Saturday, June 29, 2019

Isle Royale 2019, Day 2: Daisy Farm to Moskey Basin, and a bushwhack

Last time: On the rocky and somewhat swampy road to Daisy Farm


Hepatica

Tuesday May 28, 2019: I slept fitfully through the cold night. When I slept, I had weirdly vivid yet boring dreams. I woke up shortly after dawn with a dream stuck in my mind that was the academic equivalent of someone telling me in great detail that I needed to change the font and spacing in a report. I rolled over and slept for another hour. So much for getting an early start.

When I finally got up, I found a clear, sunny, and cold morning. I made hot tea and hot oatmeal, but nothing kept away the chill. I briskly packed up camp and prepared for the only thing guaranteed to warm me up: Hiking a few miles with 30 pounds of equipment on my back.

I headed up the lovely, rocky, and slanted trail towards Moskey Basin. This trail had more wildflowers than I'd seen so far, but there were still remarkably few things blooming. The island seemed to be in early, early spring -- nearly 2 months behind where we were down at my home in Grand Rapids. I found Hepatica (at the top of this post), Marsh Marigold, wild strawberries, a few Purple Flag Irises, and this one that I didn't recognize at all, which grew in great abundance from cracks in the rock:

Mystery wildflower

The trail to Moskey is indeed slanted, since it runs along the downhill side of one of Isle Royale's many angled ridges. One foot is always higher than the other, which can make for a tiring hike even at the best of times.

As I hiked, the day warmed up into an absolute stunner. It was 60 degrees, clear, and wonderfully sunny. At some points, when I was on the exposed ridge tops, I even started to feel a bit warm.

A typical segment of the trail to Moskey -- your right leg is always higher

I took my time and enjoyed the views. Since the trees were just barely starting to leaf out, I could see over Moskey Basin itself, and to the distant hills behind it. I took many side trips, investigating a beaver pond, a small waterfall, and all of the wildflowers I could find.

My camera caused all sorts of troubles on this trip. I was committed to keeping it out of my pack, so that I could take photos of the beautiful wildflowers on the beautiful trail in the beautiful weather. I tried hanging the camera around by neck while I used my trekking poles, which resulted in the camera painfully smashing into my stomach every step. I wedged the camera behind a pack strap, then around the back of my pack entirely, none of which worked very well.

Another slanted segment of Moskey trail

I arrived at Moskey Basin Campground by mid-morning, somewhat surprised at how easy the hike had been. I immediately headed all the way to the end of the campground, noticing only one occupied shelter along the way, and hung my permit on my favorite shelter -- #7, so hands off!

As soon as I set my pack down, I heard a "hello" from the trail, and soon I was chatting with Nicky from Connecticut. She had arrived moments before me and was scouting out the various shelters. As we talked, I learned that Nicky was a solo first-time visitor to the island, in the middle of an 8 day end-to-end hike (of which I was immediately envious). She had come to Moskey by way of Windigo and the Minong Ridge trail, one of Isle Royale's legendary trails. Nicky is also the only person I've ever met who was over-prepared for Isle Royale, since she hikes the White Mountains regularly. She had found the Minong "pretty easy". I shook my head in amazement.

Nicky headed out to continue choosing her ideal shelter, and I sat down at the picnic table to eat a lunch of rice cakes-and-peanut butter with a side of meat stick. As I did, I heard a sudden scrambling from the shelter and turned to see a squirrel climbing all over the screened-in front wall. The squirrel froze (high up on the wall), chattered at me, and then continued as if it were simply a normal day of shelter-climbing (I suppose it probably was). I had met a squirrel doing this exact same thing last time I stayed at shelter #7 -- are they teaching each other?

I enjoyed a nice long session of reading and relaxing in my shelter's shady front yard. Shelter #7 is my favorite for many reasons. It faces directly down the basin, which lets you catch the sunrise from inside the shelter. The "front yard" is shaded by tall evergreens, but still open enough to allow a view. Plus, there's a handy spit of rock poking out into the bay that lets you get water easily.

