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Far, far away, in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, lies a little-known paradise known as Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale is the largest island in the largest lake in the world and one of our most favorite places. It’s home to birch and maple, warblers and loons, and moose and wolves, which have provided important scientific data for one of the longest predator-prey studies in the country. You can read all about the park here. I’m just here to tell you about our trip, and hopefully get you pumped for your own one day.
We first went to Isle Royale in 2012 when we were just two babes in love, and while a storm forced us to shorten our hike by about twenty miles, we still loved it and have talked about going back ever since. And I just remembered that was trip Greg coined the name “Lady Campfire”. We had just gotten into camp and a storm was rolling in as Greg started to set up the tent. Rather than help him, I went to chat with the neighbors who were also from North Dakota. What? We ended up moving anyway because that site was too wet, and those people were super nice. Whenever Greg likes to chide me about my alter ego I remind him he came into this marriage with both eyes wide open.
Being an island, you can only get to Isle Royale by boat or plane, neither of which are easy or cheap. Lake Superior is huge, and cold, and she does what she wants. Our first trip was rescheduled due to rough seas, and this trip probably should’ve been. I just dry-heaved a little bit thinking about it, but obviously we survived. Both times we’ve taken the boat out of Grand Portage, MN to Windigo, and while the waves may have been huge, the boat always sturdy and the staff super nice. I get super seasick, but thanks to ginger capsules I’ve stopped throwing up; I just feel terrible. This time I journaled “‘Rough’ isn’t how I’d describe it. ‘Effing terrible, the worst ride of my life’ is more like it.” I sat in the back of the boat and watched some poor sucker hurl over the side. I’ve been there, man, I’ve been there. Don’t underestimate how rough it’ll be and take proper precautions.
The boat leaves early so you’ll want to stay around Grand Portage the night before. In 2012 we didn’t want to spend the $95 on a room at the casino, so we stayed at Ryden’s Border Store for $46. It was right up our alley but I don’t know if they offer rooms anymore. I don’t know why we didn’t stay at the casino this time- because we’re cheap ass morons who would rather sleep in the parking lot, then try to bum free coffee in the morning by sticking $20 in Jurassic Park and Wild Lepre’coins, which we promptly lost. We won’t get a room, but we’ll pay $20 for coffee. Side note: I had to Bing the name of the Leprechaun slot. Don’t do it- those videos are as satisfying as actually winning a jackpot. Next time we’re staying at the casino. Without further ado!
Day 1, Sept 16: Washington Creek, 9.1 miles
Let me hand it to my farmer husband- his ever-watchful eye on the weather has saved us from some pretty awful hiking and camping situations. Our plan was to boat into Windigo then hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail to Rock Harbor where we would catch a boat back to Grand Portage. We planned to hit the ground running as soon as we got off the boat, but G.Hammer knew a storm was brewing and convinced me to stay near Windigo that night, and make up the mileage later. After registering our trip with Ranger Val, we walked the half mile to Washington Creek where the campground has three-sided shelters with screens facing the creek so they’re not only practical, but cozy.
We claimed our shelter (#3 whatwhat), packed a day bag, and hiked a nice loop to Huginnin Cove. Some people pitch a tent (hey o!) inside the shelters, but we just put our pads on top of our footprint and slept in the “open”. It was a steamy hike through the trees but it never rained on us. We had a nice lunch of everything bagels with cream cheese and prosciutto on a rock overlooking the lake. A thick fog had settled in and the waves were still rolling and just looking at the water made us both queasy again. On the walk back I was reminded of how oppressive the canopy can feel on this island. I definitely have a tish of claustrophobia and there are times I get a lil’ panicky when I can’t see the sky. I have an idea- we should hike clear across it!
We beat the rain back to camp and after we started eating dinner we heard a “huff” from across the creek, and loud footsteps through the trees. Soon a cow moose popped out, directly across from our site. She walked out into the water and put on the loveliest dinner show for us. Soon she was joined by her young son. We didn’t see a single moose on our last trip, then we got two on the first night. It was awesome. Warm enough for just one down layer, and deafeningly quiet. I broke one of my two pens while I was journaling and I was on the verge of a meltdown because that meant my remaining pen could break too, and then what would I do, how would I document our trip, who would know what had happened here?
