Friday, August 18, 2023

Isle Royale 2023, Day 7: Windigo and home

 Last time: Coming home to Windigo

Beaver Island reflected in Washington Harbor

Monday May 29, 2023: After a string of warmer days and nights, our last night on the island shocked us back to reality. It was cold! We stayed buried in our sleeping bags (or in my case, under a 0 degree quilt) as long as possible. Our shelter was in deep shade; we had to do something to warm ourselves up.

Sarah took a walk to Windigo to use the running water, and returned with news gleaned from the rangers. Our previous experiences with the Voyageur were confirmed: The ship had blown its horn repeatedly yesterday because it was indeed calling for a hiker, a woman named "Dorothy". The rangers had eagerly asked Sarah if she, an apparently solo woman, was the missing Dorothy. The boat had eventually left without her.

Hot tea and oatmeal warmed us up a bit, and then we both took a walk to Windigo and hung out there. If you've been keeping track, this was our 9th half mile round trip between Windigo and Washington Creek campground so far.

The key features attracting us to Windigo on this trip were running water and a sunny exposure. After availing ourselves of the bathrooms, we sat on a bench up near the visitor center and had a grand time gawking at rangers, hikers, and concessionaire employees going about their days.

A few more Hepatica for good measure

The Voyageur itself soon pulled in to port from Grand Portage, and gave us a show. It unloaded a surprisingly large group of visitors. Even though the ferry travels around the island, dropping off hikers at various campgrounds, all visitors must confirm their camping permits, fill out an itinerary, and get the required park orientation at Windigo.

From our bench, we could hear the ranger who walked out on the dock to orient the Voyageur's passengers. Every previous visit on the island -- most recently four years ago in 2019 -- the orientation was the same: A ranger randomly handed out some laminated cards with the seven Leave No Trace principles printed on them and then asked each card holder to explain how we would respect that principle, filling in details as needed. It was always a bit odd, especially if you got chosen to explain "Plan Ahead & Prepare" (while already on the island). But it was at least interactive and kept hikers on their toes.

The orientation has changed since then -- dramatically. Because we had arrived so early in the season, we hadn't experienced it ourselves. Thankfully, as it turns out. The ranger would yell out an exaggerated: "Isle Royale is so wild..." to which the less-than-enthusiastic group of orientees were obligated to respond, in a monotone: "How wild is it?" The ranger would then repeat and elaborate: "Isle Royale is so wild that there is no running water in the backcountry!"

The group of Voyageur passengers was clearly not into it. Despite the attempt at interactive call-and-response, the passengers did essentially nothing except murmur "how wild is it?" and listen to the ranger's lecture. On the other hand, we agreed that the information in this new orientation was much better than the old one. The rangers got right to the heart of some highly relevant matters, like the lack of running water or what to do if you meet a moose on the trail. Clearly the National Park Service was responding to what hikers need to know -- and, increasingly, don't know. They could make it less embarrassing for the rangers, though.

After that grand bit of voyeuring at the Voyageur, we walked back to the shelter to eat lunch. Since the beautiful weather (and our handy satellite communicator's weather report) left little question of our flying out on time, we decided to eat our last freeze-dried meal for lunch: Chicken and Dumplings. Then we slowly packed up, said goodbye to Shelter #1, and hoisted our packs.

Shelter #1 at Washington Creek

We made the walk back to Windigo for the last time and dropped off our packs at a small pavilion. There were lots of other people hanging around the dock and pavilion, all with the slightly listless look of backpackers without anything to do but wait.

I always feel a bit melancholy at the end of a long backpacking trip, especially if it involves waiting. After days filled with hard hiking, setting up camp, and tending to life's basic necessities, the last few hours of waiting leave me with too much time to think about all of the fun that's past. The rest of today definitely involved waiting, along with a general feeling somewhere between exhaustion, boredom, and anxiety to get back home.

To fight that feeling, we kept ourselves up and moving. First we dropped off our two fuel canisters in the "free" box outside the old Windigo store. One canister was completely empty, but the second one we'd only used for a day. Some lucky person got a 90% full gas canister for free!

Next, we decided to spend some time hiking the interpreted nature trail that loops around the Windigo area. We picked up a flyer from the visitor center containing various bits of interpretation for each of the numbered posts along the trail. The numbered posts were identical to the posts that mark campsites, which caused a bit of confusion at first.

