Thursday, March 1, 2018

My first time backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains

It's the middle of winter, and the days are still short. I've been spending the dark evenings sorting through old photos, and I came across a few from the first time I went backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains -- in 2012. So, to get in the mood for my spring trip to my favorite mountains, I present this severely overdue trip log.


Mirror Lake living up to its name at sunrise.
2012 was a big year. In May, I graduated with my PhD. In June, the lovely Sarah and I got married. In July, we packed up and moved from Houghton -- where I'd lived for 10 years -- to the Twin Cities for our first "real" jobs.

I had a short teaching job in May and June, but when that was over, there was nothing to do but pack up the apartment and get ready for the big move. With our imminent departure from the Copper Country hanging over me, I wanted to see a few favorite places one last time. There was also a big item left on my bucket list: Go backpacking in the Porkies! Yes, this was the first time -- although it turns out I've kept checking off this bucket list item, year after year ever since then.

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park -- as I've written many times before -- is a huge state park in Michigan's western Upper Peninsula. Rugged, remote, and situated on the shore of Lake Superior, it's a beautiful escape from the rest of the world. By this point in my life, I'd made a number of dayhikes in the Porkies (especially the breathtaking Escarpment Trail), and slept in my tent in several of its campgrounds -- but never alone, and never backpacking. It was time to truly go off the road and into the park all by myself.

After reading Jim Dufresne's guidebook, I chose a quick overnight loop that would take me on a bunch of new trails, focusing on a gem hidden in the hills on the south side of the park: Mirror Lake.

Monday, June 25, 2012: Classes done, grades entered -- woohoo, unemployed until August! On the upside, that meant that I could travel to the Porkies on a Monday, when I was sure nobody else would be there. If you've read my other writings, you know that one of my favorite things about backpacking and hiking is the ability to get far away from everybody.

I kissed my (newly wedded) wife Sarah goodbye and headed south from Houghton. I made a short stop at an old mining location near Rockland that I wanted to explore (more on that elsewhere). I couldn't stay long, because of a then-new policy at the Porkies: All backcountry campers had to talk to a ranger in person in order to check in and get their camping permit.

At the Visitor Center, I received a hasty and somewhat pointed lecture about backcountry etiquette and the Leave No Trace philosophy. I was a little off-put by this until hours later when, after backpacking in to my campsite, I stood staring at the week's worth of styrofoam and plastic containers burned in a fire pit 3 miles into the backcountry. I suddenly felt a great deal of empathy for the rangers who had to deal with this sort of thing.

I drove the long winding way around the park on South Boundary Road and pulled in to the Summit Peak parking area. I'd never been to Summit Peak -- the highest point in the Porkies -- and there's an observation tower at its top. This is definitely one of the more built-up areas of the park, which you can tell by the fact that the parking area is paved, and there's a well-maintained wooden walkway all the way up the side of the "mountain". I didn't even break a sweat heading up. At one of the landings, I paused to enjoy the view over the interior of the park. A couple heading down asked if I wanted my photo taken -- of course I did! -- and so we have this lovely portrait of younger Dave:

Backpacking glamor pose
The observation tower at the peak itself is wooden, with stairs leading up to a small platform at the top. The view is fine, if you like wide, slightly bumpy expanses of trees -- nothing nearly as awe-inspiring as Lake of the Clouds. Lake Superior is just a distant blue haze. So I looked around, failed to take any photos, and headed back down again.

I moved my car a little way back down Summit Peak Road to the smaller (and unpaved) parking area at the South Mirror Lake trailhead. I did one last check on the backpack, strapped it on, and headed down the trail. I was on an adventure!

The path started out wide and grassy -- an old truck route into the heart of the park. The park's trail guide said something about how the "first uphill will test your legs". Sure enough, there was a long, slow uphill... that caused me no trouble at all. Not that there weren't problems: I was using my Osprey Atmos backpack, one of their older designs with a highly arched back panel that really did keep my back (relatively) dry. But the arch also put an outsized amount of force on my upper back and started to rub my shoulders painfully.

Soon the path narrowed and became a traditional single-track winding through deeply shaded, and deeply pretty, groves of hemlocks. The trail also became quite muddy. And as soon as there was mud... there were mosquitoes. I stopped to apply spray, which did exactly nothing to stop them. I picked up the pace. Eventually, I gave in and started doing a sort of modern dance: Hit the side of my neck... hit my opposite shoulder... flail at mosquitoes in front of my face... repeat.

For the entire trail, I met not a single other person (thankfully, after the mosquito dance had started). The woods had an almost spooky silence -- no wind, no rustling leaves, no nothing -- just quiet. I arrived at the turnoff for the backcountry campsites on the south side of Mirror Lake by 5:30 pm and found exactly nobody there. There are advantages to backpacking on a weekday in June.

Lovely tent pad
I had my pick of the tent sites. I chose one near the lake, in the shade of tall pines, backed by a large outcrop of rock. It was gorgeous. It was also as far away from the styrofoam-and-plastic filled fire pit as I could get. That trash was a guaranteed bear magnet -- no need to tempt fate.

