and brush. I suspect the shaft went much deeper below the water level, but I couldn't get close enough to see.

I spent about half an hour happily wandering in, out, up, down, and around this beautiful mine. The scent of the musty, humid, cool air reminded my of my days of living in the UP and exploring a new mine every weekend. This was a little bit of heaven.

The bottom (?) of the vertical shaft

After enjoying all of the pleasures that the adit had to offer, I continued downhill to explore the rest of the mine area. Below the adit's mouth, the Minong's poor rock piles sprawled across the valley.  "Poor rock" is the unprofitable rock the mine drilled through in order to get to the copper. The Minong's poor rock was strewn all over the countryside, filling in every possible nook and cranny. It looked like they didn't even try to organize it. Jagged rock outcrops stuck out from the hillside, where the Minong had apparently blasted around them in its search for copper, leaving the broken rock where it fell. Occasional water-filled pits showed where the miners had found a promising vein.

Rock piles and blasted outcrops
A father and son, who I recognized as part of the very large family group from McCargoe, were sitting on top of one of these outcrops. I stopped to chat with them as I wandered along the base of the big hill, looking for more mines to explore. They pointed me up a narrow ravine that led to a second adit, this one a short stub without any shafts to let in daylight. I spent an inordinately long amount of time playing around with my camera in this adit, resulting in nonsense like this:

Alien? Or just mine junkie?
Back towards the first adit, I found that there was indeed some method to this poor rock madness. To the east, the Minong had gotten its act together, and dumped its poor rock in long low piles that partly filled a very long, very green swamp. I followed the piles until they petered out, after which a low line of rocks continued into the swamp. This was an old mine road, constructed straight through a line of swamps at the base of the big hillside. The mine used it to access McCargoe Cove, where they had built a stamp mill (a massively inefficient water-and-gravity-operated machine for pounding the copper-bearing rock into tiny pieces, freeing the copper from its surrounding rock).

I wandered slowly along the road, which was just barely above the water level of the swamp. The day was warm and the swamp was green with life. The sky was a fantastic blue that reflected in the surface of the water:

Minong mine swamp, or possibly mill pond.

After reaching a long berm that was probably an old dam, I turned around to return to the main mine area. Along the way, I noticed a couple of places on the high tree-covered hillside where large rock piles tumbled down off of the hillside and into the swamp. Rocks don't do that by accident: There was a mine up above those rockpiles. (Looking at the aerial view now, there were even more rockpiles hidden behind some trees. The Minong Mine really "gophered" up that hillside!)

The rockpiles weren't accessible from the main Minong Mine area, which made them even more tantalizing to me. They were, however, clearly located somewhere not too far off of the Minong Ridge trail, which ran right up on that same hillside. Since the Minong Ridge trail was parallel to the old road I was now walking, I realized that I could find the mines by measuring the straight distance along the road between the main mine area and these rock piles. Then, I could measure out the same distance on the Minong Ridge trail, and identify the right location to find the rockpiles. As I walked back, I counted my paces until I met the spur trail coming down the hillside from the Minong Ridge trail.

The Minong Ridge

I headed back uphill to the Minong Ridge trail. Before I could measure back along the trail towards the rock piles, I had another goal to attend to. I turned left, continuing farther away from McCargoe. The trail took a steep uphill through a dense pine grove, climbing higher up onto the Minong Ridge itself. When I popped out in a rocky, grassy clearing, I was near the top of Pine Mountain, supposedly site of a good overlook.

Sure enough, on my right (north) I could see a faint volunteer trail heading towards a sudden rocky outcrop that jutted high above the grassy hillside. Above the top of the outcrop, I could see nothing but sky. There had to be a good view from up there!

McDonald Lake (foreground) with Lake Superior

I headed off trail, whacking through tall grass and juniper bushes. The outcrop rose so steeply that I had to hand-over-hand climb, pausing only when I found an unexpected cluster of blueberries. I eventually made my way to a high rounded ridge top. As I crested the ridge, the view took my breath away. I had a stunning and uninterrupted view over the north side of the island. Several hundred feet below me lay a dense forest of Balsam firs, with the blue gem of McDonald Lake nestled in the middle of them. Beyond that was the wide expanse of Lake Superior, and beyond that, Thunder Bay's "Sleeping Giant" lay shimmering in the not-so-distant haze.

Sleeping Giant in Thunder Bay

As with all Isle Royale ridges, the north side was a sheer and nearly vertical 200 foot drop. I took off my pack, sat down with my legs dangling over the edge, and enjoyed the view. I also "enjoyed" a Clif bar, which only tastes good after ridiculously hard work -- like climbing the Minong Ridge. I quietly soaked up the views and the sun. It was one more perfect piece of a perfect day on Isle Royale, and I didn't want it to end.

