Saturday, September 20, 2008

Isle Royale 2008

I am back and surviving re-entry. Mind is clear, body is stronger, no serious aches and pains lingering.

This year my hiking partner and I planned a trip from Rock Harbor to Windigo. Now, the guidebooks say you can do this in 4-5 days, but why? We had planned out a much more leisurely route. Regular life is so fast paced, why bring it on vacation with you?

After finishing up packing at home - and wondering how everything was going to really fit into my pack once the food was added - running a couple of errands, getting my hair cut (no worries about hat hair for me), and voting in the primary we headed to Grand Marais to pick up the rest of the food for our trip. We had ordered 4 meals from Packlite Foods and were stopping by their storefront to get them. In the process we added on a 5th meal. Ran a few errands in Grand Marais and then headed further up the shore to the Outpost Motel.

The ferry to Isle Royale leaves Grand Portage at 8:00 am. You need to be there 45 minutes before hand to check in and load your gear. Grand Portage is about 40+ miles north of Grand Marais.... The hotel is a convenient stopping point and allows us to spread out and finalize our packing with the comforts of modern conveniences like lights. Also allowed me to find out the primary results ;->

We did fit all of the gear into - or on - our packs and could still lift them ;-> Ultralight we are not, but compared to some packs we saw out there we did quite well for 9 days. I do have to say that this is as long of a trip as I could do with the set-up I currently have (Granite Gear Nimbus Latitude Ki, 3900 cu in - internal lid removed for this trip ). I maxed out the pack and did attach a day pack and a stuff sack with my raingear/outerwear to the outside. Not the best set-up but I couldn't leave anything else behind. Pack weight at the end of the trip = 35 lbs. That said, I had less of the food and more of the "group gear" (4-person tent body, large bottles of stove fuel, stove, water filter, etc). Obviously need a smaller tent one of these days, but there are advantages to the Eureka Alpine Meadows tent that I have that make it worth it's weight:
- room for you and your gear when the weather turns cruddy or the foxes are being bad
- can drop the body and leave the fly standing for weather protection while packing up

Day 1: Grand Portage to Rock Harbor.
We boarded the Voyageur II ferry Wednesday 9/10 and headed out to the island. Two hours later, after a brief stop at Windigo to register our itinerary we hopped back on the ferry for the 5 hour trip to Rock Harbor on the other end of the island. I had managed to fit a knitting project into my pack and the ferry ride was a perfect opportunity to work on it (Ribbed hat in Jamieson's Shetland sportweight yarn, sz 2 needles)

Arrived in Rock Harbor and were greeted by a ranger who spotted a handknit hat tucked inside my fanny pack. This lead to a discussion of knitting and an invitation to come up to her house and see the sweater she was working on. She had designed the pattern which included moose, wolves, pine trees, twinflower and bunchberry motifs. Knit in scandinavian style. It was amazing! I kept trying to figure out how to get the charts from her ;->

Opted to hike to Three Mile Campground that afternoon. Despite copious hints from the ranger we took the Rock Harbor trail vs the Tobin Harbor trail. Yup, it was really rocky, rooty and hilly! Found a shelter to our liking and settled in. There was a beautiful moon that night peeking through the clouds.

Day 2: Three Mile to Daisy Farm.
Woke up to overcast and a prediction of storms. Could hear the wind and waves and see that the Lake looked rough. Chose to hike in rain gear as the skies looked pretty threatening. Today was another short day, only 4.4 miles, but in that time we got saturated! When it started raining it just came down hard and steady. By the time we made it to Daisy Farm our priorities in a shelter were that it, and at least part of the picnic table, were dry. We set up camp, hung the clothes lines, spread out the wet gear and settled down to wait out the rain. By evening it had stopped and on our last trip to pump water we stood on the dock in the fog watching a family of mergansers swimming around.

Day 3: Daisy Farm to Moskey Basin.
Woke to sunshine and rapidly warming temperatures. Our original plan was to hike to Lake Richey but we had heard that Moskey Basin was beautiful so that was the destination for today. Only 3.9 miles, but it was the perfect choice. Saw 4 or 5 garter snakes on the way. The shelters are located on the water and we chose one whose "front yard" was a sloping rock. Perfect place to spread out all of our wet gear and get really dried out. The temperature had to be in the low 70's at least and we just hung out in camp, exploring and soaking up the sunshine. Experienced an amazing moonrise and sunrise at that camp.