After I rolled out my pad and sleeping bag, I filtered some water by balancing precariously on a rock in the muddy shallows of the lake. Add to that my continuing mosquito dance, and it was miraculous that I didn't dunk myself in the lake. I then carefully hung my entire pack from the supplied bear pole, doing a sort of dance while I tried to lift the 20 pound pack on the end of the supplied 10 foot pole. I hadn't figured out the art of the bear bag yet.

With the basics taken care of, I headed out to explore. My campsite was located in a corner of land on the south side of Mirror Lake. I continued north and quickly came to a long board bridge across a long, narrow inlet of the lake. This was the Little Carp River, which passes through Mirror Lake on its way towards Lake Superior.

Bridge over the Little Carp River
The boardwalk showed me picturesque views of the log-choked Little Carp and the outlet of Mirror Lake. It also showed me that mosquitoes could actually bit through existing mosquito bites. I continued quickly on to the other side, trying not to fall into the water as I revisited my mosquito jig. Shortly beyond the bridge, I passed a sign for the Little Carp River trail, which I would follow on the return trip tomorrow.

I continued on the Mirror Lake trail and, after a short jaunt to the east, I found a sign for the Mirror Lake 2-bunk cabin. This was another of my reasons for coming here: I'd heard that the Porkies had rental cabins, and I wanted to check them out. The path to the cabin led away from the lake, up to a secluded hollow between hills and beneath tall hemlocks. I carefully approached the cabin, lest there be renters in residence (the 2-bunk is known as the "love shack"). But, it was a Monday in June -- nothing to see here. The cabin was small, cute, and definitely something I wanted to stay in. (A few years later, Sarah and I would indeed stay in the 2 bunk cabin, and I would hit my head repeatedly on its ultra-low ceiling.)

Back on the main trail, I checked out the 4 bunk and 8 bunk cabins as well -- both built right on the trail but unoccupied. I wandered as far as a backcountry site on the northeast corner of the lake -- located in a muddy hole that I was glad I hadn't decided to camp in -- and then headed back to my own tent site.

For dinner, I had brought one of these new-fangled freeze dried meals, which I'd never tried before. This one was some kind of buffalo chicken filling that had to be put in tortilla wraps. I set up my kitchen far away from my tent -- another nod to camping alone in bear country -- and set about boiling water.

Once the chicken filling was ready, I discovered that I didn't quite have enough hands to do everything that I needed to do. I filled up my lone tortilla, then sat it down on a log while I walked a couple of steps to pick up my water bottle. When I turned around, there was one of the Porkies finest: A tiny red squirrel gnawing away at my tortilla! I ran at it, shouting, until it casually scampered up a tree and sat on a branch, scolding me. I looked at the damage -- several small holes gnawed right through the tortilla. I could go hungry, or share my meal with the squirrel -- so I ate with the little bugger.

Looking over the edge of the bridge into the Little Carp River

After dinner, I went back to the bridge to enjoy the evening. The mosquito population was only growing, so after taking a few photos I promptly evacuated the area -- all the way back into my tent.

I wadded up a shirt to use as a pillow and read by the slowly diminishing daylight. It was just past the longest day of the year, and the sky stayed visibly light well after 10 pm -- there was still a distant glow in the sky at 11 pm. I started to go a bit stir-crazy being stuck in the tent, but if I so much as poked my head outside, I lost a pint of blood.

I eventually rolled over and tried to sleep. Every little sound tweaked my nerves -- even my friend the red squirrel sounded like a bear from the blind setting of my tent. Then, the frogs started. An entire colony of frogs started chirping in the swampy waters near the bridge. They effectively drowned out all "bear" sounds, but their high-pitched singing bored straight into my head (with occasional harmony provided by bullfrogs). I tossed and turned all night, always accompanied by the music of the frogs. I slept fitfully for whole minutes at a time, if even that much.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012: Sunrise was about 6 am, and I was out of the tent and making breakfast  shortly afterwards. Mirror Lake earned its name as the sun came up over the tree line, with a light mist hanging just above the lake's perfectly placid surface. I took my chances and found that the bridge-squitoes were mostly asleep, so I enjoyed my oatmeal and tea while sitting and watching this glorious view:

Mist on Mirror Lake

I packed quickly, dodging newly awakened mosquitoes, and paused only to take a few photos of the glorious morning that was opening up all around me.

With my pack on my back, I headed across the bridge and hung a quick left onto the Little Carp River trail. The trail starts by following the river fairly closely, which also means that it was filled with mosquitoes now coming to life after a cool night. I power-walked, opening up my stride as much as I could with a backpack on my hips. I eventually out-ran the mosquitoes -- or more accurately, I left a trail of fat and happy mosquitoes behind me along the trail.

The trail soon climbed a small bluff above the river. The forest here was filled with tall old-growth hemlocks. Their dense shade left an open understory. The pine-scented air was cool and pleasant and the golden sunlight filtered through the tall canopy. I passed a lovely campsite next to the river and immediately vowed to return and camp there (I haven't... yet!).

