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


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 (I later learned that this is Early Saxifrage):

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

1 comment:

Jan said...

Your photographs are beautiful. They are so clear.