Monday, November 21, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Day 5: Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor

Last Time: Moskey Basin and a rest day in the rain

Moskey Basin sunrise
I sat up in near darkness and saw the faintest hint of a sunrise at the far end of Moskey Basin. My sleepy brain said: Sunrise? Then... That means it's not raining! followed quickly by Holy crap, I can watch the sunrise from my bed!

The sunrise was faint and partly obscured by clouds, so I convinced myself to get up in the cold morning air and head out to our private rocky peninsula leading out into the Basin. It was small, distant, and eventually obscured by clouds, but the sunrise was indeed good, as so many other backpackers had promised us. It was the only sunrise we saw all trip -- I was happy.

After our usual breakfast -- oatmeal and tea while looking out over the most beautiful place in the world -- we packed up, ready for a big day. After 4 days, our packs were getting lighter, so I decided to try packing my pack differently by placing our tent right down the center (rather than strapped crosswise under the brain case as I'd done previously). It took only a few yards on the trail to realize that I should have been doing that the whole time. The belt stopped cutting into my hips -- I felt fantastic!

In addition to my better-packed pack, it was amazing what a day of 100% enforced rest had done for us. We were fully recharged and ready to go. The trails were muddy, the rocks were slippery, and the underbrush was soaking wet (forcing us to put on our rain paints), but the day was sunny and cool. It was perfect hiking weather, and we trucked along at a good pace. Obstacles that had made our knees (and voices) groan two days ago felt like nothing. The constantly-sloping trail back to Rock Harbor felt downright easy and a even bit more beautiful than I had realized. We made great time, but still saw no moose.

When we arrived at Daisy Farm around 10:30 am, we were fully ready for lunch. We sat on the dock, ate peanut butter rice cakes, and enjoyed the quietness. It was late enough that almost everyone had left the campground (because, remember, nobody stays at Daisy Farm -- they're all heading somewhere else), but early enough that few newcomers had yet arrived. We took our time and soaked up the sun.

Then we discussed our plan: Today was our last full day on the island. Our goal was to reach Three Mile campground, which (brilliantly named) is 3 miles from Rock Harbor. That would let us get up early tomorrow and make it to Rock Harbor well before the Queen left in the early afternoon. This had felt like an ambitious plan: It's an 8 mile hike from Moskey to Three Mile -- and our previous 7 mile days had wrecked us. As a contingency, we had considered staying at Daisy Farm and getting up reaaaaalllyy early to hike the 7 miles in to Rock Harbor tomorrow. But we were both feeling fresh, and the 4 remaining miles to Three Mile seemed doable -- in fact, we thought that we might make it to Three Mile early enough to snag a shelter, before the hoards of newcomers arriving on the Queen and Ranger could get there.

With that, we started out on the next leg of our trip. The Rock Harbor trail continues east from Daisy Farm, following extremely close along the harbor that gives the trail its name. We had heard wildly varying accounts of this trail, ranging from "easy and beautiful" to "horrible and rocky". The trail turned out to be lovely. It was by far the most level, flat, and even trail we had seen on the island. There were occasional roots and small rocks, but the flatness of the trail felt downright luxurious. There were nearly constant views of the harbor and equally constant opportunities to pick thimbleberries.

I think everyone who's hiked Isle Royale has a photo like this.
The woods inland from the trail were dense, and the trees were hung thick with old man's beard. But those thick woods sometimes gave way to huge rock outcrops that angled uphill. At one of these, we stopped for a rest break and chatted with a solo hiker also heading towards Three Mile. He had hiked this trail before and warned us that it wasn't all butterflies and rainbows.

Back on the trail, my spidey senses started tingling -- there was a mine around! I mentioned this to Sarah, who looked turned her head and said "Well, sure." I looked left and sure enough, there was a fenced-in mine shaft immediately next to the trail, with an interpretive sign attached to it. In my defense, I sensed the mine first.

This was the Siskiwit mine, one of the larger copper mines on Isle Royale. It was also quite old. There were only a few poor rock building foundations remaining, and several fenced shafts -- plus some scary looking places where solid bedrock was slowly sinking into the long-lost mine tunnels. I frightened Sarah by going off-trail to look down one of these sunken spots. Having scratched that itch, I returned to the trail safe and sound, and we continued on.

