Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Isle Royale 2023, Day 1: Windigo and Huginnin Loop

 Last time: Introduction, planning, and the joy of cheap beer - links to all of my trip logs

A pretty waterfall near Huginnin Cove campground

Tuesday May 23, 2023: We woke up at 5:30 am, with the sky already beginning to lighten. After a quick and mostly adequate breakfast from the hotel, we enjoyed our last showers for a week, put the last few items in our packs, and headed out.

We drove through the familiar streets of Hancock and east through Ripley to the Isle Royale Seaplane dock along Portage lake. An attendant came up to us right as we pulled in, directing us to unload our packs and then move our car back to their long-term parking lot.

The poor woman manning the tiny booth at the seaplane dock was frazzled. Flights had only been going to the island for a couple days so far this year, a plane had broken down on the island a few days earlier, and computers weren't working. She told us all of this as she efficiently gave us directions and weighed our packs (ours each came in at about 35 lbs).

Most of the people waiting to fly left on the first plane of the day, headed to Rock Harbor on the east end of the island. We had only one other passenger on our flight to Windigo on the west end, a fellow who was arriving early before the rest of his group flew in later.

Pilot Abby greeted us at the dock and gave us a clear, no-nonsense orientation (including warning us about bumping our head on the low wing, which I immediately did). We climbed aboard the plane, strapped in, and were taxiing down the Portage in minutes.

Washington Harbor from the seaplane

The day was cool and a bit hazy. Due to an unusual east wind, we took off away from the Lift Bridge -- I'd been hoping that we would fly right over it. Likewise, due to the haze, I could only make out the general shape of the land below us. Nonetheless, the ride was amazingly smooth, and we had an easy landing in Washington Harbor 30 minutes later, at 8:30 am. Pilot Abby had the plane turned around within minutes after we were unloaded, heading back to pick up another group. We immediately agreed that the seaplane was the way to get to the island.

The seaplane dock at Washington Harbor is a short walk away from "downtown" Windigo, the park's center of operations on the west end of the island. We hefted our super-full backpacks and walked to the visitor center's deck, where an enthusiastic ranger greeted us and pointed us at a small table where we were to self register. She then said "we're inside if you need help" and disappeared.

Mildly confused, I picked up a form -- the same one that I've seen a ranger fill out in front of me several times before -- and filled it out myself with our intended itinerary. I put some carbon copies in a dropbox. Nobody checked our itinerary, gave us any kind of orientation, or verified that we'd paid our permit fees.

We did go inside briefly to see what the visitor center had to offer, but discovered that it was filled with boxes and rangers busily unpacking from winter storage. We were clearly not welcome there, and we left quickly.

A long boardwalk on the Huginnin loop

Besides the visitor center, downtown Windigo has a number of other buildings, the best of which is a bathroom building whose toilets have running water! There are also showers and even laundry in the same building, but only the toilets were open this early in the season. There is an "old" store, and a "new" store that was being built to replace it (reputed to be opening this very year), as well as many sheds, auxiliary buildings, docks, a pavilion with electrical outlets, and even a working water fountain and spigot with potable water. The place felt more like the frontcountry than the backcountry.

Our next goal was to purchase stove fuel. Any kind of flammable gas or liquids are prohibited on the seaplane, so fliers can purchase fuel at the Windigo store -- or at least that's what the website says. The "old" Windigo store was up a short but steep trail, and it was dark, cold, and locked. The rangers were of no help, since the store is operated by a concessionaire.

A sudden rainstorm passed over us, and we took shelter under a tree along with two other people. One was our fellow flier, waiting to purchase fuel and to meet the rest of his group, and the other was some fellow who had spent the night at Washington Creek -- the nearby campground -- and wanted to buy a warmer hat from the store. He turned out to be quite talkative and kept us entertained as we waited through several more rain showers.

Some time after 10 am, a store employee appeared, huffing, puffing, and smelling strongly of a morning cigarette. She greeted us with "are you all waiting for the store?" and then continued on her slow but inexorable path up to the store, without waiting for an answer.

We followed her and found that there was only one size of gas canister available, so we bought two to be safe in the cold weather. Our fellow flier did likewise, and the person looking for a hat found something satisfactory. With that the Windigo store was closed again.

(Side note: There is quite a sharp divide between the National Park Service -- especially rangers -- and concessionaire employees. They really are almost entirely separate, even though that separation isn't obvious to visitors. The two don't always communicate well. For example, the National Park makes it clear that they do not accept cash for any payments on the island, including at the "park store". But it turned out that the concessionaire -- who runs the "Windigo store" which is not the same as the "park store" -- could only take cash because their credit card machine wasn't up and running yet. I'm glad I brought both a card and cash.)

