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Besides being Michigan’s only national park (not to be confused with national lakeshores or national forests — there’s a difference), Isle Royale is an island bastion of wilderness protected by the deep, cold waters of the second largest lake in the world, Lake Superior. It is the “wolf’s eye” in a lake with a larger surface area than Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire combined.

Maybe you have to use your imagination, but you can see how Lake Superior looks like a wolf (ok, a wolf drawn by a six year old). Isle Royale is the squinty eye of the wolf.

I don’t remember the exact moment when I first decided that I needed to go to Isle Royale, but it was less than two years before I actually made the pilgrimage, in July of 2015 (I’m planning on returning this year to do it again, this time with my husband and a friend). I knew that IR was wild, that there were wolves on the island — and I knew it would be a challenge.
I also thought Isle Royale was close enough to drive in a day, which though technically true, is still a major undertaking. I live in Grand Rapids, and it turns out that, when you add the car miles (500) plus the ferry miles (70), Isle Royale is about as far away as Nashville, Tennessee.

Six Women. Five Days. One Amazing Journey. 

When I first got the idea to backpack Isle Royale, I put the word out to my most outdoorsy friends: Who’s in? These women weren’t my best friends and they weren’t the friends I’ve known the longest — just the most adventurous. They were women who were experienced backpackers, fairly comfortable with risk and had the gear needed to undertake a 5 day backpacking trip in one of the most remote places in the continental United States.

From left to right: Lia, Laurel, Whitney, Sarah, me, Donna

I’m going to mention them by name frequently enough, so here’s the cast of characters so you can keep track (with a few random personality traits thrown in so you can keep them straight):

-Lia is ambitious, determined and can physically and mentally outmaneuver women half her age (and in fact is often mistaken for someone half her actual age). She had also been on a previous backpacking trip with Donna & myself.

-Laurel and I met within the past few years, and bonded quickly over our shared experiences as new stepmothers, business owners and outdoorswomen. She was my “safety buddy” (we all paired up to share gear, meals, motel rooms and whatever else was needed).

-Whitney was Sarah’s PhD-wielding, horse-loving athletic friend, whom I didn’t know before the trip. No one tells a story like Whitney — and she’s a world-class bullshitter.

-Sarah is a few years younger than me and she’s got bigger balls than anyone, man or woman, I know. She’s funny, brash and happens to also be an incredibly gifted artist.

-Me — The fearless leader.  You can learn more about me from my writer’s bio.

-Donna and I had met at our shared workplace a few years before, and I knew she loved kayaking, backpacking and traveling the world. We’d been on one backpacking trip together the previous fall.

Initial Research 

As an eldest daughter (and avid reader) I’m destined to be a planner (as well as a rule follower and people-pleaser). I read everything I could get my hands on when it came to Isle Royale:

-Jim Dufrense’s Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes

-Vic Forrester’s book of collected essays Naked in the Stream: Isle Royale Stories  (I actually got to meet Vic on several occasions).

-I also spent a lot of time at,  which proved to have a wealth of information.

-The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale Facebook page also had some good information, as did

-The National Park Service’s official Isle Royale page

It turned out that one of the best resources while actually on the island was the National Geographic Trails Isle Royale Illustrated Map — which I didn’t have. But always-prepared Donna did, which made the whole trip run so much smoother. One of my top tips if you’re going to Isle Royale is to be sure and bring this exact map with you. It’s made out of durable materials, and it gives you just the right amount of information to make it easy to find your way through some pretty wild spaces.

Planning the food

Some backpackers like to just buy a bunch of beef jerky, ramen and even Mountain House food and throw it all in their pack before they go, but not me. I had a new home dehydrator which I was chomping at the bit to try, plus a bunch of new freezer bag cooking recipes I’d found in places like and

A word about freezer bag cooking: This is the best thing to happen to backpacking since the invention of nylon. There isn’t an easier, tastier way to cook healthy, delicious food on the trail. AND the cleanup is awesome. I hate doing dishes in the comfort of my own home, so why would I want to do while I was exhausted and having to worry about attracting animals if I left food scraps too close to my campsite? With freezer bag meals, you heat water to boiling with your stove, pour it in your pre-packaged freezer bag meal, let it rehydrate for 5-10 mins, then enjoy. When you’re finished, zip the garbage all back up and pack it away to throw out when you get back to civilization. Is it a lot of prep work? Heck yeah. But, for me, totally worth it.