As we walked, the park's headquarters on Mott Island -- across the harbor -- became visible, and we were able to track our progress by our position relative to it. The next attraction was a beautiful, flat, grassy, and shady point of land sticking out into Rock Harbor directly across from the headquarters' dock. The point was something we hadn't seen much of: Non-rocky, actual dirt. It was also covered in blueberry bushes. We seriously considered stopping for a rest break or even a nap, but decided to push on to reach Three Mile campground instead.

So far, the trail had been incredibly flat with only a few roots and rocks. But after shortly after the "blueberry point" -- and about 1 mile away from Three Mile campground -- that changed in a big way. We suddenly started to encounter 1 or 2 foot boulders with only a narrow path of dirt running between them. Occasionally massive bedrock outcrops cut across the trail, sloping into the water, and we had to follow cairns across them. One section was even more amazing -- a steep and impassable swath of bedrock cut right down almost to the water level, leaving only a 2 foot wide ledge of rock at the very bottom, almost in the lake. We had to wait as others came through the opposite way, and then walk carefully with waves almost lapping at our feet.

The tougher path and the longer mileage started to wear on us, and we trudged onward.

Blueberries, so many blueberries!
After another enormous bedrock outcrop, we finally saw the trail sign for Three Mile campground. Three Mile was squeezed between the steep bedrock ridges and the water, so it was stretched out into a long line of campsites and shelters. The very first shelter was occupied by none other than our Trail Twins, John and Shelly. They greeted us warmly but warned us that we were a bit late, and the big crowd that had arrived in Rock Harbor on the Queen had already made it to Three Mile -- but that we could share their shelter if we needed.

I raced ahead to check the remaining sites. Nothing was available -- even the tent sites were overflowing with two or three tents per site. One shelter briefly faked me out -- it had no itinerary attached to the door handle, but I soon saw that backpacks were stashed inside. We later learned that some of our fellow backpackers had accidentally left their itinerary attached to their shelter back in Moskey, but didn't discover it until 4 miles into their trek.

We sat on the dock for a while, discussing our options and trying to rest, but bugs chased us away (the only time in the entire trip that bugs were a problem). We decided to check out the group sites, just in case they were still open and reasonable for camping. The group sites were both located far uphill and away from the water. They were wide open, sunny, hot and buggy. Sarah was tired and upset and proclaimed Three Mile an "ugly campground". We sat down at a picnic table in Group Site #1, swatted bugs, and grumped it up.

But, after a bit of rest, things started to look up. We agreed that we felt good enough to push onwards, all the way back to Rock Harbor. We were this close to Rock Harbor already, and there was a huge campground there. It couldn't be more full than Three Mile! We decided to take some advice that we had heard from several other backpackers: Avoid the Rock Harbor trail between Three Mile and Rock Harbor. It was the most direct way "home", but it was supposed to be especially rocky and difficult, much like the last mile of trail that we had been on. Instead, we would cut across the peninsula to the Tobin Harbor trail, which we knew from experience was flat and easy (despite adding an extra mile of length).

We backtracked a short way and, at the enormous bedrock outcrop, discovered that the Mt. Franklin Trail that would lead us across the peninsula went directly up that outcrop. The climb was short but intense, and then the trail became truly beautiful. It wound through deep and dark woods, up and down small ridges, and across wetlands. It was cool and pleasant. We loved it. Soon we found the trail intersection and turned onto our old friend, the Tobin Harbor trail.

Maybe it was just the 8+ miles we'd already done, but the Tobin Harbor trail didn't seem quite as friendly as it did 5 days ago, when were were totally fresh on the first leg of our trip. It had many more ups and downs than either of us remembered, lots more roots and rocks, and it sure seemed long. It did, however, still have gorgeous views of the deep blue waters of Tobin Harbor. We took it slow, trying to enjoy the views and not just stare at the trail in front of our feet.

Tobin Harbor Islet
After what felt like hours we suddenly came upon three backpackers stopped dead in the middle of the trail, staring uphill into the woods. One of them whispered, "there's a moose up there!". We froze and stared into the woods, trying to see its moosey form. They stared. We stared harder. Nothing happened. We didn't even hear anything. Eventually we all started walking again, with the other people talking about how it had been "right there!" Once again, we were late to the moose party. At this point, I was starting to suspect that we actually has special powers to make moose disappear.

