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 we 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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 5: Rest Day at McCargoe and the Minong Mine

Last time: Chickenbone to McCargoe to Chickenbone to McCargoe...

Inside the Minong Mine

On the 5th day, we rested. We "slept in" at McCargoe Cove, which is to say, we woke up slightly after the sun had risen. Morning was taken up with camp chores -- doing laundry in a bucket is always a joy -- and enjoying not being on the move for a day.

Sarah's plan for the rest of the day was to read, relax, swim, and take it easy. My plan was a bit different: Visit the Minong Mine.

The Minong Mine was Isle Royale's most successful copper mine, although that really doesn't say much. Isle Royale is, geologically, part of the same rock formation as the rest of Michigan's Copper Country. Ancient miners visited the island and extracted pure copper from the rocks, leaving behind small pits visible to the first European visitors. With the mining boom on the Keweenaw, some prospectors naturally tried their luck on the island as well. There was undoubtedly enough copper, but Isle Royale's remote nature -- especially the way it is completely cut off from the mainland for 6 months of winter -- quickly killed off even the richest mine.

Black-eyed Susans at McCargoe

The Minong Mine is accessible down a spur from the legendary Minong Ridge Trail, which runs along the Minong Ridge (see a trend yet?) between McCargoe Cove and Windigo. This meant that I also got to have a taste of the Minong Ridge Trail, which is famous for its beauty and extreme ruggedness.

I followed the Minong Ridge trail uphill from McCargoe -- or tried to. The campground's multiple criss-crossing paths led me astray, and instead I found a new outhouse. On try #2, I ended up in another shelter's front yard. Try #3 took me to the tent campsites. It turned out that the shelter's front yard in try #2 was on the right track -- I had to skirt around the shelter before continuing uphill.

Minong Ridge trail with wildflowers

When I finally found the trail, I almost flew along it. The day was cool and sunny, the sky was a rich late summer blue, and the breeze was light. The trail was lined with wildflowers in the sunny openings, and birches towered high above me. I felt great: healthy, energetic, well-rested, and happy.

The trail climbed steeply uphill as it mounted the ridge. It soon started following the edge of a steep rocky ridge with many deep ravines cutting into it. At one point, right next to the trail, I found this curious cut:

Ancient mining pit? Minong exploration?

I suspect it was a mining pit -- whether prehistoric or just a test pit for the Minong Mine, I don't know.

In just under a mile, I came to a signpost marking the spur trail to the Minong Mine. The spur trail headed steeply down the south face of the ridge, winding through dense pine forests. The first landmark was a vertical shaft, surrounded by a wooden rail fence. I looked as far over as I dared, but couldn't see much. Next down the hill was an angled shaft that was wide open. I peeked at this one too, but I knew better things were up ahead.

Old tram rail in the Minong adit
At the base of the hill, I found what I was looking for. A small spur that led into a shady trench. Here, the Minong Miners had drilled an adit -- a horizontal opening -- straight into the Minong Ridge. I walked under the cool shade of the trees, into the shadow of towering rock walls blasted out of the Minong ridge itself, and straight into the depths of Isle Royale.

The mine still had rails in place from old trams, which were probably pushed by hand, since it was expensive to bring (and feed) horses or mules to the island. There was no timbering or support -- the rock was strong enough to stand without failing for more than 100 years. The adit ran beneath both of the shafts farther up the hill. Here's the angled shaft from below. The photo at the top of the post shows the spectacular tree growing out of its mouth:

The angled shaft and tree (on the right)
My way to the vertical shaft was barred by a shallow pool of water. Beyond the pool, the vertical shaft was choked with fallen trees and brush. I suspect the shaft went much deeper below the water level, but I couldn't get close enough to see.

I spent about half an hour happily wandering in, out, up, down, and around this beautiful mine. The scent of the musty, humid, cool air reminded my of my days of living in the UP and exploring a new mine every weekend. This was a little bit of heaven.

The bottom (?) of the vertical shaft

After enjoying all of the pleasures that the adit had to offer, I continued downhill to explore the rest of the mine area. Below the adit's mouth, the Minong's poor rock piles sprawled across the valley.  "Poor rock" is the unprofitable rock the mine drilled through in order to get to the copper. The Minong's poor rock was strewn all over the countryside, filling in every possible nook and cranny. It looked like they didn't even try to organize it. Jagged rock outcrops stuck out from the hillside, where the Minong had apparently blasted around them in its search for copper, leaving the broken rock where it fell. Occasional water-filled pits showed where the miners had found a promising vein.

