Sunday, June 23, 2019

Isle Royale 2019, Day 1: Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm

Last time: Intro, travel, and sleeping in the shack

A gray day over Rock Harbor

Monday May 27, 2019:
I woke long before my alarm and peeked out the window. The early morning outside was cold, windy, and spritzing rain.

I got up, took my last shower of the week, and checked and double-checked my packing list. With no excuse to wait any longer, I drove all of 2 blocks to the Isle Royale Queen's parking lot where Captain John -- one of the three Kilpela brothers who run the Queen -- directed parking. The lot was more full than I expected, but hardly as overflowing as it usually is in August.

I pulled out my pack, suited up, and then had to wait for the Queen's office to open before I could check in. The dock slowly filled up with travelers, solo and in groups. A surprising number had rolling luggage, considering that the lodge wouldn't open for another week. I hoped they were staying in rental cabins.

I hid from the wind around the side of the office and discovered a family of 4 doing the same. The father turned out to be extremely talkative and was soon gnawing my ear off about his long-ago hiking trips. This was their first outing as a family, and they were heading to the island for a day trip -- 4 hours at most on the island, barely time to see anything! Nonetheless, with two small kids and the lodge not yet open, it seemed better than nothing.

Soon, Captain John corralled us into a line and got us boarded smoothly. I ended up near the end of the line. By the time I made it onto the boat, the main cabin was nearly full -- surprising for an early spring trip. I ended up sharing a 4-person seat with Doug and Steve from Cow-lumbus Ohio (their term, not mine, but who am I to argue?). They were first-timers to the island, and also extremely pleasant seat-mates to spend the ride chatting with. They were on this trip along with a large group that included Doug's college roommate. I could tell Doug was nervous by the number of times he mentioned that he "hadn't seen him (the roommate) in 28 years...". Meanwhile, the large roommate-including group had managed to dig out the cigars (!) that they had packed and were smoking them vigorously out on the stern. The mix of cigar smoke and diesel fumes must have been invigorating, because I heard some loud whoops coming from that direction.

Talk turned to alternate itineraries for Doug and Steve, and we spent a long while poring over a trail map. I gave my thoughts on some of the best parts of the island and a few beautiful off-trail spots that are worth finding.

Fences at the Siskiwit Mine, because I didn't take many photos on the boat

As we chatted, I looked across the aisle and saw four college-age guys sitting in various states of disarray. One, in flip-flops, lolled while listening to music. Another ate a huge cinnamon roll and looked green around the gills. They all carried a certain air of not being prepared, and also not particularly caring about not being prepared. I made a mental note to watch out for them, in case I came across one of them lost in the middle of a campground. Sitting with them were an uncomfortable looking couple that I couldn't quite place -- too young to be parents. Perhaps leaders of a camp group? Total strangers? I wasn't sure.

The trip was amazingly smooth despite the wind and rain. As we entered Rock Harbor, the rain decreased to a bare spritz, and so we braved the cold bow to enjoy the views. As we docked, I shared with Doug and Steve my usual advice on how to get started quickly: At the dock, there will be a big circle that forms around the ranger during orientation. Hang out on the side closet to the visitor's center, near the back of the circle, so that you can zip over to the registration line quickly. They took my advice, and after Ranger Molly's efficient and thorough orientation, we all ended up near the front of the registration lines. That's when I realized that I had left my photo ID (necessary to use a National Park Annual Pass) stashed in my backpack. So out of the line I went, found my ID, and got back into the end of the slowest registration line I have ever experienced. Strike 1!

Meanwhile, the big group was cleaning out the Trading Post's beer supply, breaking out more cigars, and preparing to party in Rock Harbor campground.

I finally got registered and looked for the bathrooms, which turned out to be closed. Strike 2! After walking all the way across the harbor to find the last working toilets for 5 days, I headed out on the trail, and made it all of 100 yards towards the Rock Harbor trail when I found that I couldn't get any water out of my water reservoir. Strike 3! At this point, I was pretty sure I was being punished for telling Doug and Steve how to avoid the line. As I sat next to the trail with my bag half disassembled, Steve walked up from the campground and proclaimed me to be a "scholar and gentleman" -- due to my advice, he had been able to snag one of the last shelters. At least somebody was having a good day on my behalf!

I finally fixed my water hose and set out for real. I have never taken the Rock Harbor trail up to Three Mile campground before -- we've always taken the easier Tobin Harbor trail instead -- so this was a new experience. None of it is particularly tough, but the sheer variety is amazing. It's almost like the island is trying to give a complete overview of trail types to all of the newbies rushing out of Rock Harbor.

Occasionally it's a flat, easy single-track through the woods (When you see this, you know the trail is planning something -- it's just trying to lull you into complacency):

Then there's your standard rocks-and-roots trail:

Or a puncheon bridge across a swampy area (with, of course, a mix of rocks, roots, and bedrock for fun):

Sometimes it's cairn-finding across a big swath of bedrock:

Or a little bit of rock climbing:

Or rock "stepping":

Can you find the trail in this photo? (Click to enlarge it)

This is one of my favorite bits. The trail runs along a narrow ledge of rock that's almost at lake level. It's (at most) one person wide. When the lake is rough, you'll be getting your boots wet here:

One lane road

Not far down the trail, I came across a fellow who was readjusting his heavy-looking pack. On the ground next to him was a medium-sized Igloo cooler. Remembering advice that a ranger once gave me, I greeted him and asked how he was doing. "Great! It's so beautiful! Just adjusting a few things." I wished him luck and continued onward, pondering that cooler, what might be in it, and how long he would be carrying it.

I stopped at Three Mile campground (conveniently located... 3 miles from Rock Harbor) to change gear. I had been using my trekking poles and getting a good boost out of them, but I wanted to have my Serious Camera out -- a DSLR and lens that added 2.5 pounds to my pack -- so I needed to free up a hand. Away went the trekking poles and out came the camera, a trade that I would make many times over the course of my trip.

One goal of this trip was to take time to explore side trips large and small that I'd never done before. So when I saw the sign not too far beyond Three Mile that said "DANGER: Open mine pits in this area", I took that as an invitation to step off trail. This was the Siskiwit Mine, one of Isle Royale's old copper mines. It's highly tamed as Copper Country mines go: All of the shafts are surrounded by wooden fencing and nothing really interesting is left -- although several of the shafts still had snow in them. There were a few rock foundations just down the trail, and a small rock pile along the lakeshore. It scratched a small itch, and I continued on feeling happy. It reminded me of a good bit of general backpacking advice: Don't forget to look up from your feet, think beyond your goal for the day, and enjoy where you are right now.