Some time later, Nicky called me down to shelter #2, where she had settled and discovered that the rocky front yard seemed to be a magnet for waterfowl. A collection of geese with goslings in tow was just paddling off, while a horde of mysterious duck-shaped birds settled in for naps right in front of her picnic table. I grabbed my Serious Camera and got down to some Semi-Serious wildlife photography, while we chatted and laughed about the bizarre birds (which I later realized were good old Red-Breasted Mergansers). Every minute or two, one of them would start a sort of call-and-response of silly sounds and periscope neck stretches between the males and females.

Look at this dapper fellow

Merganser pair

Nicky had also managed to record audio of wolves yipping and howling at McCargoe Cove the previous night, which I was able to hear and enjoy thanks to her phone recording.

As we sat talking, we heard a "Hullo!" from shelter #1, and thus Woody from Wisconsin entered our lives. He was another solo first-timer, Real Ultimate Outdoorsman, and the Truest Yooper I've ever met. He was a jack of all trades who had traveled to (almost) all of the lower 48 states and was on Isle Royale essentially on a whim. He was hiking east to west with a fearsomely heavy pack on his back, including a hatchet (he was constantly looking for things to "fix" with it), a solar shower, and a solar panel for recharging various electronics. His attitude toward life is summarized by his future plans: "Maybe I'll go out to Big Bend next, hike around there until I'm out of money, and then see if they need any help in the oil fields." That, and "or maybe I'll ride into Rock Harbor on a moose!"

Marsh marigold

While I enjoyed the company immensely, I soon excused myself and headed out on a dayhike. Early on in planning my trip, I had seen a photo taken from the small, rocky point of land that juts out into the Basin just south of the campground. There is no trail to that point, and I thought it might be fun to bushwhack out there. Once I started looking at maps, I noticed more points of land to explore, hidden inland lakes to see, and a "mountain" -- Mt. Saginaw, nearly 900 feet above sea level -- with some bald highlands that might just reveal views in all directions. I quickly become obsessed with the idea of bushwhacking around Moskey Basin and up to Mt. Saginaw, to see what I could see and visit what others definitely couldn't visit.

I'm an experienced Copper Country bushwhacker, but I've never cross-country hiked on the island. So to test my plan, I decided to bushwhack to the first short point of land south from the campground -- the one that started my obsession. This would let me see how fast I could hike overland. If it went well, then I would spend tomorrow, all day, getting to Mt. Saginaw and back. This short bushwhack -- 1/2 mile each way -- is what I was going to attempt next. I explained the plan briefly to Nicky and Woody so that somebody knew where I'd gone, and headed out with Woody's encouragement ringing in my ears: "Go man! You're a tank!"

One of the open bedrock glades


Well, on that short dayhike, I learned a few lessons: First, while spring is a nice time to bushwhack in deciduous areas due to the lack of underbrush, it's a terrible time to bushwhack through swampy areas. My first obstacle to overcome was a swamp right behind shelter #8. At this time of year, the swamp was less a swamp and more a stagnant pond so full of water it almost stopped me, until I found an old beaver dam to walk across, followed by another careful heel-toe walk along several fallen trees. I finally made it to higher ground, which was filled with dense and prickly evergreens, although they were more navigable than the swamp.

The point itself was a patchwork of lichen-covered rocky glades that forcibly reminded me of days bushwhacking in the Copper Country, and dense balsam stands where I could barely maneuver between trees. I made it out to the far end of the point and got some photos looking back at the campground.

Looking back at Moskey Basin campground

My main objective was complete: It wasn't easy, but I had succeeded in bushwhacking out to the point. I decided to see if I could push on past the next big obstacle: The bigger swamp between me and the next point of land around the basin. Isle Royale is made from many parallel rocky ridges. The low areas between them usually fill in with swamps. I could see a massive wall of rock across the lake, and a huge swamp between it and me. The lake wasn't crossable and the shoreline was too dense to get through -- I had to go through the swamp, and that swamp is what finally stopped me. Beavers had absolutely gone to town in it. There were at least 6 beaver dams lined up along the swamp, getting newer as I walked away from the lake. Only the newest was active, and the old ones were sketchy looking at best. I couldn't see the far side of any of the dams and my tenuous attempts to walk across a few of them nearly filled my boots with water. In the distance, I could hear a constant "glug... glug... WHOOSH" that was probably a moose feeding in the pond. I'm not a fool -- or at least not that much of a fool -- so I turned around and headed back. Final tally: 1 mile, 2 hours.