At long, long last we saw the trail sign for Rock Harbor, and turned onto the paved trail leading down towards the harbor itself. We turned again onto a wide dirt path leading to the Rock Harbor campground, which was a ways uphill from the main harbor complex.

The trail led past a long line of shelters, all of which were filled. We were trudging wearily toward the campsites when a man walking the other way saw our backpacks and stopped us. "Are you looking for a site?" he asked us. We nodded wearily. "Everything is full here. I've got a site up the hill that you're welcome to share." We were too tired to be surprised that the campground was also full, but we were certainly amazed at generosity. We thanked him and headed the way he had pointed. Sure enough, we found a large campsite with only one hammock and a clothesline strung up around the edges.

We were so tired that we didn't even bother to check out the rest of the campground, but we could still tell that it was filled. There were people everywhere. They were a combination of campers who had arrived today -- both the Queen and Ranger had arrived, an event that only happens a few days per week even in the height of summer -- and campers like us who were planning to leave tomorrow. In particular, the Ranger docks at Rock Harbor overnight and would be leaving at 9 am sharp the next day. Any backpacker who wanted to be on the ship would be in Rock Harbor tonight.

We couldn't believe it -- we had just hiked 12 miles, all the way from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor, after having our butts totally kicked by mere 4 and 7 mile hikes on the previous days. It was our single longest day of backpacking ever -- and we did it on the butt-kicking Isle Royale! It felt great: We had really accomplished something. It also felt exhausting. But even more important, our early arrival in Rock Harbor opened up some bonus opportunities that we hadn't expected to have.

We quickly set up our tent and then headed back down the hill for the first and most glorious of the unexpected bonuses: hot showers! There is a shower building with hot running water just behind the main ranger station, and we were about to take full advantage of it. The showers are operated by tokens, so we went to the "camp store" to purchase tokens. For $6 each, we got a token for a 5 minute shower. For an additional $2.50 each, we got towels, soap, and shampoo. It was the best $17 I've ever spent.

Well, almost. Sarah started first and literally sang the praises of the hot shower. I stepped into the next stall and got ready (including strategically pre-placing soap, washcloth, etc. so as to waste not a second of hot water time). I put my token in the machine and... nothing happened. I fiddled with the token machine, the water knobs, the shower head... nothing! Resigned, I got re-dressed and went back to the camp store, where the clerk (a very young college kid) gave me another token for free. I tried a different shower, which worked as expected. It was everything I could have hoped for and more. There is nothing better than a hot shower after 5 days in the backcountry -- it was glorious.

After drying and changing into "clean" clothes (at least, clothes we hadn't yet worn that day), we once again went to the camp store and looked at the amazing variety of items for sale. You could almost arrive on the island with a backpack and a sleeping bag, and buy the rest of your supplies at the store. They had freeze-dried food, sleeping pads, stove fuel, rope, water filters, cook sets, and a huge variety of other backcountry essentials.

More important for us, they had ice cream bars and Cherry Pepsi. We bought one of each (for a mere $1 each -- it felt like we were back in 1990!) and sat on a bench enjoying them. They too were glorious.

With our most pressing needs satisfied, we could focus on another of the unexpected benefits of arriving at Rock Harbor a day earlier than we had planned. The Rock Harbor Lodge runs sightseeing cruises on the MV Sandy, a passenger boat operated by the Rock Harbor Lodge. We walked around the harbor to the Lodge's office and found out that there were still spaces on tonight's "Sunset Cruise". We bought two tickets immediately. The cruise left in about 30 minutes, so we didn't have time to make dinner. To tide us over, we bought a few more snacks (cheese crackers and Pringles) and ate them while sitting at Sandy's dock.

Bedrock on Raspberry Island
Only a few minutes before departure time, the captain and his first mate (a young college kid) arrived and helped us onboard. It turned out that there was no urgency in buying the tickets -- there were maybe 10 people on the entire boat. Almost all of us crammed ourselves into two rows of seats in the open-air back of the boat. Most of the passengers were staying at the Rock Harbor lodge, and some of them were strangely grumpy. They complained about the seats, the breeze, the distance they had to walk from their hotel rooms... This made no sense to us, what with the soft beds and running water they enjoyed here on Isle Royale. Whatever its cause, the grumpiness couldn't dampen our euphoria over clean skin and junk food. Other passengers were quite friendly, and we had a fun time chatting with the other passengers.

