Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Porcupine Mountains July 2023

Buckshot landing after sunset

The Porcupine Mountains are my first backpacking love. I keep going back, year after year, trip after trip, covering new trails, staying at new cabins, yet also finding new ways to appreciate old favorites.

In 2023, The Lovely Sarah and I started our summer with a grand May backpacking trip to Isle Royale. While we didn't have quite so much time at the end of summer, we did want to get away to the UP again. We decided on a short, easy cabin camping trip in the Porcupine Mountains.

This trip wouldn't be a hardcore backpacking adventure. It was very much meant to be "slackpacking" for 5 days and 4 nights. As usual, the rustic cabins we stayed in were part of the charm: no running water, no electricity, but a roof over our heads to keep us dry and away from the bugs. We were lucky enough to reserve one new cabin -- the recently added Cotten cabin -- and two old favorites, Lake of the Clouds and Buckshot cabins. I had visited the Lake of the Clouds cabin once back on a solo trip in 2021 and sang its praises. Sarah and I had stayed in Buckshot as our very first Porkies cabin in 2014 and loved it, but hadn't returned since.

Wildflowers on Lake Superior's shore

Summer was, as always, filled with other commitments. After making our camping reservations (in February, 6 months before our dates -- the earliest possible reservations!), the rest of our lives took over and our Porkies plans fell to the wayside. Our gear was fully tuned up from our Isle Royale trip, so we didn't need to think about much. Right?

Just a few days before our planned departure, we took a closer look at the calendar. Wait, were we really planning to drive all 9 hours from Grand Rapids up to the Porkies, get there early enough to check in at the Visitor Center, drive all the way around the park, and hike in to our first cabin, all in one day? That didn't seem good.

So I started to look for a hotel in Marquette, a good waypoint and one of our favorite UP cities, for the night before our arrival in the Porkies. As it turned out, finding a reasonably priced hotel room for a Saturday night at the peak of summer in the UP's largest city was, well, impossible. We eventually looked farther afield and found a decent room at the Super 8 in Houghton. We would need to drive farther, but at least we'd be closer to the Porkies for the next day (and spend time in another wonderful UP city).

Our packs were far from light. Being a "slackpacking" trip didn't mean leaving the packs behind, rather, it meant bringing all of our luxuries and doing very little hiking. In addition to bringing all of the usual essentials, plus my Serious Camera (3 extra pounds), we also packed hammocks (1 pound each) and tiny foldable camping chairs (another 1 pound each). One of our biggest backpacking complaints is that there's never anywhere to rest your back, and we wanted to give these chairs a good shakedown before using them on a serious camping trip. In the end, our packs were nearly as heavy as they were for our 7 day, cold-season Isle Royale trip. We just wouldn't be hiking nearly as far with them -- a grand planned total of about 9 miles.

There used to be a giant parking deck here

Saturday July 29, 2023: Thus it was with heavy packs but light hearts that we headed north. After a long drive -- made longer by a massive backup on the Mackinac Bridge -- we arrived in Houghton for the night. Nothing beats a beautiful evening in the north, so we ate dinner at a picnic table in Houghton's waterfront park. We each got food from favorite places: Sarah from Sky Sushi, which more than one person has sworn is the best sushi they've ever had (!?), me from Studio Pizza.

After the meal was done and we were simply lounging around, I suddenly realized something. Houghton's infamous and ugly waterfront parking deck was gone! I knew it had been demolished, but despite sitting next to its former site for half an hour, I simply hadn't noticed. The waterfront looked and felt... normal. Nice work, Houghton.

Sunday July 30, 2023: We woke up in our wholly adequate hotel room and walked to Cyberia, a long-established Houghton coffee shop that I hadn't been in for years. I was amazed to realize that they were charging the same prices for coffee as we'd pay in the middle of Grand Rapids! Nonetheless, we paid, because, well, it was coffee. We ate lunch at Gino's in Hancock, which was brand new to both of us -- we chose it for its nice patio on this lovely and sunny day. After a nice lunch, we headed south to the Porkies.

The Visitor Center's driveway and parking lot were under construction, so we detoured to the temporary Visitor Center -- the Porkies Ski Chalet -- and quickly and easily checked in. From there, we had to drive nearly the entire way around the border of the park -- about 25 miles -- to get to Speakers trailhead.

The many potholed gravel patches on South Boundary Road made the drive around the park on South Boundary Road more interesting than usual. It looked like many culverts had been repaired, but the road had not been repaved. We hit the first pothole hard, and then took much of the rest of the road at about 20 miles per hour.

We pulled in to Speakers trailhead and grabbed our heavy packs. We were off, down Speakers trail, but not to Speakers -- also a favorite cabin -- but rather to the newly purchased Cotten cabin, just a little way down the shoreline and along a very short and flat trail. Indeed, it turned out that this trail used to be a driveway -- for cars!

Cotten cabin from the shore. Garage on the left, sauna building between them.

Cotten 8-bunk cabin is truly deluxe. Staying at it risks becoming glamping. The cabin was built by the owners of a small parcel of private land within the Porkies, and in the last few years the park was able to acquire that land and the cabin on it. As a result, the cabin is vastly different from other Porkies cabins. For one thing, it has a bunch of buildings in addition to the cabin: A garage (locked), an outhouse, a wood shed, and a sauna (open!). The cabin itself seems to have been hand built, with great care. It has three rooms, something unheard of in most Porkies cabins: A large kitchen-living room combo with a "breakfast bar", futon, and Adirondack chairs around a wood stove; a bunk room with four small bunks, and a second bedroom with a single larger bed. A curious box next to the wood stove turned out to be a battery attached to a solar panel on the roof, with a USB charging port installed in the front. The log book claimed that it was broken, but it successfully charged my camera (aka phone) once I pushed a tiny, nearly invisible button to activate the charger. What luxury!

Chairs, wood stove, and an end table (!) in Cotten cabin.

There's also a front porch featuring a couple of benches, two picnic tables, and a lovely stretch of beach, where we quickly set up our camping chairs. The lake bluff was much lower than at the nearby Speakers cabin, making it easier to get down to the beach. Speakers was just across a tall ridge, but there was a lot of shoreline erosion that made it dodgy at best to walk in that direction.

The lake was stirred up and choppy. Sarah, like the fish she is, decided that the lake was more than calm enough to go swimming. She convinced me to give it a try too, and I waded in as far as my knees before deciding that I'd had enough. Lake Superior, even in late July, is not warm. We did find a large "sitting rock" that let us enjoy the sun for a while, but eventually we went back to our camp chairs.

We dried out while reading, and then had a freeze-dried dinner -- Chana Masala, a new and slightly too spicy option for us. Not long after that, we went to bed with the sound of the waves lulling us to sleep.

Today's distance: 1 mile

Camp chair on the beach of Cotten cabin

Monday July 31, 2023: I woke up at 9:30 am, after something like 10 hours of sleep. Sarah stayed asleep even longer than me. We must have needed this vacation!

I started my morning with tea down at a picnic table near the beach, next to the now-calm lake. When Sarah joined me, we enjoyed breakfast (our usual: instant oatmeal) and even more tea. Then Sarah went for her second swim of the trip, although I decided not to join her this time.

We took our time reading, enjoying the view, and slowly packing up. We finally left around 1 pm, walking 1 mile down the extremely flat and easy trail back to our car. Cotten was a spectacular cabin in a beautiful setting. It would also be a lot roomier for larger groups compared to Speakers cabin. We will definitely be back.

