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.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 3: Chippewa Harbor to West Chickenbone

Last time: Ferry to Chippewa Harbor

Sarah on the Indian Portage Trail

I woke up at 6 am and gazed blearily at the wall of rain falling just outside of our shelter. I rolled over and went back to sleep.

At 7:30 am, it was drizzly and grey. We reluctantly got up and not-so-reluctantly ate breakfast -- oatmeal with a huge pile of wild berries that I had picked yesterday. We sat outside in the rain shadow of our shelter's roofline, enjoying the quiet of the cool and misty morning. As we ate, the backpacker who had slept in his tent through the whole downpour stopped by, already suited up and heading out on the trail. He thanked us for the offer to share our shelter. But, he said, he was on a 2-day solo escape from a larger group that he'd been hiking with: "Friends and their kids... I needed some time alone."

After breakfast, we swept out the shelter, put on rain gear, hitched up our packs (with rain covers), and headed out into the wet morning.

Today was one of our few real days of backpacking on this trip. We hiked north on the Indian Portage Trail, the little-used dead-end trail that is the only land route out of Chippewa Harbor. This was one of the reasons we had the Voyageur drop us off here yesterday: We'd have never hiked this trail otherwise. Wet grass and thimbleberry plants encroached on the trail, but it was merely "the road less traveled" and not "the road completely lost to the forest". The trail itself was wet but not muddy.

Less than a mile out of camp, I felt wetness around my toes. It slowly crept along my socks until I was squishing my way along with every step. I mentioned this to Sarah, who had been silently suffering with exactly the same problem. Our boots -- recently re-waterproofed -- were not waterproof at all. There was nothing to do but squish on.

Birches on the Indian Portage Trail
The trail passed through several large swamps and through many low muddy areas, always with boardwalks to keep us clean. We kept sharp eyes out for moose. From the number of fresh moose prints along the trail, it looked like moose used the trail as much as humans did. I had my camera out with my longest zoom lens, lens cap removed, ready to snap a photo as soon as a moose showed it moosey head.

The trail soon began to climb over low ridges, rising slowly above the swampy stream that connects Chippewa Harbor with Lake Richie. At one point, the trail ran along a ridge above a very long swamp. Sarah stopped, peered down at the swamp through the trees and underbrush, and said, sadly, "nothing". I too stopped and peered downward, seeing a huge swath of fantastic moose habitat, but no moose. Sarah had continued on ahead, so I said rather loudly, "Nope, no moose here". My voice startled a moose that had been invisibly feeding directly below me in the swamp. I heard the enormous crashing sound as she (it was a cow) stared running deeper into the swamp. I called Sarah to come and see as I tried to get a good view with my camera. The autofocus had some trouble, but in the end, I got this shot:

One full moose (yes, you can even see some of its head)
We'll call that a 100% confirmed moose. Updated moose tally: 1.5.

The trail continued to climb up, down, and along the rocky ridges that form most of Isle Royale. We were essentially walking across the "grain" of the island, which is made of many long, parallel ridges. We had to pay close attention for cairns that marked the way across the longer ridges. Soon, the trail leveled out and led us into a birch forest with thimbleberries covering much of the understory. I think that this birch forest was the result of the great forest fire of 1936, which burned a significant portion of this part of the island -- and birches, as a pioneer species after fire, took hold first.

Another pioneer species -- blueberries! -- started to show up in the sunnier openings. Our progress slowed to a crawl. The berries were huge and juicy and delicious. Eventually, I sat down in the middle of a berry patch (still wearing my backpack) and just ate whatever I could reach. We became wild blueberry connoisseurs -- this patch away from the rocks is tastier than the ones closer to the rocks, but those over there are juicier.

Blueberries! (and a bonus wild strawberry plant, too)
The blueberries slowed our progress mightily, and it took a good long while before we finally came to our first waypoint, the junction between the Indian Portage and Lake Richie trails. The Lake Richie trail led east, back towards one of my favorite spots on the island: Moskey Basin. We turned west instead and continued on to Lake Richie, which was just a hop, skip, and jump ahead.

