Sunday, November 5, 2017

Isle Royale 2017, Day 7: Rock Harbor, Houghton, and Home

Last time: Return to Rock Harbor

Sunrise over Rock Harbor, from the America Dock
Tuesday, August 8: We woke up dark and early in the Pee Hut at Rock Harbor Campground, and got out of it as fast as possible. Not even stopping to eat breakfast, we got dressed and marched down towards the waterfront. Sarah took a turn in the coin-operated shower, while I took her camera and headed to the America dock (my battery was dead from overuse in the Minong Mine).

The sky was still mostly dark and the moon was far above the horizon when I made it to the dock. I watched the moon slowly drop behind the islets in a peaceful Rock Harbor. I was completely alone on the dock, and nobody else was even moving along the waterfront.

Moon setting over Rock Harbor

When Sarah's 5 minute shower was over, we met up again for breakfast. There was no way we were going to force down another meal of oatmeal when the Greenstone Grill was so close. The "two eggs, any style" turned out to involve not only eggs but also potatoes, bacon, and toast, and they all sat very nicely with a hot coffee after a week of mush and tea.

We saw some familiar faces in the Grill: The three men from Grand Haven were (again) eating at the same time as us, and were (again) loudly planning the restaurants they would eat at and the beds they would sleep in after they departed for the mainland later today.

We had more than 6 hours before the Queen's boarding time, and I was eager to make use of every minute of it. In particular, I wanted to take a day hike and see some new trail. We've stayed in Rock Harbor 3 times, but we've never hiked the section of the Rock Harbor Trail that runs between Rock Harbor and 3 Mile campground (we detoured around it last year and took the Tobin Harbor Trail instead). With breakfast done and no desire to stay in the Pee Hut, the time was ripe.

The sky was low and cloudy, so we wore rain coats. The Rock Harbor trail was wet and slippery from rains overnight, but we were more than compensated by the wild raspberries, blueberries, and even some strawberries along the trail.

Half a mile down the trail, the rain came back with a vengeance. We briefly huddled under a tree that provided almost no shelter, at which point Sarah decided to turn around. I didn't mind the rain, so I forged onward. I enjoyed the rugged trail, which wound its way up, down, and between rock outcrops along the shoreline.

At one point, I stepped aside to let past a group of 4 hikers coming from 3 Mile campground. Despite the steady rain, they were jolly and greeted me happily. As they passed, they left a strong whiff of pot behind them -- so that explained the good vibes!

The rain turned up another notch, and then another, until I had to call it quits too. I turned around, but not before taking pictures looking both ways along the trail:

When I made it back to the Pee Hut, I found Sarah sitting outside on the picnic table, under the shelter's overhang. As we sat outside, attempting to read while we huddled against the side of the shelter (unwilling to enter it unnecessarily), a familiar couple appeared on the trail -- the pair from McCargoe who had inspired me with their folding chairs. They marched through the rain with a wet and bedraggled look, clearly trying to find a shelter. We waved at them and offered the Pee Hut, with a fair warning about its name. They gratefully took it over, and we packed up the few belongings that were still sitting out and prepared to leave. We chatted for a few minutes first -- getting the name of the folding chairs, of course -- and learned that they were from Saginaw, and had come all the way from Three Mile Campground in the morning's rain.

With our shelter given away and a few hours left before the Queen left, we made our way down to the visitor's center. We looked at the books, posters, and other knick-knacks. As we did so, my thoughts unexpectedly returned to the unprepared hiker we had met at East Chickenbone. I tried to broach the question to a ranger, who essentially said "We can't stop people from going hiking just because they seem unprepared." Call me crazy, but that might actually be a great idea, especially given what we had heard about the "Hatchet Lake Incident" last night.

You can get anything you want, at the Isle Royale Visitor Center.

With the visitor's center thoroughly perused, we went back outside and found a bench near the waterfront. We sat reading and watching a mama Merganser teaching her tiny fluffy children how to dive. A bit later, I looked up and saw a river otter swimming right up towards the dock. I pulled out Sarah's camera, ready to catch it when it appeared... but it didn't, right up until it did appear by running up onto land. It glanced around, saw me and the many others nearby who were suddenly very interested in it, and made a sudden (and rather awkward) dash inland.

A few minutes later, as I came out of the nearby bathroom building, the otter popped right out of the woods behind me and made another mad dash, hiding in a hole underneath the Greenstone Grill's basement. When it rains, it pours (wildlife, at least).

If there's one thing I learned from my repeated otter encounters on this trip, it's that they are nowhere near as elegant (nor cute) when they're on land. They run around with a sort of scrunched-up, hunch-backed hop that screams "I'd rather be swimming!"

Sarah on the Indian Portage Trail -- because I didn't take any more photos once we got on the boat!
The Queen soon arrived and unloaded a crowd of eager new campers. We watched their orientation, waited a discrete interval, and headed towards the dock to get ready for our departure. The dock was already hopping by the time we arrived. No matter how beautiful Isle Royale is, after a week of sleeping on the ground, there's nothing like the idea of a soft bed waiting for you on the mainland.

Captain Ben appeared and started whipping the general mass of passengers into a slightly more organized line. The three men from Grand Haven were just ahead of us, chomping at the bit. When they reached the boat, the leader of their gang handed Captain Ben their return ticket. He took one look and said "This is for tomorrow. Today's August 8. You're a day early." They deflated as the captain told them to get out of line and stand off to the side -- "We have a full ship so I doubt I can fit you on today."

I double-checked our ticket again as I handed it to Captain Ben. Ours was for the right day, thank goodness. We handed our bags to another sailor and passed by the forlorn-looking Grand Haven crew.