We drove all the way back around the park, watching out for gravel patches and potholes, and then turned left on M-107. Our goal was Lake of the Clouds, but along the way we passed the Porcupine Mountains Outpost, a touristy shop filled with snacks and t-shirts. Of course we immediately pulled in and purchased ice cream cones (a waffle cone for me!), and sat outside enjoying them. This was super-duper slackpacking. The day was warming up considerably, and the cool ice cream was a great treat.

Wild daisies near Cotten cabin

We continued to Lake of the Clouds, where we ended up in a small traffic jam at the entrance booth. The employee manning the booth must have loved to chat with tourists, because we could see him doing exactly that, at great length and with much gesturing. I suppose it's a good thing that the person who probably meets the most people in the park also happens to like talking with them.

We passed through quickly -- no questions, no need for a map, thanks! -- and drove up to the parking lot. The Lake of the Clouds overlook was busy with tourists, many of them seemingly annoyed at having to walk 100 yards on paved trails to enjoy the spectacular view. We enjoyed the view ourselves, then headed back to the car to prepare for our hike down to our next cabin, the well-named Lake of the Clouds cabin.

That's when Sarah noticed a missing wheel cover. It had undoubtedly gone flying off at one of those pothole-ridden gravel patches. It's an annoyingly expensive part, and it was still fairly early in the afternoon, so we decided to go drive to the worst of the potholes and look for the wheel cover. Back in the car, back down M-107, turn right, follow South Boundary Road... I jumped out of the car and waded through the grassy shoulder as Sarah slowly continued along. Nothing. We checked two more bad spots with equal luck.

After that, it was either driving another 20 miles checking out every single pothole, or give up. We gave up (and decided not to replace the wheel cover). Sarah eventually pulled in to the Nonesuch Mine parking lot to turn around. This mine site is unmarked from the road, but has all sorts of interesting history and geology down an easy trail. As long as we were there, we decided to look around. We hiked in through the mine's old townsite (now a grassy field), past ruins from the mine's many (always unsuccessful) incarnations, and stopped at the Little Iron River and its many small waterfalls. It was an enjoyable detour, all thanks to a missing wheel cover.

Ruin at Nonesuch mine

We drove back to Lake of the Clouds (and past the talkative park employee), parked, and hitched on our backpacks. This time we groaned as we hiked uphill on the nicely paved trails, because we then immediately had to hike down off the Escarpment, losing 300 feet in elevation extremely quickly until we bottomed out near Lake of the Clouds. As we hiked down, somewhere close by a tree crashed to the ground, echoing through the forest. That gave us pause, and made us even more grateful for the cabin we were about to be in.

At the start of the spur trail to the cabin, the normal sign explaining that there's a cabin ahead had been rigged up with an "Occupied" sign. It gave us pause for a moment, until we realized that it must have been left there by the previous renters -- we were tonight's renters!

Sarah with the "Occupied" sign

The Lake of the Clouds cabin is -- as it was at my last (solo) visit -- beautiful. It has a lot of fancy features, such as a ceiling (it helps the cabin warm up faster in shoulder seasons!), a set of steps for accessing the upper bunks, and a collection of topographic and fishing maps. Once our packs were off, Sarah quickly set up her hammock and laid back for an afternoon of reading. I sat in my camp chair, paging through the log book. Many entries complained about people "accidentally" coming down the access trail, clearly to peek at the cabin, or even just to access the lake. A recent pair of renters had made and attached the "Occupied" sign, and it was working wonders. We had no "accidental" visitors at all.

Out on the lake, a family of trumpeter swans toured around -- perhaps the same parents that I'd seen in 2021. There were enough bugs to warrant some bug spray, but not enough to chase us inside, and so we whiled away several hours reading and enjoying the serene setting.

Dinner was freeze-dried lasagna, always good. We sat back outside for a while, until the serenity was shattered by the shouts of a noisy group of campers carried across the lake. This drove us inside and in to bed, at which point Sarah's inflatable pillow popped and couldn't be repaired. She ended up laying her head on a rolled-up pile of clothes. It was an odd end to an odd, but generally good, day.

Today's distance: 3.5 miles (1 mile from Cotten, 1.5 miles at Nonesuch, 1 mile down to Lake of the Clouds)
Total distance: 4.5 miles

Sarah's hammock at Lake of the Clouds

Tuesday August 1, 2023: The morning was hazy and smelled slightly of smoke from Canadian wildfires, the story of the summer of 2023.

The Lake of the Clouds cabin comes with both a rowboat and a canoe. Actually, two canoes, as the logbook reported somebody hauling one out of the weeds near the end of the lake -- I wish I knew the story there. The oars and oarlocks on the rowboat were both completely borked. The rescued canoe was leaky. That left the other canoe, and the logbook promised that a snake lived in it. I turned over the canoe, and sure enough, zip! went a tiny snakey tail, hiding inside one of the enclosed ends of the canoe. Not surprisingly, no amount of shaking and banging on the sides made it come out. Sarah promised me that if that snake emerged while we were in the middle of the lake, we would not remain upright long enough to get back to shore. So, no boating for us.

Instead we laid back and read some more, Sarah in a hammock, me in a camp chair. We were doing a lot of sitting and reading on this trip, and it was wonderful.

Lake of the Clouds cabin with snaky canoe (front) and leaky canoe (back).

In the early afternoon, we packed up and headed back out to our next cabin. The climb up to the Escarpment was invigorating as always. Based on advice in the log book, we followed an unmarked (but very well established) "shortcut" trail that cut off the Lake of the Clouds lookout, avoiding a bunch of elevation gain and many annoying tourists.

We again stopped at the Outpost, where we again acquired ice cream cones ("We just got waffle cones back!" said the person serving me my second waffle cone from this very location in as many days). We discovered that the Outpost had wifi, so we sat at a picnic table and checked in with our phones, ruining the mellow disconnection of the past few days. Sure enough, multiple things were on fire in my professional world, and we ended up spending half an hour sitting there as I tried to straighten things out. At least there was ice cream.

When the smoke was finally clearing, we were more than ready to head back into the woods. Our next stop was Buckshot cabin, which was the very first Porkies cabin we stayed in (back in 2014) but had never revisited. To get there, we expected to have to park at Lake of the Clouds and hike half of a mile downhill to the Lake Superior Trailhead. So, we drove back to Lake of the Clouds, noticing some cars parked along the shoulder near the trailhead as we did so. At the booth, we asked the chatty employee about this and learned that it was completely OK to park along the shoulder of M-107 overnight at the Lake Superior Trailhead. We turned around and did exactly that.

Just a few of the rocks on the Lake Superior trail.

We also had not been back on this particular stretch of the Lake Superior Trail since 2014. I remembered the beginning -- a flat trail in a beautiful Hemlock forest -- and the long, slow downhill that followed it. But then suddenly the trail turned to pure rocks. Somehow I did not recall this unpleasant change at all. The trail was essentially following the back side of the Escarpment, exposing angled and jagged slabs of reddish sandstone that tended to shatter into pointy plates and large cobbles. It was hard to find, much less keep, our footing in many places.

Sarah, on the other hand, totally recalled the rocks but was surprised by the downhill. We relied heavily on our hiking poles this time -- something we hadn't had at all last time -- and made slow progress over the tilted bedrock, beach cobbles, and occasional washouts.