One of the better options for crossing a beaver dam

If you take a look on the topo map below and compare the location of this tiny little point of land to the location of Mt. Saginaw, you'll get a sense of just which icy spheroid would have to pass through which netherworld before I had a chance of making it to Mt. Saginaw tomorrow.

Topo map of Moskey Basin: The red line is my 1 hour bushwhack (if I had gone in a direct line, which of course I couldn't do). Mt. Saginaw is on the far right.
Back at my shelter, as I de-twigged my hair and attempted to clean the mud out of my boots, I thought through my plans. I suddenly had a whole extra day in my trip. I spread out my map and came to some decisions: Instead of staying in Moskey another full day, I would start heading back to Daisy Farm and Three Mile, doing dayhikes and taking my time along the way. It was a hard decision -- because I was giving up on a big and exciting thing that I'd planned to do. But on the other hand, it was an easy decision -- there was just no way I could do the bushwhack unless I planned to camp cross-country, which requires a special permit (and I wasn't prepared for anyhow).

I felt much better after making that decision. Instead of bushwhacking slowly and painfully across the island, I spent the afternoon chatting pleasantly with Nicky and Woody on the rocky spur next to the dock.

For dinner, I enjoyed Mountain House Lasagna, a known winner -- deliberately chosen to make up for last night's Black Barf Chili. As I ate, I heard a commotion from shelter #8, and suddenly a beautiful, healthy, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed red fox ran straight through my yard, eyeballing me and my food while not even breaking its stride. I yelled at it too, and heard it patter along down the trail, probably headed for the next site. It was the first camp fox I'd ever seen despite constant talk of them on the island. I didn't even have a chance to grab a photo!

After dinner, I took a walk to look for moose in the swampy inlet just outside of the campground (and also to get away from the busy campground -- every shelter and some tent sites had filled up during the afternoon). I found no moose, but I did find two fresh wolf prints. This was the closest I've gotten to a wolf on the island.

The closest I've been to a wolf on Isle Royale

On my way back, I got diverted to photograph the incredibly cute goslings that had congregated at Nicky's wildlife-attracting shelter. The parents were strangely unconcerned about me belly-crawling  around them with my big camera in tow.

The one in the background seems to be saying "Hey, what's HE doing?"
Next door, I met yet another solo backpacker: Sid, from downstate Michigan (although I sadly forgot where exactly). Sid was the only other returning Isle Royale visitor that I met on the trip, and we immediately bonded over Copper Country history and had an exceptionally detailed discussion about the location of some good places to look for silver and gold in the western UP.

Pile o' goslings eating some particularly lovely filth.

I finished up the evening hanging out with Sid and Nicky at Sid's shelter, chatting about hiking, and watching the stars come out. We stayed up way too late but got to see a spectacularly clear sky. Twilight seemed to last forever, and when I looked it up later, I discovered that twilight is indeed 20 - 30 minutes longer than it is in Grand Rapids (this has something to do with being that much farther north). It was nearly midnight when we finally gave up and stumbled back to our respective shelters by headlamp-light.

Before going to bed, I hastily set up my camera on its tiny little tripod, all in the dark, and set it to take a series of photos which I later stacked together to show the motion of the stars. I've taken many star trail photos, and the one bit of advice that I always give is: Pick your composition and set up your camera while it's still light out. I failed on that account, due to my pleasantly social evening. While my hasty composition wasn't the greatest, I do love the way the stars show off the trees that frame my shelter's view of Moskey Basin.