Snow in a Siskiwit Mine shaft

The trail had been perfectly nice, if varied, up until the mine, after which it started to get muddy... and muddier... and even muddier. There were a few bogs that gave me flashbacks to our June backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains, where sometimes we couldn't even see the other sides of the bogs. This time at least, there were no mosquitoes trying to pick me up and carry me away -- in fact, I hadn't met a single bug yet. I did have to put the camera away so that I could rely on my hiking poles for support and, sometimes, use them to feel for submerged obstacles. After the umpteenth mud bog, I was getting a bit tired and stopped at a nice rocky outcrop for a quick rest and a gorp snack. After that lovely break, I got up, walked all of 10 minutes, and arrived at Daisy Farm.

You might have heard bad things about Daisy Farm: It's big, it's noisy, it's ugly, nobody goes there on purpose -- they just pass through on their way to somewhere better. I'm here to argue otherwise. Ever since Sarah and I first stopped there, Daisy Farm has been one of my favorite campgrounds on the island. It's not the place to find solitude and silence, but it is always easy to find a spot even in the busiest season, it's comfortable, and it has a beautiful setting. Today, however, it felt spookily empty.  The only shelter that was taken was the one I've always wanted, but never managed to snag: shelter #4, which faces a wide open grassy field filled with Black-eyed Susans in August. I looked long and hard at the shelters that were right next to the lake (and, with no brush grown up yet, they had a spectacular view), but a healthy offshore breeze chilled me as I stood in front of them and promised that I would be cold all night if I slept there. I ended up in the far back of the campground at shelter #19, well protected from the breeze.

Tent in shelter #19, to conserve heat and protect from wind.
My first priority was to filter water. I took the "dirty" bag from my gravity filter down to the dock, swiped it through the lake water, and just about froze my hand off. (This is the only downside I've ever found from using a gravity filter instead of a traditional hand pump.) While I was dancing around to warm up, I chatted with Mark, a fisherman casting from the end of the dock. He too was a solo hiker and a first timer on the island. The introductions went as things often do for Michiganders: "So, where are you from?" "Grand Rapids" "Me too!" "Oh, right, so I'm actually from...". It seems that everyone from southern Michigan claims to be from Grand Rapids, Lansing, or Detroit to save time and effort when talking to people who won't know where Jenison or Sunfield or Monroe are anyhow.

After my camp chores were done, I headed back out on the trails. We were less than a month away from the Solstice, so sunset wasn't until well after 9:30. I intended to use every minute of the wonderfully long days while I was on the island.

I started with another of the little side trips that I wanted to complete on this visit. Daisy Farm was once the town of Ransom, which supported the Ransom Mine. This 1840's-era copper mine was located on Ransom hill, which backs up behind the campground (and forms that one last obstacle that has many a hiker groaning in agony as they attempt to reach Daisy Farm). I had read claims that there were ruins to be found, and my Copper Country Exploring itch needed more some scratching. I hiked slowly up and down the Mt. Ojibway trail on Ransom hill, staring intently into the woods and occasionally popping off-trail to investigate likely-looking piles of rock. There were a few suspicious looking depressions and perhaps a trench, but mostly what I found were moose trails and beautiful lichen-covered rock outcrops. I tried going overland from one of the individual campsites, and found an outcrop that might have had a small adit (horizontal mine opening) blasted into it -- or maybe it was just perfectly normal frost cracking at the base of a cliff. While I didn't find any real mine ruins, there are worse ways to spend an evening than wandering through beautiful and silent woods with all of my senses focused on the present.

A lovely outcrop, and maybe an old mine

It turns out that staring at suspicious looking rocks can work up my appetite, so I headed back to my shelter. Dinner was Alpine Aire Black Bart chili, and the less I say about that, the better. As I "ate", a puffed-up White-throated Sparrow entertained me, hopping around my campsite and probably hoping for a handout.

My friend the sparrow

After dinner there was still plenty of light in the sky. I wandered around the campground somewhat aimlessly and ended up discovering Shelter #1, which is off on its own side trail separate from the other shelters. I made a mental note to stay there in the future. Behind the shelter, I followed a trail on towards the ranger's cabin, which was unoccupied. I kept following the trail and found the ranger's personal outhouse, with a sign tacked on it: "This trail does NOT go to Moskey Basin. Turn around and go back!" That immediately brought up the question: Where does this trail go? So, I followed it. The trail continued past the outhouse and into an open meadow, which contained some strange cement footings. Later, I learned that these are likely remnants of the CCC Camp Rock Harbor where hardy souls lived and worked year round -- including winters! -- in the 1930's.

Eh, I've seen better.

One of my favorite rhythms in camping is waking with the sunrise and going to bed with sunset. After a totally adequate sunset from the Daisy Farm dock, I snuggled up in my tent, set up inside the shelter to protect against wind and hold in extra heat. The night was near freezing, but that's nothing that a shelter, tent, 10 degree sleeping bag, winter-rated sleeping pad, 3 layers of clothes, and a Nalgene filled with hot water couldn't help with.

Miles hiked: 7.3
Total miles: 7.3

Wildlife seen: Squirrels, sparrows, and gray jays, but no moose.

Next time: Wildlife and Wisconsinites

Trail map. Today's route is in green.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Isle Royale 2019: Introduction and Travel

This series will eventually have 6 separate posts (one for each day, including this one). Check the bottom of this post for a link to the next one when it's ready. Until then, here's a list of all of my backpacking blog posts.

Sunrise at Monkey Basin

Isle Royale in early spring. The idea completely captured me.

May is early spring for this island National Park, and I wanted to experience it. True Yooper that she is, Sarah wanted nothing to do with this. She understood the cold, windy, and rainy weather that spring in the UP can bring.

So I set up a 5 day solo trip to the island during the last week of May. This would be my first spring trip to the island, my first solo trip there, and my 3rd visit overall.