The boat trip was uneventful (at least after we'd departed -- no, they didn't make it on). The lake was remarkably calm, and I finished reading Diary of an Isle Royale Schoolteacher in the first hour of the ride. I sat for the rest of the ride in quiet melancholy. It was hard to see the island receding into the distance, after a wonderful week of backpacking.

After a long, long ride, we turned into Copper Harbor and cruised past the Harbor Haus, whose waitstaff ran out to give us a good ol' kick-line. We waved; the Queen honked. Off the boat, we packed our bags into the car and headed south by way of M-26 and Cliff Drive, two favorite Copper Country Cruises. I cruised slowly, enjoying the views of the Cliffs, the Lake Superior Shore, and so many of my favorite places to explore in the days when I had lived here.

We stayed in Hancock at the Ramada, a wholly adequate hotel. The first order of business was showers! I won right of first wash, since Sarah had taken a 5-minute coin-operated shower in Rock Harbor. As usual, I scrubbed twice and felt clean in a way I didn't even realize I had been missing.

Sunrise on Chickenbone Lake
While I showered, Sarah set our evening plans in motion: Beer and Pizza. We just barely acquired a delicious pizza from the Studio before they closed for the night (at 8 pm -- Hancock is not a party town in the summer). We were so hungry that we ate it in our room before heading to the Keweenaw Brewing Company, where we enjoyed an evening of quiet conversation, beer, and peanuts (it closed at 10 pm).

Then, we slept as best we could in the strangely soft, fluffy bed. After a week of sleeping with only inch-thick pads between me and the ground, I didn't quite know how to handle a nice bed.

Wednesday, August 9: The next morning, we got up bright and early and arrived at the last of our essential food stops -- the Four Seasons Tea Room in Houghton -- just in time for their opening at 11 am. We had a lovely lunch in a comfortable English tea room setting, then strapped ourselves into the car for the uneventful 9 hour drive home.

Oh yeah, I went for the bad pun.

Some final reflections: 
Despite what you might think from my complaints about boaters and noisy teenagers, this trip was wonderful. We didn't hike as far as we did last year, but we saw more than enough beautiful and memorable spots on the island to make up for it. This trip was far more relaxing -- and less ache-inducing -- than any of our previous backpacking trips. We had new experiences (seeing 4.5 moose comes quickly to mind) and met new people (both wonderful and annoying).

We experimented with using day hikes as a central part of a backpacking adventure, and it succeeded wildly. Rather than constantly trudging from place to place with 30+ pounds on our backs, we were able to make quick jaunts off to new and interesting places and, y'know, enjoy them! Perhaps we're getting soft, but I like to think we're figuring out how to make the most of our limited backpacking time each year.

Using the Voyageur as a ferry also worked well and let us see some new parts of the island that we would never have seen otherwise, especially Chippewa Harbor. For repeat visitors, I highly recommend considering something like this. First time visitors don't need a ferry -- there's already so much to see within hiking distance of Rock Harbor!

On a different note, we met some truly amazing hikers who could pound out 12, 15, or even 20 miles and still have energy left to do a somersault into the lake at the end of the day. We hiked, at the longest, 8 miles -- and that was just one day. At times, both Sarah and I felt not just humbled by this difference, but almost ashamed -- like our ferry-riding, day-hiking, shelter-sleeping, wine-toting selves weren't worthy to be on the same island as such hardy folks.

Of course, I know that's not the case. As the old phrase goes, "Hike your own hike" (or "Everyone hikes their own trail") -- a hiking-specific version of my favorite general life advice, "Everyone should just chill out". We didn't actually let it get us down (we were too busy relaxing like the bad-asses we are). Not everyone enjoys grinding out 15 miles every day and sleeping under a tarp. But you too might find yourself feeling a little sub-par -- just remember: Hike your own hike! (On a related note: On the way to the island, there's always that one guy who has to impress everyone with his knowledge of the island, his plans to hike 30 miles every day, and how there's no possible way he would ever stay at the lodge because it's not part of the "wilderness ethos". Don't be that guy.)

One last thing: Gravity water filters are amazing. I will never go back to a hand pump again.

What's next? I have a few trips lined up for the coming year, to places new and old. Stay tuned!

Miles hiked: 2 miles (dayhike).
Final miles hiked: 10.6 trail + 14.5 dayhike = 25.1 miles, every one of them new to us.
Final moose sighted: 4.5
Total days on the island: 7, and on nary a one did we miss civilization (much).

You can also return to the Introduction at the beginning of this series.

Our final hiking map. 


JimLob said...

Thank you for your awesome blog entries! I enjoyed reading every sentence. Eagerly looking forward to our trip next August, all the more so after reading your blogs. I learned alot and feel I have much to experience. And trust me...I plan on hiking my own hike!!

DC said...

Jim, you'll love it! Be sure to shoot a comment here when you're back. I'd love to hear how it goes.

Jacob Emerick said...

Not everyone enjoys grinding out 15 miles every day and sleeping under a tarp. - Heresy!

Fantastic series, sir. Great to revisit the island through your perspective, and glad to hear that the itinerary mess-up wasn't yours :)

DC said...

On the other hand, some people *love* grinding out 15 miles and sleeping under a tarp. :P You should meet these farmers I know...

kjramstack said...

I loved reading about your adventure on Isle Royale. It's been about 10 years since I've been there and I would love to get back. I somehow missed your last post about the Pee Hut so I had to jump back there to see what you were talking about. EWWW!

DC said...

You should try sleeping in the Pee Hut! :P (And yes -- go back! It's amazing.)