After motoring out of dock, our first stop was just across Rock Harbor at Raspberry Island, one of the barrier islands standing between Rock Harbor and the open water of Lake Superior. Raspberry Island is relatively small and has a very short loop trail with interpretive signs. The grumpy tourists became extra grumpy when the captain unceremoniously announced that this part of the tour was self-guided, and that we should make sure to be back in 30 minutes or else. A few didn't even bother to look at the trail, instead spending their time trying to get a cell phone signal from the dock.

Sarah and I started on the interpretive trail but quickly took a less-traveled spur that lead off to a rocky cliff. The island is really just the top of one of the unending series of ridges that make up Isle Royale -- but most of this one is under water. The steep basalt cliff gave us simultaneous panoramic views both of Lake Superior and back towards Rock Harbor, and we spent almost all of our time just taking in the views. Well, that, and picking tons of wild blueberries that grew on the island. Due to the lack of constant foot traffic, they hadn't been picked over yet. No raspberries actually grow on Raspberry Island -- but apparently they did 150 years ago, when the island had been completely clear-cut by miners searching for copper veins in the rock. The first plants to grow in the burned-over soil were raspberries brought by birds, but they were eventually out-competed by other plants.

We returned to the dock on time to catch our ride. The Sandy headed northeast around Scoville Point, one of the long, narrow, rocky points that make up the "five fingers" at the eastern end of Isle Royale. Scoville Point separates Rock Harbor from Tobin Harbor, which we now got to see from the water side of things. At this point, the young-looking second mate picked up a microphone and started narrating some of the sights along the way. The main sights were old cabins and other buildings left from Isle Royale's heyday as popular resort destination. Our narrator described the island's history as a resort paradise -- a place for wealthy people to escape from dirty cities and enjoy the pure, crisp Lake Superior air. A large number of resorts existed on the "fingers" and islands at the eastern end of Isle Royale.

The "easy" side of the ridge that forms Raspberry Island. This is what the entire trail from Moskey to Daisy Farm looks like.
When the island became a National Park in 1940, existing resorts and private cottages were purchased by the US government, but the private owners were allowed to keep using them -- for as long as the owner was still alive. Our guide pointed out a few of these leases that were still active, and some which had recently reverted to the park -- and others which had been forcibly returned to the park after shenanigans such as not notifying the park when the owner finally passed away. One of the most intriguing was the Artist in Residence cabin, located right at the end of Scoville Point at an incredibly exposed location. Our guide told us about various Artists in Residence, the requirements for the program, and how great the location was. It got me (and many others!) thinking about how I could possibly apply.

We got a fair bit of gossip from our young guide, whose willingness to talk about anything and everything related to island life quickly endeared him to us. His parents both worked for the park service, while he was a college student back in the UP somewhere. He excitedly interrupted his own string of gossip about leases and lessees to point out a (very distant) bald eagle sitting perched high on a tree, and then turned right around and had us wave at a cabin whose owners were in "town". We also saw quite a few decrepit buildings from long-abandoned resorts -- some wooden shacks, some piles of rubble, and the occasional converted cabin still being used by its old owners.

We turned around and traveled out around Blake Point, the extreme point of land on this end of Isle Royale. We could see Passage Island (the northernmost point of land in Michigan) and its lighthouse in the distance as we learned about Great Lakes shipping paths, lighthouses, buoys, and shipwrecks. The sun began to set as we made our way out into the open lake, hearing about the "Sleeping Giant" and "Sleeping Baby" visible on the Canadian shore. But, there was no sunset to be seen -- it was hidden behind a thick bank of clouds that was blowing in. Nonetheless, our trusty captain had us tread water for at least 10 minutes out in the brisk wind so that we could enjoy the "sunset". Apparently he kept to the schedule no matter what.

It was a long trip back in the dark -- really, incredibly dark. The islands were just dim bulks against the darkening sky, made even darker by the thick clouds. Being out on this small craft on the big lake in that dark evening was a spooky and humbling experience. Thankfully, our young narrator kept us entertained with tales of growing up on the island. I had to admit that I was a bit envious.

