I think each of us have a bucket list of some sort-some write it down, some have it floating around in our soul, maybe constantly changing from time to time. I have one I guess when I think about it, usually involving something outdoors. Hike the Grand Canyon top to bottom, build a wood kayak or backpack a wilderness. At least I can check one off, not that I won’t go back- the Isle Royale Wilderness is the most re-visited National Park in the states, and I can see why after just returning. There is something about it and it’s hard to put a finger on exactly. It doesn’t have over the top features like Yosemite or Yellowstone, but rather something more subtle maybe that is just what connects with some.
As mentioned, Isle Royale sits offshore of Wisconsin, is just 22 miles from Grand Portage MN (our jumping off point), 55 miles from Copper Harbor MI and actually closest to the mainland of Canada. When viewed from a map, the island looks like the eye in the wolf shaped Lake Superior. Summer to fall, ferry service shuttles park visitors from Minnesota and Michigan (2-5 hours one way) and around the 105 miles of the island coast. The National Park has a rich history, dating back to native people using the island for copper mining, maple syrup gathering and of course hunting and fishing. Scandinavian fishermen were among the isle’s more recent permanent settlers, along with loggers, miners and vacationers. During the 1920s and ‘30s, the national Park Service began establishing a National Park and with most inhabitants leaving the island.
Nearly all of Isle Royale was officially designated Wilderness in 1976 meaning there is little human impact here besides hiking trails, two main harbors and a few scattered cabins. That is the real attraction-at least for me. To be in a place where for almost 70 years or more, nature has reclaimed the land and left it without interference from man.
Our group of six included 4 rookie backpackers, (myself included if you don’t count Boy Scouts more than a few years ago) and two experienced and returning Isle Royale trekkers. Close friend Mark Haferman from Marshfield was the real instigator and organizer, pimping me for years about going on this adventure-I finally gave in…fortunately. We made the long journey along the North Shore and jumped on an early morning ferry for the start of what would be a three day backpacking trip. Visitors are given an introduction to the park upon arrival by Park Service Rangers, register and set an itinerary.
Most of our packs came in around 40# with all the gear and food for the days ahead and I found it took the first hour each day to get it adjusted just-right to be comfortable. Day one we hit the Feldmann Ridge Trail, a 8.5 mile hike to Feldmann Lake and our first camp. Steep ridge climbs with outstanding vistas of the southern part of the island and Lake Superior were part of this section, along with deep spruce forests. It seemed the forest type changed constantly, so different from what we’d have back in Wisconsin. Giant Yellow birch dominated the latter part of this hike-trunks so large two of us couldn’t reach around! At other times, the path also included my least favorite part for Red Elderberry and Thimbleberry plants formed almost an impassible barrier to wade through. Luckily, the Thimbleberry were in season and quite good and we’d snag handfuls along the way for a treat. Tired and a bit sore, the effort is always worth it. After making camp, we had a chance to make the short journey to Rainbow Cove, a black sand beach reaching out from the southern most end of the island. Nothing needed to be said or done there, just 6 tired bodies taking it all in as the sky began to change color.
The plan for day two was to continue to Siskiwit Bay, nine plus miles to the north following Feldmann Ridge, here a dramatic exposed basalt rises above the surrounding forest. A now abandoned firetower along the way offered a break and a chance to really get some great views of the landscape. With the island 50 miles long and 9 wide, it’s not quite possible to see it all, but enough to impress. Our destination was clearly in view but still seemed many hours distant-not at all encouraging to my feet and back! From the (literally) high point of the segment, we dove down into beautiful solid paper birch forest and then deeper into black spruce bogs, expecting at any moment to encounter a moose, which are fairly common. The final push was a 2 mile arrow straight stretch we all dubbed “the jungle.” It appeared to have once been a road or long forgotten tote trail, but now overgrown with brush and berries. More than once we’d check the narrow worn footpath beneath the vegetation to be sure we still were on track. It was taxing to say the least and the blue of the bay peaking through the final 1/4 mile was a welcome sight.
Staying at Siskiwit Bay was a gem of the trip-the bay was a mile wide and stretched northeast forever into the big lake. Iron colored rock and beach stones covered the shore where we spent all evening after setting up camp. One can’t quite top ending a hike absorbing the outdoors in a place like this. Our only company a few shorebirds, ever present gulls, loons and one red fox, intent on scoring a meal. We filtered water, talked quietly and discussed the daunting route ahead of us as the fire and sky gradually retired for the day.
Mark had set forth the toughest hike for our final day-there are no shortcuts on Isle Royale-once you’re in, you are committed to finishing the route. He claimed our packs would be lightest on the most challenging day making it easier-I wasn’t so sure. Not really wanting to say good bye to the water, we began what would be a two hours of climbing-the Island Mine Trail ascending 700 feet above Lake Superior. Island Mine was a failed copper mine established in 1874, operating just 3 years, before abandoning the “town” and one shaft. A steam boiler, cables and giant geared wheels can still be found here among the tailing piles and offered an excuse to rest and explore before continuing our climb.
There were many times we were relived to think we’d reached the summit, only to see another pitch through the forest ahead pointing skyward. There were tricky rock strewn sections and then a short switchback descent-overall a tough hike. After a break and a granola and jerky lunch we headed for the final section-the beautiful Greenstone Ridge Trail. Isle Royale is well known for it’s moose and wolf studies and here we did spot tracks of both, but with the wolf population on the brink of extinction (just 9 left on the entire island) chances of seeing one were slim. Continuing south, the forest changed again and we ventured through mostly soft maple and birch-somewhat reminiscent of back home, only more primeval with sharp rock outcroppings along the way. The trail ungulates some, but the steep climbs were behind us and we could make good time. This trail is well used and we met a few other hikers who were outbound from the Windigo Ranger Station to begin their treks. For me, once I got up to speed (basically keeping the backpack moving forward!) it was easier to keep going than to stop and try to start up again. This 6.5 mile section flowed well and after swapping out my pricy (uncomfortable) hiking boots for lightweight Keens, even my feet felt good and I felt we’d finish the day unscathed.
One more night of camping awaited us for our ferry wouldn’t arrive until afternoon of the following day. As luck would have it, we found a suitable deck with chairs at the tiny store at Windigo, settled in with some beverages and enjoyed looking out over Washington Harbor-even spotting a moose in the shallows across the bay. As my first “real” backpacking trip, I didn’t know exactly how it would go. There are so many little nuances to make it successful and you very quickly learn to be efficient. When seeing day visitors arrive later in flip flops and toting suitcases, I felt like I’d really earned my place here at Isle Royale, that we’d all experienced something they would miss or not fully understand. That’s not taking anything away from other park visitors, but for me, I think you need to live with it, to take as much in as one can to really connect with a place, to explore, be fascinated and challenged. I’m reminded of these words on the subject:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau
At Isle Royale, I felt like I’d really lived, I’d discovered and I’ll return.