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.


Jain said...

I so enjoy your writing and photos. Looking forward to your next posts.

DC said...

Thanks, Jain! It's good to know somebody out there is reading and enjoying. :)

Jan said...

Very interesting, Dave. We really get an insight as to what it is like to be hiking on Isle Royale.

mlbmichigan said...

What a wonderful reading! I am going out solo for my 1st trip to the island. Wondering about the Daisy farm to moskey basin trail. Is it difficult? you said it was angled, so not sure if that means steep. Would I be smarter to get a water taxi from rock harbour to moskey basin and walk back to rock harbour, stopping at Daisy farm and 3 mile for my 3 nights?

DC said...

Hi mlbmichigan! The Moskey trail isn't exactly steep -- it's mostly level, although it has some small ups and downs. But it is literally *tilted* from side to side. You're literally walking along the side of a (rock) hill for about 3 miles. Walking towards Moskey, your left foot is always lower than your right foot, and vice versa when you return. It's more *weird* than anything else.

I'd recommend hiking it if you can! For me, being prepared and knowing what was coming was enough to make it easier. On our first trip (2016), we were really surprised. But when we walked back to Rock Harbor 2 days later, we knew what to expect and the trail seemed much easier. On this trip (2019), I had no trouble either way.

If you're planning a trip for this year, I don't think water taxis are running, sadly. If you can make it to Moskey, I would definitely recommend it. It's one of the most special places on a special island.