We started to encounter a few ripe thimbleberries along the trail, the first of the trip, and took every chance to stop and enjoy them. We also passed a campsite part way up the hillside -- LS-19 -- where a backpacker was packing up and heading out. We stopped to chat, and he made it clear that the site was unpleasant, buggy, had no view, and that he was getting out of Dodge rather than staying at it.

We finally made it to the bottom of the hill, much more tired than we should have been, and quickly found Buckshot cabin. My recollection here, at least, was accurate: Buckshot is a beautiful cabin. Its interior is nicely finished with lovely pine paneling, very similar to Lake of the Clouds cabin. Also like Lake of the Clouds, its big banks of windows provide a lot of light. And better yet, it is just steps from the Greatest Lake. But it's not quite as close to the lake as I remembered, nor does it have much of a view. When I was last here, in June 2014, the area between the cabin and lake shore was mostly low-growing ferns that allowed us a decent view. In the years since then, those ferns had been overtaken by shoulder-high thimbleberry bushes and other high brush that completely surrounded the cabin. This made it nicely private, but also eliminated any views of the lake.

Buckshot cabin, mostly surrounded by brush

We unpacked quickly and took our chairs down to the lake shore to continue our trend of high-quality sitting-and-reading time. We pushed through the thimbleberries on a narrow path to the shore. The shore in this area is made of huge slabs of angled bedrock, clearly related to the rock that made up the trail above it, so we had to wedge smaller rocks under the feet of our chairs to keep them level. As we sat, a bald eagle flew above us, then landed on an outcrop of bedrock farther down the shore and stood for a while, looking majestic and such.

Eventually, Sarah decided that it was time for her daily swim in Lake Superior. The lake was calm and I was still hot from the rough hike, so I joined her as well. Walking into the lake was a real trick: The sloping bedrock formed many underwater dips and divots, and its smooth surface was slick with algae. Nonetheless, the swim was wonderful. We splashed around in the water, friction-scrubbed our faces clean, and generally felt cleaner and cooler than we had in a few days.

Sarah stayed out in the lake to float and enjoy life, while I went back up to the "beach". I pulled out a can of hard cider that we'd backpacked in from the car, rigged it up to a cord attached to a small tree, and set it in Lake Superior to cool. Then I sat back in my chair to read the logbook, which included an epic (and possibly even true) multi-page story about rangers in a boat rescuing a camper in distress.

Sunset from Buckshot landing

Once Sarah had gotten out from the lake, we made dinner (Fettucine Alfredo, always a favorite) and enjoyed it with the Lake Superior-cooled cider. We went back out to the shore to enjoy the best sunset of the trip.

After dark, we curled up in our bunks to read. I was feeling strangely melancholy -- the end of summer, maybe, or the shock of reconnecting to civilization and finding so many work-related problems -- so we figured out how to curl up together in one of the bunks. This was a nontrivial challenge, but it helped, as did the quiet and pleasant setting. But as we talked, a problem came up: What is the weather going to be like over the next few days? It was growing hot and humid, and felt like storms could be possible.

Our satellite communicator has a weather feature, so we checked it out. Sure enough, it predicted thunderstorms in the morning, with more possible later in the day. We were planning to stay at Buckshot for an extra full day, so that wasn't necessarily a problem. Nonetheless, both of us were tired out from the surprisingly difficult hike, and the possibility of having to hike out in hot, humid, and wet conditions after a storm -- or worse yet, in a storm -- didn't sound great. We discussed some contingency plans, including leaving early if the rain appeared later in the day instead.

But for now, we settled in to sleep. The cabin log book had said nothing about mice, but I could hear them chewing away at the door as I fell asleep. Indeed, in the morning, we could seen bits of mousy debris around the outside of the door.

Today's distance: 3.2 miles (1 mile up from Lake of the Clouds, 2.2 miles down to Buckshot)
Total distance: 7.7 miles

Asters growing in a crack in the lakeshore bedrock

Friday August 2, 2023: We woke up to find... no rain whatsoever. No storms had happened overnight, and nothing appeared in the sky.

We checked the weather forecast again, and discovered that the storms had moved to early tomorrow morning -- our departure day. We looked at each other, thinking about hiking up that steep, rocky, slick hill in the rain, and agreed: We would leave today.

But, not immediately. After all, leaving a day early gave us a lot of wiggle room, and we were currently hanging out in a beautiful cabin on Lake Superior's shore. So first, we went back down to the shore for some quality sitting and swimming. I did the sitting, Sarah did the swimming (4 days in a row!). It was a clear morning and a calm lake.

Harebells on the lakeshore

After a sufficient amount of laying around and relaxing, we went back to the cabin, packed up, and headed up the hill. We took it slow up the steep, rocky slope, stopping as often as possible to enjoy thimbleberries. There seemed to be even more than yesterday. Later, blueberries appeared and we enthusiastically added them in to the mix.

The uphill made us hot and sweaty, made worse by the hot, humid, and sunny weather. We met multiple groups of unhappy hikers heading each direction. Nobody was having a good day in this heat and humidity. Near the top, we met a huge group of kids with a few fresh-looking adults. Little did they know what the trail ahead looked like.

The last bit of the trail -- through the shady and level hemlock forest -- was pleasant, but we were grateful when we finally saw the car ahead. We blasted air conditioning all the way to the Ski Chalet, where we dropped off our keys and washed our hands under real running water.

After that, we made a long, slow, and pleasant trip back home across the next two days. We had lunch on the L'Anse waterfront, grabbed a hotel room in St. Ignace, took a fun walk through town, and had a great breakfast the next day. Then we drove the rest of the way home, happy with our choice to leave early.

Today's distance: 2.2 miles (up from Buckshot)
Grand total distance: 9.9 miles over 4 days

Rocks on a log in front of Cotten cabin

Final thoughts: Despite our early departure, my odd melancholy, and our missing hubcap, the trip was a good one. Visiting the Porkies in late July/early August has some advantages, most especially the ripe thimbleberries, blueberries, and ice cream cones! On the downside, the park was quite busy, although the quiet of the cabins themselves was uninterrupted. Plus, at the peak of summer it's hard to avoid heat, humidity, and of course bugs. Then again, spring and fall both bring cold, mud, and different bugs. Given the choice, I generally prefer the colder weather and quieter trails of spring, but any visit to the Porkies is worthwhile, whatever the time of year.

We enjoyed the short hikes, and as always the cabins helped make the trip even better. We had a good batch of cabins this time. Cotten cabin is a new favorite, joining Speakers for one of the top places in our ranking. It might even edge out Speakers, because Cotten is much larger (Speakers is small even for a 4-bunk cabin) and has much easier access to the lake. Using the sauna at Cotten is high on my list of future Porkies escapades.

Lake of the Clouds cabin remains one of my favorites for its location, but Sarah found it to be OK at best. The broken and/or snake-filled boats were a big part of that, as was the painful hike up the Escarpment on the way out. On the other hand, we had no trouble with unwanted visitors. I was glad to visit it a second time, and we'll certainly stay at the cabin if it's at a convenient place on one of our future routes, but it's unlikely that we'll go out of our way to return.

Buckshot cabin is also a lovely and well-maintained cabin in a beautiful setting. If only it weren't located on the eastern half of the Lake Superior trail, with a huge rocky downhill on one side, and 6 miles of wet, boggy, badly maintained trail on the other. If you can get to Buckshot, stay there for an extra day at least to make it worth it (and/or to give you some flexibility to avoid hiking out in bad weather).

In the end, despite some literal and figurative ups and downs, it was a good trip, and I was glad to be able to once again visit my favorite place on earth.

