Friday, September 23, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Day 1: Rock Harbor to Lane Cove

Last Time: Background, Planning, and Travel

The Isle Royale Queen IV departs Copper Harbor bright and early at 8 am, so we were up and ready to go by 7 am. We jumped in the car and by 7:01 am had arrived at the Queen's parking lot, where a fellow was vigorously directing a long line of cars into tiny slots. Copper Harbor is not a large place.

Across the street at the Queen's dock, we left our packs sitting next to a bench and walked to a nearby tourist shop that was doing a brisk business selling coffee and muffins to other Isle Royale-bound tourists. It was also doing a not-so-brisk business selling the most expensive thimbleberry jam I've ever seen ($16!!).

The Isle Royale Queen IV at dock. Photo taken from in front of our hotel room.
Back at the dock, we people-watched as we enjoyed our coffees. Some hauled huge wheeled luggage behind them, clearly headed to the Rock Harbor Lodge. But most of our fellow travelers had the huge packs, wide-brimmed hats, and trekking poles that marked them as heading for the backcountry. More than a few had shiny new packs, hats, poles, jackets, and everything else. I wondered how they would be feeling in another 12 hours.

It was fascinating to watch the backpackers. Some huddled in quiet groups. Others made sporadic bursts of conversation with those around them: "Have you been to the island before? Nope, us neither." One man in particular held court, sharing his extensive book-learning about the island. This clearly impressed some but annoyed many more, ourselves included -- especially when it became clear that he was staying at the lodge! Sarah whispered to me: "It's about to be Lake of the Clouds all over again". She was referring to an incident at the end of our 2014 Porcupine Mountains trip which nearly involved me snapping the heads off of some tourists who were extremely vocal about the difficulty of walking 100 yards on pavement to see Lake of the Clouds.

Soon, the parking lot attendant appeared in front of the Queen and announced that he was, indeed, our captain -- Captain Don, who would also be helping us load our bags. This man was the truest Yooper I've ever met: A Jack of all trades.

Captain Don instructed us to get in a line and bring our bags up to him. Everyone immediately followed his instructions by forming their own personal line, until he yelled at the mob to get in one line, thankyouverymuch. He then proceeded to pick up our 40 pound packs one-handed as we passed them to him, lifting, twisting, and hoisting them over his head to his helpers on the top deck.

With the bags packed, Captain Don started the next phase: Boarding. Naturally, he would be taking our tickets. He began with a short speech: "Sometimes people get annoyed at this process. But when you have such a beautiful calm day like this, you just have to be happy!" He also commented that today, August 8th, he could feel a bite of fall in the air. I had to agree -- we truly were in the north, and summer was ending.

We formed a line -- yes, one line -- and boarded the ship.

The morning was cool with no breeze and a glass-calm lake, so we immediately headed out to the bow of the ship. With a blast of the horn, we cruised out of the harbor. Behind us, I could see the silhouettes of some of my favorite Keweenaw locations: Brockway mountain, East bluff, and the unnamed outcrop of the greenstone ridge just inland that held some of my favorite hiking memories. The remnants of early-morning fog hid between the steep hillsides and gave the land a magical appearance.

We were soon out on the open water. Sarah and I met two older pastors from southwest Michigan who were traveling to the island for the nth time -- far more serious backpackers than us. They were planning not just to backpack, but to bushwhack part of their trip, an activity that requires special permits and (it seemed) a psychological examination before the Park Service would allow it. I spent a large part of the trip enjoying the beautiful weather and chatting with Pastor Dave about the island, the Keweenaw, his Detroit upbringing, and all sorts of other things. It was just the first of many friendly encounters we would have on this trip.

11:30 am: The Queen threaded a needle between the long, thin, rocky islands that separate Rock Harbor from Lake Superior proper, and we quickly docked at the island's main port of entry. On the dock, we were separated into groups: Lodge guests got a few light instructions, while we backpackers met Ranger Emma, who gave us a much more detailed orientation to the island. This included handing out laminated cards with the seven Leave No Trace principles on them and asking the lucky recipients to explain how they would follow their principle. We got an easy one: "Travel and camp on durable surfaces." How? Stay on the trail! Not that we were planning anything else.

I'm pretty sure this is official National Park Service propaganda.
We were surprised by one bit of advice from Ranger Emma: Don't hang food in bear bags. There are no bears on Isle Royale, but there are plenty of other scavengers (especially foxes and an especially hardy breed of squirrel) that will happily climb right into your pack looking for food. It turns out that most of the trees just don't have branches big enough to support hanging a food bag, and there are no bear poles in the campgrounds. The official National Park Service advice is: Double-bag your food, put it in your pack, and put your pack in your tent vestibule for good measure. These two bear-country campers were more than a bit skeptical.