We wanted to visit Lake Richie on our last trip. We made it to Moskey Basin, and got pinned down by rain on our rest day. This time there was no avoiding it, as the Indian Portage trail walks right next to Lake Richie on its way to West Chickenbone Lake Campground. We stopped at a rounded outcrop of bare rock right next to the lake, took off our shoes, and set out our socks to dry. The sun shone through gaps in the clouds, and the day was warming up.

Lake Richie
We sat eating lunch (peanut-butter rice cakes and meat sticks) and watched groups of hikers walk past on the way to Moskey Basin. Several looked like boy scouts, and another seemed to be several college couples together. A lone hiker, who introduced himself with a British accent as Dan, came past and talked with us about ducks, loons, and a swan that we could see far out in the lake before he continued on.

After a glorious rest, we put our (moderately dryer) socks and boots back on. The trail continued to follow the edge of the lake for quite a while. We soon came upon a pretty little stream crossing, where we found Dan sitting and eating his lunch. He had two or three heavy field guides sitting next to him, for wildflowers, birds, and who knows what else. We said "hi", and traded some good-natured jokes about extra weight in the pack (he had seen my 3 pounds of camera equipment). Dan regaled us with the names of a dozen or so beautiful wildflowers that had caused him to choose that place for lunch. (It was remarkable to see how many flowers were hiding in plain sight, I will admit.) There was also a pile of clam shells sitting on a sandbar nearby, apparently a river otter's favorite place to sneak a snack.

We said goodbye and headed onwards. Before Lake Ritchie, the Indian Portage trail's trend was gently upwards, but with many ups and downs over the unavoidable ridges. We now started to hit the rocky backbone of the island, where the biggest ridges pushed us upward more and more. We traveled through forested uphills, grassy openings on tops of ridges, and slippery downhills on the far sides. Our soaked boots had trouble keeping a grip on the rock, and Sarah slipped a few times on the downhills.

Sarah above Lake Richie
We passed several canoe portage trails for Lake Richie, Lake Le Sage, and eventually Lake Livermore -- all hiding just out of sight. We passed over pretty streams draining several of the lakes.

We pushed onwards up a particularly large ridge. As we paused to breathe at the top, I realized that this was most likely the Greenstone Ridge -- the real backbone of the island. The downhill afterward confirmed that we were definitely on a big ridge. Shortly afterwards, we came to a major trail intersection with none other than the Greenstone Ridge trail (which actually runs slightly away from the Greenstone Ridge in this area). We forged onward and, after another steep downhill, came to a metal campground map welcoming us to West Chickenbone Lake Campground. There was a teenage boy laying on the ground with a variety of found items -- leaves, twigs, scraps of fabric -- twiddling with them idly. He paid us no attention.

The Greenstone Ridge -- probably.
We were arriving mid-afternoon and were worried that the campground might be filled already. West Chickenbone doesn't have shelters, and we weren't particularly hot on sharing a tent site. So, we marched downhill quickly to the shore of the lake, past the group tent sites. The first regular tent site we found, #6, was miraculously empty! The site contained a flannel shirt, a folded tarp, and mismatched socks drying on a rock, but nothing else -- no tent, and nobody in sight. The site was right on the lake, but also very exposed and warm in the afternoon sun. We decided that Sarah would hold down the fort while I looked for a better site.

I dropped my pack and almost ran down the trail. It turns out that we needn't have worried -- of the 6 tent sites, only one (#1) was taken. We were nearly the first people here! I mulled over the other sites and eventually selected #4, a beautiful site which was close to the lake but nicely shaded. Many of the others were far back in the woods away from the lake.

We moved our packs and started to set up camp. This would be our only night of camping without a shelter, so the first thing we set up was the tent. The second priority was to unlace our wet boots, open them wide, and set them out to dry in the sun -- and put up a clothesline for our soggy socks. We filtered water from the lake, which was just a few feet from our tent.

