Photos by Douglas and Carol Cornell
Shortly after Carol and I became backpackers, we began hearing about Isle Royale National Park. It seems that anyone who is really a backpacker has done an epic hike on this remote island park, located far north in Michigan’s Lake Superior. It took us a few years to build the confidence necessary to complete a multi-day hike, and in September of 2011 we felt we were finally ready.
The first challenge to hiking Isle Royale is getting to Isle Royale. Even if you are able to endure a 10 hour drive to the Keewanaw Peninsula, you will still have to make a difficult 3-hour boat trip from Copper Harbor to the Island (there is a longer 6-hour trip from Houghton if you prefer to save 1.5 hours of driving time).
We took our time on the drive through a sunny and starkly beautiful Upper Peninsula. We spent our first night in Marquette, which is 7 hours from our home near Flint. The next day we meandered through the Keewanaw Peninsula and reached Copper Harbor by mid-morning. We had plenty of time to do some sightseeing and enjoy the beauty of Brockway Mountain and Fort Wilkins State Park. There are a lot of hotels in Copper Harbor, and we had a pleasant room that was less than one mile from the boat dock.
In September, the Isle Royale Queen IV only makes the crossing on Mondays and Fridays. This meant that our trip would last 5 days and 4 nights. Other hikers planned to stay the full week, and we met one guy who was going to hike alone for 14 days!
The biggest part of our planning involved food. Eating trail food for 5 days is often tedious. Carol did a great job of finding a diverse assortment of small, light food items that would provide energy and that we wouldn’t tire of easily. We carried beef jerky, cheese and beef sticks, maple nut goodies, D’fers (Milk Duds and pecans), Tootsie Roll Pops, Coffee Nips, Pay Day candy bars, Cliff energy bars, Crystal Lite drink mix, 20 packages of maple-flavored instant oatmeal, 4 freeze-dried dinner entrees, one freeze-dried banana pudding desert, 2 cans of Pringles, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly, graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate bars, instant coffee, and tea bags. We distributed all of this equally among our two 65 liter backpacks, which are really intended for weekend trips, not epic 5 day treks! (Note: Backpackers burn about 7000 calories per day on an average 10 mile hike).
For clothing we kept it simple. Since the weather report warned us that the temperatures would begin on the warm side but drop into the 40’s at night, we packed jackets, hats, and gloves. We also took very light long-underwear to sleep in. We brought rain jackets too, just in case (but we never used them). During the day we wore lightweight hiking pants, light socks, a t-shirt, and a light polar fleece top. A hat is mandatory – it keeps the sun out of your eyes, protects you from rain, and hides your God-awful 5-day hiking hairdo from the few people you will see on the trail.
We wore our sturdiest hiking boots. I was warned that the trails on Isle Royale are very, very rocky so ankle support and strong, beefy soles are a must. Plus, with more than 45 pounds on my back, good boots could be the difference between loving or hating the hike.
After a hot shower and hearty breakfast, Carol and I each downed our Dramamine motion sickness pills and headed to the dock where the Isle Royale Queen IV was being prepared by the crew of three. A few nervous-looking hikers were already there. Eventually the trip included about 30 people, including some day-hikers (who would endure the trip twice in one day so they could hike for 2 hours!) and several kayakers and canoeists. Many of our shipmates were going to Isle Royale to fish; others were returning for their 5th or 10th time!
The first 20 minutes on Lake Superior wasn’t bad. I don’t remember much of the remainder of the trip, because when the boat rocked about 10 feet in each direction, I laid my head on a table and tried to sleep. Two hours later, I sensed a change as the boat entered calmer water. We could see the island in the distance, and I journeyed out to the rail to snap some photos. A couple of guys were leaning over the rail, but I didn’t feel so bad and Carol wasn’t sick at all. The excitement of seeing this island pumped our adrenaline and distracted us from our churning stomachs.
After the boat tied up to the dock at Rock Harbor we were all herded into an area to hear a brief lecture from the one park ranger stationed on the island that day. She warned us about moose, told us not to leave our garbage, and told us to be quiet. She also told us to listen for boat horns – they would find us if for some reason there was an emergency evacuation of the island. We all had to queue up to leave our itinerary and we were then free to go wherever we wanted.
Isle Royale is about 60 miles long, so there was no way most of us would cross the entire distance. Instead, we all had plans to do a loop hike that would take us as far away as possible, yet return us to Rock Harbor in time for the return trip to Copper Harbor. I listened to quite a few hikers describe their itineraries, but no two were exactly alike.
Since there are about 8 campsites on our half of the island, we used the advice of my good friend Jamie Green (who works on the island as a carpenter) and headed north across the island towards Lane Cove.
Day 1 – Rock Harbor to Lane Cove – 8 Miles
For the first few miles, the trail hugs the south shore. The surface is very rocky and is often root-infested. To our left we could see the craggy island shoreline and many smaller islands. To our right was dense wilderness. At this late date in the summer, there are virtually zero mosquitoes or black flies.
At mile three, we began our climb up to the Greenstone Ridge, a spine that runs the entire length of the island. Near the summit of Mt. Franklin, I rounded a corner and spotted a large, dark shape laying in the thick brush immediately to my right.
This was a bull moose! It jumped in fright and immediately began to charge. Fortunately, moose aren’t very smart (and are extremely near-sighted), so it ran away from me instead of trampling me on my first day of hiking. My heart zoomed to 200 BPM, and by the time Carol rounded the bend just 10 feet behind me, the episode was over. We both heard moose snorts in the woods, an indication that the animal was annoyed. For the remainder of the trip, I never let my guard down and remained vigilant. I did not want either of us to be stomped on by a moose.