After the orientation, I headed to the park office to register my itinerary. After impatiently spinning my wheels in line behind someone who clearly hadn't planned ("So how far away is Three Mile campground again?"), I gave our very modest itinerary to a ranger. He didn't ask any questions as he put it in a plastic baggie, told me to keep it visible on my pack, tent, or shelter at all times, and sent me on my way.

Sarah had picked up our packs in the meantime. I found her next to the camp store, where we tightened the last few straps and picked up our packs. We were first heading to Lane Cove, an outpost at the end of a dead-end trail, 7 miles away from Rock Harbor and across the Greenstone ridge. We had heard that it was much quieter and less frequented than other common first-night destinations like Three Mile or Daisy Farm campgrounds.

A very tired looking man sitting on a bench nearby overheard us discussing our itinerary and offered us some advice. He had also gone to Lane Cove at the start of his trip too and told us it was absolutely gorgeous, especially campsite 3. Oh, but "It was really hard hiking up over the ridge. It maxed me outBut you two look a bit healthier than me, so maybe you won't have as much trouble." Great. We thanked him and headed on our way.

We followed the paved (!) trails towards the Tobin Harbor trail, our first trail of the trip. Pretty soon, we were on a wide dirt path running right along the edge of Tobin Harbor. The harbor is a beautiful long slice of water between the narrow rocky fingers of land that form the northeast end of the island. The water was a deep blue-green and was absolutely clear near shore, while tiny rocky islets bursting with evergreens populated the farther reaches. It quickly became our favorite trail.

After about a mile we found a nice place where some roots formed a bench right next to the water. We dropped our packs and enjoyed a lunch of meat sticks, cheese wheels, and peanut butter rice cakes. As we sat eating our food, a couple in a canoe floated by and said hello.

Sarah, Thimbleberry plants, and a mystery boy at Suzy's Cave
A short while after, we came to a trail marker pointing uphill towards Suzy's Cave, a sea cave left from an era when Lake Superior was much higher. We dropped our packs again (so far, this trail was a great way to get back into carrying a 40 pound pack!) and headed uphill. After a steep and rocky initial climb, we quickly ended up on a remarkably flat trail. And even more quickly, we found ourselves stuck behind a trio: a 2-year-old with mom and grandma helping her walk very slowly over every single root and rock. Mom and grandma noticed us behind them, and we joked that we were amazed that the little girl was able to hike on Isle Royale at all. Mom told us that this was actually her second time -- it was a little easier when she was just 6 months old and in a baby carrier. Wow! I would never have thought of bringing such young kids out into the backcountry.

Mom and grandma then turned around and continued helping the 2 year old... while completely blocking the trail. We tried not to lurk too close behind, but it was all but impossible to get around them by bushwhacking through the dense undergrowth. Perhaps 5 minutes later, they finally decided that we should be allowed to pass them, which we did with all haste.

Suzy's Cave was a big rounded rocky outcropping with a small cave hollowed out of it by the waves of ancient Lake Superior. Hiding from the sun inside the cave were Grandpa, Father, and Older Brother, who had apparently run ahead to the cave quite a while ago. We chatted a little, updated them on the progress of the other half of their party, and enjoyed the coolness of the cave. With that, I crawled through the narrow opening to the back side of the cave and met up with Sarah on the other side, and we headed back downhill (passing the 2-year-old and entourage along the way).

With our packs back on, it was only a short way to the junction with the Mt. Franklin trail, which heads across the island roughly north-south. It would be our entrance ramp up the Greenstone Ridge on our way to Lane Cove. Near the junction, we met another multi-generational group. Grandpa and grandson passed us heading back towards Rock Harbor after a day hike up the Mt. Franklin trail. They looked bushed, and grandpa warned us that the trail ahead was extremely tough, but worth it. We thanked them and headed onwards.

We had no trouble at all with the trails so far today, and the Mt. Franklin trail started out just as easy as Tobin Harbor. We began by walking a long and very nice puncheon bridge over a swampy inlet to Tobin Harbor. This was our first encounter with these wonderful bridges, which would turn out to be absolutely standard -- we never met a muddy spot that wasn't thoroughly bridged.

Right after the swampy crossing, we met our first real uphill. The trail headed steeply upwards and broke out onto an open rocky ridge. A thought came unbidden into my head: I've been here before! I'd hiked places just like it for years, back on the mainland. This ridge was just like the Cliffs back in the Keweenaw. The color and texture of the rocks, the shape of the outcrops, the dried grasses, the scraggly trees: It was as if it were 5 years ago, I was still living in the Keweenaw, and I was just out for a day of hiking at the Cliffs.

