Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Isle Royale 2019, Day 5: Three Mile to Rock Harbor, the Stoll Trail, and home

Last time: Daisy Farm to Three Mile to A Night Out With Friends

The sun tries to peak out over the Three Mile dock

Friday, May 31, 2019: 
Friday morning dawned cold, cloudy, and rainy, or at least I assume it did. I slept in rather than getting up with the birds. The noise of diesel generators at Mott Island, the park's headquarters, traveled across the water and kept me up half of the night.

When I finally got up, the skies were covered with thick gray clouds, and there were occasional spritzes of rain. My trip was ending the way it started, after a spectacular run of good weather in the middle.

Shelter #3 at Three Mile Campground
After a slow breakfast and a slower packing up, I shouldered my backpack for the last time and slouched my way to Rock Harbor via the Mt. Franklin and Tobin Harbor trails. My favorite stretch of the Mt. Franklin trail looked completely different in the misty and gray morning, but still just as enchanting.

Nonetheless, being out on the trail put a bit of a zip in my step. At the intersection with the Tobin Harbor trail, I caught up with (and passed) Doug and Steve, and shortly after that, Allie and Brian. Nicky, the most serious hiker of us all, was way ahead of everyone and was hanging out in the Visitor's Center when I arrived in Rock Harbor. Everyone else from Three Mile slowly rolled in behind me.

Tobin Harbor trail

The rest of the Ohio gang was already there, having done a death march yesterday in order to party at Rock Harbor last night. They had bought out most of the beer at the Rock Harbor Trading Post and were still smoking cigars.

Another familiar but more welcome face was Mark from Grand Rapids. Steve had met Mark at McCargo and introduced us. We started with the usual round of "so, where do you live? Grand Rapids? Oh, me too..." before deja-vu set in, and we soon realized that we had had this conversation already, 4 days ago on the Daisy Farm dock.

Once everyone was present and accounted for, Doug and Steve convinced us to line up for a group photo. A kind and extremely patient bystander took photos with all of our cameras (except for Brian's monster camera, which you can still see in the photo below):

Mark, Nicky, me, Doug, Steve, Allie, Brian

With the whole Three Mile crew reunited, we decided to use our last few hours on the island to hike together on the Stoll trail out to Scoville Point. This is a popular day hike out of Rock Harbor, and as with almost everything on this trip, I had done it before. But, everything felt new and fresh in the cool spring weather, and who was I to turn down time with trail friends?

Certain non-me participants stuffed bags of chips, chocolate, and even beers from the Trading Post into their pockets. After much finding of bathrooms, stopping to find forgotten items, to-and-fro-ing, near misses, and hiking back and forth across Snug Harbor, we finally headed out on the Stoll trail.

Very soon it became clear that Steve, Nicky, and I were the fast walkers in the group, and we quickly outpaced Doug, Allie, Brian, and Mark. Our conversation ranged across future backpacking trips, the history of copper mining, and photography (a shared interest of all three). We laughed about Steve's almost comical ability to lose his gloves -- purchased at the last minute when he realized the island's cold weather would be a problem -- which he kept stuffing into a pocket, only to drop them again. The rest of us kept finding them along the trail behind him.

Me, bundled up against the weather, on the cliffs along the Stoll Trail. Photo by Nicky.
The hike was pleasant despite the gray day, stiff wind, and occasional rain. We spent a lovely half hour at a rocky outcrop bordering a lagoon of Lake Superior. We billy-goated our way up to the top of the cliffs, took photos, and jumped around the lake's rocky shoreline. The lichen-covered rocks formed an almost alien landscape, yet a familiar one: They are the mirror image of the Keweenaw's north shore, a place that my heart still aches for when I remember my time living there.

Eventually the rest of the group caught up with us and pushed us onward, picking up Steve's gloves (again) as they fell out of his pocket. We made a beeline for the end of the point while Doug peeled off, bound and determined to find an eagle's nest and a beaver cave (?!) that he had heard about along the trail. He promised to meet up with us on the way back.

When the rest of us made the end of the point, Steve revealed a treat that he had brought from the camp store: A Moon Pie. We partook of the gooey layers of cake and cream while standing in the most beautiful place in the world.

And just like that, I realized that it was time to leave. We had about an hour until the Queen was scheduled to leave -- just enough time to half-walk, half-run back back to Rock Harbor. This was completely unlike me -- I'm everywhere half an hour early, and there's no way I wanted to miss my only way off of the island. We paused just long enough to pick up Steve's gloves again from the middle of the trail. Doug, off on his beaver-and-eagle hunt, was nowhere to be found. We conferred briefly, decided that Doug knew when and where the boat was leaving, and that he would find his own way there.