I am an introvert, and one reason I backpack is to enjoy all of the silent naval-gazing. Traveling to Isle Royale, the least-visited national park, at its least-visited time of year, I expected to find quiet, solitude, and to not see another living soul for days at a time. I would spend my time in reading, introspection, and silence. I would wander wherever I wanted, take photos, and explore without the "crowds" (relatively speaking, that is) that fill the island in August.

What I actually got was by far the most social backpacking trip I've ever done. I expected -- and thought I wanted -- the exact opposite, but my trip ended up being a fantastic Social Tour of the island. For most of my non-hiking, non-sleeping time, I ended up hanging out with people I'd never before met, chatting, laughing, stargazing, and having a great time. This is the first backpacking trip where I traded emails with half a dozen people and hugged (formerly) complete strangers before getting on the boat back to the mainland.

In part, the trip was so social because there were a surprisingly large number of people on the island. May is early spring for the island, and Michigan has had a later-than-usual spring this year. These apparently didn't keep people away nearly as much as I had expected. Almost everyone I met was a first-timer, and there were lots of solo hikers too.

I made it a point to say "you'll be back!" to each first-timer that I met. I know it's true. Isle Royale might be the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states, but it is also the most re-visited, and visitors stay for the longest amount of time. You only have to visit once to find out why.

Trail-assembled group photo at Rock Harbor

There is a rhythm to backpacking. I enjoy the way my mind is forced to focus on the daily necessities of filtering water, hiking to the next stop, setting up camp, making food, sleeping, taking down camp, and repeating -- all within the confines of sunrise and sunset. The necessities silence any worries -- any concern about emails or projects or class prep or grading -- and let me enjoy the trip. I love this rhythm and the way it forces me to live in the moment of the trip, enjoy what I have, and not let my brain spin on other things.

Backpacking on Isle Royale has this rhythm, but it has some unique features too. As one of my new trail friends said, Isle Royale is like a small town. Very quickly, you get to know pretty much everyone. And much like a small town, everyone gets to know you and hears about what you've been up to -- whether you told them or not! All backpackers hike the same trails, and the system of centralized campgrounds funnels us to the same places. We see each other often, pass along news, hear rumors about good places to see moose, where the wolves were howling last night, where the new beaver dam has wiped out a bridge, or how that poor group of unprepared dudes is doing.

All of these features -- the rhythm of backpacking, the small town atmosphere, the surprising socialness -- made this a trip I will truly remember, and helped me find some friends I am sure I will see again on the trail.

A typical Isle Royale trail

All winter, I thought and dreamed and planned for the trip. Ferries don't run very often in May, so I was limited to 5 days. I considered covering a bunch of new miles on the Greenstone Trail, the island's premiere trail and one of the most famous in the midwest. I was especially interested in the little-traveled segment on the east end from Lookout Louise to Mt. Franklin. Another option was to do a long haul visiting McCargoe Cove and some of the legendary Minong Trail. In the end, I settled on a simple there-and-back hike along the Rock Harbor Trail, seeing old favorites like Daisy Farm and Moskey Basin, with plenty of time to take photos and enjoy the sights.

Early in 2019, I saw a photo from someone who had bushwhacked around the end of Moskey Basin and onto a short, rocky point of land that overlooks the Moskey campground. My interest was immediately piqued. I spent years doing off-trail hiking and exploring in the Keweenaw, and the photo inspired me to give it a try on the island. My plan to do a quick day hike to the point soon expanded, when I looked on a topo map and saw "Mt. Saginaw" sitting just 3 miles overland from Moskey Basin. Wouldn't it be fun to conquer this mildly (mildly) high point, see terrain that nobody sees, and earn the bragging rights of a cross-country explorer on Isle Royale?

I planned out possible routes in great detail, topo maps in hand. I read surveys of tree cover to see how bad the bush might actually be. I looked at a progression of old aerial photos to see where beaver dams might lead me across swamps. I set GPS waypoints and sketched maps by hand, noting important landmarks such as the many parallel rocky ridges which could act as highways for my hike. I searched for others who have done something similar and came up with almost nothing -- except for plenty of warnings that the swamps and balsam forests would swallow me alive.

I also significantly updated my gear. Usually Sarah and I save weight by distributing common items (a tent, cooking gear, etc.) between our packs. On a solo trip, I would have to haul it all myself. I wanted a light pack that wouldn't drag me down and keep me from seeing what I wanted to see. I also worried about the potential for wet days and cold nights, a dangerous combination. Finally, some of my gear was quite elderly, a holdover from days when "cheap" was the top priority. So, I coughed up the cash and upgraded to a lighter tent, a 10 degree sleeping bag (that was miraculously lighter than my old 25 degree bag), and a highly insulated sleeping pad that would keep me off of the cold, cold ground.

I also, at long last, gave in and bought hiking poles. Some of you out there know that I've spent years making fun of people who use poles. Just pick up a stick! But on trip after trip, my pack started to weigh more heavily on my knees. I began to see some potential, maybe, possibly good reasons to get poles. After some practice hikes, I actually started to like them a little bit. They really helped me maintain momentum and put some zip in my step. On practice hikes with a loaded pack, I felt a noticeable improvement in how tired I got. So, the poles made the cut. But... watch for more details in later installments.

In the week leading up to my trip, I watched the upcoming weather diligently. The forecast was remarkably consistent: Highs in the 40's, lows in the 30's, and rainy. Disappointing, but at least I was well prepared for the rain and cold.

The Isle Royale Queen IV at dock

Sunday May 26, 2019: I left Grand Rapids early and drove 9 uneventful hours up to Copper Harbor. The biggest excitement was mama duck and a horde of ducklings sprinting (as well as ducks can) across the highway in Seney.

I drove up Brockway Mountain Drive to enjoy the view, as well as the last chance at cell reception, then headed down to the Bella Vista Motel in Copper Harbor. It was my first time staying there -- we've stayed at the King Copper every other visit to the island, but got a bit tired of constantly waking up in the mid 1960's. At the Bella Vista, my room was in the "Isle Royale house" (how appropriate), a building off to one side with no particularly special views (not that I needed them). Moreover, I was in room #9, which is literally a shack tacked on to the back of the house. It might well have been an old servant's quarters, or a former lean-to that has been enclosed and updated. Much to my surprise, the interior of the room was clean and cozy. I'll definitely return.