Lost in those thoughts, I learned another important lesson: It's hard to follow a trail across bare rock. I had to backtrack a few feet and look carefully for cairns marking the trail. We quickly got the hang of this, watching for trampled grass and the reddish-brown stain on the rocks made by the dirt from thousands of hikers' boots. The climb was steep but brief, and from the crest of the low ridge we had one last glimpse of Tobin Harbor's deep blue waters.

The only kind of trail markers you'll ever see on Isle Royale.
Interlude, while Our Heroes Catch Their Breath at the Top of a Strangely Familiar Ridge: Geology of Western Lake Superior. Yes, really. Isle Royale is, in a very real way, just a rocky outcrop that manages to poke its peaks above Lake Superior. It is, in just as real of a way, the mirror image of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Stick with me here: Understanding this little bit of geology is crucial to understanding both why Isle Royale is the way it is, why this ridge looked so familiar, and also why it kicked our butts so badly.

Billions of years ago, an enormous rift formed in the earth's crust in the middle of what would become Lake Superior. Over millions of years, hundreds of volcanic eruptions spewed lava through this rift and out across an extremely wide area. As these lava flows cooled, they formed layers of basalt. At some point, whatever was pushing the lava upwards stopped, and in fact all of the magma underneath the western Lake Superior area drained away, leaving a huge gap beneath the crust. The solidified lava began to collapse into this void, forming a huge bowl-shaped depression that became the western end of Lake Superior. As the bowl formed, it forced the northwest and southeast edges of the flows to tilt upwards, exposing the layered rocks to the surface. The southeastern upturned edges formed a large part of the Keweenaw peninsula -- in fact, the Cliffs are formed by the edges of one particularly enormous lava flow, called the Greenstone flow. The northwestern edges became Isle Royale, and the Greenstone flow also forms the largest and most prominent ridge on the Island -- but the other lava flows form many other parallel ridges.

So the Keweenaw and Isle Royale truly are twins. Because of the way the rocks tilted, the outside edges of the lava flows are extremely steep, while the inner sides (facing towards the center of the rift) are comparatively gentle. On the Keweenaw, the steep face of the Cliffs face southeast, while in Isle Royale, the steep sides face northwest towards Canada. The gentler slopes face each other across Lake Superior. The cliff we had just climbed was the gentle face of one of these low outcrops of basalt.

All of this is a way of saying that, because I had spent 10 years exploring the Keweenaw's rocky ridges, I thought I was prepared for Isle Royale. I know the terrain. I'm familiar with the exposed rocks, the sloping terrain, the many ridges, and the constant up-and-down. I've spent entire days bushwhacking through that kind of terrain. And certainly, standing on top of this ridge, I felt very well prepared for what was coming. Boy was I wrong.

Now, back to our heroes: The trail led us down off the ridge, now running in the valley between this ridge and the next ridge north -- the Greenstone ridge, the Big One that we would have to conquer next. The underbrush got more dense, and soon we started to find the best trail food of all: thimbleberries! Those little raspberry-shaped packets of tartness kept us going for quite a while as the trail bucked us up and down innumerable rocky rises.

We were getting tired -- way more tired than we should have been after just 3-ish miles of trail on familiar terrain. The constant up-and-down, the hot sun, and the total lack of breeze in this low valley were all taking a toll on us. Near a small swamp, we stopped to rest again. Sarah was growing grumpy in the heat and told me to just press on -- she would continue at her own pace. I wasn't happy with that, but it sounded better than staying in the hot valley. So, upward I went. Slowly, very slowly, I did something that I'd done dozens of times before in the Keweenaw: I ascended the Greenstone ridge. Passing from low tree cover to hot, exposed rocky patches, I made it forward about 100 yards at a time before stopping to catch my breath. As we ascended we started to feel occasional light breezes. I've climbed the Cliffs before: Why was this so hard?

An answer occurred to me while resting in a shady patch overlooking a lovely field of grass and low trees: The Cliffs have 2-tracks. Those 2-tracks were cut and blasted through the worst bits of the rock by miners and lumbermen, then worn down and improved over more than 100 years -- making for (relatively) even footing. The rocky single-track hiking trails here on Isle Royale were nothing like the old worn-down mining roads back in the Keweenaw. This was the Cliffs in its raw, untamed form.

