Sunday, September 17, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 3: Chippewa Harbor to West Chickenbone

Last time: Ferry to Chippewa Harbor

Sarah on the Indian Portage Trail

I woke up at 6 am and gazed blearily at the wall of rain falling just outside of our shelter. I rolled over and went back to sleep.

At 7:30 am, it was drizzly and grey. We reluctantly got up and not-so-reluctantly ate breakfast -- oatmeal with a huge pile of wild berries that I had picked yesterday. We sat outside in the rain shadow of our shelter's roofline, enjoying the quiet of the cool and misty morning. As we ate, the backpacker who had slept in his tent through the whole downpour stopped by, already suited up and heading out on the trail. He thanked us for the offer to share our shelter. But, he said, he was on a 2-day solo escape from a larger group that he'd been hiking with: "Friends and their kids... I needed some time alone."

Berries!
After breakfast, we swept out the shelter, put on rain gear, hitched up our packs (with rain covers), and headed out into the wet morning.

Today was one of our few real days of backpacking on this trip. We hiked north on the Indian Portage Trail, the little-used dead-end trail that is the only land route out of Chippewa Harbor. This was one of the reasons we had the Voyageur drop us off here yesterday: We'd have never hiked this trail otherwise. Wet grass and thimbleberry plants encroached on the trail, but it was merely "the road less traveled" and not "the road completely lost to the forest". The trail itself was wet but not muddy.

Less than a mile out of camp, I felt wetness around my toes. It slowly crept along my socks until I was squishing my way along with every step. I mentioned this to Sarah, who had been silently suffering with exactly the same problem. Our boots -- recently re-waterproofed -- were not waterproof at all. There was nothing to do but squish on.

Birches on the Indian Portage Trail
The trail passed through several large swamps and through many low muddy areas, always with boardwalks to keep us clean. We kept sharp eyes out for moose. From the number of fresh moose prints along the trail, it looked like moose used the trail as much as humans did. I had my camera out with my longest zoom lens, lens cap removed, ready to snap a photo as soon as a moose showed it moosey head.

The trail soon began to climb over low ridges, rising slowly above the swampy stream that connects Chippewa Harbor with Lake Richie. At one point, the trail ran along a ridge above a very long swamp. Sarah stopped, peered down at the swamp through the trees and underbrush, and said, sadly, "nothing". I too stopped and peered downward, seeing a huge swath of fantastic moose habitat, but no moose. Sarah had continued on ahead, so I said rather loudly, "Nope, no moose here". My voice startled a moose that had been invisibly feeding directly below me in the swamp. I heard the enormous crashing sound as she (it was a cow) stared running deeper into the swamp. I called Sarah to come and see as I tried to get a good view with my camera. The autofocus had some trouble, but in the end, I got this shot:

One full moose (yes, you can even see some of its head)
We'll call that a 100% confirmed moose. Updated moose tally: 1.5.

The trail continued to climb up, down, and along the rocky ridges that form most of Isle Royale. We were essentially walking across the "grain" of the island, which is essentially made of many long, parallel ridges. We had to pay close attention for cairns that marked the way across the longer ridges. Soon, the trail leveled out, and we found ourselves in a birch forest with thimbleberries covering much of the understory. I think that this birch forest was the result of the great forest fire of 1936, which burned a significant portion of this part of the island -- and birches, as a pioneer species after fire, took hold first.

Another pioneer species -- blueberries! -- started to show up in the sunnier openings. Our progress slowed to a crawl. The berries were huge and juicy and delicious. Eventually, I sat down in the middle of a berry patch (still wearing my backpack) and just ate whatever I could reach. We became wild blueberry connoisseurs -- this patch away from the rocks is tastier than the ones closer to the rocks, but those over there are juicier.

Blueberries! (and a bonus wild strawberry plant, too)
The blueberries slowed our progress mightily, and it took a good long while before we finally came to our first waypoint, the junction between the Indian Portage and Lake Richie trails. The Lake Richie trail led east, back towards one of my favorite spots on the island: Moskey Basin. We turned west instead and continued on to Lake Richie, which was just a hop, skip, and jump ahead.

We wanted to visit Lake Richie on our last trip. We made it to Moskey Basin, and got pinned down by rain on our rest day. This time there was no avoiding it, as the Indian Portage trail walks right next to Lake Richie on its way to West Chickenbone Lake Campground. We stopped at a rounded outcrop of bare rock right next to the lake, took off our shoes, and set out our socks to dry. The sun shone through gaps in the clouds, and the day was warming up.

Lake Richie
We sat eating lunch (peanut-butter rice cakes and meat sticks) and watched groups of hikers walk past on the way to Moskey Basin. Several looked like boy scouts, and another seemed to be several college couples together. A lone hiker, who introduced himself with a British accent as Dan, came past and talked with us about ducks, loons, and a swan that we could see far out in the lake before he continued on.

After a glorious rest, we put our (moderately dryer) socks and boots back on. The trail continued to follow the edge of the lake for quite a while. We soon came upon a pretty little stream crossing, where we found Dan sitting and eating his lunch. He had two or three heavy field guides sitting next to him, for wildflowers, birds, and who knows what else. We said "hi", and traded some good-natured jokes about extra weight in the pack (he had seen my 3 pounds of camera equipment). Dan regaled us with the names of a dozen or so beautiful wildflowers that had caused him to choose that place for lunch. (It was remarkable to see how many flowers were hiding in plain sight, I will admit.) There was also a pile of clam shells sitting on a sandbar nearby, apparently a river otter's favorite place to sneak a snack.