Stars over Moskey Basin

It was another cold night. At 2 am, I woke up, looked out of the shelter, and saw the Milky Way hanging high above a placid Moskey Basin. I was groggy and cold, so instead of taking a photo, I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Miles hiked: 3.9 + 1 (dayhike)
Total miles: 12.2

Wildlife seen: A dozen Red Breasted Mergansers, 4 geese with a swarm of goslings, one beaver, a very happy camp fox, one crazy squirrel, and a wolf (track).

Next time: The Return of the Daisy Farm

Day 2's trails are in pink



Sunday, June 23, 2019

Isle Royale 2019, Day 1: Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm

Last time: Intro, travel, and sleeping in the shack

A gray day over Rock Harbor

Monday May 27, 2019:
I woke long before my alarm and peeked out the window. The early morning outside was cold, windy, and spritzing rain.

I got up, took my last shower of the week, and checked and double-checked my packing list. With no excuse to wait any longer, I drove all of 2 blocks to the Isle Royale Queen's parking lot where Captain John -- one of the three Kilpela brothers who run the Queen -- directed parking. The lot was more full than I expected, but hardly as overflowing as it usually is in August.

I pulled out my pack, suited up, and then had to wait for the Queen's office to open before I could check in. The dock slowly filled up with travelers, solo and in groups. A surprising number had rolling luggage, considering that the lodge wouldn't open for another week. I hoped they were staying in rental cabins.

I hid from the wind around the side of the office and discovered a family of 4 doing the same. The father turned out to be extremely talkative and was soon gnawing my ear off about his long-ago hiking trips. This was their first outing as a family, and they were heading to the island for a day trip -- 4 hours at most on the island, barely time to see anything! Nonetheless, with two small kids and the lodge not yet open, it seemed better than nothing.

Soon, Captain John corralled us into a line and got us boarded smoothly. I ended up near the end of the line. By the time I made it onto the boat, the main cabin was nearly full -- surprising for an early spring trip. I ended up sharing a 4-person seat with Doug and Steve from Cow-lumbus Ohio (their term, not mine, but who am I to argue?). They were first-timers to the island, and also extremely pleasant seat-mates to spend the ride chatting with. They were on this trip along with a large group that included Doug's college roommate. I could tell Doug was nervous by the number of times he mentioned that he "hadn't seen him (the roommate) in 28 years...". Meanwhile, the large roommate-including group had managed to dig out the cigars (!) that they had packed and were smoking them vigorously out on the stern. The mix of cigar smoke and diesel fumes must have been invigorating, because I heard some loud whoops coming from that direction.

Talk turned to alternate itineraries for Doug and Steve, and we spent a long while poring over a trail map. As the only one of us who had been to the island before, I gave my thoughts on some of the best parts of the island and a few beautiful off-trail spots that are worth finding.

Fences at the Siskiwit Mine, because I didn't take many photos on the boat

As we chatted, I looked across the aisle and saw four college-age guys sitting in various states of disarray. One, in flip-flops, lolled while listening to music. Another ate a huge cinnamon roll and looked green around the gills. They all carried a certain air of not being prepared, and also not particularly caring about not being prepared. I made a mental note to watch out for them, in case I came across one of them lost in the middle of a campground. Sitting with them were an uncomfortable looking couple that I couldn't quite place -- too young to be parents. Perhaps leaders of a camp group? Total strangers? I wasn't sure.

The trip was amazingly smooth despite the wind and rain. As we entered Rock Harbor, the rain decreased to a bare spritz, and so we braved the cold bow to enjoy the views. As we docked, I shared with Doug and Steve my usual advice on how to get started quickly: At the dock, there will be a big circle that forms around the ranger during orientation. Hang out on the side closet to the visitor's center, near the back of the circle, so that you can zip over to the registration line quickly. They took my advice, and after Ranger Molly's efficient and thorough orientation, we all ended up near the front of the registration lines. That's when I realized that I had left my photo ID (necessary to use a National Park Annual Pass) stashed in my backpack. So out of the line I went, found my ID, and got back into the end of the slowest registration line I have ever experienced. Strike 1!

Meanwhile, the big group was cleaning out the Trading Post's beer supply, breaking out more cigars, and preparing to party in Rock Harbor campground.