Sarah is not impressed at the Greenstone Ridge.
At long last, I topped out at the trail intersection with the legendary Greenstone Ridge trail. The intersection was small and surprisingly humble: No magnificent views, no rocky cliffs, just a few fallen logs for benches and a trail marker. Sitting on one of the log benches was a college-aged backpacker, quietly munching on gorp. I greeted him and flopped down on another log. The other backpacker was Peter, a quiet Michigan Tech student who worked on "the boat" in the summer (I never did figure out which one). On his off days, he backpacked the island. That sounded like a wonderful life to me, and I said as much, to which he quietly nodded.

Sarah finally made it up the last few steps of the trail, flushed from heat and exertion, and flopped down on the bench next to me. We spent some more time chatting with Peter, who offered us the opinion that the Lane Cove trail -- our next leg -- was a bit rough but nothing too bad in dry weather. With that, he headed off down that very trail and quickly disappeared out of sight.

We sat, eating gorp and enjoying the breeze, until we could no longer come up with an excuse to sit still. We heaved on our packs again and headed down the Lane Cove trail -- our final leg of the day.

As I described above in the Geological Interlude -- you did read that, right? -- we were now heading down the steep side of the Greenstone ridge. The long slog of an uphill we had just completed wasn't even the worst. And as we have learned many times, up-climbing is much easier than down-climbing.

The trail very quickly started to lose elevation. It switchbacked relentlessly through deep rocky cuts. Mossy cliffs formed one side of the trail, while steep birch forests dropped off on the other side. The going was slow, especially because the trail was so rocky that we couldn't be sure of our footing. Some parts of the trail were solid bedrock, with just enough dirt and pebbles to keep things interesting. And of course, despite going steeply downhill, the trail still managed to buck us up and down a bit along the way. But hey, at least it was dry -- we would have turned right back around and gone home if it were raining.

We also learned that the Lane Cove trail didn't see quite as much trail maintenance as other, more easily accessible trails. One of the more interesting moments happened on an especially steep segment, where a pair of large birches had fallen directly across the trail. Worse yet, the trees had fallen in the perfectly wrong way. They were neither directly on the ground (easy to step over) nor high enough to duck under while still walking -- we had to take off our packs, shove them downhill, and crab-crawl under the tree.

Sarah crossing the "Roller Coaster Boardwalk"
We finally came to the end of the cliff face, having shed nearly 400 feet in just under half of a mile. But this was not the end of the downhills nor the uphills -- oh no, not at all. We were traveling north across the "grain" of Isle Royale, which meant we had to climb and then descend a nearly constant sequence of low rocky ridges (some of which were actually old lake shores). Between each pair of ridges was a low swamp, crossed by a boardwalk. One of the boardwalks was so long and, uh, varied in its elevation that we called it the "roller coaster".

The swamps were ridiculously picturesque, with tall grasses and late-summer flowers blooming in them. (The only reason I know this is because I noticed it the next day, when we walked back out the same way -- at this point, the only thing keeping us moving were the loaded thimbleberry bushes that we found along the trail, so we paid no attention whatsoever to the scenery.)

At very long last, the trail leveled out for good, although it quickly became much more rocky and root-y as we got closer to the Lake Superior shore. We started to glimpse the cove itself as the trail followed it for a few tenths of a mile. Suddenly, a signpost appeared in the middle of the trail, welcoming us to Lane Cove Campground. We had made it! We survived!!

This was our first experience with an Isle Royale "campground", and it was a pleasant surprise. My mental image had been of a large area with a bunch of sites all crammed in immediately next to each other. The campground was really a collection of 5 very isolated campsites, all located close to the shore but not very close to each other. Each site was large enough to hold 2 or 3 tents.

Following the advice we had received from the exhausted man in Rock Harbor, we headed directly to Site #3. As soon as we crested a low hill, we saw... a tent already set up in it. Oh well. Site #4 was also occupied. Someone had just started setting up in Site #5. Sites #1 and #2 were already double-booked with 2 or more tents in each. So, we had to share. We decided to march into Site #3 and ask to share -- at least we could be assured of a nice view.

As I crested the low hill leading into Site #3 (again), I waved and said loudly: "Do you mind if we share your site?" A middle-aged man and woman, each holding a camera, looked up and grinned. "Sure, come on in!"

Sarah and I dropped our bags off next to a very lovely driftwood log that served as a bench and prepared to do introductions. As I looked up, I saw the man's outstretched arm pointing straight at my chest, while his craggy, unshaved face broke into a huge and slightly wild grin. His other arm pointed at his bicep, where a tattoo of a skier was surrounded by the words "American Birkebeiner". I looked down and realized that I was wearing a t-shirt with the exact same logo. We were both wearing (in our various ways) the logo of one of the legendary ski races of the upper Midwest.