Check out my complete list of backpacking, hiking, and camping stories.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Isle Royale 2023, Day 7: Windigo and home

 Last time: Coming home to Windigo

Beaver Island reflected in Washington Harbor

Monday May 29, 2023: After a string of warmer days and nights, our last night on the island shocked us back to reality. It was cold! We stayed buried in our sleeping bags (or in my case, under a 0 degree quilt) as long as possible. Our shelter was in deep shade; we had to do something to warm ourselves up.

Sarah took a walk to Windigo to use the running water, and returned with news gleaned from the rangers. Our previous experiences with the Voyageur were confirmed: The ship had blown its horn repeatedly yesterday because it was indeed calling for a hiker, a woman named "Dorothy". The rangers had eagerly asked Sarah if she, an apparently solo woman, was the missing Dorothy. The boat had eventually left without her.

Hot tea and oatmeal warmed us up a bit, and then we both took a walk to Windigo and hung out there. If you've been keeping track, this was our 9th half mile round trip between Windigo and Washington Creek campground so far.

The key features attracting us to Windigo on this trip were running water and a sunny exposure. After availing ourselves of the bathrooms, we sat on a bench up near the visitor center and had a grand time gawking at rangers, hikers, and concessionaire employees going about their days.

A few more Hepatica for good measure

The Voyageur itself soon pulled in to port from Grand Portage, and gave us a show. It unloaded a surprisingly large group of visitors. Even though the ferry travels around the island, dropping off hikers at various campgrounds, all visitors must confirm their camping permits, fill out an itinerary, and get the required park orientation at Windigo.

From our bench, we could hear the ranger who walked out on the dock to orient the Voyageur's passengers. Every previous visit on the island -- most recently four years ago in 2019 -- the orientation was the same: A ranger randomly handed out some laminated cards with the seven Leave No Trace principles printed on them and then asked each card holder to explain how we would respect that principle, filling in details as needed. It was always a bit odd, especially if you got chosen to explain "Plan Ahead & Prepare" (while already on the island). But it was at least interactive and kept hikers on their toes.

The orientation has changed since then -- dramatically. Because we had arrived so early in the season, we hadn't experienced it ourselves. Thankfully, as it turns out. The ranger would yell out an exaggerated: "Isle Royale is so wild..." to which the less-than-enthusiastic group of orientees were obligated to respond, in a monotone: "How wild is it?" The ranger would then repeat and elaborate: "Isle Royale is so wild that there is no running water in the backcountry!"

The group of Voyageur passengers was clearly not into it. Despite the attempt at interactive call-and-response, the passengers did essentially nothing except murmur "how wild is it?" and listen to the ranger's lecture. On the other hand, we agreed that the information in this new orientation was much better than the old one. The rangers got right to the heart of some highly relevant matters, like the lack of running water or what to do if you meet a moose on the trail. Clearly the National Park Service was responding to what hikers need to know -- and, increasingly, don't know. They could make it less embarrassing for the rangers, though.

After that grand bit of voyeuring at the Voyageur, we walked back to the shelter to eat lunch. Since the beautiful weather (and our handy satellite communicator's weather report) left little question of our flying out on time, we decided to eat our last freeze-dried meal for lunch: Chicken and Dumplings. Then we slowly packed up, said goodbye to Shelter #1, and hoisted our packs.

Shelter #1 at Washington Creek

We made the walk back to Windigo for the last time and dropped off our packs at a small pavilion. There were lots of other people hanging around the dock and pavilion, all with the slightly listless look of backpackers without anything to do but wait.

I always feel a bit melancholy at the end of a long backpacking trip, especially if it involves waiting. After days filled with hard hiking, setting up camp, and tending to life's basic necessities, the last few hours of waiting leave me with too much time to think about all of the fun that's past. The rest of today definitely involved waiting, along with a general feeling somewhere between exhaustion, boredom, and anxiety to get back home.

To fight that feeling, we kept ourselves up and moving. First we dropped off our two fuel canisters in the "free" box outside the old Windigo store. One canister was completely empty, but the second one we'd only used for a day. Some lucky person got a 90% full gas canister for free!

Next, we decided to spend some time hiking the interpreted nature trail that loops around the Windigo area. We picked up a flyer from the visitor center containing various bits of interpretation for each of the numbered posts along the trail. The numbered posts were identical to the posts that mark campsites, which caused a bit of confusion at first.

The nature trail was, well, perfectly nice. It began with some interesting bits of history of the Windigo area, including a trench and rock pile from the Wendigo mine (yes, the spellings are different). After that it quickly became the exact same interpretive trail I've hiked in many parks throughout the midwest, telling the tale of logging, pioneer plants, succession, and different types of forest habitats. One post was completely missing, others were mismatched with the text ("the large fallen tree in front of you"... definitely didn't exist). The main excitement was a distant glimpse of a moose moving through the trees, although this was not mentioned in the flyer.

The trail did save the best for last: the moose exclosure! This was a small fenced area intended to help study the effects moose have on a forest. The most surprising part, for me, was that we could actually open a gate and walk right through the exclosure! The difference was stunning, and illustrated far better than words just how much foliage moose eat.

We finished the loop back to the dock, where even more people were now sitting around listlessly. A group of four guys were doing some remarkably skimpy sunbathing, also listlessly, and somewhat surprisingly given the cool weather. From overheard snippets of conversation, they too were ready to be headed home. We wondered if they were waiting for our same 5:00 plane, which would definitely be full.

Our next step was to return our camping permit. There was a small box outside the visitor center with a sign on it, so I slipped the permit in there. A ranger came out and chatted with us about our itinerary, the local "camp fox", and other general pleasantries.

Finally, we took the requisite selfie with the Windigo sign:

Everyone who comes to Windigo takes this photo

Back at the pavilion, we had nothing better to do but read on our Kindles, at least until John from Munising showed up. He had been hiking solo on the island and was clearly ready to interact with other humans again. It turned out that he had recently finished a stint in the military, and was now completing some kind of internship at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. He enthusiastically answered our questions about his job, about how Pictured Rocks is legendarily (at least within the world of Yoopers) overrun with tourists, and many other things.

Our flight was set for 5 pm. At 4 pm, as we were happily chatting with John, we heard a seaplane come in and land... followed immediately by a second sea plane. Sarah, John, and I jumped up and grabbed our packs, as did the sunbathers and several others from their party who had been hanging around the dock. The whole motley crew made its way down to the seaplane dock where, sure enough, two seaplanes were just tying up. They were here for all of us. Lesson for the future: Always be super early to your seaplane reservation!

The pilots quickly divvied us up: The sunbathing bros went in one, while John, Sarah, and I once again flew with Pilot Abby, the same pilot Sarah and I had flown with on our trip to the island. 

Feldtmann Lake and Rainbow Cove

In virtually no time, we were off the water and into the air. The sky was much clearer than on our inbound trip, and I spent every single moment with my eyes glued out the windows, taking in the beauty of the island, Lake Superior, and eventually the familiar landmarks of the Keweenaw too. Meanwhile, Abby and John had a nonstop discussion about the different birds in northern Michigan vs. Florida, with John absolutely schooling everyone with his knowledge.

We flew in low over the Portage Lake lift bridge (spectacular!) and pulled up to the dock. Abby hauled our packs out of the pontoons, and... that was it. We were back on the mainland, and our epic trip to the west end of Isle Royale was done.