We said goodbye and headed onwards. Before Lake Ritchie, the Indian Portage trail's trend was gently upwards, but with many ups and downs over the unavoidable ridges. We now started to hit the rocky backbone of the island, where the biggest ridges pushed us upward more and more. We traveled through forested uphills, grassy openings on tops of ridges, and slippery downhills on the far sides. Our soaked boots had trouble keeping a grip on the rock, and Sarah slipped a few times on the downhills.

Sarah above Lake Richie
We passed several canoe portage trails for Lake Richie, Lake Le Sage, and eventually Lake Livermore -- all hiding just out of sight. We passed over pretty streams draining several of the lakes.

We pushed onwards up a particularly large ridge. As we paused to breathe at the top, I realized that this was most likely the Greenstone Ridge -- the real backbone of the island. The downhill afterward confirmed that we were definitely on a big ridge. Shortly afterwards, we came to a major trail intersection with none other than the Greenstone Ridge trail (which actually runs slightly away from the Greenstone Ridge in this area). We forged onward and, after another steep downhill, came to a metal campground map welcoming us to West Chickenbone Lake Campground. There was a teenage boy laying on the ground with a variety of found items -- leaves, twigs, scraps of fabric -- twiddling with them idly. He paid us no attention.

The Greenstone Ridge -- probably.
We were arriving mid-afternoon and were worried that the campground might be filled already. West Chickenbone doesn't have shelters, and we weren't particularly hot on sharing a tent site. So, we marched downhill quickly to the shore of the lake, past the group tent sites. The first regular tent site we found, #6, was miraculously empty! The site contained a flannel shirt, a folded tarp, and mismatched socks drying on a rock, but nothing else -- no tent, and nobody in sight. The site was right on the lake, but also very exposed and warm in the afternoon sun. We decided that Sarah would hold down the fort while I looked for a better site.

I dropped my pack and almost ran down the trail. It turns out that we needn't have worried -- of the 6 tent sites, only one (#1) was taken. We were nearly the first people here! I mulled over the other sites and eventually selected #4, a beautiful site which was close to the lake but nicely shaded. Many of the others were far back in the woods away from the lake.

We moved our packs and started to set up camp. This would be our only night of camping without a shelter, so the first thing we set up was the tent. The second priority was to unlace our wet boots, open them wide, and set them out to dry in the sun -- and put up a clothesline for our soggy socks. We filtered water from the lake, which was just a few feet from our tent.

With the basics taken care of, we put on swim trunks and ran into the lake. It felt absolutely fantastic. Nothing feels better than a swim after three days without a shower. Chickenbone Lake is a large and accurately named lake, with West Chickenbone Campground located near the outside edge of its bend. The water was nicely chilly. The lake's bottom was studded with medium-sized rocks and mud, but it dropped off quickly.

View from West Chickenbone Tent Site #4

As we floated, gazing up at the sun, we heard a "hullo there!" from down the shore. The British-accented voice was unmistakeable: it was Dan, recently arrived and enjoying a bath of his own.

After an enjoyable and lazy float around the front of our campsite, we took on another camp chore: washing clothes. We did the laundry in the old-fashioned way, with a bucket of lake water, a few drops of biodegradable detergent, and a whole lot of elbow grease. It barely made any difference in cleanliness, but it made us feel better about our clothes -- so who's to argue? That warmed me up again, so I took another dive in the lake to cool off. What a fantastic thing, to have the lake right there next to the campsite!

As the afternoon passed, the campsites started to fill up with other hikers. A father, his 8 year old daughter, and her older grandfather (all visiting from Kansas) arrived at the end of a long hike, making us (once again) feel far less badass about our lazy itinerary. A large group of boys moved in to one of the group sites. Dan wandered down to chat about hiking and the local wildlife. Our campsite was home to a rather large number of garter snakes, who sunned themselves on every sunny rock and log. Farther out in the lake, we saw a family of swans (two parents and three young) touring their domain. We discovered that Dan (who was visiting Isle Royale for the first time) had not yet taken a swim in Lake Superior. We made him promise to take a dip in the Big Lake at the first opportunity.

After a dinner of freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff (nothing special, but good enough at the end of a long day of hiking) and dessert (a few M&M's from our gorp bags), we were ready for rest. We climbed into the tent to read for a while. The weather was gorgeous, with not a cloud in the sky, so we left the rain fly off the tent. As the sky darkened, I laid back on my sleeping bag and watched the stars slowly appear overhead. The world was tranquil and beautiful.

West Chickenbone Tent Site #4
About then, a group of 6 energetic, enthusiastic, and loud teenage girls tramped down the trail and took Site #3, conveniently located the woods just behind our site. The set up tents and started cooking in the loudest possible way, all the while discussing their trip so far. It was hard not to hear the details, which were pretty fascinating: They were 6 high-schoolers on a 2 week, 100 mile hike as part of some sort of outdoor adventure group. They were on their 10th day of a 14 day trip which involved hiking from Rock Harbor to Windigo and back again, with no resupply stops. They had hiked both the Greenstone Ridge trail (the showpiece hike of Isle Royle) and the Minong Ridge trail (legendary for its unmaintained roughness) along the way. Right now, they were on their final stretch, back towards Rock Harbor.