Thus I met (and immediately bonded with) John and his wife Shelly, two fascinating and incredibly friendly backpackers from the eastern end of the UP. They welcomed us to their tent site and never stopped talking or asking questions except when one would spontaneously break off to take a photo of a dragonfly or a cloud. We learned that they were experienced Isle Royale backpackers with a very laid-back outlook on hiking. We chatted with them continuously until we had our tent set up, our clothes changed, and were about to jump directly into Lake Superior to wash off 7 miles worth of dirt, grime, and sweat.

And yes, we did take a swim -- Lane Cove was fantastically warm, despite being part of Lake Superior. The water was crystal clear. It was easy to see straight down to the foot-sized boulders that made up the lake bottom. They were extremely slippery, but I didn't care. I spent nearly half an hour splashing around, washing, and floating while staring at the sky. It was wonderful.

After we were done with the water, hunger finally caught up with us. Hiking 7 hard miles in heat and sun has a way of suppressing your appetite... for a while. We ravenously boiled water for our freeze-dried meal du jour: Mountain House White Bean Chicken Chili. For as delicious as the bag looked, and as salty as it actually tasted, it was remarkably bland. Regardless, we devoured it.

My one photo of the Lane Cove sunset.
We finished the day by watching the sun slowly set behind a long arm of land that formed one side of the cove. The clouds came together to make a perfect show, with rich golds and reds over a calm lake. John and Shelly went wild, taking dozens (if not hundreds) of photos from every conceivable angle. Sarah and I sat and watched in astonishment.

And with that, it was dark. We said good night to the photographers, crawled into our tent, and quickly fell asleep to the sound of loons trilling in the cove.

Next time: Hi ho, hi ho, it's up and over the Greenstone Ridge to Daisy Farm we go!

Miles hiked: 7
Total miles: 7

Trail Reviews (based on our one trip as experienced UP backpackers with 40-pound packs):

Tobin Harbor Trail: As easy as Isle Royale gets. Wide and relatively flat. Few roots and rocks. Runs right along a beautiful harbor.

Mt. Franklin Trail: Medium. Lots of ups and downs over bedrock outcrops. The long uphill to the Greenstone is rough.

Lane Cove Trail (going north - downhill): Medium-hard. Steep switchbacks, would be terrible in bad weather. Many ups and downs, but mostly downhill -- which is especially hard. Near the shore, lots of rocks and roots.


Mom said...

This was such fun to read! Once again, I felt like I was on the trail with both of you. I would love to spend a night at campsite #3 at Lane Cove if I could be air dropped in! ;-)

Jacob Emerick said...

Fantastic read! We had the same exact first day (except I didn't go to Suzy's)... Easy trot down Tobin, humbling climb up Greenstone, and camped at #3. Not surprised to hear that Lane Cove was full - that seems to be the norm. Wonder if they'll be expanding out the number of sites over the next few years.

Can't wait to read about your return trip up Greenstone. The trail really is a pretty one if you can enjoy it, and it felt a lot easier (for me, at least) to climb up the ridge from the north.

DC said...

Thanks, Jake. Seems like the "secret" route to Lane isn't so secret! Although, having seen Rock Harbor and Three Mile when the boat is in, I'm sure we made a *much* better choice (you'll have to wait a few days for those stories though).

I forgot to mention in this episode that I used my walking-stick finding superpower again. We continue not purchasing poles! :)

nailhed said...

Liking it so far. Awesome sunset shot.

DC said...

I accidentally deleted Nina's comment, which was: "Oh man. I don't know where to start. I had to stop myself from breaking off during reading a few times to start firing off comments. This brings back so many memories! The Lane Cove Trail was murder--especially going down. I totally agree. But so worth it. You said so many things that echoed my thoughts on my first trip. (Why is this so hard? What is this trail like in the rain? Keep my food in my tent?) I love it and I can't wait to see what the rest of your trip brings. And those people taking 1000 pictures of the sunset? That's me, 100%. I get them."

DC said...

Nina: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. We can't wait to go back.

Nailhed: Ditto. It was an awesome sunset.

Nina said...

That sunset photo is ridiculous. (The good kind.)

DC said...

Y'all should talk to John and Shelly, I bet they have a few extra photos to spare. :P

Tracy said...

I'm reading this,surrounded by photos of Lane Cove��
So glad to know I'm not the only one who thought that trail was crazy difficult! After 15 years hiking in Copper Country,i was shocked too!

DC said...

Thanks, Tracy. Next time, we'll be prepared!