Our Trip to Isle Royale
posted Jun 12, 2007

In August 2003, I hiked with scout troop 95 across Isle Royale. It was a wonderful trip. The notes I took are recorded below.

If you're interested in visiting Isle Royale, see the information at the end.

Day 1

Morning conditions: Fog & mist, very wet.

The casino is a lousy place to stay overnight. I wish we'd known about the free campsites just down the road.

The 3-hour ride out to the island on the ferry Wenonah was nice. No seasickness, interesting conversations with other passengers. Some family groups, a girl scout troop.

We step onto the island at 12:30. After a short orientation and a .3-mile hike to Washington Creek campground, camp is set up by 2:00.

This is an experiment. I'm using an old scout pack from the 70's (I think), slightly augmented with modern technology. We'll see how that goes...

My pack. The day pack piggybacks on top.

Afternoon conditions: Clear, hot, hardly any bugs.

We swim in the creek. Every 5 minutes or so, the creek water reverses direction. Does Lake Superior have tides? Currents?

Afterward, the scouts wander around & explore. One of the adults goes fishing.

There are 2.5 moose feeding across the bay (2 adults, one young).

The two small dots are moose.

There's some interesting graffiti on one of the adirondack cabins in the individual sites (first come, first served, but only for groups of 6 or less). One note is a record of a couple's trek across the island (45 miles) in 18 hours--one day. Pretty amazing. We're planning on making the same trip in 9 days.

I hike the 1-mile nature trail. I find wild strawberries, thimbleberries (90% like raspberries, 10 different).

I meet a fox on the way back.

Hello, fox.

I'm hot after the hike. Before going back to camp, I take a dip in Lake Superior. It's cold. Like being dipped into vapo-rub cold.

MREs for supper. We have 4 fuel bottles. I wanted to bring more, but nobody ever listens to the scoutmaster. I wonder if we'll run out.

After supper, I talk to the folks in the campsite next to ours. They are from a Michigan YMCA camp. Each summer, they send 4 groups to the island. This is their 6th day out of 12. They've already been across the island. They carry all 12 days of food the entire way. It's much lighter than ours. Most of it is powder.

A moose in camp! About 20 feet from us, it browses on vegetation for a few minutes, and moves upstream, occasionally making bleating sounds.

Jerry gets close for a picture. I hang back. Those things can stomple you.

The neat thing about this place (Washington Creek campground) is that it's like a county park campground (flush toilets near the ranger station, outhouses near the campsites, access to drinkable H20 from a spigot), but everything is spotless (there's no garbage, no pop cans in the bushes). All the campers are polite, friendly & quiet (no loud music, no abuse of the facilities). It's also beautiful here beyond description.

The human influence on the island seems conspicuously small. There's the ranger station, the docks, a couple cabins, a gravel path. But it feels like people said "We could put ATV or bike trails all over this island, and set up some outfitters, and get a nice local economy going, but we won't. We'll let the island stay natural."

There's also a feeling of being surrounded by something older than civilization. I imagine god or nature thinking "I could clear out these humans with a decent fire or plague or something, but I won't. I'll let them do some hiking for now."

The scouts all go to bed early (9:00). One decides to sleep in his hammock. In about 20 minutes, he returns to his tent. When I was a scout, I also learned the hard way that hammocks get cold at night.

Night conditions: Mostly clear, temperature around 50-60 F.

Day 2

Conditions: 10 minutes of rain in the morning, then clear & hot all day.

Hiked 6.5 miles to Island Mine campground.

The hike is mostly uphill, and the scouts set a fast pace. We make it in about 3.5 hours. If we'd gone much farther, we would have been exhausted. We hiked a bit too fast, I think. Hopefully tomorrow, the scouts will go a bit slower.

Off we go!

The Island Mine group site is not as nice as Washington Creek (mostly packed earth, little grass). Previous groups have left a few small pieces of trash.

It's not a mess, it just looks that way on film.

Still very few bugs the whole day. I haven't used any repellent yet.

After setting up camp, some of us hike .4 miles to the old copper mine. We find a large steam engine behind the piles of red rock. The mine shafts are long since filled in.

The scouts head back to camp, and I continue on. I'm going south, to the shore of Lake Superior. I want to swim. With only a day pack, the 4 miles to the shore is a breeze. I don't go swimming though--there's algae slime all along the shore, and at least 20 feet into the lake. It looks like pea soup. I wade out to my knees before coming back. Yick.

Instead of swimming, I cool off in the breeze and walk down the "beach." There are a few sand patches, but most of the shore is golf ball-sized rocks. All the sand & rocks are deep red, very striking. Here & there, I notice some agates.

Suddenly, here comes fog. The shoreline disappears. About 15 minutes later, the fog lifts, and it's back to the hot sun.

Nice and clear.

Fog! Fog! Fog!

The uphill hike back to camp is tougher than the earlier hike to the shore (duh) and I get back at suppertime, around 6 or 7.

During the hike back to camp, there are mosquitoes during the middle section. They seem to avoid the wind-blown shore and the breezy ridge (where we're camped), and concentrate in the middle altitude.