The nature trail was, well, perfectly nice. It began with some interesting bits of history of the Windigo area, including a trench and rock pile from the Wendigo mine (yes, the spellings are different). After that it quickly became the exact same interpretive trail I've hiked in many parks throughout the midwest, telling the tale of logging, pioneer plants, succession, and different types of forest habitats. One post was completely missing, others were mismatched with the text ("the large fallen tree in front of you"... definitely didn't exist). The main excitement was a distant glimpse of a moose moving through the trees, although this was not mentioned in the flyer.

The trail did save the best for last: the moose exclosure! This was a small fenced area intended to help study the effects moose have on a forest. The most surprising part, for me, was that we could actually open a gate and walk right through the exclosure! The difference was stunning, and illustrated far better than words just how much foliage moose eat.

We finished the loop back to the dock, where even more people were now sitting around listlessly. A group of four guys were doing some remarkably skimpy sunbathing, also listlessly, and somewhat surprisingly given the cool weather. From overheard snippets of conversation, they too were ready to be headed home. We wondered if they were waiting for our same 5:00 plane, which would definitely be full.

Our next step was to return our camping permit. There was a small box outside the visitor center with a sign on it, so I slipped the permit in there. A ranger came out and chatted with us about our itinerary, the local "camp fox", and other general pleasantries.

Finally, we took the requisite selfie with the Windigo sign:

Everyone who comes to Windigo takes this photo

Back at the pavilion, we had nothing better to do but read on our Kindles, at least until John from Munising showed up. He had been hiking solo on the island and was clearly ready to interact with other humans again. It turned out that he had recently finished a stint in the military, and was now completing some kind of internship at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. He enthusiastically answered our questions about his job, about how Pictured Rocks is legendarily (at least within the world of Yoopers) overrun with tourists, and many other things.

Our flight was set for 5 pm. At 4 pm, as we were happily chatting with John, we heard a seaplane come in and land... followed immediately by a second sea plane. Sarah, John, and I jumped up and grabbed our packs, as did the sunbathers and several others from their party who had been hanging around the dock. The whole motley crew made its way down to the seaplane dock where, sure enough, two seaplanes were just tying up. They were here for all of us. Lesson for the future: Always be super early to your seaplane reservation!

The pilots quickly divvied us up: The sunbathing bros went in one, while John, Sarah, and I once again flew with Pilot Abby, the same pilot Sarah and I had flown with on our trip to the island. 

Feldtmann Lake and Rainbow Cove

In virtually no time, we were off the water and into the air. The sky was much clearer than on our inbound trip, and I spent every single moment with my eyes glued out the windows, taking in the beauty of the island, Lake Superior, and eventually the familiar landmarks of the Keweenaw too. Meanwhile, Abby and John had a nonstop discussion about the different birds in northern Michigan vs. Florida, with John absolutely schooling everyone with his knowledge.

We flew in low over the Portage Lake lift bridge (spectacular!) and pulled up to the dock. Abby hauled our packs out of the pontoons, and... that was it. We were back on the mainland, and our epic trip to the west end of Isle Royale was done.

Coming in over the Lift Bridge

We were also officially at odd ends. Knowing that the seaplane was often delayed, possibly even for a day or two, we hadn't made a hotel reservation for our return. Instead, we drove into Houghton, parked at the nicest hotel we thought we could afford (the Franklin Square Inn), marched our smelly, greasy selves up to the desk, and asked for a room. The well-trained attendant didn't even blink, and soon we were in a lovely room taking showers!! -- Two each, as is traditional.

As I'd vowed all the way back at Siskiwit Bay, dinner was burgers, onion rings, and cherry Cokes on the deck of the Downtowner. It was fabulous. Then we took our giant pile of stinking clothes to the nearest laundromat and cleaned the heck out of them, making a quick run down to the KBC to share a beer on their deck before the clothes dried.

That night, we slept fitfully, confused by the soft mattresses and non-frigid air.

Our trip wasn't over yet, but that's a story for another time -- driving around Calumet to pick up coffee beans, going over to Bayfield Wisconsin where we thoroughly enjoyed an Apostle Island boat cruise (and thoroughly didn't enjoy a local winery), and then a long, long drive all the way back home.

Much-photographed boat at Windigo

A final reflection: Our week-long trip to the island was wonderful. Of course it had its ups and downs -- literally, but also figuratively -- but overall, this was once again a fantastic visit to a fantastic place.

This was our first visit to the west end of the island. The west end definitely has easier hiking than the rockier, ridge-ier east end. The glacially rounded ridges were easier to climb, and the trails were much smoother and less rocky overall. Even the hardest trail we hiked -- 10.3 miles on the Feldtmann Ridge -- really wasn't that bad. The one possible exception is the Minong Ridge trail, which I have never hiked. We chose to hike the Feldtmann loop clockwise, opposite from the most common direction, and I would definitely do that again. Besides giving us slightly easier uphills, in a busier season it would also avoid the rush of people heading to Feldtmann Lake campground right off the boat or plane.

