Sunday, September 4, 2016

Isle Royale 2016: Background, Planning & Travel

A map and link to Day 1 of our trip are at the bottom of the post.
Sarah looking south from the Greenstone Ridge
Isle Royale kicked our butts. And we can't wait to do it again.

That's the summary of our 6 day backpacking adventure on Isle Royale, Michigan's island national park in the middle of Lake Superior.

Isle Royale is by far the least-visited national park in the lower 48 United States. It's 200 rugged, rocky, and beautiful square miles that are accessible only by ferries. It's completely closed for 6 months of winter. There are almost no vestments of civilization on the island, except for one "lodge" at the main entry point, Rock Harbor, for which we could have paid huge amounts of money for pretty basic accommodations. But of course, we weren't in it for a hotel. We were in it for the backcountry.

And indeed, rugged, beautiful, and rocky backcountry is what we got. On a scale ranging from nailhed (who got his butt kicked by the island's nasty weather), to Nina (whose many trips always seem to balance beautiful weather and hard work), to Jake (who did 20+ mile days and hiked all of the island's longest trails in 9 days, basically kicking the island's butt), we started out somewhere closer to the nailhed end, and move a tiny bit closer to Jake's end of the scale by the time we were done. Even with our experience hiking in the Copper Country and backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains, Isle Royale was a surprise. The rocky up-and-downs, over ridge after rocky ridge, wore us down on every trail. As a friend said, "The only flat part of the island is the dock!" Nonetheless, we survived, and loved it so much that we're already planning for next year.

Welcome to Isle Royale: Sunset over Lane Cove
Isle Royale is strangely compelling. This trip has stuck in my mind more vividly than any of our previous backpacking trips. There are no boring parts of Isle Royale, much like there are no flat parts. Something about the remoteness of the island, the people we met, and the places we saw is etched in my memory.

There are a number of things that make Isle Royale unique. The island's isolation is spectacular -- not only is it rugged and remote, it's literally completely shut off from the outside world except by boat and (occasionally) sea-plane. But unlike places like the Porcupine Mountains, there are no solitary backcountry campsites on Isle Royale. Instead, there are "campgrounds" (which are really more like concentrated zones of backcountry campsites). You'll never just find a nice campsite along the trail and decide to stop there -- you're on the trail for the duration, until you reach the next designated campground. And of course, this is true for everyone. As a result, anyone you meet is likely to show up at your next destination. We made many new trail friends and saw them them nearly daily.

Many of the campgrounds have several Adirondack-style shelters: Wooden huts with a roof, floor, 3 solid walls, and a screened front. We hoped to snag shelters for most of our nights. This would give us better views, more air, and less danger of being trapped in our tent during bad weather. But, again, we went in the busy season -- there's a lot of competition for campsites, and shelters are even more popular.

Finally, we were surprised to find that the island has very little old-growth forest. It hasn't really been logged -- not in the sense that the gigantic White Pine forests of the Upper Peninsula were destroyed for matchstick wood back in the 1800's. Trees were used by a few mines and small resorts, but more regularly they were burned by large forest fires. Add that to the fact that the soil is very thin -- in most places, there's just bare rock -- and you'll find that trees just don't get a chance to grow very large or very old. The island very much had the feel of the Cliffs on the Keweenaw -- covered in dense brush, scrub, small deciduous trees and smaller clusters of young evergreens.

A storm clears over Moskey Basin

Oh, and one more thing: Isle Royale is also the site of the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose study, the longest continuous predator-prey study in the world. Scientists from Michigan Tech have been studying the interactions of wolves, moose, and their environment for more than 50 years. There is currently a deep and divisive debate about what should happen with the island's dwindling wolf population -- down to just two severely inbred wolves, without much hope for new wolves to come across from the mainland. As a result of the lack of predators, the number of moose on Isle Royale has skyrocketed. Visitors regularly see moose grazing on water plants in lakes and streams -- or even standing in the middle of trails! -- and we hoped we would see some of these huge animals on our trip.

But despite the fun of seeing a gigantic mammal, moose also do a lot of damage to trees and other food sources -- an earlier population explosion is one of the reasons that Balsam Firs, the island's most common evergreen, are just now starting to come back. The future direction of Isle Royale's moose and wolves will be very interesting to watch.

Looks like the Keweenaw in late fall, but it's really Moskey Basin in August
The national park has been on my list for years. Its headquarters on the mainland is in Houghton, where I lived for 10 years. I biked daily past the Ranger III, the National Park Service's huge ferry to the island. Yet, I never took the time to go there.

