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.


JimLob said...

Really enjoying your blogs and am anxiously awaiting your next entry! I have read through your prior blogs about your hiking trips in the Porkies and your previous trip to Isle Royale. My youngest son is starting his senior year and for his senior trip wants me to hike Isle Royale with him. This would be my first extensive hiking trip and I am almost 52! Have learned alot from your blog and from Jacob Emerick. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us.

DC said...

JimLob -- do it! You'll love it. Glad to help. :)

JimLob said...

We plan on making the trip this upcoming August. I am currently researching, buying and trying out equipment and have started some 'training' hikes. I am looking forward to making the trip.

DC said...

Sounds good. My best training advice for Isle Royale is: Walk up some stairs, then back down them, over and over. Like, more than you can possibly imagine. Enjoy!

nailhed said...

Oh wow, i never knew that Epidote adit was literally right in the shoreline haha. Maybe thats why this is the only photo i've ever seen of it lol.

DC said...

Well, to be honest I'm *pretty sure* that's the Epidote adit. Its location is right, and I mean, look at it... that can't be natural! But I didn't visit it up close and personal. (Boy, I wish I could!)

Unknown said...

So...this is totally random, but I'm reading this blog post and get to the part about the "college age girls" who hiked from Windigo to Rock Harbor, and I'm like "I did the same thing last summer!" and then when I got to the part about the boat leaving those three guys and then turning around to go get them, I realized I was on the same boat as you, and you were talking about me and my friend, the "college age girls". Haha, we actually are both 27. That hike was a hell of a workout and a trip I'll never forget!

DC said...

@Christine -- oh my! I definitely remember thinking "Wow, what a great way to end summer vacation" too. Congrats on quite an accomplishment! (Sorry for the delay, no clue how I missed your comment.)