Backpacking in Isle Royale, National Park

On May 17th, 2011, Jon H. and I headed toward the northeast corner of Minnesota for another backpacking adventure. We traveled about 150 miles north from Duluth along Hwy. 61 to Grand Portage, MN. Grand Portage once served as the gateway for the voyager’s to access the vast North West fur trade. Over 200 years ago it was home to the Northwest Company, and it has been home to the Lake Superior Chippewa for over 500 years. The name Grand Portage comes from the nine-mile portage that was used to get around the high falls of the Pigeon River to reach the lakes and rivers leading to the fur-rich areas of northern Minnesota and Canada.

We met two other backpacking friends, John S. and Rick B., and spent the night at Grand Portage Lodge, on the north shore of Lake Superior. The Lodge and Casino is owned by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Before dinner, Jon and I visited the Grand Portage National Monument’s Heritage Center and Museum, operated by the Interior Dept., which has many exhibits dealing with the area’s Native American history and the early fur trade. If you enjoy such local history, don’t miss the Heritage Center and Museum, it’s an amazing place to visit.

 

Voyager II

Voyager II

 

Early next morning, Day 1, we all caught the Voyager II and headed out about 20 mi. to Isle Royale, National Park. There were 15 passengers total, allowing us plenty of room to roam around on deck or sit below and have a cup of coffee.  A two-hour boat ride brought us past the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, and to the first stop at Windigo Visitor Center in Washington Harbor, on the west end of Isle Royale. Several other hikers got off here to begin their adventure, and we toured the Visitor Center and met local U.S Forest Service Rangers during our one hour layover for refueling, etc.

 

Jon H., Mike H., Rick B., John S. aboard Voyager II

Jon, Mike, Rick, and John. aboard Voyager II, photo credit to John S.

 

Soon we were back aboard the Voyager II headed around the north side of the island to our destination in McCargoe Cove. Two hours later we were dropped at the dock in McCargoe Cove, grabbed our gear and climbed up a hill to find a couple of tent campsites and a half-dozen wood shelters of a lean-to design- three wood walls, a sloped roof, a screened front wall with an entry door, and a wood floor. All the shelters looked to be new, likely only a couple years old. What a surprise!

 

Four-Star accommodations at McCargoe Cove

 

John and I took one shelter and Jon and Rick took another nearby. No need for a tent on our first night, we just laid out our sleeping mats and sleeping bags near the back wall, and went about surveying the surrounding area before getting out the cooking gear to fix supper.

 

Jon H. and Mike H.- first night supper

Jon and Mike- first night supper, McCargoe Cove, photo credit to John S.

 

After dinner we built a fire on the waterfront near the dock. We met another couple from upstate New York who were staying in a nearby shelter. We all had a great chat around the fire for a couple of hours before retiring for the night.

You can follow our route on the map below. The Minong Trail follows the north shoreline of the island. McCargo Cove is on the north end of the trail, and Windigo is on the south end of the trail- where it connects with the Greenstone Ridge Trail. A larger map and more trail information is available here.

 

Isle Royale, NP - Trails and Campsites

Isle Royale, NP – Trails and Campsites

Map: wikitravel.org, Todd VerBeek©2006   Attribution- (WT-en) TVerBeek at English Wikivoyage [CC BY-SA]

 

Day 2 found us packed up early after breakfast, and ready to hit the trail. We were hiking the Minong Ridge Trail, one of two main east-west trails on the island, and arguably the tougher of the two routes in terms of terrain. Rick had hiked the other east-west trail, the Greenstone Ridge Trail a few years earlier and after a couple of days he readily acknowledged the Greenstone was a much easier hike. Our destination was Todd Harbor, about 7 mi to the west. The Minong Trail follows the N. Shore of Isle Royale and we enjoyed great views of Lake Superior to the north, with glimpses of Manitoba across the water.

 

 

It was a tough hike. I was carrying a lot of weight, and it being early in the year, there was a tremendous amount of downed trees all along the trail. Some you could step over, many you had to get down on all fours in order to get under the tree, and some had to be walked around through the surrounding brush.