Rock piles and blasted outcrops
A father and son, who I recognized as part of the very large family group from McCargoe, were sitting on top of one of these outcrops. I stopped to chat with them as I wandered along the base of the big hill, looking for more mines to explore. They pointed me up a narrow ravine that led to a second adit, this one a short stub without any shafts to let in daylight. I spent an inordinately long amount of time playing around with my camera in this adit, resulting in nonsense like this:

Alien? Or just mine junkie?
Back towards the first adit, I found that there was indeed some method to this poor rock madness. To the east, the Minong had gotten its act together, and dumped its poor rock in long low piles that partly filled a very long, very green swamp. I followed the piles until they petered out, after which a low line of rocks continued into the swamp. This was an old mine road, constructed straight through a line of swamps at the base of the big hillside. The mine used it to access McCargoe Cove, where they had built a stamp mill (a massively inefficient water-and-gravity-operated machine for pounding the copper-bearing rock into tiny pieces, freeing the copper from its surrounding rock).

I wandered slowly along the road, which was just barely above the water level of the swamp. The day was warm and the swamp was green with life. The sky was a fantastic blue that reflected in the surface of the water:

Minong mine swamp, or possibly mill pond.

After reaching a long berm that was probably an old dam, I turned around to return to the main mine area. Along the way, I noticed a couple of places on the high tree-covered hillside where large rock piles tumbled down off of the hillside and into the swamp. Rocks don't do that by accident: There was a mine up above those rockpiles. (Looking at the aerial view now, there were even more rockpiles hidden behind some trees. The Minong Mine really "gophered" up that hillside!)

The rockpiles weren't accessible from the main Minong Mine area, which made them even more tantalizing to me. They were, however, clearly located somewhere not too far off of the Minong Ridge trail, which ran right up on that same hillside. Since the Minong Ridge trail was parallel to the old road I was now walking, I realized that I could find the mines by measuring the straight distance along the road between the main mine area and these rock piles. Then, I could measure out the same distance on the Minong Ridge trail, and identify the right location to find the rockpiles. As I walked back, I counted my paces until I met the spur trail coming down the hillside from the Minong Ridge trail.

The Minong Ridge

I headed back uphill to the Minong Ridge trail. Before I could measure back along the trail towards the rock piles, I had another goal to attend to. I turned left, continuing farther away from McCargoe. The trail took a steep uphill through a dense pine grove, climbing higher up onto the Minong Ridge itself. When I popped out in a rocky, grassy clearing, I was near the top of Pine Mountain, supposedly site of a good overlook.

Sure enough, on my right (north) I could see a faint volunteer trail heading towards a sudden rocky outcrop that jutted high above the grassy hillside. Above the top of the outcrop, I could see nothing but sky. There had to be a good view from up there!

McDonald Lake (foreground) with Lake Superior

I headed off trail, whacking through tall grass and juniper bushes. The outcrop rose so steeply that I had to hand-over-hand climb, pausing only when I found an unexpected cluster of blueberries. I eventually made my way to a high rounded ridge top. As I crested the ridge, the view took my breath away. I had a stunning and uninterrupted view over the north side of the island. Several hundred feet below me lay a dense forest of Balsam firs, with the blue gem of McDonald Lake nestled in the middle of them. Beyond that was the wide expanse of Lake Superior, and beyond that, Thunder Bay's "Sleeping Giant" lay shimmering in the not-so-distant haze.

Sleeping Giant in Thunder Bay

As with all Isle Royale ridges, the north side was a sheer and nearly vertical 200 foot drop. I took off my pack, sat down with my legs dangling over the edge, and enjoyed the view. I also "enjoyed" a Clif bar, which only tastes good after ridiculously hard work -- like climbing the Minong Ridge. I quietly soaked up the views and the sun. It was one more perfect piece of a perfect day on Isle Royale, and I didn't want it to end.

