Thursday, September 28, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 4: West Chickenbone to McCargoe Cove

Last time: Chippewa Harbor to West Chickenbone, via the blueberry patch

Sunrise on Chickenbone Lake
"It's raining!" Sarah was shaking me awake in the middle of the night. My eyes opened and focused up through the uncovered mesh above the tent, where the sky (which had been so clear and beautiful at bedtime) was now gray and starless. My body snapped into action without asking my brain: I unzipped the tent, jumped out, grabbed the rain fly, tossed it on top of the tent, and started attaching the velcro straps before my brain even started processing actual data.

It was about that time that I realized I wasn't feeling rain. The rain shower had stayed just long enough to wake up Sarah, and stopped right afterwards. Welcome to Isle Royale weather. Luckily, it was the middle of the night and I had hours of sleep left.

I climbed back into the tent (my heart still racing), checked my watch, and... realized it was 5:45, 15 minutes before our intended wake-up time.

We got up (yes, at 5:45 am) and ate breakfast down by the lake, where a dramatic sunset soon started to unfold. We packed up and were on the trail by 7 am.

Our goal for the day was just a hop, skip, and 2.7 mile jump away: McCargoe Cove. We had heard endless great things about this campground on the north side of the island, and we planned to spend an extra rest day there.

The trail from West Chickenbone led along one arm of the lake. Chickenbone misted gently in the golden sunrise light, far more beautiful than you'd ever guess from its name. The trail itself was quite level and easy, mostly traveling on a very low ridge just above water level. We saw a nearly endless string of moose prints in the mud along the trail, and they were big prints too:

A moose was here
The arm of the lake that we were following soon narrowed and the opposite shore was close enough to see clearly. I glanced through the trees and saw the roots of a fallen tree on the far shore. Then the tree turned its head and looked at me. I froze, brought my camera up and started shooting while attempting to project a whisper at Sarah, who was in the lead: "Moose! Mooooooooose!! Get back here!!!" This time, there's no doubt at all: One full moose, having breakfast in the waters of Chickenbone Lake. Moose count: 2.5!

Sarah made it just in time to catch a glimpse of the moose turning away and calmly walking into the trees.

Here's the moose!
The trail continued to wind through beautiful woods, over tiny ridges, and along pretty streams. Shortly after we crossed a small unbridged stream, we found the metal campground map welcoming us to the McCargoe Cove Campground. It was just after 8 am.

McCargoe Cove is an extremely long and narrow bay of Lake Superior -- several miles long, but only a few hundred feet wide. The campground is located nearly at the farthest inland end of the cove. The campground is especially known because it's one end of the famed Minong Ridge trail -- the roughest and least-maintained trail on the island. One of my goals for this trip was to do a few miles on the trail, just to see what it was like.

The trail led us to the campground's most important point: The community fire ring. Very few Isle Royale campgrounds allow fires of any type, so this was quite special. This one was located in a clearing near the shore. Not far below the ring was the campground's cement dock, which extended out into the exceedingly pretty cove.

At the fire ring, we found a family of 4 (mom, dad, and two energetic kids) sitting at a picnic table. They explained that they had camped in a tent site last night, which was waaaaay up the hill and far away from everything. Hoping to move into a shelter with a view, they had made a deal with the occupants of Shelter #6 and were waiting for them to pack up and leave.

Sarah and I split up to check out the other shelters in the campground. The campground was laid out up a rocky hillside that rose steeply from the cove, which meant that all of the shelters had a fantastic view. But, the layout also involved a seemingly endless number of criss-crossing paths, so I wasn't even sure that I had checked all of the shelters. But, with such an early arrival, every single shelter I found was still full. We sat down at another picnic table and waited. Pretty quickly, groups started to leave, mostly heading back the way we had come. With another round of shelter checks, I discovered that Shelter #4 was open, so I snapped it up immediately.

Shelter #4 was perched on an outcrop of rock high above the cove, of which it had a lovely view. More importantly, it was the 4th shelter or campsite we had stayed at, all of them numbered #4. Many of the shelters are filled with graffiti, often describing the "tour" that the occupants were on: the Soggy Boot tour, The Over The Hill tour, the Ramen tour (those poor folks), and so on. In a moment of inspiration, I christened our visit the Tour de Fours! Try saying it out loud. Sarah gave me that same look, too.

McCargoe Cove Shelter #4, 4th Shelter on the Tour de Fours
It turned out that Shelter #4 was exposed to the sun, which shone directly over its rocky front yard. As the sunny day heated up, so did we. After an early lunch, we marched downhill to the dock to filter water and take a swim. The dock was quiet, except for a mother and her son sitting on the dock. We chatted with them briefly and learned that a pair of loons had been paddling about nearby together with their baby. They were nowhere to be seen at the moment, but we were hopeful. Shortly thereafter we discovered why they were hiding, when the son announced that he was ready to swim, and jumped right off the dock into the lake.