I had promised Sarah that she'd love the island in May. It would be quiet, with relatively few people and no need to rush from campground to campground. That was my experience during my solo trip in May 2019, and it proved just as true this year. We always got a shelter (at the campgrounds that had them), and a campsite to ourselves everywhere else (even though having to camp in the crappiest site at Feldtmann Lake wasn't exactly a highlight).

Let's talk about the season: May is early spring on the island, something that is hard to understand until you've experienced it in person. The early season had a lot of advantages, but it's important to know what you're getting into.

The nights were definitely cold, and Sarah vowed to look into a warmer sleeping bag. Nonetheless, we prefer cold to hot, especially because you can bake on Isle Royale's sunny ridges, regardless of air temperature. Plus, cold weather keeps bugs down. We really did get lucky with the weather -- only the first day had any rain, and otherwise the skies were clear, sunny, spectacular, and almost entirely bug-free. Being spring, we could just as easily have had a wet, soggy, cold mess of a week, or even the opposite: a warm, humid, mosquito-filled swamp.

Speaking of spring, we really did end up in early spring this year. That was just as much a function of a surprisingly long, drawn-out end to winter, as it was the actual dates on the calendar. By the end of our trip, we were starting to see the beginnings of a general wildflower bloom, but for the most part the forests were brown. That's not a bad thing. I love spring wildflowers, and the nearly leafless trees gave us better-than-usual views from the forested ridges. The total lack of underbrush made trails easy to follow. The Feldtmann Ridge trail, in particular, is legendary for being a wall of green brush later in the season. 

Finally, this was our first experience with the seaplane. While it's expensive, and prone to delays, it is definitely the way for us. No seasickness, no long, dull ride across the water, no diesel fumes. We planned for an extra day on the island (even bringing several extra meals), and we'd do that again, but we luckily didn't need them. We'll undoubtedly take the seaplane again.

And as always, we're already daydreaming of our next trip. We'll be back!

Miles hiked: 1.2 (Windigo nature trail) + 1.0 (back and forth to the campground)

Total miles: 49.7

Our full route. Not shown: 10 round trips between Windigo and Washington Creek

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Isle Royale 2023, Day 6: Feldtmann Lake to Windigo

Last time: So many moose! So many bros!

Feldtmann Lake in the morning

Sunday May 28, 2023: The bright morning brought two things: bugs and moose! The bugs weren't exactly bad... it's just that we hadn't had to deal with bugs at all on the trip so far. Luckily, it was mostly non-biting flies, but with the occasional mosquito mixed in just to keep things interesting.

The moose on the other hand, were everywhere: walking along the beach, through the water, and... what's that sound? Oh yeah, moose walking right through our campsite. By the time I got out of my tent, there were hoof prints just feet away from my tent. The moose had judged us harmless, and acted accordingly.

We had tea while sitting on a bench that moose had recently stepped over (they were far off on the other side of the lake now, so it was safe). Then we had a second round of tea to help Sarah with her self-described "hangover" brought on by too much sun and fun on yesterday's Rainbow Cove trip.

Morning also brought a surprising lack of bros. The bros must have gotten up earlier than us and headed out, because we couldn't hear them anywhere. And if they'd been around, we definitely would have heard them.

After our quiet breakfast, we packed up and headed out on the final leg of our week-long trip. Today, we would take the Feldtmann trail back in to Windigo and relax. We were in no rush: Our plane left tomorrow, Monday, at 5 pm. This oddity in our timeline was due to staying our first night in Windigo to avoid rain.

The first few miles of this part of the Feldtmann trail were quite flat. The trail runs just below a bluff that marks an ancient lakeshore, and as a result, we were basically walking on a flat and shallow ancient lakebed. At one point, the trail led through a lovely opening filled with grass and low-growing evergreens. In that grassy field, the trail was made entirely of bare red cobbles, just like the ones at Rainbow Cove. It was a bit tricky to walk on, with ankles threatening to roll. Plus, walking on beach cobbles was very strange in the midst of the grassy field. We were truly walking on the ancient shoreline!

We ended up eating lunch next to a lovely little stream that didn't even appear on any maps. We continued to stop every hour for a short break and snack, a practice that worked so well that we'll likely do it in all future backpacking trips. 

As with most other trails we'd been on, the trail crews were ahead of us. There were many downed trees that had been cut clear and pushed off of the trail. Each time we saw one, we said in a chorus: "Thank you, trail crew!"

