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Isle Royale - mud, sore feet, and wonder

Back from a 5 day backpacking trip of Isle Royale. A bit footsore after carrying a 40 pound pack for 45 miles through mud, up steep hills, and over rocky outcroppings, but otherwise feeling proud of being able to carry a 40 pound pack for 45 miles through mud, up steep hills, and over rocky outcroppings. A few photos and observations...

The trip began with a rough 8 hour ride on the Voyaguer II which left Grand Portage, MN at about 7AM and arrived at Rock Harbor on the island about 3PM. Did I mention Lake Superior is rough? About 40 other adventurers were aboard the ship, backpacks stowed above. Drop off points included Windigo, Isle Royale is the least visited national park in the U.S. - perhaps this helps explain why. You can take a float plane to the island as well for about $320, I was told.

At Rock Harbor, our small group of 6 picked up its back country permit, made a few last minutes adjustments to the packs that held all we would need for the next 5 days, and glanced longingly at the inviting lodges and camp store. We weren't there long since we had to cover 3 miles to get to our first campsite.

For the most part, the trails were good, but there were plenty of muddy patches and streams that had to be crossed on slick rocks or planks. I was happy I brought my hiking poles for support and balance. I saw only one of our group of 6 slip while on the trail. Helicopter evacuation for broken limbs is expensive. Roots and rocks, of course, were always present. As one gets tired at the end of the day, even the smallest object can be tripped over.

The first three days provided some nice vista of the island, Minnesota, and Canada. (Except when some dummy is blocking the view.) After the relatively short hike of 3 miles the first day, we hiked a 12 mile day, a couple 8-9 mile days, and a final 12 mile day, primarily following the Greenstone Trail along the backbone ridge of the island. Our campsites were 3 Mile, West Chicken Bone, Hatchet Lake, South Desor Lake, and Windigo - all quite nice although some were a steep half mile off the trail.

Our higher route kept us mostly out of the low, swampy lands which the 2,000 moose on the island find appealing. While a lot of other hikers I met saw moose, I did not. Other than a few squirrels and birds, there were no animals at all. Maybe I walk too loud. 

Our group of six soon broke into two groups of three each. A fast group and a really-fast group. (Hah) I was part of the slower group who liked to go at a more relaxed pace, stop for photos, pause for an appreciation of the scenery, and to take a break now and again. The hiking was by no means the hardest I've ever done, but there were enough elevation changes to make the days challenging. We met as a full group at a midpoint each day, and then the faster crew went ahead to secure a good campsite for us. Most days we were at the campsite about 2pm.

Interestingly, our six member group had one person from each decade of life from 20s to 70s - and the 71-year-old was in the fast pack with the 29-year-old. Maybe age is just a state of mind.


Foliage was not at peak, but stunning nonetheless. Red maple leaves often nearly obliterated the trail. 

Our weather was good for the most part. A few evening showers (just enough to make the wet tents heavier to carry), but never enough to bring out the raincoats or rain pants. It was really quite warm and humid during the day and all of us went through a lot of water while hiking. The humidity kept us sweaty and our clothes and shoes from drying out completely. Oh, I love the beauty of a good misty morning.

Camping was pretty easy. I am not the world's lightest packer carrying close to 40 pounds when food and water is included. I packed my own tent, stove, and water filter. One of my goals was to NOT be the person remembered as being a pain in the ass on the hike. I think I succeeded. I was careful about taking only the amount food I thought I could eat and came home with only two packs of instant oatmeal and four packets of instant coffee - not bad.


On the ridge line it was sometimes easy to lose the trail, but for the most part the trail was clear and well marked. We encountered only one or two junctions most days. The ridge stone made for a hard walking surface and sore feet a couple days, but I still thrilled at these sidewalks in the sky.


Our campsites were on or near a lake each night. This access to Desor Lake from the south campsite was a regular swimming beach with a gradual sand bottom far into the clear waters of the lake. Three of the five days on the trail, I took a very cold bath in a lake - including a polar plunge into Lake Superior off the dock at Windigo. Makes one realize how spoiled one gets having the luxury of a hot shower every day. But somehow, one feels even cleaner coming out of an ice cold lake...