I finally got registered and looked for the bathrooms, which turned out to be closed. Strike 2! After walking all the way across the harbor to find the last working toilets for 5 days, I headed out on the trail, and made it all of 100 yards towards the Rock Harbor trail when I found that I couldn't get any water out of my water reservoir. Strike 3! At this point, I was pretty sure I was being punished for telling Doug and Steve how to avoid the line. As I sat next to the trail with my bag half disassembled, Steve walked up from the campground and proclaimed me to be a "scholar and gentleman" -- due to my advice, he had been able to snag one of the last shelters. At least somebody was having a good day on my behalf!

I finally fixed my water hose and set out for real. I have never taken the Rock Harbor trail up to Three Mile campground before -- we've always taken the easier Tobin Harbor trail instead -- so this was a new experience. None of it is particularly tough, but the sheer variety is amazing. It's almost like the island is trying to give a complete overview of trail types to all of the newbies rushing out of Rock Harbor.

Occasionally it's a flat, easy single-track through the woods (When you see this, you know the trail is planning something -- it's just trying to lull you into complacency):



Then there's your standard rocks-and-roots trail:


Or a puncheon bridge across a swampy area (with, of course, a mix of rocks, roots, and bedrock for fun):

Sometimes it's cairn-finding across a big swath of bedrock:



Or a little bit of rock climbing:


Or rock "stepping":


Can you find the trail in this photo? (Click to enlarge it)


This is one of my favorite bits. The trail runs along a narrow ledge of rock that's almost at lake level. It's (at most) one person wide. When the lake is rough, you'll be getting your boots wet here:

One lane road

Not far down the trail, I came across a fellow who was readjusting his heavy-looking pack. On the ground next to him was a medium-sized Igloo cooler. Remembering advice that a ranger once gave me, I greeted him and asked how he was doing. "Great! It's so beautiful! Just adjusting a few things." I wished him luck and continued onward, pondering that cooler, what might be in it, and how long he would be carrying it.

I stopped at Three Mile campground (conveniently located... 3 miles from Rock Harbor) to change gear. I had been using my trekking poles and getting a good boost out of them, but I wanted to have my Serious Camera out -- a DSLR and lens that added 2.5 pounds to my pack -- so I needed to free up a hand. Away went the trekking poles and out came the camera, a trade that I would make many times over the course of my trip.

One goal of this trip was to take time to explore side trips large and small that I'd never done before. So when I saw the sign not too far beyond Three Mile that said "DANGER: Open mine pits in this area", I took that as an invitation to step off trail. This was the Siskiwit Mine, one of Isle Royale's old copper mines. It's highly tamed as Copper Country mines go: All of the shafts are surrounded by wooden fencing and nothing really interesting is left -- although several of the shafts still had snow in them. There were a few rock foundations just down the trail, and a small rock pile along the lakeshore. It scratched a small itch, and I continued on feeling happy. It reminded me of a good bit of general backpacking advice: Don't forget to look up from your feet, think beyond your goal for the day, and enjoy where you are right now.

Snow in a Siskiwit Mine shaft

The trail had been perfectly nice, if varied, up until the mine, after which it started to get muddy... and muddier... and even muddier. There were a few bogs that gave me flashbacks to our June backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains, where sometimes we couldn't even see the other sides of the bogs. This time at least, there were no mosquitoes trying to pick me up and carry me away -- in fact, I hadn't met a single bug yet. I did have to put the camera away so that I could rely on my hiking poles for support and, sometimes, use them to feel for submerged obstacles. After the umpteenth mud bog, I was getting a bit tired and stopped at a nice rocky outcrop for a quick rest and a gorp snack. After that lovely break, I got up, walked all of 10 minutes, and arrived at Daisy Farm.

