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Backpacking Isle Royale

By: Lora Woodward, Program Directorrsz_isle_royale_1
Some places are hard to get to, and that can be a good thing. Isle Royale is one of those places. The island is 894 square miles of rock – granite and veins of copper; and water – cold, deep Lake Superior. A rugged place to live and explore – the big island and the 450 surrounding smaller islands make up Isle Royale National Park, a designated National Wilderness and international biosphere reserve.
I arrived at the ferry terminal at 6:00 a.m. just in time for breakfast at a local diner. The thought of Finnish French toast and sausage kept me going 17 hours straight from Pittsburgh. It was July 4th weekend and my last-minute vacation plans didn’t align with the limited number of flights to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula nor the infrequent ferry departures to Isle Royale, so I drove. Never did the song lyric “break on through to the other side” feel more appropriate. Next came the six-hour ferry ride from Houghton, Michigan to Rock Harbor, Isle Royale. I slept on my backpack.
I met my partner at Mott Island, where the park rangers and scientists stay. She had arrived one week earlier to start conducting archaeological field work for her master’s thesis in Applied Archaeology. We took the next couple of days to explore the small island on foot and learned to use the 40-year-old Finnish sauna (pronounce every letter [sa’ oona]) that was intended to reach temperatures of 158 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Holy sweat! After taking a couple of days to relax and test the weight of my backpack, I was ready for my solo backpacking adventure.
I was dropped off by boat at a trailhead in Tobin Harbor and hiked to the top of the Greenstone Ridge to Lookout Louise for great views of the western half of the island. The trail was well marked, and once on top of the ridge, it followed the island’s spine. The wildflowers were spectacular. Wolf scat lay on a rock in the middle of the trail; this was a special sight, as there were only three known wolves on the island at the time. Squirrels and chipmunks skittered across the path and a bald eagle perched itself in a pine tree. As long as I stayed in the sun and felt a cool breeze across my face, I was safe from the mosquitoes.
I chose Lane Cove as my first night’s stay. It’s a five-site campground on the north side of the island that allows tent camping on a first-come, first-served basis. I met some folks that had stayed there the night before and they shared that there were only two sites left for the night and a family was on their way down. Not expecting to have competition for the night, I hustled the final two-mile leg to the campsite, arriving at the same time as the family. I grabbed the first site (soon realizing there was a reason others hadn’t chosen it) and put up my tent. Oh the mosquitoes! Never in all of my summers in the backwoods of Maine had I been surrounded by so many mosquitoes. Bug suit out and on, I struggled to make dinner without letting the pesky bugs in. I went to bed early, falling asleep to the not-so-distant calls of loons and familiar buzzing.
The next day, I hiked back up to the ridge, crossing over bogs, through birch forests, and following the fresrsz_isle_royale_6h tracks of moose. The next night would be at Daisy Farm, so my path led me over Mount Franklin and Mount Ojibway, the island’s two highest points, before descending toward Moskey Basin. It was a perfect hiking day with temps in the 70s, a light breeze and clear skies. Daisy Farm was a welcome site to enter with its plethora of backpacker shelters. I selected one by the water with the hope that more of a breeze would keep the mosquitoes away. Two power boats arrived at the nearby dock filled with a youthful laughter that made me groan inside. Here I was on a remote island enjoying the natural scenery and a group of 20-somethings were going to be partying all night. The laughter continued and I decided to check it out under the guise of filtering water from the docks.
Lo and behold a group more representing my grandparents’ generation had set out their camp chairs and were enjoying snacks and drinks. I sat on the end of the dock pumping water into my Nalgenes. This was a lengthy process with the Sawyer mini. I overheard them swap stories and laughed along with the jokes. I stood up with my four water bottles and filter and started back to my campsite. “You’ve got a limp!” said one woman. I explained that I was backpacking for a few days. The group of mostly Canadians (and a couple Pennsylvanians!) were on their annual trip to Isle Royale and were celebrating a birthday. We spoke of the island’s wolf and moose population. They invited me to join them and soon enough I was drinking a beer, eating pretzels, and sharing my own stories.
I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of water splashing. I thought it was a moose walking along the shore. It took a few minutes to convince myself that I needed to go see what was making the noise. I stepped onto the pebbled shore and looked east toward the sound, but was unable to see into the shadows – and then the splashing stopped. I looked up at the sky and stared at the millions of stars dotting the Milky Way and galaxies far beyond. The next morning, I walked along the shore to see what evidence was left of the midnight escapades. There were moose tracks, moose were everywhere on the island, but more evident were the wolf tracks in the sand. Lots of them! How special it was to be so close to these elusive creatures.rsz_isle_royale_5
The last day’s hike was a seven-mile straight shot along the shoreline from Daisy Farm to Rock Harbor where I’d catch the ferry back to the mainland the next day. The trail passed old historic copper pits, a cave, and views of the Rock Harbor Lighthouse. I timed my arrival in camp to beat the 2 p.m. ferry, so I was sure to get a shelter for the night. I ate a late lunch in town and enjoyed the four-mile loop hike (sans backpack) out to Scoville Point around sunset. Reflecting on the last three days, I felt more confident in my own skills, as well as happy with the balance of feeling more connected both to nature and to people.

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