There were at least two other groups from their program also on the island. By park rules, large groups like theirs had to split up into smaller groups of at most 6, and those groups can never stay in the same campground on the same night -- so they had to plan out their next few days carefully, so as to avoid the two other groups. (Actually, they could have hiked in groups of up to 10 -- but groups of 7 - 10 must use the designated group camp sites, which are usually in unpleasant locations and don't exist at all in many campgrounds.) There was some anxiety about the fact that one of these groups of boys was in a group site at this very campground -- they had bailed unexpectedly on a longer hike, and the two groups accidentally ended up in the same place. Now that they were near the end of the trip, all of the groups were starting to converge on Rock Harbor.

After 10 days on the trail, they were clearly battle-hardened. From what we could hear, their daily routine of hiking 15 miles, setting up camp and cooking for half a dozen hungry teenagers was something they'd gotten down to an art. But they were also high-schoolers, with all of the drama and adolescent angst that comes with the territory. They debated at length the options for the next day, many of which had to be rejected because another group would be there. Various members of the group proposed good options, but were rejected either because they were too long (some members of the group were hurting after 10 days on the trail), and others because they were too short (leaving them short of the 100 mile goal). Some wanted to see Lane Cove, others Chippewa Harbor. There were raised voices, crying, and elaborate making-up.

We held our breaths as they came to the big conclusion: Through a clever maneuver, they could both avoid the other groups and make their 100 mile goal. Tomorrow they would head 3 miles north to McCargoe Cove and rest. That would then let them recuperate, then start their trip back the next day and make their 100 mile goal. Yes, McCargoe Cove... where we were also heading tomorrow.

Slightly overgrown trail, with thimbleberry plants
Part of the fun of Isle Royale is getting to know other people. I've already mentioned Bob, Dan, and the many unnamed people we met or camped with, and there are plenty more to come. Isle Royale's system of centralized campgrounds forces backpackers together, unlike many other backpacking areas with individual camp sites. It's something I enjoy, and I'm surprised that I enjoy it -- as a natural introvert who likes getting away from the world. That said, I did not look forward to having to share a campground with this obnoxiously loud (and drama prone) group again, no matter how awesome they were otherwise. On the upside, I was pretty sure we would be up and moving long before them tomorrow.

I laid back and started to fall asleep, when another noise brought me back to reality: It was the father from Kansas, tentatively asking for our help. He explained that the handle on their water filter had just broken -- could we share some clean water with them?

I crawled out of the tent and grabbed our clean water bag, which was hanging from a tree branch. Our gravity filter system was so easy that filtering water was almost (almost) fun, and I tried to convince him that it wasn't even an inconvenience to fill up his bottles. We chatted about his hikes with his daughter -- at age 8, she was far more accomplished than Sarah or I will ever be -- and how they were taking it slow and enjoying the scenery with grandpa in tow. I gave them enough water to last the night, and told him to come back in the morning for more.

At that point, he tried to shove a $20 bill into my hand (my first reaction: You carried a $20 bill out here?!). I tried to convince him that payment was nonsense. Any backpacker would help anyone else in a similar situation in the backcountry. It was common sense to help others when they need it, since you can be certain you'll need help some time too. We went back and forth a few more times than I felt comfortable, but I finally convinced him to pay it forward sometime in the future. He left with profuse thanks.

I crawled back into our tent. The night was thoroughly dark, and we could see stars clearly through the mesh. The teenage hikers had finally said their goodnights (each one to each other one -- 30 goodnights in all). The world was again tranquil and beautiful. It was a perfect night.

Next time: McCargoe and Moose!

Miles hiked: 7.9 (trail). Total: 7.9 trail + 6.3 dayhike = 14.2 miles.
Moose sighted: 1!! Total moose: 1.5!!


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 2: Ferry to Chippewa Harbor

Last time: Rock Harbor, the Stoll Trail, and Half of a Moose

The Voyageur II in Rock Harbor
The Clark contingent was up and moving by 6 am eastern time. Not that there was any urgency -- the Voyageur II ferry didn't leave until 8 am. But, you never know when moose might show up around Rock Harbor! It's counterintuitive, but many moose like Rock Harbor despite the heavy human presence -- because wolves avoid the human-infested area.

We had our usual breakfast of instant oatmeal, packed up and walked down to the harbor, which was misty in the cool morning air. Despite all of our best intentions, we saw nary a moose. We did see quite a few other Voyageur passengers sitting around, and we were soon chatting with them about their itineraries. Especially awe-inspiring were two college-aged girls on their way back to Minnesota, who had hiked from Windigo to Rock Harbor via the Minong and Greenstone Ridge trails in just 4 days -- an average of 15+ miles per day on seriously difficult trails. They were Serious Hikers.

Another big topic of conversation was the day's weather: There was a gale warning for Lake Superior today, and the wind was already starting to blow up. The crew of the Voyageur soon appeared and made it clear that they wanted to move and move fast to avoid the upcoming gale. The captain did a roll call and found that only three passengers were missing. At about 7:30 (30 minutes before our scheduled departure), clearly a bit agitated at just three people keeping him from getting a jump on the weather, the captain motioned to the crowd: "Cover your ears!" He blew the Voyageur's horn, which sounded (and felt) like a train, but no new passengers appeared. By the way, the Voyageur's departure was 8 am central time: to make things extra exciting, the Voyageur runs on central time, while all of the other ferries (and the park itself) run on eastern.