With the basics taken care of, we put on swim trunks and ran into the lake. It felt absolutely fantastic. Nothing feels better than a swim after three days without a shower. Chickenbone Lake is a large and accurately named lake, with West Chickenbone Campground located near the outside edge of its bend. The water was nicely chilly. The lake's bottom was studded with medium-sized rocks and mud, but it dropped off quickly.

View from West Chickenbone Tent Site #4

As we floated, gazing up at the sun, we heard a "hullo there!" from down the shore. The British-accented voice was unmistakeable: it was Dan, recently arrived and enjoying a bath of his own.

After an enjoyable and lazy float around the front of our campsite, we took on another camp chore: washing clothes. We did the laundry in the old-fashioned way, with a bucket of lake water, a few drops of biodegradable detergent, and a whole lot of elbow grease. It barely made any difference in cleanliness, but it made us feel better about our clothes -- so who's to argue? That warmed me up again, so I took another dive in the lake to cool off. What a fantastic thing, to have the lake right there next to the campsite!

As the afternoon passed, the campsites started to fill up with other hikers. A father, his 8 year old daughter, and her older grandfather (all visiting from Kansas) arrived at the end of a long hike, making us (once again) feel far less badass about our lazy itinerary. A large group of boys moved in to one of the group sites. Dan wandered down to chat about hiking and the local wildlife. Our campsite was home to a rather large number of garter snakes, who sunned themselves on every sunny rock and log. Farther out in the lake, we saw a family of swans (two parents and three young) touring their domain. We discovered that Dan (who was visiting Isle Royale for the first time) had not yet taken a swim in Lake Superior. We made him promise to take a dip in the Big Lake at the first opportunity.

After a dinner of freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff (nothing special, but good enough at the end of a long day of hiking) and dessert (a few M&M's from our gorp bags), we were ready for rest. We climbed into the tent to read for a while. The weather was gorgeous, with not a cloud in the sky, so we left the rain fly off the tent. As the sky darkened, I laid back on my sleeping bag and watched the stars slowly appear overhead. The world was tranquil and beautiful.

West Chickenbone Tent Site #4
About then, a group of 6 energetic, enthusiastic, and loud teenage girls tramped down the trail and took Site #3, conveniently located the woods just behind our site. The set up tents and started cooking in the loudest possible way, all the while discussing their trip so far. It was hard not to hear the details, which were pretty fascinating: They were 6 high-schoolers on a 2 week, 100 mile hike as part of some sort of outdoor adventure group. They were on their 10th day of a 14 day trip which involved hiking from Rock Harbor to Windigo and back again, with no resupply stops. They had hiked both the Greenstone Ridge trail (the showpiece hike of Isle Royle) and the Minong Ridge trail (legendary for its unmaintained roughness) along the way. Right now, they were on their final stretch, back towards Rock Harbor.

There were at least two other groups from their program also on the island. By park rules, large groups like theirs had to split up into smaller groups of at most 6, and those groups can never stay in the same campground on the same night -- so they had to plan out their next few days carefully, so as to avoid the two other groups. (Actually, they could have hiked in groups of up to 10 -- but groups of 7 - 10 must use the designated group camp sites, which are usually in unpleasant locations and don't exist at all in many campgrounds.) There was some anxiety about the fact that one of these groups of boys was in a group site at this very campground -- they had bailed unexpectedly on a longer hike, and the two groups accidentally ended up in the same place. Now that they were near the end of the trip, all of the groups were starting to converge on Rock Harbor.

After 10 days on the trail, they were clearly battle-hardened. From what we could hear, their daily routine of hiking 15 miles, setting up camp and cooking for half a dozen hungry teenagers was something they'd gotten down to an art. But they were also high-schoolers, with all of the drama and adolescent angst that comes with the territory. They debated at length the options for the next day, many of which had to be rejected because another group would be there. Various members of the group proposed good options, but were rejected either because they were too long (some members of the group were hurting after 10 days on the trail), and others because they were too short (leaving them short of the 100 mile goal). Some wanted to see Lane Cove, others Chippewa Harbor. There were raised voices, crying, and elaborate making-up.

