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.


Lao said...

Wonderful! Thanks for writing this trip up in extreme detail—it makes me wish I’d been there too!

DC said...

Thanks, Lao! Once you've been to the island, you want to keep going back.

Jan said...

That's a wonderful photo that Nicky took of you on the rocks. It's been fun to "travel" with you, Dave. Dad and I can see how much you love and enjoy the island and it's solitude but also it's community of hikers.

Jacob said...

It was only a matter time before you gave in and joined the trekking poles club :D

Fantastic story-telling, as always, good sir. Your description of the park as having a small-town feel struck deep at the core of what all of us feel out there. There's so much beauty on those trails, and not all of it is the nature. Again, great read and great pictures, and glad you finally found your moose!

DC said...

Thanks, Jake! I guess I just had to get a bit older to appreciate the poles...

I think that the centralized campgrounds make all the difference in Isle Royale. Not a lot of other places have that -- such as the Porkies, where it's backcountry campsites with one or two tent pads at most. It's a lot easier to stay away from people in the Porkies! But, if I hadn't been forced into the centralized campgrounds, I wouldn't have met some awesome people. I guess variety is good, eh?

Jeff said...

I'm planning a trip to Isle Royale for this summer and saw a link to your blog over on I've read all 3 of your trip reports. Unfortunately, my wife refuses to camp, so we will be doing day hikes from Rock Harbor but nonetheless I found reading your trip reports entertaining and informative.

In one of the posts you mentioned issues with carrying your camera comfortably while hiking with hiking poles. I would recommend looking into a cross body strap that can keep the camera secured by your hip while hiking but still quickly accessible. I've had a Black Rapid Sport for about a decade and it has been great for use while hiking (even with hiking poles), though I've read some people have had issues with the revised version they made since I bought mine. I also recently bought the strap Black Rapid makes for attaching to a backpack because I got tired having the shoulder part of the camera strap sitting underneath the backpack strap any time I had a backpack with me (and also because I've used my old camera strap so much that the metal carabiner piece of the strap is wearing out). I have only taken it on one trip which didn't include much hiking but it seems like it's going to work well for me. There are plenty of other companies that make camera straps as well, for hiking especially I think it's worth finding something that allows you to hike comfortably with your camera out, especially for challenging hikes that benefit from using poles.

Thanks for taking the time to write such detailed trip reports.

DC said...

Thanks, Jeff! I'm going to tak a look at some of those carrier/strap options. Another thing I'll probably do in the future is just not bring a big camera at all -- unless I want to dedicate the trip to photography. (My wife isn't crazy about hiking with me when I want to focus on photograpy, which I totally understand.)

Kristy said...

Hi Dave! I've been wanting to go to Isle Royale for a long time. Finally working on planning a trip for next year. I've been reading through all of your tales of Isle Royale for some perspective. I was wondering which hike you would recommend for a couple of first time Isle Royale visitors? We're looking to visit in early September. Hoping to maybe avoids some of the crowds. We also enjoy the quiet solitude of backpacking. Any other tips would be appreciated!

DC said...

Hi Kristy! Glad to hear that you're enjoying my blog. Have you been on a backpacking trip before? How long -- and what kind of terrain? How long would you want to be on the island? I could give some better advice based on that.

Kristy said...

Thanks Dave! Yes we have done a few trips. We've done a couple trips to Negwegon, which is a pretty easy hike in and out. We've also visited Craig Lake State Park several times, where we canoed with our gear to the sites. This past October we did our biggest backpacking trip so far. Porcupine Mountains, 23 miles in 2 nights and 3 days. It was brutal and we loved every minute of it! Your comments remind me of how we felt during our trip. We would like to spend between 6-7 days on the island. Figure if we're going let's make it count! I would be happy to hear your thoughts. Thank you!

DC said...

Kristy, thanks -- this helps a lot! If you've backpacked the Porkies, you have a good sense of what Isle Royale is like. We found the island a bit rougher (much more up-and-down, but similarly rocky trails and general ruggedness).

Transportation: It sounds like you're coming from Michigan, so you'll be starting at Rock Harbor. I usually take the Queen (out of Copper Harbor), since it's much faster than the Ranger (out of Houghton). The Queen arrives early enough that you can still get in a day's hiking after you get to the island. I've never used the seaplane, which is super-fast, but expensive and more prone to weather delays. Plus, you can't bring stove fuel on the plane.

Timing: Even late August can be quite cold on the island, and choppy on the water. Plus, more chances for rain. The Queen runs daily until about the first week of September, at which point it starts running Monday & Friday only. So, I'd recommend late August unless you really want rough weather and water.

Routes: I've written two possible routes below. There are infinite variations, but both of these get you to some lovely places. I try not to do above 8 miles per day on the island, and even that gets tiresome quickly. Check these out on a map and see what you think.

Here's a nice route that mirrors my first trip to the island. It gets you to Lane Cove on the north shore, and Moskey -- my favorite site -- for a good sunrise. Plus, some time up on the Greenstone Ridge.

Day 1: Arrive & Lane Cove (7 mi)
Day 2: Daisy Farm (7 mi)
Day 3: Moskey Basin (4 mi)
Day 4: Relax at Moskey, dayhike to Lake Richie, swim, etc.
Day 5: Three Mile (8 mi)
Day 6: Rock Harbor, Stoll trail, & depart (3 mi)

Here's another, somewhat harder route. This has some longer days but gets you to even more beautiful places. It also leaves less room for error towards the end, although you could hike instead of taking a break day, and make your way back to Rock Harbor more slowly.
Day 1: Arrive & Daisy Farm (7 mi)
Day 2: Moskey Basin (4 mi)
Day 3: McCargoe Cove (8 mi)
Day 4: Relax at McCargoe, see the Minong mine, swim, etc.
Day 5: Daisy Farm (8 mi)
Day 6: Three Mile (4 mi)
Day 7: Rock Harbor & depart (3 mi)

Options: You could take the Greenstone route from Daisy to Three Mile -- 6 miles, but you get more time on a nice stretch of ridge and get to see the Mt. Ojibway Fire Tower, which is well worth it. Or, cut out Day 6 entirely and go straight from Daisy Farm to Rock Harbor on your last morning (harder, but doable).

I am a big fan of a rest day, or at least a very light day. It's not worth running yourself ragged if you don't get to enjoy the beauty of the place!

Both of those itineraries could be lengthened, either with an extra rest day, or by inserting a shorter hike between two campgrounds.

One of the big benefits of Isle Royale over the Porkies is that you *never* reserve campsites (or shelters), so you're always free to change your itinerary on the fly (we've done that every trip so far). So if 8 miles every day is getting too rough, you can decide to stop early, not go as far, and enjoy a slower pace.

Finally, be sure to read the Greenstone -- the park's newsletter. There are some things that surprise even experienced backpackers in there (for example: No need for bear bags, no ticks, and nothing is reservable):

Finally finally, if you go and post on , you can get even more good advice from people who know more than me. :)

Let me know what you decide on, and what questions you have!

Kristy said...

Thank you so much for the info! I just received my map (Nat-Geo) and book (Foot Trails & Water Routes 5th edition). My Winter reading material. I will definitely keep you posted on our plans. I totally agree with you about having a rest day. We have learned that it's better to take it a little slower and enjoy the adventure 😊 Thanks!

Patty said...

Loved all your posts and photos. We're going in June and looking for wildflowers. Any input on trails on the Rock Harbor side of the island?

DC said...

Hi Patty - are you backpacking or staying at the lodge? (So, looking for routes or looking for dayhikes?)

Regardless, the Stoll trail (Scoville point) is a top-notch dayhike that you should try to do.