You might have heard bad things about Daisy Farm: It's big, it's noisy, it's ugly, nobody goes there on purpose -- they just pass through on their way to somewhere better. I'm here to argue otherwise. Ever since Sarah and I first stopped there, Daisy Farm has been one of my favorite campgrounds on the island. It's not the place to find solitude and silence, but it is always easy to find a spot even in the busiest season, it's comfortable, and it has a beautiful setting. Today, however, it felt spookily empty.  The only shelter that was taken was the one I've always wanted, but never managed to snag: shelter #4, which faces a wide open grassy field filled with Black-eyed Susans in August. I looked long and hard at the shelters that were right next to the lake (and, with no brush grown up yet, they had a spectacular view), but a healthy offshore breeze chilled me as I stood in front of them and promised that I would be cold all night if I slept there. I ended up in the far back of the campground at shelter #19, well protected from the breeze.

Tent in shelter #19, to conserve heat and protect from wind.
My first priority was to filter water. I took the "dirty" bag from my gravity filter down to the dock, swiped it through the lake water, and just about froze my hand off. (This is the only downside I've ever found from using a gravity filter instead of a traditional hand pump.) While I was dancing around to warm up, I chatted with Mark, a fisherman casting from the end of the dock. He too was a solo hiker and a first timer on the island. The introductions went as things often do for Michiganders: "So, where are you from?" "Grand Rapids" "Me too!" "Oh, right, so I'm actually from...". It seems that everyone from southern Michigan claims to be from Grand Rapids, Lansing, or Detroit to save time and effort when talking to people who won't know where Jenison or Sunfield or Monroe are anyhow.

After my camp chores were done, I headed back out on the trails. We were less than a month away from the Solstice, so sunset wasn't until well after 9:30. I intended to use every minute of the wonderfully long days while I was on the island.

I started with another of the little side trips that I wanted to complete on this visit. Daisy Farm was once the town of Ransom, which supported the Ransom Mine. This 1840's-era copper mine was located on Ransom hill, which backs up behind the campground (and forms that one last obstacle that has many a hiker groaning in agony as they attempt to reach Daisy Farm). I had read claims that there were ruins to be found, and my Copper Country Exploring itch needed more some scratching. I hiked slowly up and down the Mt. Ojibway trail on Ransom hill, staring intently into the woods and occasionally popping off-trail to investigate likely-looking piles of rock. There were a few suspicious looking depressions and perhaps a trench, but mostly what I found were moose trails and beautiful lichen-covered rock outcrops. I tried going overland from one of the individual campsites, and found an outcrop that might have had a small adit (horizontal mine opening) blasted into it -- or maybe it was just perfectly normal frost cracking at the base of a cliff. While I didn't find any real mine ruins, there are worse ways to spend an evening than wandering through beautiful and silent woods with all of my senses focused on the present.

A lovely outcrop, and maybe an old mine

It turns out that staring at suspicious looking rocks can work up my appetite, so I headed back to my shelter. Dinner was Alpine Aire Black Bart chili, and the less I say about that, the better. As I "ate", a puffed-up White-throated Sparrow entertained me, hopping around my campsite and probably hoping for a handout.

My friend the sparrow

After dinner there was still plenty of light in the sky. I wandered around the campground somewhat aimlessly and ended up discovering Shelter #1, which is off on its own side trail separate from the other shelters. I made a mental note to stay there in the future. Behind the shelter, I followed a trail on towards the ranger's cabin, which was unoccupied. I kept following the trail and found the ranger's personal outhouse, with a sign tacked on it: "This trail does NOT go to Moskey Basin. Turn around and go back!" That immediately brought up the question: Where does this trail go? So, I followed it. The trail continued past the outhouse and into an open meadow, which contained some strange cement footings. Later, I learned that these are likely remnants of the CCC Camp Rock Harbor where hardy souls lived and worked year round -- including winters! -- in the 1930's.

Eh, I've seen better.

One of my favorite rhythms in camping is waking with the sunrise and going to bed with sunset. After a totally adequate sunset from the Daisy Farm dock, I snuggled up in my tent, set up inside the shelter to protect against wind and hold in extra heat. The night was near freezing, but that's nothing that a shelter, tent, 10 degree sleeping bag, winter-rated sleeping pad, 3 layers of clothes, and a Nalgene filled with hot water couldn't help with.