Greg: You’re going to develop a tick.
Me: I wish I could develop a Bic. Heyo.
Day 2: Washington Creek to South Lake Desor, 11.83 miles
THUNDERSTORMS. Holy moley did it storm overnight. One big thunder clap about threw us out of our double bag. Around 0700 Greg woke me up “Jamie, there’s a bull.” There in the creek right in front of our shelter was a majestic bull moose, calling to the ladies. Well, lady. The cow and calf were back and she was clearly interested, but the bull didn’t want her son around and eventually he chased them both out of the water.
Still sprinkling a bit, but it stopped just as we were starting breakfast. Everything was still wet when we started hiking, but having just done Greenland’s Arctic Circle Trail, I wasn’t taking any chances getting my feet wet so I hiked in waterproof socks and gaiters and rain pants. Nothing but tree cover until we stopped for lunch at Island Mine Jct, and I found a small patch of sunshine to absorb. More tree cover until the ridge directly above Lake Desor. Out from under the trees there were blue skies and a light breeze and changing/falling leaves and brilliant sunshine. Just a perfect autumnal day. The trail from the ridge down to the lake was covered in water, but nothing we couldn’t avoid.
The sites at South Lake Desor are treed and secluded and don’t offer much for views of the lake, and the rocky shore makes it a bit inconvenient to get water, but the sun and the breeze and the leaves made up for it. And we heard a loon yodeling across the lake. Encore, encore! A red fox came into camp just as it got dark, sniffing around our things. I clapped and tried to scare him, but he was unfazed. We had been warned about foxes and squirrels stealing our things, so everything was locked up tight. The sky was brilliantly clear so we slept without a fly on the tent, hoping to see the Northern Lights.
Day 3: S. Lake Desor to Hatchet Lake, 8.44 miles
It was clear all night and after the wind died down it was downright warm. No Northern Lights. Clouds moved in before we got up and it stayed cloudy and cool all day. Hiked under trees with maybe two views, and saw just three other people on the trail and another at Hatchet. We don’t talk much during those long marches under tree cover. A loon was calling to us as we descended to camp. Treed sites with broken views of the water, super quiet. The air was thick and grey after dinner and it sprinkled overnight but stayed warm.
Day 4: Hatchet Lake to Daisy Farm, 15.38 miles
We decided to make this our big day to make up for staying at Washington Creek the first night. We were up at 0615 for eggs, bacon, and coffee, and were on the trail at 0820- a new Warcken record! We met a woman on the trail who, at the end of her trip will have been out there by herself for three weeks, just hiking and camping. She started at Rock Harbor and spent ten days getting to Windigo where she had mailed herself a box of food, and was heading back to Rock Harbor. When we there in 2012 we met a man who had been out there three weeks, living off apples he picked and fish he caught. What studs!
The day started cloudy but we started getting some big views along the ridge and the clouds broke and it ended up an amazing bluebird fall day- warm but not too hot with a lovely breeze. We stopped after nine miles for lunch at the E. Chickenbone Jct. Chickenbone Lake was experiencing an algae bloom at the time, which is why we didn’t camp there or get water, obviously. We saw a lot of frogs, and I nearly stepped on a turtle, but no mosquitoes. The fall colors were really popping on the Daisy Farm trail and we were both in high spirits despite having already hiked 13 miles. Daisy Farm has sixteen shelters and plenty were still available (lucky #13) when we rolled in. There’s a dock at Daisy and after claiming our shelter G went to dive into Lake Superior. I followed him down to take pictures and there was a Canada goose limping around near the dock. After dinner we went for another walk around camp and found the goose beheaded next to shelter #1- his head popped clean off and nowhere in sight. Whatwhatwhy? Clear and cool by the water, and a buoy clanging all night, just like on Jaws.