Coming in over the Lift Bridge

We were also officially at odd ends. Knowing that the seaplane was often delayed, possibly even for a day or two, we hadn't made a hotel reservation for our return. Instead, we drove into Houghton, parked at the nicest hotel we thought we could afford (the Franklin Square Inn), marched our smelly, greasy selves up to the desk, and asked for a room. The well-trained attendant didn't even blink, and soon we were in a lovely room taking showers!! -- Two each, as is traditional.

As I'd vowed all the way back at Siskiwit Bay, dinner was burgers, onion rings, and cherry Cokes on the deck of the Downtowner. It was fabulous. Then we took our giant pile of stinking clothes to the nearest laundromat and cleaned the heck out of them, making a quick run down to the KBC to share a beer on their deck before the clothes dried.

That night, we slept fitfully, confused by the soft mattresses and non-frigid air.

Our trip wasn't over yet, but that's a story for another time -- driving around Calumet to pick up coffee beans, going over to Bayfield Wisconsin where we thoroughly enjoyed an Apostle Island boat cruise (and thoroughly didn't enjoy a local winery), and then a long, long drive all the way back home.

Much-photographed boat at Windigo

A final reflection: Our week-long trip to the island was wonderful. Of course it had its ups and downs -- literally, but also figuratively -- but overall, this was once again a fantastic visit to a fantastic place.

This was our first visit to the west end of the island. The west end definitely has easier hiking than the rockier, ridge-ier east end. The glacially rounded ridges were easier to climb, and the trails were much smoother and less rocky overall. Even the hardest trail we hiked -- 10.3 miles on the Feldtmann Ridge -- really wasn't that bad. The one possible exception is the Minong Ridge trail, which I have never hiked. We chose to hike the Feldtmann loop clockwise, opposite from the most common direction, and I would definitely do that again. Besides giving us slightly easier uphills, in a busier season it would also avoid the rush of people heading to Feldtmann Lake campground right off the boat or plane.

I had promised Sarah that she'd love the island in May. It would be quiet, with relatively few people and no need to rush from campground to campground. That was my experience during my solo trip in May 2019, and it proved just as true this year. We always got a shelter (at the campgrounds that had them), and a campsite to ourselves everywhere else (even though having to camp in the crappiest site at Feldtmann Lake wasn't exactly a highlight).

Let's talk about the season: May is early spring on the island, something that is hard to understand until you've experienced it in person. The early season had a lot of advantages, but it's important to know what you're getting into.

The nights were definitely cold, and Sarah vowed to look into a warmer sleeping bag. Nonetheless, we prefer cold to hot, especially because you can bake on Isle Royale's sunny ridges, regardless of air temperature. Plus, cold weather keeps bugs down. We really did get lucky with the weather -- only the first day had any rain, and otherwise the skies were clear, sunny, spectacular, and almost entirely bug-free. Being spring, we could just as easily have had a wet, soggy, cold mess of a week, or even the opposite: a warm, humid, mosquito-filled swamp.

Speaking of spring, we really did end up in early spring this year. That was just as much a function of a surprisingly long, drawn-out end to winter, as it was the actual dates on the calendar. By the end of our trip, we were starting to see the beginnings of a general wildflower bloom, but for the most part the forests were brown. That's not a bad thing. I love spring wildflowers, and the nearly leafless trees gave us better-than-usual views from the forested ridges. The total lack of underbrush made trails easy to follow. The Feldtmann Ridge trail, in particular, is legendary for being a wall of green brush later in the season. 

Finally, this was our first experience with the seaplane. While it's expensive, and prone to delays, it is definitely the way for us. No seasickness, no long, dull ride across the water, no diesel fumes. We planned for an extra day on the island (even bringing several extra meals), and we'd do that again, but we luckily didn't need them. We'll undoubtedly take the seaplane again.

And as always, we're already daydreaming of our next trip. We'll be back!

Miles hiked: 1.2 (Windigo nature trail) + 1.0 (back and forth to the campground)

Total miles: 49.7

Our full route. Not shown: 10 round trips between Windigo and Washington Creek

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Isle Royale 2023, Day 6: Feldtmann Lake to Windigo

Last time: So many moose! So many bros!

Feldtmann Lake in the morning

Sunday May 28, 2023: The bright morning brought two things: bugs and moose! The bugs weren't exactly bad... it's just that we hadn't had to deal with bugs at all on the trip so far. Luckily, it was mostly non-biting flies, but with the occasional mosquito mixed in just to keep things interesting.

The moose on the other hand, were everywhere: walking along the beach, through the water, and... what's that sound? Oh yeah, moose walking right through our campsite. By the time I got out of my tent, there were hoof prints just feet away from my tent. The moose had judged us harmless, and acted accordingly.

We had tea while sitting on a bench that moose had recently stepped over (they were far off on the other side of the lake now, so it was safe). Then we had a second round of tea to help Sarah with her self-described "hangover" brought on by too much sun and fun on yesterday's Rainbow Cove trip.

Morning also brought a surprising lack of bros. The bros must have gotten up earlier than us and headed out, because we couldn't hear them anywhere. And if they'd been around, we definitely would have heard them.

After our quiet breakfast, we packed up and headed out on the final leg of our week-long trip. Today, we would take the Feldtmann trail back in to Windigo and relax. We were in no rush: Our plane left tomorrow, Monday, at 5 pm. This oddity in our timeline was due to staying our first night in Windigo to avoid rain.

The first few miles of this part of the Feldtmann trail were quite flat. The trail runs just below a bluff that marks an ancient lakeshore, and as a result, we were basically walking on a flat and shallow ancient lakebed. At one point, the trail led through a lovely opening filled with grass and low-growing evergreens. In that grassy field, the trail was made entirely of bare red cobbles, just like the ones at Rainbow Cove. It was a bit tricky to walk on, with ankles threatening to roll. Plus, walking on beach cobbles was very strange in the midst of the grassy field. We were truly walking on the ancient shoreline!

We ended up eating lunch next to a lovely little stream that didn't even appear on any maps. We continued to stop every hour for a short break and snack, a practice that worked so well that we'll likely do it in all future backpacking trips. 

As with most other trails we'd been on, the trail crews were ahead of us. There were many downed trees that had been cut clear and pushed off of the trail. Each time we saw one, we said in a chorus: "Thank you, trail crew!"

We had expected to meet a bunch of people on the trail, since it's quite common for hikers to arrive at Windigo and immediately hike to Feldtmann Lake -- the opposite direction from what we were doing. But we only met a few people on the trail: first one eager solo hiker, followed a little while later by a couple with brand-new gear who looked like they were slightly shell-shocked. We were sympathetic -- that's exactly how we felt on our first trip to the island.

Soon, we started to make the only big climb of the day, up a large ridge near the entrance to Washington Harbor. The day was already getting a little warm, and the climb heated us up. Soon enough we were walking on the exposed ridge top, with the sun beating down on us from a clear blue sky. We were hot! I have always been amazed at how different things can feel at the top versus bottom of Isle Royale's ridges.

6-days-with-no-showers selfie at Grace Creek overlook

The ridge had one big upside: A beautiful overlook of the interior of the island, highlighting Grace Creek and the wetlands it winds through. Better yet, there were also some shady evergreens nearby under which we could drop our packs, have a seat, and cool down.