 

Hiking among the deadfall

Hiking among the downed trees, photo credit to John S.

 

It was a tiring effort. Upon reaching Todd Harbor, we set up our tents and found a fire-pit down at the Lake. We found some wood and built a nice fire for the four of us to sit around and chat. We talked about the wolf-moose population dynamics on Isle Royale over the past fifty years or so, and what we’d seen on the trail that day. As darkness neared, we returned to our tents and were sleeping by 9 p.m.

 

Sunset, Todd Harbor

Sunset, Todd Harbor, Isle Royale, NP

 

A bright sunny morning greeted us on Day 3. Our destination was Little Todd Harbor, about 6.7 mi. west along the Minong Trail. We had breakfast (oatmeal, some berries, and tea), packed up and hit the trail. A much easier day was going to be a welcome relief, but after a couple of miles I could feel a hot spot developing on my left foot. I took off my boot and adjusted my sock, then continued down the trail. We arrived at Little Todd Harbor campsite in early afternoon and made camp. It wasn’t as nice a stop as Todd Harbor, but it was right along the lakefront again and very scenic. We all camped within 20’-30’ of each other.

 

Little Todd Harbor Campsite

Rick and Jon at Little Todd Harbor Campsite

 

I took off my boots, and sure enough had a blister developing on one foot. The guys got a campfire started while I got some Moleskin from my First-Aid kit and cut a piece large enough to protect my blister and trimmed the Moleskin ‘just right’ to keep the blister from getting any bigger. It’s pretty amazing stuff. After 15 minutes, I had my sock back on and switched from my boots to a pair of CROCS – light-weight rubber camp shoes, that took pressure off my feet as we sat around the fire.

We invited the solo female hiker from the next campsite to join us at the fire. We’d met her on the boat and she had gotten off a couple hours after us, at Rock Harbor. She had hiked right after getting off the boat and stayed at McCargoe Cove the day we left. She hiked from McCargoe directly to Little Todd Harbor where we all met again. She was a teacher, a marathoner, married and a mom of two. This very impressive lady was really putting on the mileage. She was an experienced backpacker and had spent a lot of time in the Apostle Islands and the Boundary Waters. We all talked of the wolf-moose relationship on Isle Royale and much more. She departed next morning about an hour before us and she likely hiked all the way to Washington Creek Campground- 18 mi. away; it wouldn’t surprise me! We didn’t see her again.

Our destination on Day 4 was the North Campground at Lake Desor, only a 6 mi. hike along the rocky ridgeline. On the map it looked to be a fairly tough hike, but a short one.   After a couple of miles my foot was bothering me again.  I shouldn’t have worn the boots I was wearing- a very high-top hunting boot- ‘Irish Setter’ by Red Wing. They were almost up to my knees and were waterproof, but they weren’t made for hiking. I figured it would be very wet this early in the season, and it was. They just weren’t made for backpacking. I should have known better!

 

Hiking into North Campsite at Lake Desor

Hiking into North Campsite at Lake Desor, off the Minong Trail, photo credit to John S.

 

We hiked down off the ridge and through a nice hardwood forest, arriving at a couple of nice campsites on a beautiful lake.  It was looking like rain, so we set up a tarp at each campsite, with two tents at each site. We had the tents up and our gear stored under the tarps when it began to rain… and then it poured! We cooked under the tarps and sat on the ground eating. Jon and I camped together and after eating we went over to Rick and John’s site and sat with them talking of the day’s hike and what was ahead for us on Day 5.  We soon called it a day, and everyone turned in for the night. We put our backpacks and cook-gear all under the tarps, and I even left my rain gear out there so I wouldn’t get my small tent and sleeping bag wet. There are no bears to worry about on Isle Royale so we figured everything would be OK out there and remain dry. We all hoped the rain would let up by morning so we could continue hiking the rocky ridge again. If the rocks were wet and it was still raining, it would pose a danger since the rock would be very slippery. We had 12 miles to hike, so we kept our fingers crossed.

