Monday, December 19, 2016

Isle Royale 2016, Day 6: Homeward Bound

Last Time: A long haul from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor

News flash! Just before I published this post, the National Park Service announced that it is planning to introduce new wolves to the park in an attempt to save the disappearing wolf population.

The Ranger III in Rock Harbor
I woke up well after sunrise and found a grey day waiting for me outside the tent. Sarah was still asleep, so I wandered down the trail to the docks, eating a breakfast of thimbleberries and raspberries from the bushes growing along the way. I lounged around the waterfront and watched the Ranger III use a crane to load large objects onto its dock, including dumpsters and an entire speed boat. Needless to say, the Ranger is a large vessel -- much larger than the Queen.

Sarah eventually joined me, and together we sat on a bench and watched a motley assortment of backpackers shuffle tiredly aboard the Ranger. The ship loudly blew its horn (surely waking up anyone still asleep in the lodge) and motored slowly out of the harbor.

We spent some time wandering around the "welcome center". I read the visitor log book, but was quickly disheartened by all of the wildlife sightings and had to put it down. ("Log books: the Facebook feed of yore" claims my fellow explorer Nailhed, and in this case the two certainly served similar purposes.) I turned to the books and posters for sale, and found a particularly fetching poster -- but I realized that I could never keep it clean while carting it around the dirty campground.

We overheard a ranger talking about the scattered showers that were predicted for this morning. With the day already looking grey and breezy, we decided we should pack up camp before the weather changed. As we walked back to the campsite, light sprinkles followed us -- and soon after we started shoving camp gear into our backpacks, the sprinkles turned into a torrential downpour. We dove into the empty tent and stared at each other. This wasn't good.

We sat miserably listening to the rain, and watching water slowly creep under the rain flies. We hadn't even eaten breakfast -- and I was not about to fire up our camp stove inside the tent. Instead, we sweltered in the humid atmosphere and moped. Much like Moskey, the main topic of conversation was whether the rain had let up: "I think it's brightening up a little bit... never mind." However, being stuck in an opaque dome without even being able to see outside (at least without pulling aside a rain fly and getting massively wet) was somehow even worse. Worse for me, I had hoped to go for a quick hike along the Stoll trail this morning. That trail is a loop that goes out on Scoville Point, past ancient mining pits, and through 360 degree views. It was going to be a lovely goodbye hike -- but, that was out of the question now.

Sarah hoofing it along the Tobin Harbor trail
To add to that: If things didn't let up soon enough, we would have to bite the bullet and pack up in the pouring rain, so that we would be on time for our ride home on the Queen.

After an hour of sheer boredom mixed with anxiety, the rain quit as suddenly as it had started. We quickly folded up the tent, barely even stopping to try to shake the water off of the rain fly. We wanted nothing more than to be under a roof down at the dockside.

Down at the dock, we stashed our packs under an overhang and booked it across the harbor to the Greenstone Grill -- the lodge's less formal dining room. We had missed breakfast today and dinner last night. Food had never ever sounded so good. The dining room was packed with grimy backpackers who were hungrily eyeing their menus -- the "less formal" dining room is, in other words, the one that is willing to serve those of us who had just walked out of the woods after a week without showers. The waitstaff -- entirely college kids -- were swamped. We ordered Polish sausage and a huge pizza and waited. And waited -- watching carefully to see if the Queen had yet arrived to summon us back home (it hadn't). At long last, we dug in. It was fantastic.

As we ate, rain storms rain storms blew through quickly and unpredictably, pushed on by a strong wind. Back at the dock, the Queen's arrival had been delayed by weather, and we heard many rumors that seaplane service (the fastest way to get to Isle Royale from any direction) had been canceled for today. Seaplane passengers were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to buy tickets for the Queen (and, since the Queen arrives at Copper Harbor while their vehicles were waiting at the Hancock airport, they also had to figure out how they would be traveling 50 miles without a car).

In the midst of the chaos, I realized something even more important: The only other place that I could buy that fetching poster that I had seen in the welcome center was the National Park headquarters in Houghton -- which would be closed by the time we arrived. I whipped up a solution: I purchased the (unwrapped) poster, rolled it into a tube, and covered the tube with a large waterproof bag. To keep that closed, I wrapped it thoroughly with bright orange cord from my backpack, creating a safe, secure, and waterproof sheath for my poster which for all the world looked like a kid's toy light saber.

As we sat near the dock waiting for the Queen (with me making lightsaber noises as I waved my poster around)who should march into town but our trail twins, John and Shelly. They were astonished that we had arrived anywhere before them -- they had stayed in Three Mile campground and hiked to Rock Harbor this morning. We proudly shared the story of our epic hike and the glory of the hot showers. They reported that they had seen a moose along the Tobin Harbor trail this morning -- another moose miss for us! Someone nearby chipped in that they had seen a moose on the Stoll Trail -- two moose misses in one day!