For reference, here’s a screenshot of the template I used to help plan my meals:

Everyone was basically responsible for their own food, with a few exceptions. I paid Sarah to make me some of her famous, homemade turkey jerky, which I used for snacks and added to a few of my dinner dishes, and Laurel traded me five oatmeal breakfasts for two dinners.

I love having healthy, tasty food while backpacking. I’ve tried eating salty, over-carbed food like instant potatoes and ramen, and it just makes me feel gross. When I’m filthy and smell like a bear, the last thing I want to do is eat food that makes me feel like I’m going to be sick.

Packing the gear

Here’s a list of all the gear I brought:

Deuter Women’s Aircontact Pro 65 + 15 SL Pack — Laurel wondered if having a women-specific pack helped to reduce blisters and increase comfort, but I’ve used men’s packs before and never really had a problem. This pack was comfortable and easy enough to use.

Jetboil stove — This is one of my favorite pieces of gear — everyone on the trip had different cooking systems (except for Lia, who also had a Jetboil), and I have to say our stoves outperformed everyone else’s stove in terms of fast cooking and ease of use.

Kelty Women’s SB 35 DriDown Sleeping bag — It was July, so I knew I wouldn’t need a super-warm sleeping bag, but it was also an island in the middle of Lake Superior, where it wouldn’t have been unusual for chilly temps at night. A bag rated for 35 degree seemed appropriate (and it was).

NEMO Astro Air Pillowtop 1P 20R (borrowed from a friend). This sleeping pad, by far, turned out to be the best investment I made on the trip. I will never forget waking up in the middle of the night and hearing the wolves howl, while I was curled up comfortably on my NEMO. It was like sleeping in God’s lap.

Mammut Kompakt Pillow — Some people are fine using a stuff sack filled with clothes. Not me.  Between my inflatable pillow and the sleeping pad, I’m convinced I slept better than anyone else on the island (including those who were staying at the Rock Harbor lodge).

Kelty Women’s Orbit 15 Hydration Pack — Hydration packs are great because they allow you to drink water while hiking; the others had just Nalgene bottles, which were fine, but usually require that you stop moving to get a good drink. The drinking hose meant I could stay hydrated, hassle free. I used the bladder in my big backpack, and used the smaller bag for day hikes (and for the ferry rides before and after the trip).

Other gear:

-Hiking boots — I’m not going to link to the brand I used because frankly they’re terrible. In fact, after this trip I decided I was only going to backpack in athletic shoes or maybe light hikers. The terrain on Isle Royale was brutal, and I came home with my feet looking (and feeling) like hamburger.

-First aid kit (with extra bandaids and moleskin — THANK GOD)

-Hiking socks (2 pair)

-Fuzzy “clean” socks to sleep in (1 pair)

-Puffy vest

-Rain jacket — I decided to skip the rain pants. No one ever uses them (but now I that I know better, I would definitely bring my rain skirt).

-Convertible hiking pants (1 pair)

-Hiking shorts (1 pair)

-6 pairs of underwear (and I’m damn glad I brought every single pair)

-Technical tshirt (2)

Technical sweatshirt

-Sports bra (3)

-Yoga leggings (to sleep in)

-Tank top (to sleep in)

-Microfiber towel (I also used this to wrap my freezer bag meals as they cooked to move things along)

Spork utensil

-Toothpaste (I actually tried dehydrating little drops of toothpaste, which in the end, probably wasn’t necessary — a travel tube is fine)



-Deodorant – many people think this is optional, but since I had a travel size, I went with it

-Hiking pole — Scrambling over some of the roughest terrain I’ve ever experienced, I was very glad to have my one hiking pole. Wish my vanity had allowed me to bring two, but I just couldn’t bear the feeling that I look like a total dork when using two poles (today I know better).


-Hat (both baseball and winter)

-Lighter (for the stove — you can’t have fires on Isle Royale)

-Wide-mouth Nalgene bottle

-Emergency whistle

-Bandana (2)

-iPad mini — I was on the fence about whether to bring my iPad mini right up until we boarded the boat. In the end, I decided to take it because it was my best option for reading and taking videos. I’m glad I did.

