Camps were Birch Island, Island Mine, Malone Bay, and Daisy Farm.
I knew going in that the original plan would be subject to potentially extensive change on the fly, due to how difficult the off-trail sections would end up being, the weather, as well as my fitness. The weeks leading up to this trip were hectic, ending with the travel process of catching a plane at 0555 Saturday morning, driving the 13 hours from Cincinnati to Copper Harbor on Sunday (beginning at noon), then waking at 0645 to get on the boat, which left at 0800. I was ready to sleep plenty once I got into the woods.
According to the rangers the word is officially out on September. We had a full boat, the antipenultimate one out of Copper Harbor for 2019, with 50+ people all set to be briefed and permitted at once. This took a while, though I’m not sure Isle Royale using hand written permits accelerated or decelerated the process. Unlike every other park I can think of with designated backcountry camps, Isle Royale is ok with and even expects people to alter their itineraries mid-trip. The permits quantify traffic, and allow rangers to give folks a heads up that they might have to share tent pads or lean-tos. That people are expected to sort this out in the field amongst themselves is one of the many charms that park is afforded by having such low visitation.
I was off around noon for the short walk over to the Tobin Harbor seaplane docks, where we flew off the island on our last trip, and where I blew up my Curiyak for the first of five separate paddling legs that day. The weather was sublime, with little wind, full sun, and temps which were just not too warm. The narrow channels which lead all the way to Lane Cove are friendly to a little boat, and after a second lunch break at the Lane Cover campground it was time to get real and figure out what the central goal of this trip was going to entail. I dove into the bushwack around 4, and emerged 4 hours later at the back of Brady Cove, spooking a moose and paddling to the dock at Birch Island right at full dark, picking the tiny island out from the trees across McCargoe Cove using the reflection of the setting sun in the glassy water.
I followed the ridge system perhaps 1/3 of the way from the trail to the east shore of Linklater Lake before becoming frustrated that I was not finding and following the best natural line. A close examination of the satellite imagery reveals that the ridge, running away from me a bit south of west, is split by many gullies which run from southeast to northwest. These were strenuous to cross, and the bottom of every one had a moose trail, extensively trafficked, the collective weight of which had me convinced there was a better way. For me off trail travel is only secondarily about seeing certain places, the part I find of most interest is seeing how creatures use the landscape in the absence of explicit human influence. Thus, I bailed south into the “meadow” which was of course a swamp, though drier than expected. A moose highway ran along the north edge, and was mostly dry, making for excellent progress. As I neared Linklater this trail lost it’s integrity, as the moose seemed to fan out in the thicker forest, due to either the easier travel (for a moose, the undergrowth was still considerable), the change in feed availability, or both. The trail came back together along the north shore of the lake, with progress bumping back up above 1 mph. There were several places a decent site could have been hacked out of the undergrowth here, but I was deeply in the zone of forward motion, as well as worried a moose would come along in the dark and trip over a guyline.
So I continued. The forest north and northwest of Lake Shesheeb is mostly architectonic birch trees, whose far and sparse canopy allows plenty of secondary growth. It was tough going, with moose traffic to dispersed to be of use. It was starting to look like I’d be in for either schwacking in the dark, or a scruffy camp deep in the brush. Maintaining the second to second focus needed for safe travel became difficult, and I was worried about burning too many matches on the first day of the trip. Getting back north on the ridge didn’t look worse, and promised more perspective, so up I went. The trees were too big to see anything, but the sounds on an active stream and the promise of open water a theoretical mere kilometer to the north gave me a push to drop further north. The brush was even thicker, with extensive alder along the creek, which had seen an astonishing amount of recent beaver pruning, enough to make pack-on progress possible. I run suddenly into the hillside, on whose opposite side the cove sat, and immediately found a moose trail, which turned almost-bikeable, which led right along the shore of the cove.
Birch Island has a small dock, two picnic tables, a characteristic Isle Royale lean-to, a latrine up the hill, and a flat patch of grass with water on two sides. I made dinner, unpacked, and later layed on the dock watching satellites moves with the rotation of the planet against as detailed an account of the milky way as I’ve ever seen. A fitting end to one of the best days of backpacking I’ve ever had.
I had four more days backpacking, along with a bonus 24 hours dayhiking and enjoying the scenery around Rock Harbor when 10 foot seas delayed the boat. All the major themes of the trip, and I’d like to think of traveling off trail on Isle Royale generally, were exposed during those first 9 hours.