We had expected to meet a bunch of people on the trail, since it's quite common for hikers to arrive at Windigo and immediately hike to Feldtmann Lake -- the opposite direction from what we were doing. But we only met a few people on the trail: first one eager solo hiker, followed a little while later by a couple with brand-new gear who looked like they were slightly shell-shocked. We were sympathetic -- that's exactly how we felt on our first trip to the island.

Soon, we started to make the only big climb of the day, up a large ridge near the entrance to Washington Harbor. The day was already getting a little warm, and the climb heated us up. Soon enough we were walking on the exposed ridge top, with the sun beating down on us from a clear blue sky. We were hot! I have always been amazed at how different things can feel at the top versus bottom of Isle Royale's ridges.

6-days-with-no-showers selfie at Grace Creek overlook

The ridge had one big upside: A beautiful overlook of the interior of the island, highlighting Grace Creek and the wetlands it winds through. Better yet, there were also some shady evergreens nearby under which we could drop our packs, have a seat, and cool down.

We spent quite a while resting at the overlook before we packed up again and started the last short leg to Windigo. Along the way, we heard the Voyageur's horn sound in Washington Harbor. A few minutes later, the horn sounded again. This sparked some debate: Was that horn the boat's arrival and departure sound? They sounded too close together unless there were remarkably few passengers. Our only experience with the Voyageur also involved a horn, calling some tardy (actually, just not early enough) backpackers to come running. We also wondered if this meant that the Voyageur had dropped off a crowd of hikers who would be taking up spots in the Washington Creek campground tonight.

The trail quickly came down off of the ridge through deciduous forest. As with everything else on this trip, trees were just starting to leaf out, and we had great views through the bare forest. The trail soon came to run right alongside Washington Harbor, giving us both a nice lake breeze and great views across the harbor. We could look straight across to Beaver Island and see shelters set right on the water, of which we were immediately envious.

Sarah with Marsh Marigolds

We walked through "downtown" Windigo, where Sarah stopped to enjoy the use of running water. I continued the quarter mile to Washington Creek campground, which was largely empty (we later decided that the Voyageur must have been heading back to Minnesota, which had probably removed campers from the campground). I decided to claim shelter #1, at the far end of the line. Like the other shelters, it was set right on the creek, in deep shade, and was nicely private.

While waiting for Sarah, I wandered around exploring the vicinity of the shelter. The campground's path continued beyond the shelter, so I curiously followed it. This led me to a lovely meadow on the point of land where Washington Creek meets Washington Harbor, with a conveniently placed picnic table right at the shore. It was a beautiful sight and a beautiful location, and I spent a good while enjoying it.

Eventually Sarah returned from Windigo, and we set about arranging our air pads and sleeping bags, resting for a while, and getting quite chilly in the shady late afternoon. So, we walked back to Windigo. It was like a magnet, always drawing us in, despite the fact that we'd already hiked almost 9 miles today, and added an extra half mile every time we went back and forth!

At Windigo, our first order of business was to figure out what to do with our gas canisters. Gas can't be brought on the seaplane, so Sarah was eager to figure out what we should do with them. We found a milk crate outside the old store, with a small handwritten sign that said "free". Several gas canisters were in it, all of them empty.

Crossing Grace Creek on a two-lane bridge

Next we walked down to the seaplane dock, where Sarah remembered seeing some gas on the way up. Indeed, a few people had left empty gas canisters on top of a larger housing for airplane fuel. Plus, somebody had put an unopened package of blackout curtains on top of them. Perhaps the seaplane made a drop-off for park employees?

Our third priority was to inspect the "new" store, whose construction had been a topic of discussion for several years on the Isle Royale Forums. Rangers had promised that it should be open in a few days, but still too late for us to enjoy. While the building was finished, it was still being stocked and set up with merchandise. We stared in through the windows and drooled: There were snacks of every imaginable kind, kitchy souvenirs, and best of all: an ice cream case. Not that it was hot out, but every single piece of junk food sounded amazing.

We decided to have our dinner on the big Windigo dock, where the sun was shining brightly to warm us up. We enjoyed freeze-dried Fettucine Alfredo, always a favorite, to the accompaniment of seagulls, an otter, many many mergansers, and a camp fox that fearlessly trotted right through the middle of "town".

Eventually we couldn't keep our eyes open. We took advantage of the running water one last time, then headed back to Washington Creek campground. We slept curled up against the cold and clear night air.

Next time: How wild is it?

Miles hiked: 8.8 (Feldtmann to Windigo) + 1.5 (back and forth to the campground)

Total miles: 47.5