The hammock feels like pure heaven after all that hiking.

Day 3

Conditions: Cloudy in morning, clear & sunny all day (nice & breezy by Lake Desor)

Hike 6 miles to Lake Desor (one of the inland lakes on Isle Royale). The scenery is great--we're hiking along the spine of the island, and occasionally we pass overlooks with a view across the north half to Lake Superior.

The hiking is a bit tougher than our first hike. The final downhill to Lake Desor is steep and hard on the knees. Going back up it tomorrow will be harsh.

Lake Desor is large and beautiful. The water is much warmer than Superior. There's an actual beach too, with smooth soft sand! Swimming is highly refreshing.

The scouts are noisy when swimming. A member of another group comes to the beach to ask them to quiet down. I hope they stay quiet.

I still haven't used any mosquito repellent. A minor miracle.

Both H20 filters have clogged and need cleaning (we're using MSR ceramic filters)

The hammock scout is sleeping his hammock again. He says he's used to it now.

Sunset at Lake Desor

Day 4

Conditions: Clear & sunny all day

8-mile hike to Hatchet Lake. Going back up from Lake Desor to the main trail isn't as bad as I expected. The 8 miles are long, but not backbreaking. There are only a couple of inclines that actually require climbing with hands & feet.

Going uphill...

And up some more...

At one point, we can see both the northern and southern shore of Lake S. from the ridge we're traveling along.

Hatchet Lake is much smaller and rockier than Desor. The water still feels great to swim in after hiking. One of our group gets a couple leech bites while fishing.

After making camp, I decide to leave the group again and hike north to Isle Royale's north shore. It's a 3.7 mile trip (each way) and it takes about an hour with the small day pack (water bottle & emergency stuff). I'm still disappointed that I didn't get to swim in Lake S. on my previous side trip two days ago.

This time, I do get to swim. I find a point that's reasonably free of algae and spend about 10 minutes enjoying the <span style="text-decoration:line-through;">freezing</span> bracing water. Then I head back.

I almost put on bug repellent on the way back. As before, there seems to be a zone between the shore and the ridge where the mosquitoes attack.

It's suppertime when I return, and I am very ready to eat. Also, my ankles hurt. These side hikes are pushing my limits.

The scout in charge asks me to not make any more solitary side trips, for safety. He's right, and I agree.

The hammock scout has settled into a comfortable routine. I'm going to have to ask him how he stays warm in that thing.

The last 3 sites have been in the middle of birch forests. I've never seen so many birches at once. I always wondered where the natives got all the birchbark for canoes. The upper midwest must have had plenty of birch forests, as well as pine. </div>

Day 5

Conditions: Sunny & hot all day

8-mile hike to Chickenbone Lake. The hardest hike yet, but this is the halfway point of the island. Lots of hiking over bare rocks along the top of the ridge, in the hot sun. Great views though.

Moving across the rocks...

Finally, blueberries! I haven't seen a single blueberry on the entire western half of the island, but they are everywhere here. Big juicy ones too.

This whole time, it hasn't rained once (except for that short sprinkle on day 1). If it did rain, the rocks would be much harder to navigate, and the high vegetation on both sides of the trail would totally soak our lower halves. It brushes against us constantly. I understand why experienced hikers wear gaiters. </div>

Day 6

conditions: Sunny & breezy, some patchy clouds

5.9-mile hike to Moskey Basin campground. This hike is the easiest so far--short, only a few hills, and mostly in the shade. There's also a strong breeze to keep us cool.

We rest next to Lake Ritchie, a beautiful inland lake. It's prettier than all the small lakes we've passed so far.

We also meet more people on the trail. At least 15.

Moskey Basin is just spectacular. A long finger of Lake Superior stretches inland to form a narrow bay, and the campsites are at the innermost tip. The water is beautiful and clear--our water pumps don't clog as they constantly did at the inland lakes. Rock shelves slope smoothly into the lake, and there's a long dock.

The swimming is excellent. We all spend a lot of time in the water.

Several groups arrive after us, and the small group sites (6 or fewer) are soon full. Some campers have to pitch their tents in the woods near the trail or on the rocks near the lake.

Everyone's spirits are high, because we've covered 90% of the distance, and we have a day off tomorrow (no hike). In the evening, we chat with the other hikers, some from Michigan, some from Chicago, some from Kentucky, some from New York, some from Australia. It's a regular wilderness mecca.

After dark, I go out on the dock, hoping to see northern lights. I don't see any. I do see Mars, a satellite, and two shooting stars. I'm still disappointed though. Maybe tomorrow.

Day 7

Conditions: Sunny & clear all day. Light wind.

Our day off! No hiking. After breakfast, we go swimming in Superior. It feels great. We all more or less split up and explore the area, meeting back at camp for lunch & supper.

Jerry finds 3 sites where wolves have killed moose. Only scattered bones & fur remain.

We see otters, ducks, red-headed woodpeckers, another fox, and the ever-present seagulls.

Our longest hike is tomorrow (11 miles). Everyone eats as much heavy food as possible.