After a good, long, soul-satisfying rest, I packed up and headed up along the ridge line to the highest point, where moose antlers awaited me:

Moose antlers on the Minong Ridge

With a long look over my shoulder, I climbed back down towards the trail and headed back towards McCargoe. As soon as I passed the Minong Mine turnoff, I started counting my paces, trying to correct for the zigs and zags of the trail. Only a few paces past my target distance, I realized that I was passing one of the deep ravines that I'd noticed on my way up. I saw the faintest volunteer trail heading down along the ravine -- it could have been a moose trail -- but I decided to follow it. I left my bag on the trail and took only my camera. After a long downhill hike along the side of the ravine, I finally found a way to scramble down into it. I turned and walked right back up the floor of the ravine. It had nearly vertical rocky sides and ended in an abrupt rocky wall right at the edge of the Minong Ridge trail, with small piles of shattered rock here and there. It could have been a mine exploration -- or it could have been frost-cracked rock that was moved and piled up by the spring floods. There was definitely no sign of the large rock pile that I had seen from the swamp. Nonetheless, the ravine was cool and deep, and trees arched high overhead in a particularly fetching way. I was glad I'd come down here. (Much later on, back home, I checked the aerials and realized that I was in exactly the right place -- but still several hundred feet too high on the hill. I suspect the ravine was part of a mine exploration.)

With that, I hoofed it back up to the trail and headed back to McCargoe Cove.

When I got back to the shelter, Sarah had just returned from her own fantastic day of laying around and reading on the dock. She had also met and befriended our (extremely) wide array of fellow campers. We ran through the interesting details as we ate a late lunch, and then headed down to the dock for more swimming and reading.

At the dock, Sarah introduced me to some of our most fascinating neighbors: Four 20-somethings from Ann Arbor. Two (a husband and wife) were farmers, along with a brother and an exchange student. They were all incredibly athletic. They had hiked 15 miles each day so far and felt just fine, thank you, and were looking forward to the death march all the way back to Rock Harbor tomorrow. The brother and exchange student spent their time doing flips off the end of the dock, presumably to burn off their excess energy.

Flip, flop

After a fantastic cool-down swim, some reading, and some good conversation with our neighbors, we went back to the shelter for dinner. We had saved our last freeze-dried chicken and dumplings for tonight. We also had carted a small (750 mL) box of wine across the island just so we could sit back and enjoy it on the dock tonight, just like we did last year. It was every bit as fantastic as you could imagine.

It was too beautiful of an evening not to sit down by the long, deep, blue cove. The bad-ass Ann Arbor farmers were still at it. Another couple sat fishing at the end of the dock on tiny folding chairs. Until the moment I saw them, I hadn't realized how desperately I wanted a chair. While backpacking, there's never a way to sit back. You're either sitting upright without a back (picnic table, ground, log...) or laying down. The chairs made my back ache in sympathy. I vowed to buy one as soon as I was back on the mainland.

Another feature of that evening was the huge family of 9 (or maybe a pair of families traveling together) that had taken over one side of the dock. The kids were noisily cannonballing (I admit that we joined them a few times). The father was sitting, fishing, and smoking out here in the wilderness -- we casually shifted to his upwind side. The mother wove bracelets while loudly complained about just about everything, including the rule that they were blatantly breaking: No groups of 7 or more sharing the same (non-group) campground.

The large, noisy, and smoky group eventually cleared out, leaving a much quieter evening behind  them. As we relaxed, a large and fancy sailboat (under motor power) motored down the cove, circled around at the end of the dock, and headed back up the cove, where it disappeared behind a small point. Soon we heard the putt-putt of a small inflatable launch come from their direction. The older couple in the launch waved at us and then headed straight to the end of the cove, past a pair of buoys clearly labeled "Closed Area". The buoys marked the outlet of a wilderness stream (which emptied from West Chickenbone), where no motorized craft are allowed. The launch poked around, looking for a way up the stream, and soon disappeared into high weed. Once again, I was not impressed by boaters.

As soon as the motor noise died away upstream, a river otter poked its head above the water and started swimming towards us. The dock grew silent as we all watched it swerve, dive, and pop back up far away. It was hunting for food, and eventually it dove and reappeared directly under the dock, where we could hear it splashing about, probably enjoying dinner.