Due to rain in the forecast, which kept arriving in brief outbursts, we had decided to stay in Washington Creek campground tonight. We walked a quarter of a mile to the campground and set ourselves up at shelter #6. All of the shelters at Washington Creek are right on the creek, which is reputed to be an excellent place to watch moose. Many of the shelters were unoccupied this early in the season.

Despite deciding to sleep at Washington Creek, we didn't want to stay there all day. Our change in itinerary meant that we wouldn't have time to stay at Huginnin Cove campground, which we originally intended to be part of a two-day loop at the end of our trip. Hugininn Cove is often described as one of the more beautiful sites on the west end of the island, but it had to be cut so that we could complete the bigger Feldtmann loop. To make up for it, we decided to do the Huginnin Cove loop as a dayhike instead.

The Huginnin Cove loop has a reputation for beauty, but it's also 9.4 miles long. There was a time when we would never even think of a 9.4 mile "dayhike", much less on Isle Royale. But thanks to our Covid hobby of daily walks, we were in considerably better walking shape, so we didn't think twice about attempting the loop today.

Mossy East Huginnin trail

We did the loop counterclockwise, starting with the East Huginnin trail. We first crossed Washington Creek itself, where some people in blaze orange vests were hard at work on a gauging station, an odd bit of the modern world out here in the wilderness. The East Huginnin trail was so broad and even that it must have been an old mining road. It wasn't exactly easy, but it did climb the hills as gently as could be hoped, and was remarkably wide for a backcountry trail. It barely had any roots or rocks! Even better, trail crews had clearly been this way already. We saw many places where they had sawed or moved fallen trees off of the trail, leaving a clear path for us to follow.

We soon passed the remnants of an old log cabin, with a sign pointing toward the Wendigo mine location. I popped down the side trail and found a lot of mud and a few light-gauge rails, but nothing more. Not much farther along was another cabin, several trenches, and an old exploration pit -- all things that scratched my old Copper Country Exploring itch.

Along the way, we started to notice short, stunted evergreen trees with shiny metal tags wrapped around their branches. We pondered what they might be for -- some kind of environmental study, no doubt.

The trail was wide and even, until it wasn't. As we neared the Lake Superior shore, the trail suddenly switchbacked down a steep cliff face, and we found ourselves on a more familiar type of Isle Royale trail. This trail ran on a ridge above the lake, winding over, around, and between huge boulders. Everything in sight was covered with moss. It was gorgeous, and also required all of our concentration just to walk the trail.

This is also where we saw the only snow on our trip, hiding in shady spots on the shore. When I later dipped my hand in the lake, it was probably a degree or two above freezing.

Yep, that's snow

We crossed a bridge over a bubbling creek and found ourselves at the Huginnin Cove campground. Nobody was in the campground, so we sat down in site #2 and enjoyed a nice long rest along with a lunch of rice cakes with peanut butter.

I spent some time sitting at the shore, exploring the creek and its small waterfalls, and generally enjoying a beautiful campground. The warm sun and cold wind blowing off the lake balanced each other out, and I nearly ended up taking a nap on a log bench.

We were both sad that we wouldn't be spending a night here -- that was a consequence of our reworked itinerary -- and pledged to return some time.

Huginnin Cove from campsite #2, looking towards campsite #1 on the point

The West Huginnin trail was a bit less joyful than the East trail. A lot of that was probably due to tired legs. This trail makes several long, slow climbs over ridges, most of it within fairly bland woods. A constant low-grade rain set in and didn't help our moods. So as we slowly slogged our way back to Windigo, we got a bit grumpy. Then we invented some rules to avoid future grumpiness. I hereby share the first draft of them with you:

  1. Hike your own hike - There's no need for us to hike together at the same speed or stop at the same time.
  2. No sniping - Be kind to each other.
  3. Eat something - Most grumpy hiking can be made better by stopping, taking a break, and having some food.

As we neared the end of the loop, we met the first hiker that we'd seen all day. We stopped to say hi to a woman who was walking back towards the group tent sites, and learned that she was the leader of a Moosewatch team. She enthusiastically explained the program and answered our questions. In short, volunteers (and perhaps even interns?) spend a week, often off-trail, looking for the remains of moose who have perished over the winter. Their packs famously get heavier throughout the week as they collect bones for future analysis -- how old were they? How much nutrition did they get? How did they die? It sounded fascinating, in a seriously hard core, I can barely imagine doing that kind of way. It turned out that the shiny tags on trees were also related to Moosewatch: crews were tagging Balsam firs, a moose's preferred winter food, so that their growth -- or lack thereof -- could be tracked year over year, to see how heavily moose were browsing on them.