Room #9 -- clearly separate from the rest of the building

I was surprised at how many people were in town, until I remembered it was Memorial Day weekend. Somehow that never entered my mind when planning the trip. Mountain bikers were having some sort of festival, and the sound of live music echoed across the town. I took a stroll along the waterfront, enjoyed the beautiful evening, and finally decided that it was time to get some sleep -- if I could.

Before I went to bed, I checked the weather once more. The stars had aligned, and the forecast had completely changed: The next week was suddenly looking sunny, clear, and as warm as 60 degrees. The nights were still cool, but the danger of wet days and cold nights seemed to be past.

I fell asleep more easily than usual, dreaming of what tomorrow would bring.

Next time: No good deed goes unpunished

This series will eventually have 6 separate posts (one for each day, including this one). Check back for a link to the next post when it's ready. Until then, here's a list of all of my backpacking blog posts.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

North Country Trail 2018 Day 2: Lake Superior State Forest Campground to Grand Marais

Last Time, Day 1: A good choice of hike and a poor choice of campsite
Lake Superior: Just over the hill, all day long

Saturday June 2, 2018: I woke up at 6:30 am with the sun already rising. I'd rolled over every hour or so during the cold night, did some sit-ups in my sleeping bag to generate heat, and then dozed off again. Late into the night, I finally managed to string together more than one hour of uninterrupted sleep.

I was still plenty chilly, so my first order of business was hot tea and hot oatmeal. I am pleased to report that my bear-proof Ursack hadn't been disturbed during the night. I suspect it was mainly because the bears were all hiding in caves to escape the cold.

I made the oatmeal in last night's Chili Mac freeze-dried food bag, a convenience that kept me from getting a cooking pot dirty, and instead made the oatmeal bright red and slightly spicy. Delightful.

Before leaving, I took advantage of the fact that I was staying in a State Forest campground one more time to throw away my trash in a real honest-to-goodness trash bin. What wild luxury! With that, I headed west out of the Lake Superior State Forest campground, following the blue blazes of the North Country Trail.

The trail was beautiful, in a different way from yesterday's trail. Yesterday, I was always in the forest, hiding under the trees despite being just feet from the shoreline. Here, I ran through open fields of beach grass with occasional pines or scrubby trees. The early morning light lent a golden glow to every scene.

The trail near the campground stayed close to the lake, but again unlike yesterday, it ran over extremely bumpy territory -- a constant series of ups and downs. For the first -- but far from the last -- time today, I noticed that the trail seemed to go directly over every hill in its way, never veering around anything.

There goes the trail again...

This all changed as the trail climbed one last hill and then leveled out, high above the lake. And just like yesterday, the trail started falling off the cliff.  The pine forest was open enough that I just followed the bluff's edge most of the time, not worrying about the trail. The sheer number of blowdowns, however, occasionally required me to do some serious inland bushwhacking.

I knew that somewhere within a mile or two of the campground, the trail turned sharply inland and stayed that way. To make sure I didn't miss the turn, every now and then I would pop out to the edge of the bluff and scan the line of fallen trees far below until I saw one with a blue blaze -- just to make sure I was keeping on track, you see.
Ah, there's the trail

I did eventually meet a wide, clear trail heading inland to my left -- so wide it was almost a 2-track. The NCT seemed to dead-end here, with a thick wall of brush blocking me across the 2-track. I must have to go left down the 2-track, I figured. Sure enough, on a tree next to the turn, there was a pair of bright blue blazes telling me to turn... right?

I looked to the right, and just feet away I saw the edge of the horribly eroded bluff and the blue lake beyond it. The 2-track sailed right off of the bluff, the rest of it fallen far below.

These blazes mean "turn right". Note the trail going left.

I scratched my head. Could someone have mis-blazed the trail and meant to leave the similar -- but definitely not identical -- blaze that means to turn left? I peered down the 2-track but couldn't see any blue blazes on the trees that way.

Adding to my confusion, there was also this can opener, just hanging out on the blazed tree (you can see it in the photo above too, if you look carefully):

Why not?

Maybe I really was supposed to go right. I thought about this option quite carefully, because the only thing I wanted to do less than getting lost in a maze of 2-tracks in the UP backcountry was getting lost off-trail in a trackless wilderness in the UP backcountry. Looking really really carefully, I found another pair of very faded blazes on a pine that was just barely clinging to the bluff's edge. Sure enough, the trail did turn right -- and then almost immediately left again. The trail beyond that point had clearly fallen off of the bluff, so I had nothing left to do but bushwhack it again.

For a nerve-wrackingly long time, I didn't see another blaze, and the trail's tread was nowhere to be seen. I kept peering over the edge for fallen trees with blue blazes, but I couldn't see a single one. At very long last, the trail reappeared from the edge of the bluff, and a blue blaze told me that I'd made the right choice.

Almost immediately, the "turn left now!" blaze showed up, and the trail cut south through dunes, ridges, and swales. In just a few minutes, the trail crossed a large and well-maintained gravel road. This was the Grand Marais Truck Trail, the same road that I'd been dropped off at outside Muskallonge State Park yesterday, and which ran next to the campground that I'd stayed at last night.

My plan for today was flexible. The North Country Trail crosses the Grand Marais Truck Trail multiple times, and each of those was a potential ditch point. Just a few miles from my camp, I definitely wasn't ready to stop yet -- so, 5 more miles for me.

Crossing the road, the forest changed yet again. The trail wound through an open pine forest and skirted the edge of a strange, open, burned-over land. Perhaps it had been logged, and the slash piles burned -- I didn't know. Under the forest, the hillsides were more open, and the ground was covered densely with pale blue-grey moss and pine needles. I wound around scrawny pines, in and out of the cool morning sunlight, and up and down hills. The trail skirted around another large logged-out area.

Lichen and pines

In this segment, the trail joined the "Blind Sucker Pathway", a loop probably intended to take hunters along the Blind and Dead Sucker rivers and between various campgrounds in the area. The trail continued its trend of heading directly up every hill in its way, including one extra-long huff-and-puff up a very large ridge. At the top was a picnic table overlooking the beautiful and steep-sided valley of the Dead Sucker river (yes, there's the Blind Sucker, the Dead Sucker, and just plain the Sucker -- all of which I met on this trip). I sat here for a while, eating gorp, relaxing in the shade, enjoying the views, and reading the obscenities carved over top of each other in the picnic table.