The Voyageur II's wake in Rock Harbor
By a quarter to 8, our packs were loaded and we had boarded. The engines came to life, and slowly, surely, and surprisingly, we backed into the harbor. We continued backing, backing, backing, ... and then suddenly we started going forward, right back to the dock. We could see three agitated hikers standing on the dock. At the dock, they boarded fast, and we backed out again without barely even stopping. It still wasn't 8 am.

The captain opened up the throttle as soon as we were away from the dock, and we sped down Rock Harbor. I geeked out with my camera, taking in the lake and shoreline from a view point I'd never before seen. We passed the National Park's headquarters on Mott Island, then chugged past the Rock Harbor lighthouse and the old Edisen Fishery, where the Petersons live. At Daisy Farm, 7 miles down Rock Harbor, two kayakers boarded (with their boats) and shared a cup full of wild blueberries with everyone in sight.

Islets protecting Rock Harbor from Lake Superior, under a stormy sky

We soon rounded Saginaw Point and passed through the thin line of barrier islands and out into Lake Superior proper. I spent my time at the boat's stern, chatting with other passengers and taking a few zillion photographs. To see Isle Royale from the trails is quite an experience -- to see it from the water is completely different. The shoreline is unbelievable rugged and rocky. Dense vegetation clings to even the thinnest bit of soil. There's no development, no clearings, nothing but nature. The few hints of human impact on the island that we could see from the water were so small, and hugged the shore so tenuously, that they reinforced the feeling that we were solidly in Nature's domain now. Here's an example, taken part way around Saginaw point:

Epidote Mine adit

See that tiny hole in the rock? That's an adit -- a horizontal mine opening -- probably from the Epidote Mine, a very short-lived and unsuccessful copper mining venture that probably existed some time between 1843 and 1855. Undoubtedly there was once a small clearing with cabins for the miners, but absolutely nothing remains visible. Try to imagine what it must have been like to drill that opening while dodging Lake Superior's waves.

After an hour or so, the rocky shore built to a series of high cliffs, and the Voyageur started to turn directly into them. Chippewa Harbor appeared as a crack in the cliffs, surrounded by rocks rising 100 or more feet above us. The boat slowed considerably as we passed through the narrow gates of the harbor. We began to zig-zag, dodging reefs and rocky islets. I looked down into the clear, dark blue-green water and saw barely submerged rocks just feet from the side of the boat.

Wall-o-rocks at the entrance to Chippewa Harbor

By the time we reached the Chippewa Harbor dock, it felt like we were in a new and fully isolated world, surrounded by high rocks. Sarah and I hopped off the boat, a crewman tossed us our packs, and the Voyageur carefully reversed and was gone. We were alone in the wilderness.

Well, not quite. For one thing, we were standing on a cement dock with several boats tied up at it. For another, the owners of those boats were (apparently) massive slobs. A large rubbermaid container sat uncovered on the dock, overflowing with greasy pans, unwashed pots, and dirty utensils. Stoves, furniture, and miscellaneous camp debris sat on a nearby picnic table and the ground. We were amazed that a camp fox wasn't yet rooting around in the mess as we looked on. There was nobody in sight. What a strange welcome to the campground.

This was the end of the road for us today: We planned to stay tonight right here at the campground, and start our real hiking adventure tomorrow. So, we headed inland to claim a shelter. The shelters at Chippewa Harbor are located on top of a rocky bluff that climbs up from the dock area. Shelters #1 and #2 both had great views, and were also both filled with clothes, foldable cots, and miscellaneous gear, and had unwashed bowls or other crap sitting outside. Neither had a travel itinerary clipped to the door, which is required for anyone who claims a shelter. Shelters #3 and #4, lower on the bluff, were open and I quickly clipped our itinerary onto #4, which was the best shaded and least exposed of all.

Shelter #4, Chippewa Harbor Campground

After we settled in, we took care of some camp chores. One of these was to filter water, which I did with our newest piece of gear: A Platypus Gravity Works water filter. I collected water from the harbor in the "dirty water" bag, hooked up some tubes, and hung the bag from the side of the shelter. In no time (and no effort!) flat, we had a "clean water" bag filled with 4 liters of delicious Lake Superior water -- with no hand cramps from pumping. What luxury!

Lunch was peanut butter on rice cakes, with landjaeger (dried meat sticks). We've tried many different butchers for our camping meat sticks, but this year's winner -- and probably now the all-time winner -- is Bob's Butcher Block of Jenison, Michigan. Their landjaeger truly lasted all week without refrigeration, and it tasted great too. It was easily the high point (food wise) of many of our days.

With chores and lunch taken care of, it was time to explore! One of my goals for our visit at Chippewa Harbor was to find the "old schoolhouse". Chippewa Harbor had been the site of a fisherman's camp for many years. Fisherman Holger Johnson, whose family included 5 kids, was influential enough to convince the Keweenaw County School Board to send them a teacher for one winter, 1932 -- 33. That teacher (Dorothy Simonson) wrote a diary during her winter of isolation on Isle Royale. Her son published the diary, which I'd been reading in bits and pieces at our local library (which has two copies of the diary, neither of which can be taken out from the local history room). Mrs. Simonson taught in a one room schoolhouse which was also used as one of the fishermen's cabins before and after its schoolhouse days. Rumor had it that the schoolhouse was still standing somewhere around here.