It poured rain all night long, stopping about 5 a.m. It was Sunday, and Day 5. We got up about 6 a.m. and decided to move ahead and hike the ridge again. We had breakfast, packed up and hit the trail about 8 a.m. We were climbing up to the ridge about 8:30 and the rocks were wet- we had to be very careful. We just took it slow and easy on the flat, but steeply inclined sections of wet rock.  We didn’t need any twisted or broken ankles so we hiked accordingly. After about an hour the water was beginning to evaporate and the rocks were becoming safer.

We were picking up the pace and it felt good! My pack no longer seemed to be an excessive load, which was a good feeling. It took four days, but it finally felt like I was born to be on the trail again! My foot felt OK. After hiking a couple of hours, we descended off the ridgeline and into another hardwood forest- our pace picked up again, then we took our first break of the day. Dropping our packs, we had an energy bar and water and rested for ten minutes, then continued. Within half an hour, we were climbing back up to the ridge again.

Our hike became a series of ups and downs, from the ridges to the swampy lowlands. I was glad I had my high-top boots on this day, even though they had caused the blister. They were not my normal hiking boots, and I paid a price using them. We live and we learn! I’ve never used them in a backpacking situation again.

The trail now had old logs laid down perpendicular to the trail to help keep peoples feet dry, but they were pretty ineffective this early in the year. The logs tended to rot after a few years, they had begun to sink and were very slippery when wet- actually a dangerous situation. Hiking poles proved to be very effective, adding a degree of safety in these conditions. The hiking poles were also great when hiking the rocky, often slippery, ridges.

Some of the lowlands were very difficult to cross due to water and muck. I got one boot stuck in 5’-6” of muck, and had a hard time even pulling it out; no way I’d have gotten it out without the hiking poles to provide balance.

 

Marsh Marigolds, Isle Royale, NP

Jon walking the plank and marsh marigolds- Isle Royale, NP- photo credit to John S.

 

One deep slew, had a very lengthy wood-plank walkway that allowed us to cross. It wove its way across some deep waters. It would have been a disaster falling off the walkway into the deep water and trying to get back up on the walkway again while carrying a heavy pack. Other swampy areas through lowland spruce forests were just plain messy. But the rocky ridges took most of our time and consumed most of our energy, as we avoided twisting our ankles and slipping on the rocks. And my feet were feeling the effects of banged up toes and heels. Thank God for Moleskin!

We each carried 2 liters of water, and we nearly ran dry two times on the trip. Luckily we found good water to filter from two streams identified on our maps. Much of the swampy water didn’t look too good, but our filters/purifiers would make it safe in terms of removing pathogenic organisms. We just didn’t want to get the filters fouled by skunky water.

The rain held off all day, but the heavy overcast remained with us. The lack of sun helped us stay cool as we hiked. We finally arrived at Washington Creek Campsite about 6 p.m. – 9 ½ hours after we’d started, including about an hour in breaks along the way.  Thus we did 12.6 miles in about 8 ½ hours- it was a real workout, but we just took it easy- no need to rush! Jon H. stepped up his pace and got out ahead of us, arriving early at Washington Creek in order to secure a couple of shelters, which worked out well as the rains started shortly after our arrival. All shelters filled up, and it rained all night, but we all stayed dry. It did get very cold however.

We slept-in until 9 a.m. on Day 6. The bags felt pretty warm compared with the cold, damp air surrounding us. We made hot oatmeal and coffee, which really hit the spot given the weather conditions. After breakfast we all walked up to the Windigo Ranger Station, where we’d first landed upon our arrival. We talked with the Rangers, and checked out various exhibits and the book selection they had in the store. Returning to camp I had more hot coffee and a couple of energy bars. Some of the guys took a nap, Jon hiked out around the north side of Beaver Island, and I hiked down to Washington Cove. I spotted a moose- probably a yearling, out in the shallows where Washington Creek enters Lake Superior (Washington Cove). It was a good distance away and I watched for a short time.