There was a fallen sign pointing the separate ways of the Blind Sucker Pathway and North Country Trails, which split here. I knew the right directions, so I attempted to re-set the sign in the correct orientation. When that didn't work, I just laid it down in a way that at least wasn't wrong.

The North Country Trail turned sharply west and followed along the edge of the ridge on an old 2-track that was quickly becoming overgrown with low blueberry bushes. The trail wound over hills and around the edges of lovely hidden lakes. The largest of these, and almost wholly hidden from the trail, was Props Lake, about 3 miles later. As I skirted high above its (barely glimpsed) deep blue waters, I scared up something very large and very loud. I tried mightily to get a glimpse of the creature, but I couldn't see anything as it noisily splashed through the lake's shallows. Nonetheless, I'd heard those sounds before on Isle Royale -- it had to be a moose!

A mile later -- 7 miles total for the day -- I crossed my old friend, the Grand Marais Truck Trail again. I sat on a log just inside the shade of the forest, ate a lunch of rice cakes with peanut butter, and pondered.

This was the 2nd of my possible ditch points. It was only 11 am, our scheduled meet-up was 4 pm, and I was feeling great. Lunch gave me a shot of energy, and I was ready to keep moving. The only trouble was that the next segment of the NCT was 6 miles long without any chance to ditch. After already doing as many miles as I'd do in a normal backpacking day, I considered the wisdom of nearly doubling that amount. I wanted to continue on, but the backpack was starting to weigh heavily on my shoulders.

Leaving my non-essentials behind

I came up with a plan: I removed non-essentials from my pack (tent, clothes, a handful of other heavy items) and crammed them into stuff sacks. I then tied those sacks to the base of the large North Country Trail sign at the road crossing, and left a note explaining that these were mine, thankyouverymuch, and that I was planning to come back and retrieve them later. I kept only absolute essentials -- a little food and water, matches, a space blanket, and similar items in case something went wrong. With one last check of the bags, I hitched up my much lighter backpack and headed out with a lighter step.

The stand of pines in which I'd eaten my lunch turned out to be just a few dozen yards deep. This is a common trick of logging companies in the UP: It looks better if they don't log all the way to the road. Shortly after starting, I stepped out of the cool pines and into a barren and sun-soaked field of slash. These pines had been logged within the last year or two at most.

Blazed trees and not much else

The trail was visible as an area of bare, packed dirt among the slash and low blueberry bushes that covered the sun-drenched ground. Every now and then a tree remained standing, and -- surprise! -- they were exactly the trees with blue blazes on them. I'm not sure who made arrangements with the loggers, but the trail remained blazed, even amidst the nearly total removal of the forest.

Oddly, there were still mature stands of trees on every little ridge and hill. Only large, flat, empty basins had been logged out. The trail wound its way through the cut-over land, occasionally dashing through a stand of uncut pines, before re-emerging into the hot flats. You can see the odd pattern to this here (the trail is in red):

The trail marches through oddly logged areas.
You can also see my road crossing near the bottom right, and recently re-planted areas in pale green towards the top.

Some of the lonely blazed trees had fallen over, at least in part because they lacked support from their brethren. Of course, when this happened, they fell directly across the trail. Sometimes, even the trees hadn't been saved, and the only blaze around was on a wooden post. Other times, the only blaze in sight was painted on a stick jammed into the ground.

Blazed post

Blazed stick
After a long, hot, and sunny few miles walking through these miserable and sad lands, the trail finally re-entered a mature pine forest. The understory was open and filled with blueberry bushes, just starting to blossom. One side of the trail was the edge of a previously logged-out area that had been replanted -- or maybe naturally re-seeded -- and was densely packed with head-high pines.

I enjoyed this leg of the trip, with dappled sunlight and a perfect temperature. I passed several survey markers and stopped to take a photo of them, knowing that my surveyor-in-laws would be curious to see where I'd been.

The trail aimed generally north, occasionally crossing narrow 2-tracks that appeared to be well-used by locals, but were not wide enough for logging trucks. Soon, the ground became sandier, the trail headed up a hill directly into a perfect blue sky, and I popped out on another gorgeous Lake Superior beach.

The lake was a perfect deep blue-green. The sky was clear. The breeze was light. I sat down, ate some gorp, and drank it in. Everything about the scene was perfect. There was one jarring element that seemed out of tune with the rest of this beauty: This beach had suffered from the same storm that tormented my earlier trails. It was strewn with driftwood, and even some of the standing trees on the shoreline were clearly dead.

With my rest break over, I got up and followed the trail as it made a sharp left, heading west to follow the shore. The trail followed a sandy 2-track through the (mostly) dead pines. As with the day's other 2-tracks, these looked like they were used by locals to access the lake. Indeed, while I felt like I was absolutely isolated and alone, I suddenly glimpsed a tent set up in the stand of pines next to the lake. A little while on, I passed a parked pickup truck. I didn't disturb the occupants of either the tent or the truck. Maybe it was just projection, but I had a strong sense that they had come here for the same reasons as me, and didn't wish for my company.

I did, however, spend quite a while with a lady -- or at least her pink slipper, of which I only ever found this one:

Lone Pink Lady's Slipper

As the trail continued west, I entered an area of steeper sandy hills. The trail always went directly up, over, and straight down the back of each hill -- I never met a hill that the trail didn't attack head-on. I was huffing and puffing by the time another familiar problem showed up: The trail fell off the cliff again. By this time, I'd climbed high above the lake and there was no way to (safely) scramble down to the beach -- so bushwhacking was the only option. This area had suffered a huge number of blowdowns that had fallen, criss-crossing each other, all throughout the forest floor. They made my bushwhacking experience even more of an adventure and slowed me down enormously. With 9+ miles on my legs by this point, I wasn't quite so spry any more.

As I was bushwhacking along the edge of the bluff, miles from anywhere, I looked down to the beach and saw... another person. Let's say that this person did not, at a glance (and then a double-take), look like someone who could have easily hiked miles along the beach to reach this point. Nonetheless, whoever it was was nonchalantly picking stones and driftwood and didn't seem to have a care in the world. The surf and wind made it impossible to shout anything down at them, so I simply rested and watched for a few minutes, until I was convinced that they didn't obviously need any immediate help. Once I'd caught my breath, I continued on my way.

