Isle Royale family loop

I’m proud of this one.  Back in December when we made boat reservations and committed, I could as is usual with a big trip imagine some difficulties, not others.  But those unknowns built and compounded and by the time we arrived in Copper Harbor at 11pm the night before, put the kids to bed in a hotel and started final packing, the whole endeavor seemed both inevitable and right on the edge of possibility.  We all got COVID the first week of June, with the kids rebounding in 12 hours, and us adults taking rather longer.  After a week at home, working from home, I was left wondering when I’d be both unsymptomatic and unfogged far enough to complete the daunting task of buying and packing 8 days of food for two adults and two kids.  And with my last trip there in mind, I wanted to both nail the food variety, and have a good bit extra.  I did punt on doing calorie math, and after assembling a pile of proven stuff on the table, sorting it into bags, and weighing it, decided that the one 17 pound bag and the otehr 10 pound bag plus the 3-4ish pounds of stuff we’d get later would be enough.

And it was.  So a bit after midnight, when everything was in our very large packs and the kids very small ones, we cracked beers and walked outside, watching the still air and the building lunar eclipse not reflect off the dark bulk of Lake Superior, knowing that the only thing left was to wake on time and get everything on the boat.

For the next eight days things went almost shockingly well.  The ride over was glassy, the ride back barely choppy.  No children got sea sick.  We had sun more days than not, though it was hardly ever truly warm, and the middle of the trip carried a blanket of hard rain and then persistant fog.  The objective crux of our trip, a 2 mile open crossing at the end of the day two, exposed to the full mass of Superior, saw bluebird and glassy conditions, the finest weather of the whole trip.  We cut the middle of our loop a bit short, realizing that the kids needed a bit more unstructured time on land, and we all needed a bit of a break from the weather.  The whole route was roughly 60 miles, about 40 of that on the water.

Packrafts were the impetus for this route, this year, because as doughty as our 4 year old is, walking his age on rough terrain is still a big ask.  The canoe loop out of Rock Harbor (which we did counter clockwise) was of ideal scale, and we found packrafts ideally suited to the mostly short and protected paddling stretches.  There are some long portages on this loop, and no matter the advantages of increased glide and resistance to wind, I’d struggle to take a canoe on this particular route.  Doing some longer stretches on Superior would tip the balance, and we were fortunate that we never had to fight headwinds for long.  Winds are a massive weakness, likely the weakness, of packrafts, and on a place like Isle Royale it is worth highlighting Luc’s work on packraft fatalities, and the prominence of open water crossings on that list.  That said, if you are conservative and willing to walk rather than paddle, Isle Royale is a great place for a packraft, for practical reasons, and because as I hope the video here shows, the water is sublime. 

This was not only the kids’ longest wilderness trip, it was M’s longest.  The weather gave us plenty of gifts, and being on the first boat out of Copper Harbor had us seeing almost no one for the first 2/3s of the trip.  This year mid-May was the leading edge of spring out there, with the crystalline edges of tiny red buds of the sugar maples and old shelf ice teeth lingering in north-facing coves holding hands with the lingering aura of winter.  It was cold, and being out there in boats and walking at kid pace meant we had daily extended periods where our warmth was entriely dependent on clothing, as opposed to sleeping gear or metabolism.  For everyone else in the family, who through size and/or makeup struggle far more than I to keep warm, this was a challenge.  No one took their fleece off very much, and everyone kept puffy layers on for good parts of at least some days.  We should have brought M more sleeping insulation, but otherwise everyone was safe, and mostly comfortable, and particularly for the 30 pound human that was a big deal.

Part of the value of an Isle Royale trip is the complete package and the time committment that journey represents.  For us this was doubly so, with a 1200 mile drive home, in too little time, with far too many interesting things passing by.  I’ve seen enough things over a long enough time that I can appreciate both seeing the transition from farmland to north woods to prairie to mountains in one thrust, and the intellectual cooling period that isolation in a car demands.  As parents we can only hope the kids absorb some of that, and can put in consciously to use in years to come.  Most importantly, everyone is ready to do it again, if perhaps not overly soon.

6 responses to “Isle Royale family loop”

  1. Nicely done Dave and family! No wonder you passed on the Open :)

  2. No mention of mosquitoes so you must have beat the bugs. And what a wonderful experience that must have been being on the first boat and being out there with few people! Very cool read.

    1. Way too cold for bugs. The hatch this year is going to be epic with so much water.

  3. This is awesome…what a great adventure. Living close to one of the busiest nat’l parks in the nation, I have come to truly lament crowds. I’ve been eyeing visiting Isle Royal ever since your first trip. Maybe it’s time I actually made plans.

    1. With travel it is a big commitment. Back in January we decided to make it happen this year, which was a very good choice!

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