Sunday, June 16, 2019

Isle Royale 2019: Introduction and Travel

This series will eventually have 6 separate posts (one for each day, including this one). Check the bottom of this post for a link to the next one when it's ready. Until then, here's a 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

This series will eventually have 6 separate posts (one for each day, including this one). Check back for a link to the next post when it's ready. Until then, here's a list of all of my backpacking blog posts.

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