With no particular sense of where the schoolhouse was, other than "uphill" and "probably south of the shelters" (since the campground was bordered on the north by a large swamp), Sarah and I headed out on a likely-looking path. That path first led us to the outhouse -- ok, good to know -- and then through two tent sites and a group camping site. The trail continued faintly and opened onto a broad grassy hillside. It split in two, so I took the upper branch. Then followed a long uphill scramble, over rocky outcrops, through giant patches of juniper, under low-hanging conifers, and always steeply upward. I always expected to see the schoolhouse hiding around the next bend, but it was never there -- but wow, what scenery we did find! We eventually popped out in a large clearing at the very top of the rocky bluffs above Chippewa Harbor. The windswept clearing had a spectacular view of the harbor, Lake Superior, and several inland lakes. We caught our breaths and took it all in, awe-struck at the panoramic view we had stumbled upon. Hills receded inland into the distance, ridges climbing on ridges up to the great (but very distant) Greenstone. The curve of Lake Superior's shore headed north and south, meeting where the sheer cliffs on the opposite side of the Harbor rose straight out of the water. Farther inland, Chippewa Harbor itself made a sharp turn west where it headed through another narrow gateway of rocks before opening up and heading towards Lake Whittlesey. Far below, a sailboat (ant-sized at this distance) tacked around the deep interior of the Harbor. But -- still -- no schoolhouse.

Old Schoolhouse with Thimbleberries
After we caught our breath and ate a handful of wild blueberries (which apparently like growing in such an exposed location), we headed slowly back downhill. All the way back at the first grassy clearing near the campsites, we came upon the first branch in the path. I'd already written it off -- it appeared to head straight towards the water. Having failed with the first brach, "what the heck", I said -- let's try it. This lower path quickly became choked with tall and dense brush. I pushed forward, came around a corner, and -- victory! There was the old schoolhouse, right at the waterline. Go figure.

The schoolhouse was a traditional log cabin with a small, sagging porch. The door was still attached, so I pulled it open. The interior was mostly empty, with a few old school desks and a variety of artifacts -- read: junk -- that were probably found nearby. We marveled at how intact the building was (including the glass windows), until I noticed a small plaque mounted in the back of the building. It had been restored by descendants of the original fishermen in 2005. My thinking changed to: "Wow, 12 years of Isle Royale winters have really worn this place down!"

Schoolhouse interior
There were undoubtedly remnants of other old buildings, but the incredibly dense underbrush left little for us to do but to head back to the shelter. Still feeling energetic, we packed up a day pack and headed out on the trail again, this time in the opposite direction. The main trail heading north out of the Chippewa Harbor campground -- the "Indian Portage Trail" -- was the one we would take tomorrow. Just a quarter of a mile down this trail was a spur to Lake Mason, one of the inland lakes we saw from the high bluff (the other was Lake Theresa).

Near the spur, we met a solo hiker heading towards Chippewa Harbor. He greeted us with "This is certainly the road less traveled, isn't it?" He then told us that he was just day hiking from Moskey Basin -- a roughly 13 mile round-trip -- and that the trail we would be following tomorrow was relatively easy, but fairly dense with underbrush. Given that the Indian Portage trail is essentially a dead end at Chippewa Harbor, this wasn't too surprising -- the trail was not a part of any loop.

Wildflowers at Lake Mason

Saying goodbye, we headed down the spur to Lake Mason. After another short hike, we popped out into another grassy clearing. Beneath this clearing was one of Isle Royale's many basalt ridges, which lead downhill and plunged directly beneath the surface of Lake Mason. We sat down on the bare, rocky shore, and looked out. The lake was long and narrow, and we were at one of the narrow ends, which gradually disappeared into a swamp. It looked like a great place to see moose at the right time of day, but not now. The sky was grey and the wind was gusty, blowing ripples across the surface of the lake. Wildflowers clung to cracks in the rock, while on the opposite shore trees came all the way down to the surface of the water. It was a wonderful, remote, and quiet place.


Eventually, with a feeling of inner peace and equilibrium, we got up and headed back to Chippewa Harbor. There we sat on the rocks above the harbor, where we opened up the trail map and discussed our route for tomorrow. Then we sat back to read for a while, before Sarah declared that she was tired and needed a nap.

Rather than napping, I headed back up the hill to the overlook we had accidentally found while searching for the schoolhouse. I took a cup and started collecting berries along the way -- a few early thimbleberries and raspberries near the campground, but many more blueberries on the way up the hill. In the hour or so that I poked around the top of the bluff, I found gorgeous overlooks, a moose bed, and enough blueberries to fill my cup before I headed back down.

Distant entrance to Chippewa Harbor from the top of the hill

When I returned to the shelter, I found the campground in an uproar. The boaters had returned, bringing a swarm of young children with them. Sarah had been awakened by the kids, who spent the first 5 minutes off the boat howling loudly like wolves. The parents weren't much better -- I could hear them yelling loudly to each other between their three (!) identical boats at the dock and the shelters. We had encountered boaters before (at Daisy Farm last year, and always at Rock Harbor) -- but never quite like this.

During the afternoon, others started to join us in the campground as well. A pair of kayakers from Indiana took the last shelter, #3, next to us. They had come down Chippewa Harbor from a longer trip on the inland lakes. They were quite pleasant and good neighbors. A solo backpacker came down the Indian Portage trail. He headed directly to pitch his tent and take a nap. A group of canoeists arrived, having rowed all the way from Rock Harbor in a long and exhausting trip around an exposed part of the Isle Royale shore. They found all of the shelters filled, so we offered to share with them. Luckily, some of the boaters overheard them and (miracle of miracles!) agreed to compact their stuff into just one shelter, making room for the worn-out canoeists.

