Sunday, July 29, 2018

Walk Long - Isle Royale National Park

July 29, 2018 - For our first ever backpacking trip, Anita and I decided to head to Isle Royale National Park in upper upper Michigan (the largest island in the largest lake in the world). The backpacking would be the end of a trip that started with a short tour of the Upper Peninsula.

We started the trip by running the Grand Island Trail Half Marathon near Munising, Michigan, on July 21. This was a course on mostly jeep roads but had a great section of almost a mile on the beach of Lake Superior. The sand made it very difficult, but the view of the lake was fantastic.

After a couple of days in Marquette, we headed to Copper Harbor for a few days. We saw a fabulous sunset on Brockway Mountain and spent a few hours on the famous mountain bike trails in the area the next day. The intermediate trails certainly tested my skill level, but were a lot of fun, especially coming down the mountain.

Instead of taking the ferry to Isle Royale from Copper Harbor or Houghton, we decided to make the drive around the lake, through Wisconsin, and up to the northern end of Minnesota, Grand Portage. It is a beautiful drive, and we took a small diversion to the Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains. I have now finally seen the legitimate mountains in Michigan; it is a long drive to get there.
Sunrise at Hollow Rock Resort, near Grand Portage.

We stayed overnight in Grand Portage on Tuesday night and then caught the Voyageur II ferry to the island. I should back up first and say that since this was our first backpacking trip, it took a ton of preparation and purchasing of gear. I originally was going to try it with a 35-liter Ultimate Direction fastpack, but Anita decided to go with a lighter weight version of a more traditional Osprey 60-liter backpack, the Lumina 60. Two weeks before leaving we did a fully loaded four-mile test hike (highly recommended if you are just starting out) and my pack really dug into my shoulders. Anita was fine. After some more research, I decided to switch to a traditional backpack, the Osprey Atmos AG 65. We did another test hike and it went better for me so I went with that setup. All of our other gear was middle-of-the-road stuff. With water, we were both packing about 30 pounds.

At Rock Harbor, the start of the trek.
We decided to hike the whole way across the island on the Greenstone Ridge trail, which is about 40-ish miles, starting on the eastern end of the island at Rock Harbor. This involves a five-and-a-half hour ferry ride on the first day. We got into Rock Harbor about 3:30pm and had to high-tail it out of there because we had about 8 miles to our first campground, Daisy Farm. We used the Tobin Harbor and Rock Harbor trails to get there. We were going to just use the Rock Harbor trail but a parks employee recommended starting on Tobin Harbor trail because there are fewer rocks to scramble over. It adds a little bit of mileage but might have been faster; it is hard to tell.

Inside the shelter at Daisy Farm Campground.
We got into Daisy Farm just before 8pm and one of the coveted shelters was still available, so no need to set up our tent the first night. We were quite surprised. We expected it to be full, with no shelters available. Daisy Farm is a nice campground, and the campsites even have picnic tables. After a meal of Ramen, we called it a night and went to bed. In the middle of the night, Anita woke up to the sound of something in our shelter. The shelter is completed enclosed, with a screen front, but there is a small gap under the door that a small critter could get through. We turned on the lights and looked for critters, but found none. We did find some bags with food moved around on the floor. We secured the food a little better and went back to bed. We were not bothered the rest of the night.

In the morning we checked our food bags and I found one with a hole chewed in it and an inner bag of trail mix had a hole and was compromised. I had to put that one in my trash bag. We were lucky to not have lost more food and learned our first lesson.

After a breakfast of freeze-dried Breakfast Skillet (quite good, actually), we left the campground about 9am and started the trek to Hatchet Lake Campground. It is listed at about 15.5 miles, but I ended up with about 17.5 miles on my GPS. The Daisy Farm trail starts with a climb up to the Greenstone Ridge, the main ridge that runs the length of the island. Once you reach the ridge, the trail mostly follows the ridge and is a rolling trail, with some steep ascents and descents, but you never come all of the ways down again until the end. The trail on the eastern half of the island is generally pretty tight. You are walking through plants the whole time, and the trail is difficult to see at times because of the growth. It doesn't look like the park service does much trail maintenance, except for putting boardwalks in the boggy areas (and there are a lot of these).

I found that I could take about an hour-and-a-half of hiking before my back and shoulders needed a break and we had to take off the backpacks for a few minutes. This worked out to about every 3 to 4 miles for us, as we were generally keeping up a 20-25 minute per mile pace. We stopped for lunch about halfway through the day at West Chickenbone campground, which was a nice spot, and then made it into Hatchet Lake by 5pm. The trail from the Greenstone Ridge to Hatchet Lake is a significant descent, which we were going to have to ascend in the morning.