We spent quite a while resting at the overlook before we packed up again and started the last short leg to Windigo. Along the way, we heard the Voyageur's horn sound in Washington Harbor. A few minutes later, the horn sounded again. This sparked some debate: Was that horn the boat's arrival and departure sound? They sounded too close together unless there were remarkably few passengers. Our only experience with the Voyageur also involved a horn, calling some tardy (actually, just not early enough) backpackers to come running. We also wondered if this meant that the Voyageur had dropped off a crowd of hikers who would be taking up spots in the Washington Creek campground tonight.

The trail quickly came down off of the ridge through deciduous forest. As with everything else on this trip, trees were just starting to leaf out, and we had great views through the bare forest. The trail soon came to run right alongside Washington Harbor, giving us both a nice lake breeze and great views across the harbor. We could look straight across to Beaver Island and see shelters set right on the water, of which we were immediately envious.

Sarah with Marsh Marigolds

We walked through "downtown" Windigo, where Sarah stopped to enjoy the use of running water. I continued the quarter mile to Washington Creek campground, which was largely empty (we later decided that the Voyageur must have been heading back to Minnesota, which had probably removed campers from the campground). I decided to claim shelter #1, at the far end of the line. Like the other shelters, it was set right on the creek, in deep shade, and was nicely private.

While waiting for Sarah, I wandered around exploring the vicinity of the shelter. The campground's path continued beyond the shelter, so I curiously followed it. This led me to a lovely meadow on the point of land where Washington Creek meets Washington Harbor, with a conveniently placed picnic table right at the shore. It was a beautiful sight and a beautiful location, and I spent a good while enjoying it.

Eventually Sarah returned from Windigo, and we set about arranging our air pads and sleeping bags, resting for a while, and getting quite chilly in the shady late afternoon. So, we walked back to Windigo. It was like a magnet, always drawing us in, despite the fact that we'd already hiked almost 9 miles today, and added an extra half mile every time we went back and forth!

At Windigo, our first order of business was to figure out what to do with our gas canisters. Gas can't be brought on the seaplane, so Sarah was eager to figure out what we should do with them. We found a milk crate outside the old store, with a small handwritten sign that said "free". Several gas canisters were in it, all of them empty.

Crossing Grace Creek on a two-lane bridge

Next we walked down to the seaplane dock, where Sarah remembered seeing some gas on the way up. Indeed, a few people had left empty gas canisters on top of a larger housing for airplane fuel. Plus, somebody had put an unopened package of blackout curtains on top of them. Perhaps the seaplane made a drop-off for park employees?

Our third priority was to inspect the "new" store, whose construction had been a topic of discussion for several years on the Isle Royale Forums. Rangers had promised that it should be open in a few days, but still too late for us to enjoy. While the building was finished, it was still being stocked and set up with merchandise. We stared in through the windows and drooled: There were snacks of every imaginable kind, kitchy souvenirs, and best of all: an ice cream case. Not that it was hot out, but every single piece of junk food sounded amazing.

We decided to have our dinner on the big Windigo dock, where the sun was shining brightly to warm us up. We enjoyed freeze-dried Fettucine Alfredo, always a favorite, to the accompaniment of seagulls, an otter, many many mergansers, and a camp fox that fearlessly trotted right through the middle of "town".

Eventually we couldn't keep our eyes open. We took advantage of the running water one last time, then headed back to Washington Creek campground. We slept curled up against the cold and clear night air.

Next time: How wild is it?

Miles hiked: 8.8 (Feldtmann to Windigo) + 1.5 (back and forth to the campground)

Total miles: 47.5

Friday, July 28, 2023

Isle Royale 2023, Day 5: Rest day at Feldtmann Lake

Last time: A magic waterfall on the way to Feldtmann Lake - Links to all of my trip logs

Enjoying the beach at Feldtmann Lake

Saturday May 27, 2023: The night was as warm as promised -- 40 degrees! -- and for the first time all trip I didn't wear a hat and puffy coat to bed. I still wore a thermal base layer and fleece, true, but who's counting?

When I woke up in the morning, I heard the same thing that I'd heard while going to sleep the night before: The distinctive thump-splish-splash of moose walking through shallow water. I crawled out of my tent and, sure enough, there were the same two young bulls, clomping back and forth along the beach. I walked along the campground trail (parallel to the beach) to watch them, when suddenly they came up into the campground and walked straight through site #2, whose occupant seemed to be completely asleep and unaware in his tent.

I excitedly told Sarah about this once she woke up. First we spared a thought for the three poor guys we'd met at Siskiwit Bay, who had complained that there were no moose at Feldtmann. They missed an entire moose parade by just one day!

But ever practical, Sarah's main question was: Has anybody packed up and left their site empty? Today was our self-imposed rest day, and any way to avoid spending it in the tiny, exposed site #3 would be good, even if it meant living in a moose highway. We took a look and found that the inhabitants of both sites #1 and #2 were now gone.

Wood Anemone

We decided to move in to site #2, which seemed all around nicer. So it was that our tents levitated down the path, one of us at each end. Ah, the advantages of a modern lightweight tent! The new site was shady, spacious, and right next to the lake -- everything that site #3 was not.

After all of that, we finally enjoyed breakfast while sitting on a driftwood bench near the beach. The lake was again lovely and calm in the morning light. There were now three moose feeding down by the lake's outlet.

The rest of our morning was uneventful: We hung some stinky hiking clothes to air out on a clothesline, lounged around doing some reading, and had a lunch of rice cakes and peanut butter.

After lunch, we packed a daypack and headed down the trail to Rainbow Cove. We were promised that this short (0.8 mile) trail would lead us to the most amazing beach on Isle Royale -- a beautiful place of warm cobbles and amazing sunsets. We were just behind a large group who seemed to have some sort of very specific task that involved wandering off into the brush and measuring things.

Rainbow Cove's beach, featuring a napping Sarah

The trail headed gradually downhill, generally following Feldtmann Lake's outlet stream (which, as far as I know, has no name). Along the way, we passed through many odd openings in the trees. They reminded me a bit of old homestead clearings, and sure enough, at one point I saw an old cookstove hiding in the trees. It probably wasn't from farmers -- the west exposure would have been horrible in the winter -- but perhaps fishermen once lived here? I don't know for sure.

Soon we came out to Rainbow Cove itself. It was... familiar. Other hikers had set our expectations high, and indeed, it was a lovely place. But if you've ever been to Calumet Waterworks or Agate Beach or Great Sand Bay (in one of its rockier seasons) on the Keweenaw, then you have also seen Rainbow Cove. Even Carnelian Beach, which we'd hiked just two days earlier along Siskiwit Bay, was pretty much the same. It's a beautiful red cobble beach made from the conglomerate that is absolutely ubiquitous in the Copper Country.

So we were perhaps a bit underwhelmed. But the beach was gorgeous, the sky was perfectly clear and blue, and there was the greatest lake in the world -- Superior! -- lapping right at our feet. So who were we to complain?

Our first task was to filter some cold Lake Superior water for future use. This involved both of us wading into the lake as far as we could go, which was about ankle-deep. The water was probably 38 degrees at most, and even in the hot sun, it hurt. While the filter ran, we put on sun block -- a lot of it -- and sat on a piece of driftwood. Then we kept sitting there, basking in the sun and reading. As we did, another Moosewatch group (or the same one? I have no clue) came down the trail, walked down to the stream's outlet, crossed it, and then disappeared into the brush along the lakeshore.