All that changed at the end of last year's 5-day Porcupine Mountains backpacking trip, when Sarah proclaimed that next year, our big backpacking trip would be to tackle the great Isle Royale adventure. I spent the winter seeking advice: Blogs by friends who have made the trip, Jim DuFresne's handy guidebook (the self-proclaimed "only backcountry guide" for Isle Royale), and online forums. I made itineraries, begged Sarah to let me add a day, made a longer itinerary, added another day, and eventually ended up with what I thought was a pretty modest 6-day, 5-night trek around the eastern end of the island.

So it was that on Sunday, August 8th, we headed north for our biggest backpacking adventure yet.

Sarah and I were together for the first time in a week. Our whole summer had been broken into a week at home, followed by a week of travel to a workshop, a conference, or a wedding -- sometimes individually, sometimes together -- then repeat. We started north early on Sunday and spent the 10+ hour car ride catching up, trading stories, and generally reconnecting and enjoying each other's company.

The trip was uneventful and the weather was lovely. We stopped at the Michigan House in Calumet for a late dinner. Despite my strong affinity for their Gipp Burger, I couldn't resist their new homemade brats (with a home-brewed beer, of course). It was one of the best meals I'd had in a long time. It was made even better by knowing it was the last real meal I'd have for nearly a week.

We arrived in Copper Harbor just before sunset and immediately enjoyed a nice Copper Country welcome. The office at the King Copper motel (our home for the night) was closed, but we found a sign taped to the door: "Clark - Room 2 - key on dresser". Sure enough, our room's door was unlocked, and we stepped 50 years back in time into a motel room that had not changed since JFK was president. The dark wood paneling (and matching octagonal side-table), brownish-pink shag carpeting, tiny bathroom, massive CRT TV, hanging lights with ancient shades,  and crank windows spoke of a time when the owners were optimistic about owning a hotel in a far north tourist town with a year-round population of just 100 people.

Nonetheless, the hotel was cheap, clean, and convenient to the docks of the Isle Royale Queen IV, which would ferry us to Isle Royale bright and early tomorrow. We spent half an hour walking along the waterfront and through the town's few streets, enjoying the crisp air and the feeling of being back up north again.

At this point, my pre-trip panic finally kicked in. Our packs were too heavy. Way too heavy -- never mind that we had carefully planned every item, made sure everything did double-duty, and pruned everything we didn't need. I had to get things out of our packs! I hauled the packs into the motel room, tossed them on the floor, and started pulling stuff out. With Sarah's help, I was able to reduce our combined pack weight by somewhere in the area of 1 pound -- total -- by removing some spare batteries and a space blanket.

Somewhat happier, we repacked the bags and curled up to sleep on real mattresses for the last time. Tomorrow, we would sleep on Isle Royale!

Our 30 mile, 6 day tour of the east end of Isle Royale. Note: This is just a small fraction of the east end of the island.
Next time: The Lane Cove trail, or: up again, down again, up again, down again, up again...


Jacob Emerick said...

Oh man, been waiting for this post!

Definitely hear you on the heavy bags. I fretted a lot about my food... 9 days of food was almost 1/3 my pack weight. Was thinking of shipping a box to Windigo all the way until week of, though I was even more worried about turning around early and running out of food in the middle of the island. It turned out being just the right amount of food in the end. Do you remember how much weight your bags were?

This trip has stuck in my mind more vividly than any of our previous backpacking trips. - yeah. Like, there's a lot of fond memories that I have of Michigan, of hiking the Huron Mountains or bushwhacking the McCormick Tract or wading up a river looking for waterfalls, and even some of (gasp) backpacking adventures in Arizona, but nothing compares to Isle Royale. Sometimes I'll close my eyes and get whisked back to a campsite or overlook and it's a struggle to leave that memory. Don't worry, the 'stickiness' won't fade :)

we were surprised to find that the island has very little old-growth forest - same. With the exception of some stands up by Washington Cove I didn't find anything that old. Though the cedars by Lane Cove and Malone Bay are pretty neat.

Can't wait to hear about the first day to Lane Cove. That trail kicked my butt hard. I remember being next to that swamp that's about halfway up to ridgeline, filtering water from the tannin-stained water, sweat dripping down my face and pooling in my glasses, and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. Things got better after, but that was a hard slap of reality.

nailhed said...

oh snap!

DC said...

Let it be known that nailhed objects to my characterization of his Isle Royale trip!

That said, we never made it to Passage Island. So we did not make it to the true Ultima Thule.

Nina said...

I'm so excited about this report! Your intro has already brought back similar feelings and memories (and anxieties). Can't wait to read the rest. Love the familiar annotated map too, by the way. Gotta have that.

DC said...

Nina: You know I get all my best northwoods blogging ideas from you. :) Looking forward to your posts, too!

Unknown said...

If you enjoyed this you really should try hiking from Windigo to Rock Harbor via Minong!!!! It's an amazing hike!