 

 

I returned to camp, cooked an early dinner, and set up my tent inside the shelter. Everyone set up their tents inside the shelter to keep the wind off us for the night. The open-fronted shelters didn’t keep the wind out, but they were dry. It was another very cold night. I’ve never had my mummy bag tied-up so tight as I did on these two nights.

I got up at 7:30 a.m. and put on a long-sleeve shirt, a fleece jacket and my rain gear to stay warm. Perhaps Day 7 will warm up, I thought to myself.

 

Near Washington Creek Campsite

Near Washington Creek Campsite, photo credit to John S.

 

I cooked breakfast and hiked down to the mouth of the creek, finding lots of moose-bedding areas, but no moose. I circled the slew near the shoreline looking for moose for half an hour and then returned to camp.

 

Moose bedding area

Moose bedding area

 

About noon, I headed SW on the Feldtmann Trail to Grace Overlook (Grace Harbor) and Washington Island.  There were also spectacular views of Greenstone Ridge, with lots of lowland bogs in the foreground. It was really quite beautiful, even with the overcast skies.

 

View near Grace Harbor, SW of Windigo

View near Grace Harbor, SW of Windigo

 

As I hiked, the skies started clearing. That could mean another cold night again.  I returned to camp, talked with the guys for a bit, then walked down by the Creek again looking for moose, but no luck. I returned to camp and hit the sack early. I wore long underwear, a pair of pants and two long-sleeve shirts to bed. I pulled the mummy drawstrings tight, and slept pretty well most of the night. I got up about 9 a.m. John’s water bottle had ice on top and some water in a cup had frozen. Brrr!

We all cooked breakfast, took down our tents, and packed up our gear. Day 8, aka May 25th, marked the end of our visit to Isle Royale. Other than an overloaded backpack, too much rain and cold, it had been a hell-of-a good-trip! My blistered foot was ready to call it quits, and it was the last time I’d ever wear those ‘swamp boots’ for longer than a day- they were definitely not hiking boots- lesson learned!

 

Final day, Jon, Rick, John and Mike

Final day, Jon, Rick, John and Mike – photo credit to John S.

 

We hauled our gear down to the Ranger Station and found the Voyager II already at the dock dropping off a couple dozen new visitors and their gear. Another hour and we would board the ship for our return to Grand Portage.

Milling around with folks down on the dock, Jon and I met Rolf Peterson, the long-time, lead researcher on the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study being done at Michigan Technological University. He and his Research Assistant were there to begin a summer-study project. Jon had purchased a related research study at the Ranger Station so it was a real coincidence meeting the Project Leader out on the dock.

We had to board the Voyager II, so we all bid Isle Royale farewell. In a couple of hours we’d all be back in Grand Portage, and on our way home!

~~~

Interesting information on the dynamic relationship between the Isle Royale wolf and moose populations includes :

Two Wolves Remain on Isle Royale, Allison Mills, April 19, 2016 http://www.mtu.edu/news/stories/2016/april/two-wolves-remain-isle-royale.html

Options narrow for Isle Royale wolves, and genetic rescue option falls off the table, By Ron Meador | 03/23/16    https://www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2016/03/options-narrow-isle-royale-wolves-and-genetic-rescue-option-falls-table

Down to Three Wolves on Isle Royale, Allison Mills, April 17, 2015 http://www.mtu.edu/news/stories/2015/april/down-three-wolves-isle-royale.html