Another beautiful scene. Ho hum.
A few miles later, the trail dropped down off the ridge and started to run through lower, muddier ground. The river was off to the side somewhere, but I could no longer see (or hear) it through the denser undergrowth. I passed the trail intersection for the Beaver Creek trail, a cut-off that would have taken me quickly back up to Summit Peak. I had decided to take a longer but more scenic route.

Soon, I came out into a sunny, marshy, grassy patch. A long bridge took me out over Lily Pond, a well-named wide area along the path of the Little Carp. There was a bench built right in to the middle of the bridge -- a fantastic way to escape from (most of) the mosquitoes. I sat back, soaked up the sun, and enjoyed the view of the large and picturesque beaver pond that interrupts the Little Carp. I also enjoyed a Clif bar -- a rare event that can only occur after some seriously hard work.

Lily Pond with beaver dam, from the bridge-bench
At the far end of the bridge I discovered the Lily Pond cabin, another of the park's rustic rental cabins, which was built right next to the trail. I wandered around it (nobody was home), admiring at the huge bank of windows that looked right out over Lily Pond itself. Another spot for the "maybe some day" list.

A little ways beyond Lily Pond, I met the junction with the fairly well-named Lily Pond trail. This trail is an east-west trail that leads into the park from the Summit Peak road. It also carries the North Country Trail, letting me knock off another short section of my favorite National Scenic Trail. The Little Carp River trail turned west, heading towards a rocky stretch that Sarah and I would hike in the rain several years later.

The Lily Pond trail wound east through a surprisingly deciduous forest. The land was lower, more muddy, and hot, all of which brought out even more bugs. Despite my pleasant rest at the pond, I was starting to feel overheated and sweaty. But with the mosquitoes chasing me, I double-timed it all the way to the trailhead. I popped out at Summit Peak Road by 10 am.

I was still about a quarter of a mile down the road from my car, a hot and tiring road walk that I (for some reason) hadn't counted on. When I made it back to the car, I dropped my back and plopped down in the seat, exhausted but triumphant. I had survived a backpacking trip in the Porkies!

Ravine along the North Mirror Lake trail

10 minutes later... I wasn't done yet, however. Part of my goal for the trip was to find some of the abandoned copper mines in the Porcupine Mountains area. On my trip out from Summit Peak, I stopped by the White Pine Extension mine (a field of rock with a little bit of barbed wire). My next stop was the Lake of the Clouds, where I climbed down the escarpment on the North Mirror Lake trail and hiked the spur trail to the Lake of the Clouds campsites. Again, I failed to find anything interesting (I later learned that I was just a few tenths of a mile away from some semi-interesting diggings, but I hadn't gone far enough). I followed the North Mirror Lake trail uphill and explored the deep gorge that runs next to it. I briefly convinced myself that some of the rocks strewn about by the spring melt were rock piles from mines, but I was wrong. Again, I found nothing. On the way back, I poked my head down the spur to the Lake of the Clouds cabin -- another lovely cabin in a gorgeous setting -- then hiked back up the Escarpment.

I returned to my car and headed east out of the Porkies. My very last side trip was to the old White Pine mine. No, not the new White Pine mine, which was the most productive copper mine in Michigan's history -- I mean the old one which thwarted dozens of investors, who collectively sank a fortune into its pits.

The main draw of the old White Pine were these "ball mills", which (once upon a time) freed up copper-bearing rock by grinding the rock with heavy ball bearings. They somehow escaped the World War II scrap drives, and now here they sit, rusting, right where they were abandoned:

Ball Mills at the old White Pine

And with that, my Porkies backpacking adventure was over. It was brief, intense, mosquito-filled, and wonderful. I had the backpacking bug already, but I had it even worse after this trip. Just a few years later, we'd be back for a much longer trip including cabin camping.

But for now, I turned my car back north towards Houghton, where the only thing remaining to do was to pack up all of our belongings into boxes, Tetris them into a U-Haul, and head south for yet another adventure -- to the Twin Cities. But of course... I'd be back!

Blue: Monday, Green: Tuesday


Distance hiked:
Day 1: 3.0 miles
Day 2: 5.5 miles

Animals seen: One very persistent squirrel, and a few million mosquitoes.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Snowshoeing and Cabin Camping at Wilderness State Park, Winter 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Nebo trail.

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

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

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

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

Nebo cabin with wood bin in the back

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

Station Point cabin, but basically Nebo too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sky directly overhead, minus most stars.

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

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

I guess I was that rookie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow on pine


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Club Moss on the Red Pine trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old leaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

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

Last time: Return to Rock Harbor

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

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

Moon setting over Rock Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yeah, I went for the bad pun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our final hiking map. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 6: Ferry to Rock Harbor

Last time: Dave goes mining on the Minong

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

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

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

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

The Lovely Sarah searching for moose

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

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

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

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

Clouds over a calm McCargoe Cove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more McCargoe Cove View. What a gorgeous place.

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

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

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

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

A rather confused moose, from the Greenstone Grill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buoy marker in McCargoe Cove

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

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

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

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

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

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