The Queen arrived and unloaded a batch of green-around-the-gills passengers. We overheard snippets of conversation about the weather conditions on the lake and the, uh, difficulties the passengers had encountered while crossing. We warily lined up and slowly made our way onboard. The whole boarding process was much simpler than when we left from Copper Harbor -- clearly the Queen crew knew that they were the only thing standing between their clientele and hot showers and soft beds back on the mainland. Captain Don again performed Herculean tasks of lifting our packs over his head and up to the top deck, and we were on our way.

The ride was great for about 5 minutes, which was exactly how long it took us to exit Rock Harbor. The open lake was choppy and our ride was correspondingly bumpy. I had never before sailed on the open waters of a great lake, and Sarah told me that I should probably expect to get seasick -- that's how landlubbers like myself always were on their first choppy trip. Instead, it was Sarah who quickly became queasy and started popping ginger candies (given to us by an extremely kind coworker). When that didn't help, she moved to the open air of the stern, hoping for some relief. My landlubber self was feeling fine, so I stayed in the comparatively warm cabin and chatted with John and Shelly.

A dead tree on the Greenstone. We didn't take many photos today -- you're getting the back stock!
After a while, I decided to check on Sarah. As I exited the rear door of the main cabin, I discovered that somewhere around half of the passengers were out on the stern of the boat in an attempt to avoid seasickness -- standing, sitting, or crouching on every available surface. I looked around and found Sarah, holding on to the railing for dear life. She was focused on the horizon with a determined stare and a clenched jaw. I checked in with her and gave her the rest of the ginger candies, but I quickly decided I needed to leave -- the diesel fumes from the Queen's engines were making me feel sick!

After what felt like a very long time, we entered the sheltered waters of Copper Harbor. I suddenly had a much greater appreciation for just how important harbors like Copper Harbor were 100 years ago. As we cruised past the Harbor Haus (likely the fanciest restaurant within 50 miles of Copper Harbor), their entire waitstaff raced out onto their patio, joined their arms together, and did a kick-line for us. Did I mention that they were all dressed in pseudo-German dresses? We waved and cheered; the Queen honked.

We said goodbye to our trail doppelgängers, acquired our backpacks (also unloaded by Captain Don),  found our car and headed south.

Rather than staying in Copper Harbor, we planned to stay closer to our old college haunts in Hancock. Sarah was still recovering from the boat ride, and neither of us were very hungry, so we checked in and took our second fantastic showers of the last 36 hours.

Dinner ended up being another old college haunt: beer at the Keweenaw Brewing Company with Studio Pizza. We ate on the deck. We moved in and ate on the couches. We moved to a table. We watched the olympics. We ate peanuts. It was glorious.

And with that, we went back to the hotel and slept in real beds. Well, actually, we tossed and turned. The mattresses were too soft, the pillows were too fluffy -- we had become used to sleeping on wooden floors and inflatable pads.

Our trip home the next day began with breakfast at Suomi, where it is a moral imperative to have breakfast when visiting Houghton. Try the Pannukakku -- you won't find better in a restaurant. (You will likely find better in an old Finnish homestead hidden in the Copper Country woods, heated by a wood stove, where not a word of english is spoken to this very day. But good luck getting in there.)

The rest was the same old 9 hour drive we've done hundreds of times. It was as hard to leave as ever.

If you know anything about us, you know this: We'll be back!

See you for the next adventure!

Grand total miles: 30
Moose sighted: 0
Moose just barely missed: Dozens. Maybe hundreds.


Jacob Emerick said...

Great ending to a great trip, sir! The gloominess of waiting out the rain could be felt right through the screen. A+ getting some good pizza back at KBC.

Moose just barely missed: Dozens. Maybe hundreds. LOL

RE the diesel - hear you on that one. I hung out on the stern of the Queen on the way out, just to watch the dock drift away and for a new view of the northern shore and the fumes were turrible. Much more enjoyable to sit out on the bow :)

DC said...

Thanks, Jake! Studio pizza, KBC, and Suomi are moral imperatives whenever we visit Houghton. The Tea Room is too, but we weren't there long enough this time.

I'm sure I mentioned it way back when I started this series (feels like forever ago!), but we spent almost the entire ride *to* the island on the bow of the boat. It was so calm and warm that we just stayed out there chatting with folks. What a wonderful ride (especially in comparison).

Stay tuned for something completely different...

nailhed said...

Huzzah for making it out alive, haha, good series. And I agree about the panukakku, Soumi bakery is the place that turned me on to it, and it has become mandatory ever since when visiting the area. I have subsequently had the good fortune of becoming involved with a girlfriend of Finnish ancestry, who makes an even better panu--lucky me!