Just a pretty view of another of the inland lakes near which we camped. Getting water to filter in the evening was never a problem.

 Just a view.

Maple forests were our view for the last day and a half on the trail. I often wonder how I would do on a very long hike like the AT. I suspect I could adjust to the physical challenge, but I don't know if I could cope with the mental tedium of hiking hours each day, just looking at beauty hour after hour. Does this mean I find myself boring?

Our final night of luxury at Windigo included being able to secure a shelter in which we could spread out our sleeping bags instead of setting up a tent. We were a compatible group, despite there being those who snored and those who didn't think they snored, early risers and night owls. We enjoyed games of cribbage and Farkle (dumbest game ever.) We told jokes. We shared food. We doctored each others' blisters, fixed broken shoes, and sympathized with others' aches and pains. We enjoyed each other's company enough to have supper together even after returning to the mainland. I think that's saying something.

I know I have at least one more backpacking trip in my future - Philmont with younger grandson in July 2020. But I wonder if that may be it. I do love a hot shower at the end of each hiking day that inn-to-inn hikes provide.

But I am very glad I experienced Isle Royale.

All of my photos of the trip can be found here.


An analog week ahead


Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior can be a scary place...

  • Wolves
  • Moose
  • Leeches
  • Unpredictable weather

and perhaps most frightening of all

  • No cell phone service

Starting Saturday, 5 outdoor club members and I will be hiking Isle Royale from its northeastern most point to its most southeastern point. The beginning and end points of this 45 mile hike have a few amenities - ranger stations, a lodge, potable drinking water, and stores. But for the majority of the hike across the spine of this large island on the Greenstone Trail, one must to carry what one will need - period.

My pack without water will weigh about 32 pounds. Ultra-light back packers will scoff at such a load. But for those of us who wish to enjoy time in the campsites and sleep snugly and don't need to cover more than a dozen miles in a day and want hot coffee in the mornings, the camp chair and the cushy sleeping pad and the gas stove are worth the few extra pounds.

One thing I will not be carrying will be my cell phone. Instead I will have a digtial camera with an extra battery, a real-live compass/thermometer, a wrist watch, and a paper map of the park.

What I have not yet decided on is whether to bring a print book or my Kindle as leisure reading material. The print book is light and keeps the analog spirit of the trip. But what will I do if I finish the book before the hike is over? What if the battery of my headlamp dies? Can I read the smallish print of a paperback with my cheaters? On the other hand, my Kindle may also run out its battery life. Might it get wet and short out?

The horror of not having something to read is greater by far than that of no Internet by far. 

Wish us good weather. And long battery life.


What will your grandchildren see and experience?


The photo above was taken during an Alaskan cruise in August of 2019. It is a vivid example of the gorgeous, unspoiled scenery of the Tongass National Forest as seen from Misty Fjord. I was moved by the beauty and serenity of the area during the week we spent slowly drifting through the area on the small ship, by kayak, and on inflatable skiffs. When we took hikes ashore, we were on our best ecological behavior, leaving not trace of our being there.

While I try to stay away from politics on this blog and social media in general (well, maybe life in general), I could not help but react to the following story: Trump pushes to allow new logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, Washington Post, August 27, 2019. This is just one of what is reported to be many reversals of environmental rules that the current administration has implemented. More than tariffs or North Korean bluster or self-serving tax policy changes, the potential impact on the environment has a concerning long-term impact on the country (and world).

When it comes to politics, I try to apply the "grandpa" filter in determining my reaction to a program, proposal, court-ruling, or law. In other words, how will my grandchildren's world be better or worse in 20 years for the decisions being made today.

Our society's need for instant gratification needs to be counter-balanced by long-term thinking. Is it nice to have a tax reduction today? Of course - more trips, more ice cream, more shopping for clothes we don't really need. But what if that tax reduction results in a national debt that will be born during my grandsons' working years? Low gas tax vs. crumbling infrastructure. Underfunded schools vs educated workforce. We show our love of future generations by looking into the future.

Put on on your grandparent glasses the next time you read the newspaper or look at your newsfeed. Maybe by doing so, our grandchildren can experience the Alaskan wilderness and the good life as well.