~~~~~~~

About Mike Hohmann

I did lots of camping/hiking as a kid in the Scouts, and I still strive to 'be prepared.' After high school, I got bored with more school and enlisted in the Army Corps. of Engineers, doing two tours in Vietnam. Post military, I completed BS and MBA degrees and spent several decades with Corporate America, working mostly in the areas of conventional and renewable energy. I also spent over a decade as a self-employed small business consultant in marketing and finance. As a young family man with a wife and two kids, we spent many vacations camping and hiking in northern Minnesota. I spent additional long weekends fishing the rivers and camping/hiking along the North Shore of Lake Superior. I retired early and hit the trails hard-- in the lower-48, Alaska, and western Canada. These days I backpack, car-camp and day-hike, go snowshoeing, and try to get the grand-kids out to teach them the ways of the trail. Other interests include American Revolutionary War and Civil War history, 19th and 20th century firearms, Native American history; business and macroeconomics. I'm a recently-licensed amateur (Ham) radio operator, and I look forward to many radio-related adventures in coming months. Life is good! Member, Superior Hiking Trail Association; Member, Appalachian Mountain Club; Member, REI; Member, ARRL- Amateur Radio Relay League, the National Assoc. for Amateur Radio; Twin Cities Metro Skywarn Spotter; Twin City FM Club; Richfield Amateur Radio Club; QRP ARCI, Low-Power Amateur Radio Club International; Life Member, National Rifle Association
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6 Responses to Backpacking in Isle Royale, National Park

  1. ray says:

    Great post (if a little late in appearing ?). It brought back memories from similar trip 35 years ago. We must have gone out on Voyager 1, an old relic even then. We hiked from Windago for 4 days and left from McCargoe Cove. We saw no moose either, nor wolves but had fox scooting right threw our camp site one nite and I believe they were trying to snatch the food right off our plates. We had to camp on the trail one night next to last due to blisters (my wife’s) and to get to McCargoe Cove on time for pick up- I had to hump the last day, drop my pack and go back for my wife’s but she hobbled in and we had a late dinner and were picked up next day on time.

    • Mike Hohmann says:

      Thanks for the Comment, Ray. Old memories such as yours are great to recall. Yes, we too had to work on that trip and the weather wasn’t very cooperative. In the end, it all simply adds to the narrative and the memory. Funny though, there are a lot of moose on Isle Royal- today and 35 years ago. I’m convinced that if you really want to see them, you’re better off hiking alone where you have control of the amount of noise you create on the trail. A group of folks moving down the trail carrying heavy packs, hitting their hiking poles on the rocks, cracking branches in the woods, etc., tends to make a lot of racket most of the time, and the animals hear you coming way before you get near enough to see them. They may or may not see you walking by, but you don’t see them. That’s one of the reasons I like solo hiking- I can move quietly, stopping occasionally to look and listen, and it seems I’m much more likely to spot the wildlife and maybe even get a good picture. On our trip, I did get a glimpse of a young moose in Washington Cove but it was quite a distance away and without a tripod my pictures were no good. It is what it is. I do have a better camera these days however. Thanks for sharing your memories, Ray. And return again soon.

  2. Jack says:

    Great blog! Like Ray, I hiked Isle Royale some time ago. Myself and two friends hiked from Windigo to Rock Harbor in the late Fall. Chaunce, who had never been hiking decided to do it in his Earth Shoes ( Google them). Needless to say he suffered the entire way. One evening we had a bull moose in rut come up from the lake into camp tearing up brush and making a racket the entire way. We were in one of the open faced wooden shelters when the moose walked within 15 ft. of us. Quite unnerving as he proceeded to tear up brush at this distance eventually continuing on through. I’m sure it was only a minute or two but it seemed like an eternity. Every time we got together over the years we were certain to relive the experience and to laugh and give Chaunce grief over the Earth Shoes choice. Also like Ray, we had a fox come into camp while we were eating. It walked right up to us looking for a handout – a sure sign people had been feeding them. It is sad that the wolf population is near extinction on the Island and I would be in favor of reintroduction. We never heard or saw any wolves on the hike but just knowing they were in the area added to the experience. Both friends are gone now and I thank you for allowing me to relive those memories from 43 years ago.

    • Mike Hohmann says:

      Thanks for the note Jack. It sounds like you and your friends had a memorable hike on Isle Royale as well- some 43 years ago no less. I’m glad the post brought back those good memories, and thanks for sharing your story with us.

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