Harebells
As evening started to settle in, we made dinner.  Mountain House freeze-dried chicken and dumplings. This is possibly our favorite freeze-dried meal ever. We made the decision to eat our best freeze-dried dinners on our lowest work days, so that we would be sure to enjoy them. We knew from experience that on the days with long and exhausting hikes, we couldn't care less about how good the meals tasted.

A light rain final started as we cooked dinner -- it had been threatening all day -- so I ran off quickly to find the backpacker, who was still asleep in his tent. I accidentally woke him up by yelling that he could join us in our shelter if he wanted to. He didn't.

The rain strengthened as the thick clouds blotted out any sunset there might have been, making for a long grey evening. We went to bed listening to the sound of the rain on the shelter's roof, and slept like babies.

Next time: Blueberries! So many blueberries! Oh, and backpacking, too.

Miles hiked: 2 (dayhikes). Total miles: 6.3 (dayhike)
Moose sighted: 0. Total moose: Still just a half.

Pink: Voyageur II water route. Teeny-tiny purple: Day hikes.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 1: Rock Harbor and the Stoll Trail

Last time: The Saga Begins

Scoville Point

We woke up to find ourselves in the 1950's, then realized it was just the King Copper motel. After quick showers, we left our key in the room, thus ending another stay at the King Copper without every meeting an employee.

We arrived next door at the Isle Royale Queen IV dock a bit later than we had intended, and there was already a large crowd assembled. I ran inside the Queen's headquarters building to get our boarding passes. As I waited in line, I heard, in turn, each of the three people ahead of me ask astonishing questions. The first asked if there were campgrounds on the island. Another asked if they needed a map. The third asked the attendant which she recommended: map or guidebook? I can only assume that all three people were staying at the lodge -- but I can't even begin to imagine going somewhere as remote as Isle Royale without owning a map and reading a guidebook. As it turns out, my faith in humanity was a bit misplaces. (The headquarters was well equipped to sell both, and I can only assume they do a rollicking good business.)

Back at the dock, I double-checked the return date on our boarding pass and sealed the return pass in a plastic baggie which was then zipped in a secure pocket of my pack. It was our only guarantee of a way off the island in 7 days -- I had to handle it carefully!

We were greeted by Captain Ben Kilpela, one of the three Kilpela brothers who run the Queen. His brother Captain Don (who impressed us last year with feats of back strength) stood nearby, leaning on a walker and looking more than a little depressed. After the usual exhortations about holding on to something at all times and not doing stupid things in the middle of Lake Superior, we boarded. The crossing was fairly smooth but the breeze was brisk, so we stayed inside the boat.

One of the unexpectedly enjoyable parts of traveling on the Queen is meeting the other passengers. Seats on the Queen are in the style of 4-person restaurant booths, and with our full ship Sarah and I ended up crammed in with various strangers. We first met Bob from Ohio, a solo traveler visiting Isle Royale for the first time. Bob had tried to visit the island two years before, when the Queen ran aground during a sunset cruise -- putting it out of commission for two weeks, and ending Bob's vacation plans. Needless to say, he was both anxious and excited for his second attempt.

As we approached the island, the breeze died down enough for us to visit the bow of the boat. We sat in the sun and chatted with groups of fishermen, kayakers, backpackers, and lodge visitors. We watched the island grow larger and larger in front of us as the excitement level around us grew almost audible.

Wildflowers of Rock Harbor: Fireweed and Hawkweed

After we had docked and disembarked, we were divided into two groups for orientation: backpackers and lodge visitors. We stood in a large circle around Ranger Kelly, who stepped us through the 7 Leave No Trace principles (including #1, "Plan ahead and prepare", which it was a bit late for some of the audience to learn about). There are always some Isle Royale-specific surprises in this orientation, including the fact that the National Park recommends against hanging a bear bag. Not only are there no bears, but there are few trees with branches strong enough to support a bag. Instead, the park recommends that all food be double-bagged, stashed in your pack, and stored in the vestibule of your tent.

Having learned from last year, we sneakily stood at the outside edge of the circle on the side nearest to the visitor center. As soon as Ranger Kelly finished her orientation, I power-walked to the visitor center and managed to be only the second person in line to obtain our camping permits. Every backpacking party has to provide an itinerary to one of the rangers in the visitor center and receive a permit in return. Our position in this bottleneck could make the difference between getting moving promptly, and being stuck for an hour or more behind unprepared backpackers pondering the possibilities ("So how far away is 3 Mile Campground, again?"). I recited our itinerary promptly ("Rock Harbor, Chippewa Harbor, West Chickenbone, McCargoe, McCargoe, Rock Harbor") and received my permit with an admonition to keep it attached to my backpack, tent, or shelter at all times.

Our plan called for us to stay in Rock Harbor Campground tonight, and catch a ferry to our real starting point tomorrow, so there wasn't any actual rush to get out on the trail. Nonetheless, my itinerary shenanigans were for a good reason. As soon as I had the permit in my hands, I power-walked up the hill to the Rock Harbor campground and snapped the permit onto the first unoccupied shelter I could find: Shelter #4. Rock Harbor, like many campgrounds at Isle Royale, has Adirondack-style wooden shelters with slanted roofs and screened fronts, as well as picnic tables. Getting a shelter is well worth the effort. The payoff comes in protection from weather and ease of relaxation.