Day 5: Daisy Farm to Rock Harbor, 7.13 miles
Up at 0610 for the orangest sunrise I’ve ever seen. We thought we’d be the only ones up, but apparently the entire campground had the same idea. There were dark clouds to the west, then thunder and lightning, then rain, all before breakfast. We didn’t wait for the rain to stop before we started hiking, as we were eager to get a shelter at Rock Harbor. The trail sucked- it was rocky, rooty, boggy, and buggy, and the wind was whipping and the waves rocking the shore even though we were hiking along a protected cove. We weren’t sure if the boat would even come in with those conditions, and we definitely weren’t looking forward to the ride back to Grand Portage. We hiked our fastest and got one of the last two shelters at Rock Harbor (#8 booyeah). We walked down to civilization, hoping for a cheeseburger, but everything was already closed for the season. The wind and waves behind the lodge were unreal, but there was a Common Loon sitting near the shore which comforted me.
We went back to the shelter for lunch and were sitting on the same side of the picnic table, facing the lake and reading. Greg nudged me “Jamie, look.” An otter was right in front of the picnic table! He said it came out from under the shelter and walked right between our legs. I couldn’t believe it. We must be the luckiest people on the planet. A real, live river otter trusted us enough to walk within an inch of our legs on his way to the lake! It sprinkled off and on and we sat outside under the roof of the shelter and waited to see if it would come back. It did! It ducked down and wiggled under and I’ve never seen anything so cute as his little paws still sticking out as he crawled in. We named him Ocho.
The rain died down so we walked to the cabins and the seaplane dock. There were warnings all over about three rutting bull moose in the area but we never saw one. The Voyager II pulled in as we were having dinner and dropped her load of guests. I couldn’t believe they had made the trip through those waves. One of the new arrivals was asking other campers about shelters so we invited him to come stay in ours. He was a kayaker, out here for a week by himself. Isle Royale is a perfect place to get away. You can find all the solitude you want, and it’s safe from predators and weirdos because you, like, have to really want to be there.
The clouds lifted again after dinner so we went for another walk to find birds. Two newbies! A Herring gull and a Black-backed woodpecker. Gorgeous evening light, then a clear night, the Milky Way popping.
Day 6: Rock Harbor to Grand Portage
What a difference a day makes! Clear blue sky, calm waters. It was a pleasure cruise, really. Went to Chippewa Harbor to drop some guests and it looks awesome, with shelters overlooking the water. Next time! A strange fog rolled in after that and we didn’t see another thing until we neared Windigo, then blue skies again. I’m telling you, Lake Superior is a beast. The boat trip was long enough for me to read ‘A View from the Wolf’s Eye‘ by Carolyn C. Peterson in its entirety. She and her husband, Rolf, spent 37 summers on the island researching the wolf and moose populations, and raising their two boys. She really spoke to me as she’s got a big heart and a real appreciation for Mother Earth, but struggles with her role as a human. Same. It’s an excellent read if you plan to visit the island. Everyone who got on the boat at Windigo said Carolyn and Rolf were staying in a shelter at Washington Creek last night (#6 is their favorite). What fun! All the time they’ve spent on the island and they still stay in shelters. #lifeplan
We were ahead of schedule so on the way out of Windigo the captain took us over the SS America shipwreck. Cool! Creepy! It was an uneventful ride back, and straight up hot when we got to Grand Portage. The restaurant at the casino was closed for remodeling so we didn’t waste any time getting down the road to Grand Marais and the burgers and poutine at My Sister’s Place. It was divine. We had an amazing sunset on the road and made it all the way to Sax Zim Bog before stopping for the (stormy) night. Another awesome Isle Royale trip in the books.
We took food from home and drove our own vehicle from North Dakota, and camping on the island is free so you just have to pay admission to the park, and transportation there and back. A daily park pass is $7, an IRNP season pass is $60. But an annual America the Beautiful pass is only $80 and is “your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites” or as I like to call it “the best damn deal in the country”. Note: the visitor centers on the island do take credit cards. Our boat trip from Grand Portage to Windigo, and from Rock Harbor to Grand Portage was $336 total, which we paid over the phone.
Worth every penny. And every ginger capsule. What’s your favorite national park to backpack?