Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 6: Ferry to Rock Harbor

Last time: Dave goes mining on the Minong

Sunrise over McCargoe Cove
I woke up to a brilliant flash. A few seconds later, thunder rolled across the hillside and crashed all around our shelter.

Sarah and I both lay awake, listening to the rush of wind and roar of thunder coming closer and closer. A single extremely dark cloud blacked out the bright morning sky. A tiny spatter of rain fell, and then the cloud slowly slid by to the east.

Thus began our last full day on Isle Royale. We woke up in McCargoe Cove, which had quickly become one of our favorite spots on the island. Today was to be both exciting and sad: In the early afternoon, we would take the Voyageur II on its way around the wild eastern end of Isle Royale -- new territory for us -- but then we would be back at Rock Harbor, ready to catch the Queen IV back to the mainland tomorrow. Our beautiful and relaxing trip was coming to an end.

The morning was cool and misty, so we dressed in our warmest clothes and walked down to the dock to look for moose. It was the first time I'd seen the dock silent and empty. We could still see the lone thundercloud skimming away into the distance, but the morning it left behind was nothing short of gorgeous. The water in McCargoe Cove was unnaturally calm, and the sky was streaked with sunrise on the high clouds. There was, however, not a single moose to be seen.

The Lovely Sarah searching for moose

It was about this time that I discovered that yesterday's bonanza of long-exposure Minong Mine photos had killed my camera battery. Very shortly, the battery died once and for all. For the rest of the trip, I used Sarah's pocket camera -- but you'll see that I didn't take many photos at all.

After enjoying the morning, we less-than-enjoyed our usual breakfast. After five straight days of oatmeal, even a handful of wild raspberries couldn't make it taste good. We packed our bags, swept out shelter #4, and headed back down to the dock. The campground had been completely full for the last two nights, and we assumed that other hikers would be coming in and looking for space. We didn't need the shelter any more, so we might as well make room for those who did need it.

Down at the dock, we were soon joined by the giant group of parents and kids. They were also heading to Rock Harbor on the Voyageur. Their party was reduced by 2 -- the backpacker from our first night at Chippewa Harbor, plus another, had headed out on foot the previous day (I guess they needed a little more quiet time).

The Ann Arbor crew had been up at first light, like the good farmers they were, and were already out on the trail. The large group of teenage girls had left the day before. Various others headed out on the Minong Ridge or towards Chickenbone Lake as we sat at the dock. All in all, almost nobody was left in the campground which had been so full and busy for the last two days.

Clouds over a calm McCargoe Cove

We sat on the dock and people-watched. Two stern-looking fishermen pulled up in their own boat, sat on the dock, and started fishing off of it. A couple walked in from West Chickenbone, stopped for lunch, and continued on the Minong towards Todd Harbor. A ranger pulled up in a tiny park service boat with two enormous motors. He brought with him his wife, also a ranger (but off-duty) and their 5-year-old. The mother and child headed up the Minong towards the mine site, while the father (who was on duty and clearly loved his job) stopped to chat with each and every one of us, before heading off to check the pit toilets.

Feeling melancholy about our imminent departure, Sarah and I unfolded our park map and daydreamed about future trips. We figured out our highest priority campgrounds to visit (Huginnin Cove and Todd Harbor, here we come!), mapped out routes to get there, discussed ferry schedules, and generally fully planned out 3 or 4 trips into the future.

Soon, another husband-wife ranger team arrived, both on duty this time. They hopped out of their boat and started getting us in order for the ferry. There were at least 10 of us waiting to board the Voyageur, quite a large number. Meanwhile, nobody was arriving to take up our empty shelters. This felt odd, and we suspected that it was due to the ferry schedule. McCargoe is well-served by the Voyageur, and if you are a non-hiker who wanted to get out away from the "built up" parts of the island, you could reasonably spend your time at McCargoe. In the future, we agreed, we would watch those schedules and try to avoid the busy days.

Soon enough, the Voyageur appeared as a tiny silver speck, far down the cove. It very slowly grew larger, until it finally arrived at the dock. The captain called out the group names (we watched as the over-large group went through a bit of verbal gymnastics in front of the rangers to make it clear that they weren't, y'know, actually all traveling together) and we crammed ourselves onboard the already packed boat.

Thunderhead over McCargoe Cove
The Voyageur wasted no time in backing out and heading back down the long, long cove. We stood on one of the side walkways -- the only open space -- and enjoyed watching the scenery. We passed Birch Island, a pretty little island near the mouth of the cove, with exactly one shelter and one tent site. At the mouth of McCargoe cove, we turned northeast, threading between long narrow islands that are really the tops of mighty basalt ridges. As we traveled, I recognized three identical boats coming towards us in formation. They were the messy boaters from Chippewa Harbor. So long!

We passed along the length of Amygdaloid Island, the outermost of the long parallel islands. We passed Crystal Cove and Belle Isle, both the former sites of resorts from the island's glory days. We passed smaller islands with curious names like "Captain Kidd Island" and "Dead Horse Rocks", and then started to round the farthest end of Isle Royale. Mighty Blake Point (the very end of the Greenstone Ridge) and the towering rock wall of the Palisades passed on our right.