We weren't quite that eager to jump into the lake. I opted for a good long stare at the cool, deep waters of Lake Superior, followed by some psyching up, and finally a gradual slide in from the dock. It was as warm as Lake Superior ever gets -- which is to say, not much -- but refreshing and invigorating.

We spent about 5 minutes playing around in the water and having a lovely time, until it got too cold. After drying off, we headed back to the shelter for a nap. Waking fully refreshed, we decided the best possible way to spend our afternoon was... hiking! We hadn't done nearly enough hiking today (less than 3 miles) and we both felt pretty good after a swim and a nap.

Our target was East Chickenbone campground, via the East Chickenbone trail (the trail is actually unnamed, but pretty much universally called that). Right now the half of my readers who've been to Isle Royale are wondering why did you even think about going to East Chickenbone? and the other half are wondering what the first half mean. Let me explain.

East Chickenbone campground is, as the name implies, at the east end of Chickenbone Lake. While West Chickenbone (where we stayed last night) is a lovely and pleasant place, East Chickenbone has a terrible reputation. We'd heard nothing good about it: It's exposed, it's hot, water is hard to get... nothing is good about it. So, we'd never even considered staying there. But the trail between McCargoe and East Chickenbone does have a good reputation. The East Chickenbone trail runs south from McCargoe Cove to the Greenstone Ridge trail, and is a popular shortcut for hikers heading to or from the Minong Ridge trail. We figured that it was better to hike the trail and see the campground for ourselves, rather than to live our lives wondering. (Admittedly, it wouldn't be that hard to live with the wonder.)

The day was warming up and we knew we'd want to swim after the hike, so we wore swimsuits under our hiking gear to make that easier. We took only a light daypack, but brought extra water to help us on the hot trail.

A gratuitous bonus sunrise photo from West Chickenbone, since I didn't take enough photos today.

The first segment of trail was a short backtrack from the way we'd come this morning. Just a few tenths of a mile outside of McCargoe, we turned onto the East Chickenbone trail. That trail headed steeply headed downhill to a ridiculously picturesque stream (which drains Chickenbone Lake into McCargoe Cove). The trail immediately regained all of the lost elevation, plus plenty more, in the longest and steepest climb we'd made yet on this trip. Even though the long uphill ran through a cool and dark pine forest, we were panting and had to stop several times.

But once we'd topped out, the trail was amazingly level for most of the next 2 miles. The East Chickenbone trail crosses an inland plateau for much of its length. That plateau is quite exposed, open, and grassy. We crossed streams and skirted the edges of beaver ponds, scarfed down wild berries, and sweated.

As we approached the end of the trail -- and East Chickenbone campground -- the trail slowly descended to the level of Chickenbone Lake. We skirted the swampy east end of the lake on a long boardwalk that wound through grasses and brush. After a short uphill, we passed a post labeled "Water" with an arrow towards the lake, down a spur trail trail.

Asters

The trail then took a sudden, sharp, and rocky uphill turn, as we started climbing the steep northwest face of one of Isle Royale's rocky ridges. Part way up the trail sat a lonely backpack, with no backpacker in sight. Near the top, we found a signpost for East Chickenbone Campground, with a dazed-looking hiker standing next to it.

"Dazed-looking" isn't quite strong enough. This hiker appeared, in every way, to be unsuited to his environment. He was dressed in heavy denim jeans and a black Alice Cooper cotton t-shirt, with a heavy knitted cap on his head. He had huge headphones on his head (off the ears) with a long cord snaking into the pants. He stood on the side of the trail, sweaty, sweltering, and gazing unfocused in our general direction.

His first question was "Do you have water?" He was holding an empty 20 oz Pepsi bottle which we filled from our supply. "Is that your only water source?" No, he said, he had another empty pop bottle too -- nowhere near enough water for a day of backpacking on Isle Royale under even ideal circumstances.

He was in good enough condition to explain what was happening. Roughly, the trouble is that he was utterly unprepared for Isle Royale. He had come from Daisy Farm -- 6 long hot miles over the Greenstone, especially on a sunny day while dressed in sweat-drenched clothes. His original plan was to stay at East Chickenbone, but he had decided to push on to McCargoe instead. Half way along the hot and exposed trail, his water had run out, and he decided he couldn't go any further. Turning around back towards East Chickenbone, he started to feel dizzy and "passed out" (literally or figuratively, I don't know) down the hill where his backpack now rested. Then he wandered uphill to where we found him.