We held our breaths as they came to the big conclusion: Through a clever maneuver, they could both avoid the other groups and make their 100 mile goal. Tomorrow they would head 3 miles north to McCargoe Cove and rest. That would then let them recuperate, then start their trip back the next day and make their 100 mile goal. Yes, McCargoe Cove... where we were also heading tomorrow.

Slightly overgrown trail, with thimbleberry plants
Part of the fun of Isle Royale is getting to know other people. I've already mentioned Bob, Dan, and the many unnamed people we met or camped with, and there are plenty more to come. Isle Royale's system of centralized campgrounds forces backpackers together, unlike many other backpacking areas with individual camp sites. It's something I enjoy, and I'm surprised that I enjoy it -- as a natural introvert who likes getting away from the world. That said, I did not look forward to having to share a campground with this obnoxiously loud (and drama prone) group again, no matter how awesome they were otherwise. On the upside, I was pretty sure we would be up and moving long before them tomorrow.

I laid back and started to fall asleep, when another noise brought me back to reality: It was the father from Kansas, tentatively asking for our help. He explained that the handle on their water filter had just broken -- could we share some clean water with them?

I crawled out of the tent and grabbed our clean water bag, which was hanging from a tree branch. Our gravity filter system was so easy that filtering water was almost (almost) fun, and I tried to convince him that it wasn't even an inconvenience to fill up his bottles. We chatted about his hikes with his daughter -- at age 8, she was far more accomplished than Sarah or I will ever be -- and how they were taking it slow and enjoying the scenery with grandpa in tow. I gave them enough water to last the night, and told him to come back in the morning for more.

At that point, he tried to shove a $20 bill into my hand (my first reaction: You carried a $20 bill out here?!). I tried to convince him that payment was nonsense. Any backpacker would help anyone else in a similar situation in the backcountry. It was common sense to help others when they need it, since you can be certain you'll need help some time too. We went back and forth a few more times than I felt comfortable, but I finally convinced him to pay it forward sometime in the future. He left with profuse thanks.

I crawled back into our tent. The night was thoroughly dark, and we could see stars clearly through the mesh. The teenage hikers had finally said their goodnights (each one to each other one -- 30 goodnights in all). The world was again tranquil and beautiful. It was a perfect night.

Next time: McCargoe and Moose!

Miles hiked: 7.9 (trail). Total: 7.9 trail + 6.3 dayhike = 14.2 miles.
Moose sighted: 1!! Total moose: 1.5!!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 2: Ferry to Chippewa Harbor

Last time: Rock Harbor, the Stoll Trail, and Half of a Moose

The Voyageur II in Rock Harbor
The Clark contingent was up and moving by 6 am eastern time. Not that there was any urgency -- the Voyageur II ferry didn't leave until 8 am. But, you never know when moose might show up around Rock Harbor! It's counterintuitive, but many moose like Rock Harbor despite the heavy human presence -- because wolves avoid the human-infested area.

We had our usual breakfast of instant oatmeal, packed up and walked down to the harbor, which was misty in the cool morning air. Despite all of our best intentions, we saw nary a moose. We did see quite a few other Voyageur passengers sitting around, and we were soon chatting with them about their itineraries. Especially awe-inspiring were two college-aged girls on their way back to Minnesota, who had hiked from Windigo to Rock Harbor via the Minong and Greenstone Ridge trails in just 4 days -- an average of 15+ miles per day on seriously difficult trails. They were Serious Hikers. (Edit, a year later: Check out Christine's comment below. One of the "college-aged girls" found my blog!)

Another big topic of conversation was the day's weather: There was a gale warning for Lake Superior today, and the wind was already starting to blow up. The crew of the Voyageur soon appeared and made it clear that they wanted to move and move fast to avoid the upcoming gale. The captain did a roll call and found that only three passengers were missing. At about 7:30 (30 minutes before our scheduled departure), clearly a bit agitated at just three people keeping him from getting a jump on the weather, the captain motioned to the crowd: "Cover your ears!" He blew the Voyageur's horn, which sounded (and felt) like a train, but no new passengers appeared. By the way, the Voyageur's departure was 8 am central time: to make things extra exciting, the Voyageur runs on central time, while all of the other ferries (and the park itself) run on eastern.