Artist in residence (Dassler) cabin from the very end of Scoville Point

So we raced on to the dock, pausing for goodbye hugs from Nicky (the lucky one who still had several days on the island). We picked up our packs, handed them up to the crewman storing them on the Queen's upper deck, and then waited anxiously for Doug, who still hadn't appeared.

Finally, just before the last few hikers boarded and Captain Ben was about to get annoyed with us, Doug popped out from the woods. He had gotten a bit too engrossed in his search for the eagle -- found! and beaver -- not found! -- and literally made it in to the boat at the last possible minute. As he boarded, we told him that we had searched for him but couldn't find him. He replied: "Didn't you find my gloves? I went off trail to look for the beaver, and I left them on the trail so you'd know where I was waiting." Steve sheepishly turned over "his" gloves, which we had so thoughtfully picked up but not properly recognized.

The Queen was much emptier than on the trip over. I noticed that the bros -- looking tired and sullen -- had made it on the boat.

I spent the trip chatting with Doug, Steve, Mark, Allie, and Brian. It was a gray but pleasant ride. We gradually all fell into quiet and melancholy as we pondered the experiences we'd had over the past week and faced the prospect of returning to civilization.

Eventually cell phones started to ding!, signaling the approach of civilization. The boat entered Copper Harbor; the Harbor Haus waitstaff danced for us; we cheered; then we docked and disembarked.

Proof that I rode the Queen.

Before we departed, Doug, Steve, Mark and I made plans to meet at the Michigan House in Calumet. We met there and had the best burgers, beer, and chocolate pie in the world. Admittedly, any real food would have been the best in the world at that point, but the Michigan House's Gipp Burger really is one of the best burgers I've ever hard. Peer pressure and strength in numbers made it possible for us to enjoy dinner before any of us had a chance to change our filthy hiking clothes or shower off a week's accumulated cruft.

We departed with promises to keep in touch and wishes for safe travels. I headed to the Super 8 in Houghton and took the traditional two showers in a row, then immediately fell asleep and didn't wake up for 10 hours.

The next morning, I had a quiet breakfast at Suomi in Houghton -- their Pannukakku is still the best -- and headed south. The trip back home was melancholy and uneventful, as always. I was already planning my next trip.

Colonel Meat Stick says: I'll be back! (Photo by Steve.)

Afterward: Every trip to the island has its own character. My first trip was a death march where I nonetheless fell in love with the island. My second trip was a beautiful stroll through the woods, rounded out with relaxation and blueberries. This trip was completely different. I didn't see many new places or trails, but I did meet new people, got to know them, and felt like I was really part of a trail community.

I backpack for solitude, time for introspection, and quiet, and I usually don't go much beyond saying "hi" to anyone I meet on the trail. This trip showed that, sometimes, it's worth changing things up. Thanks to everyone (whether you're reading this or not!) for making this a trip to remember.

And of course, I'll be back! On this trip, I made sure to invite every newbie I met back to the island, partly because I knew it would likely happen anyway once they fell in love with the island, and partly to invite them into part of the wonderful community that I found on the island. I encourage you to do this too.

... Oh, and just for Jake: Yeah, I guess I like trekking poles. Kinda.

Miles hiked: 3.7 + 4 (dayhike)
Total miles: 36.6

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

My final route. Friday's trails are in purple.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Isle Royale 2019, Day 4: Daisy Farm to Three Mile via the Greenstone

Last time: The Daisy Farm loop with MOOSE!
Shelter #4 at Daisy Farm

Thursday May 30, 2019: My early bedtime on Wednesday meant that I was up and at 'em nice and early on Thursday. The morning was cool but sunny. (Are you tired of hearing that yet? Every day except Monday had been perfectly clear and just the right temperature.) I had a quick breakfast and headed out as early as possible, eager to enjoy the trails during my last full day on the island.

My plan for the day was to go to Three Mile campground via the longer and more scenic Greenstone ridge route. The direct route is a flat 4 mile trek along Rock Harbor, which I had already covered on my first day. I didn't want to repeat that segment of trail -- I wanted to be up on the ridge, enjoy the views, and take my time. Plus, I was last on these trails on my very first trip to the island. On that trip, I felt like the Greenstone and Mt. Franklin trails were ridiculously hot and difficult. I wanted to see them with a (slightly) more experienced eye.

