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Part 2, Travelogue Isle Royale 

If you read my last post about all the prep work it took to actually get to Isle Royale, now you’re ready to read about the six days I actually spent on the island in July of 2015. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience — filled with moose sightings, swimming in lakes, hiking with strangers and becoming an actual wild thing myself. I’ve heard that Isle Royale is one of the most re-visited national parks in the National Park system (meaning people go once, and then return again and again), which is pretty amazing, considering how difficult it can be to actually get to the island.

Day 1: We take the island by storm (metaphorically)

After a very smooth 6-hour ferry ride, we arrived at Rock Harbor around 3pm ready to hike! We’d heard from one of our fellow ferry passengers that the best way to get to the Daisy Farm campground — our first stop for the night — was to take the inner trail (one that parallels Tobin Harbor) to the Susie’s Cave cutoff, then hike the rest of the way on the Three Mile trail to Daisy Farm. That equaled about a total of 8 miles — no sweat for a seasoned hiker like myself. We could have taken the Three Mile trail the whole way to Daisy Farm — but we were worried the trail would be crowded and hoped that taking the inner trail would put us ahead of everyone else looking to get to Daisy Farm (which turned out to be a real thing).

The trail starts off in Rock Harbor paved, but quickly turns rocky and difficult. Half our party took off and power-hiked to Daisy Farm, while the other four (including me) took our time, taking pictures, pointing out moose poop and foraging for wild thimbleberries. We stopped at Susie’s Cave for a few pictures, then headed on to Daisy Farm. The hike along Lake Superior gave us our first taste on just how hard the hiking would be — we kept referring to the map to see just how much further we had to go, but it was hard to gauge. We finally made it into camp around 7pm, where we found Whitney and Sarah cooling off near the lake shore. They’d manage to snag us the second-to-last shelter at the campground, which we were very grateful for finding.
NOTE: This was one thing that surprised me about Isle Royale — the shelters. These wooden, screened-in structures (thank GOD! because: mosquitos) can fit about six people and their gear. One of my favorite rituals while lying in bed each night was to look up and read the graffiti from over the years, some as old as the 1970s. Each shelter has a picnic table, which makes meal prep much easier and more enjoyable. We had a rather large snowshoe hare hop right up to our table while we were eating, which was surprising.
After dropping our gear, we soaked our swollen feet in the freezing cold waters of Lake Superior (which felt amazing). Then it was time for dinner as we settled down for our first night on the island. At first we thought we heard wolves howling, but we quickly figured out it was the loons. No one slept very well that first night, but that’s to be expected.

Day 2: Daisy Farm to McCargo Cove

I tried to get up early to see the sunrise over Lake Superior, but ended up missing it by a few minutes. Still, it was nice to pump fresh water in the still, silent morning as I waited for the others to get up. We had breakfast and left the campground at about 10am. I had hoped to meet and talk to the ranger who lives in a cottage at Daisy Farm, but she was already gone by the time we left camp.

We planned on hiking up to the Ojibiway Fire Tower, which stands sentry at the very peak of the Greenstone Ridge, the trail that runs the length of the island in the middle. As we hiked up and up, we stumbled across some very fresh wolf scat (less than 12 hours). It was unmistakable: like dog poo, but bigger, and filled with hair. We were so excited we nearly fainted. There was a husband and wife couple who were also there taking photos, and the guy kept swearing he could smell the wolves somewhere nearby (we were skeptical). They were headed back to Rock Harbor that afternoon via water taxi, and promised to report the sighting to the wolf study.

