Ten Days on Isle Royale

If you were to fly to Detroit and then get in a car and drive due north, you would arrive five hours later at the Mackinac Bridge, a giant graceful span connecting Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. If you continued across the bridge and northwest from there another six hours, you would arrive at the tip of an isolated point of land that juts into Lake Superior’s vastness. From there if you continued by water for another three hours, you would arrive at one of the planet’s little known but most precious gems, Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale is the country’s least visited national park, and for good reason: It’s so ridiculously hard to get there. The wave-tossed boat ride over is infamous for forcing passengers to surrender their breakfasts over the rail. But the remoteness is key to the charm. There are no cars, no crowds, no (well, few) conveniences. I just returned from 11 days of backpacking on Isle Royale with my good friend, Pete Kelly, and I can say it was worth the logistical hurdles.

Pete and I have been backpacking together since we were undergraduates at Central Michigan University in the 1970s. Last year we spent a week on a backcountry trail in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. But this trip was extra special, something we have been talking about for the past thirty years. Lake Superior is notorious for its harsh, fickle weather and occasional violent storms (let’s all pause to hum a few bars of “The Edmund Fitzgerald”), and I arrived carrying enough cold-weather gear for an arctic expedition. But what greeted us on the island more resembled a holiday in Bermuda: balmy, breezy days with blue skies and crisp mornings. Ideal hiking weather, even if our packs, loaded with above-mentioned woolens and ten-days of mouth-watering dehydrated foods, weighed in at about 50 pounds each.

From the ferry dock, we headed west along the island’s rocky southern shore, making seven miles (and three blisters) before stopping for the night to camp along the water at a site called Daisy Farm. We were sweaty enough to dive into frigid Lake Superior. The water is so cold that a few seconds with your head submerged delivers a monumental case of brain freeze most commonly associated with eating ice cream too fast.

Each day followed a certain rhythm. Up about 7:30, coffee and high-protein cereal, breaking down camp, hoisting packs, walking on average 7.5 miles over rough, rocky terrain with a break in the middle for lunch — peanut butter on pita for Pete; sausage, cheese, and pita for me. Along the trail, we paused frequently to eat the wild thimbleberries (think a spicy raspberry) that grow prolifically all over the island. By late afternoon, we would be in place for another night. The long evenings (it wasn’t truly dark until after 9) were filled with swimming, laundering clothes, taking photos, making journal entries, filtering drinking water, and preparing dinner, a task that involved pouring two cups of boiling water into a foil package of what looked like sawdust, sealing the zipper and waiting for 10 minutes. We often ate while admiring the orange sun slipping into the black water. The national park forbids fires in all but a few locations, and so by 9:30, sitting in the dark with nothing much to do, it was time for bed. I drifted off each night to the lunatic cries of Isle Royale’s signature bird, the loon.

It took about three days to fully get into the rhythm of the trail, rising with the sun, sleeping with the arrival of darkness. But for the final week of the trip I marveled at how the strains and stresses of everyday modern life washed away, replaced by a zen-like sense of inner peace and tranquility. I did not miss my iPad or MacBook or Kindle or Apple TV or Facebook app or Twitter tweets or Pandora; I did not miss them one bit. I did miss my loved ones, but in a good way. The trip was a therapeutic reminder of what is important in life and what is not. When you are carrying everything you need on your back, material possessions take on a whole new perspective. Mostly, they just seem burdensome. On our final full day on the 45-mile-long island, we stumbled across an enormous moose feeding in a pond. We spent 20 minutes inching closer to watch her through the branches, and I was reminded that you don’t need $300 Broadway tickets for a memorable show.

Then it was time to go. In what can only be described as cosmic irony, huge ominous thunderclouds rolled over the island just as we were stepping aboard the ferry to return to the mainland. By the time we were thirty minutes out into the (very rough) waters of Lake Superior, lightning was flashing all around us, rain lashing the island behind us, temperatures plummeting, and gale winds building. This after 10 days of gentle-as-a-lamb weather. Could we have been any more fortunate? If indeed I have a guardian angel, as my parents so strongly insisted, he certainly has a sense of humor.

One last note: The large, greasy hamburger I devoured with a cold beer upon stepping off the ferry in the tiny town of Copper Harbor was the singular most rewarding dining experience of my life. Those conveniences of modern life…not so bad after all.

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