After a seemingly endless series of hills, bushwhacking, and blowdown-scrambling, I reached the top of a particularly big hill. Or, almost the top -- I noticed that the actual top was right at the edge of the lakeshore bluff, high above the water. It was about time for another break, so I bushwhacked my way up to the edge, found a fallen tree to sit on (I had my choice of dozens), and plopped down to enjoy a break.

"OK already", you might say, "Haven't you told us enough stories about taking breaks by beautiful Lake Superior beaches?" I hear you. And I ignore you. The day was amazing. I couldn't get enough of the beautiful scenery, and I was loving every moment of it -- even the really tiring moments, which were starting to pile up about now. This particular break lasted a bit longer than usual, and I even pondered laying back in the sun for a nap -- but I knew that a nap could easily end up turning into an extra night in the woods if I wasn't careful. Instead, I pushed on.

The hills kept coming, and they only got bigger. The trail started to dance inland every now and then, mainly (so it seemed) so that it could climb directly up (and back down) only the biggest hills. The woods darkened under mature pines that completely shaded out the understory. The trail made another zig zag maneuver and headed straight towards the lake again, briefly disappearing over the edge of another high bluff and quickly reappearing to the west at an informal campsite situated directly at the end of a 2-track. From my map, I knew that this would be my last view of the lake before the trail headed sharply inland on its march towards my last pickup point. So, I sat down on a log for one last rest-and-gorp break before the final sprint. As I looked out over the lake, I felt a mighty longing for my "old days" of living in the Keweenaw, when I could find views like this any afternoon that I wanted them.

There goes the trail... just before turning inland

Reluctantly, I tore myself away from the lake, re-shouldered my pack, and headed inland. The trail climbed many more hills -- straight up and over, as always -- and crossed a veritable maze of criss-crossing 2-tracks, mostly abandoned and starting to grow over. The dominant form of life in the understory was a fluffy blue-green lichen that covered the forest floor in giant swaths. The lichen was surprisingly lovely, and also dry and crunchy under my feet.

By this point, my legs were just about ready to fall off. Just when I needed a change to distract me, the trail started to get greener and grassier. In short order I was marching alongside the Sucker River, the 3rd of the Suckers, although this one flows west into Grand Marais and doesn't connect with the other two.

I started to see signs of more frequent human visitors in this area. The clearest sign was the amount of trash. Small and large piles littered the grassy areas around the trail, a sad but not unusual situation in the UP's backcountry.

Star flower along the trail

Another odd feature of the river area were a large number of white mesh cylinders. They were lying scattered around on the ground, and initially I wrote them off as more garbage. But then I started to see them standing upright -- with tiny saplings growing out of them. Not inside them, like a grow tube or trunk protector, but almost always growing out through the mesh. I eventually decided that these were intended to protect saplings from animals, but they had not been tended well and were more likely choking off the tree growth instead.

The trail followed a sandy 2-track along the river, which gradually became a narrow dirt road, and eventually a wider gravel road. I suddenly popped out at a paved road intersection -- School Forest Road, with a sign detailing the conservation efforts of the Grand Marais school students.

The trail crossed the river by following the road, then jumped across the road into the Grand Marais School Forest. The NCT followed ski trails through the forest, which seemed to stretch on for days. My legs were made of lead by this time, and I wasn't so much enjoying the hike as merely trudging forward like an automaton.

After an eternity -- but probably more like 30 minutes -- the trail brought me to a large sign advertising the cross country ski trails. On the other side of the sign was... the Grand Marais Truck Trail! This was the 3rd time I'd met it today, although here (much closer to Grand Marais) it was paved and named "Grand Marais Road". This was the last of my possible pick-up points. I very briefly thought about continuing 2 miles west into Grand Marais, but whatever part of my brain had that thought was shouted down by my legs, shoulders, and everything else. I was not about to push it any farther.

The finish line! Blue blazes visible on the posts.

Amazingly, despite being the main trailhead for a big ski trail system, there was no bench anywhere to sit on. Instead I dropped my pack and plopped down with my back against a comfortable looking tree. I almost immediately had to put on my bug-proof headnet. But otherwise, with a bag of gorp next to me and my Kindle in my hand, nothing was going to get me to stand up for a long, long time.

About 30 minutes later, Sarah and her parents cruised by, looking for me. I jumped in to their truck (well, crawled in slowly) and was overjoyed to find that they'd already found and picked up the bags that I'd left at the previous trailhead.

We drove the last few miles into Grand Marais, cruised around town briefly, and then headed south to the Cobblestone Bar in McMillan. A burger and fries had never tasted so good... at least since my last backpacking trip.

Reflection. My final tally for the day was a whopping 13 miles. That might not sound like a lot to some of you, but for me it was a personal record -- one more mile than even our epic march from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor during our first Isle Royale visit. For the whole trip, I'd done 20 miles in two days, a wholly respectable tally.

But it really isn't about the numbers. This segment of the North Country Trail was every bit as lovely as I'd hoped. Despite the frequent trouble with the trail disappearing right off of a cliff, it was a (mostly) good trail through (very) beautiful country. The nearly constant views of the lake were a big plus, as was the extreme solitude.

West from my endpoint, the trail enters Grand Marais, a tiny town that is also at the east end of the Pictured Rocks. From Grand Maris the trail winds through Pictured Rocks and is much, much less quiet. East from my starting point (Muskallonge State Park), the trail does a series of odd zig-zag maneuvers to avoid private land along the lake, and then heads directly inland towards Tahquamenon Falls.

I was glad that I hiked the trail in early June, and a cold early June at that. Much of the trail would be swarming with mosquitoes and black flies just a few weeks later. The rivers and swamps along the way would only have made that worse.

In the end, I'm glad I did it -- and I'll be making my way back again as soon as I can.

Miles hiked: 13
Total miles: 20

Today's trail map, with Grand Marais Truck Trail crossings visible along the way. The dashed green line is the Blind Sucker Pathway.

Friday, September 7, 2018

North Country Trail 2018 Day 1: Muskallonge to Lake Superior State Forest Campground

There goes the trail: This photo is all you need to know about my backpacking trip.

In earliest spring of 2018 -- when snowdrops were just starting to poke up through the crusty snow -- The Lovely Sarah and her parents got a unique invitation. They were invited to come to Marquette to witness a college friend's ordination as a priest.