Our mood is better than ever, and the scouts keep talking about what they're going to do when we get back to civilization. They're also talking about where we should for next year's high adventure trip. "Anywhere but this island" is a popular suggestion. I know they're kidding, ha ha.

Day 8

Conditions: Sunny & clear all day.

Our final day on the island. We get up early to begin the 11-mile hike to Rock Harbor. The hike is fairly tough, with lots of sharp rocks and roots. There is little net change in elevation, but there are plenty of "10 feet up the rocks, 10 feet down the rocks" sections.

We also find a dead moose.

But we handle it pretty well. After coming 35 miles already, and having nearly no food left, we're in good shape. For the last several days, the 4 scouts have hiked several hundred feet ahead of we 3 adults. As scoutmaster, that's very satisfying to me.

We meet at least 30 folks headed the other way, fresh off the ferry--including another scout troop. They're all hiking extremely fast, just as we did at the beginning.

In the first days of the trip, the words "Moskey Basin" and especially "Rock Harbor" have been spoken with deep longing. It's like the promised land. The scouts fantasize about all the junk food they can buy at the Rock Harbor store (at highly inflated prices). When we arrive, the scouts dissolve into a feeding frenzy of pop-tarts, chocolate milk, and soda. It's enough to make a dentist (or nutritionist) cry. I find a gift for K.

All of us at the end.

We clean up in Lake Superior with campsuds. The $3 showers aren't to anyone's taste, or perhaps the candy binge has depleted the scouts' finances.

Several of us enjoy cheeseburgers at the rock Harbor resort's restaurant (the prices there are surprisingly reasonable). Their coffee tastes like heaven to me. We converse with the other folks in the restaurant. There's a father-son pair from Michigan who we passed on the trail a few days ago. There's another scout troop, who did a half-canoe, half-hike trip. There's a fellow and his wife who sailed to the island in the nicest little sailboat I've ever seen.

After being in the quiet wilderness for a week, the sound of human conversation is welcome.

I'm still sad that our stay is nearly over. I overhear the rangers talk about the trail crews and day rangers who do much of the work to keep the park running. They're all volunteers--some from the sierra club, some just by themselves.

During the whole trip, I've been picking up neat-looking rocks. Ever since I was a kid, I liked cool rocks (especially agates) and I've found several this trip.

I know it's against national park rules to take natural things home. But I've sort of ignored that rule in the past. I visited Pictured Rocks National park two years ago, and returned with a handful of nice-looking stones.

So I carefully dump out my collection, which by now is a good 3 or 4 pounds. I hide it in my pack cover case, with a roll of toilet paper on top to muffle the rattling. Though I doubt I'm likely to get busted for smuggling rocks, it would be embarrassing. Might as well take every precaution.

But my conscience is unsettled by all this concealment.

(Later on, I analyze why I feel this way):

  • It feels right to follow the wishes of the folks who care for the park.
  • Having done the wrong thing once before, I'm more inclined to do the right thing now.
  • It takes a long time to make one of those agates. They won't be replaced anytime soon.

I unzip the case and take out the rocks again. I bring them down to the lake. I walk along the beach until I find a quiet spot to sit.

One by one, I throw each rock into the lake. It takes a few minutes--I have 20 or 30, and I'm not in a hurry. I get lots of skips from some of the stones. Someone may find them again someday, or they may not.

The sunset is pretty. I remain sitting for a long while after the rocks are gone. I keep my eyes open for moose across the bay. No moose, but 3 loons fly overhead. I've never seen them fly so low, and I hear a strange sound. It's a faint whistling, squeaking noise, and it pulses in time to the beat of the loons' wings. It sounds like they have squeaky joints. I wonder if it's produced by the wings moving against the air, or by the loons' lungs and throats?

Day 9

Conditions: Sun, Rain, fog. Everything.

Dawn breaks over Rock Harbor. We are saying goodbye.

The view from the ferry home.

Stuff of interest to other folks who want to visit Isle Royale

  • Our group were not experienced hikers. We did several practice hikes, but we were all basically novices.
  • We were lucky to have good weather the whole trip. Before we went, we spoke with another person who said his trip had been solid rain, from start to end.
  • The total cost per person (excluding equipment) was about $250. Half of that was food, and half was ferry+NPS fees.
  • Making reservations was very easy. The ferry cost and daily use fees are bundled together as a single payment.
  • If your group is 7 or more, you're restricted to the "group camps". Reservations for these fill up fast. We registered a bit late (April) so we had to modify our route.
  • Checking in at the ranger station was also painless. Much less hassle than boundary waters.
  • National Park Service website for Isle Royale
Comment by G. John Marmet
posted Oct 02, 2003

My wife & I were staying at the Rock Harbor Lodge in August, 2003 (from the first to the tenth). Must have missed you. It was a marvelous place however. Glad you enjoyed it.

Yours in Scouting,

G. John Marmet, ASM Troop 156, Glenview, IL Old Goat.

Comment by Mitch Miller
posted Feb 06, 2009

I am seeking permission to use the image of the moose carcass in a video I am producing on climate change and ungulates. It is an educational video that will be hosted on the Ontario government's website.

Thank you...