Looking up towards Mt. Ojibway's fire tower

The Mt. Ojibway trail was beautiful in the golden morning light. I had a well-rested zip in my step as I climbed the Greenstone ridge, keeping my eye out for moose (none) and lovely sights (tons). I climbed the tower again (why? because it's there!) and then turned east to continue along the Greenstone. The morning light lent the views a special magic. That, and the absolute silence of the trail, made this some of my favorite hiking of the trip. There were views both north and south, made possible by the lack of leaves on bushes and trees.

View from the Greenstone ridge
The beautiful scenery reminded me of my first trip to the island. On that first trip, in August, this same trail had felt incredibly hot and hard. I nearly ran out of water, and by the time I had completed a short segment of the Greenstone, my legs were crying out in pain. This time I was better prepared, and flew along.

Lost in my thoughts, I unconsciously picked up speed, marched around a brushy corner, and nearly ran into a moose happily munching on brush right next to the trail. The moose calmly stepped into denser brush and kept eating. A couple passing in the opposite direction stopped as I waved them a warning and we watched the moose silently for a while, standing just a few feet away. As we passed, they warned/enlightened me about a similar situation up ahead. Sure enough, another moose upped my count to 5.

A somewhat scruffy moose on the Greenstone

After a few more miles of beautiful ridge-top trail, I arrived at Mt. Franklin. On my first trip, the Lovely Sarah and I climbed out of Lane Cove, turned along the Greenstone towards Mt. Franklin, and stopped to have lunch at a nice open grassy area with mild views of Canada. Everyone said that we had to stop and see Mt. Franklin, but we didn't see what the big deal was about. Well rested and fed, we discovered the real Mt. Franklin and its spectacular views just a few yards down the trail -- but we'd eaten and rested and it was full of other people at the time, so we didn't stop.

Today, I had Mt. Franklin all to myself, so I sat back and ate up every bit of its vast views and deep solitude. I also ate up a well-earned meat stick and some gorp. The "mountain" (only by Michigan standards) is a clear area on the rocky and steep north side of the Greenstone ridge. It has a panoramic view over the Five Finger region at the northeast end of the island, and distant views of Thunder Bay's Sleeping Giant and other interesting bumps on the Canadian shore.

View From Mt. Franklin north over Lane Cove, with Canadian bumps on the horizon. Click to enlarge.

When my snacks were done, I set about some photography. I twisted myself into knots trying to get a selfie with my Big Fancy Camera, and totally failed. A snowshoe hare watched me impassively, but I could sense that it was laughing silently at me. Eventually, Dave and Lindsay of Chicago arrived to save the day. They had just hiked up from Lane Cove and enthusiastically helped me out in exchange for taking a photo of them. Dave in particular was inordinately excited to meet another "Trail Dave". I didn't have the heart to tell him how many people I've met with my exact same name.

Pseudo-selfie at Mt. Franklin

Thoroughly rested and photographed, I left Mt. Franklin to Dave and Lindsay and headed towards the Mt. Franklin trail junction. The trail down to Three Mile was as beautiful and varied as ever. There were more hikers here than I'd met on any trail so far this trip. One group included a 70+ year old woman who was trucking it right up the Greenstone, excited about the views ahead. I also ran into Nicky (who I'd first met at Moskey Basin) and discovered that we'd had essentially the same itinerary since leaving Moskey, even including the Mt. Ojibway loop yesterday. She had taken the direct route from Daisy Farm to Three Mile, and was now on a "day hike" from Three Mile to Lane Cove and back, for a daily total of something like 13 miles.

The trail runs through this photo -- can you see it?

I strolled the Mt. Franklin trail down to Three Mile at a slow pace, soaking up the gorgeous views and extremely varied terrain. The trail passes through open rocky ridges and over dense swamps. A particularly fetching beaver pond between ridges caught my eye for a while, as did the long boardwalk and stream at the end of Tobin Harbor.

Boardwalk over the Tobin Harbor swamp

The half-mile stretch of the Mt. Franklin trail between Tobin Harbor and Rock Harbor may be my favorite trail on the island. The rocky trail winds through cool, dark evergreen forests. The trees cast a mottled, filtered light onto the trail. The woods are filled with rocky cliffs as you climb over the ridge that eventually forms Scoville Point. Of course, I found it impossible to take a good photo of all of this.