The Ranger III at dock in Rock Harbor
When we made it back to Rock Harbor, I stayed put on the dock until everyone had left. The Ranger III was in port and all lit up. It was quite beautiful in the dark.

After that, there was nothing to do but walk the dark paths up to the Rock Harbor campground, crawl into our tent, and go to sleep. We were so exhausted that we didn't even have dinner.

Miles hiked: 12
Total miles: 30

Next time: Riding the Barf Barge

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

Rock Harbor Trail (Moskey Basin -- Daisy Farm): Medium. The angled ridges keep your feet (and body) constantly tilted.

Rock Harbor Trail (Daisy Farm -- 3 Mile): Easy! The last mile (into 3 mile) is tough with bigger rocks, but the first 3 miles are flat and have only roots and small rocks. Great views.

Mt. Franklin Trail (3 Mile -- Tobin Harbor intersection): Easy. Twisty and turny with one big uphill at 3 Mile, but the rest is beautiful.

Tobin Harbor Trail (heading east): Easy. As much as I complained about it in here, this is still about as easy as Isle Royale gets. Roots and some rocks, but wide with and rolling hills.


nailhed said...

that first photo, wow!

That's funny about the grumpy "lodge people" complaining on the Sandy, haha. How dare real life be so difficult?!

Cool you got to explore rasberry island, i didn't get to get off the boat when we docked there briefly.

Awesome b/w shot too!

Night on the island was definitely a humbling, sometimes scary experience, yes. Deeper, denser darkness than pretty much anywhere else.

Jacob Emerick said...

> After 4 days, our packs were getting lighter...

That was by far one of my favorite memories on the island. The first day my pack was darn close to 40 pounds, thanks to 9 days worth of food. The last few days felt like I was carrying air :) I don't think you ever mentioned what your pack weight was... I'm curious how you and Sarah were able to split up some things.

A+ doing that trek from Moskey all the way to Rock Harbor. That's a long day! And then to arrive at a full campground and still have the gumption left to do that sunset tour... Y'all must have eaten your Wheaties that morning.

Bummed you didn't get to do that section of trail between Three Mile and Rock Harbor. I didn't think it was any tougher than the rest of that stretch, and there were plenty of fantastic spots that make you pause and admire. Plus I could have sworn there were a few mines along it... Memory hazy.

Great read, as always, sir.

Nina said...

"One section was even more amazing -- a steep and impassable swath of bedrock cut right down almost to the water level, leaving only a 2 foot wide ledge of rock at the very bottom, almost in the lake."

I think you're describing one of my favorite spots there. What an amazing trail. I hope you guys get a chance to hike the section between 3 Mile and Rock Harbor on a future trip. I think you'll like it, though probably not as the finale of a 12-mile day! Wow-you guys really trudged the distance.

I'm sad your report is coming to an end. I love the sunrise photo--really awesome colors going on in the water. I need to take that sunset tour next time. It sounds fun. Based on your ending, I'm a little scared to read about your trip back, but at the same time, I'm looking forward to it.

DC said...

@nailhed: I was surprised at how dark the night felt. I mean, I've backpacked in the Porkies and out on Keweenaw point plenty of times -- but this time, there weren't even stars. I think that the clouds really added to the oppressive feeling.

@Jake: I think we were at 35/40 pounds (Sarah/me) at the start. That's including water -- we usually haul 2 liters each and don't stop to filter until camp. We try to pack light-ish (although clearly we didn't bring ultralight wine :P), but we err on the side of comfort vs. weight. And thanks for the kind words about our mega-hike... coming from the 20+ mile guy, that means something!

@Nina (and @Jake too...): I have every intent of doing that Rock Harbor section... sometime! We're thinking about returning next year but doing a very different hike -- probably cutting across the island north-south starting from McCargoe. Not quite sure how yet, but we'll make it happen.

Don't worry about the report ending -- I have some fun stuff coming up in December! :D

Jacob Emerick said...

Cutting across the island north/south would be pretty awesome. McCargoe has a very different feel compared to the southern shoreline. You could also try out a McCargoe -> Windigo, which would be very very different (and quieter)!

Can't wait to hear what you're up to in December :)