Day 4: Moskey Basin to W. Chickenbone.
It had gotten cold the night before, but I stayed nice and warm in my new sleeping bag. This was a longer hike - 6.3 miles - and took us across the width of the island which means lots of ups and downs. Still we got into camp early and got set up. This campground showed signs of lots of use. It sits at a middle point and is used by hikers and canoeist/kayakers. We had heard that there was a 'bad fox' here so pretty much everything went into the tent as soon as it was set up. On the hike saw tracks of moose and wolves and lots of wolf scat. In camp saw a lot of toads and picked up a couple of tiny leeches while pumping water. As the day progressed the skies clouded up and by the time we ate dinner it was drizzling. Rained hard through the night, ending early in the morning. Had a little water leak into the tent (note to self: remember to seam seal those corners when I get home). Hiking partner heard a male moose go by in the night.

Day 5: W. Chickenbone to Hatchet Lake.
Lots of climbing today. Up from the campground and then up to the Greenstone Ridge. It was overcast and windy! A gale had been predicted for today and it felt like it. We alternated between hiking along and stopping to take in the views which were incredible despite the weather. And we saw wolves!!!!!

I think there are about 24 wolves on Isle Royale right now, split amongst 4 packs. Last year we saw no signs of them. This year was different! We were just picking our packs up from a rest break when my partner saw a wolf. I just caught a glimpse of movement through the brush as it went by. About 5 minutes later as we were hiking down the trail I looked up to see a wolf coming towards me on the trail. It reacted exactly as the rangers want it to: saw me, turned around and took off. But not before we both got a nice look at it. Isle Royale wolves are not as large as their mainland counterparts - adaptation to island life. Sounds like the biggest one out there is about 85 lbs. That would match with what I observed. Having Porter around is useful for gauging size :->

So, having seen wolves in the wild do I think Porter looks like a wolf? Yes and no. He certainly has the markings, coloration and long legs. His head and body are 'blockier' though. The wolves we saw had a more pointed muzzle and lankier body.

This was the day we discovered how bad the blister on my partner's right heel was. Spent the time before dinner peeling off the blister pads that we had used the previous day, taking a lot of skin with them and then discussing how we were going to 'patch' her up for the next days long hike. We ended up just using gauze and tape overnight then applying a large bandage the next day and covering that with tape. The plan was to leave it in place for the rest of the trip unless there were problems. Over the past 6 months of 25k and marathon training I learned a lot about taping my feet for blister prevention/control. It came in handy on this trip. We are still working out why her foot blistered this year when she had no trouble last year. The combination of factors that are most likely: wet feet from the rain, changing foot size, and polypro liners.

Surprise of the trip: just ripening blueberries! We had been seeing some blueberries all along the way, mostly a bit past their prime but today we found a huge patch of them. It was only a few minutes after we left our lunch spot and I was still cold from that stop so we didn't settle in to pick a lot. I did manage to stoop down with my pack on and get a handful for each of us. We also transitioned from boreal forest to a more deciduous type forest during this hike.

Day 6: Hatchet Lake to S. Lake Desor.
There is a brutal climb out of the campsite at Hatchet Lake. Almost half a mile straight up a hill. It was also our longest day: 8.1 miles. But with a nice reward at the end - Lake Desor and a sand beach! This was the day that my right IT band started to act up on the down hills. Not good, but manageable with ibuprofen. Saw moose tracks on the beach, but unlike last year no moose. After dinner we took our hot chocolate down to the beach and watched the sunset. Incredible! Full moon(?). Heard a moose go by, grunting and thrashing, in the middle of the night. Sounded close, but not too close. Woke to an amazing moonset over the lake. Had two pileated woodpeckers playing around camp in the morning - pounding on trees and calling - and could hear a third off in the distance. Very entertaining. We theorized the two were this years offspring and mom was off in the woods a bit.

Day 7: S. Lake Desor to Island Mine.
This was a short day, only 5.5 miles with a more gradual climb out of Lake Desor. Got into camp early enough that I headed out for a 'day hike' to find the mine this campsite is named for. The Island Mine trail traverses the Red Oak Ridge - very steep ascent and descent. But the mine was a fun place to hang out for this rock hound. Found a broken tip from an iron tool (pry bar? drill?) and a few tiny pieces of native copper. Rock looked almost like a conglomerate - could see shapes within the rock. Other pieces had lots of vesicles filled with minerals. Views along this section of trail are nice. Most of the Greenstone trail at this point goes through stands of birch and maple with no views and little sunshine making its way through the canopy so it was nice to find a patch of sun to sit in.

One thing about this site - it is not located on a lake and you get your water from a tiny little stream. Made us wish we had a collapsible bucket for hauling water.