The Voyageur II's wake in Rock Harbor
By a quarter to 8, our packs were loaded and we had boarded. The engines came to life, and slowly, surely, and surprisingly, we backed into the harbor. We continued backing, backing, backing, ... and then suddenly we started going forward, right back to the dock. We could see three agitated hikers standing on the dock. At the dock, they boarded fast, and we backed out again without barely even stopping. It still wasn't 8 am.

The captain opened up the throttle as soon as we were away from the dock, and we sped down Rock Harbor. I geeked out with my camera, taking in the lake and shoreline from a view point I'd never before seen. We passed the National Park's headquarters on Mott Island, then chugged past the Rock Harbor lighthouse and the old Edisen Fishery, where the Petersons live. At Daisy Farm, 7 miles down Rock Harbor, two kayakers boarded (with their boats) and shared a cup full of wild blueberries with everyone in sight.

Islets protecting Rock Harbor from Lake Superior, under a stormy sky

We soon rounded Saginaw Point and passed through the thin line of barrier islands and out into Lake Superior proper. I spent my time at the boat's stern, chatting with other passengers and taking a few zillion photographs. To see Isle Royale from the trails is quite an experience -- to see it from the water is completely different. The shoreline is unbelievable rugged and rocky. Dense vegetation clings to even the thinnest bit of soil. There's no development, no clearings, nothing but nature. The few hints of human impact on the island that we could see from the water were so small, and hugged the shore so tenuously, that they reinforced the feeling that we were solidly in Nature's domain now. Here's an example, taken part way around Saginaw point:

Epidote Mine adit

See that tiny hole in the rock? That's an adit -- a horizontal mine opening -- probably from the Epidote Mine, a very short-lived and unsuccessful copper mining venture that probably existed some time between 1843 and 1855. Undoubtedly there was once a small clearing with cabins for the miners, but absolutely nothing remains visible. Try to imagine what it must have been like to drill that opening while dodging Lake Superior's waves.

After an hour or so, the rocky shore built to a series of high cliffs, and the Voyageur started to turn directly into them. Chippewa Harbor appeared as a crack in the cliffs, surrounded by rocks rising 100 or more feet above us. The boat slowed considerably as we passed through the narrow gates of the harbor. We began to zig-zag, dodging reefs and rocky islets. I looked down into the clear, dark blue-green water and saw barely submerged rocks just feet from the side of the boat.

Wall-o-rocks at the entrance to Chippewa Harbor

By the time we reached the Chippewa Harbor dock, it felt like we were in a new and fully isolated world, surrounded by high rocks. Sarah and I hopped off the boat, a crewman tossed us our packs, and the Voyageur carefully reversed and was gone. We were alone in the wilderness.

Well, not quite. For one thing, we were standing on a cement dock with several boats tied up at it. For another, the owners of those boats were (apparently) massive slobs. A large rubbermaid container sat uncovered on the dock, overflowing with greasy pans, unwashed pots, and dirty utensils. Stoves, furniture, and miscellaneous camp debris sat on a nearby picnic table and the ground. We were amazed that a camp fox wasn't yet rooting around in the mess as we looked on. There was nobody in sight. What a strange welcome to the campground.

This was the end of the road for us today: We planned to stay tonight right here at the campground, and start our real hiking adventure tomorrow. So, we headed inland to claim a shelter. The shelters at Chippewa Harbor are located on top of a rocky bluff that climbs up from the dock area. Shelters #1 and #2 both had great views, and were also both filled with clothes, foldable cots, and miscellaneous gear, and had unwashed bowls or other crap sitting outside. Neither had a travel itinerary clipped to the door, which is required for anyone who claims a shelter. Shelters #3 and #4, lower on the bluff, were open and I quickly clipped our itinerary onto #4, which was the best shaded and least exposed of all.