After a while, I got up and walked down the beach myself. The stream's outlet was cold and fast-running, and I waded across to see what I could see. The answer: More beach. I waded back and found that Sarah had burrowed into the rocks down near the water.  The golf-ball-sized pebbles did a great job of conforming to her body. I tried it, and with a little wiggling and shuffling, the pleasantly warm rocks made a shallow form-fitting nest. I quickly had a small backrest set up and settled in to read. It was ideal: Warm sun and rocks, cool water just below our feet, beautiful views, and good books.

Feldtmann Lake's outlet stream at Rainbow Cove

The Rock of Ages lighthouse -- which we'd first seen from the Feldtmann Ridge lookout -- was visible in the far distance. A variety of boats came and went across the shallow cove, never stopping, always on their way to somewhere else. The seaplane crossed the sky in front of us, and we waved. Less than 15 minutes later, the plane returned heading the other way. We waved again.

We spent three or four hours on the beach, finally calling it quits when it started to feel like dinnertime. While we'd started out a bit skeptical, Rainbow Cove had proved to be just as fantastic as promised. But make sure you visit Calumet Waterworks too, just to give yourself a comparison.

Back at camp, we took advantage of a luxury. We had left our "pocket shower" sitting out -- basically a large black water bag that does a nice job of absorbing heat from the sun. It had worked well on this sunny day. We hung it up around a tree and used it to give our hands and faces a scrub.

That was all well and good, but from there things went downhill. For in our absence, the bros had arrived.

"The bros" was our name for a collection of guys -- it's always guys -- who had arrived and set up in several open sites. They may or may not have been hiking together or even knew each other prior to arriving at camp, but somehow (pheromones? secret signs?) they had found each other and were now inseparable. Their key characteristic was to have a loud and expert-level opinion of every possible topic. They were loud enough to be heard across the campground, but that wasn't necessary, because they had packed fishing rods and were walking up and down the beach (and through our campsite) sharing their thoughts along the way. Their opinions were vast and varied. Gear and pack weight were favorite topics, as were lure choices, GPS and navigation apps, the proper kind of water bottle... anything and everything. Each statement used profanity like it was punctuation. "It f-ing slaps!" was used as an exclamation point.

On the upside, at least they weren't fellow Michiganders. I know this because they loudly wondered where they could buy marijuana now that they had arrived in Michigan (where it is legal). The short answer: Not in a national park.

We distracted ourselves by enjoying a dinner of freeze-dried something. My notes say lasagna, but my brain has no record of this. It was calories, not much more.

No, this is not fake. Yes, that is a real moose. Yes, that's the bench we were sitting at.

We enjoyed the not-so-quiet evening by reading while sitting on a driftwood bench between our site and the beach. This also gave the passive-aggressive message to please not walk through our campsite again. But soon both we and the bros had to move, because moose were coming. The two young bulls had decided they wanted to be on the other side of the lake, and got there by walking along the entire beach in front of the campground just as they had done this morning. This brought out the whole campground, cameras and all.

Sarah and I stood in our campsite and watched the young bulls walking not 10 feet away from us. Then they turned around and walked back... and forth... and back again, dunking their heads to find tasty morsels at the bottom of the lake.

I have been close to moose before, and they never fail to impress and terrify at the same time. They're just plain big, and it is much too easy to imagine what would happen if they suddenly decided that you were a problem to be dealt with.

The moose walked past so often that eventually it got a bit boring. Later, when they'd settled into one particular corner of the lake, I learned how to take a photo through a pair of binoculars:

Moose through binoculars

While much less exciting than moose, we also enjoyed a great deal of waterfowl drama that evening. Mergansers dove, the birds that went "meep" went "meep", and then a pair of geese started chasing away some uninvited guests, which involved an enormous amount of flapping and honking that echoed across the entire width of the lake.

Soon enough, our long, hard day of relaxing caught up with us. It was bedtime! We crawled into our tents, but alas, the bros had other ideas. They had set up on the beach in front of the next campsite, fishing and loudly discussing wilderness first aid or Netflix or something. Their penetrating voices and profane punctuation put any thought of sleep out of my mind. I gritted it out until 10 pm, when I finally crawled back out of my tent and walked down the beach. I did my best to kindly but firmly ask them to quiet down because people are trying to sleep and everyone can hear you! and they were so surprised that they actually did it.

Although it was now past 10 pm, the sun was merely low in the sky. As much as I would have loved to see the Milky Way in the perfectly clear night sky, I would have had to stay up until well past midnight. I didn't have it in me. I was out light a lightbulb once I got back into the tent.

Next time: Return of the Windigo - Links to all of my trip logs

Miles hiked: 1.6 (Rainbow Cove and back)

Total miles: 37.2

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Isle Royale 2023, Day 4: Siskiwit Bay to Feldtmann Lake

Last time: A campfire with friends

The Feldtmann Ridge, looking east

Friday May 26, 2023: Morning was sunny, bright, and -- you guessed it -- cold! We took our breakfast down to a waterfront picnic table, where we basked in the sun while covered in all of our puffiest layers.

The bay and air were filled with wildlife. A pair of trumpeter swans flew overhead, making their curiously brassy honks. Sandhill cranes circled with their spooky, echoing call. Mergansers paddled and dove. And, of course, seagulls screeched.

Beautiful morning at the Siskiwit Bay dock

Our original plan called for us to spend a rest day at Siskiwit Bay. It was a beautiful place, and I could have easily stayed put and enjoyed the scenery all day. But after talking it over, we decided to continue on to Feldtmann Lake campground and spend our extra day there. We were both feeling just fine currently, and moving along today would let us recover from our longest hike for an extra day. And among other things, Ken's description of Rainbow cove had enchanted both of us. Nonetheless, I decided that some trip soon, I would return and spend an extra day at Siskiwit Bay.

So we packed up quickly and set out on the trail. It was a big day: 10.3 miles along the Feldtmann ridge!

The old logging road

The start of the trail was extremely flat. It was yet another old road, this time a logging road, and the trail passed through flat woods that had been logged out (and burned!) a hundred years before. On the bright side, the trail was warmer and sunnier than the ridges above us, which meant that spring wildflowers were truly in bloom -- marsh marigolds, hepatica, and fields of spring beauties.

Nonetheless, the trail was so flat, straight, and without any views, that we lost track of time. I eventually checked my clock (aka phone) and discovered that we'd been marching for an hour with no apparent change in scenery.

We decided to stop and rest once per hour, to help pace ourselves on this long day. In our case, this meant picking a random point along the road where a fallen tree made a good bench.

Soon afterwards, the trail started to climb up the Feldtmann Ridge itself. It was a long, slow slog of a climb. Luckily, the trail crews had made it through here and cleaned up many fallen trees. Was Island Mine the only trail they hadn't touched?

Spring beauties

We were doing the Feldtmann loop "backwards" (clockwise), and so we had expected to meet many other people heading in the more traditional counterclockwise direction. But part way up the ridge, we met the only other people we would see on the trail all day. They were a young couple with fantastic Yooper accents. They warned us that Feldtmann campground was pretty full, with several large groups (Moosewatch?) staying for a long time. Oh, and there were indeed moose to watch: "They're all over the place! They walk right through the campground!" We wished them luck and let them know about the wonderfully flat trail ahead of them.

We made our second hourly stop at the top of the long uphill in a classic Copper Country bedrock glade. A ridge of gray volcanic rock formed the base of the clearing, with grasses popping out of the cracks. The rock was topped with puffy lichens, and the whole opening was surrounded with dense forest on every side.

We gratefully took off our packs and pulled out a snack of peanut-butter rice cakes. We gently laid down on the soft lichen. Sarah almost fell asleep.