Shelter #4 faced a dense thicket of trees, thimbleberries, and rocks on a steep downhill slope. The thimbleberry thickets provided a nice privacy screen around the sides, and there was even a distant view of Rock Harbor itself below.

After setting up some basics in our shelter, we headed out to explore Rock Harbor. During last year's trip, we had very little time in Rock Harbor, much of which involved sitting in a tent during a rainstorm.

CCC/WPA monument

Our goal was the Stoll trail, which begins near the Rock Harbor Lodge. We immediately took a wrong turn and ended up on a short trail to the America dock, a rebuilt historical dock where the steamship America once docked. Along the way, hidden in the forest, I came across a shrine-like display about the three CCC/WPA camps that once called Isle Royale home (now that's an isolated job!).

We backtracked and found the right way to the Stoll trail. The trail is a lovely 4-ish mile day hike that loops out to the end of Scoville Point, a long, thin, rocky finger of land extending into Lake Superior east from Rock Harbor. The trail showcases the variety of the island's landscapes and ecosystems as it passes through a variety of forests, swamps, and rocky outcrops.

Our progress slowed dramatically as soon as I saw the first wild strawberry, hiding under its leaves in a swampy section. Then the blueberries showed up at the next sunny rock outcrop, surrounded by junipers. Delicious! We spent time at a bench overlooking Lake Superior, where we again ran into Bob. He was practically glowing and couldn't stop telling us about how astonishingly beautiful the island was. I smiled -- I know the feeling.

We passed a surprising variety of landscapes: A cobble beach; a hidden island that was nearly surrounded by a bay of high rocks, making a virtual moat; a grassy hillside. We took our time and explored them all, sitting on rocks or benches and soaking up the sun.

Island surrounded by a moat along the Stoll Trail

Soon, the trail sent us scrambling up a steep ridge. Halfway up, I saw a woman gesturing wildly but silently at me. It was easy enough to read the sign language: Shhhh! There's a Moose! We crept up slowly, trying to stay silent on the gravelly path. By the time my head was above the top of the ridge, I could see about a dozen people standing silently at the top of the ridge, staring down into the swamp below it. We made it up just in time to see a patch of brownish fur turn and disappear deeper into the trees. The woman I first saw showed us her photos: A bull moose had been hanging out in the swamp just minutes before. We decided to count our sighting as half of a moose.

After the moose detour, we found ourselves at the very end of Scoville point, which was mostly bare of large trees and offered a fantastic panorama of Lake Superior and Isle Royale's outlying islands. Across a small bay we could see the Artist in Residence cabin. The cabin is a former summer home from the island's resort days, also named the Dassler Cabin after its former owners. I immediately began daydreaming of living for two weeks at (what seemed like) the very end of the earth. Isle Royale may be isolated, but the island's system of dedicated campgrounds brings backpackers into contact with each other more than you would expect. The Artist in Residence cabin, however, would not suffer from that problem.

Wood Lily along the Stoll Trail

We met Bob here again, still singing the praises of the island. As we chatted with him, the Voyageur II steamed past, rounding the end of the "Five Finger" region of the island and headed for Rock Harbor. We waved. The Voyageur is a ferry from Minnesota which also also acts like the island's bus: dropping off and picking up hikers from various points around the island. It would spend the night at Rock Harbor, and we would board it tomorrow to get to our real starting point.

I could have spent all day and all night sitting silently on the point, but my stomach wouldn't have been very happy about that. So, hungry and a bit tired, we started back. The trail followed along the Tobin Harbor side of Scoville Point, and was remarkably different from the way out -- flat and surrounded by conifers. Along the way, we met a teenage girl who had been traveling alone on the Queen. She had told us that she was meeting her parents, who were "already on the island". She was now accompanied by her father -- a park ranger! We spent much of the rest of the hike pondering what it would be like to grow up spending summers on Isle Royale.

A flat, easy return trip.

We cooked a freeze dried meal in our shelter. We had brought along some tried-and-true freeze dried meals, plus a few wildcards. Tonight, we tried a wildcard: AlpineAire Cheesy Enchilada Ranchero, a grand name for a pretty basic mix of veggies and "tortilla chips" (which did not survive the rehydration process in anything like tortilla form). It wasn't bad. It wasn't good. It was freeze dried dinner.

To make up for the meh dinner, we walked down to the camp store and bought ice cream drumsticks for $1 each. I never cease to be amazed at the store's prices: They could easily charge returning backpackers truly exorbitant rates, but for some reason they price their junk food like it's 1999.

Our last stop of the day was yet another new experience: A ranger presentation! Each evening in Rock Harbor, a ranger presents about some aspect of the island and life on it. Tonight's presentation was by Ranger Chris: "Isle Royale Basics". "Basics", it turns out, meant "Utilities". Ranger Chris turned out to be an engaging presenter who made the story of how the national park purifies its drinking water, disposes of its sewage, and generates its electricity into a funny and fascinating presentation. We learned that (as of very few years ago) the park is powered almost entirely by a field of solar panels -- which are essentially invisible to visitors.