View from Ojibway Fire Tower

When we finally made it up to the Ojibiway tower, we were happy to find an abundance of sweet, wild blueberries. We dropped our packs, stripped off our shirts (sports bras were the de facto uniform of the trip — it was an unseasonably hot 80+ degrees and we were drinking our water way faster than we had anticipated) and relaxed for long while. We met a Japanese photographer resting at the top of the tower (you can’t go all the way up) who was traveling to all the national parks this year. He wasn’t the first one to remark how amazing it was that six women were backpacking Isle Royale together. Which was nice.
Less than an hour later we were back on the trail. Donna got stung by something painful (there are no bees on the island, so we’re not sure exactly what it was), so I was glad to have my first aid kit handy. We applied sting ointment and kept moving. But the going became tough pretty quickly. When we weren’t scrambling along rocky outcroppings, we were slogging through mud. For a trail that ran along a ridge in the middle of the island, there was a lot of thick, knee-deep mud!
At one point we lost track of the trail trying to get around one particularly nasty mud hole. I was leading, and stopped to turn around at one point to try and find another, less-treacherous route. Laurel was right behind me.
LAUREL: “Where are you going?”

ME: “It’s too muddy, we’ll have to turn around and find another way.”

LAUREL (with a skeptical look on her face): “Oh come on, just go for it.”

ME (annoyed, stepping aside): “YOU go for it.”

LAUREL (three seconds after “going for it,” lying like a turtle on its back in the mud): “HELP ME!”

I honest don’t know how we made it out of there after Laurel pulled me in after her when I tried to help (which I knew was going to happen, but my conscience wouldn’t let me leave her there). At this point we were running dangerously low on water, so at the next muddy spot, I made the command decision to pump water from a dirty puddle, which was little more than a moose print with standing water.
“That’s what these things are designed for, right?” I said digging my Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter out of my pack. We pumped three bottles of water, adding a a couple of water purifying tablets just to be safe.
The plan had always been to try for McCargo Cove campground, with the option to stay at East Chickenbone if necessary. When we trudged into East Chickenbone, dead tired, we could see why they’d put a campground there in the first place: you need somewhere to collapse after the brutal hike we’d just finished. Otherwise, no one would stay there! It was hot, filled with bugs, no shelters and it was a long, treacherous path to the nearest fresh water. We met up with Whitney and Sarah and Lia at the entrance to the campground (they had again hiked ahead). They told Laurel, Donna and I to relax, go for a swim, and meet them at McCargo Cove in a few hours. We reluctantly agreed.
The three of us took a much-needed dip in Lake Chickenbone, washing our clothes and pumping more water. The water was cool, but not freezing like Lake Superior. We were probably there for about an hour, then dressed in fresh clothes and headed out to McCargo Cove.
This was the worst hike of the trip for me. Already pretty tired, we had to climb up and down hills, balance on walkways over thick swamps, wave away legions of mosquitos and pick our way through mud to get to McCargo Cove. It took probably three times as long as we’d planned. I’ve never been so grateful to see a camping shelter. We dropped our packs, just as a pop-up thunderstorm moved in overhead. It lasted less than 5 minutes, then back to gorgeous blue skies. That night I slept like a rock, despite the rather loud neighbors we had nearby — apparently that’s what you get at the IR campgrounds that have a group firepit.
We decided before we went to sleep that night to modify our itinerary, staying at Lake Richie the next night instead of trying to make it all the way to Moskie Basin.

Day 2: McCargo Cove to Lake Richie

Although we were bracing ourselves for another brutal day on the trail, the hike from McCargo Cove to Lake Richie was beautiful — probably my favorite hike of the trip. We stopped in West Chickenbone (MUCH nicer than East Chickenbone) for lunch. We made it to Lake Richie about 1:30pm — the only site where we all stayed in tents. Whitney and Sarah went swimming, using their sleeping pads as floats to paddle out to a little island. Since Sarah had pulled several leeches off of her since first entering the water, I decided just to do a very quick rinse-off, then go set up my tent.

After a tuna-pesto wrap lunch by the water, I crawled inside my tent and just layed there. I tried to read but I couldn’t do it. I dozed for hours, a little worried that I might not sleep that night, which turned out not to be the case. I listened to the birds, to my friends chatter back and forth, Whitney even played some music.
I ate dinner early (mac & cheese with bacon and freeze dried jalapenos) and crawled back inside my sleeping bag, content just to rest comfortably, not thinking about anything in particular. That night, I heard wolves howl. I doubt I’ll ever forget that moment if I live to be a 100 years old.

Stay tuned for Part 3!