Old rails at the Wendigo mine site

Back at our shelter, we gratefully sat down at the picnic table and rested for a while. A 9.4 mile dayhike had turned out to be doable, and we were glad to have done it, but it had taken a lot out of us.

Once we were ready to move again, we made dinner: Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings, a long time favorite. Next we opened a pack of "freeze dried" peanut-butter chocolate chip cookie bites. This was a gift from some friends, and we were a bit skeptical about them -- until we tried them. They were the gift we didn't know we needed. There was no rehydrating, just small, tasty, crunchy bites. Together with hot tea, they were the perfect way to end a long, tiring, but also wonderful day.

A soaking rain had settled in as evening fell, but before bed we willingly walked all the way back in to Windigo to use the flush toilets once more! We also filled up our bottles with potable water from the faucets in the campground, another incredible luxury.

After that, we cozied up in our sleeping bags (or in my case, 0 degree down quilt). The night was cold, well into the low 30's, but that's nothing that a thermal layer, fleece, puffy coat, and warm hat couldn't handle. We hadn't set up our tents in the shelter, since we brought two tents and couldn't fit them both.

Around midnight, Sarah rolled over and said "We forgot to send a check-in message!" We'd completely forgotten to use our Garmin Messenger to send a check-in to our parents -- the main reason we'd brought it. Deciding that midnight was not the time to remedy this, we turned over and snuggled deeper into our sleeping bags.

Next time: The "Green" "stone" "ridge" - links to all of my trip logs

Miles hiked: 9.4 (Huginnin Loop) + 2.0 (back and forth to Windigo) = 11.4

Total miles: 11.4

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Isle Royale 2023: Introduction and Travel

This is the first of several posts about our 2023 May backpacking trip to Isle Royale. Here are links to the rest:

You can also check out my list of backpacking adventures.

Dock at Siskiwit Bay

This backpacking trip is brought to you by the word "archipelago".

Ever since our first visit, Isle Royale has been one of our favorite places to go backpacking. It's a beautiful, rugged, remote island national park, sitting in the middle of Lake Superior off the shore of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. For various reasons, it had been 4 years since my last (solo) visit to the island, and 6 years for Sarah. So in 2023, we were ready to return to our favorite archipelago national park.

This visit to the island was different from our previous ones in some important ways. It was our first visit to the west end of the island, which is much less visited than the (relatively) busy Rock Harbor end. The west end has many more rolling hills covered in deciduous trees, compared to the east end's rocky ridges and evergreens.

Isle Royale is one of the least-visited national parks, but also one of the most re-visited. One of the reasons it is so little-visited is that it's darn hard to get there. In the past, we've taken the Queen IV ferry out of Copper Harbor, a 3-hour cruise that's hard on those who get seasick.

This year, we would try a much faster option: The seaplane! It's extremely fast (about 30 minutes) but prone to weather delays and much more expensive than the slower ferries. As you'll hear below, this option worked well for us, and we'll probably choose it again in the future.

Our plan was to fly in to Windigo on the earliest plane (8 am!) and get on the trail immediately. Over the course of 7 days, we would do both the Feldtmann and Huginnin Cove loops, effectively covering all of the island's west end trails except for the legendary Minong Ridge. Then we would roll into Windigo at the last moment and fly back out on the last plane at 5 pm.

Our planned itinerary

Our previous joint trips were both in August, a busy time both on the island and in our own lives. Since 2020 the island has been even busier during the "high season", leading to stories of campgrounds bursting at the seams and lines of hikers along the trails. To avoid those issues, this time we went in May. May is still early spring on the island, and so we expected cold and wet weather, muddy trails, and general shoulder-season conditions. I brought a 0 degree quilt; we both brought small tents and lots of warm clothing.

We also brought a Garmin Messenger, one of the growing crop of satellite messaging devices that can send basic messages and location data anywhere in the world, without the need for cell service. The Messenger has a nice "check-in message" feature that allowed us to send free pre-set messages and coordinates to a designated group of contacts; in our case, we sent our parents a quick "Everything is OK" message each evening after we reached camp.

Otherwise, our gear was largely the same as our last backpacking trip, including some things that had felt like big changes at the time: I left my Serious Camera home and brought only a phone, saving 3 pounds of weight; and I wore lightweight trail running shoes (and again, loved them). Our food followed our simple tried-and-true backpacking plan: instant oatmeal and hot tea for breakfast; lunch eaten during small breaks while hiking (especially rice cakes with peanut butter and hunter's sausage, made possible by the lack of bears on the island); freeze-dried dinners; and almond-focused gorp bags for snacks throughout the day.