Miles hiked: 7.3
Total miles: 7.3

Wildlife seen: Squirrels, sparrows, and gray jays, but no moose.

Next time: Wildlife and Wisconsinites


Trail map. Today's route is in green.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Isle Royale 2019: Introduction and Travel

This is the first of 6 separate posts about my May 2019 Isle Royale solo trip (one for each day, including this one). Check the bottom of this post for a link to each other day, or check on this list of all of my backpacking blog posts.

Sunrise at Monkey Basin

Isle Royale in early spring. The idea completely captured me.

May is early spring for this island National Park, and I wanted to experience it. True Yooper that she is, Sarah wanted nothing to do with this. She understood the cold, windy, and rainy weather that spring in the UP can bring.

So I set up a 5 day solo trip to the island during the last week of May. This would be my first spring trip to the island, my first solo trip there, and my 3rd visit overall.

I am an introvert, and one reason I backpack is to enjoy all of the silent naval-gazing. Traveling to Isle Royale, the least-visited national park, at its least-visited time of year, I expected to find quiet, solitude, and to not see another living soul for days at a time. I would spend my time in reading, introspection, and silence. I would wander wherever I wanted, take photos, and explore without the "crowds" (relatively speaking, that is) that fill the island in August.

What I actually got was by far the most social backpacking trip I've ever done. I expected -- and thought I wanted -- the exact opposite, but my trip ended up being a fantastic Social Tour of the island. For most of my non-hiking, non-sleeping time, I ended up hanging out with people I'd never before met, chatting, laughing, stargazing, and having a great time. This is the first backpacking trip where I traded emails with half a dozen people and hugged (formerly) complete strangers before getting on the boat back to the mainland.

In part, the trip was so social because there were a surprisingly large number of people on the island. May is early spring for the island, and Michigan has had a later-than-usual spring this year. These apparently didn't keep people away nearly as much as I had expected. Almost everyone I met was a first-timer, and there were lots of solo hikers too.

I made it a point to say "you'll be back!" to each first-timer that I met. I know it's true. Isle Royale might be the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states, but it is also the most re-visited, and visitors stay for the longest amount of time. You only have to visit once to find out why.

Trail-assembled group photo at Rock Harbor

There is a rhythm to backpacking. I enjoy the way my mind is forced to focus on the daily necessities of filtering water, hiking to the next stop, setting up camp, making food, sleeping, taking down camp, and repeating -- all within the confines of sunrise and sunset. The necessities silence any worries -- any concern about emails or projects or class prep or grading -- and let me enjoy the trip. I love this rhythm and the way it forces me to live in the moment of the trip, enjoy what I have, and not let my brain spin on other things.

Backpacking on Isle Royale has this rhythm, but it has some unique features too. As one of my new trail friends said, Isle Royale is like a small town. Very quickly, you get to know pretty much everyone. And much like a small town, everyone gets to know you and hears about what you've been up to -- whether you told them or not! All backpackers hike the same trails, and the system of centralized campgrounds funnels us to the same places. We see each other often, pass along news, hear rumors about good places to see moose, where the wolves were howling last night, where the new beaver dam has wiped out a bridge, or how that poor group of unprepared dudes is doing.

All of these features -- the rhythm of backpacking, the small town atmosphere, the surprising socialness -- made this a trip I will truly remember, and helped me find some friends I am sure I will see again on the trail.

A typical Isle Royale trail

All winter, I thought and dreamed and planned for the trip. Ferries don't run very often in May, so I was limited to 5 days. I considered covering a bunch of new miles on the Greenstone Trail, the island's premiere trail and one of the most famous in the midwest. I was especially interested in the little-traveled segment on the east end from Lookout Louise to Mt. Franklin. Another option was to do a long haul visiting McCargoe Cove and some of the legendary Minong Trail. In the end, I settled on a simple there-and-back hike along the Rock Harbor Trail, seeing old favorites like Daisy Farm and Moskey Basin, with plenty of time to take photos and enjoy the sights.

