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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.
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
-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.
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 isleroyaleforums.com, which proved to have a wealth of information.
-The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale Facebook page also had some good information, as did
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 trail.recipes and backpacker.com.
For reference, here’s a screenshot of the template I used to help plan my meals:
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).
-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)
-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)
-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)
-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
-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.
-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
Left: the ranger presentation on the boat; right: relaxing on the Ranger III!
So that’s everything we did in preparation for the trip.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, when Jill documents the trip itself!