Isle Royale National Park

When we finished the Pacific Crest Trail last year it was early October in the Pacific Northwest, autumn was in full swing, and we were ready for some non-hiking activities, i.e., sitting on the couch and eating hot food. This year after finishing the Appalachian Trail in the end of July, we still felt pretty good, and decided to take advantage of the remaining summer. After spending some quality time with our families, we continued west to Michigan; a state that neither of us had spent much time in. We spent a night with two of my college roommates in Traverse City, then continued north across “the bridge” to the Upper Peninsula. We camped a night in Hiawatha National Forest, and then finished the long drive to the northern tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula to the small town of Copper Harbor. By the time we made it to this jetty of land in Lake Superior, we had already fell in love with Michigan. The people are friendly, there is plenty of camping, and ample picnic options to break up the drive. We had dinner at a quirky restaurant with surprisingly good German food (although all of the food in Michigan has been excellent), and went to bed early eagerly awaiting our 8am ferry ride to Isle Royale National Park the next morning.6176694928_IMG_40426176694928_IMG_4043

Isle Royale (pronounced like the traditionally spelled “royal,” the “e” is just for fun) is an island in Lake Superior, about 45 miles long and 9 miles at it’s widest point. There are no roads on the island, and boat or seaplane are the only way to travel there. We chose the ferry out of Copper Harbor, a 3.5 hour ride; although a six hour trip can be taken from Houghton, Michigan or a shorter one from Grand Portage, Minnesota. Once on the island we had lunch, and then hiked twelve miles to Moskey Basin. The last three miles the skies grew dark, and thunder started rumbling overhead. It rained for the last mile into camp, and we were disappointed to find the campsite and shelter sites full. Isle Royale operates on a first-come first-serve policy, but expects guests to share if all the sites are full. Isle Royale is unique in that they often have multiple screened in shelters at a site that sleep six, and while they were all semi-occupied, two women let us share their shelter to give us refuge from the rain. The rain soon stopped, and we were even able to eat dinner outside on the shores of Lake Superior. As the sun set we saw an otter swim by, and felt very content to be warm and dry on this fine night.6176694928_IMG_4076

The next morning we continued our plan to try and circle the island in the six days we had there. Despite planning 22 miles to Little Todd Harbor from Moskey Basin, we didn’t leave camp until nearly 9am. This was a trend that continued throughout the trip, and we enjoyed our slow mornings. We found the terrain in the park gentle, with few steep climbs (at least compared to the AT!), and the miles came easily that day. We made it into camp around 6pm at Little Todd Harbor, and shared a campsite with a man from Iowa. We ate dinner on the northern shores of the island that night. The colorful pebbled beach and softly crashing waves made for one of the best backcountry dinner spots we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy.6176694928_IMG_4093

I was a little nervous for the following day, although we had three fewer miles planed than the day before. The ranger cautioned me about this section when I applied for our backcountry permit. She said that there was some route-finding due to beaver dams blocking the trail. While route-finding turned out to be a generous term, as it was very apparent to us how the trail rerouted around the dammed streams, it was arduous to walk around (and unfortunately in) the quagmire left by the beavers. Any hopes of dry feet were quickly lost, and the hike seemed to be endless. We also managed to majorly upset an ovenbird, and she squawked and dive bombed us until we got far enough away from her nest for her liking (ovenbirds nest on the ground).

Despite the challenges of the day, we still had a great time. The highlight of the day were the delicious thimbleberries and wild raspberries we found along the trail. We had our fill, and then some.  Thimbleberries are delicate wild berries, and we quickly fell in love with their jammy, slightly tart flavor and smooth finish. It was a quieter day than the previous one, as we didn’t see anyone but a ranger all day.  When we got to Huginnin Bay, we found an unoccupied campsite next to the water, and had another quiet evening by the glorious shores of Lake Superior.

 

After our 22 and 19 mile days, we decided to cut our planned 23 mile day down to just 16 miles. Oh, the joys of not thru-hiking and being able to take whatever route we please! With the shorter day, including a stop at the little store in Windigo (the harbor on the west side of the island) for cold drinks, we made it into Siskiwit Bay just before four and found a campsite to ourselves, surrounded by thimbleberries.

The next day we had a quiet hike out of Siskiwit Bay and along the beach, and retraced our steps back to the Greenstone Ridge. Along the way we followed moose prints in the sand. We climbed up to ridge for the rest of the day, and camped at Hatchet Lake, near the middle of the island. Only two campsites were available, so naturally we took the one that didn’t smell of privy, and set up camp a little different than usual. The sky looked like it may rain, so used our new ultralight backpacking tarp for the first time over the tent with the hope that if it did rain we’d have a dry place to cook. Additionally, we could take down the tent without getting soaking wet if it was raining in the morning.6176694928_IMG_4153

Our intuition paid off because it did rain, and for the first time ever we were able to stay dry while cooking breakfast and breaking down camp. Our dry feeling was fleeting however, as it continued to rain all day long. We had hoped to hike a little further to Lane Cove, but cut our hike down to 15 miles instead of 20 in hopes that we may get a shelter at Daisy Farm. The rain was so heavy we decided to just keep hiking without eating lunch, and we made it to the site just after 2pm. I wasn’t sure we’d get a shelter, but we found one of the last available. How nice it is to be able to change into dry clothes and hang up our wet ones! We had a late lunch, then read, and ate an early dinner before falling asleep.

The next morning we weren’t in a rush to get to the ferry, as it didn’t leave until 2:45pm and we were only eight miles away. We were nearing Rock Harbor, where the boat departs, around noon when we ran into two people who explained that the previous days outgoing boat had been canceled because of the rain and poor conditions on Lake Superior. The poor folks on that boat had to spend an extra night in the harbor, then ship out at eight the following morning. As a result the whole ferry schedule for the day was delayed about three hours; so we had plenty of time to relax by the water. We dried out our gear, Garrett went swimming, and we bought cheese and crackers for our surprise sunset cruise back to mainland.

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It was a beautiful end to a great trip. We hope to come back one day and kayak around the island; we’re so used to hiking, we sometimes forget that there are other ways to explore the outdoors. We easily could have spent a month in the upper peninsula exploring its lush forests and crystal clear waters, but summer is dwindling and we’re headed further west for more adventure. The Dakotas, here we come!

 

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