Spent a lot of today's hike looking at flowers plants - really their berries. Saw: rose twisted stalk; solomon's seal; false solomon's seal; red baneberry; white baneberry (both have berry color variations which is a whole 'nuther discussion) and rattlesnake plantain (an orchid sp) to name a few. Lots of mushrooms too.

When I got up in the middle of the night the sky was lit up by the moon and our campsite was mottled with patches of the deepest black and brightest white. No need for a flashlight to see, but impossible to tell what was in those black patches either. Tiptoed my way out, hoping not to trip over a moose on my way to the bathroom ;->

Day 8: Island Mine to Windigo.
As you come in to any of the campgrounds on Isle Royale one of the first things you see is a post with the campground map mounted on it. At Island Mine this post was very visible from our campsite (the whole site is under mature maples with little ground cover) and we could watch hikers stop, look at the map, look around and decide which campsite they wanted to head to first.

While we were eating breakfast I turned around towards the trail where the campground map was located. And there was a wolf just passing through! It stopped about where all the hikers do and looked around. My partner and I watched it, wondering if we dared make a move to get the camera as the wolf continued to amble down the trail. We spotted a radio collar on it's neck. As we considered if she could get the camera before it got too far away the wolf came abreast of a path that led into our campsite, stopped, and decided to head down that trail. Curious about our tent, it's open door and food? We didn't - and couldn't - wait to find out. One thing the rangers talk to all visitor's about is appropriate behavior of the wolves. They do not want them becoming comfortable around humans, so you are told to chase them off if they do not run off on their own. We had been watching this one, letting it be because it was continuing down the trail. With the turn towards camp came the need to scare it off. I got up and did so. And it ran off right away.

No pictures, but a wonderful chance to observe the wolf. When we got into Windigo that afternoon we had an opportunity to talk to Val, one of the rangers, and learn more about this particular wolf. A younger male, large for Isle Royale (about 85 lbs), they thought he may have been the alpha of a pack, but now think he is vying for that position. Is acting curious around humans despite the radio collar (which you would think would make him wary of humans after that experience).

The trail out of Island Mine involves a bit of uphill for the first half mile or so and then you begin the gradual and then steeper descent into Washington Creek and Windigo. While most of the hike went along quickly and easily, the descent involved a bit of maneuvering to protect my right knee. I ended up figuring out a way to avoid bending my knee on the steeper slopes and was able to end the hike in relative comfort, though dreaming of an ice pack or a dip in Lake Superior for that leg ;->

Unlike last year, the campground was almost empty and we had our pick of shelters. Found one to our liking, set-up camp and lounged. We lucked out and had a blueberry bush right in camp, so augmented our oatmeal the next morning. No mega fauna at this campground, though we heard rumors that the moose were hanging out. Did see the camp fox while out walking and stood around admiring it for awhile. Finished the ribbed hat that night. Managed to do all the decreasing and even finish the top all with only a 16 inch circular needle ;->

Day 9: Windigo to Grand Portage and on to Duluth.
It is hard to leave the island and return to the mainland. By the midpoint of the trip I could no longer remember what day we had arrived and did not know the date/day unless I checked my watch. When we met folks along the trail it was an effort to be able to tell them how long we had been out there, when we had arrived, etc. Most of my days were spent with an empty mind. Maybe noting what plants/wildlife/birds I was seeing, but often just clear of everything. Walking meditation. The great thing about my hiking partner is that she likes silence also. We often do not talk most of the day, an occasional conversation related to breaks, lunch, meals - but more often than not - silence. A perfect antidote to modern life.

Greeted at the mainland by a note on my car from a friend that was on the island earlier - made me laugh. Getting back into a car and driving is a bit weird after 9 days of moving at 1.5 miles/hour. Nice thing is there is very little traffic on the north shore. Eases the transition. No cell phone reception until you get close to Grand Marais, and pretty spotty after that, so another easing back into the modern world.

Wisely had the rest of the week off and spent yesterday puttering around, cleaning out my email, cleaning gear and doing laundry. Paid a visit to the chiropractor who worked on my IT band and I can now walk downhill pain free (good thing where I live, what with the 36 steps to the house). He thinks I can be back running very soon, which is better than I was thinking. I had resigned my self to no running for a while to let this heal. Did choose not to go out to Bangin' in the Brush today as it is a very hilly course. Have soccer tomorrow, will take this Wednesday off from the trail series and then see from there.

Pictures from the trip? I did not bring my camera, so am waiting to get some from my partner. Hope to have them soon and will post the best ones. Enjoy your weekend!


Chris said...

Happy birthday!!

Sounds like a pretty intense trip. Did your partner get any pictures of wolves?

wildknits said...


No pictures of the wolves - too elusive.

Hope to post some pics in the next day or two.