Otter in the water.
With that lovely wildlife sighting, it was time to go to bed. We wandered slowly up to the shelter, pleased with a day well spent. A gigantic full moon rose slowly above the harbor, adding a little more magic to the world. We fell asleep enormously happy.

Next time: Around the point we go!

Miles hiked: 2.0 (dayhike). Total: 10.6 trail + 12.5 dayhike = 23.1 miles.
Moose sighted: 0. Total moose: 2.5.

Only a tiny bit of hiking on the left of the map -- to the Minong Mine and back

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 4: West Chickenbone to McCargoe Cove

Last time: Chippewa Harbor to West Chickenbone, via the blueberry patch

Sunrise on Chickenbone Lake
"It's raining!" Sarah was shaking me awake in the middle of the night. My eyes opened and focused up through the uncovered mesh above the tent, where the sky (which had been so clear and beautiful at bedtime) was now gray and starless. My body snapped into action without asking my brain: I unzipped the tent, jumped out, grabbed the rain fly, tossed it on top of the tent, and started attaching the velcro straps before my brain even started processing actual data.

It was about that time that I realized I wasn't feeling rain. The rain shower had stayed just long enough to wake up Sarah, and stopped right afterwards. Welcome to Isle Royale weather. Luckily, it was the middle of the night and I had hours of sleep left.

I climbed back into the tent (my heart still racing), checked my watch, and... realized it was 5:45, 15 minutes before our intended wake-up time.

We got up (yes, at 5:45 am) and ate breakfast down by the lake, where a dramatic sunrise soon started to unfold. We packed up and were on the trail by 7 am.

Our goal for the day was just a hop, skip, and 2.7 mile jump away: McCargoe Cove. We had heard endless great things about this campground on the north side of the island, and we planned to spend an extra rest day there.

The trail from West Chickenbone led along one arm of the lake. Chickenbone misted gently in the golden sunrise light, far more beautiful than you'd ever guess from its name. The trail itself was quite level and easy, mostly traveling on a very low ridge just above water level. We saw a nearly endless string of moose prints in the mud along the trail, and they were big prints too:

A moose was here
The arm of the lake that we were following soon narrowed and the opposite shore was close enough to see clearly. I glanced through the trees and saw the roots of a fallen tree on the far shore. Then the tree turned its head and looked at me. I froze, brought my camera up and started shooting while attempting to project a whisper at Sarah, who was in the lead: "Moose! Mooooooooose!! Get back here!!!" This time, there's no doubt at all: One full moose, having breakfast in the waters of Chickenbone Lake. Moose count: 2.5!

Sarah made it just in time to catch a glimpse of the moose turning away and calmly walking into the trees.

Here's the moose!
The trail continued to wind through beautiful woods, over tiny ridges, and along pretty streams. Shortly after we crossed a small unbridged stream, we found the metal campground map welcoming us to the McCargoe Cove Campground. It was just after 8 am.

McCargoe Cove is an extremely long and narrow bay of Lake Superior -- several miles long, but only a few hundred feet wide. The campground is located nearly at the farthest inland end of the cove. The campground is especially known because it's one end of the famed Minong Ridge trail -- the roughest and least-maintained trail on the island. One of my goals for this trip was to do a few miles on the trail, just to see what it was like.

The trail led us to the campground's most important point: The community fire ring. Very few Isle Royale campgrounds allow fires of any type, so this was quite special. This one was located in a clearing near the shore. Not far below the ring was the campground's cement dock, which extended out into the exceedingly pretty cove.

At the fire ring, we found a family of 4 (mom, dad, and two energetic kids) sitting at a picnic table. They explained that they had camped in a tent site last night, which was waaaaay up the hill and far away from everything. Hoping to move into a shelter with a view, they had made a deal with the occupants of Shelter #6 and were waiting for them to pack up and leave.

Sarah and I split up to check out the other shelters in the campground. The campground was laid out up a rocky hillside that rose steeply from the cove, which meant that all of the shelters had a fantastic view. But, the layout also involved a seemingly endless number of criss-crossing paths, so I wasn't even sure that I had checked all of the shelters. But, with such an early arrival, every single shelter I found was still full. We sat down at another picnic table and waited. Pretty quickly, groups started to leave, mostly heading back the way we had come. With another round of shelter checks, I discovered that Shelter #4 was open, so I snapped it up immediately.