We quizzed him enough to make sure that he had a water filter and food. We encouraged him to rest and then go fill up his bottles from the water spur, and for goodness sake stay at East Chickenbone tonight! He agreed, and sat down on a rock.

We looked at each other and shrugged. There wasn't much more we could do now. Instead, we investigated the campground, which fully lived up to its reputation. East Chickenbone campground is on a wide ridge high above the lake. The ridge is mostly grass with a little low scrub and a dash of birch trees. There is essentially no shade, and the campsites are fully exposed to sun, wind, and weather. We wandered into campsite #4, which was empty, and sat down to nibble some gorp and sip the remaining water. On the way out, we passed the lone outhouse, whose door was missing a board. I can only assume someone tore it off to use as firewood.

This fine establishment can only be found at East Chickenbone Campground

We didn't see our mystery hiker anywhere on the way back to McCargoe. We hoofed it back through the baking sun, sweating and dreaming of a dive into Lake Superior. The steep descent, stream crossing, and ascent just outside of McCargoe Cove heated us up even more. We made it in to the campground, dropped the pack at the fire pit, stripped down to our swimsuits, and dove right in.

We discovered very quickly that the water was even colder this afternoon than it was in the morning.

10 seconds later, after climbing out and sprawling on the dock, I took a closer look around. As with many Isle Royale campgrounds, the dock was the social center of the campground. There were campers sitting all along the dock, filtering water, fishing, reading, and chatting with one another. A group of 5 kids, perhaps from two families, were running back and forth, cannonballing into the lake from the end of the dock, and generally having a great time. The family of four who had snapped up shelter #6 this morning was swimming in the shallows. The dock was, overall, a noisy but remarkably pleasant place to sit and dry off.

Dry, tired, and happy, we went up to the shelter for dinner (Backpacker's Pantry Fettucine Alfredo -- another favorite). We headed right back down to the dock to read. In our absence, the gaggle of girls from West Chickenbone had arrived, snagged the last available shelter, and were filtering water while chatting loudly.

Looking out over McCargoe Cove at sunset
The dock grapevine informed us that the northern lights were supposed to be in full swing tonight. With a beautifully clear sky, I knew I had to get up and look for them. Once the sun started to set, we headed back to the shelter. We fell asleep to the distant and haunting calls of the family of loons.

I awoke (yes, to an alarm) at 1 am and looked outside, where the full moon was painting the landscape with a spooky blue tone. If there was any aurora, it was drowned out by the beautiful moon. Back to sleep, but still quite happy.

Next time: Rest day at McCargoe, or, Dave Goes Mining

Miles hiked: 2.7 (trail) + 4.2 (dayhike). Total: 10.6 trail + 10.5 dayhike = 21.1 miles.
Moose sighted: another one! Total moose: 2.5!!

Pink: Backpacking. Purple: East Chickenbone trail dayhike.

6 comments:

JimLob said...

Thank you for another wonderful post. I really enjoyed reading your blogs so far. You are making me even more eager for our trip to isle Royale next year!

DC said...

Thanks, Jim. Glad you're enjoying it. Any thoughts on your route yet? I personally think that daydreaming and planning for months in advance are part of the fun!

JimLob said...

I am really enjoying this blog and check back every day for updates. My son has an itinerary he has in mind which will cover roughly 35 miles in 5 days/4 nights. Off the top of my head I can't recall exactly what it is, but appreciate that my 17 year old son has it in mind that his hikling partner is in his early 50's and has some back/shoulder problems! I would consider another trip in the future that would take in the area around Windigo if this upcoming trip goes well.

BTW...I read your blog about winter camping in Wilderness State Park, where we have camped on several occasions, and really enjoyed it. We did a winter trip to Tahquamenon Falls in mid-February of last year and did some snow-shoeing. Even though we enjoyed the benefit of having packed snow due to snowmobiles it was still exhausting! I can't imagine how much more difficult it would be in deep, fresh snow. Previously I read your blogs about hiking the Porkies, where we camped this August for the first time. What a beautiful area! I would like to do a hiking trip there in the future as well.

I greatly appreciate your blogs and eagerly await more!

Jim

DC said...

Oh yeah, snowshoeing is exhausting, no matter how you do it. You might recall from my Wilderness post that I did about half of the distance I'd planned one day, and then didn't make it out at all the next day!

I miss the Porkies quite a bit -- didn't make it there at all this year. Isle Royale is fantastic, but the Porkies is my backpacking first love. I'm working on a plan for next year...

Nail Hed said...

So you visited IR during amateur week, eh?

DC said...

Basically, yes. It made us look pretty awesome. (But wait for the Ann Arbor farmers to show everyone up.)