Early in 2019, I saw a photo from someone who had bushwhacked around the end of Moskey Basin and onto a short, rocky point of land that overlooks the Moskey campground. My interest was immediately piqued. I spent years doing off-trail hiking and exploring in the Keweenaw, and the photo inspired me to give it a try on the island. My plan to do a quick day hike to the point soon expanded, when I looked on a topo map and saw "Mt. Saginaw" sitting just 3 miles overland from Moskey Basin. Wouldn't it be fun to conquer this mildly (mildly) high point, see terrain that nobody sees, and earn the bragging rights of a cross-country explorer on Isle Royale?

I planned out possible routes in great detail, topo maps in hand. I read surveys of tree cover to see how bad the bush might actually be. I looked at a progression of old aerial photos to see where beaver dams might lead me across swamps. I set GPS waypoints and sketched maps by hand, noting important landmarks such as the many parallel rocky ridges which could act as highways for my hike. I searched for others who have done something similar and came up with almost nothing -- except for plenty of warnings that the swamps and balsam forests would swallow me alive.

I also significantly updated my gear. Usually Sarah and I save weight by distributing common items (a tent, cooking gear, etc.) between our packs. On a solo trip, I would have to haul it all myself. I wanted a light pack that wouldn't drag me down and keep me from seeing what I wanted to see. I also worried about the potential for wet days and cold nights, a dangerous combination. Finally, some of my gear was quite elderly, a holdover from days when "cheap" was the top priority. So, I coughed up the cash and upgraded to a lighter tent, a 10 degree sleeping bag (that was miraculously lighter than my old 25 degree bag), and a highly insulated sleeping pad that would keep me off of the cold, cold ground.

I also, at long last, gave in and bought hiking poles. Some of you out there know that I've spent years making fun of people who use poles. Just pick up a stick! But on trip after trip, my pack started to weigh more heavily on my knees. I began to see some potential, maybe, possibly good reasons to get poles. After some practice hikes, I actually started to like them a little bit. They really helped me maintain momentum and put some zip in my step. On practice hikes with a loaded pack, I felt a noticeable improvement in how tired I got. So, the poles made the cut. But... watch for more details in later installments.

In the week leading up to my trip, I watched the upcoming weather diligently. The forecast was remarkably consistent: Highs in the 40's, lows in the 30's, and rainy. Disappointing, but at least I was well prepared for the rain and cold.

The Isle Royale Queen IV at dock

Sunday May 26, 2019: I left Grand Rapids early and drove 9 uneventful hours up to Copper Harbor. The biggest excitement was mama duck and a horde of ducklings sprinting (as well as ducks can) across the highway in Seney.

I drove up Brockway Mountain Drive to enjoy the view, as well as the last chance at cell reception, then headed down to the Bella Vista Motel in Copper Harbor. It was my first time staying there -- we've stayed at the King Copper every other visit to the island, but got a bit tired of constantly waking up in the mid 1960's. At the Bella Vista, my room was in the "Isle Royale house" (how appropriate), a building off to one side with no particularly special views (not that I needed them). Moreover, I was in room #9, which is literally a shack tacked on to the back of the house. It might well have been an old servant's quarters, or a former lean-to that has been enclosed and updated. Much to my surprise, the interior of the room was clean and cozy. I'll definitely return.

Room #9 -- clearly separate from the rest of the building

I was surprised at how many people were in town, until I remembered it was Memorial Day weekend. Somehow that never entered my mind when planning the trip. Mountain bikers were having some sort of festival, and the sound of live music echoed across the town. I took a stroll along the waterfront, enjoyed the beautiful evening, and finally decided that it was time to get some sleep -- if I could.

Before I went to bed, I checked the weather once more. The stars had aligned, and the forecast had completely changed: The next week was suddenly looking sunny, clear, and as warm as 60 degrees. The nights were still cool, but the danger of wet days and cold nights seemed to be past.

I fell asleep more easily than usual, dreaming of what tomorrow would bring.

Next time: No good deed goes unpunished

Complete list of each post in this series:
 Or, check out this list of all of my backpacking blog posts.