The auditorium was well filled with visitors, mostly from the lodge, who kept Ranger Chris busy with questions. By far the most common were about the wolves: "How many wolves are there?" "Has the park decided what to do about the wolves yet?" "Can we still make comments about the wolf plan?" Ranger Chris replied with practiced but noncommittal ease -- over the next week, we would notice that all rangers had well-practiced replies to the wolf questions. As of 2017, there are only two wolves left on the island, and they are so heavily inbred that they can't breed -- meaning that there's almost nothing keeping the moose (and beaver) populations in check, and not much hope of that situation changing on its own. The National Park Service is still considering a final proposal to introduce new wolves to the island, in order to save vegetation and maintain some level of predator-prey relationships.

After the questions were over, read in our shelter for a few minutes before heading to bed. The sun hadn't even set yet -- "early to bed, early to rise gives the Clarks chances to see moose eyes".

Next time: Chippewa Harbor and the Bother With Boaters

Miles hiked: 4.3 (dayhike)
Moose sighted: 0.5


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Isle Royale 2017: The Saga Begins

To read the whole series, follow the link at the bottom of this post.

Indian Portage trail from Chippewa Harbor to Lake Richie

"I'm sorry, I don't have any reservations under the name 'Clark' for tomorrow night."

Thus began the "adventure" part of our Isle Royale Adventure, 2017 edition. I was on the phone with the King Copper motel, our (supposed) lodging for the night before our departure on the Isle Royale Queen IV ferry. The King Copper is a pretty old-fashioned affair: No web site, no confirmation numbers, and apparently no records. I'd had an itch in the back of my mind that I should call to double-check our reservations. Gone was the lake view room I'd reserved back in January. "OK... do you have any rooms available?" "Yes, we have one room left... queen bed with a lake view. Would you like to reserve it?" OK, maybe I was just living in a weird time loop. I reserved the room and crossed my fingers that they wouldn't lose my name again.

At the end of our 2016 Isle Royale Adventure, Sarah and I were already planning next year's trip. Isle Royale got its claws into us, and we couldn't not go back. Isle Royale has a way of doing that: It is one of the least visited national parks (averaging around 20,000 visitors per year, "What Yellowstone gets before noon", as one ranger told us), but visitors stay much longer (3-4 days) and revisit more often than any other national park. The remote beauty of this rugged island in the middle of Lake Superior is hard to describe unless you've seen it for yourself. Even after 10 years of living and backpacking in Michigan's beautiful Upper Peninsula, surrounded by untamed natural beauty, I am completely smitten with Isle Royale.

Along the Stoll trail on Scoville Point

For this year's visit, we wanted to see new parts of the island, hike new trails, and climb new heights of laying-around-enjoying-it. I spent the winter designing itineraries, debating their relative merits with Sarah, and repeating until we had just the right plan. I re-read Jim Dufresne's guide book from front to back (worth every penny!), figuring out just the right balance of trails and rest, figuring out good day hikes, and generally daydreaming about our week on the island. I read a handful of books and web sites that helped me figure out off-the-beaten-path places to visit. In the end, we didn't set any records for speed or distance -- in fact, we ended up hiking fewer miles than last year but taking one day longer to do so. But that's not the point. We enjoyed ourselves, relaxed, met new people, and soaked up the beauty. By the end, we were once again hunched over the park map, planning out yet another trip for 2018.

We agreed on another goal as well: We wanted to see moose! Last year, we hadn't seen a single moose -- but people who left camp earlier than us saw more than their fair share. Moose like cool mornings and hide during hot days, so we planned to get up early every day and get on the trail promptly. We would not be out-moosed by our fellow hikers -- and as it turned out, we succeeded in some spectacular but unlikely ways.

Looking out from inside the Minong Mine

But, back to the beginning. The second mini-adventure started the very morning we were to leave for Copper Harbor. Having averted a lodging disaster the day before, Sarah instead woke up with a runny nose and a sore throat. A last-minute video visit with a doctor confirmed that it was not strep -- that would have killed the trip -- but most likely a virus. The doctor instructed Sarah to take it easy, get extra rest, drink lots of liquids, and not exert herself. "We're going backpacking for a week," Sarah informed the doctor. "Oh. Well... have fun."

Sarah refused to give in to the virus, so we forged boldly northward. I drove, Sarah napped, and the UP blurred past. After a 9 hour drive, we pulled in at the one absolutely required stop of the trip north: The Michigan House in Calumet. This is one of my absolute favorite restaurants of all time, and the Gipp Burger with a Cold Hearted Ale did not disappoint.

The old schoolhouse at Chippewa Harbor

We arrived in Copper Harbor around 9 pm and "checked in" to the King Copper by following the directions on the sign taped to the office door: "Clark: Key in room #1." We have stayed in the King Copper twice, but have never actually interacted with an employee -- the rooms are always unlocked, we always arrive after the office is closed, and we always leave before it is opened. Our card gets charged and everyone is happy. Such is life in Copper Harbor,

Once again, we found ourselves in a 50's era room that had never been updated -- not that its spectacular view of the harbor would ever need updating. I watched the Isle Royale Queen IV arrive in from a sunset cruise while trying unsuccessfully to do a last-minute weather check on the spotty wifi. Giving up on that, we fell asleep and dreamed of moose and thimbleberries.

Next time: Day 1: Strawberries, blueberries, and a tiny bit of moose


Pink: Our backpacking route. Blue: Dayhikes.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Coming Soon: Isle Royale 2017


We're just back from a full week of backpacking on Isle Royale. The photo says it all. Watch for detailed blog posts soon!

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