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.

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