Shelter #4, Chippewa Harbor Campground

After we settled in, we took care of some camp chores. One of these was to filter water, which I did with our newest piece of gear: A Platypus Gravity Works water filter. I collected water from the harbor in the "dirty water" bag, hooked up some tubes, and hung the bag from the side of the shelter. In no time (and no effort!) flat, we had a "clean water" bag filled with 4 liters of delicious Lake Superior water -- with no hand cramps from pumping. What luxury!

Lunch was peanut butter on rice cakes, with landjaeger (dried meat sticks). We've tried many different butchers for our camping meat sticks, but this year's winner -- and probably now the all-time winner -- is Bob's Butcher Block of Jenison, Michigan. Their landjaeger truly lasted all week without refrigeration, and it tasted great too. It was easily the high point (food wise) of many of our days.

With chores and lunch taken care of, it was time to explore! One of my goals for our visit at Chippewa Harbor was to find the "old schoolhouse". Chippewa Harbor had been the site of a fisherman's camp for many years. Fisherman Holger Johnson, whose family included 5 kids, was influential enough to convince the Keweenaw County School Board to send them a teacher for one winter, 1932 -- 33. That teacher (Dorothy Simonson) wrote a diary during her winter of isolation on Isle Royale. Her son published the diary, which I'd been reading in bits and pieces at our local library (which has two copies of the diary, neither of which can be taken out from the local history room). Mrs. Simonson taught in a one room schoolhouse which was also used as one of the fishermen's cabins before and after its schoolhouse days. Rumor had it that the schoolhouse was still standing somewhere around here.

With no particular sense of where the schoolhouse was, other than "uphill" and "probably south of the shelters" (since the campground was bordered on the north by a large swamp), Sarah and I headed out on a likely-looking path. That path first led us to the outhouse -- ok, good to know -- and then through two tent sites and a group camping site. The trail continued faintly and opened onto a broad grassy hillside. It split in two, so I took the upper branch. Then followed a long uphill scramble, over rocky outcrops, through giant patches of juniper, under low-hanging conifers, and always steeply upward. I always expected to see the schoolhouse hiding around the next bend, but it was never there -- but wow, what scenery we did find! We eventually popped out in a large clearing at the very top of the rocky bluffs above Chippewa Harbor. The windswept clearing had a spectacular view of the harbor, Lake Superior, and several inland lakes. We caught our breaths and took it all in, awe-struck at the panoramic view we had stumbled upon. Hills receded inland into the distance, ridges climbing on ridges up to the great (but very distant) Greenstone. The curve of Lake Superior's shore headed north and south, meeting where the sheer cliffs on the opposite side of the Harbor rose straight out of the water. Farther inland, Chippewa Harbor itself made a sharp turn west where it headed through another narrow gateway of rocks before opening up and heading towards Lake Whittlesey. Far below, a sailboat (ant-sized at this distance) tacked around the deep interior of the Harbor. But -- still -- no schoolhouse.

Old Schoolhouse with Thimbleberries
After we caught our breath and ate a handful of wild blueberries (which apparently like growing in such an exposed location), we headed slowly back downhill. All the way back at the first grassy clearing near the campsites, we came upon the first branch in the path. I'd already written it off -- it appeared to head straight towards the water. Having failed with the first brach, "what the heck", I said -- let's try it. This lower path quickly became choked with tall and dense brush. I pushed forward, came around a corner, and -- victory! There was the old schoolhouse, right at the waterline. Go figure.

The schoolhouse was a traditional log cabin with a small, sagging porch. The door was still attached, so I pulled it open. The interior was mostly empty, with a few old school desks and a variety of artifacts -- read: junk -- that were probably found nearby. We marveled at how intact the building was (including the glass windows), until I noticed a small plaque mounted in the back of the building. It had been restored by descendants of the original fishermen in 2005. My thinking changed to: "Wow, 12 years of Isle Royale winters have really worn this place down!"

Schoolhouse interior
There were undoubtedly remnants of other old buildings, but the incredibly dense underbrush left little for us to do but to head back to the shelter. Still feeling energetic, we packed up a day pack and headed out on the trail again, this time in the opposite direction. The main trail heading north out of the Chippewa Harbor campground -- the "Indian Portage Trail" -- was the one we would take tomorrow. Just a quarter of a mile down this trail was a spur to Lake Mason, one of the inland lakes we saw from the high bluff (the other was Lake Theresa).