Isle Royale currently has a little over 2000 moose, and is 206 square miles in size, making for a density of 9.6 moose per square mile. By contrast, Alaska Game and Fish estimates the western Brooks range contains between .1 and .6 moose per square mile. Extremes, one presumes, and not the first time the island has had so many moose. The terrain is worlds away from what I think of as classic wolf terrain, places like the Lamar, North Fork of the Sun, or even the extended Kishenehn. On Isle Royale there is almost no open area which is not covered in water, and a enormous percentage of the forest is also swamp. Once all that is frozen over the wolves must have a fine time hunting moose, but the ~7 months things aren’t must make for very tough moose hunting. The summary for the off-trail hiker is that I imagine Isle Royale currently has some of the best moose trails on the planet, from a human perspective. On the afternoon of day three I was blown ashore in the cove north of Spruce Point, and had there not been consistent moose trails to follow all the way to Crow Point along the coast, my progress would have gone from merely slow (~1 mile/hour) to half that or even less. One of the few places where following moose trails is an advisable navigation tactic.
I also received a good education in packrafting on big lakes, which in retrospect allowed me to appreciate how easy the first days paddling terrain was. Two of my new comrades in boat-waiting guide kayak trips in the Apostle Islands, and explained how Lake Superior, in the absence of tidal influence, forms its swell based on the prevailing winds, which given the large area in question makes swell direction and size oddly fickle. Paddling down Siskiwit Bay was casual until I portaged over to and then went beyond Hay Bay, at which point I was sufficiently out of the lee of Feldtmann Ridge that I had both a strong following wind and a strong quartering swell to contend with. Packrafts don’t manage either of these especially well, and with both moving towards being strong enough to flip me, and not being able to square on to both simultaneously and thus make backwards and outwards progress that would let me clear Spruce Point, it was an easy choice to go ashore. A similar situation occurred the next day, when I was able to use the strong following swell and calm winds to work as far as the east side of Schooner Island, at which point fighting diagonally to stay off shore seemed like too much effort. I was also worried about the lack of non-rocky landing sites, something that could have been dire had the swell and/or winds picked up (which they did by early afternoon, making even the trip across Chippewa Harbor quite gripped).
Packrafting on Isle Royale makes all the sense in the world, in the scenic options it opens up, but the limitations are acute. My biggest regret from my route changes is not being able to confirm, via the Big Siskiwit River, that none of the “flowing” waterways on the island are worth floating, but examining the mess of deadfall and low hanging alder that was both the Little Siskiwit between Siskiwit Lake and Superior, and the creek between Lake Ritchie and Chippewa, I hold out little hope.
My other regrets are fairly minimal. Giving more time over to the bushwacking and paddling sections was obviously the correct choice. My first process objective for the trip was to be poised in the bushwacking sections and absolutely nail navigation, and on each key occasions I popped out, either on a trail or a body of water, exactly where I had intended. There was a considerable amount of trepidation on day one, surrounding how much time and especially effort fulfilling that goal would require, and thus doing so was deeply satisfying, and most importantly allowed me to tackle the next bushwacking sections (particularly the stretch inwards to the Malone Bay trail, the thickest of the trip) with a mind detached from outcome goals. Now I’m left with a list of places I’d like to see next time; Red Oak Ridge west from Island Mine, the corrugated minefield going directly from Ritchie to Wittlesey, and yes, the beach walk around The Head and Long Point. No trip to a good place can ever be the last.
One of the highlights of the trail walking was the final six miles of the second day. For the first half of the day one bushwack I used the Ojibway lookout tower to gauge progress, and spent the less frequent snatches of visibility on the second half of that stretch looking south and west towards the rest of the Greenstone. Big views (for Isle Royale) over Mount Siskiwit rewarded this route change, but the later parts over Ishpeming and Desor dragged. I knew my fatigue was largely from the huge first day, as well as the tough trail tread, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that such fatigue prior to mile 20 on a day was simply not acceptable. The descent down the west flank of Desor is gentle, with the grade all but vanishing into a continuous birch and maple canopy that blotts the sky and has almost no undergrowth. The leaves were just starting to change in earnest, and my wonder came home with the realization that it had been years, indeed over a decade, since I’d gone so long on feet with so little view of the sky.
Isle Royale National Park officially closes to the public on October 31st, and yet this year you couldn’t take a boat out to the island later than October 3rd. Presumably the weather gets less predictable the further one travels into fall, which leaves me with two closing thoughts. I want to go back in mid-October, and perhaps as the popularity of the park expands boat service will as well. If and when this does happen, I’ll carve out an extra generous allowance of time, and bring a bag of supplementary and luxury food to cache at the boat dock. When we were stuck the rangers kindly provided extra fuel and assorted food, and kidney beans stewed in onion soup mix and baco bits was a quality dinner, but explicit planning here seems the prudent thing. Several in our band had been coming to the island in September regularly, and a survey revealed that around 30% of the time the boat is delayed. Which of course highlights one of the biggest appeals of the Isle Royale; it is remote in a way that hearkens back a century or more, when civilized travel was not so easily taken for granted, and is both a backcountry destination and a more wholistic travel experience.