About this time, I looked to the west and noticed a wall of dark clouds lurking just a few miles behind us. The sky ahead was blue and serene, but there was a storm chasing us. It looked likely that we'd get in to port before the rain caught us. Likely, that is, until the Voyageur made a turn not towards Rock Harbor, but rather into Tobin Harbor. The captain made an announcement: We were making a mail drop! The Voyageur is a designated mail carrier for the island, and one of its duties is to drop off a packet of mail at the Minong Island "post office" -- a tiny locked cabin with a tiny, sagging dock, all on one of the small islets in Tobin Harbor. There are still a few cabins on Tobin Harbor that are leased by their original owners -- from before the National Park was formed -- and this is a way for them to get mail during the summer.

The captain expertly brought the Voyageur up next to the sagging dock. One of his assistants jumped onto the dock, unlocked the cabin's door, tossed in a mail bag, locked up again, and was back on the boat within a minute.

Thunderstorm Warning over Isle Royale, from NWS Marquette.
That yellow box basically covers our entire route.
As we backed up and rounded Scoville point, the storm finally caught up with us. Huge raindrops chased the few of us remaining on deck into the main cabin. The drops quickly became a torrential downpour, complete with thunder rolling overhead. We later learned that the National Weather Service had issued a rare thunderstorm warning for Isle Royale.

The captain opened up the throttle, and we made it into the safety of Snug Harbor as the downpour let up slightly. With raincoats buttoned up, we raced up the hill towards the campground, hoping against hope that a shelter was still available this late in the afternoon. Rock Harbor is always busy in August, and the campground often fills up by afternoon. We had one thing working in our favor: The Ranger III, the largest vessel serving Rock Harbor, wasn't in port -- and as a result, the campground wouldn't be full of hikers preparing to depart on it at 8 am tomorrow.

Sure enough, every shelter was taken, except for one -- Shelter #6, sadly breaking up our Tour de Fours. We took it anyhow. As we were setting up our sleeping pads, we learned why the shelter was still available. Despite being located between the campground's two outhouses, we didn't notice any unpleasant smells outside. But inside the shelter, there was a very definite -- and very outhouse-y -- smell. We nicknamed our shelter the "pee hut" and left for dinner as quickly as possible.

One more McCargoe Cove View. What a gorgeous place.

Tonight was a special treat: Dinner at the Greenstone Grill, the park's "informal" restaurant -- meaning that it's willing to serve scruffy hikers who haven't had a shower in 7 days. It was only 4:00, but we were famished and nothing sounded better than food -- any food at all, really -- as long as it wasn't freeze-dried. We sat by a window and ordered a half pound burger, a pasty, and a coke, each of which we split with each other. They were every bit as amazing as I had hoped.

One fun part of being on the island for a week is how we started to recognize nearly all of the backpackers. We chatted briefly with a table of three men from Grand Haven. They had been out just as long as us and were practically singing the praises of the Grill's food, while avidly planning all of their food stops on their trip home tomorrow.

As we sat enjoying our food, the waitress (there was only one) suddenly shouted, "Moose!" I looked at her, pointing straight towards the window behind us. I almost got whiplash, my head turned back to the window so fast. Sure enough, a bull moose with a spectacular rack was wandering slowly down the paved waterfront trail, heading right towards us.

The moose was following the trail towards the restaurant, which also lead towards the Rock Harbor Lodge, bathrooms, and generally a much more built-up part of Rock Harbor. I scrambled to get out Sarah's camera (which I had been carrying ever since my battery died). I was basically shooting from the hip, but I got the photo:

A rather confused moose, from the Greenstone Grill

The moose got spooked when it saw the people and buildings up ahead, and made a remarkably fast about-face. A few curious bystanders had noticed the moose and were following behind it along the trail. They, too did really fast turnabouts as the moose started back towards them. One of the onlookers jumped into Rock Harbor itself in their haste to get off of the trail (luckily the water was only about a foot deep at shore).

The moose quickly disappeared into the woods near the amphitheater. We returned to our food. A big group of people started to collect near where it went into the woods, so we guessed that the moose must have decided to hang out in the trees not too far from the path. Soon enough, a ranger appeared and started running crowd control, keeping people from getting too close to the moose, and sharing moosey trivia.

After we paid for our meal and waddled out, the crowd had mostly dispersed, except for a few hardcore onlookers. We peeked into the trees, and sure enough, there was the bull, sitting in a field of thimbleberry plants and looking absolutely gigantic. I couldn't look away. It was almost unreal to see him "up close" (still a dozen or more yards away). His head swiveled around in a way that reminded me of cheesy Christmas yard ornaments -- until I stopped and reminded myself that all that means is that, apparently, animatronic reindeer are much more realistic than I ever believed.

We wandered over to the Visitor's Center. I was looking for a specific book, which I found: The Diary of an Isle Royale Schoolteacher, the transcribed diary of Dorothy Simonson, who spent a winter in the 1930's teaching in the one-room schoolhouse that we had found at Chippewa Harbor. Our local library has two copies, both of which are permanently restricted to the library's history room -- so I'd been reading it in fits and starts for nearly a year. I purchased a copy so that I could actually read it on my own time.