I was especially taken by an open glade on a ridge just before the final descent into Three Mile. The ridge was sunny and warm and perfectly still. I could hear birds warbling, bees buzzing, and trees swishing. I closed my eyes and enjoyed a moment of pure, quiet bliss. After so many cold nights, this felt like summer.

Stream along the Mt. Franklin trail, heading towards Tobin Harbor

Three Mile was a new campground for me -- I've passed through, but never actually camped here. The campground hugs the Lake Superior shore for a surprisingly long stretch of shoreline. I arrived at the first site, Shelter #12, which was unoccupied. I was afraid that the campground might be filling up with others who, like me, were leaving on the Queen tomorrow, so I immediately hung my permit on the shelter door and dropped my bag. As soon as I did so, I noticed the couple who was already occupying Shelter #11, immediately adjacent. They looked a bit off-put by my sudden presence. I couldn't blame them -- I was basically moving into their front yard.

I said a slightly abashed "hi" and took a quick tour through the rest of the campground. I was completely wrong: Despite my scenic tour of the Greenstone and afternoon arrival, only one other site was taken. I had my choice of any number of other shelters. I went back, picked up my back and permit, and moved along towards the unoccupied end of the campground.

I almost took Shelter #4, but noticed at the last minute that there were square nail heads (?!) sticking out of the floor, just waiting to puncture my tent's floor and delicate sleeping pad. I suppose that says something about the age of the shelters, which seemed older and more venerable here. Instead, I set up in Shelter #3 after careful consideration of the fact that a cool lake breeze was blowing directly into most of the other shelters. Unlike Shelters 11 and 12, the lower numbered shelters are separated by stands of evergreens and have quite a bit of privacy.

I had just started to get settled in when I was joined by two rangers doing repairs to shelters. They caulked up some holes in the shelter and installed a whole new seat on the picnic table. One of them had had hip surgery a few months ago and was still walking with a cane -- all over Isle Royale! I don't know how she did it, but her good humor and stories of ranger life kept me entertained. I shared my spicy meat sticks in thanks for their work (and, honestly, to reduce tomorrow's pack weight a bit).

Shortly afterwards, I heard an odd twitter from above my head. I looked up to see this fluffy beastie looking back at me:

At first I thought I was looking at a baby falcon. But no, this was just a fluffy, inquisitive, and enormously cute bird called a Gray Jay (or Canada Jay), which is not found in other parts of Michigan. Their method of survival appears to be begging for food in such cute ways that hikers can't ignore them. Two of the Jays hopped around my table and kept me company with their chirps from the nearby bushes.

I also met my site's resident squirrel, which was at least as inquisitive as the Jay, and more willing to climb right up on the (newly repaired) picnic table with me. I tossed a pebble at it, trying to scare it away -- instead, it ran over to sniff at the pebble, in hopes that it was food.

Once I was all set up, I grabbed my Kindle and headed down to the dock. I sat in the wonderfully warm sun, reading and soaking my sore feet. A couple from Chicago -- names unknown -- were laying in the sun at the end of the dock and declared, repeatedly and loudly, that I was absolutely crazy for soaking my feet in the freezing water. I tried to convince them that the water was bathtub warm and that they should jump right in, but to no avail. The wake from a passing boat splashed frigid lake water right onto the dock -- and them! -- somewhat undermining my credibility.

I enjoyed watching the comings-and-goings of people at the dock. A ranger boat arrived and dropped off four people, who walked a few feet inland, separated, and sat down in four slightly different locations. Soon another boat arrived, and the first group came back together to greet the new arrivals. They all seemed to be national park employees or interns. Soon they were all standing around some brush near the end of the dock, examining it intently. Shortly thereafter, they separated, some by water and others on foot. I never did learn what they were up to.

Not long afterwards, another couple arrived to filter water and relax. I recognized them from the Queen: They had been the ones sitting uncomfortably with the four unprepared college students on the Queen. I soon learned that Brian and Allie from Chicago were totally unconnected with the "bros" (their nickname for the students) and they were quite delightful company. Brian was carrying a massive camera setup that made my back hurt sympathetically -- a huge Canon plus a cannon-sized and shaped lens that must have weighed 4 pounds on its own. (I later learned that this was just one of the lenses he'd brought.) He repeatedly swung this enormous camera around like it was made of styrofoam, capturing birds, flowers, distant views, and everything else in sight. Brian's 7+ pound camera setup made me feel quite happy with my mere 3 pounds of camera gear.

