Sunday, August 27, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 1: Rock Harbor and the Stoll Trail

Last time: The Saga Begins

Scoville Point

We woke up to find ourselves in the 1950's, then realized it was just the King Copper motel. After quick showers, we left our key in the room, thus ending another stay at the King Copper without every meeting an employee.

We arrived next door at the Isle Royale Queen IV dock a bit later than we had intended, and there was already a large crowd assembled. I ran inside the Queen's headquarters building to get our boarding passes. As I waited in line, I heard, in turn, each of the three people ahead of me ask astonishing questions. The first asked if there were campgrounds on the island. Another asked if they needed a map. The third asked the attendant which she recommended: map or guidebook? I can only assume that all three people were staying at the lodge -- but I can't even begin to imagine going somewhere as remote as Isle Royale without owning a map and reading a guidebook. As it turns out, my faith in humanity was a bit misplaced. (The headquarters was well equipped to sell both, and I can only assume they do a rollicking good business.)

Back at the dock, I double-checked the return date on our boarding pass and sealed the return pass in a plastic baggie which was then zipped in a secure pocket of my pack. It was our only guarantee of a way off the island in 7 days -- I had to handle it carefully!

We were greeted by Captain Ben Kilpela, one of the three Kilpela brothers who run the Queen. His brother Captain Don (who impressed us last year with feats of back strength) stood nearby, leaning on a walker and looking more than a little depressed. After the usual exhortations about holding on to something at all times and not doing stupid things in the middle of Lake Superior, we boarded. The crossing was fairly smooth but the breeze was brisk, so we stayed inside the boat.

One of the unexpectedly enjoyable parts of traveling on the Queen is meeting the other passengers. Seats on the Queen are in the style of 4-person restaurant booths, and with our full ship Sarah and I ended up crammed in with various strangers. We first met Bob from Ohio, a solo traveler visiting Isle Royale for the first time. Bob had tried to visit the island two years before, when the Queen ran aground during a sunset cruise -- putting it out of commission for two weeks, and ending Bob's vacation plans. Needless to say, he was both anxious and excited for his second attempt.

As we approached the island, the breeze died down enough for us to visit the bow of the boat. We sat in the sun and chatted with groups of fishermen, kayakers, backpackers, and lodge visitors. We watched the island grow larger and larger in front of us as the excitement level around us grew almost audible.

Wildflowers of Rock Harbor: Fireweed and Hawkweed

After we had docked and disembarked, we were divided into two groups for orientation: backpackers and lodge visitors. We stood in a large circle around Ranger Kelly, who stepped us through the 7 Leave No Trace principles (including #1, "Plan ahead and prepare", which it was a bit late for some of the audience to learn about). There are always some Isle Royale-specific surprises in this orientation, including the fact that the National Park recommends against hanging a bear bag. Not only are there no bears, but there are few trees with branches strong enough to support a bag. Instead, the park recommends that all food be double-bagged, stashed in your pack, and stored in the vestibule of your tent.

Having learned from last year, we sneakily stood at the outside edge of the circle on the side nearest to the visitor center. As soon as Ranger Kelly finished her orientation, I power-walked to the visitor center and managed to be only the second person in line to obtain our camping permits. Every backpacking party has to provide an itinerary to one of the rangers in the visitor center and receive a permit in return. Our position in this bottleneck could make the difference between getting moving promptly, and being stuck for an hour or more behind unprepared backpackers pondering the possibilities ("So how far away is 3 Mile Campground, again?"). I recited our itinerary promptly ("Rock Harbor, Chippewa Harbor, West Chickenbone, McCargoe, McCargoe, Rock Harbor") and received my permit with an admonition to keep it attached to my backpack, tent, or shelter at all times.

Our plan called for us to stay in Rock Harbor Campground tonight, and catch a ferry to our real starting point tomorrow, so there wasn't any actual rush to get out on the trail. Nonetheless, my itinerary shenanigans were for a good reason. As soon as I had the permit in my hands, I power-walked up the hill to the Rock Harbor campground and snapped the permit onto the first unoccupied shelter I could find: Shelter #4. Rock Harbor, like many campgrounds at Isle Royale, has Adirondack-style wooden shelters with slanted roofs and screened fronts, as well as picnic tables. Getting a shelter is well worth the effort. The payoff comes in protection from weather and ease of relaxation.

Shelter #4 faced a dense thicket of trees, thimbleberries, and rocks on a steep downhill slope. The thimbleberry thickets provided a nice privacy screen around the sides, and there was even a distant view of Rock Harbor itself below.

After setting up some basics in our shelter, we headed out to explore Rock Harbor. During last year's trip, we had very little time in Rock Harbor, much of which involved sitting in a tent during a rainstorm.

CCC/WPA monument

Our goal was the Stoll trail, which begins near the Rock Harbor Lodge. We immediately took a wrong turn and ended up on a short trail to the America dock, a rebuilt historical dock where the steamship America once docked. Along the way, hidden in the forest, I came across a shrine-like display about the three CCC/WPA camps that once called Isle Royale home (now that's an isolated job!).

We backtracked and found the right way to the Stoll trail. The trail is a lovely 4-ish mile day hike that loops out to the end of Scoville Point, a long, thin, rocky finger of land extending into Lake Superior east from Rock Harbor. The trail showcases the variety of the island's landscapes and ecosystems as it passes through a variety of forests, swamps, and rocky outcrops.