As we crossed the Greenstone Ridge, the sky to our north began to darken. As we descended the Greenstone and headed down to the north shore, we endured some sprinkles but were able to reach our campsite without needing our rain gear.
Lane Cove is considered one of the most beautiful campsites on the island. There are only 5 tent sites there, and we were totally alone.
It was still very warm, but we knew we would be in for a storm that night. We quickly set-up camp and ate supper. Moments after washing up in the lake, the storm began and we scrambled for the tent. It was a long night – the wind was fierce and lightning and thunder boomed for hours.
The next morning was cold and windy, but the sky was blue. Just before leaving camp, we were surprised as a park ranger entered our campsite. He was there to check up on us and make sure we survived the storm. It made us feel better to know that someone was looking out for us!
Day 2 – Lane Cove to McCargo Cove – 13 Miles
It took us about 1.5 hours to climb the steep north side of the Greenstone ridge. We hiked through narrow passages of white spruce and balsam fir, and as we neared the ridge the sky brightened as we caught glimpses of Lake Superior to our south. Looking north, we could clearly make out the Canadian shoreline. We headed northwest on the Greenstone, walking over vast expanses of lichen covered rock. Autumn color was just beginning to appear, with occasional bursts of red maple appearing on the ridge line. The bright sun kept us warm and we meandered along, absorbing the island’s awesome beauty. It wasn’t long before we caught sight of the Mt. Objibway fire tower, and upon reaching it we stopped and enjoyed a lunch of PB&J sandwiches and Pringles. After a brief break, we continued our trek but were immediately startled when we smelled smoke in the air.
“Dang,” I said to Carol. “I hope the island isn’t on fire!”
We had no idea that the smoke from a massive fire at Minnesota’s Boundary Waters was reaching Isle Royale. Dense smoke filled the valleys to our south. We continued walking, and as we descended the ridge towards Chickenbone Lake, the smoke abated.
Our tired bodies carried the heavy backpacks the last two miles to McCargo Cove, where we snagged the last available shelter. There were 9 shelters in this popular campsite, and they were all in use. We dropped our packs and set-up our humble evening residence and asked our fellow campers about the smoke. No one had any ideas, but we knew we were safe at the Cove.
Day 3 – McCargo Cove to Moskey Basin – 8 Miles
After a cool and blustery evening, we awakened to sunshine and clear skies. We ate our oatmeal, cleaned up camp, and were on the trail by 9 am. The path from McCargo Cove to Moskey basin is not strenuous at all, and after hiking 13 miles the previous day, 8 miles felt like a treat. Normally Carol and I can manage 2 MPH with backpacks, so we estimated that we’d be at our next stop before 2 PM.
The trail climbed easily along the western shore of Chickenbone Lake on the Indian Portage Trail. We were surprised that the hike up Greenstone was not severe at all here, and soon we were descending towards the south shore. We stopped at Lake Richie for lunch (graham crackers, PB&J), and then enjoyed an easy 2 mile hike to McCargo Cove. We were the first to reach this campsite, and had our pick of the shelters, each strategically placed to offer a view of one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
We selected a shelter that offered privacy and easy access to water. On our immediate left, there was a rock escarpment that had a spectacular view of the basin. Lake Superior pours into the basin via a narrow opening to the east, and directly across the basin is a forested ridge. We sat on the rocks and watched a family of ducks dive for their dinner. Far away, a pair of loons could be heard signaling their distress at sensing a real or imagined predator. Suddenly, the duck family took to the sky and an otter crossed directly in front of Carol and I. The otter had not succeeded at its attempt at catching a duck for dinner.
We relaxed for hours, enjoying the view, reading our Kindles, and eating a quiet dinner. A storm began to cross the basin directly to our south, but all we received were a few sprinkles. Later, we fired up the MSR Pocket Rocket stove and toasted a few marshmallows before crawling into our sleeping bags for the night.
Day 4 – McCargo Cove to Three Mile Campground – 8 Miles
The trail constantly changes along the south shore of Isle Royale. We hiked over rock escarpments, through dense woods, over vast open areas, and stumbled over root-infested ground. It only took us a couple of hours to reach Daisy Farm, the island’s largest campsite. There are at least 20 shelters at Daisy Farm, but it is well laid out and we wouldn’t hesitate to camp there. After a snack of beef sticks and cheese, we continued on. The trail hugged the shoreline, occasionally climbing over massive rock piles and through more root-infested ground. It wasn’t long before we were at Three Mile Campground, and we selected a quiet shelter. Boats from the camp headquarters buzzed by on a regular schedule. We could sense that our trip was nearing completion, and spent the afternoon quietly enjoying our last day on the island.
Day 5 – Three Mile Campground to Rock Harbor, Plus a Day Hike to Scoville Point – 8 Miles
With a bit of sadness, we packed our gear for our final hike of the trip. It didn’t take us long to hike the final 3 miles back to Rock Harbor. We removed our heavy packs and decided to take a quick 2 mile out-and-back hike to Scoville Point, the eastern-most shore of the island. It was a very good decision – this was the most beautiful landscape on the entire island! The hike involved lots of quick jumps over rocks (it’s easy without a backpack!). Our fast pace had us to the end of the trail in 45 minutes. I snapped some quick photos and then we reversed direction and saw everything again from a different perspective.
Anxious hikers were milling about the dock area. I asked a few about wildlife sightings, but as far as I could tell, I was the only one lucky enough to spot a moose!
The return trip on the Queen IV was as smooth as it gets. The waves were calm at 1 to 3 feet, and Carol and I were able to nap. We arrived back at Copper Harbor around 6 pm, tired and hungry.
Our hearts were still on the island, but we both knew that it wouldn’t be long before we returned.