Sand Hill crane on the sunny ridge
Throughout all of this, the wonderfully warm sun had gradually disappeared under a thick layer of clouds, and the cold lake breeze had picked up. This caught me unaware, and soon I realized that I was chilled to the bone.

I left the dock and tried all of the usual ways to warm up. Hot tea and a few additional layers did nothing. Even after I crawled into my sleeping bag (in the middle of the afternoon!), I was still shivering. So I did the only thing guaranteed to warm me up: I put on my boots and started hiking. As soon as I got inland, the lake breeze stopped and I was even a bit too warm. I explored the peaceful glade (and made it somewhat less peaceful by accidentally stirring up a Sandhill crane). I hiked vigorously back through the breezy campground, headed east, and climbed around some of the ridges above the Rock Harbor trail. The rocky ridges held heat and blocked the breeze, and scrambling over them helped me pass a warm and pleasant hour.

Blueberry flowers in the peaceful glade

Thoroughly warmed, I returned to the campground. On the way in, I passed a familiar-looking college student sitting on a ridge, listening to his mp3 player with unfocused eyes and a slack jaw. Sure enough, the bros had made it in to camp and managed to set up their tent in the lowest, coldest, most exposed campsite in the entirety of Three Mile. Nonetheless, I counted all four of them still alive, if not necessarily happy.

Down at the dock, I discovered that Doug and Steve (who I had met on the Queen on the way over) had also made it into camp and were chatting with Nicky, lately returned from her huge "day hike" up to Lane Cove and back. Seeing these three cheered me up much more than pondering how cold the bros would be tonight.

Rocky ridges and "steps" just outside of Three Mile campground
Doug and Steve had quite a story to tell. After I left them at Rock Harbor on our arrival day, they had spent the evening with "the old college roommate" (and all of the associated beer and cigars). Their huge group packed up even more beer and somehow made it to McCargoe cove with 50 lb packs, where they made vigorous use of the beer, cigars, and the communal fire pit. They also met, at various times, Nicky, Brian, and Allie, all of whom were traveling through McCargoe at that time.

After a sleepless night due to the loud partying, Doug and Steve split off from the (still sleeping) main group, took a 14 mile "day hike" along the Minong Ridge Trail to Todd Harbor and back (what is with these crazy-long dayhikes?), and decided to dirty camp up on Pine Mountain rather than spend another sleepless night in McCargoe. Steve spoke in awe of how they saw both the sunset and sunrise from the top of the high cliff. Today, they headed off on their own again and made it all the way to Three Mile, planning to head in to Rock Harbor tomorrow to catch the Queen back to the mainland.

It was clear that, despite the difficulties, they had thoroughly fallen in love with the island.

A citadel of rock rising about Three Mile campground

After dinner (Chili Mac... eh, it was warm), the whole crew assembled at Doug and Steve's shelter (#4, with the nail heads -- yes, I warned them), including Nicky, Allie, Brian, and myself. We spent a wonderful evening drinking apple cider (from a mix); trying out each others' camp chairs, or in my case, trying everyone else's since this seemed to be a standard item that I'd missed out on; talking gear; being amazed at Nicky's hand-assembled "Thanksgiving dinner" freeze dried meal; and having a grand time.

Doug, Steve, Brian, Allie, and I were all heading back to Copper Harbor on the Queen tomorrow. Nicky was near the end of her trip, but had a few days left and had yet to decide what to do with them. As often happens near the end of a trip to Isle Royale, everyone was thinking about their next trip. I was already dreaming of an end-to-end hike along the Greenstone (or maybe Minong?) ridge. All of my non-Michigander hiking friends had been suitably impressed by the beauty of up north Michigan, and as the only Michigander in the group, I fielded a lot of questions about where else to go. I did my best to sell the backpackers on my favorite Michigan state park, the Porcupine Mountains. I suspect I did a decent job of it.

We stayed up until well after dark, at which point the cold lake breeze was starting to chill even the hardiest of us. We headed to our separate shelters with promises to come back together in Rock Harbor the next day. As I walked back to my shelter long after sunset, I thought about the amazing trail community that had come together, spontaneously, over my four days on the island. It was a warm and, frankly, surprising feeling.

I fell asleep in the cold night feeling quite happy indeed.

Miles hiked: 6.7 + 1 (trying-to-get-warm-dayhike)
Total miles: 28.9

Wildlife seen: One Sandhill crane, one snowshoe hare, and two moose!!

Next time: The Case of the Missing Doug, or, how to make the most of your last day 

Day 4's hike is in orange