It turned out that an even better stop was just ahead of us. Back on the trail, one more uphill brought us to  the real top of the ridge, which was bare and windy. Right in the middle were the footings of an old fire tower. The tower itself, built of wood, had collapsed off to the side of the trail.

Sarah at the Feldtmann Ridge fire tower

The next bump along the ridge brought us to the "new" Feldtmann fire tower, a massive steel construction in the middle of a huge bare stretch of ridge. This was our halfway point, so we decided to make an unscheduled stop. We dropped our packs again, climbed as high as we could go on the tower (it's closed at the very top, much like the Mt. Ojibway fire tower), and took so many photos.

The tower has a spectacular view in every direction: Back east, the direction we had come from, we could see Siskiwit Bay sparkling in the sun. Lake Halloran, which had been completely invisible from the trail, was visible from this height. To the south, the expanse of Lake Superior spread out all the way toward the horizon, where the Keweenaw was a barely visible outline. North, we could see ridges and swamps alternating in bands between bare deciduous trees and dark evergreens, heading upward to the huge rounded bulk of the Greenstone Ridge.

Finally, to the west, we could see the Feldtmann ridge stretching far into the distance. Feldtmann Lake itself was just a tiny slice of blue. We had a lot of walking left to do.

Looking back towards Siskiwit Bay

After even more photos, a snack of meat sticks, and another good long rest, we pulled our packs back up and continued west.

The ridge was topped with hundreds of stunted serviceberry bushes, currently blooming with their showy white flowers. The trail soon dropped down into the woods, where the wildflowers were out in profusion. We saw fields of spring beauties, a few hepatica, and even one very early devil's paintbrush!

An adventurous devil's paintbrush

One hour later, almost on the dot, the trail wound around a small outcrop of rock and we suddenly found ourselves facing a lovely waterfall. This small waterfall -- perhaps eight feet tall -- tumbled down a rocky wall and cut through a collection of mossy boulders. What a perfect place to stop and rest!

We climbed up on a boulder and enjoyed another snack. As we ate, I thought I could see a volunteer trail heading up the cliff face, so I got up to investigate. I'd never heard anyone mention this waterfall -- it probably was barely a trickle in the summer -- so who knew what other magic might be hiding down this side trail?

Sarah with the bonus waterfall

The side trail climbed on surprisingly well-maintained rock steps and turned to follow along a picturesque beaver pond. It went on for quite a while. I kept following, entranced by the bucolic scene, when I suddenly came to a section of boardwalk. They don't build those on volunteer trails! That's when I realized that I was actually on the main trail. Sure enough, back at the waterfall, the real trail made a short jog to cross the stream and then turned right up the rock "steps" I'd climbed.

Refreshed by this beautiful stop, we packed up and continued up the steps. The beaver pond was just as lovely on my second visit. Next we came to another stretch of open ridge. As with all Isle Royale ridges, it sloped gently to the south. This ridge was quite open, giving us lovely views over more ridges and down to Lake Superior. It dropped off steeply on the north side, where a single line of white pines stood at its crest. Their soft needles covered the path and gave off a gentle, pleasant scent as we passed.

By this point, we were both getting tired. Carrying 30 pound packs was wearing us out, and hauling them along the exposed ridges under the clear sunny skies was starting to make us sweat, despite the cool air.

All that was forgotten when we reached the end of the ridge, where several spectacular overlooks awaited us. Each overlook showed us a different view of Feldtmann Lake and its swampy lowlands, stretching out several hundred feet below us. Lake Superior sparkled in the distance, and we could even see a tiny white speck in the distance where the Rock of Ages lighthouse stood. We stood in awe. Then we took selfies.

Selfie high above Feldtmann Lake

Then, of course, we had to hike down off of the ridge. As any hiker knows, it's harder to go down a steep slope than up it. This one was especially nasty due to patches of bare gravel on some of the steeper bits. Our hiking poles continued to be our best friends.

The trail soon entered a flat deciduous forest, and eventually started following some sort of (apparently) man-made berm whose origins I never figured out. We parted ways again (rule 1!) with me going ahead to hopefully get a good campsite.

The bridge over the stream at Feldtman Lake's outlet was badly in need of repair. Shortly afterwards, I found the small sign that welcomes visitors to Feldtmann Lake campground. I made a quick pass through the campground, which has only tent sites, and found exactly one site open: Site #3.

This is the entirety of Site #3 at Feldtmann Lake

It was no mystery why site #3 was the only campsite left open. It was tiny, barely large enough for two small tents. It was totally exposed to the sun, with few shade trees anywhere near it. It was across the path from the lake, so there wasn't much of a view. And the kicker: It was right next to the outhouse. Other sites had many tents in them, including at least five at one, and four at another -- perhaps these were the Moosewatch groups that we'd heard about.

Sarah arrived shortly afterward and found me ornery and hot. We didn't have any choice except to set up here, so we did. We had to play Tetris with out tents in order to get both of them to fit.

On the upside, the site did have a short access path to the water. We went down and found Feldtmann Lake to be remarkably placid. The tiny sandy beach was damp, but we sat on our rain coats and cooled down a bit as our water filtered itself. The view was lovely: The perfectly flat surface of Feldtmann reflected the blue sky and the greening forest that crowded close in on every side.

Sarah resting along the shoreline

Feldtmann Lake is also home to even more waterfowl than Siskiwit Bay. Mergansers paddled around everywhere, diving and preening. A slightly different duck kept making such a strange sound that we started calling it "The duck that goes 'meep'". We later learned it was a Goldeneye, and the sound -- which for all the world sounds like it's coming straight out of the Muppet Show -- is part of its mating call.

The shady beach cooled us down, and the rest did our muscles good. The sun sank lower in the sky, reducing the heat and glare in our tiny campsite. We ate a dinner of bland freeze-dried beef stew, on the theory that after that many miles, we really couldn't care less what our food tasted like. It was acceptable. It was calories.

As we sat eating at the beach, I heard some distant splashing. Sure enough, two young bulls were walking out of the trees far down the shoreline -- our first moose of the trip! They waded far out into the lake, dunking their heads to eat water plants. We took turns watching through our field binoculars, and we noticed several groups of people in other campsites doing likewise. We also noticed that many of the waterfowl hurried over to hang around near the moose. Perhaps they were hoping to get a good meal from whatever the moose stirred up?

Serviceberry flowers (because I didn't photograph the moose -- wait until tomorrow!)

When the moose watching finally got a bit boring, we started to head for bed. That's when I remembered Dane's handy weather forecast from the previous day. I poked around in the app that connects to our Garmin, and discovered that ours would do the same thing -- at the cost of one "free" message. We decided it was worthwhile to spend one of those messages, and discovered that the night would be clear but much warmer, at a balmy 40 degrees!

We crawled in to bed, exhausted from the day. As I was laying down under my quilt, I heard the unmistakable sound of a moose splashing through water. It sounded like it was right in front of our campsite. Sure enough, when I stuck my head out of my tent, I could see one of the young bulls right in front of our site! It was followed shortly by the other one. I ran out to watch it wander down the beach, along with half of the rest of the campground.

After that, it was a bit hard to get to sleep. But it turns out that hiking well over 10 miles with a loaded pack beats the adrenaline of a double moose sighting, and we managed to get to sleep in the pleasantly non-frigid evening.

Next time: The magic of Rainbow Cove

Miles hiked: 10.3

Total miles: 35.6

Today's route in green, past days in pink