Feldtmann Lake brings moose to your campsite!

Before we get into the detailed trip log, a few thoughts about the overall experience:

First, as expected, the island was quieter on the west end in May. But it wasn't nearly as quiet as we'd expected. Most campgrounds we stayed at ended up with somebody in every site by the end of the day, although nobody ever needed to double up sites. The trails were quite quiet, and we often went for hours without seeing anybody else, but we never felt totally alone.

Second, as I commented to Sarah at one point, the only people who would come to the island this early either knew exactly what they were getting into -- or they had no idea whatsoever. There were a surprising number of inexperienced backpackers (and even day-trippers!) on the island. I had expected the relatively few people on the island to mainly be experienced Isle Royale backpackers. Who but a hardcore backpacker would want to experience the near guarantee of mud, rain, snow, and freezing temperatures? As it turns out, I'd forgotten about people who don't do their research and just assumed that Memorial Day equals "start of summer." 

Finally, we lucked out in the extreme as far as weather goes. While we did have one rainy day, and nights were quite cold, the rest of the days were sunny and clear. The long stretch of dry days firmed up trails and ensured that, by the end, wildflowers were starting to fill the woods. The cold nights and dry conditions kept bugs at bay. We couldn't have asked for better hiking weather.

Sarah hiking along Carnelian Beach on Siskiwit Bay

Saturday, May 20: We headed north with several days to spare before our seaplane ride. We spend a couple of days wandering around Marquette, enjoying favorite spots like Presque Isle, Blackrocks, and the Burger Bus. I revealed myself to be a fully converted city-slicker when I asked a bartender if he'd forgotten to put one of our beers on our $9 tab -- after all, that's about what we'd pay for one tasty drink in the city. Nope, that was the total for both of us.

In the truest Clark fashion, we spent a full morning at the library, looking up my grandparents' yearbook photos. In any town where we spend more than about a day, we end up at the local library. They often hold fascinating local history and, in the north, many are in the original buildings donated by Carnegie.

On Monday May 22 we headed to Hancock, where we checked in to the Copper Crown hotel. It was wholly adequate, if not exactly spectacular (nor updated in the past few decades). Its main feature -- and this was important for us! -- was being on the same side of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge as the seaplane dock. The lift bridge has a history of getting stuck at inopportune times, and we didn't want to miss our flight due to a traffic jam!

We visited a few favorite spots around the Copper Country, but -- as would become the story of this trip -- we were too early in the season for most things to be open. Summer doesn't really begin until mid-June in the UP, even later some places. We spent the evening walking around Michigan Tech's campus, followed by enjoying Chinese food on the Keweenaw Brewing Company's deck. By that point, I'd gotten back into Yooper mode, and handled the $7 tab without blinking.

View from the Feldtmann Ridge fire tower

Back at the hotel, we did one last check of our backpacks. The last few items barely fit -- with small, lightweight packs, it's hard to fit a full week's worth of food, puffy cold-weather clothing, and other gear. We carefully pre-packed the car (which would need to sit untended for a week), and then checked the weather one more time.

It can be tricky to get accurate weather for the island, but the National Weather Service does offer a recreational forecast for different parts of Isle Royale starting in mid-May. That forecast showed that tomorrow would be rainy on the island, with a chance of thunderstorms and lows in the 30's. But, every day after that was to be bright and sunny, with highs in the 60's and lows in the 40's.

Our plan for tomorrow was to walk to Island Mine, a campground with no shelters -- so we'd be walking in rain, setting up tents in rain, camping in rain, sleeping in cold rain, and packing up wet gear the next day. As Sarah put it, if the weather was going to be consistently rainy, then we should just suck it up and deal with it. After all, we had good rain gear and well-tested tents. But with only one nasty day, it was worth trying to avoid getting all of our gear wet.

We quickly worked out a plan to reshuffle our itinerary. This is one of the big advantages of Isle Royale over many other backpacking areas: There are no reservations, no required itineraries. As long as we were back at Windigo for our flight home, we were free to do what we wanted. We figured out a way to stay at Washington Creek, the campground at Windigo, on our first night. Washington Creek offers shelters and would keep our gear dry. This required changing a few other plans, especially moving each of our other planned campground stays back by a day, but we made it work. We even managed to keep room for a rest day during the long Feldtmann loop.

Satisfied with our new plan, we went to bed with early alarms. Tomorrow we would be on Isle Royale!

Selfie from high above Feldtmann Lake

Next time: The Huginnin Cove Death March

This is the first of several posts about our 2023 May backpacking trip to Isle Royale. Click "next" or check out my list of all of my backpacking adventures.