Near the spur, we met a solo hiker heading towards Chippewa Harbor. He greeted us with "This is certainly the road less traveled, isn't it?" He then told us that he was just day hiking from Moskey Basin -- a roughly 13 mile round-trip -- and that the trail we would be following tomorrow was relatively easy, but fairly dense with underbrush. Given that the Indian Portage trail is essentially a dead end at Chippewa Harbor, this wasn't too surprising -- the trail was not a part of any loop.

Wildflowers at Lake Mason

Saying goodbye, we headed down the spur to Lake Mason. After another short hike, we popped out into another grassy clearing. Beneath this clearing was one of Isle Royale's many basalt ridges, which lead downhill and plunged directly beneath the surface of Lake Mason. We sat down on the bare, rocky shore, and looked out. The lake was long and narrow, and we were at one of the narrow ends, which gradually disappeared into a swamp. It looked like a great place to see moose at the right time of day, but not now. The sky was grey and the wind was gusty, blowing ripples across the surface of the lake. Wildflowers clung to cracks in the rock, while on the opposite shore trees came all the way down to the surface of the water. It was a wonderful, remote, and quiet place.

Eventually, with a feeling of inner peace and equilibrium, we got up and headed back to Chippewa Harbor. There we sat on the rocks above the harbor, where we opened up the trail map and discussed our route for tomorrow. Then we sat back to read for a while, before Sarah declared that she was tired and needed a nap.

Rather than napping, I headed back up the hill to the overlook we had accidentally found while searching for the schoolhouse. I took a cup and started collecting berries along the way -- a few early thimbleberries and raspberries near the campground, but many more blueberries on the way up the hill. In the hour or so that I poked around the top of the bluff, I found gorgeous overlooks, a moose bed, and enough blueberries to fill my cup before I headed back down.

Distant entrance to Chippewa Harbor from the top of the hill

When I returned to the shelter, I found the campground in an uproar. The boaters had returned, bringing a swarm of young children with them. Sarah had been awakened by the kids, who spent the first 5 minutes off the boat howling loudly like wolves. The parents weren't much better -- I could hear them yelling loudly to each other between their three (!) identical boats at the dock and the shelters. We had encountered boaters before (at Daisy Farm last year, and always at Rock Harbor) -- but never quite like this.

During the afternoon, others started to join us in the campground as well. A pair of kayakers from Indiana took the last shelter, #3, next to us. They had come down Chippewa Harbor from a longer trip on the inland lakes. They were quite pleasant and good neighbors. A solo backpacker came down the Indian Portage trail. He headed directly to pitch his tent and take a nap. A group of canoeists arrived, having rowed all the way from Rock Harbor in a long and exhausting trip around an exposed part of the Isle Royale shore. They found all of the shelters filled, so we offered to share with them. Luckily, some of the boaters overheard them and (miracle of miracles!) agreed to compact their stuff into just one shelter, making room for the worn-out canoeists.

As evening started to settle in, we made dinner.  Mountain House freeze-dried chicken and dumplings. This is possibly our favorite freeze-dried meal ever. We made the decision to eat our best freeze-dried dinners on our lowest work days, so that we would be sure to enjoy them. We knew from experience that on the days with long and exhausting hikes, we couldn't care less about how good the meals tasted.

A light rain final started as we cooked dinner -- it had been threatening all day -- so I ran off quickly to find the backpacker, who was still asleep in his tent. I accidentally woke him up by yelling that he could join us in our shelter if he wanted to. He didn't.

The rain strengthened as the thick clouds blotted out any sunset there might have been, making for a long grey evening. We went to bed listening to the sound of the rain on the shelter's roof, and slept like babies.

Next time: Blueberries! So many blueberries! Oh, and backpacking, too.

Miles hiked: 2 (dayhikes). Total miles: 6.3 (dayhike)
Moose sighted: 0. Total moose: Still just a half.

Pink: Voyageur II water route. Teeny-tiny purple: Day hikes.