The ordination was in early June. I didn't know the future priest at all, but I did know that I was trying to complete the North Country Trail Association's "Hike 50" challenge -- that is, to hike 50 miles on the NCT in 2018. I'd tried the "Hike 100" challenge in the past and failed miserably, not because I couldn't do 100 miles in a year, but because most of my hiking miles weren't on the North Country Trail. But, I thought, with a glint in my eye, the North Country Trail runs for miles along the south shore of Lake Superior, right on the way to Marquette. Plus, early June is practically guaranteed to be bug-free and chilly along the Superior shoreline. I prefer both of those situations, and so everything had lined up perfectly for a solo backpacking trip.

Friday, June 1, 2018: So it was that I came to be standing alone on the side of the road just outside Muskallonge State Park, near the Lake Superior shore north of Newberry. I was glad for my raincoat, gloves, and winter hat as the cold wind blew off of Lake Superior, twirled through the spring mist that lay on Muskallonge Lake, and slammed straight into me.

We had driven up to Newberry -- staying overnight at Mackinaw City, followed by breakfast at Java Joe's in St. Ignace -- and picked up Sarah's father that morning. They dropped me off at the state park and headed straight towards the ordination. My planned hike was a point-to-point hike west along the Lake Superior shoreline, and they would pick me up tomorrow at the went end of my trail.

I had some trouble finding the NCT trailhead at Muskallonge. The trail runs right through the park, and I certainly saw blue blazes all over the place -- arranged in no apparent order. I walked back and forth for a while, even entertaining the possibility that Muskallonge Lake could have flooded over some of the trail. After the fact, I found this map and realized that the trail made a very odd zig-zag within the park that accounted for some of the weirdness:

The trail's odd passage through Muskallonge State Park.
I finally gave up and followed the main road out of the park to the west, which eventually crosses the trail where it exits the park. Here at least I was sure of what I should do. The trail crossed the road and cut a clear swath north into the forest (you can see this on the far left of the map above). It bumped up and down pine-covered sand dunes until, after one last big uphill, I could see blue sky and hear the roar of the lake.

There goes the trail.
I crested the hill and almost marched directly into the lake, as the trail sailed straight off the edge of a high bluff that had collapsed onto the beach below.

Can you find the trail? It's visible in this photo!
The trail should have made a sharp left to follow the shore, but the bluff was severely eroded and the trail completely gone -- over the edge and into the lake. I peered into the dense undergrowth where the trail should be and saw, distantly, a short bit of trail reappearing from the bluff face. I bushwhacked around the fallen portion and was barely able to make it to the trail, which then immediately fell down into the lake again. There was more dense underbrush beyond it, and no more trail to be seen. I gave up, returned to the clear trail that I'd come in on, and pondered what to do.

There's a trail down there somewhere.

My maps showed that, to the west, the trail eventually came pretty close to the road. I walked back to the road and followed it west, hoping to cut in towards the trail after a little distance. I soon started seeing occasional faded blue blazes along the road -- had the trail once been routed this way? Soon, there was no doubt -- a blue-blazed cut through the trees headed straight for the lake and its eroded bluff again. I cautiously followed the trail.

This time, the trail stayed up on the bluff -- barely. The trail never strayed more than a few yards from the edge, giving me nonstop panoramic views of a stormy Lake Superior as I hiked west. It occasionally dropped into the lake again, forcing me to bushwhack inland for a few yards, but the underbrush was less dense here. Even when the trail was on firm ground, it was often obscured by fallen trees. It looked like a severe storm had come through during the winter, and trail crews hadn't made it out to clean things up yet. (In this part of the UP, "trail crews" probably consist of one or two dedicated retirees who haul their own chainsaw and gas for miles on foot. So, it's hard to actually complain... much.) In some places, large numbers of trees had fallen right off the cliff and were even leaning on it, with their dead branches waving just above my head.

Fringed Polygala, I think.

Now that I had things straightened out and had trail tread consistently underfoot, I thoroughly enjoyed the hike. The cold weather was no problem -- working hard with a full pack on my back kept me warm. It was much better than trying to stay cool on a hot and humid summer hike.

As I settled into hiking mode, I started to notice more and more of the world around me. Spring was truly just beginning along Michigan's northernmost coast. Only a few hardy wildflowers were blooming, like this one -- I think it's the vivid purple Fringed Polygala. Right next next to the shore, not even blueberries had blossoms on them yet.

A few miles down the trail, I was walking along and minding my own business when suddenly, something enormous and hairy reared up directly in front of me! Wait... no, something small and feathery made an enormous fluttering exit from my path and quacked its way into the distance. I looked around, heart still in overdrive, and found the duck's nest, right on the ground and right next to the trail.

Good luck, kids, 'cause you're on your own!
The trail soon merged with a sandy 2-track that rollercoastered its way through the near-shore ridges and swales. This section of trail was marked as a "road walk" on the NCT maps, although that hardly seemed fair -- the 2-tracks were overgrown and remote. The only vehicle I could even plausibly meet out here would be a 4x4 -- if that.

Suddenly, the trail made a sharp turn and plunged into a wide marshy area. I heard the sound of running water and realized that I'd reached the Blind Sucker River, the one real water crossing of my trip. The river was wide and marshy here. I didn't have a very good plan for this -- sandals in my backpack if I really needed them, but the cold weather and mucky river bottom made wading across the last thing I wanted to do.

I backtracked and soon found a way to reach a more solid-looking part of the river bank. The river ran right through the rocky Lake Superior beach, which narrowed the river's channel and made its bottom more solid. What's more, luck was with me: An old tree trunk had fallen right across the river and it looked totally possible to walk across it.

You think this doesn't look too bad? Try it with 30 pounds hanging off your back!

I wasn't about to just heel-toe it across the narrow trunk with a 30 pound pack on my back, however. I cast around until I found two good sturdy sticks. I unbuckled my pack's hip belt and sternum strap just in case I fell off the log -- the narrow river channel made the river deeper and faster, and the last thing I wanted was 30 pounds holding me down in the rapid river.

I carefully edged my way out on the log, using the sticks to keep my stability. It was just a few short steps, but I was glad to reach the other side. I left the sticks nearby, just in case someone else (or even I) had to cross back over.