Our progress slowed dramatically as soon as I saw the first wild strawberry, hiding under its leaves in a swampy section. Then the blueberries showed up at the next sunny rock outcrop, surrounded by junipers. Delicious! We spent time at a bench overlooking Lake Superior, where we again ran into Bob. He was practically glowing and couldn't stop telling us about how astonishingly beautiful the island was. I smiled -- I know the feeling.

We passed a surprising variety of landscapes: A cobble beach; a hidden island that was nearly surrounded by a bay of high rocks, making a virtual moat; a grassy hillside. We took our time and explored them all, sitting on rocks or benches and soaking up the sun.

Island surrounded by a moat along the Stoll Trail

Soon, the trail sent us scrambling up a steep ridge. Halfway up, I saw a woman gesturing wildly but silently at me. It was easy enough to read the sign language: Shhhh! There's a Moose! We crept up slowly, trying to stay silent on the gravelly path. By the time my head was above the top of the ridge, I could see about a dozen people standing silently at the top of the ridge, staring down into the swamp below it. We made it up just in time to see a patch of brownish fur turn and disappear deeper into the trees. The woman I first saw showed us her photos: A bull moose had been hanging out in the swamp just minutes before. We decided to count our sighting as half of a moose.

After the moose detour, we soon arrived at the very end of Scoville point, which was mostly bare of large trees and offered a fantastic panorama of Lake Superior and Isle Royale's outlying islands. Across a small bay we could see the Artist in Residence cabin. The cabin is a former summer home from the island's resort days, also named the Dassler Cabin after its former owners. I immediately began daydreaming of living for two weeks at (what seemed like) the very end of the earth. Isle Royale may be isolated, but the island's system of dedicated campgrounds brings backpackers into contact with each other more than you would expect. The Artist in Residence cabin, however, would not suffer from that problem.

Wood Lily along the Stoll Trail

We met Bob here again, still singing the praises of the island. As we chatted with him, the Voyageur II steamed past, rounding the end of the "Five Finger" region of the island and headed for Rock Harbor. We waved. The Voyageur is a ferry from Minnesota which also also acts like the island's bus: dropping off and picking up hikers from various points around the island. It would spend the night at Rock Harbor, and we would board it tomorrow to get to our real starting point.

I could have spent all day and all night sitting silently on the point, but my stomach wouldn't have been very happy about that. So, hungry and a bit tired, we started back. The trail followed along the Tobin Harbor side of Scoville Point, and was remarkably different from the way out -- flat and surrounded by conifers. Along the way, we met a teenage girl who had been traveling alone on the Queen. She had told us that she was meeting her parents, who were "already on the island". She was now accompanied by her father -- a park ranger! We spent much of the rest of the hike pondering what it would be like to grow up spending summers on Isle Royale.

A flat, easy return trip.

We cooked a freeze dried meal in our shelter. We had brought along some tried-and-true freeze dried meals, plus a few wildcards. Tonight, we tried a wildcard: AlpineAire Cheesy Enchilada Ranchero, a grand name for a pretty basic mix of veggies and "tortilla chips" (which did not survive the rehydration process in anything like tortilla form). It wasn't bad. It wasn't good. It was freeze dried dinner.

To make up for the meh dinner, we walked down to the camp store and bought ice cream drumsticks for $1 each. I never cease to be amazed at the store's prices: They could easily charge returning backpackers truly exorbitant rates, but for some reason they price their junk food like it's 1999.

Our last stop of the day was yet another new experience: A ranger presentation! Each evening in Rock Harbor, a ranger presents about some aspect of the island and life on it. Tonight's presentation was by Ranger Chris: "Isle Royale Basics". "Basics", it turns out, meant "Utilities". Ranger Chris turned out to be an engaging presenter who made the story of how the national park purifies its drinking water, disposes of its sewage, and generates its electricity into a funny and fascinating presentation. We learned that (as of very few years ago) the park is powered almost entirely by a field of solar panels -- which are essentially invisible to visitors.

The auditorium was well filled with visitors, mostly from the lodge, who kept Ranger Chris busy with questions. By far the most common were about the wolves: "How many wolves are there?" "Has the park decided what to do about the wolves yet?" "Can we still make comments about the wolf plan?" Ranger Chris replied with practiced but noncommittal ease -- over the next week, we would notice that all rangers had well-practiced replies to the wolf questions. As of 2017, there are only two wolves left on the island, and they are so heavily inbred that they can't breed -- meaning that there's almost nothing keeping the moose (and beaver) populations in check, and not much hope of that situation changing on its own. The National Park Service is still considering a final proposal to introduce new wolves to the island, in order to save vegetation and maintain some level of predator-prey relationships.

After the questions were over, we read in our shelter for a few minutes before heading to bed. The sun hadn't even set yet -- "early to bed, early to rise gives the Clarks chances to see moose eyes".

Next time: Chippewa Harbor and the Bother With Boaters

Miles hiked: 4.3 (dayhike)
Moose sighted: 0.5


Mom said...

Interesting reading, Dave. You make us feel like we are there with you.

Jacob Emerick said...

Moose sighted: 0.5 :lol:

Great pictures, as always, sir.