Four Days Across Isle Royale - Part 1
I honestly don’t know when Isle Royale National Park came onto my radar. Having lived my whole life in the midwest, it seems odd to me that the largest island in our largest lake is relatively unknown. The fact that it is also a National Park makes it even more perplexing.
My love of hiking is two-pronged. Firstly, it is a great way to commune with nature and explore what our earth has to offer. Secondly, I enjoy the challenge of completing a physical objective. Whether it be a few miles of even-grade crushed gravel or a grueling pitched single-track, being able to traverse a distance under my own exertion has a great appeal to me. Both of those things combined makes me love the idea of the “thru-hike.” Taking a trail all the way from one end to another seems to be an ideal challenge and recreation.
While my girlfriend, Cassi, and I didn’t have the time to hike any truly long trails this year, I looked for a trail that I could thru-hike in a week’s time. Between the two for white I narrowed it down, Indiana’s Knobstone Trail and Isle Royale National Park, the latter was the winner. Purists might note that I technically didn’t do a thru-hike of the Greenstone Ridge Trail, and they would be correct. But since there are only two main harbors on the island, hiking from one to the other made me feel like I thru-hiked the island, rather than any particular trail. And for me, that was enough.
There is one major challenge to backpacking across Isle Royale, and it isn’t necessarily related to the actual activity of backpacking. It is the logistics of getting there and back. Because of its remote location in the middle of Lake Superior, you have to get there by ferry, which runs on an every-other-day schedule. So, you have to time your hike to the ferry, and then buy your tickets in advance. What worked out the best for us was driving to Grand Portage, MN and taking the Voyager II ferry from there to Windigo Station on Isle Royale, hiking 42 miles across the island to Rock Harbor and then taking the ferry back.
The morning had a chill in the air; Cassi and I joined a group of people clustered on the dock next to the ferry. I find there is a moment before every adventure that I begin to convince myself that I have done a horrible job of preparing for the trip. I was comparing myself to the rest of the assembled adventurers, many who seemed much more experienced than me. Some packs were heavier, making me wonder if I forgot to pack something. Other packs seemed half the size of mine, making mine feel suddenly too heavy on my shoulders. It didn’t really matter though, because once our gear was loaded onto the boat, there was no turning back, and we had nothing to do but settle in for our two-hour ride to the island. The mainland retreated into the horizon until it was only a mirage, and we waited to catch a glimpse of the island we would make home for the next four nights.
Upon disembarking on the dock at Windigo and gathering our packs, the group was greeted by a ranger who took us through an orientation about LNT and the rules of the park. We then went into the ranger station, filed our itinerary and set out. It was late morning and we had 11 miles to go.
We set off onto the Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs the length of the island. I was somewhat surprised by how quickly we became relatively alone on the trail. While many people from the boat were also planning to hike down this trail, we only crossed paths with a few groups until we got to camp. We quickly found our first moose-print, and were giddy at the sight. There are 1500 moose on the island and it is every visitor’s hope to see one. We came to find the hoof prints of the moose would become fairly ubiquitous on the island, but this first one was a great welcome into this woods.
While I greatly enjoyed being off in the woods, hiking with my girlfriend, I must admit the forest on this part of the trail was relatively monotonous. It is hard enough to gage one’s distance when hiking, but in the green tunnel we were walking through we started to wonder if we missed a trail intersection marking our halfway point. Cassi and I backpacked an inspiring portion of the Superior Hiking Trail a few years ago, and I expected more of the same from this trail. It was disheartening to find myself a bit underwhelmed by the scenery, as I have hiked in similar-looking woods my whole life. However, I was not used to hiking with the weight of a pack (fully loaded with food), so I leaned into the challenge, rather than worrying about the breathtaking vistas I hoped to find, but did not.
Adding to a small sense of disenchantment was that Cassi, one of the most badass people I know, was also not having the best time. She mentioned the day before that she was not been feeling the best, and we both hoped that once she got on the trail the excitement would take over and her malady would be banished. This was wishful thinking. Being tough as nails, she never really let on how badly she was feeling until we reached camp that night.
When it felt like we hiked a good 8 or 9 miles, we reached our halfway point, the trail intersection I was worried we missed. We hiked 6.5 miles, and still had another 5 to go for the day. We took a bit longer than we planned to break and have lunch. A couple of groups hiked past us, and we jealously noticed they were hiking at a faster clip than us. We eventually set up, trying to remind ourselves that as long as we reached our campsite each night, speed didn’t matter.
It quickly became clear that many people take the turn at the intersection (which eventually loops back to the harbor), as the trail thinned and the vegetation got thicker as we continued onwards. At times, we could only see a few yards up and down the trail because the branches on the bushes on either side filled the space we would walk through. Eventually we gained a little altitude and made it to a slight bald on top of a hill and finally saw what we expected to experience, on this trip—a vista of the lake! It was choked with dense forest, so we could barely see through the trees, but there it was. Not quite as epic as we were hoping, but the day had been a slog, and we were going to take what we could get. We took a quick break to rest our bodies and eat some more, and then set off again.
Not more than a quarter mile down the trail, we found a much better lookout, but alas, we had just taken a break and so only could stand for a couple of minutes to enjoy it before pressing on. I was feeling much better about the scenery, and began to worry less about if I planned a bad trip. We were starting to see why people like Isle Royale so much. At least, I was. I believe Cassi was still feeling pretty shitty at that time.
We finally came across a signpost pointing us to our campsite on an interior lake of the island, Lake Desor, just 0.3 miles further. It was a very welcome sign, and we set up camp and got dinner ready. We headed down to the lakeshore to fill our water bottles and check out the sights. I marveled at the undeveloped shoreline. The lake looked very similar to many I saw growing up in Wisconsin, with one key difference. Not a single cabin, or house, or dock on it. I don’t think I really realized how much even a small building impacts a landscape until I experienced one devoid of any and drank that in with me own eyes.
We gobbled our dinner, nursed our sore feet and shoulders, and turned in for the night.