Shelter #4 was perched on an outcrop of rock high above the cove, of which it had a lovely view. More importantly, it was the 4th shelter or campsite we had stayed at, all of them numbered #4. Many of the shelters are filled with graffiti, often describing the "tour" that the occupants were on: the Soggy Boot tour, The Over The Hill tour, the Ramen tour (those poor folks), and so on. In a moment of inspiration, I christened our visit the Tour de Fours! Try saying it out loud. Sarah gave me that same look, too.

McCargoe Cove Shelter #4, 4th Shelter on the Tour de Fours
It turned out that Shelter #4 was exposed to the sun, which shone directly over its rocky front yard. As the sunny day heated up, so did we. After an early lunch, we marched downhill to the dock to filter water and take a swim. The dock was quiet, except for a mother and her son sitting on the dock. We chatted with them briefly and learned that a pair of loons had been paddling about nearby together with their baby. They were nowhere to be seen at the moment, but we were hopeful. Shortly thereafter we discovered why they were hiding, when the son announced that he was ready to swim, and jumped right off the dock into the lake.

We weren't quite that eager to jump into the lake. I opted for a good long stare at the cool, deep waters of Lake Superior, followed by some psyching up, and finally a gradual slide in from the dock. It was as warm as Lake Superior ever gets -- which is to say, not much -- but refreshing and invigorating.

We spent about 5 minutes playing around in the water and having a lovely time, until it got too cold. After drying off, we headed back to the shelter for a nap. Waking fully refreshed, we decided the best possible way to spend our afternoon was... hiking! We hadn't done nearly enough hiking today (less than 3 miles) and we both felt pretty good after a swim and a nap.

Our target was East Chickenbone campground, via the East Chickenbone trail (the trail is actually unnamed, but pretty much universally called that). Right now the half of my readers who've been to Isle Royale are wondering why did you even think about going to East Chickenbone? and the other half are wondering what the first half mean. Let me explain.

East Chickenbone campground is, as the name implies, at the east end of Chickenbone Lake. While West Chickenbone (where we stayed last night) is a lovely and pleasant place, East Chickenbone has a terrible reputation. We'd heard nothing good about it: It's exposed, it's hot, water is hard to get... nothing is good about it. So, we'd never even considered staying there. But the trail between McCargoe and East Chickenbone does have a good reputation. The East Chickenbone trail runs south from McCargoe Cove to the Greenstone Ridge trail, and is a popular shortcut for hikers heading to or from the Minong Ridge trail. We figured that it was better to hike the trail and see the campground for ourselves, rather than to live our lives wondering. (Admittedly, it wouldn't be that hard to live with the wonder.)

The day was warming up and we knew we'd want to swim after the hike, so we wore swimsuits under our hiking gear to make that easier. We took only a light daypack, but brought extra water to help us on the hot trail.

A gratuitous bonus sunrise photo from West Chickenbone, since I didn't take enough photos today.

The first segment of trail was a short backtrack from the way we'd come this morning. Just a few tenths of a mile outside of McCargoe, we turned onto the East Chickenbone trail. That trail headed steeply headed downhill to a ridiculously picturesque stream (which drains Chickenbone Lake into McCargoe Cove). The trail immediately regained all of the lost elevation, plus plenty more, in the longest and steepest climb we'd made yet on this trip. Even though the long uphill ran through a cool and dark pine forest, we were panting and had to stop several times.

But once we'd topped out, the trail was amazingly level for most of the next 2 miles. The East Chickenbone trail crosses an inland plateau for much of its length. That plateau is quite exposed, open, and grassy. We crossed streams and skirted the edges of beaver ponds, scarfed down wild berries, and sweated.

As we approached the end of the trail -- and East Chickenbone campground -- the trail slowly descended to the level of Chickenbone Lake. We skirted the swampy east end of the lake on a long boardwalk that wound through grasses and brush. After a short uphill, we passed a post labeled "Water" with an arrow towards the lake, down a spur trail.


The trail then took a sudden, sharp, and rocky uphill turn, as we started climbing the steep northwest face of one of Isle Royale's rocky ridges. Part way up the trail sat a lonely backpack, with no backpacker in sight. Near the top, we found a signpost for East Chickenbone Campground, with a dazed-looking hiker standing next to it.