The intended crossing. Notice the conveniently blazed tree stump.
The river enters the lake at a steep angle, leaving a narrow spit of sandy, rocky shoreline between the lake and the river. The trail followed this spit, and as I walked along, I saw the intended crossing. What do you think?

The trail ascends a ridge.

The trail quickly rose up onto a razorback ridge. The ridge was often just a few yards wide, and it was the only thing that separated the river from the lake. This added a new and picturesque dimension, as the views alternated between the lush river bottomland and the stormy lake, and sometimes both at once.

Blind Sucker River on the inland side of the ridge.

For the next several miles, I ate up the miles along this narrow ridge. The shoreline bluff slowly descended until it was easy to jump right onto the beach whenever I wanted.

At this point, I met my first and only fellow hiker of the entire trip -- a middle-aged woman came around a bend, heading the opposite direction. She had no daypack, no visible water source -- but she was leaning on a crutch. She paused just long enough to say "maybe a mile" to my greeting and question, "Am I close to the Lake Superior campground?" (my goal for the night), and then continued on.

Lake Superior panorama from the trail (click to enlarge)

The trail eventually met a well maintained dirt road that paralleled the lake. This was a continuation of the road where Sarah and my father-in-law had dropped me off earlier today. A sign pointed me towards the Blind Sucker campgrounds, which were a mile or so south of the road. They were my alternate camping spot, in case my real goal -- the Lake Superior State Forest campground -- was full. The trail continued through a well-used section of shoreline with many parked trucks and couples wandering along the beach.

Very soon, I entered the Lake Superior State Forest campground, snuggled between the shoreline and road. This campground is cut from the same mold as the rest of Michigan's many state forest campgrounds. A dirt road leads past well spaced sites, with a short loop for a turnaround at the end. Every site has a fire ring and a picnic table, and nothing else. There are a couple of outhouses, a hand pump for water, and a self-registration station.

I noticed how cold many of the sites were, with the chilly lake breeze blowing right across their tent pads. I kept walking until I found site 16, in the loop at the end of the road, with a nice high hill blocking it from the breeze. I dropped my pack, hoofed it back to the self-registration station, and filled out my registration form. That and $15 got me a night in the campground. After a few minutes of chit-chat with a maintenance guy who was cleaning up sites after the long winter, I headed back to site 16.

Site #16 with my tent staked out against the wind.

There were few other people set up in the campground, and we were all well-spaced-out from each other. That was fine by me -- I was out here to enjoy nature and silence, not generators and cow-shaped strings of lights.

I sat down at my newly acquired site and looked around. It was a lovely place, surrounded by trees and still within earshot of Lake Superior. As I sat quietly, a deer cautiously appeared out of the woods and nosed around the next site over. I silently communed with nature, until a truck hauling a giant trailer blasted past on the road, which was just a few hundred feet beyond the end of the loop. The deer bolted, and I got up to set up my tent.

With camp set up, I set out to explore my surroundings. Even after a good long hike -- 7 miles today -- I rarely feel like just sitting down and doing nothing. With Lake Superior just a few dozen feet away, I couldn't stay put. A short path up and over the hill popped me out at a wide beach that was buried under piles and piles of driftwood. The same storm that had blown down so many trees along the trail must have left trees floating in the lake too, because the beach was absolutely covered with huge weather-worn driftwood.

Driftwood-covered beach

In the distance, east along the beach, I spotted an odd construction. As I picked my way closer, I saw that there was some sort of teepee or pyramid made of driftwood. Even closer, I realized that I was looking at a giant driftwood tiki hut, complete with benches, back rests, and a roof. Somebody (or many somebodies?) had put in quite a bit of work to construct this lovely (and remarkably stable) hut. I examined it from every side before deciding that it was structurally sound. Inside, I relaxed on a remarkably comfortable bench -- and realized just how much my legs and feet were screaming at me.

My stomach was starting to grumble, and with no waiter appearing to bring me an appetizer and cocktail, I headed back to my site to make my own. The cocktail was hot tea to chase away the cold. Dinner was freeze-dried "Chili Mac with Beef", A Mountain House meal that I'd been storing away for a solo trip (because Sarah was disgusted by the very thought of it). She had a point: the chili mac had an unnaturally bright red color that stained everything it came in contact with, including me. I washed out the bag it came in and saved it, to help me make breakfast the next morning. Try as I might, I couldn't get the bright red color out of the bag. I resigned myself to a breakfast of bright red oatmeal.

After dinner, I enjoyed one of the luxuries that my $15 camping fee purchased: I went to a trash can and threw away my trash. After that, I went to a hand pump and pumped myself a full supply of cold, fresh well water -- no filtering required. Those two alone made the camping fee completely worth it.

The temperature had never been particularly warm today, and as the sun headed toward the horizon things were only getting colder. I made another cup of tea, grabbed my Kindle, and headed out to the beach to enjoy the last few minutes of daylight. I sat with my back against a driftwood log, warming in one of the last rays of daylight, and read a few chapters. The sunset itself was merely OK, but relaxing on a beach next to the roar of Superior was well worth it.

Sunset over Lake Superior

After that, I took care of my last few camp chores. The main one was setting up my bear bag. For this trip, I'd purchased a new Ursack, a bear-proof bag that could be tied directly to a tree without having to go through the whole ordeal of finding a good branch to hang it from. I put all of my food inside the smell-proof liner bag, tied the opening tightly shut per the instructions, and tied the whole bag around a smallish tree a way from my campsite.

After a hard day of work followed by a hard afternoon of relaxation, I was ready for sleep. I climbed into my sleeping bag and curled up for the kind of rest that only comes after a day of backpacking.

A few hours later, I woke up, chilled through to the bone despite the fact that I was wearing all of my layers (including a hat). I realized my error quickly: One reason that this site was so well protected from the lake breeze was that it was lower than the other sites nearby. Well, the lake breeze had died off after sunset, and the cold night air had settled into the little hollow where my tent was pitched. I had set up my tent in a refrigerator.

I did a burst of sit-ups, still in my bag, to generate some extra heat. When that started working, I quickly zipped the bag right up tight around me, leaving only my nose and mouth exposed. It was going to be a long, cold night.

Next time: The long and winding trail to Grand Marais

Miles hiked: 7

7 miles, from the campground on the right (Muskallonge) to the campground on the far left (Lake Superior)