Things I didn’t bring (but wish I had):

-A swimsuit — there were long discussions about bringing swimsuits among all of us who went. In the end, most of us decided that we would just swim in our sports bras and underwear. Mostly that was fine, but I think next time I’ll bring my suit — if for no other reason than to have something else clean to wear if I want it.

-Sturdy camp shoes — I brought my pair of Vibram 5 Finger shoes, and it was probably the worst decision I made on the trip. My feet were killing me at the end of a long day hiking and the last thing I wanted to do was shove my poor little toes into their own individual torture compartment. Plus the sole just offered no protection against the rocks. Next time I’ll definitely bring my sturdy Keen sandals.

-A water filter pump — I had my Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter, which worked fine, but I ended up borrowing someone else’s pump most days because we needed so much water (the only potable water on the island is at the visitor’s centers), and the Sawyer was pretty slow.

-Better foot care options — My blisters were bad. I wish I would have invested in some tape and second skin.

The only thing that I did bring that I wish I hadn’t was a small bottle of wine. I hauled that rose’ all over the damn island, saving it for my last night. When I finally cracked it open, it didn’t taste all that good and felt like a big letdown. Next time I’ll just by a bottle or some beer at the end of my hike Rock Harbor and save myself the weight.

Transportation & Lodging (Pre & Post Trip)

We planned on taking the Ranger III ferry to Isle Royale, which leaves out of Houghton on Tuesday and Friday mornings. I collected the money and paid for everyone’s ferry tickets and park fees, which you pay for all at the same time (weeks before you actually leave).

Note on this: make your reservations early in the year you plan to visit — like in January or February (the park is only open to visitors from May through September). This makes it much easier on the park rangers, plus guarantees you’ll be able to get the spot/week that you want.

The Ranger III the night before leaving

Five of us met up at a park-and-ride in Grand Rapids on Thursday morning. For reference, my pack weighed 32 pounds, Whitney’s was an enviable 30, and Donna’s was a whopping 40. We piled into Lia’s Tahoe and drove the 7+ hours together to Houghton (Whitney ended up flying and meeting us at the hotel). We made reservations at the Super 8, which is within walking distance of the Ranger III dock, to stay overnight on Thursday.
For our last dinner before heading into the wilderness, we headed over to The Library Restaurant & Brew Pub, which unfortunately is now closed (BUY LOCAL, PEOPLE!) Whitney told wild stories about homeless people and things I just can’t repeat here, so there was that. Some of the other women stayed up late that night drinking, because they’re much harder core than I am. I hit the sack before 10pm, and got a very solid 8 hours of sleep.
The next morning we woke up, checked and double-checked our gear (and a few of us lightened our packs) and had a continental breakfast at the hotel (I snuck a few extra hot chocolate packets into my pack). We headed over to the dock about 8:40am, and were surprised to find we were late. So if you go, make sure you get there early.
Also, make sure you pack a small bag or daypack with you for your boat ride over, since your big pack will be stowed in the cargo hold were you can’t access it. The trip takes a good six hours, so you’ll want to have your personal stuff with you. I’d also recommend bringing motion sickness medicine, because you never know what the boat ride is going to be like (more on this later).

Left: the ranger presentation on the boat; right: relaxing on the Ranger III!

The Ranger III is a very cool boat — it’s the largest in the National Park Service fleet, and includes some comfortable chairs and even a little galley (restaurant). Have a pasty at the lunch counter to make your UP-experience complete.
During our trip, a volunteer park service woman gave a presentation about the island, and I highly recommend that you sit in and watch it. You may have been researching this trip for months and think you know everything about the island, but you might be surprised about what you learn. I, for one, learned that the head researcher for the wolf study on Isle Royale, Rolf Peterson, was sitting right behind me. (I was familiar with his name because Vic Forrester had mentioned Peterson in his book.) We chatted for a good half hour about the island, and it was one of the highlights of the trip (and it was very cool to run into Dr. Peterson at the bar in Rock Harbor five days later).

So that’s everything we did in preparation for the trip.

Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, when Jill documents the trip itself!