"Dazed-looking" isn't quite strong enough. This hiker appeared, in every way, to be unsuited to his environment. He was dressed in heavy denim jeans and a black Alice Cooper cotton t-shirt, with a heavy knitted cap on his head. He had huge headphones on his head (off the ears) with a long cord snaking into the pants. He stood on the side of the trail, sweaty, sweltering, and gazing unfocused in our general direction.

His first question was "Do you have water?" He was holding an empty 20 oz Pepsi bottle which we filled from our supply. "Is that your only water source?" No, he said, he had another empty pop bottle too -- nowhere near enough water for a day of backpacking on Isle Royale under even ideal circumstances.

He was in good enough condition to explain what was happening. Roughly, the trouble is that he was utterly unprepared for Isle Royale. He had come from Daisy Farm -- 6 long hot miles over the Greenstone, especially on a sunny day while dressed in sweat-drenched clothes. His original plan was to stay at East Chickenbone, but he had decided to push on to McCargoe instead. Half way along the hot and exposed trail, his water had run out, and he decided he couldn't go any further. Turning around back towards East Chickenbone, he started to feel dizzy and "passed out" (literally or figuratively, I don't know) down the hill where his backpack now rested. Then he wandered uphill to where we found him.

We quizzed him enough to make sure that he had a water filter and food. We encouraged him to rest and then go fill up his bottles from the water spur, and for goodness sake stay at East Chickenbone tonight! He agreed, and sat down on a rock.

We looked at each other and shrugged. There wasn't much more we could do now. Instead, we investigated the campground, which fully lived up to its reputation. East Chickenbone campground is on a wide ridge high above the lake. The ridge is mostly grass with a little low scrub and a dash of birch trees. There is essentially no shade, and the campsites are fully exposed to sun, wind, and weather. We wandered into campsite #4, which was empty, and sat down to nibble some gorp and sip the remaining water. On the way out, we passed the lone outhouse, whose door was missing a board. I can only assume someone tore it off to use as firewood.

This fine establishment can only be found at East Chickenbone Campground

We didn't see our mystery hiker anywhere on the way back to McCargoe. We hoofed it back through the baking sun, sweating and dreaming of a dive into Lake Superior. The steep descent, stream crossing, and ascent just outside of McCargoe Cove heated us up even more. We made it in to the campground, dropped the pack at the fire pit, stripped down to our swimsuits, and dove right in.

We discovered very quickly that the water was even colder this afternoon than it was in the morning.

10 seconds later, after climbing out and sprawling on the dock, I took a closer look around. As with many Isle Royale campgrounds, the dock was the social center of the campground. There were campers sitting all along the dock, filtering water, fishing, reading, and chatting with one another. A group of 5 kids, perhaps from two families, were running back and forth, cannonballing into the lake from the end of the dock, and generally having a great time. The family of four who had snapped up shelter #6 this morning was swimming in the shallows. The dock was, overall, a noisy but remarkably pleasant place to sit and dry off.

Dry, tired, and happy, we went up to the shelter for dinner (Backpacker's Pantry Fettucine Alfredo -- another favorite). We headed right back down to the dock to read. In our absence, the gaggle of girls from West Chickenbone had arrived, snagged the last available shelter, and were filtering water while chatting loudly.

Looking out over McCargoe Cove at sunset
The dock grapevine informed us that the northern lights were supposed to be in full swing tonight. With a beautifully clear sky, I knew I had to get up and look for them. Once the sun started to set, we headed back to the shelter. We fell asleep to the distant and haunting calls of the family of loons.

I awoke (yes, to an alarm) at 1 am and looked outside, where the full moon was painting the landscape with a spooky blue tone. If there was any aurora, it was drowned out by the beautiful moon. Back to sleep, but still quite happy.

Next time: Rest day at McCargoe, or, Dave Goes Mining

Miles hiked: 2.7 (trail) + 4.2 (dayhike). Total: 10.6 trail + 10.5 dayhike = 21.1 miles.
Moose sighted: another one! Total moose: 2.5!!

Pink: Backpacking. Purple: East Chickenbone trail dayhike.