After a good, long, soul-satisfying rest, I packed up and headed up along the ridge line to the highest point, where moose antlers awaited me:

Moose antlers on the Minong Ridge

With a long look over my shoulder, I climbed back down towards the trail and headed back towards McCargoe. As soon as I passed the Minong Mine turnoff, I started counting my paces, trying to correct for the zigs and zags of the trail. Only a few paces past my target distance, I realized that I was passing one of the deep ravines that I'd noticed on my way up. I saw the faintest volunteer trail heading down along the ravine -- it could have been a moose trail -- but I decided to follow it. I left my bag on the trail and took only my camera. After a long downhill hike along the side of the ravine, I finally found a way to scramble down into it. I turned and walked right back up the floor of the ravine. It had nearly vertical rocky sides and ended in an abrupt rocky wall right at the edge of the Minong Ridge trail, with small piles of shattered rock here and there. It could have been a mine exploration -- or it could have been frost-cracked rock that was moved and piled up by the spring floods. There was definitely no sign of the large rock pile that I had seen from the swamp. Nonetheless, the ravine was cool and deep, and trees arched high overhead in a particularly fetching way. I was glad I'd come down here. (Much later on, back home, I checked the aerials and realized that I was in exactly the right place -- but still several hundred feet too high on the hill. I suspect the ravine was part of a mine exploration.)

With that, I hoofed it back up to the trail and headed back to McCargoe Cove.

When I got back to the shelter, Sarah had just returned from her own fantastic day of laying around and reading on the dock. She had also met and befriended our (extremely) wide array of fellow campers. We ran through the interesting details as we ate a late lunch, and then headed down to the dock for more swimming and reading.

At the dock, Sarah introduced me to some of our most fascinating neighbors: Four 20-somethings from Ann Arbor. Two (a husband and wife) were farmers, along with a brother and an exchange student. They were all incredibly athletic. They had hiked 15 miles each day so far and felt just fine, thank you, and were looking forward to the death march all the way back to Rock Harbor tomorrow. The brother and exchange student spent their time doing flips off the end of the dock, presumably to burn off their excess energy.

Flip, flop

After a fantastic cool-down swim, some reading, and some good conversation with our neighbors, we went back to the shelter for dinner. We had saved our last freeze-dried chicken and dumplings for tonight. We also had carted a small (750 mL) box of wine across the island just so we could sit back and enjoy it on the dock tonight, just like we did last year. It was every bit as fantastic as you could imagine.

It was too beautiful of an evening not to sit down by the long, deep, blue cove. The bad-ass Ann Arbor farmers were still at it. Another couple sat fishing at the end of the dock on tiny folding chairs. Until the moment I saw them, I hadn't realized how desperately I wanted a chair. While backpacking, there's never a way to sit back. You're either sitting upright without a back (picnic table, ground, log...) or laying down. The chairs made my back ache in sympathy. I vowed to buy one as soon as I was back on the mainland.

Another feature of that evening was the huge family of 9 (or maybe a pair of families traveling together) that had taken over one side of the dock. The kids were noisily cannonballing (I admit that we joined them a few times). The father was sitting, fishing, and smoking out here in the wilderness -- we casually shifted to his upwind side. The mother wove bracelets while loudly complained about just about everything, including the rule that they were blatantly breaking: No groups of 7 or more sharing the same (non-group) campground.

The large, noisy, and smoky group eventually cleared out, leaving a much quieter evening behind  them. As we relaxed, a large and fancy sailboat (under motor power) motored down the cove, circled around at the end of the dock, and headed back up the cove, where it disappeared behind a small point. Soon we heard the putt-putt of a small inflatable launch come from their direction. The older couple in the launch waved at us and then headed straight to the end of the cove, past a pair of buoys clearly labeled "Closed Area". The buoys marked the outlet of a wilderness stream (which emptied from West Chickenbone), where no motorized craft are allowed. The launch poked around, looking for a way up the stream, and soon disappeared into high weed. Once again, I was not impressed by boaters.

As soon as the motor noise died away upstream, a river otter poked its head above the water and started swimming towards us. The dock grew silent as we all watched it swerve, dive, and pop back up far away. It was hunting for food, and eventually it dove and reappeared directly under the dock, where we could hear it splashing about, probably enjoying dinner.

Otter in the water.
With that lovely wildlife sighting, it was time to go to bed. We wandered slowly up to the shelter, pleased with a day well spent. A gigantic full moon rose slowly above the harbor, adding a little more magic to the world. We fell asleep enormously happy.

Next time: Around the point we go!

Miles hiked: 2.0 (dayhike). Total: 10.6 trail + 12.5 dayhike = 23.1 miles.
Moose sighted: 0. Total moose: 2.5.

Only a tiny bit of hiking on the left of the map -- to the Minong Mine and back