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!!


JimLob said...

Great read! Thank you for posting. Anxiously awaiting your next installment,

nailhed said...

i think your moose is peeing in that photo...

and all those various obnoxious fellow campers, UGH

DC said...

Hah! I edited that photo but never noticed that. So I guess we really did scare her...

Obnoxious fellow campers... just keep reading!

Nina said...

I love how you got waylaid by blueberries. I think I fear having a big group camp near me more than death itself. Also, I read this post a few days ago but I can't stop thinking about the guy whose water filter broke, with an 8-year-old and grandpa in tow. I'm losing sleep over this--What did they do for the rest of the trip? I bet he bought a gravity system when he got home.

DC said...

Blueberries are the *best* reason to get waylaid... except maybe thimbleberries.

The big group was a pretty extreme situation, but Isle Royale is just so different (without the centralized campgrounds). In the Porcupine Mountains, we probably wouldn't see another person most days, but on Isle Royale you're almost guaranteed to see other people. I'm pretty much OK with that, but it's different from my "usual" wilderness camping experience.

And yeah, that guy with the broken filter -- no idea. I offered to fill up his water the next day, but he thought he could survive by asking people in other campgrounds. I wouldn't want to be in that situation!