As we walked out, we saw a small group gathered on the path leading up towards the campground. One of the bystanders told us that another (different!) bull moose had just walked up the trail, which was a bit of a problem for anyone who wanted to go to the campground or the rental cabins located across the way on Tobin Harbor. Sure enough, as we looked, a bull moose wandered across the path and into the trees. A ranger rounded up all of the cabin campers nearby and had them follow him at a safe distance, while he ran "moose control" for them. It was quite the busy night for moose in Rock Harbor, and our total was now up to 4.5 moose.

There was no hurry for us, so we sat on the bench outside of the Visitor's Center. I read a bit of my book, until Sarah uttered a surprised yelp. The Ann Arbor farmers (and company) had just marched in, looking about as fresh and energetic as they had 12 hours and 15 miles ago -- at McCargoe Cove. We chatted with them briefly (we didn't want to get between them and the restaurant, which was their ultimate goal) and they yet again impressed me with their endurance and endless energy.

Finally it was time for the big event of the evening: the ranger presentation. Tonight was Ranger Kelly, presenting "Isle Royale Stories". The auditorium building was filled with lodge-dwellers on this cool and rainy evening, as well as a handful of backpackers like us (you can tell the difference by the week-old beards, the mud-stained clothes, and the smell). Ranger Kelly's presentation was surprisingly philosophical, reflecting on her own experiences on the island. I liked it. She told stories of her own and others' experiences with northern lights, canoeing, meeting moose, day-to-day ranger life, and helping with wilderness rescues. It was a fascinating glimpse into long-term life on the island (or at least, as long-term as it's possible to get, given that the park is closed for 6 months of the year).

We had the unfortunate luck to be sitting next to a large and severely rude group that wanted nothing to do with this philosophical nonsense. Sarah and I did our best to ignore loud sighs and barely-whispered complaints about how boring it was. They left as soon as the last slide clicked past, to our great delight.

Buoy marker in McCargoe Cove

There was a Q&A time at the end, and so we endured the usual barrage of wolf related questions (completely unrelated to the topic of the presentation), to which Ranger Kelly had incredibly sensible and well-practiced replies. I also noticed a bizarre trend: Multiple lodge-dwellers asked questions about "Isle Roy-all", to which they received nice and accurate answers about Isle Royal. I can normally understand where the oddball pronunciation comes from (I mean, look at how it's spelled!). But we had all just heard Ranger Kelly pronounce it correctly for an hour straight -- not to mention presumably every ranger and everyone else they had met on the island so far.

I asked the very last question, and it only felt fair to make it actually, y'know, about the presentation we had just seen. It was an easy one: Ranger Kelly had mentioned that the presentation was a couple of years old, and that she wanted to update it with some of her more recent experiences. So, I asked, what was a story that she would like to add? That's how we heard the story of the "Hatchet Lake Incident", a sort of wilderness worst-case scenario that had happened last year. In short, two campers strung a hammock up to a birch tree without carefully checking that the birch was indeed still alive. It wasn't, and the 60+ foot tall trunk fell and landed on them. The rest of the story involved some pretty amazing feats of endurance and grit, since this had taken place at Hatchet Lake Campground -- one of the most remote and inaccessible campgrounds on the island. Everyone came out OK at the end, although not without the help of about 1/3 of the island's personnel and some serious trail-running. This, incidentally, was apparently the origin of the National Park's strict new rules about how and when hammocks could be used on an island filled with standing deadwood.

By the time the Q&A was done, it was nearly dark. All of the moose had either cleared out or fallen asleep in the woods, and so we had a quiet walk back to the Pee Hut. We curled up for our last sleep on this magic island.

Next time: Homeward Bound, or, Why It's Always Worth Double-Checking Your Itinerary

Miles hiked: 0. Total: 10.6 trail + 12.5 dayhike = 23.1 miles.
Moose sighted: 2!! Total moose: 4.5!!

Pink: Voyageur II route, with stopover at the Tobin Harbor Post Office


JimLob said...

Thanks again for another fascinating entry! Makes me wish it were next August already. One experience I wouldn't mind missing is the thunderstorm, or even rain in general! Eagerly awaiting your next entry. Sounds very intriguing!!

DC said...

Haha, rain! You have to plan for rain on the island -- bring full rain gear (at least waterproof boots, pants, and a jacket, maybe gaiters too). Isle Royale is a lot more rainy than the mainland. I'd say it rains every other day on average, even during August. It was just about perfect this year -- we had rain on the 2nd, 4th, and 6th days... plus day 7 as well, as you'll read soon. We got lucky that most of that was overnight.

JimLob said...

Well, we'll be prepared with the hopes that we won't have to break the rain gear out!! Wishful thinking I know.

Jacob Emerick said...

Great description of the sea day, and bummer about the camera battery - was hoping to see some pictures of Blake Point. Looking forward to reading about the itinerary muss-up :D

DC said...

@Jake: Spoiler alert: I made it home. :P Actually, the itinerary problem wasn't me at all, thank goodness. But still dramatic.