Before supper, I wanted to jump in the lake for a swim. The water was not too cold and it felt good. I came back on shore and sat on a rock and Anita promptly told me I had leeches on my feet. Sure enough, I had apparently stepped in the wrong place with one foot and there was a mama leech (okay, leeches are both sexes but I'm going with "mama") 2-3 inches long with 20-30 baby leeches scrambling over my foot. We tried to pull off the mama and that was not an easy task. That bugger was not going to let go, and it was very stretchy. Eventually, Anita was able to get a good enough grip on it and yanked it off. Then we went after the babies. There didn't hold onto my foot as securely but there were so small that it was difficult to get them all. They went in between my toes where I could see them. I was thankful that Anita was there to get them off, although she didn't want to allow me into the tent that night, just in case. Anita decided to not go swimming, for some reason, so after we got them all (I hope) off we went back to the campsite and made supper, freeze-dried lasagna (not as good as breakfast, but still not bad).

That night as I lay in the tent, anticipating a 13-and-a-half-mile hike the next day, the big toe on my right foot starting hurting badly. I couldn't bend it up without being in excruciating pain. Initially, I thought it was a cramp, but it wouldn't go away. Anita and I looked at the map to see if there was a way out that didn't require completing 20 more miles. It didn't look good as we were in the middle of the island. I tried taking ibuprofen so I could get to sleep and hoped it would be better in the morning. It kept me awake a lot during the night because it hurt whenever I moved.

In the morning, the toe still hurt. It was also raining. I had to unlace my shoe to get it on, with a lot of pain. I noticed some guys digging a hole and figured they were NPS employees so I went and talked to them. They had a radio so I asked if they could help me figure out what my options were. After a few calls to park HQ, they confirmed my thoughts from the night before. There was an 11-mile hike to a dock where the ferry would stop, but the ferry didn't run until Sunday, a day later than we were hoping to get off the island. The other option was to hike our way out, as originally planned. The NPS guy said the issue was probably a strained toe from not being used to hiking with 30 extra pounds. That seemed logical, as there had been a lot of uphill the day before, which would put a lot of strain on the toes.

I limped back to camp and we packed everything up. I figured I could hike at some speed, but it was going to be a long day. After packing up, we started on our way, with a light rain still falling. Within a couple hundred yards of walking, I didn't have any pain. It is a bizarre thing, but the pain went away completely. I've got no explanation for it, but I was very thankful.

Island Mine Campground.
We got back up to the main trail and were moving again at 2-3 MPH. We made good time, although we got fairly wet, and stopped at Lake Desor for lunch. After we got back on the trail, we hit one of the nicest stretches of the trail we had been on and the rain went away. The undergrowth thinned out and maple trees took the place of birch trees. The terrain was rolling but the hiking was fairly easy. We made it to Island Mine Campground around 4:00pm. This was one of my favorite campgrounds, even though there wasn't a large lake nearby or majestic view. It was a nice open forest with a small stream nearby as the water source. There weren't many people there and the campsites were large. We also had a fire ring, so we built a fire and attempted to try out some of our clothes.

End of the trail.
This last night was probably my best night of sleep. We only had about 8 miles to go in the morning, but we wanted to get started by 9am as we had to be at the dock at 1pm to board the ferry. We had freeze-dried breakfast hash for breakfast, which was quite good, packed up and went on our way. The forest was again open and the hiking was easy. It was also mostly downhill into Windigo and our packs were significantly lighter. We made great time and got to Windigo by noon.

We found the camp store, ordered a pizza, and devoured it. We stowed our packs and hiked around a little while waiting for the ferry. After a one-and-a-half hour ferry ride back to Grand Portage, we hopped in the car and drove to Duluth/Superior and spent the night in a motel, with hot water. In the morning we drove to Manitowoc, WI, and took the SS Badger ferry to Ludington, MI, about a four hour trip. The drive to Grand Haven is a little over an hour so we were back home by 10pm.

It was a great trip and we had a pretty good first backpacking experience, leeches, and toe issues
aside. All of the equipment worked pretty well and the days basically went as planned. Doing the 40-50 miles in essentially three-and-a-half days is a significant load. If I did it again, I might add another day in there somehow. There is certainly more of the island to be explored.

Oh, and thimbleberries. These berries were just getting ripe and we ate them as we traversed the island. We also found some ripe blueberries. Both are a good treat as you trek.